September 2009 Archives

Bye, bye, cute furry panda bears

Everyone loves pandas and their even more adorable (once they grow some fur) babies.

But TV naturalist Chris Packham makes a strong case for diverting the incredible resources currently spent to protect panda bears to instead protect vital biodiversity hotspots. He argues that pandas live in a cramped region (that is shrinking rapidly as China’s population and economy grow), eat a very limited diet that sporadically dies out, are lousy at reproduction, and are quite susceptible to diseases. So “Perhaps the panda was already destined to run out of time.”

Pandas are extraordinarily expensive to keep going. We spend millions and millions of pounds on pretty much this one species, and a few others, when we know that the best thing we could do would be to look after the world’s biodiversity hotspots with greater care. Without habitat, you’ve got nothing. So maybe if we took all the cash we spend on pandas and just bought rainforest with it, we might be doing a better job.

Of course, it’s easier to raise money for something fluffy. Charismatic megafauna like the panda do appeal to people’s emotional side, and attract a lot of public attention. They are emblematic of what I would call single-species conservation: ie a focus on one animal. This approach began in the 1970s with Save the Tiger, Save the Panda, Save the Whale, and so on, and it is now out of date. I think pandas have had a valuable role in raising the profile of conservation, but perhaps “had” is the right word.

Packham argues we should instead focus on “Save the Kalahari” or “Save the Rainforest”:

Extinction is very much a part of life on earth. And we are going to have to get used to it in the next few years because climate change is going to result in all sorts of disappearances. The last large mammal extinction was another animal in China – the Yangtze river dolphin, which looked like a worn-out piece of pink soap with piggy eyes and was never going to make it on to anyone’s T-shirt. If that had appeared beautiful to us, then I doubt very much that it would be extinct. But it vanished, because it was pig-ugly and swam around in a river where no one saw it. And now, sadly, it has gone for ever.

I’m not trying to play God; I’m playing God’s accountant. I’m saying we won’t be able to save it all, so let’s do the best we can.

Packham misses another argument for diverting resources away from cute, fluffy species: Shock value. Perhaps allowing a species like the panda to drift toward extinction will raise awareness of the seriousness of habitat destruction, global warming, and our present cataclysmic rate of species extinction.

I’d like to put in a plug for one of my favorite animals, our close relative the orangutan. It’s in great trouble due to habitat destruction. Virtually all of its habitat will likely be destroyed well before my 3-year-old graduates from high school.

Posted by James on Sep 25, 2009

Children + play = Self-awareness, self-control and life success

A wonderfully informative psychological study is “the marshmallow test,” in which hundreds of 4-year-olds in the 1960s were offered one marshmallow (or other self-selected treat) immediately or two treats if they could wait till the tester returned to the room. Over the following decades, the 30% of children who managed to wait the full 15 minutes did much better — on average — in school and in life:

[C]hildren who [ate the marshmallow] quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

Another study “found that the ability to delay gratification — eighth graders were given a choice between a dollar right away or two dollars the following week — was a far better predictor of academic performance than I.Q.”

The ability to resist temptation and instead sacrifice now for a better tomorrow appears to play a surprisingly large role in life success. Why might this be?

“If you can deal with hot emotions [like wanting the instant gratification of eating the marshmallow], then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television,” Mischel says. “And you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.”

Over a lifetime, many small sacrifices add up to major gains.

This begs the question of whether self-control can be taught or is simply innate and controlled by our genes. The marshmallow test’s creator, Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel, believes patience can be taught and learned:

When he and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks — such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame — he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes. “All I’ve done is given them some tips from their mental user manual,” Mischel says. “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”

But training someone to act with greater self-control on a specific, immediate task is far easier than teaching them to act with greater self-control in their daily lives for years to come. So,

it’s not enough just to teach kids mental tricks—the real challenge is turning those tricks into habits, and that requires years of diligent practice. “This is where your parents are important,” Mischel says. “Have they established rituals that force you to delay on a daily basis? Do they encourage you to wait? And do they make waiting worthwhile?” According to Mischel, even the most mundane routines of childhood—such as not snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning—are really sly exercises in cognitive training: we’re teaching ourselves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires.

An interesting NYT article titled “Can the Right Kinds of Play Teach Self-Control?” reports on a new effort — “Tools of the Mind” — to focus preschool around teaching self-control. Here’s the basic theory — based on early 20th Century research by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky — which argues kids learn self-control most effectively by role-playing with other kids:

A new buzz phrase has emerged among scholars and scientists who study early-childhood development…: executive function. Originally a neuroscience term, it refers to the ability to think straight: to order your thoughts, to process information in a coherent way, to hold relevant details in your short-term memory, to avoid distractions and mental traps and focus on the task in front of you. And recently, cognitive psychologists have come to believe that executive function, and specifically the skill of self-regulation, might hold the answers to some of the most vexing questions in education today.

The ability of young children to control their emotional and cognitive impulses, it turns out, is a remarkably strong indicator of both short-term and long-term success, academic and otherwise. In some studies, self-regulation skills have been shown to predict academic achievement more reliably than I.Q. tests. The problem is that just as we’re coming to understand the importance of self-regulation skills, those skills appear to be in short supply among young American children….

There is growing evidence that… executive-function skills are relatively malleable — quite possibly more malleable than I.Q., which is notoriously hard to increase over a sustained period. In laboratory studies, research psychologists have found that with executive function, practice helps; when children or adults repeatedly perform basic exercises in cognitive self-regulation, they get better at it…

For Vygotsky, the real purpose of early-childhood education was not to learn content, like the letters of the alphabet or the names of shapes and colors and animals. The point was to learn how to think. When children enter preschool, Vygotsky wrote, they are “slaves to their environment,” unable to control their reactions or direct their interests, responding to whatever shiny objects are put in front of them. Accordingly, the most important goal of prekindergarten is to teach children how to master their thoughts. And the best way for children to do that, Vygotsky believed, especially at this early age, is [through] play…

Vygotsky maintained that at 4 or 5, a child’s ability to play creatively with other children was in fact a better gauge of her future academic success than any other indicator, including her vocabulary, her counting skills or her knowledge of the alphabet. Dramatic play, he said, was the training ground where children learned to regulate themselves, to conquer their own unruly minds. In the United States, we often associate play with freedom, but to Vygotsky, dramatic play was actually the arena where children’s actions were most tightly restricted. When a young boy is acting out the role of a daddy making breakfast, he is limited by all the rules of daddy-ness. Some of those limitations come from his playmates: if he starts acting like a baby (or a policeman or a dinosaur) in the middle of making breakfast, the other children will be sure to steer him back to the eggs and bacon. But even beyond that explicit peer pressure, Vygotsky would say, the child is guided by the basic principles of play. Make-believe isn’t as stimulating and satisfying — it simply isn’t as much fun — if you don’t stick to your role. And when children follow the rules of make-believe and push one another to follow those rules, he said, they develop important habits of self-control.

Bodrova and Leong drew on research conducted by some of Vygotsky’s followers that showed that children acting out a dramatic scene can control their impulses much better than they can in nonplay situations. In one experiment, 4-year-old children were first asked to stand still for as long as they could. They typically did not make it past a minute. But when the kids played a make-believe game in which they were guards at a factory, they were able to stand at attention for more than four minutes. In another experiment, prekindergarten-age children were asked to memorize a list of unrelated words. Then they played “grocery store” and were asked to memorize a similar list of words — this time, though, as a shopping list. In the play situation, on average, the children were able to remember twice as many words.

Parents and teachers should emphasize active learning and encourage children to play and explore. And I bet it’s true that complex role-playing in preschool teaches many valuable life lessons, including self-control.

Posted by James on Sep 28, 2009

Good parents are life coaches, not bosses

There’s an excellent article on parenting in yesterday’s New York Times.

The author correctly criticizes the frequent advice to parents to “turn up the affection when they’re good, withhold affection when they’re not”:

Some people who wouldn’t dream of spanking choose instead to discipline their young children by forcibly isolating them, a tactic we prefer to call “time out.” Conversely, “positive reinforcement” teaches children that they are loved, and lovable, only when they do whatever we decide is a “good job.”

This raises the intriguing possibility that the problem with praise isn’t that it is done the wrong way — or handed out too easily, as social conservatives insist. Rather, it might be just another method of control, analogous to punishment. The primary message of all types of conditional parenting is that children must earn a parent’s love. A steady diet of that, Rogers warned, and children might eventually need a therapist to provide the unconditional acceptance they didn’t get when it counted.

Evidence now suggests Rogers is right:

[C]hildren who received conditional approval were indeed somewhat more likely to act as the parent wanted. But compliance came at a steep price. First, these children tended to resent and dislike their parents. Second, they were apt to say that the way they acted was often due more to a “strong internal pressure” than to “a real sense of choice.” Moreover, their happiness after succeeding at something was usually short-lived, and they often felt guilty or ashamed.

Many, if not most, parents think of themselves as shaping and controlling their child’s development. But you’re not your child’s boss. And you can’t force your child to behave a certain way without simultaneously teaching her/him to resent you for imposing your will on her/him.

Instead, I like to think of myself as a coach — a life coach, perhaps — for my children. When they do something that jeopardizes their safety or threatens others, of course I impose my will. But on everything else, I attempt to help them make smart decisions by reasoning with them, explaining why I prefer one course of action over another, etc. But, in the end, it’s their decision, and they’ll learn — perhaps the hard way — that bad decisions often have bad consequences. I would never insist that they act exactly as I would because I’m not them. I’m only their coach. They have to go on the field of life and play the game for themselves. To the extent I offer advice they judge useful, they’ll listen and consider my views.

Here’s my reply to my mom, who (lovingly) pointed me to this article:

I completely agree with this. Excellent advice, esp. “unconditional acceptance by parents as well as teachers should be accompanied by “autonomy support”: explaining reasons for requests, maximizing opportunities for the child to participate in making decisions, being encouraging without manipulating, and actively imagining how things look from the child’s point of view.”

It’s very important to distinguish between your unconditional love for your child and your momentary disapproval of a specific action. And the proper response to being disappointed by your child’s action is to express your disapproval and your reasons for disapproval and the consequences if such an action recurs.

I’ve read several very helpful parenting books that have explained the dangers of being too strict or too lenient. We try to set few rules and be very flexible about most matters but to be inflexible about the rules we’ve set (like, “You can’t grab a toy your sister is playing with”). By following that advice, discipline has been a very occasional issue in our family (for now at least). We respect and talk with Daryl about his feelings, whether he’s happy or sad/mad. He’s fully entitled to feel however he feels. But he must behave responsibly. The few times we have had to discipline him is when he has lost control of himself in a screaming fit. We’ve told him consistently that he’s welcome to scream and be angry… in his room with his door closed. And that we’d love to be with him again after he calms down. But while he’s screaming, he needs to be in his room so he doesn’t disturb other people.

I’ve started reading a book on disciplining (“Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child : Eliminating Conflict by Establishing Clear, Firm, and Respectful Boundaries”; http://www.amazon.com/Setting-Limits-Your-Strong-Willed-Child/dp/0761521364/). I read reviews of quite a few lousy books on this topic before hitting on this one that I think gets it right. It says, basically, parents must set (reasonable) limits and enforce them consistently. If you give in to pleading and cajoling, you encourage long, drawn-out battles of will. If one parent is “soft” and the other is “hard,” your children will exploit that. But if you set clear rules and enforce them quickly and consistently, discipline becomes very simple. If it’s bed time, for example, then it’s bed time. And nothing Daryl says will enable him to watch another half hour of TV. It’s not a matter of whether or not we love him. It’s a matter of us having set a reasonable rule that we insist he follows. And it’s a rule about which we can’t be flexible because if he stays up beyond his bed time, he’ll become cranky and whiny.

I’m sure things will get more complicated as Daryl and Lia get older. But I believe the basic principles still hold.

—James

Posted by James on Sep 16, 2009

Junk food + stress + lack of exercise + smoking = Sick America

Bill Maher has been ranting for years about poisonous American food, full of high fructose corn syrup and other non-nutritional junk.

His most recent “New Rules” rant says health care reform without diet reform is foolish:

President Obama has identified all the problems with the health care system, but there’s one tiny issue he refuses to tackle, and that’s our actual health.

And since Americans can only be prodded into doing something with money, we need to tax crappy foods that make us sick like we do with cigarettes, and alcohol — and alcohol actually serves a useful function in society in that it enables unattractive people to get laid, which is more than you can say for Skittles.

I’m not saying tax all soda, but certainly any single serving of soda larger than a baby is not unreasonable…

President Arugula is not gonna tell Americans they’re fat and lazy. No sin tax on food on Obama’s watch. And at a time when it’s important to set new standards for personal responsibility, he appointed a surgeon general, who is, I’m sorry, kind of fat. Certainly too heavy to be a surgeon general, it’s a role model thing. It would be like appointing a Secretary of the Treasury who didn’t pay his taxes. He did?

And get this: Surgeon General Benjamin had previously been a nutritional advisor to Burger King. The only advice a “health expert” should give Burger King is to stop selling food.

So a fascinating article in tomorrow’s New York Times could not be more timely. It says Americans live an average of 78 years, versus 80 in the U.K., 81 in Canada and France, and 83 in Japan. But — this research suggests — a big part of the problem is our unhealthy lifestyle and eating habits. We simply get sicker at a much higher rate than people in other countries. Illnesses tend to be detected earlier in America, and treatments tend to be more aggressive. But our sedentary, high-stress lifestyle and junk food addiction (and the delayed health effects of our once world-leading smoking rate) make us sicker than people who live more active, relaxed lifestyles and eat healthier foods:

A prominent researcher, Samuel H. Preston, has taken a closer look at the growing body of international data, and he finds no evidence that America’s health care system is to blame for the longevity gap between it and other industrialized countries. In fact, he concludes, the American system in many ways provides superior treatment even when uninsured Americans are included in the analysis.

“The U.S. actually does a pretty good job of identifying and treating the major diseases,” says Dr. Preston, a demographer at the University of Pennsylvania who is among the leading experts on mortality rates from disease. “The international comparisons don’t show we’re in dire straits.”

…This longevity gap, Dr. Preston says, is primarily due to the relatively high rates of sickness and death among middle-aged Americans, chiefly from heart disease and cancer….

“The U.S. has had one spectacular achievement in preventive medicine,” he says. “It has had the largest drop in cigarette consumption per adult of any developed country since 1985.” If Americans keep shunning cigarettes, the longevity gap could shrink no matter happens with the health care system.

Posted by James on Sep 22, 2009

Krugman bashes economics field's irrational belief in collective rationality

While studying for my economics Ph.D., I always hated the economics field’s refusal to acknowledge that human skulls contain not supercomputers but 3-pound lumps of mush with severe perceptual limitations, constrained (and often faulty) memory capacity, “irrational” emotions, arbitrary decision heuristics, contradictory beliefs, false beliefs (at most one of the world’s many religions can be right, for example), etc.

Most economics models (in my day, anyhow) presume people possess perfect knowledge of the world around them and that every person on the planet makes completely rational, self-serving decisions at all times. Real-world facts clearly contradicted this, but most economists believed the rationality assumption held to a first approximation and that “a theory of irrationality” would be impossibly complex, so they didn’t bother trying.

So I was doubly excited today to discover Paul Krugman’s trashing of his field’s embrace of individual and collective rationality. He says his fellow economists were blinded to reality by their theories (which are devoid of human emotion or irrationality) and remain in denial:

In recent, rueful economics discussions, an all-purpose punch line has become “nobody could have predicted… .” It’s what you say with regard to disasters that could have been predicted, should have been predicted and actually were predicted by a few economists who were scoffed at for their pains.

Take, for example, the precipitous rise and fall of housing prices. Some economists, notably Robert Shiller, did identify the bubble and warn of painful consequences if it were to burst. Yet key policy makers failed to see the obvious. In 2004, Alan Greenspan dismissed talk of a housing bubble: “a national severe price distortion,” he declared, was “most unlikely.” Home-price increases, Ben Bernanke said in 2005, “largely reflect strong economic fundamentals.”

… Greenspan’s assurances… weren’t based on evidence — they were based on the a priori assertion that there simply can’t be a bubble in housing. And the finance theorists were even more adamant on this point. In a 2007 interview, Eugene Fama, the father of the efficient-market hypothesis, declared that “the word ‘bubble’ drives me nuts,” and went on to explain why we can trust the housing market: “Housing markets are less liquid, but people are very careful when they buy houses. It’s typically the biggest investment they’re going to make, so they look around very carefully and they compare prices. The bidding process is very detailed.”

Indeed, home buyers generally do carefully compare prices — that is, they compare the price of their potential purchase with the prices of other houses. But this says nothing about whether the overall price of houses is justified.

Krugman offers finance as an example of economists falling in love with their theories:

Finance theorists didn’t accept the efficient-market hypothesis merely because it was elegant, convenient and lucrative. They also produced a great deal of statistical evidence, which at first seemed strongly supportive. But this evidence was of an oddly limited form. Finance economists rarely asked the seemingly obvious (though not easily answered) question of whether asset prices made sense given real-world fundamentals like earnings. Instead, they asked only whether asset prices made sense given other asset prices. Larry Summers, now the top economic adviser in the Obama administration, once mocked finance professors with a parable about “ketchup economists” who “have shown that two-quart bottles of ketchup invariably sell for exactly twice as much as one-quart bottles of ketchup,” and conclude from this that the ketchup market is perfectly efficient.

To be fair, not ALL finance professors thought this way. A few years ago, I began watching online NYU business school lectures on valuation and corporate finance by the wonderful Aswath Damodaran (website: Damodaran Online). He repeatedly emphasized:

  • A stock may be undervalued relative to similar companies but still be overvalued because the market is systematically overvaluing the industry as a whole

  • If you think market valuations are always correct, leave this class now because we begin by assuming that systematic application of valuation techniques can produce value estimates superior to the current market price

Damodaran understood that individuals can be irrational, as can markets (which are not supernatural beings but collections of flawed, irrational human beings).

Though I always believed microeconomists misunderstand human thinking (and totally ignore human emotion), I found significant explanatory power in micro theories. But I always thought many of the macroeconomic theories I learned were rubbish. I was so turned off by macroeconomics that I couldn’t bring myself to attend the required macro classes. (Interestingly, when I showed up for the final exam, the professor handed me the exam and asked, “Are you IN this class?” …yet I scored higher on that test relative to my peers than on many others.) Perhaps after reading Krugman’s description of macro, you’ll understand my reason for being unable to stomach those lectures:

In the 1970s the leading freshwater macroeconomist, the Nobel laureate Robert Lucas, argued that recessions were caused by temporary confusion: workers and companies had trouble distinguishing overall changes in the level of prices because of inflation or deflation from changes in their own particular business situation. And Lucas warned that any attempt to fight the business cycle would be counterproductive: activist policies, he argued, would just add to the confusion.

By the 1980s, however, even this severely limited acceptance of the idea that recessions are bad things had been rejected by many freshwater economists. Instead, the new leaders of the movement, especially Edward Prescott, who was then at the University of Minnesota (you can see where the freshwater moniker comes from), argued that price fluctuations and changes in demand actually had nothing to do with the business cycle. Rather, the business cycle reflects fluctuations in the rate of technological progress, which are amplified by the rational response of workers, who voluntarily work more when the environment is favorable and less when it’s unfavorable. Unemployment is a deliberate decision by workers to take time off.

Put baldly like that, this theory sounds foolish — was the Great Depression really the Great Vacation? And to be honest, I think it really is silly. But the basic premise of Prescott’s “real business cycle” theory was embedded in ingeniously constructed mathematical models, which were mapped onto real data using sophisticated statistical techniques, and the theory came to dominate the teaching of macroeconomics in many university departments. In 2004, reflecting the theory’s influence, Prescott shared a Nobel with Finn Kydland of Carnegie Mellon University…

Chicago’s Casey Mulligan suggests that unemployment is so high because many workers are choosing not to take jobs: “Employees face financial incentives that encourage them not to work … decreased employment is explained more by reductions in the supply of labor (the willingness of people to work) and less by the demand for labor (the number of workers that employers need to hire).” Mulligan has suggested, in particular, that workers are choosing to remain unemployed because that improves their odds of receiving mortgage relief. And Cochrane declares that high unemployment is actually good: “We should have a recession. People who spend their lives pounding nails in Nevada need something else to do.”

Posted by James on Sep 04, 2009

Markets require regulation to remain "free"

When regulators fail to police markets, manipulators engage in myriad schemes — pump-and-dump, jumping the queue, etc. — to rip off market participants.

How much of the incredible run-up in oil prices was caused by market manipulation? A new New York Times story on oil market manipulation makes one wonder. Even worse, it appears market “regulators” were aware of problems back in 2007 but failed to act decisively:

Its superfast, supersecret oil trading software was called the Hammer.

And if the Commodity Futures Trading Commission is right, the name fit well with an intricate scheme that allowed commodity traders in Chicago working for Optiver, a little-known company based in Amsterdam, to put their orders first in line and subtly manipulate the price of oil to the company’s advantage.

Transcripts and taped conversations of actions that took place in 2007, included in the commission’s case, reveal the secretive workings of high-frequency trading, a fast-growing Wall Street business that is suddenly drawing scrutiny in Washington. Critics say this high-speed form of computerized trading, which is used in a wide range of financial markets, enables its practitioners to profit at other investors’ expense.

Traders in the Chicago office of Optiver openly talked among themselves of “whacking” and “bullying up” the price of oil. But when called to account by officials of the New York Mercantile Exchange, they described their actions as just “providing liquidity.”

In July 2008, the commission charged Optiver with manipulating the price of oil…

During a tense conference call in 2007, Thomas Lasala, the chief regulator for Nymex, made his doubts clear about Optiver’s trading strategies.

“The market seems to move in reaction to your orders,” he said, according to a transcript of the conversation. “And I don’t think that is a market-making strategy.”

Posted by James on Sep 05, 2009

Our immoral health insurance system causes six 9/11s... every year!

Americans remain in shock by the tragic events of 9/11, eight years ago.

As horrific as that day was, every single year before and since 9/11, America’s immoral for-profit health insurance system — which excludes nearly 50 million Americans — has killed 18,000 Americans, more than six times as many Americans as died on 9/11!

The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof shines a light on just one of 18,000 annual American tragedies:

Nikki [White] was a slim and athletic college graduate who had health insurance, had worked in health care and knew the system. But she had systemic lupus erythematosus, a chronic inflammatory disease that was diagnosed when she was 21 and gradually left her too sick to work. And once she lost her job, she lost her health insurance.

In any other rich country, Nikki probably would have been fine, notes T. R. Reid in his important and powerful new book, “The Healing of America.” Some 80 percent of lupus patients in the United States live a normal life span. Under a doctor’s care, lupus should be manageable. Indeed, if Nikki had been a felon, the problem could have been averted, because courts have ruled that prisoners are entitled to medical care.

As Mr. Reid recounts, Nikki tried everything to get medical care, but no insurance company would accept someone with her pre-existing condition. She spent months painfully writing letters to anyone she thought might be able to help. She fought tenaciously for her life.

Finally, Nikki collapsed at her home in Tennessee and was rushed to a hospital emergency room, which was then required to treat her without payment until her condition stabilized. Since money was no longer an issue, the hospital performed 25 emergency surgeries on Nikki, and she spent six months in critical care…

By then it was too late. In 2006, Nikki White died at age 32. “Nikki didn’t die from lupus,” her doctor, Amylyn Crawford, told Mr. Reid. “Nikki died from complications of the failing American health care system.”

Posted by James on Sep 14, 2009

Soviets built a Doomsday Machine... to stop themselves from launching a nuclear war

A fascinating article at Wired.com on the Soviet Union’s Doomsday Machine.

For 60+ years, U.S. and Soviet strategic thinkers have analyzed the “optimal” strategies in a world with nuclear weapons. (Ironically, the principal tool for such strategic thinking about the unthinkable is called “game theory.”)

Until the 1980s, the basic logic — called “Mutually Assured Destruction,” appropriately nicknamed “MAD” — ran like this: Each country wanted to maintain the capacity (and perceived intention) to obliterate the other, should it should launch a nuclear attack. So each side attempted to hide nuclear weapons (on mobile trucks), shield them (deep underground in bunkers hardened against nuclear attacks), and keep them totally unreachable (on submarines and planes in the air). The U.S. SAC (Strategic Air Command), for example, maintained 24-hour flights by nuclear-armed bombers.

Ronald Reagan and his saber-rattling subordinates ratcheted up the rhetoric many notches, even going so far as to talk openly about how we might win a nuclear war by causing disproportionate damage to the Soviet Union.

The Reagan Administration backed up its fiery words with a plan to build “Star Wars” technology that threatened to destabilize the stable “MAD” equilibrium. Reagan wanted to use lasers and defensive missiles to protect America against Soviet nuclear weapons. Were America to acquire the ability to stop, say, 500 Soviet ICBMs, the Soviet Union would suddenly find itself in a situation of “use ‘em or lose 'em.” America — the Soviets reasoned — would have a strong incentive to launch a secret attack on the Soviet Union that would wipe out most Soviet missiles and then use “Star Wars” technologies to stop any missiles it failed to blow up in their silos.

Faced with militaristic rhetoric from Reagan and his military men and a real threat of “use ‘em or lose 'em,” the Soviets did an extremely clever thing: they (apparently) built a Doomsday Machine… a system intended to launch a retaliatory strike on America even if America launched a massive nuclear attack on Russia that wiped out all its top military and civilian leadership.

What makes this Doomsday Machine especially interesting is that the Soviets (and, later, Russians) did NOT tell America’s leadership about it. For decades, discussions about a Doomsday Machine assumed its value was in deterring an attack by scaring the other side so much that it would not launch such an attack. But the Soviets kept their Doomsday Machine secret. Why?

The Soviets intended their Doomsday Machine not to deter America from attacking them but to deter their own generals and civilian leaders from attacking America! The Doomsday Machine was designed to assure Soviet leaders that the U.S. could not wipe the Soviet Union out of existence before the Soviets got a chance to do the same to America!

By the perverse logic of nuclear war, such a Doomsday Machine — a machine created to inflict incalculable death — was actually a stabilizing force:

The Soviets… built a system to deter themselves.

By guaranteeing that Moscow could hit back, Perimeter was actually designed to keep an overeager Soviet military or civilian leader from launching prematurely during a crisis. The point, Zheleznyakov says, was “to cool down all these hotheads and extremists. No matter what was going to happen, there still would be revenge. Those who attack us will be punished.”

And Perimeter bought the Soviets time. After the US installed deadly accurate Pershing II missiles on German bases in December 1983, Kremlin military planners assumed they would have only 10 to 15 minutes from the moment radar picked up an attack until impact. Given the paranoia of the era, it is not unimaginable that a malfunctioning radar, a flock of geese that looked like an incoming warhead, or a misinterpreted American war exercise could have triggered a catastrophe. Indeed, all these events actually occurred at some point. If they had happened at the same time, Armageddon might have ensued.

Perimeter solved that problem. If Soviet radar picked up an ominous but ambiguous signal, the leaders could turn on Perimeter and wait. If it turned out to be geese, they could relax and Perimeter would stand down. Confirming actual detonations on Soviet soil is far easier than confirming distant launches. “That is why we have the system,” Yarynich says. “To avoid a tragic mistake.”

Posted by James on Sep 23, 2009

Symantec CTO doesn't trust his employees or Windows machines but expects us to

I’m laughing at some unintentionally revealing quotations from the CTO of Windows anti-virus company Symantec.

I’ve long hated both Windows (for its proprietary software that kept me in the dark about what was going on on my own computer) and Symantec (for its bloated software that sometimes froze my computer and often consumed tons of CPU).

I haven’t used either for several years, except to do my taxes. And I’m much happier for it.

So I laughed when I discovered that Symantec’s CTO doesn’t use Windows either!

Mark Bregman, chief technology officer at security firm Symantec said he left his MacBook Pro behind in the US and took his MacBook Air whenever he flew to China.

Even more hilariously, he expects us to pay his company to protect our computers, but he doesn’t trust anyone in his company with his laptop!

“I don’t let my IT department near my laptop.”

Posted by James on Sep 16, 2009

Talk, talk, talk with your babies/kids

Two incredibly powerful predictors of a child’s future intellectual (and probably emotional) success are: 1) the number of words her/his parents spoke to her/him while growing up; and, 2) the ratio of positive to critical statements from her/his parents.

So this article is no news, but it’s a valuable reminder of parents' responsibility to talk to their babies and engage with their young children and a warning not to let high-tech gadgets (cellphones, iPods, etc.) disrupt parent-child communication, which is essential to children’s intellectual and emotional growth:

Ms. Jacoby’s general advice to parents: “Reward your little one’s communicative attempts with your heightened attention to his/her conversation. Be prepared to put down your cellphone and look them squarely in the eye as they share their thoughts with you.”

Communication begins as soon as a baby is born. The way you touch, hold, look at and talk to babies help them learn your language, and the different ways babies cry help you learn their language — “I’m wet,” “I’m hungry,” “I’m tired,” “I hurt,” “I’m overwhelmed” and so forth.

“Talk to your baby whenever you have the chance,” the American Medical Association advises parents. “Even though he doesn’t understand what you’re saying, your calm, reassuring voice is what he needs to feel safe. Always respond to your newborn’s cries — he cannot be spoiled with too much attention.”

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association urges parents to reinforce communication efforts by looking at the baby and imitating vocalizations, laughter and facial expressions.

“Talk while you are doing things,” the association suggests. “Talk about where you are going, what you will do once you get there, and who and what you’ll see.”

You might say things like, “Now we’re going to put on your socks,” “We’re going in the car to see Grandma,” or, “When we get to the playground, I’ll push you on the swing.”

Posted by James on Sep 29, 2009

Tech-loving geeks: Threat to humanity?

Reacting to a new British Royal Academy of Engineering report warning of potential dangers posed by increasingly autonomous technologies, The Economist weighs in on the looming danger of smarter-than-human machines with its piece Machines in control. The Economist notes that turning over full control to autonomous machines is scary… and that NOT turning over full control can be even worse!

How soon before evolvable machines become cleverer than people? Little over a decade is the current consensus. One such machine has already been awarded a patent for something it quietly invented on its own.

The temptation to surrender control to machines that are smarter, more vigilant and less prone to boredom, irritation and emotional outbursts than people will be overwhelming. People will do so for reasons of comfort, convenience, safety and cost. So, what happens when a one-in-a-billion bug causes the software to crash, or the safety valves are not operated properly?

That is what happened at Three Mile Island in 1979. Though the nuclear power station was not an autonomous system, it was running automatically with its human controllers outside the loop. When things went horribly wrong, inexperienced operators tried desperately to take command, only to make one compounding mistake after another—turning a control system with good negative feedback into a positive, runaway disaster.

We really must — though we almost certainly won’t — contemplate most seriously the potential dangers our intelligent creations pose and ensure that our machines remain truly under our control. The free market can’t even keep bankers from destroying the world economy. How can we hope to control smarter-than-human machines produced by profit-hungry companies and designed by tech-loving geeks?

Posted by James on Sep 01, 2009

The power of lobbyists' special access

In his otherwise excellent piece, Paul Krugman assumes President Obama is so smart that he can’t possibly believe his foolish argument against financial industry compensation reform:

I was startled last week when Mr. Obama, in an interview with Bloomberg News, questioned the case for limiting financial-sector pay: “Why is it,” he asked, “that we’re going to cap executive compensation for Wall Street bankers but not Silicon Valley entrepreneurs or N.F.L. football players?”

That’s an astonishing remark — and not just because the National Football League does, in fact, have pay caps. Tech firms don’t crash the whole world’s operating system when they go bankrupt; quarterbacks who make too many risky passes don’t have to be rescued with hundred-billion-dollar bailouts. Banking is a special case — and the president is surely smart enough to know that.

All I can think is that this was another example of something we’ve seen before: Mr. Obama’s visceral reluctance to engage in anything that resembles populist rhetoric. And that’s something he needs to get over.

…The administration… has suffered more than it seems to realize from the perception that it’s giving taxpayers’ hard-earned money away to Wall Street, and it should welcome the chance to portray the G.O.P. as the party of obscene bonuses.

Equally important, in this case populism is good economics. Indeed, you can make the case that reforming bankers’ compensation is the single best thing we can do to prevent another financial crisis.

I interpret Obama’s defense of status quo financial compensation (“heads I win; tails you lose”) as another example of the mind-bending power wielded by lobbyists with exclusive access to those who run our government. Even a man as bright as President Obama can be blinded to reality if he only ever talks with those he should be regulating in the — we hope — aftermath of The Great Recession.

A truly wise president — like JFK — made sure he heard from a wide variety of voices. Had President Kennedy listened only to military voices, for example, we probably would have fought a nuclear war over Cuba.

The Obama Administration has gone out of its way to exclude liberal voices. And President Obama has gone out of his way to distance himself from what Fox News loves to disparage as “the wacky liberal fringe” and similarly absurd epithets. If you ignore labels and look at Americans' policy views, a majority of Americans are liberals. Yet intellectually honest liberals are systematically excluded from our nation’s policy debate. That’s no small part of the reason we’re in such a mess.

Posted by James on Sep 21, 2009

University quality and future earnings

I spent a few minutes searching for a free copy of Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger’s “Estimating The Payoff To Attending A More Selective College: An Application of Selection On Observable and Unobservables” (NBER Working Paper No. 7322). Finally found it here.

Why am I so interested in this paper? Well, it’s a rare empirical study that attempts to value education AFTER correcting for “selection bias.” To determine the financial value of a university education, you must factor out the impact of two selection biases. First, universities decide whom they want to attend their schools. And, second, students choose which university that accepted them they wish to attend, a decision often influenced by family finances.

Dale and Krueger found that the measured quality of students at the university you attend has little effect on future wages. Paradoxically, what seems to matter much more is the measured quality of students at universities you APPLIED to, even if many of those schools rejected you!

After we adjust for students' unobserved characteristics, our findings cast doubt on the view that school selectivity, as measured by the average SAT score of the freshmen who attend a college, is an important determinant of students' subsequent incomes. Students who attended more selective colleges do not earn more than other students who were accepted and rejected by comparable schools but attended less selective colleges. …[T]he average SAT score of the schools that a student applied to but was rejected from has a stronger effect on the student’s subsequent earnings than the average SAT score of the school the student actually attended.

But money does appear to buy a superior education, at least for the cohort of students studied (who graduated high school in 1972):

The characteristics of schools that influence students' subsequent income appear to be better captured by average tuition costs than by the school’s average SAT score. …[S]tudents who attend colleges with higher average tuition costs tend to earn higher income years later. The internal real rate of return on college tuition… was quite high, in the neighborhood of 16 to 18 percent.

The financial value of university quality is highest “for students from more disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Of course, quality universities also impact students' minds in non-financial ways. If a quality education encourages students to become literature professors rather than bankers, it’s conceivable top universities boost students' earning POTENTIAL more than this study suggests but diminish students' hunger for money. If so, university quality would have little impact on MEASURED income even though it boosts POTENTIAL income substantially.

Posted by James on Sep 28, 2009

We're all irrational and susceptible to collective insanity

You may believe you’re highly rational. I perceive myself to be highly rational too. But the evidence is clear: Our memories and our reasoning process are highly vulnerable to our emotions and preconceptions.

And, as bad as individuals are at thinking rationally, groups are even worse because our beliefs are shaped so easily by those around us. Emotional contagion is a key reason why mobs so frequently do insane things.

Bob Herbert summarizes the depressing story — told in detail by The New Yorker — of an innocent man put to death by Texas for “murdering” his three children in an accidental fire.

A long chain of human mistakes — each making the next more likely — led to the innocent father’s execution:

  • Poorly trained fire investigators falsely imagined suspicious patterns in the fire that had no scientific basis, according to multiple world-class fire scientists

  • The D.A. pulled a motive from thin air: “With no real motive in sight, the local district attorney, Pat Batchelor, was quoted as saying, “The children were interfering with his beer drinking and dart throwing.””

  • After authorities announced that the father had set the fire, witness testimony shifted against him:

In Diane Barbee’s initial statement to authorities, she had portrayed Willingham as “hysterical,” and described the front of the house exploding. But on January 4th, after arson investigators began suspecting Willingham of murder, Barbee suggested that he could have gone back inside to rescue his children, for at the outset she had seen only “smoke coming from out of the front of the house” — smoke that was not “real thick.”

An even starker shift occurred with Father Monaghan’s testimony. In his first statement, he had depicted Willingham as a devastated father who had to be repeatedly restrained from risking his life. Yet, as investigators were preparing to arrest Willingham, he concluded that Willingham had been too emotional (“He seemed to have the type of distress that a woman who had given birth would have upon seeing her children die”); and he expressed a “gut feeling” that Willingham had “something to do with the setting of the fire.”

Dozens of studies have shown that witnesses’ memories of events often change when they are supplied with new contextual information. Itiel Dror, a cognitive psychologist who has done extensive research on eyewitness and expert testimony in criminal investigations, told me, “The mind is not a passive machine. Once you believe in something—once you expect something—it changes the way you perceive information and the way your memory recalls it.”

  • A prisoner seeking a lighter sentence came forward to testify against — i.e., lie about — the father. The prisoner claimed “he had passed by Willingham’s cell, and as they spoke through a food slot Willingham broke down and told him that he intentionally set the house on fire… It was hard to believe that Willingham, who had otherwise insisted on his innocence, had suddenly confessed to an inmate he barely knew. The conversation had purportedly taken place by a speaker system that allowed any of the guards to listen — an unlikely spot for an inmate to reveal a secret.” A transparently absurd claim, but one which may have registered with the jury, which eagerly convicted the father in less than an hour of deliberation.

  • The authorities refused to change their theories even after a world-renowned arson expert reviewed all the evidence and determined the fire was not caused by arson:

After Hurst had reviewed [fire investigators'] list of more than twenty arson indicators, he believed that only one had any potential validity: the positive test for mineral spirits by the threshold of the front door. But why had the fire investigators obtained a positive reading only in that location? According to Fogg and Vasquez’s theory of the crime, Willingham had poured accelerant throughout the children’s bedroom and down the hallway. Officials had tested extensively in these areas—including where all the pour patterns and puddle configurations were—and turned up nothing. Jackson told me that he “never did understand why they weren’t able to recover” positive tests in these parts.

Hurst found it hard to imagine Willingham pouring accelerant on the front porch, where neighbors could have seen him. Scanning the files for clues, Hurst noticed a photograph of the porch taken before the fire, which had been entered into evidence. Sitting on the tiny porch was a charcoal grill. The porch was where the family barbecued. Court testimony from witnesses confirmed that there had been a grill, along with a container of lighter fluid, and that both had burned when the fire roared onto the porch during post-flashover. By the time Vasquez inspected the house, the grill had been removed from the porch, during cleanup. Though he cited the container of lighter fluid in his report, he made no mention of the grill. At the trial, he insisted that he had never been told of the grill’s earlier placement. Other authorities were aware of the grill but did not see its relevance. Hurst, however, was convinced that he had solved the mystery: when firefighters had blasted the porch with water, they had likely spread charcoal-lighter fluid from the melted container.

Without having visited the fire scene, Hurst says, it was impossible to pinpoint the cause of the blaze. But, based on the evidence, he had little doubt that it was an accidental fire—one caused most likely by the space heater or faulty electrical wiring. It explained why there had never been a motive for the crime. Hurst concluded that there was no evidence of arson, and that a man who had already lost his three children and spent twelve years in jail was about to be executed based on “junk science.”

After the State of Texas murdered this innocent man, the state hired a famous fire scientist, Craig Beyler, who concluded that “investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire. He said that Vasquez’s approach seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and was more “characteristic of mystics or psychics.””

We must always be suspicious of our mind’s enthusiasm for believing what those around us believe and for interpreting all new information through the lens of our current beliefs and assumptions. Viewing the world objectively — as police detectives or jurors, for example — requires dissociating ourselves from the giant bag of assumptions we use to live our lives day to day. Sadly, rational, objective thinking is all too rare.

Posted by James on Sep 01, 2009