Tiffany knew what the problem was immediately. She’d seen it before, at birthday parties. Her brother was suffering from tragic sweet deprivation. Yes, he was surrounded by sweets. But the moment he took any sweet at all, said his sugar-addled brain, that meant he was not taking all the rest. And there were so many sweets he’d never be able to eat them all. It was too much to cope with. The only solution was to burst into tears.
Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men, 2003.
August 15, 2016
June 25, 2016
June 18, 2016
I admit, I’ve occasionally referred to the Pop-Tart incident as a prime example of bone-headed application of so-called “zero tolerance” rules, but given the full story, I’ll have to stop doing that:
Remember the Pop-Tart gun kid? He was 7 years old when he was suspended for chewing his breakfast (not actually a Pop-Tart, as it turned out) into the shape of a weapon and pretending to fire it at his classmates. Now he’s 11, and Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Ronald A. Silkworth just upheld his suspension.
In the end, the case hinged on whether the pastry incident was, in fact, the last straw in a long line of disciplinary problems. The Maryland school says yes; the parents say at the time of the suspension they were told that the two day suspension was a direct result of the deployment of food weaponry and that no other incidents were mentioned.
The records strongly suggest that this kid was trouble, but also that he was troubled. He was new to the school and joined the class late. In addition to the incidents of aggression, records contain multiple reports of the boy banging his own head on his desk and walls.
So why did the breakfast gun make the teachers go nuclear? On the day of the incident, before anyone at the school realized this would be a national story, the administration went straight to DEFCON 1, sending a letter home with every child in the school [PDF] which read, in part, “If your children express that they are troubled by today’s incident, please talk with them and help them share their feelings. Our school counselor is available to meet with any students who have the need to do so next week. In general, please remind them of the importance of making good choices.”
But the documentation makes equally clear that pointing chewed up breakfast food at his classmates wasn’t the most worrisome thing the kid got up to. The records say that over the span of a few months he left the school grounds during the instructional day, threw a chair, and punched a child in the nose.
If the school had suspended the child over that violent incident, I doubt anyone outside the local area would ever have heard of the situation. The media’s focus on the gun-shaped pastry part of the story ended up giving many people (including me) a very distorted picture of what was really the issue.
June 1, 2016
In the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) an individual could not survive outside the group of their birth and so conformity was a matter of life and death. Conform or be cast out. Conformity to arbitrary convention was not in fact arbitrary but signalled affiliation. Conformity banded groups together.
Today, however, conformity is often counter-productive. Trying to enforce the arbitrary conventions of one’s in-group impedes social cooperation on the scale that makes modernity possible. Conformity also slows the development of new ideas and new ways of doing things — the essence of growth and progress. Even though conformity is now counter-productive the desire to conform and to enforce conformity is buried deep–the atavism of social justice.
Individualism and liberalism are foundational ideas for modernity but these adult ideas battle the desire to conform in our childish hearts.
Alex Tabarrok, “The Developmental Roots of Conformity Bias”, Marginal Revolution, 2016-05-20.
May 31, 2016
“Illegal” British schools – “If this whole fuss were any more of a smear you could use it to test for cervical cancer”
Natalie Solent uses up some past-the-use-by-date outrage over a report of “illegal” schools in Britain:
Here is a BBC story from a couple of weeks ago: Thousands of children taught in ‘illegal schools’. Similar pieces appeared in the Times, the Guardian, and other newspapers. When this story came out I listened on the radio to an interview on the subject with some Ofsted guy, either the Sir Michael Wilshaw quoted by the BBC or one of his minions. Whoever it was, he came across as so evasive on one particular point that by comparison even the BBC interviewer was plain-spoken. From the way Ofsted Guy spoke of these illegal schools as places where only “religion” was taught you’d think clicking on the BBC Bitesize GCSE Religious Studies page makes a red light flash in GCHQ, and from the way he spoke of “radicalisation” you’d think that all roots resulted in the same flower. Oh, and from the way he spoke of these schools being “illegal” you would think that they had been convicted in a court of being illegal. The BBC interviewer pressed him and eventually got him to admit that the alleged illegality was merely his opinion, not having been tested in court, and that “some” of these schools were Islamic.
That’s progress of a sort. The Guardian article linked to above does not mention Islam at all but has a quote from a disgruntled former pupil at a Charedi school. We should all be very grateful to the Charedim and the Belzers. When one simply must have someone other than the Muslims to point to, they are there. They ought to start an agency and charge for their services: “Jews in Hats: the safe option for all your denunciation needs.”
The Times says the unauthorized schools are “predominantly Islamic”.
So far this post has almost written itself. The usual pathetic fear of naming Islam from the establishment, the usual pushback from angry commenters, the usual opportunity for bloggers like me to use up old out-of-code packets of sarcasm from the bottom of the freezer. But now things get a little odd and diffuse and unsatisfactory.
I would like to offer a few scattered thoughts regarding three points. (1) Not for the first time, the efforts of the media to conceal that some minority are disproportionately involved in some disfavoured activity has resulted in the public overestimating the involvement of that minority; (2) this whole effort on the part of the so-called Office for Standards in Education has all the characteristics of a power-grab and a smear; and (3) there is no evidence that these little informal schools, including the Muslim ones, do any worse than the state schools at either education or terrorism-prevention. There is some reason to suppose they might do better in some circumstances despite worse facilities. Many children turn to these schools having suffered bullying at normal schools. The low number of people involved means that everyone, teachers and pupils, knows everyone else; no one can “slip through the cracks”. Another benefit is that the presence of an affordable alternative helps keep more traditional types of schools on their toes.
May 25, 2016
Sarah Hoyt explains why your school-age sons may not be getting as much (if anything) from their education compared to your daughters:
… most of [my sons’] generation PARTICULARLY THE GIRLS are coddled and protected within an inch of their lives and treated as prodigies. And don’t argue with me on the girl thing. If you don’t have kids in school — particularly sons — you don’t know how skewed it is. Most of the work is geared to “a woman’s way of learning”, things are demanded at appropriate ages FOR GIRLS who develop faster than boys (for instance to deliver work on time with no demands. Teen boys can’t do that till about 16, but it’s demanded at 11. If your male middle schooler is floundering, you know why. Add to that that most teachers are women, and women of a certain generation, who feel they are “sticking it to the patriarchy” by “encouraging” girls more and what you have is a recipe for disaster, particularly for girls.
Let’s right now admit men and women are different, with different capacities. If I ever persuade my brain-researcher friend to give you a post on how hormones influence brain development, we’ll have a biological base to build on. But still, statistically across all the various cultures of the world, men and women are different in raw capabilities. Men prefer spacial and mathematical reasoning (well, abstract, where mathematical is iffy) and enjoy danger more. Women are linguistically inclined and able to multitask or work in an “Interrupted environment” better.
Now these are all statistical capabilities, which applied to real life mean very little, and applied to real humans are not predictive. I mean, you’d expect to see more male engineers and more female linguists — and you do — but it means nothing as to whether your own very special male or female apple blossom should be one or the other.
I’ll add here that I don’t understand the NEED of the cognoscenti in our society to fight natural inclination and make male nurses and female engineers. It seems to me they’re working out some bur under their own psychological saddle, so to speak, by playing with the lives of others.
On the other hand if women want to be engineers and are willing to work hard enough they should stand the same chance as any man. And yet, we have classes that start out with equal numbers of male and female, in engineering, but by the end it is, as younger son puts it “a sausage fest” most women having deserted to Business or Art or Art of Business or Business of Art or whatever.
A lot of these were probably never that interested, and were pushed by parents/teachers. But those that were were handicapped.
Any number of boys quits too. Fewer than the girls, because they weren’t as handicapped.
These kids are handicapped by making their lives too easy. If the school goes out of their way to value “a woman’s way of learning” a woman will never learn to stretch her wings. If even boys are taught “you’re special and unique” and every thing they toss out with little thought is praised, they don’t learn what their blind spots are or to compensate for them.
What this means is that sooner or later they’ll come up against things they’re bad at — the best “rounded” person has things they suck at — and they don’t know what reserves they have, nor how to fill in the holes in natural talent with work.
May 23, 2016
Some actual opera stars admit that their very first exposure to opera music was through Elmer Fudd’s pursuit of Bugs Bunny in “What’s Opera, Doc?”:
Like many other singers and crew staging the 17-hour, four-opera Wagner extravaganza at the Kennedy Center, Ms. Bishop got her first taste of opera from a cartoon rabbit and his speech-impaired nemesis.
“I could sing you the entire cartoon before I knew what opera really was,” says Ms. Bishop, who performs the part of Fricka, wife of Wotan, king of the gods.
The rabbit in question is Bugs Bunny, who, in the 1957 Warner Bros. cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?” finds himself hunted by Elmer Fudd, in the part of the hero, Siegfried.
“Kiww the wabbit! Kiww the wabbit!” Elmer, in an ill-fitting magic helmet, sings to the urgent strains of Ride of the Valkyries as he jabs his spear into a rabbit hole.
Bugs flees, dons a breast plate and blond braids, climbs atop an obese white horse, and for two minutes and a ballet interlude, fools the smitten Elmer into thinking he is Brünnhilde.
“Oh, Bwünnhilde, you’re so wovewy,” Elmer croons.
“Yes, I know it,” Bugs answers coquettishly. “I can’t help it.”
“Those of us who didn’t freak at the sight of a rabbit in a winged helmet sliding off of the back of a fat horse — we went into opera,” says Ms. Bishop, 49, who grew up in Greenville, S.C.
It’s just one of those cases of art imitating art imitating art. Generations of people in the opera world grew up spending Saturday mornings eating breakfast cereal and watching Bugs Bunny on TV sets tuned with rabbit ears. For many, “What’s Opera, Doc?” was their first glimpse of opera and Wagner. Even if it didn’t exactly inspire their careers, it planted an ear worm that made the music recognizable once they heard the real thing.
April 24, 2016
… 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
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
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
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
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
If you hurry, you can just get your Santa’s Visit Application in before the deadline tonight!
December 21, 2015
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
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.