Tangled-web Dep’t

Julia Ioffe, reporting on the insane theories about the Maylasian jetliner peddled on Russian TV and in Russian newspapers, points reports that Vladimir Putin is now caught in a trap of his own making.

Russian mass media is now dominated by an extreme-nationalist lunatic fringe, built up by Putin and his cronies but no longer under their detailed control. And the alternative reality presented there influences not only mass public opinion but also elite opinion, since to stay in touch people with real decisions to make have to pay attention to the prolefeed. If Putin wanted to act responsibly, he’d be swimming against the tide. Yes, it’s his tide, in the sense that he made it, but Ioffe – quoting a Karl Rove/Mark Penn figure named Gleb Pavlovsky, who fell out with Putin after helping to engineer his last election – suggests that he cannot control it in detail.

It’s a scary picture.

What’s scarier is that, if you change the names, it applies to the relationships among the plutocrats, the GOP apparatchiki, and the world of the Murdochized press, the Koch-driven think-tanks, and Red Blogistan.

Orwell was right: there are historical moments when insisting that 2+ 2 = 4 is a radical political act.

Three Ways of Looking at Marijuana Consumption Data

Here’s a nice chart from Andrew Sullivan on marijuana consumption in Colorado. It illustrates a point that has been made many times by drug policy analysts such as Mark Kleiman and Beau Kilmer: The total volume of pot consumption is accounted for almost entirely by users who smoke every day or nearly every day. Envisioning how different stakeholders would respond to this evidence can be helpful both for appreciating the impossibility of value-free evidence-based policy and for understanding one of the basic dilemmas of legal marijuana regulation.


AT THE PUBLIC HEALTH CONFERENCE: “Colleagues, you can see from this chart that not all marijuana users are of equal concern to us. Some people use the drug rarely, and we know that such users tend to be high social capital individuals who could set their lives right in the unlikely event that they did develop a drug problem. So we should focus instead on these heavy users in the bottom two bars of the chart, who tend not incidentally to be people with less education, less income and poorer access to health care. The evidence we have shows that the primary risks of this drug, for example marijuana dependence, mental health problems and poor school and work performance, are concentrated in the subset of people who use every day or almost every day. Let us therefore resolve to keep the size of this group as small as possible through high taxes that discourage heavy consumption, caps on THC content that reduce the ability of the drug to promote dependence and limits on advertising and points of sale in vulnerable communities.”

AT THE CORPORATE BOARD MEETING: “Well friends, you can see from this chart that not all of our customers are of equal concern to us. We can’t make much money from the people in the top few bars of the chart, so we should focus mainly on the heavy users who provide us the bulk of our revenue. We need to move as much of the population as possible into this high-revenue bracket. So let’s all agree to press for lower taxes, higher THC content and as much advertising and as many retail locations as possible in the communities where our best customers tend to live.”

AT THE STATE LEGISLATURE: “Fellow committee members, as you know we have seen this chart twice today, once when the public health advocates visited and again when the marijuana industry lobbyists visited. Both groups agreed on the evidence but they wanted us to respond to it in opposite ways. And that’s not the end of what we have to consider. The state budget analyst’s office has calculated that almost 90% of the marijuana tax revenue we wanted from legalization comes from the people in the bottom bars of this chart. We care about public health but if we implement policies that make too many of those heavy marijuana users quit, the tax revenue hit we will take might force us to sacrifice other important priorities.”

Does socialism cause dishonesty?

Here’s an interesting natural experiment.

For external, historical reasons, workers in one half of a culturally and linguistically unified but politically divided country had the right to organize unions to defend their interests against employers, while in the other half of that country workers’ organizations were state-controlled in the interests of management, and genuine union activity was punished by firing if not worse.  After that country was reunified, randomly chosen people from the union half and the non-union half were subjected to a standard psychological test measuring the propensity to cheat.  Those who had grown up under conditions were ordinary people could defend themselves openly from oppression by their bosses turned out to be more honest than their peers from the non-union part of the country.

Conclusion: Unionization makes people behave well, while union-busting makes them behave badly. 

Of course, it’s not an entirely clean experiment. The non-union side (East Germany) was under foreign control, with a secret-police network that recruited as much as one-third of the population as informants. So possibly dishonesty is caused by living in a world of fear and distrust, rather than by the absence of workers’ rights alone.

Worse than that, the non-union half was systematically looted by the occupying power, while the union half was treated much better by its conquerors and became rich. So maybe it’s scarcity, rather than or in addition to denial of workers’ rights, that makes people dishonest.

Still and all the result  is what it is: a strong labor movement is associated with improved morality.

Only somehow that’s not the conclusion the authors of the study (including Don Aireley, a prominent behavioral economist and the author of a good semi-popular book on the subject, Predictably Irrational) decided to draw. Instead, they focused on the fact that West Germany had, alongside wealth, the rule of law, personal freedom, and a strong trade-union movement, a primarily market-based economy, while East Germany was under the Soviet system – whatOrwell accurately labeled “oligarchic collectivism” – with arbitrary government with no rule of law and no respect for human rights; residents could be and were shot for trying to emigrate, and many tried just the same.

Using a definition favored only by Bolsheviki and fans of plutocracy, Aireley et al. elect to call the East German tyranny “socialism,” and pretend that their study shows that living under “socialism” worsens the morals of a population.

Having reached an extreme conclusion from a single poorly-defined case study, Aireley and his colleagues then stop, without trying to test their conclusion out of sample. Sweden, for example, has great personal liberty, honest government, and the rule of law, but much more state ownership of enterprise, more tightly regulated markets, and a far more redistributive tax-and-transfer system than Germany.  Swedes are also (if we restrict our attention to mostly-Lutheran Northern Germany) culturally similar to Germans. Would Aireley and his co-authors be willing to bet that Swedes are less honest than Germans (or Norwegians, living under a regime closer to German mixed capitalism than to Swedish social democracy)?  If so, I’m happy to take the other end of the bet.

The same applies if we were to compare Israelis raised in explicitly socialist kibbutzim to other Israelis, or  Englishpeople  raised before the Thatcher era with those raised after, or Canadians with Americans. (After all, the same people who use the word “socialist” to describe Stalinist tyranny also use it to describe national health insurance.)

Of course in all of those cases one could name other factors that might influence the outcomes. But that’s precisely the point: the same is true of the German case. Yet Aireley and his co-authors seem to think they’ve proven something, and the Economist and Alex Tabarrok (who certainly knows better) at Marginal Revolution swallow it whole, without raising a single methodological red flag. “When it comes to ethics, a capitalist upbringing appears to trump a socialist one,” trumpets the Economist, hoping that its readers will vote to help the rich get richer and the poor get poorer while “reforming” union power out of the labor markets.

To call this a “mistake” would, it seems to me, be far too generous. A blunder that extreme only happens when the people making it want to fool themselves and others. It’s an example of what Dan Kahan calls “motivated cognition.”

Do the thought experiment for yourself.  Imagine that the results had come out the other way. How do you think the paper would read, and what do you think Marginal Revolution would have had to say about its methods?

I know that some of my libertarian friends consider my views of their movement uncharitable, but honest to God, the combination of high IQ and good formal economics training with great willingness to believe and repeat obvious nonsense that characterizes that group is really hard to take.  Of course con-cons and professional lefties also believe some truly stupid sh*t,  but neither group is as good as the glibertarians at pretending to be Serious Social Scientists.

Here’s a Pro Tip: If you never reach and publish a conclusion that doesn’t support  your prejudices, no on has any reason to take any of your results seriously.



More classroom flipping: testing as learning

The “flipped classroom” pedagogical model is the hot ‘new’ idea in my industry. The idea is to move didactic delivery of knowledge (especially facts) out of the classroom to venues better suited to it, like the web and books, and use live meetings of students and prof for coached use of that knowledge in discussion, exercises, and the like. New, as in, “this is how art, mechanic arts, and sports have been taught for thousands of years”.   I have pretty much drunk this Kool-Aid, partly on the evidence that active learning is the universal practice everywhere the task is to acquire a skill, including very high-level skills. No-one begins teaching the piano with a reading assignment or a lecture.

Another way to “flip” the learning experience is to move testing from a big-deal end-of-the-course high-stakes assessment to frequent, low- or no-stakes events throughout the course. There’s a lot to like about this on its face, starting with the near-complete dissimilarity between what conventional exams measure and what education should be making people better at. I also dislike the infantilizing affective tone of exams that can be graded with an answer key: grownups who quiz each other as a social convention “Hey, guess what I read in the paper this morning.  No, really, guess!” don’t have a lot of friends.

It turns out that low- or no-stakes testing right after we get a dollop of knowledge helps us retain the knowledge, and better than restudying or reviewing the material.  This seems to be the key paper , and why haven’t I known about this for eight years?  Active learning of course has a lot of this built in: after you play a passage on the piano and get some coaching on what you did, you actively ‘recall’ what you learned by playing it again, or playing something else.  It seems that for enduring recall, the task of retrieving something from memory is as important to improve with practice as the act of committing to memory.

The effect size here is notable, and look at those error bars:


Remarkably, you don’t even have to actually ‘take the test’ in the sense of writing down your answers.  And it seems that learning your score on these tests doesn’t matter, never mind whether they ‘count for your grade’.

I think, on the strength of this research, I have to make space in every class session for quick testing , and figure out how to design such tests for the kind of material I teach. Students are mistaken about this stuff, and incorrectly predict that they will remember material better after a week when they study it repeatedly than when they study it once and are tested on it. (Of course, students are mistaken (or misinformed) about a lot of learning technique, like highlighting (lose it).) They will grouse, but at least I have some real research to reassure them with.

Pub Quiz

Today’s quiz is about international abbreviations. Google not and see how you do on this one. Please post your score and any comments/corrections. Answers and scoring key after the jump.

1. During the Eurozone crisis, what five countries were referred to as the PIIGS?

2. What three nations signed the ANZUS treaty?

3. What four countries are referred to in the acronym BRIC?

4. Sometimes a fifth nation is added to make the above BRICS. What is this country?

5. What four developing nations are shorthanded as MINT?

6. For what does the acronym SEATO stand?

7. Three of the world’s busiest airports are abbreviated DXB, HND and LHR respectively. What are their full names?

8. The above are termed IATA codes, which stands for what?

9. What nations’ currencies are abbreviated BMD, ILS, NOK and TND, respectively?

10. If you were a librarian, you would often have occasion to look up an ISSN or the LTWA. For what do these acronyms stand?

Continue Reading…

Weekend Film Recommendation: He Walked By Night

hw3Last week I recommended The Naked City, one of the many crime investigation procedurals that became popular after World War II and continue to be a staple of television and movies today. This week’s recommendation opened in theaters a few months after The Naked City, but is markedly different than that film because of its pronounced noir elements: He Walked by Night.

Normally, police detectives have substantial advantages over perpetrators. The typical violent offender is unintelligent, impulsive, minimally-skilled and ignorant of police procedures. But every once in awhile a criminal comes along who is smart, planful, technically proficient and knowledgeable about the investigative methods of law enforcement. One of such extraordinarily dangerous people was Erwin M. Walker, who repeatedly evaded Los Angeles law enforcement while engaging in an extended violent crime spree in 1946. He Walked by Night is a Dragnet-style dramatization of the Walker case, and indeed the origins of that famous radio and TV show are right here to see.

Richard Basehart gives an icily compelling portrayal of Walker, who is here re-named Roy Morgan. Basehart is particularly skilled at embodying Morgan’s disturbing level of emotional restraint, even when he is inflicting violence on others. The only visible break in the killer’s sociopathic detachment comes in a riveting scene in which he does meatball surgery on himself to remove a bullet from his ribcage. On the other side, Roy Roberts, as Police Captain Breen, is credible as usual in one of his many no-nonsense authority figure roles. Some of the portrayals of police procedure (e.g., the assembling of a composite sketch) will be dramatically slow for modern audiences who have seen it all before. But of course that wasn’t true of audiences in 1948, so be forgiving.

he walked by night 7The docudrama’s look is one of the many jewels in legendary cinematographer John Alton’s crown. In an interview, he said the crew and director all asked him where the lights were when they started filming the justly famous chase through the sewers. He told them that a single flashlight was enough, which gives you an idea of how very dark he preferred his shots. If you watch very carefully you will see that the king of darkness did have a trick up his sleeve: There are wires visibly trailing the actors in some of the sewer chase shots, indicating that he rigged the flashlights with much more powerful than usual light bulbs.

In addition to Alton’s bravura work behind the camera, this film also benefits from effective use of silence. In several highly arresting sequences (no pun intended), the sound goes dead as the police close in on the killer. The suspense is amped up enormously by these eerie scenes, as hunter and prey creep noiselessly through the dark until a violent confrontation shatters the silence.

The one mystery this film does not solve is who directed what. Alfred Werker got the director’s credit on screen, but it was later revealed that much of the film was actually directed by Anthony Mann (whose work I have previously touted here and here). Some scenes scream “Mann” in their style but others could have been directed by either him or Werker. Whoever did what, this taut, exciting film hangs together in tone and style with no directorial seams showing.

He Walked by Night is sadly little remembered today, but it did launch some much better known radio and television shows. Jack Webb, who plays a police investigator here, befriended L.A. police technical advisor Marty Wynn on the set and soon launched Dragnet to dramatize the real-life cases of the L.A.P.D. (FYI: This story is well-told in John Buntin’s terrific book L.A. Noir). Richard Basehart never became a big movie star, but was able to parlay his modest cinema success into a long-running career on television, most notably as Admiral Nelson on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

This thrilling, visually stunning docudrama is in the public domain, so I am posting it right here for you to enjoy.

p.s. The fabulous sewer chase sequence in one of the greatest films in British history, 1948′s The Third Man bears more than a little resemblance to the similar sequence in He Walked by Night. No one seems to know for sure, but given that He Walked by Night’s production studio, Eagle-Lion films, had extensive British ties it is entirely possible that Carol Reed et al saw this movie and decided to mount something along the same lines.

No, Shakespeare didn’t “say” that

How often have you seen this passage quoted as “Shakespeare says …”?

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Not having read the play for several decades, I was surprised to find that the context of that passage, which I could have repeated more or less accurately from memory, entirely subverts its text. Brutus, “the noblest Roman of them all” but so concerned about displaying his Stoic virtue as to neglect the practical details, is debating with the less attractive but much sharper Cassius whether their army should come down from the high ground and engage Antony and Octavian at Philippi, or instead hold position and force the enemy to come at them. Cassius advises Fabian tactics, but Brutus insists on rolling the dice, much to the delight of Antony when he gets the word.  As a result, the anti-Caesarean side gets wiped out. (This is largely Shakespeare’s invention, without much warrant from Plutarch’s account.)

In context, then, Brutus’s soaring oratory is entirely ironic; the scene warns against rash risk-taking rather than encouraging it.

Footnote Like many Boomers, I had to read Julius Caesar in the 10th grade; not really one of the Bard’s better efforts, but full of quotable passages and reasonably easy to follow. (As You Like It, by contrast, if read rather than watched, makes absolutely no sense to a sixteen-year-old; I was fortunate enough to see a performance a year or so later, but I suspect that some of my classmates never discovered that Shakespeare wrote great musicals.)

Brutus’s speech would have been a perfect scene to use as an example of dramatic irony. But I doubt my teacher had any idea what the passage was about, and the lit-crit we read as “secondary sources” disdained anything as straightforward as explaining what the play was supposed to mean or how the poet used dramatic techniques to express that meaning.

If I ran the zoo, students would first watch a good performance of whichever play they were going to read, and then act it out for themselves. That might actually give some of them a taste for drama. But it wouldn’t help them score well on standardized tests, so who cares?


Into Thin Air

Much has been made about the surge in the use of electronic cigarettes but what might be overlooked are the health effects that low-end electronic cigarettes have on its customers compared to that of the higher grade. With no quality assurance for any electronic smoking device, those who can only use the “economical” types of e cigarettes may be opening themselves up to additional health detriments though poor e cigarette construction.

The low end of the e cig market is filled with disposable products that costs anywhere from five to ten dollars, unsurprisingly these products are sold in lower income neighborhoods. Scientists at the University of California Riverside tested a “lower end” e cigarette model as well as a mid-range brand known as “Mistic”, both bought from a San Diego drug store. During the tests the liquid (or “juice) that is inside the e cig is heated and put inside a centrifuge and spun. The end product of the cheap brand, known as “Smoking Everywhere Platinum”, was a pellet that contained mostly tin, with trace amounts of some nickel and copper. Cheaper e cigarette devices may be prone to releasing metals during use due to the tin soldering coming off of the casing, a result of the cheap construction of the cartridge. The Mistic brand e cig had trace amounts of copper and no amounts of tin found due to no solders being used in the product, something common with higher end e cigs. Regulated manufacturing is inherently more expensive, but the switch to a standard set of rules for e cigarette production could lead to reduced instances of metal inhalation for those who cannot afford higher end e cigs.

The people being exposed to harmful e cigarettes are the same who are exposed to the lower end of actual cigarettes: poor minorities. Though the hold that cigarettes have on low income populations remains in a death grip e cigarette use is on the rise and much like cigarettes that are made on the cheap, e cigarettes made for as little money as possible carry inherently worse risks than those made with the consumer in mind. Lack of regulation in the electronic cigarette market allows bargain brands to pump out cheaply constructed disposable e cigs that open up lower income users to health problems from metal inhalation and nicotine poisoning, a greater push for regulation needs to come in order for lower income users to be as safe as their higher end e cigarette smoking counterparts.

Point of view

This pictureshoe3has always irritated me.  It’s obviously not a footprint, but a torn-off piece of boot sole sitting upside down on some beach.  If you ask me, it’s a pathetic part of the conspiracy to make us think humans actually landed on the moon.  Why it keeps being reproduced, here for example, mystifies me.  Continue Reading…