Quotulatiousness

April 24, 2016

QotD: Learning when to walk away

Filed under: Books, Media, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… the point of my book is that failure is inevitable, so you’d better learn to deal with it as best you can. Don’t say “Failure is not an option” the way they do in movies, because I promise you, failure is always an option. Prepare for it. Learn from it. Move on.

The follow-up question I frequently got — and a completely fair one — is “OK, how do you know when it’s time to pack it in? ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’ only takes you so far, after all.”

In response, I ended up telling a story. It’s the story of a girl who was destined to be around 6’2″, a fact ascertained during her toddlerhood by the family doctor. (Apparently you can reasonably approximate adult height by measuring a little kid’s leg bones. Or maybe by looking at her 6’7″ dad.)

This little girl briefly wanted to be a gymnast. This was not in her destiny. So she settled on a new ambition. She wanted to be a jockey.

The girl grew very fast. By the time she was in fifth grade, she was over 5′ tall. By seventh grade, she had reached her full height. And it was just around this time that someone pointed out that she was already a foot too tall to be a jockey.

Should this girl — and yes, it was our very own Megan McArdle — have pluckily ignored the critics and the naysayers and dedicated herself to achieving her dream? To answer that, ask yourself another question: Should you try to dislodge a stuck lemon peel from the garbage disposal while it’s still running?

No, no, no. This can only end in disaster.

Sometimes what failure is telling you is “this doesn’t work” or “you don’t have what it takes.” Ignoring those messages is, in fact, how many of the folks I chronicled in my book turned a simple failure into a total disaster.

Megan McArdle, “Will Mitt Romney Know When It’s Time To Quit?”, Bloomberg View, 2015-01-16.

February 13, 2016

QotD: Education

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I put the donkey ears on “teaching” to this purpose. I do own a tweed jacket, though as a priestly colleague has pointed out, it lacks the regulation elbow patches. That is about the extent of my formal credentials as a pedagogue, yet by unlikely fate I have found myself “teaching” sometimes, at the “post-secondary” level, on a variety of topics — from development economics, to science and scientism in Hellenistic times, to the elements of typography, to the prehistory of modern journalism, to proper English Lit — and these days will do almost anything for money.

My father was also reduced to teaching, on several occasions — medicine, for instance — in addition to art, when it was discovered in a certain developing country that he actually knew some anatomy, and had access to a nursing textbook belonging to my mother.

From him, I learned to cite Hippocrates: “First do no harm.” The young, shall we call them, have almost invariably greater capacities for learning than will be revealed in modern schools. This is not only because their wee minds are therein seldom teased nor challenged. It is also because subjects are taught to them in a methodically lethal way, dispensed in cubes from the intellectual freezer, by teachers who, as a general rule, know nothing of the subjects themselves. (They have specialized degrees in “education.”)

I retain vivid memories of a Canadian high school where best efforts were made to kill my budding interests in poetry, theatre, music, art, biology, physics, math, &c.

There are, as George Bernard Shaw once counted, two basic methods of teaching. One is “education through art,” in which the student learns essentially through mimesis, by doing and making, gradually unfolding himself, as a flower to the sun in the moist air, feeding upon the nutrients beneath him — rich soils collecting through time. And the other is through torture. Each has its own standards. (I’m not against torture as a last resort.)

The expression “education through art” could easily mislead the literal-minded, who may not realize that science is an art. One acquires science by doing science, starting at the most rudimentary level, with small children, magically enthralled. Moreover, the various subjects are entwined. To master biology, for instance, one must learn to draw, in order to observe with precision. Physics, which naturally pairs with math, also pairs with music, which turns to pair with dance. The art of writing requires the art of reading, but vice versa equally so. And as throughout this world, while body and soul stay united, form has everything to do with content; meaning everything to do with style. Neither, and nothing, can be “prioritized”: until it comes time for the waterboarding.

“First do no harm.” God has set before every teacher this anciently humane instruction. Even if he should fail to do a student any good, at least do no evil. Do not repel him from the book forever; nor clutter his head with falsities. Even the torture should be carefully administered, leaving a prospect of some better way, and the happier alternative of following it.

David Warren, “Sigrid Undset”, DavidWarrenOnline.com, 2014-12-04.

January 21, 2016

QotD: Obesity

Filed under: Health, Quotations, Randomness — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

What about obesity? We put a lot of social effort into fighting obesity: labeling foods, banning soda machines from school, banning large sodas from New York, programs in schools to promote healthy eating, doctors chewing people out when they gain weight, the profusion of gyms and Weight Watchers programs, and let’s not forget a level of stigma against obese people so strong that I am constantly having to deal with their weight-related suicide attempts. As a result, everyone … keeps gaining weight at exactly the same rate they have been for the past couple decades. Wouldn’t it be nice if increasing obesity was driven at least in part by changes in the intestinal microbiota that we could reverse through careful antibiotic use? Or by trans-fats?

What about poor school performance? From the social angle, we try No Child Left Behind, Common Core Curriculum, stronger teachers’ unions, weaker teachers’ unions, more pay for teachers, less pay for teachers, more prayer in school, banning prayer in school, condemning racism, condemning racism even more, et cetera. But the poorest fifth or so of kids show spectacular cognitive gains from multivitamin supplementation, and doctors continue to tell everyone schools should start later so children can get enough sleep and continue to be totally ignored despite strong evidence in favor.

Scott Alexander, “Society Is Fixed, Biology Is Mutable”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-09-10.

January 15, 2016

Malthusian thinking

Filed under: Britain, History, India — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Matt Ridley on how horrible implementations of the ideas of Thomas Malthus have made the world an even more cruel place:

For more than 200 years, a disturbingly vicious thread has run through Western history, based on biology and justifying cruelty on an almost unimaginable scale. It centres on the question of how to control human population growth and it answers that question by saying we must be cruel to be kind, that ends justify means. It is still around today; and it could not be more wrong. It is the continuing misuse of Malthus.

According to his epitaph in Bath Abbey, the Rev Thomas Robert Malthus, author of An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), was noted for “his sweetness of temper, urbanity of manners and tenderness of heart, his benevolence and his piety”. Yet his ideas have justified some of the greatest crimes in history. By saying that, if people could not be persuaded to delay marriage, we would have to encourage famine and “reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases”, he inadvertently gave birth to a series of heartless policies — the poor laws, the British government’s approach to famine in Ireland and India, social Darwinism, eugenics, the Holocaust, India’s forced sterilisations and China’s one-child policy. All derived their logic more or less directly from a partial reading of Malthus.

To this day if you write or speak about falling child mortality in Africa, you can be sure of getting the following Malthusian response: but surely it’s a bad thing if you stop poor people’s babies dying? Better to be cruel to be kind. Yet actually we now know, this argument is wrong. The way to get population growth to slow, it turns out, is to keep babies alive so people plan smaller families: to bring health, prosperity and education to all.

Britain’s Poor Law of 1834, which attempted to ensure that the very poor were not helped except in workhouses, and that conditions in workhouses were not better than the worst in the outside world, was based explicitly on Malthusian ideas — that too much charity only encouraged breeding, especially illegitimacy, or “bastardy”. The Irish potato famine of the 1840s was made infinitely worse by Malthusian prejudice shared by the British politicians in positions of power. The Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, was motivated by “a Malthusian fear about the long-term effect of relief”, according to a biographer. The Assistant Secretary to the Treasury, Charles Trevelyan, had been a pupil of Malthus at the East India Company College: famine, he thought, was an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population” and a “direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence” sent to teach the “selfish, perverse and turbulent” Irish a lesson. Trevelyan added: “Supreme Wisdom has educed permanent good out of transient evil.”

In India in 1877, a famine killed ten million people. The viceroy, Lord Lytton, quoted almost directly from Malthus in explaining why he had halted several private attempts to bring relief to the starving: “The Indian population has a tendency to increase more rapidly than the food it raises from the soil.” His policy was to herd the hungry into camps where they were fed on — literally — starvation rations. Lytton thought he was being cruel to be kind.

January 2, 2016

QotD: Where did all those helicopter parents come from?

Filed under: Economics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

One of the things you might notice about novels from the 1950s and 1960s is how many of the affluent people in them are engaged in trades like selling insurance, manufacturing some dull but necessary article, or running a car lot. These people are rarely the heroes of the novel (even then, writers found it much easier to imagine themselves as doctors or lawyers or, for that matter, as rough-hewn working-class types than as regional office-supplies distributors). But it is telling that those novelists took for granted that the writers and professionals would be intermingled with the makers and sellers, something that comes across as distinctly odd to the residents of the modern coastal corridors. Few of my friends even run a budget outside their own households, much less a profit and loss statement, and very few indeed have ever gone on a sales call.

The change in our novels reflects a change in our economy: the decline of manufacturing; the rise in the number and remuneration of professional jobs; the increase in the size of service firms; and the resulting shift toward salaried positions rather than partnerships or sole proprietorships. As a result of these changes, the upper middle class has found itself in a curious bind. In some ways, its economic fortunes are better than ever: They make more money, more reliably, than they used to. But because they are employees rather than business owners, they have a very limited ability to pass their good fortune onto their children.

A parent who had built a good insurance business in 1950 had a valuable asset that he could hand over to his sons. As long as they put a full day in at the office, they too would be able to take home a good living. That calculation applies across a broad range of manufacturing, retail and service businesses that used to form the economic bulwark of the prosperous middle class.

An MBA, however, is not heritable. Neither is a law degree, a medical degree, or any of the other educational credentials that form the barriers to entry into today’s upper middle class. Those have to be earned by the child, from strangers — and with inequality rising, the competition for those credentials just keeps getting fiercer.

Of course, parents have always worried about their kids making it; small family firms were often riven by worries about Uncle Rob’s ability to settle down to the business. But those were worries about adults, at an age when people really do settle down and become less wild. These days, we’re trying to force that kind of responsibility onto teenagers in their freshman year of high school. Of course, we don’t tell them that they need to earn a living; we tell them they need to get into a good college. But the professionalization of the American economy means that these are effectively the same thing for large swathes of the middle class.

Many teenagers — and I include myself at that age — do not quite have the emotional maturity and long-term planning skills for the high-stakes economic competition they find themselves engaged in. So their parents intervene, managing their lives so intensely that their child doesn’t have much opportunity to, well, act like a child instead of a miniature middle-aged accountant. Since the professional class can’t pass down its credentials, it passes down its ability to navigate the educational system that produces the credentials. The more inequality widens, the more obsessively they will manage their kids through school — and the more economic mobility will stagnate, since parents outside the professional class will have grave difficulty replicating this feat.

Megan McArdle, “What Really Scares Helicopter Parents”, Bloomberg View, 2015-11-30.

December 24, 2015

Repost – Hey Kids! Did you get your paperwork in on time?

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Humour — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

If you hurry, you can just get your Santa’s Visit Application in before the deadline tonight!

December 21, 2015

Monty on “the book fetish”

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Marking his return from a long absence, Monty posts some thoughts on books and reading at Ace of Spades H.Q.:

What happens when homes have no books? (You’ll have to imagine me saying these words in a rather aghast tone, much as one might use when asking what happens in homes that don’t have flush toilets.)

Well, fear not. The question is misphrased. The problem is not houses without books, as it turns out — the problem is houses without engaged parents.

[…]

It bugs me when people substitute the word “book” for “reading”. I do a lot of reading — a LOT of reading — but I rarely crack an actual book these days unless I absolutely cannot find it for my Kindle. (As happened with Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy, alas.) The problem besetting poor kids is not so much a lack of books as it is a lack of responsible adults in the house who invest the time and effort to engage them in reading — whether the written words are in book or on an LCD screen. What’s lacking here are not bound slabs of paper, but engaged parents.

And for adults? Reading of so-called “serious literature” has declined in recent decades because a lot of so-called “serious literature” is shit. The general cultural debasement started to exhibit first in the turgid academic book field, and since has metastasized out into every field of literary endeavor. Even the sci-fi and mystery ghettos have been infested with the rot of post-modernism and race/class/gender nonsense. And where that has not happened, we get the sub-adolescent rot of stuff like Twilight or its many imitators. This is the modern equivalent of the penny-dreadful, and serves as proof that just because it’s a book, that doesn’t mean the words inside of it are any guarantee of quality or even coherence.

It may be that most people these days eschew books for more engaging audio/visual entertainment, but that’s hardly surprising: that’s been the norm for most of our tenure on earth. Human beings are geared to prefer direct audio/visual stimulus over abstract symbolic input. The ability of common people to buy and consume printed books is a fairly recent one in human history — until the 18th century, most common folk couldn’t afford many books, and probably couldn’t read them either (literacy being nowhere near as universal as today). And in any case most of them wouldn’t have the time to while away reading — it was an age of manual labor and no electric light. You worked the daylight hours away, and when it got dark you went to bed.

I guess what I’m saying is: there are certainly worse things than being a lover of books, but be sure you’re loving the content of the book. (You can love the actual book as well, I guess, as an object of pure art or craft, but that’s a different thing.) And remember that the content of the book can be delivered in any number of ways. Don’t fetishize the delivery vehicle.

December 15, 2015

Perhaps the key element of the gender pay gap is … motherhood

Filed under: Business, Economics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In Forbes, Tim Worstall pinpoints exactly when many women stop earning as much (or more) than their male co-workers:

Currently, among women under 30 or so (it varies, the age, depending upon the average age of first childbirth and this is itself something that varies quite a bit in the US) women tend to outearn men. And as above those without children have, depending upon how you correct for other factors, a positive wage gap in favour of women of about the same size or no pay gap of any relevant size. But there is a pay gap between men and women who have married and who have children (the two effects are not being separated from each other). So, why?

The obvious answer being that this is what humans do. No, it’s no longer true that this is what humans must do, women taking the majority of the child care duties, men going out to work to support everyone. But it is still what the majority do do, it’s the general expectation about how life is going to be worked out. And this does have its effect:

    The division of labor in the family is less delineated than it once was and a majority of women with children now work in the market. Nonetheless, women on average still assume greater responsibility for child rearing than men, and that responsibility is associated with a lower extent and continuity of market work. In addition, the expectation and assumption of home responsibilities influence choice of occupation and preferences for working conditions that facilitate a dual career, combining work at home and work in the market. A significant literature has investigated the effect of work in the home on women’s lifetime patterns of labor force participation and the effect of labor force discontinuities on wages.15 Women with children devote relatively more of their energy to home responsibilities than women without children and as a result earn lower wages. On the other hand, married men earn higher wages than other men. Although that effect may be partly endogenous—women may shun low earners as husbands—it is a plausible consequence of the division of labor in the home, which leads men to take greater responsibility for providing the family’s money income and consequently to work longer, more continuously and possibly harder.

In a nutshell, the gender pay gap is really the effect upon the overall averages of two effects. Mothers earn less than non-mothers, fathers earn more than non-fathers. And yes, mothers and fathers are a majority and so the effect is large enough to sway that national average. And while the effect is not entirely symmetric it is reasonably so. We talk of the overall gender pay gap as being around 20% or so, and we see that fathers outearn non-fathers by 8%: that’s a significant portion of that gap right there.

Our conclusion thus has to be that the gender pay gap that we’re seeing isn’t a result of societal discrimination against women (nor of such discrimination in favor of fathers, something that no one at all is complaining it is) but instead a result of the choices that people make about how the kids are going to be cared for and who does it.

Asthma and the “Hygiene Hypothesis”

Filed under: Cancon, Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

An older report at the BBC News website discusses recent research into childhood asthma:

Being exposed to “good bacteria” early in life could prevent asthma developing, say Canadian scientists.

The team, reporting in Science Translational Medicine, were analysing the billions of bugs that naturally call the human body home.

Their analysis of 319 children showed they were at higher risk of asthma if four types of bacteria were missing.

Experts said the “right bugs at the right time” could be the best way of preventing allergies and asthma.

In the body, bacteria, fungi and viruses outnumber human cells 10 to one, and this “microbiome” is thought to have a huge impact on health.

The team, at the University of British Columbia and the Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, compared the microbiome at three months and at one year with asthma risk at the age of three.

Children lacking four types of bacteria – Faecalibacterium, Lachnospira, Veillonella, and Rothia (Flvr) – at three months were at high risk of developing asthma at the age of three, based on wheeze and skin allergy tests.

The same effect was not noticed in the microbiome of one-year-olds, suggesting that the first few months of life are crucial.

Further experiments showed that giving the bacterial cocktail to previously germ-free mice reduced inflammation in the airways of their pups.

One of the researchers, Dr Stuart Turvey, said: “Our longer-term vision would be that children in early life could be supplemented with Flvr to look to prevent the ultimate development of asthma

“I want to emphasise that we are not ready for that yet, we know very little about these bacteria, [but] our ultimate vision of the future would be to prevent this disease.”

October 30, 2015

This year’s unrealistic Halloween worry: MDMA in the trick-or-treat bags

Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At Reason, Jacob Sullum debunks the latest variant of the old “OMG! There might be marijuana in the kids’ trick-or-treat bags! OMG!”:

With Halloween just around the corner, it’s time for scary news reports that begin, “With Halloween just around the corner…” This genre of yellow journalism often features warnings about tainted trick-or-treat candy, a mythical menace that in recent years has gained credibility thanks to the popularity of marijuana edibles in states where such products are legal.

Last year police in Denver, where state-licensed marijuana merchants had recently begun serving recreational consumers, told parents to be on the lookout for THC-tainted treats in their children’s candy bags. As usual, no actual cases of such surreptitious dosing were identified.

But fear of strangers with candy springs eternal. The fact that this threat so far has proven imaginary is not deterring reporters and law enforcement officials around the country from warning parents that harmless-looking treats might contain a mind-altering substance other than sugar—if not marijuana, then MDMA.

[…]

Almost all of these stories make a leap from the observation that cannabis candy exists to the completely unsubstantiated fear that someone might slip it into your kid’s trick-or-treat bag. That scenario is highly implausible, since it is hard to see what the payoff would be for replacing cheap Halloween treats with expensive marijuana edibles. Given the delay between eating cannabis candy and feeling its effects, the hypothetical prankster could not even hope to witness the consequences of his trick. Furthermore, it seems that nothing like this has ever happened — or if it did, it somehow escaped the attention of the yellow journalists who keep warning us about the possibility. The story is kept alive by the gullibility of the same parents who anxiously examine their kid’s Halloween candy for needles and shards of glass.

Jackson Metro Police Department

Jackson Metro Police Department

This year saw the birth of a new variation on this theme: Instead of cannabis in your kids’ candy, maybe there’s MDMA. Snopes.com, the online catalog of urban legends, traces the scare to a September 25 post by a Facebook user named Thomas Chizzo Bagwell featuring a photo of colorful Molly tablets. “If your kids get these for halloween,” Bagwell wrote, “it’s not candy.” Last week the Jackson, Mississippi, police department posted the same photo, accompanied by this warning:

    If your kids get these for Halloween candy, they ARE NOT CANDY!!! They are the new shapes of “Ecstasy” and can kill kids through overdoses!!! So, check your kid’s candy and “When in doubt, Throw it out!!!” Be safe and always keep the shiny side up!!!

That burst of fact-free fear, which was later removed from the police department’s Facebook page, transformed idle speculation into “an alert” issued by “police nationwide,” as WILX, the NBC station in Lansing, Michigan, put it. WOIO, the CBS station in Cleveland, claimed “Ecstasy masked to look like candy” is “popping up all over the country, and police want to warn you.” If a child were to eat one of those tablets, according to Westlake, Ohio, Police Capt. Guy Turner, “they would be in the emergency room without a doubt.”

October 23, 2015

Adults have co-opted kid culture

Filed under: Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Gavin McInnes isn’t impressed with the ongoing self-infantalization of the adult world, but he’s even less thrilled that even the cartoons are now primarily oriented to adults rather than children:

I’ve oft complained about the infantilization of American adults, but something strange is happening. We’re going from “Comic books aren’t just for kids anymore” to “Comic books are not for kids anymore.” Adults aren’t just participating in kid culture, they’re confiscating it.

We just finished hosting Comic Con here in NYC and the streets were filled with grown-up children dressed as superheroes and characters from kids’ shows. I’m not talking about a dad dressed as Batman because his kid was dressed like that too. There were no kids. Comic Con is for adults now. Eventbrite surveyed 2,600 fans and listed 0% under 13. The vast majority was between 30 and 49.

As a parent trying to give my children a childhood, I find this co-opting of their culture infuriating. In my home, we celebrate “Cartoon Morning” on Saturdays because it’s one of the fondest memories of my own childhood. Looking back, I realize the cartoons we had back then sucked pretty bad. The best it got was Wacky Races, which was just a race between different cartoon characters sabotaging one another. There was no plot. The quality of cartoons today is incredible. The two top broadcasters, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, host mind-blowing, quality shows such as Adventure Time, Regular Show, Clarence, We Bare Bears, The Amazing World of Gumball, Uncle Grandpa, Sanjay and Craig, and of course, Pig Goat Banana Cricket. I’d never watch these on my own, but I believe it’s healthy to watch these shows with your kids because it forges a bond and you often need to explain the story to the younger ones. The problem is, these shows don’t air on Saturday mornings. One of the reasons they’re so good is that they’re not made for kids. They’re made for adults. My kids’ favorite, Sanjay and Craig, airs new episodes at 8:15 p.m. on Fridays and 10:45 Saturday mornings. Kids get up at 7 a.m. They’re bored of cartoons by then. These shows must be adhering to the sleep patterns of grown-ups. When you turn on the TV at 7 a.m. on Saturdays, Nickelodeon is showing a SpongeBob SquarePants marathon and Cartoon Network is doing the same with a terrible show called Teen Titans. That’s the kind of thing on at three in the morning on a Tuesday. Saturday-morning cartoons are officially over.

October 15, 2015

QotD: No matter what, you’re never really “ready” for kids

Filed under: Business, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Apparently tech companies are offering egg freezing as a benefit to their employees. There’s some suspicion among women I know that this is supposed to help/force women in technology balance family and career by delaying childbirth — it’s not a good time in your late 20s and early 30s, so freeze those eggs and have kids when you’re ready.

What I haven’t seen anyone explain is when, exactly, you’ll be ready. For most people, your 40s and early 50s are your peak earning years — is that really going to be a good time to meet that special someone, or finally step back to invest some time in having kids? I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m already noticing that I have a lot less energy than I used to. It’s not that I can’t get my work done or anything like that. But it used to be that if I had to travel for six days straight and then deliver a 2,500-word essay on the 7th, I could dial up my reserves and power through it — miserable and cranky, to be sure, but functioning. Then one day, around the time I turned 40, I dialed down for more power and there just … wasn’t any. My body informed me that it was tired, and my brain would not be doing any more work today, and we were going to sleep whether I liked it or not.

This is — as friends who have done it freely remark — a difficult age to be taking on your first newborn. I can’t even imagine trying the same feat 10 years from now, when my joints will be even creakier and my reserves even more depleted. So I’m skeptical that women who are having trouble combining work and career now will really find it much easier to do within any reasonable time frame. Is all this egg freezing actually going to expand the choices of most of the women who use it, or will it just be an expensive way to choose career over family without realizing that you’re making that choice?

Megan McArdle, “Will Freezing Your Eggs Help Your Career?”, Bloomberg View, 2014-02-16.

September 29, 2015

Bad preschool is worse than no preschool

Filed under: Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Megan McArdle on the popular notion that preschool programs are a panacea for all that ails the public school system:

Universal preschool has become the ginseng of American politics, a sort of broad-spectrum nostrum that will cure almost anything that ails you. Inequality, male-female pay gaps, crime, poverty — just apply some early childhood programs, and watch those maladies fade. Expect to hear this a lot from Hillary Clinton in the coming presidential race.

And what kind of a crotchety, sour, greedy old columnist could be opposed to such a wonderful idea? I’m so glad you asked.

In truth, I am not opposed to early childhood education programs. I am opposed to blind boosterism of such programs, the kind that confidently predicts marvelous results from thin empirical evidence, and briskly proceeds to demand huge sums be spent accordingly. There are three big problems with this:

1. The empirical evidence is shakier than many boosters suggest. The possible benefits of these programs can be divided into two baskets: cognitive benefits (improvement in academic skills and performance), and non-cognitive benefits (improvement in such things as social skills, hyperactivity, gratification delay, and so forth). The evidence of cognitive benefits is underwhelming; they appear, and then tend to fade out as the children leave the program and proceed through our nation’s school systems.

A lot of hope has therefore been poured into non-cognitive benefits. Some early programs seem to show long-term improvements in things like graduation rates, employment and criminal activity. However, many of these programs were very small, which raises the possibility that we’re dealing with small samples plus publication bias, rather than something that actually works. In general, in social science, you tend to see that the larger the sample and the better designed the study, the less remarkable the effects. And this is definitely what you see with early childhood programs. Perry, Abecedarian, the Chicago Child-Parent Center: these are inspiring projects. They’re not nearly large enough to base a national program on.

[…]

And indeed, that’s what a new study out of Quebec seems to suggest. In the 1990s, the province instituted an inexpensive universal child-care program. The program doesn’t seem to have produced much in the way of cognitive benefits, and its non-cognitive benefits were actually negative — that is, kids exposed to the program (those who lived in Quebec) were more likely to have various problems than control groups in other provinces.

Now, this is, as I always caution, Just One Study. It’s a pretty convincing study, of a pretty large group. But it’s still a single study, which means that we should not rush to say that universal child care is a bad idea, or even that cheap, badly designed universal child care is a bad idea.

What we should rush to say, however, is that the background assumption about such programs — that at worst they’re a waste of money for zero results — cannot be safely held. We have to assume some possibility that our early childhood program will actually be worse for the kids than the status quo is.

September 22, 2015

A unique genetic population in the Dominican Republic

Filed under: Americas, Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

BBC Magazine on the extraordinary lives of the Guevedoces, children who suddenly develop male sexual characteristics at puberty:

The discovery of a small community in the Dominican Republic, where some males are born looking like girls and only grow penises at puberty, has led to the development of a blockbuster drug that has helped millions of people, writes Michael Mosley.

Johnny lives in a small town in the Dominican Republic where he, and others like him, are known as “Guevedoces“, which effectively translates as “penis at twelve”.

We came across Johnny when we were filming for a new BBC Two series Countdown to Life, which looks at how we develop in the womb and how those changes, normal and abnormal, impact us later in life.

Like the other Guevedoces, Johnny was brought up as a girl because he had no visible testes or penis and what appeared to be a vagina. It is only when he approached puberty that his penis grew and testicles descended.

[…]

So why does it happen? Well, one of the first people to study this unusual condition was Dr Julianne Imperato-McGinley, from Cornell Medical College in New York. In the 1970s she made her way to this remote part of the Dominican Republic, drawn by extraordinary reports of girls turning into boys.

When she got there she found the rumours were true. She did lots of studies on the Guevedoces (including what must have been rather painful biopsies of their testicles) before finally unravelling the mystery of what was going on.

When you are conceived you normally have a pair of X chromosomes if you are to become a girl and a set of XY chromosomes if you are destined to be male.

For the first weeks of life in womb you are neither, though in both sexes nipples start to grow.

Then, around eight weeks after conception, the sex hormones kick in. If you’re genetically male the Y chromosome instructs your gonads to become testicles and sends testosterone to a structure called the tubercle, where it is converted into a more potent hormone called dihydro-testosterone This in turn transforms the tubercle into a penis. If you’re female and you don’t make dihydro-testosterone then your tubercle becomes a clitoris.

July 31, 2015

QotD: “Having it all”

Filed under: Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In 2012, Gloria Steinem complained that the Have It All question was a “bullshit” question because no one ever asked that question of men. It’s true. Society doesn’t often ask that question of men, but not because of sexism.

Women ask about having it all because they were told they could have it all…by women like Steinem. The old glossy women’s magazines are full of have-it-all glamour, declaring that women could easily have it all without men. Steinem did not actually coin the “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” quip, but she got the credit for it because it succinctly represented her preaching and the mood of the time. Women didn’t need anything but the old rules and the old men to get out of their way. Each woman was an island unto herself, a self-contained unit of success. Eventually, all of those things we told women back in the 60s to boost their confidence and get them out in the world became the standard by which we now demand singular performance from women.

Check the commentary in many of the lauded feminist pop culture franchises, most recently “Divergent,” “Frozen,” “Maleficent,” etc. Characters get the feminist seal of approval when they are separated from any sort of partnership with men. Having it all doesn’t count unless we are doing it without men.

Men, on the other hand, didn’t have some masculinist movement telling them that they could have it all, much less that they had to do it all on their own. Nor would they have been as receptive if they had. Unlike girls who tend to engage in pretend play in which they are the princess, then the chef, then the teacher or the pupil, all in the space of an afternoon, boys tend to also play games with rules, even if they’ve made them up by consensus. The boy who isn’t fast learns to hit the ball harder or to catch. They train each other in tradeoffs. The rules don’t bend. The boys adapt to the world the way it is. (I host large parties and play dates often. This plays out in my yard, every time.)

Asking women if they can have it all isn’t sexism. It is an aspiration that women who should know better foist upon women who don’t.

Leslie Loftis, “Irony, Thy Name Is Feminism”, The Federalist, 2014-07-28.

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