Sunday, August 28, 2016

One man's nuclear fears helped create today's San Francisco housing crisis

In 1948, a federal housing bureaucrat named Paul Oppermann, trying to come to terms with the perils of the nuclear age, proposed a solution to the problem of protecting America’s cities from the bomb: empty them out preëmptively by encouraging the population to move to suburbs and small towns of fifty thousand or fewer. “No power in the world could afford to drop an atomic bomb on a city of 50,000 or less” is how the San Francisco Chronicle summarized the talk that Oppermann gave to a local planning organization. Plus, Oppermann explained, you get slum clearance into the bargain. The next year, Oppermann assumed office as San Francisco’s planning director.

The story of Oppermann—who did not send the residents of San Francisco packing but merely crippled growth with arcane lot-size rules and off-street-parking-space minimums—comes down to us via a San Francisco Bay Area cartographer, programmer, and amateur historian named Eric Fischer.
--Mark Gimein, New Yorker, on the power of a single bureaucrat. HT: Marginal Revolution

Friday, August 26, 2016

Foreign intervention has made Syria's civil war endless and more brutal

Most civil wars end when one side loses. Either it is defeated militarily, or it exhausts its weapons or loses popular support and has to give up. About a quarter of civil wars end in a peace deal, often because both sides are exhausted.

That might have happened in Syria: the core combatants — the government and the insurgents who began fighting it in 2011 — are both quite weak and, on their own, cannot sustain the fight for long.

But they are not on their own. Each side is backed by foreign powers — including the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and now Turkey....

Government and rebel forces are supplied from abroad, which means their arms never run out. They also both draw political support from foreign governments who do not feel the war’s costs firsthand, rather than from locals who might otherwise push for peace to end their pain. ...

This is why, according to James D. Fearon, a Stanford professor who studies civil wars, multiple studies have found that “if you have outside intervention on both sides, duration is significantly greater.” ...

Whenever one side loses ground its foreign backers increase their involvement, sending supplies or air support to prevent their favored player’s defeat. ...

These foreign powers are strong enough to match virtually any escalation. None can force an outright victory because the other side can always counter, so the cycle only continues. ...

In most civil wars, the fighting forces depend on popular support to succeed. This “human terrain,” as counterinsurgency experts call it, provides all sides with an incentive to protect civilians and minimize atrocities, and has often proved decisive.

Wars like Syria’s, in which the government and opposition rely heavily on foreign support, encourage the precise opposite behavior, according to research by Reed M. Wood, Jacob D. Kathman and Stephen E. Gent, political scientists at, respectively, Arizona State University; the State University of New York at Buffalo; and the University of North Carolina.

Because Syria’s combatants rely on foreign sponsors, rather than the local population, they have little incentive to protect civilians. In fact, this dynamic turns the local population into a potential threat rather than a necessary resource.

The incentives push them to “utilize collective violence and terror to shape the behaviors of the population,” the researchers found. The images we see of dead mothers and children may not represent helpless bystanders but deliberate targets, killed not out of madness or cruelty but coldly rational calculation.

Severe, indiscriminate attacks on civilians bring little near-term risks and substantial benefits: disrupting the enemy’s control or local support, pacifying potential threats, plundering resources and others.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The to-do list lifehack worth $400,000

[Charles M.] Schwab (oddly enough, no relation to Charles R. Schwab, founder of the Charles Schwab Corporation) was the president of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the largest shipbuilder and the second-largest steel producer in the U.S. at the time. ...

...one day in 1918... Schwab—in his quest to increase the efficiency of his team and discover better ways to get things done—arranged a meeting with a highly respected productivity consultant named Ivy Lee. ...

As the story goes, Schwab brought Lee into his office and said, "Show me a way to get more things done."

"Give me 15 minutes with each of your executives," Lee replied.

"How much will it cost me?" Schwab asked.

"Nothing," Lee said. "Unless it works. After three months, you can send me a check for whatever you feel it’s worth to you."

During his 15 minutes with each executive, Lee explained his simple method for achieving peak productivity:

1. At the end of each workday, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
2. Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
3. When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
4. Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
5. Repeat this process every working day.

The strategy sounded simple, but Schwab and his executive team at Bethlehem Steel gave it a try. After three months, Schwab was so delighted with the progress his company had made that he called Lee into his office and wrote him a check for $25,000.

A $25,000 check written in 1918 is the equivalent of a $400,000 check in 2015.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Science is about feeling stupid

I recently saw an old friend for the first time in many years. We had been Ph.D. students at the same time, both studying science, although in different areas. She later dropped out of graduate school, went to Harvard Law School and is now a senior lawyer for a major environmental organization. At some point, the conversation turned to why she had left graduate school. To my utter astonishment, she said it was because it made her feel stupid. After a couple of years of feeling stupid every day, she was ready to do something else.

I had thought of her as one of the brightest people I knew and her subsequent career supports that view. What she said bothered me. I kept thinking about it; sometime the next day, it hit me. Science makes me feel stupid too. It's just that I've gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid. ...

For almost all of us, one of the reasons that we liked science in high school and college is that we were good at it ... doing well in courses means getting the right answers on tests. If you know those answers, you do well and get to feel smart.

A Ph.D., in which you have to do a research project, is a whole different thing. ... I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn't know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn't have the answer, nobody did.

That's when it hit me: nobody did. That's why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve. Once I faced that fact, I solved the problem in a couple of days. ...

...we don't do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don't feel stupid it means we're not really trying. ...

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. ... The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.
--Martin Schwarz, Journal of Cell Science, on the Peter Principle in research. HT: JK

Monday, August 15, 2016

Why does swimming time only to one-hundredth of a second?

Tonight three legends of swimming—Michael Phelps, Chad Le Clos, and László Cseh—turned in identical times to share silver in the 100m butterfly. Last night, Simone Manuel tied for gold with Canadian Penny Oleksiak in the 100m freestyle. Modern timing systems are capable of measuring down to the millionth of a second—so why doesn’t FINA, the world swimming governing body, increase its timing precision by adding thousandths-of-seconds? ...

In a 50 meter Olympic pool, at the current men’s world record 50m pace, a thousandth-of-a-second constitutes 2.39 millimeters of travel. FINA pool dimension regulations allow a tolerance of 3 centimeters in each lane, more than ten times that amount. Could you time swimmers to a thousandth-of-a-second? Sure, but you couldn’t guarantee the winning swimmer didn’t have a thousandth-of-a-second-shorter course to swim. (Attempting to construct a concrete pool to any tighter a tolerance is nearly impossible; the effective length of a pool can change depending on the ambient temperature, the water temperature, and even whether or not there are people in the pool itself.)
--Timothy Burke, Deadspin, on the limits of precision. HT: JF

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Trump's Android tweets are angrier than his iPhone tweets

But this weekend I saw a hypothesis about Donald Trump’s twitter account that simply begged to be investigated with data:

... Trump himself does indeed tweet from a Samsung Galaxy. But how could we examine it quantitatively? I’ve been writing about text mining and sentiment analysis recently, particularly during my development of the tidytext R package with Julia Silge, and this is a great opportunity to apply it again.

My analysis, shown below, concludes that the Android and iPhone tweets are clearly from different people, posting during different times of day and using hashtags, links, and retweets in distinct ways. What’s more, we can see that the Android tweets are angrier and more negative, while the iPhone tweets tend to be benign announcements and pictures. Overall I’d agree with @tvaziri’s analysis: this lets us tell the difference between the campaign’s tweets (iPhone) and Trump’s own (Android). ...

Which are the words most likely to be from Android and most likely from iPhone?



Trump’s Android account uses about 40-80% more words related to disgust, sadness, fear, anger, and other “negative” sentiments than the iPhone account does. (The positive emotions weren’t different to a statistically significant extent).
--David Robinson, Variance Explained, on the ghost in the Trump machine

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The first North Americans didn't cross the Bering Land Bridge

According to the traditional story, the first people to settle North America arrived around 13,000 years ago near present-day Clovis, New Mexico, having crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Asia and traversed a recently opened, 1,000-mile-long corridor between the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets that covered much of the continent.

Well, that story is almost certainly wrong. For one thing, DNA and archaeological evidence from a number of sites in the United States and Canada demonstrate that humans not only inhabited North America at least 15,000 years ago, but were by that point pretty much spread throughout the continent.

But it’s a different aspect of the story that University of Copenhagen researchers Mikkel Pederson and Eske Willerslev take issue with. “Whether the ice-free corridor could have been used for a Clovis-age migration depends on when it became biologically viable,” Pederson, Willerslev, and their colleagues write in Nature. In other words, it depends on whether there was enough to eat along the way from Alaska to the heart of North America.

To see how much food might have been available, the team took core samples from lake beds in the Peace River basin, right in the middle of the path the ice corridor once took. The researchers searched those for fossils, pollen, and other biological materials. ... The team’s analysis suggests that the region was largely lacking in plant life prior to about 12,600 years ago...

Although the results do not preclude the possibility that people did at some point travel through the corridor, it’s most likely the first people to arrive in the present-day U.S. came via the Pacific Coast, the authors argue.
--Nathan Collins, Pacific Standard, on another scientific folk story on the ropes

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Stochastic terrorism

What Trump said was that a particular group – those who are defined by rallying around guns – should do something about Clinton and her judicial nominees. What can people who rally around guns do that's different than others? Use those guns.

But it's really irrelevant what Trump actually meant, because enough people will hear Trump's comments and think he's calling for people to take up arms against Clinton, her judges or both. Though most of the people hearing that call may claim he was joking, given what we know about people taking up arms in this country, there will undoubtedly be some people who think he was serious and consider the possibility.

In other words, what Trump just did is engage in so-called stochastic terrorism. This is an obscure and non-legal term that has been occasionally discussed in the academic world for the past decade and a half, and it applies with precision here. Stochastic terrorism, as described by a blogger who summarized the concept several years back, means using language and other forms of communication "to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable."

Let's break that down in the context of what Trump said. Predicting any one particular individual following his call to use violence against Clinton or her judges is statistically impossible. But we can predict that there could be a presently unknown lone wolf who hears his call and takes action in the future.

Stated differently: Trump puts out the dog whistle knowing that some dog will hear it, even though he doesn't know which dog.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

A new old way to get rid of bad habits

Every January for the past decade, Jessica Irish of Saline, Mich., has made the same New Year’s Resolution: to “cut out late night snacking and lose 30 pounds.” Like millions of Americans, Ms. Irish, 31, usually makes it about two weeks.

But this year is different.

“I’ve already lost 18 pounds,” she said, “and maintained my diet more consistently than ever. Even more amazing — I rarely even think about snacking at night anymore.”

Ms. Irish credits a new wearable device called Pavlok for doing what years of diets, weight-loss programs, expensive gyms and her own willpower could not. Whenever she takes a bite of the foods she wants to avoid, like chocolate or Cheez-Its, she uses the Pavlok to give herself a lightning-quick electric shock.

“Every time I took a bite, I zapped myself,” she said. “I did it five times on the first night, two times on the second night, and by the third day I didn’t have any cravings anymore.”

As the name suggests, the $199 Pavlok, worn on the wrist, uses the classic theory of Pavlovian conditioning to create a negative association with a specific action. Next time you smoke, bite your nails or eat junk food, one tap of the device or a smartphone app will deliver a shock. The zap lasts only a fraction of a second, though the severity of the shock is up to you. It can be set between 50 volts, which feels like a strong vibration, and 450 volts, which feels like getting stung by a bee with a stinger the size of an ice pick. (By comparison, a police Taser typically releases about 50,000 volts.) ...

Despite the potential for pain and the lack of science backing a long-term effect, user feedback on Facebook groups and message boards has been enthusiastic about the device, especially as a last resort for problems like overeating and binge drinking.

Bud Hennekes, 24, a blogger in St. Louis, said he had used Pavlok to kick a nearly two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. “When I tried to quit before, I still had the craving to smoke,” he said. “When I used Pavlok, the cravings completely went away. I don’t know if it’s science or a placebo effect or what, and I don’t really care because it worked.”
--Jennifer Jolly, NYT, on better living through electricity

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Median times from submission to acceptance at finance journals

The traditional time metric that nearly all journals report is the mean/median time of a single round review. ... Since the large majority of articles are rejected, the mean single round turnaround time can be thought of (metaphorically anyway) as the mean/median rejection time. ...

However, if we place ourselves in the shoes of an Assistant Professor facing a fixed tenure deadline, they won’t be successful if they submit a tenure dossier with a long list of rejections – they need acceptances. They want to know the mean/median acceptance time. That is, the mean/median time that eventually-published articles take from first-round submission to final round acceptance. Editors have pointed out to me that they don’t control how long authors take to revise their paper, which is certainly true. But journals do influence the mean/median author revision time by how many and what kind of revision demands are typically made, by the editor’s typical revision instructions, etc. ...

I collect the publication history of articles published in the “top-20” academic finance journals (defined below) and in “top-tier” academic business journals (defined below) from 2012 to 2015. ...

I find that the median acceptance times of the top-five general-interest finance journals from fastest-to-slowest are Journal of Financial Economics (JFE): 9.9 months; Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis (JFQA): 10.6 months; Review of Finance (RF): 11.7 months; Review of Financial Studies (RFS): 15.5 months; and Journal of Finance (JF): 19.8 months. The mean acceptance times are similar and have the same ordering as the medians.

Trump often retweets white supremacists

Two weeks ago [in January 2016] the leading Republican candidate for US President was widely criticized for retweeting a white supremacist Twitter user with the name “@WhiteGenocideTM,” whose linked website sung Hitler’s praises.

It turns out that’s not an anomaly, it's a pattern. Inspired by a new Twitter account that tweets out the bios of anyone Donald Trump retweets (because they’re often remarkable), we went and looked up those people he's introducing to his audience of 5 million+ Twitter followers. In order to learn more about them, we analyzed the networks of people that those people he retweeted are following on Twitter, using Little Bird's influencer discovery and social network analysis software.

It turns out that Donald Trump mostly retweets white supremacists saying nice things about him. At least so far this week’s that’s how it's gone. This isn’t one person, of the last 21 accounts retweeted by@RealDonaldTrump so far this week, our automated analysis of their accounts finds that:
  • 28% of them follow at least one of the top 50 White Nationalist accounts on Twitter (6 of 21)
  • 62% of them follow at least 3 people who’ve used hashtag #WhiteGenocide lately (13 of 21)
--Marshall Kirkpatrick, Little Bird, on the company the Donald keeps

Monday, July 11, 2016

To prevent cramps, eat spicy

A shot of spicy liquid—think wasabi or hot chilies—may be a far more effective treatment [for cramps] than an energy drink or a banana. All it took was a Nobel Prize winner experiencing some untimely cramps while sea kayaking a decade ago for people to begin to understand that the causes of muscle cramps may not have much to do with muscles at all. ...

If muscles cramp simply because they are weary and poorly nourished, why do our muscles cramp when we are lying in bed doing nothing? Why would an elite triathlete like Craig Alexander, a former Ironman world champion, occasionally suffer from leg cramps in the first minutes of a race, when he was fully hydrated and the opposite of exhausted? ...

...cramps were on Dr. [Rod] MacKinnon’s mind. After perusing the existing research he and Dr. [Bruce] Bean hypothesized that they could modify the nervous system, including the motor neurons controlling muscle, by applying a strong sensory input and by stimulating receptors in the mouth and esophagus—which is how scientists describe ingesting pungent tasting foods. The pungent-taste overloads nerve receptors, producing a kind of numbing effect. ...

Using himself as a lab rat, Dr. MacKinnon began concocting spicy drinks in his kitchen with varying amounts of ginger and cinnamon and trying to induce cramps with electrical impulses. Over the course of the next decade, he grew convinced his hunch was correct. It was harder to induce the cramps after indulging in the spicy concoctions.

A series of randomized, scientific studies followed. The subjects produced results similar to what Dr. MacKinnon had experienced. Those studies were presented last year at meetings of the American Academy of Neurology and the American College of Sports Medicine.

The great irony of all this is athletes for years had already been trying to avoid cramps not simply with water and bananas but also with pungent liquids, such as juice from pickles, beets or sour cherries. They drank the pickle juice believing its high sodium content would replace an important electrolyte, and they drank the beet and cherry juice because they are rich in antioxidants that athletes thought could help prevent cramping.

The idea was to get those ingredients into the bloodstream and muscles. In some cases, the pickle, beet and cherry juice worked, but in the view of Dr. MacKinnon and a growing number of other scientists, not because the nutrients were reaching their muscles since research showed their blood content was largely unchanged. ...

...Dr. MacKinnon, working with biotech entrepreneur Christoph Westphal, launched the company Flex Pharma Inc., which went public in 2015.

Earlier this year, the company brought to market Hotshot, a mix of ginger, cinnamon and capsicum—spicy pepper plants—that comes in 1.7 ounce bottles.
--Matthew Futterman, WSJ, on another reason to eat kimchi

Police aren't more likely to shoot blacks, but are more likely to use force

A new study confirms that black men and women are treated differently in the hands of law enforcement. They are more likely to be touched, handcuffed, pushed to the ground or pepper-sprayed by a police officer, even after accounting for how, where and when they encounter the police.

But when it comes to the most lethal form of force — police shootings — the study finds no racial bias.

“It is the most surprising result of my career,” said Roland G. Fryer Jr., the author of the study and a professor of economics at Harvard. The study examined more than a thousand shootings in 10 major police departments, in Texas, Florida and California. ...

Mr. Fryer is the youngest African-American to receive tenure at Harvard and the first one to receive a John Bates Clark medal, a prize given to the most promising American economist under 40. ...

In officer-involved shootings in these cities, officers were more likely to fire their weapons without having first been attacked when the suspects were white. Black and white civilians involved in police shootings were equally likely to have been carrying a weapon. Both of these results undercut the idea that the police wield lethal force with racial bias. ...

But this line of analysis included only encounters in which a shooting took place. A more fundamental question still remained: In the tense moments when a shooting may occur, are police officers more likely to fire if the suspect is black? ...

...in the arena of “shoot” or “don’t shoot,” Mr. Fryer found that, in tense situations, officers in Houston were about 20 percent less likely to shoot a suspect if the suspect was black. ...

...the results were largely the same whether or not Mr. Fryer used information from narratives provided by officers. ...

And in less extreme uses of force, Mr. Fryer found ample racial differences, which is in accord with the public’s perception and other studies.

That gap, adjusted for suspect behavior and other factors, was surprisingly consistent across many different levels of force. Black suspects were 18 percent more likely to be pushed up against a wall, 16 percent more likely to be handcuffed without being arrested and 18 percent more likely to be pushed to the ground.

Even when the police said that civilians were compliant, blacks experienced more force. ...

As an economist, Mr. Fryer wonders if the difference between lethal force — where he did not find racial disparities — and nonlethal force — where he did — might be related to costs. Officers face great costs, legal and psychological, when they unnecessarily fire their weapons. But excessive use of lesser force is rarely tracked or punished. ...

For Mr. Fryer, who has spent much of his career studying ways society can close the racial achievement gap, the failure to punish excessive everyday force is an important contributor to young black disillusionment.
--Quoctrung Bui and Amanda Cox, NYT, on where the differences are

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The loudest sound ever recorded

On 27 August 1883, the Earth let out a noise louder than any it has made since.

It was 10:02 AM local time when the sound emerged from the island of Krakatoa, which sits between Java and Sumatra in Indonesia. It was heard 1,300 miles away in the Andaman and Nicobar islands (“extraordinary sounds were heard, as of guns firing”); 2,000 miles away in New Guinea and Western Australia (“a series of loud reports, resembling those of artillery in a north-westerly direction”); and even 3,000 miles away in the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues, near Mauritius (“coming from the eastward, like the distant roar of heavy guns.”) In all, it was heard by people in over 50 different geographical locations, together spanning an area covering a thirteenth of the globe.

Think, for a moment, just how crazy this is. If you’re in Boston and someone tells you that they heard a sound coming from New York City, you’re probably going to give them a funny look. But Boston is a mere 200 miles from New York. What we’re talking about here is like being in Boston and clearly hearing a noise coming from Dublin, Ireland. ... This is the most distant sound that has ever been heard in recorded history.

So what could possibly create such an earth-shatteringly loud bang? A volcano on Krakatoa had just erupted with a force so great that it tore the island apart, emitting a plume of smoke that reached 17 miles into the atmosphere, according to a geologist who witnessed it. ...

The human threshold for pain is near 130 decibels, and if you had the misfortune of standing next to a jet engine, you’d experience a 150 decibel sound. (A 10 decibel increase is perceived by people as sounding roughly twice as loud.) The Krakatoa explosion registered 172 decibels at 100 miles from the source. This is so astonishingly loud, that it’s inching up against the limits of what we mean by “sound.” ...

...there’s a limit to how loud a sound can get. At some point, the fluctuations in air pressure are so large that the low pressure regions hit zero pressure—a vacuum—and you can’t get any lower than that. This limit happens to be about 194 decibels for a sound in Earth’s atmosphere. Any louder, and the sound is no longer just passing through the air, it’s actually pushing the air along with it, creating a pressurized burst of moving air known as a shock wave.

Closer to Krakatoa, the sound was well over this limit, producing a blast of high pressure air so powerful that it ruptured the eardrums of sailors 40 miles away.

Over 3,000 miles into its journey, the wave of pressure grew too quiet for human ears to hear, but it continued to sweep onward, reverberating for days across the globe. The atmosphere was ringing like a bell, imperceptible to us but detectable by our instruments. ...

Six hours and 47 minutes after the Krakatoa explosion, a spike of air pressure was detected in Calcutta. By 8 hours, the pulse reached Mauritius in the west and Melbourne and Sydney in the east. By 12 hours, St. Petersburg noticed the pulse, followed by Vienna, Rome, Paris, Berlin, and Munich. By 18 hours the pulse had reached New York, Washington DC, and Toronto. Amazingly, for as many as 5 days after the explosion, weather stations in 50 cities around the globe observed this unprecedented spike in pressure re-occuring like clockwork, approximately every 34 hours. That is roughly how long it takes sound to travel around the entire planet.

In all, the pressure waves from Krakatoa circled the globe three to four times in each direction.
--Aatish Bhatia, Nautilus, on the sound heard around the world

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Decision fatigue in the White House

There is time, too, for fantasy about what life would be like outside the White House. Mr. Emanuel, who is now the mayor of Chicago but remains close to the president, said he and Mr. Obama once imagined moving to Hawaii to open a T-shirt shack that sold only one size (medium) and one color (white). Their dream was that they would no longer have to make decisions.

During difficult White House meetings when no good decision seemed possible, Mr. Emanuel would sometimes turn to Mr. Obama and say, “White.” Mr. Obama would in turn say, “Medium.”

Friday, July 1, 2016

Where are the liberal professors?

In 1989, roughly 40 percent of professors were moderate and 40 percent were liberal; the remaining 20 percent were conservative. By 2014, liberal identifiers jumped to 60 percent, with moderates declining to 30 percent and conservatives to just 10 percent.

But the story turns out to be more complicated than this, since the shift left is far from uniform. ...

Faculty members in New England are far more liberal than their counterparts anywhere else in the nation, even controlling for discipline and school type. In 1989, the number of liberals compared with conservatives on college campuses was about 2 to 1 nationwide; that figure was almost 5 to 1 for New England schools. By 2014, the national figure was 6 to 1; for those teaching in New England, the figure was 28 to 1.

Even the professoriate in the far west — the liberal “left coast” — saw the ratio of liberal to conservative professors jump only to 6 to 1, from about 3 to 1, during that time. Those teaching in other regions, from the Plains to the Southeast, saw far smaller changes, to 3 to 1, up from 1 to 1, on average. ...

...outside New England, social science professors during the period in question became more liberal by a factor of about 4, whereas those in New England shifted by a factor of 25. ...

Interestingly, the one region that bucks the national liberal trend is not the South (as some might assume) but rather the Rocky Mountain region: Idaho, Montana, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. Here, between 1989 and 2014, the liberal to conservative professor ratio dropped to 1.5 to 1, from 2 to 1.
--Samuel Abrams, NYT, on the soup that I swim in

The Yale-trained psychiatrist who specializes in diagnosing demon possession

I’m a man of science and a lover of history; after studying the classics at Princeton, I trained in psychiatry at Yale and in psychoanalysis at Columbia. That background is why a Catholic priest had asked my professional opinion, which I offered pro bono, about whether this woman was suffering from a mental disorder. ... So I was inclined to skepticism. But my subject’s behavior exceeded what I could explain with my training. She could tell some people their secret weaknesses, such as undue pride. She knew how individuals she’d never known had died, including my mother and her fatal case of ovarian cancer. Six people later vouched to me that, during her exorcisms, they heard her speaking multiple languages, including Latin, completely unfamiliar to her outside of her trances. This was not psychosis; it was what I can only describe as paranormal ability. I concluded that she was possessed. ...

The priest who had asked for my opinion of this bizarre case was the most experienced exorcist in the country at the time, an erudite and sensible man. I had told him that, even as a practicing Catholic, I wasn’t likely to go in for a lot of hocus-pocus. “Well,” he replied, “unless we thought you were not easily fooled, we would hardly have wanted you to assist us.”

So began an unlikely partnership. For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness — which represent the overwhelming majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work. ...

Unfortunately, not all clergy involved in this complex field are as cautious as the priest who first approached me. ... This is perhaps why exorcism has a negative connotation in some quarters. People with psychological problems should receive psychological treatment.

But I believe I’ve seen the real thing. Assaults upon individuals are classified either as “demonic possessions” or as the slightly more common but less intense attacks usually called “oppressions.” A possessed individual may suddenly, in a type of trance, voice statements of astonishing venom and contempt for religion, while understanding and speaking various foreign languages previously unknown to them. The subject might also exhibit enormous strength or even the extraordinarily rare phenomenon of levitation. (I have not witnessed a levitation myself, but half a dozen people I work with vow that they’ve seen it in the course of their exorcisms.) He or she might demonstrate “hidden knowledge” of all sorts of things — like how a stranger’s loved ones died, what secret sins she has committed, even where people are at a given moment. These are skills that cannot be explained except by special psychic or preternatural ability.

I have personally encountered these rationally inexplicable features, along with other paranormal phenomena. ...

As I see it, the evidence for possession is like the evidence for George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. In both cases, written historical accounts with numerous sound witnesses testify to their accuracy.
--Richard Gallagher, Washington Post, on real-life exorcism. HT: ML

Friday, June 24, 2016

Trump's attack on the "Mexican" judge has a basis in a liberal worldview

Federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was born in Indiana to parents of Mexican origin and belongs to an association of lawyers of Mexican origin, is sitting on a case in the Southern District of California that charges fraud against Trump University. Donald Trump in recent days has attracted much attention by suggesting that Judge Curiel should be disqualified for bias because the judge’s rulings are adverse to Mr. Trump and because, in campaigning for the presidency, the candidate has criticized Mexicans and proposed building a wall on the southwest U.S. border.

Mr. Trump’s claim against Judge Curiel is both baseless and squalid, but some in the chorus of critics are not themselves entirely without fault. ...

After all, suggesting that a judge would allow his ethnic ancestry to govern his rulings is simply unacceptable in America.

Or is it?

Following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, President Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. When some on the left questioned the nomination of a man in his 60s who is of the Jewish faith, the president conceded that Judge Garland is indeed “a white guy, but he’s a really outstanding jurist.” Note the “but,” which may well have been inserted for the benefit of the questioner, and perhaps in a mild jest, but it is nonetheless there, whether meant to represent the president’s values or those of his interlocutor.

Before her 2009 elevation to the Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor once gave a speech saying that she hoped “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” The president who appointed her said he was seeking judges who have “empathy” with those who appear before them.

Such pronouncements reflect how identity politics have become, increasingly and inappropriately, a part of the conversation surrounding courts and judges.

Whether they know it or not, judges demonstrate symbolically every time they mount the bench that personal considerations have no place in deciding cases. Their black robes are supposed to suggest that judges are all the same ... Donald Trump’s claims may be the dirty underside of what we get when we abandon that aspiration, but they are by no means the whole of it.

Perhaps the Chinese don't take such a long view of history

The impact of the French Revolution? “Too early to say.”

Thus did Zhou Enlai – in responding to questions in the early 1970s about the popular revolt in France almost two centuries earlier – buttress China’s reputation as a far-thinking, patient civilisation.

The former premier’s answer has become a frequently deployed cliché, used as evidence of the sage Chinese ability to think long-term – in contrast to impatient westerners.

The trouble is that Zhou was not referring to the 1789 storming of the Bastille in a discussion with Richard Nixon during the late US president’s pioneering China visit. Zhou’s answer related to events only three years earlier – the 1968 students’ riots in Paris, according to Nixon’s interpreter at the time.

At a seminar in Washington to mark the publication of Henry Kissinger’s book, On China, Chas Freeman, a retired foreign service officer, sought to correct the long-standing error.

“I distinctly remember the exchange. There was a mis­understanding that was too delicious to invite correction,” said Mr Freeman.

He said Zhou had been confused when asked about the French Revolution and the Paris Commune. “But these were exactly the kinds of terms used by the students to describe what they were up to in 1968 and that is how Zhou understood them.” ...

Dr Barme added that Chinese researchers with access to the foreign ministry archives in Beijing said that the records made clear that Zhou was referring to the 1968 riots in Paris. ...

The oft-quoted Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”, does not exist in China itself, scholars say.
--Richard McGregor, Financial Times, on a gaffe spun wise

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Standing desks won't help you lose weight

So for the new experiment, which was published this month in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, researchers affiliated with the Physical Activity and Weight Management Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh rounded up 74 healthy volunteers. Most were in their mid-20s, of normal weight, and with some acquaintance with office life. ...

Throughout, the volunteers wore masks that precisely measured their energy expenditure, which means how many calories they were using.

Unsurprisingly, sitting was not very taxing. The volunteers generally burned about 20 calories during their 15 minutes of sitting, whether they were typing or staring at a television screen.

More unexpected, standing up was barely more demanding. While standing for 15 minutes, the volunteers burned about 2 additional calories compared to when they sat down. ...

Over all, in fact, the researchers concluded, someone who stood up while working instead of sitting would burn about 8 or 9 extra calories per hour. (Just for comparison, a single cup of coffee with cream and sugar contains around 50 calories.)

But walking was a different matter. When the volunteers walked for 15 minutes, even at a fairly easy pace, they burned about three times as many calories as when they sat or stood.
--Gretchen Reynolds, NYT, on why I have a treadmill desk