Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Good Tidings and Great Joy: Bad Rhetoric but not a bad Person

I am pretty close to the militant secular atheist that the Governor speaks of in this book.  

From the media portrayal of her in 2008 and beyond, I have had a pretty low opinion of her.  I even had a  “Palin 2012” shirt made up as a joke.  I may have been a little too hasty in judging her.  I watched the documentary featuring her, “The Undefeated,” and realized that someone who had been elected to the city council and to the mayoralty of a city is not someone to be ridiculed.  

In this vein, I thought I would look at her most recent work, “Good Tidings and Great Joy”.  It is nominally an argument to reclaim Christmas from the creeping secular atheists, but sometimes it diverges from that argument, and uses straw men to attack the author’s ideological opponents. For example, in three different places she lapses into fiction to draw a hypothetical which exaggerates what she sees as the worst aspects of her opponents.  

I, for one, though an atheist believe that some of the organized atheist groups go too far in limiting people’s celebration of holidays.  Where I agree with the atheists is that celebrations shouldn’t be exclusionary for people of other faiths or of no faith.  It is in the public sphere where this is most contentious, and I think there can be pluralism.  It was here where I was surprised that Ms. Palin and I are in agreement.  One of her bits of advice to keep the celebration of Christmas was to bring in the secular totems of the holiday, such as snowmen and Santa Claus. 

Where I think Ms Palin errs though is that there are basically three separate realms she covers where Christmas is under attack, but she conflates all three into one unified front against Christmas.  There is the previously identified sphere.  There is also the private realm: as far as I know, no one is trying to limit the celebration of anyone’s holiday in their churches and homes.  This is the section of the book that really helped me feel sympathy towards the Governor. Her family’s traditions are nice and familiar and fine with me.  

The last section is the public realm.  Ms. Palin doesn’t like the pluralism of some companies, where they have made their employees substitute “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas.” She even celebrates occasions where those companies  have relented and brought back Christmas.  Again, that is fine.  There is a marketplace where companies avoid controversy.  In the system we have, that is understandable.

So basically, I can agree with here on two out of three realms, which is two more than I was suspecting that I would find. I thought that reading this book would be one of those gleeful-hate reads, but it was nothing of the sort.  I like Sarah Palin more than I thought I did. 

Praise for Bo Burnham's Work: Specifically "Egghead"

Here’s the thing about Bo Burnham.  

He’s smart.

I pride myself on my intellectual abilities.  I was always top of my class; I graduated with honors; I never had to worry about doing well on standardized tests.

But Bo is scary smart.  My wife and I have watched both of his specials, and one of the things we have talked about after watching and laughing at his performances is this premature intelligence  that is blended with an emotional self-knowledge that is rare in someone so young.  I know I didn’t have it when I was his age.  I doubt I have it now.

He has time to grow into it, and I think this book of poems, “Egghead,” may be showing some of what he may look like as a mature artist.  

Egghead intersperses poems that are on the surface easy – meter, unchallenging rhyme schemes, with fun pictures that tend towards the dirty.  The poems tend that way too.  One included in the volume, which was read in the special, extol the virtues of women with little virtue.  I can’t print the title here.

He stands poems like that – sophomoric, juvenile, what have you – with some deep and wise ones.  There is a poem about women’s body images that knocked me flat.  I won’t quote it here because it is short and you need to take that journey yourself.

I can’t wait for whatever Bo has in store for us next, no matter what the medium.

The Why Axis. Competent but done already.

If you’ve read around in social science circles, you most likely will have come across the Israeli daycare study.  Researchers noticed that there was a social cost to picking up children late, and determined to see what would happen if a true monetary cost was applied – instead of being shamed for picking up the kids late, what would happen if you had to pay a price.  It was seen that where you had to pay for picking up your kids late, more kids were picked up late. 
I have seen it short-handed so often that the question of who did the study has faded into the background.  Like the Jam Study or the Marshmallow study, they are social science catnip, glommed onto by writers both popular and academic.

So—when I was reading this book, and in the introduction the waiters (using an awkward “We” formation for first person) started to imply that they were the ones who did it, I got mad.  That’s until I looked up the original study and found that one of the coauthors of this book was one of the coauthors of that study.  I suppose that if I were in the field deeper, I would know that, but I knew just enough to jump to mistaken conclusions.

All that was to set up this: the authors know what they’re talking about.  This book is a well-written defense of the importance of not only looking at incentives but also taking your hypotheses into the field for testing.  That is the key take-away.  The problem is that theirs is not the first to make those claims. This book, like the reference to the daycare study, feels generic because I have read so many authors doing similar work that nothing pops out.  If you have not read Ariely or Geno or Sunnstein with Thaler, this book will open your eyes to a cool field of study. Otherwise, it is only for completest.

The American Way of Poverty: Thinking Too Small

Abramsky’s thought-provoking book is an ambitious task: he wants to follow the path Michael Harrington blazed in “The Other America” (as well as journalists like Jacob Riis before that). He wants to show the way poverty is lived in America, which he does for the first 200 or so pages of the book.  He then pivots and tries to lay out policy prescription to alleviate the suffering that he covers.

I have to go a bit back-handed here,  but the strength of this book is the interviews in the first part. Anyone who has had any sort of brush with poverty can see themselves the stories of the people’s lives he looks at. The problem is that in setting the stage for the policy prescriptions he favors, they may not do enough to show how systemic the issue is so it may not make the case for the changes the country needs made.  In reading the first part, the main thing I kept going back to in my head was the word “anecdotal”.  It is not data-driven.

I think that is also my worry about the second part of the book.  He claims to want to not make major changes, but that some of these things he wants to change at the margins could alleviate the issues he brings up in the first section.  They seemed so outside the current discourse that I turned to the back to check his bio asking myself “Is he an economist?” (Not that that precludes anyone from making policy prescriptions, but the numbers were getting a little out of hand (multiple 1% taxes add up.))

Namely, I flagged a one that I need to bring to light.  This was his proposal to start a national education fund like social security so that students wouldn’t need to borrow as much to go to tertiary school (258-60).  Not a bad proposal, but he wants to fund it with a payroll tax.  Once that starts working,  the idea is that whatever is in surplus would be paid directly to the national debt to make the tax more appealing to the debt hawks.  It struck me as a proposal from some undergraduate paper that was naive in the current political climate and in accounting. I say this as someone who wants full social revolution and thus am sympathetic towards  his project.  Perhaps Abramsky’s biggest error is in not shooting higher.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Slogging Through: Reading Deaton's "The Great Escape"

Oh, hey.  Hello there. 

I was just listening to some Motorhead and enjoying this fine Brie Cheese.

You weren’t here to talk about the brie?

That’s fine.  I understand. 

Inequality.  Yeah, I hear that’s bad.

You know, I’m actually concerned about that too.  I’ve read several books about that in the last couple of year.  One by Thomas Frank, and he was mad.  But that’s journalists for you – real bomb-throwers.  I read another couple of them by economists, Reich and Stiglitz.  They were good, but they were angry too.  They really got my blood up and made me want to go out and make a difference.

I read this new one, The Great Escape, by Angus Deaton.  He wears a bowtie, and is an economist, but isn’t a baby-eating right winger.  He’s also not a writer with a lot of verve, or at least in this book.  He begins with a long, dry segment on health disparities across nations; then he goes on and looks at inequality within the US, which put me on familiar ground; he ends up looking at monetary disparity between nations.  The end part was the most interesting, because the rest of the book was developing his moral qualification, but what he calls for is counter-intuitive.  He makes a strong case for pulling away foreign aid, both in humanitarian and infrastructure projects.  It was a weird cognitive dissonance.

But that is all.  It is a really dry book with a hint of puzzled interest at the end.  If it were not a library book with a coming due date, I would have put it on the shelf with a bookmark about a third of the way through with the other dozens of books I have similarly abandoned.  It’s not bad, it’s just a slog. 

The Most Interesting Thing About Me: This Quiz Show

Online test is like 30 questions in 15 minutes.  You don't get to know your score.

You do well enough, you get invited to an in-person try out.  They hold those in various cities, and you have to get to the one closest to you.  I was luck I just had to jump on the train to get to mine.  (There are like 12 cities they go to, and I don't know how many people are invited.  I was in a classroom sized group of about 30, but there were groups before and after my tryout of the same size.) At the tryout, you take another test, and then you play a mock game -- this was 4 years ago, so the process may have changed some since then.

Even after all that, they  tell everyone in the room that they may be eligible for a taping, so wait for a call sometime in the next 18 months.

Then if you get the call, you have to make your way out to California, and pay for your hotel.  They had a discounted rate where they had a partner with the hotel, and they ran shuttles from there, but it still cost me about 1000 bucks just in travel and lodging (I was unemployed at the time so that was huge).

Then you go to the taping -- they do a week's worth of shows in a day, and I think a whole month's worth over the week.  Even there, you are not guaranteed being on the show.  they had an alternate come when I was there, but they let California people be the alternates so that when they were called back the trip wasn't too bad.

You play some practice games to get used to the board and the stage and the buzzer, and so that they can get your mark with the camera.  Then you go back and names are drawn for the games.  I was drawn first, and never got into a groove.  Got second, but nailed the final answer.

Prior to the taping, they ask you for a lot of prompts for the contestant interview.  No one is interesting in 20 seconds, especially when the most interesting thing about you now is that you were on a major television quiz show.

I got second and won 2K.  It was nice, but I hated the time frames.  The initial test was in January, then the call for the second test was in like April for a May test.  Then I was called the next February for filming about a month later.  The episode didn't air until late July, and then I didn't get the money until that November.

It was worth it, but it is one of those things that a lot of people are interested about but I have over-told the story.  It makes me feel like a band with one hit song.  

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

On the Graphic Novel "Logicomix"

You know, someone out there had the idea that a comic book based on the early academic career of Bertrand Russell, as he searched for a logical foundation for mathematics (if you didn’t know that was necessary, you are not alone) would have a large enough audience that it would be worth it to plow their creative energies into such a book. Logicomix is the result, and it works.

I can say it works because of this.  I have always wanted to try to read Wittgenstein to the point that  I have quoted his work in poetry (even without reading the book – what we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence).  I have not read it to this point, but this comic made me want to have a go at it.

There’s not many comic books that I can say this about: It made me want to read the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.  One small thing though: it isn’t straight narrative.  It has this unnecessary metafictional frame story about the writing of the book “Logicomix.” It is thus a book about writing a book about philosophers writing about foundational mathematics.  That is not the headiest blurb, but it is well worth it.