December 30, 2010

Is there a Silent but Sensible Majority anymore?

A commenter on the PISA post below writes:
Well, the question I ask myself is what percent of the American population doesn't really deep down believe that HBD is probably a substantial factor in all these sorts of things...

Ten percent? Five percent? One percent? Zero percent?

The floor is open for people's guesses...

Back before I started participating 18 years ago in Internet discussions with anonymous participants, I would have agreed with these low estimates. All these years later, however ... I dunno. Maybe there is a Silent But Sensible Majority out there somewhere. Maybe.

To pick a random example of the quality of contemporary thought, here is an online discussion on Hacker News / Ycombinator about Tino's recent blog post at Super-Economy showing the PISA results when you adjust for demographics. Reading through it, it's hard to take away the impression that there are a lot of people out there who are well informed and hold reasonable views. Instead, you just see a lot of people getting intellectually snarled up in their own underwear. 

My approach has always been based around my sense that I'm not smart enough to juggle in my head complex wrong ideas. I need to find the simplest answers that work (but, as Einstein said, no simpler).

Happy New Year

It's time to shake my tin cup again.

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Study Chinese or Spanish?

Nicholas Kristof opines in the NYT:
... we’re seeing Americans engaged in a headlong and ambitious rush to learn Chinese — or, more precisely, to get their kids to learn Chinese. Everywhere I turn, people are asking me the best way for their children to learn Chinese. 

Partly that’s because Chinese classes have replaced violin classes as the latest in competitive parenting, and partly because my wife and I speak Chinese and I have tortured our three kids by trying to raise them bilingual. Chinese is still far less common in schools or universities than Spanish or French, but it is surging and has the “cool factor” behind it — so public and private schools alike are hastening to add Chinese to the curriculum.

In New York City alone, about 80 schools offer Chinese, with some programs beginning in kindergarten. And let’s be frank: If your child hasn’t started Mandarin classes by third grade, he or she will never amount to anything.

Just kidding. In fact, I think the rush to Chinese is missing something closer to home: the paramount importance for our children of learning Spanish.

Look, I’m a fervent believer in more American kids learning Chinese. But the language that will be essential for Americans and has far more day-to-day applications is Spanish. Every child in the United States should learn Spanish, beginning in elementary school; Chinese makes a terrific addition to Spanish, but not a substitute. 

No, unless you have Chinese relatives, or are based in China for your job, or your child is a prodigy at learning languages, having your kid study Chinese will almost surely turn out to be a waste of time. Chinese is hard. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any adult in America who learned Chinese just by going to school in America.

Check out the Chinese Language and Culture Advanced Placement test results. In 2010, 3,426 Asian students scored 5s out of the 4,294 Asians who took the test, for an average score of 4.70. In other words, the AP Chinese test was taken mostly Chinese kids who already spoke Chinese. In contrast, only 229 white kids took the Chinese test, and only 26 in the whole country got a 5. (No Mexican-Americans got a 5, but 4 blacks did.)
Spanish may not be as prestigious as Mandarin, but it’s an everyday presence in the United States — and will become even more so. Hispanics made up 16 percent of America’s population in 2009, but that is forecast to surge to 29 percent by 2050, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center.

As the United States increasingly integrates economically with Latin America, Spanish will become more crucial in our lives.

No, it won't become crucial. 

You can tell by looking at parents' fads in Los Angeles, which is a generation or more ahead of the rest of the country in terms of immigration. I've lived on-and-off in Los Angeles since the 1950s. My parents engaged in the same kind of discussion as this in 1972 when my mom wanted me to take French in high school and my father wanted me to take Spanish, which he argued, like Kristoff in 2010, was more practical.

I suspect the debate was basically about where my parents would like to go on vacations. My mom liked Europe because it was classy, while my father liked Latin America because it was cheap. My dad won, so I took two years of high school Spanish, and he and I took some fun trips to Mexico and South America while my mom stayed home. 

Did this dispute between my parents have major consequences for my life? Not that I notice. Over the last twelve months, the language I've most often wished I'd studied has been German, but that may be a passing phase, and I wouldn't have learned it even if I had studied it, anyway.

I would endorse Spanish as the most reasonable choice for fulfilling a mandatory foreign language requirement, but I think English is becoming so globally dominant that we should probably reconsider whether we should have mandatory foreign language requirements at all. (If we should, then we ought to start them in elementary school, not after puberty when the language learning capability starts to shut down.) 

The point is that I don't know many people in LA today who say, "Wow, I'm so glad my parents made me study Spanish in high school, and it's crucial to my children's future that they learn Spanish." Maybe if you are a politician, a slumlord, or a fast food franchisee. Where I live in LA, Russian and other Slavic languages are heard more and more on the street. (Hey, who won the Cold War anyway?

If any language is trendy with LA parents, it's Chinese. For example, one of the public elementary schools that Davis Guggenheim, director of Waiting for "Superman," drove his kid past in Venice to get to their private school has switched to Mandarin immersion and has recruited a much more fashionable set of children. I can't recall knowing any any white liberal parents in LA looking for a Spanish immersion school.

In LA, which is one of the largest Spanish-speaking cities in the world, Spanish has been out of fashion for years. 

Even Latino kids agree. As I've pointed out before, it might be easier in LA to see a movie in Persian than in Spanish. I go to the Plant 16 movie theatre in Van Nuys a lot, where about 80% of the patrons are Hispanic youths, and they almost never have movies in Spanish, whether dubbed or foreign, and maybe have one out of 16 screens showing an American movie in English with Spanish subtitles. Granted, Van Nuys is, by Latino LA standards, pretty wealthy but still ...

Ron Unz's Prop 227 largely banned bilingual education in 1998, and that rare act of Anglophone assertiveness pushed on an open door. To a typical Mexican-American teen, English is a lot cooler than Spanish.

Similarly, educated liberal white people in LA pay almost zero attention to what is going on in the Spanish-language media in LA. The LA Times and local NPR and PBS stations make minimal effort to stay informed about what Spanish monoglots are talking about. For example, the huge turnouts of illegal aliens at Mayday marches in 2006 was a complete mystery to the LAT/NPR/PBS. Who told all these people to march? It took weeks for the Anglo press in LA to find out that it was funny morning disk jockeys on Spanish-language radio stations. 

Is there any intellectual life in America that's carried out in Spanish? A decade ago, I was fascinated by a series of articles called "Los Amigos de Bush: The disturbing ties of some of George W. Bush’s Latino advisors" by Julie Reynolds in a smart bilingual Mexican-American magazine called El Andar, but nobody else was.

LA isn't Canada or Belgium, where two equally sophisticated cultures compete for cultural dominance. It's definitely not Miami, where Spanish-speaking sophisticates probably have the upper hand. 

LA is just the future.

December 29, 2010

PISA Forever

The New York Times sends a reporter to Shanghai to discover what the secret is of Shanghai schools that makes their 15-year-old students do so well on the PISA tests:

... The five-story school building, which houses Grades eight and nine in a central district of Shanghai, is rather nondescript. Students wear rumpled school uniforms, classrooms are crowded and lunch is bused in every afternoon. But the school, which operates from 8:20 a.m. to 4 p.m. on most days, is considered one of the city’s best middle schools.

Oh ... so, that's the secret! Rumpled school uniforms. Or maybe busing in lunch every afternoon. Or could it be the nondescript school buildings? Well, it's got to be something.

Seriously, the article does point out that Shanghai students tend to behave in a more disciplined manner in the classroom than American students, which can't hurt.

The big, unmentioned story in American education is how institutional (i.e., outside-the-classroom) support for teachers in maintaining discipline in the classrooms has been undermined over the decades by disparate impact worries. The Obama Administration, for example, has only increased the persecution of schools that try to maintain order. From the New York Times earlier this year:
School Suspensions Lead to Legal Challenge
... poor black students are suspended at three times the rate of whites, a disparity not fully explained by differences in income or behavior. On March 8, the education secretary, Arne Duncan, lamented “schools that seem to suspend and discipline only young African-American boys” as he pledged stronger efforts to ensure racial equality in schooling.

Any time a student is sent out of the classroom to maintain order -- whether to the dean's office, to after school detention, to home for a suspension, or out the door on an expulsion -- can be counted and thus used as evidence in a disparate impact discrimination lawsuit against a deep-pocketed school district. Lawsuit settlements typically require that voluminous statistics then be maintained and published on disciplinary actions by race in order to facilitate future disparate impact lawsuits. For example, Los Angeles public schools publish online their expulsion and suspension data by race for each of the last five years. (Here's the disciplinary data by race for Chatsworth H.S. in the far northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley.)

In contrast, what the teacher does in the classroom to maintain order can't be counted.

Thus, the enormous emphasis in the conventional wisdom today on how we must use value-added statistics to identify good teachers and fire bad teachers: because disparate impact lawsuits undermine institutional support for discipline, we're down to needing to find teachers who can maintain order in their classrooms through sheer force of personality.

For example, Teach for America's model for who will make a good teacher is A) got into an exclusive college (i.e., smart), B) got good grades there (i.e., hard-working), and C) has a demonstrated track record of leadership accomplishment (i.e., charismatic alpha personality).

That's swell, but smart, hard-working people with commanding personalities, such as Steve Jobs, James Cameron, Bill Belichik, Warren Buffett, Margaret Thatcher, and the like sometimes have better things to do than be schoolteachers. We need to be thinking instead about how our institutions can provide teachers who are not paragons with the support they need to do their jobs.

For example, it would be nice to be able to hire a person who both  A) cares deeply about making The Great Gatsby come alive for today's youth and B) lives to put young punks in their places. Sometimes, you can find a person who is outstanding at both. Most of the time, however, it's easier to hire two people, one to teach English and the other to be Assistant Dean of Discipline and Offensive Line Coach, and then have them specialize in what they do best. But, that puts school districts in jeopardy of violating disparate impact norms. Hence, the current emphasis on finding Superman teachers and firing the non-Supermen.

In contrast, Pat Buchanan's new column takes a more realistic approach to what the PISA scores tell us:
Among the OECD members, the most developed 34 nations on earth, Mexico, principal feeder nation for U.S. schools, came in dead last in reading.

Steve Sailer of got the full list of 65 nations, broke down U.S. reading scores by race, then measured Americans with the countries and continents whence their families originated. What he found was surprising. [PISA Scores Show Demography Is Destiny In Education Too—But Washington Doesn’t Want You To Know, December 19, 2010]

Asian-Americans outperform all Asian students except for Shanghai-Chinese.

White Americans outperform students from all 37 predominantly white nations except Finns, and U.S. Hispanics outperformed the students of all eight Latin American countries that participated in the tests. 

African-American kids would have outscored the students of any sub-Saharan African country that took the test (none did) and did outperform the only black country to participate, Trinidad and Tobago, by 25 points. 

America's public schools, then, are not abject failures. 

They are educating immigrants and their descendants to outperform the kinfolk their parents or ancestors left behind when they came to America. America's schools are improving the academic performance of all Americans above what it would have been had they not come to America. 

What American schools are failing at, despite the trillions poured into schools since the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is closing the racial divide.

"The Town" viewed from "The City"

My man in Istanbul writes about Ben Affleck's Boston Irish bankrobber flick:
I watched "The Town." I liked it.

A deep, self-destructive voice in me said I wanted to be there, in Boston. I probably wouldn't amount to much of anything, not even something like those characters, but heck, who gives a ****. I like the Irish. Maybe they're... Turks of the North, I don't know.

So they're "dysfunctional," eh? Good, I like dysfunctional. I grew up in it, it's my home.

The melancholy, the absence of a ridiculous perkiness and an annoying smirk on the face, the quiet fortitude of stoicism... all of them are good.

**** optimism.

"Life is innocent and just" said Nietzsche -- to invert the ridiculous, phony pessimism of Liberalism which can't get over thinking that "life is unfair" and that the bloody Gov'ment should do something about it... as if It ever could.

Pain is an extreme form of sensitivity. And Fear -- the anticipation of Pain -- is Nature's way of whispering in your ear "Look out, buddy; I'm here. I'm not to be disrespected. Ever."

Merry Christmas!

The Joys of Reaction

From Evelyn Waugh's 1934 novel A Handful of Dust, the story of Tony Last, a mild English aristocrat devoted to keeping up the ancestral manse:
Tony invariably wore a dark suit on Sundays and a stiff white collar. He went to church, where he sat in a large pitch pine pew, put in by his great-grand-father at the time of rebuilding the house, furnished with very high crimson hassocks and a fireplace, complete with iron grate and a little poker which his father used to rattle when any point in the sermon attracted his disapproval.

December 28, 2010


John Tierney crows in the NYT:
Five years ago, Matthew R. Simmons and I bet $5,000. It was a wager about the future of energy supplies — a Malthusian pessimist versus a Cornucopian optimist — and now the day of reckoning is nigh: Jan. 1, 2011.

The bet was occasioned by a cover article in August 2005 in The New York Times Magazine titled “The Breaking Point.” It featured predictions of soaring oil prices from Mr. Simmons, who was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the head of a Houston investment bank specializing in the energy industry, and the author of “Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy.”

I called Mr. Simmons to discuss a bet. To his credit — and unlike some other Malthusians — he was eager to back his predictions with cash. He expected the price of oil, then about $65 a barrel, to more than triple in the next five years, even after adjusting for inflation. He offered to bet $5,000 that the average price of oil over the course of 2010 would be at least $200 a barrel in 2005 dollars. 

Crude oil prices are at about $91 today.

I certainly would have bet against Mr. Simmons, as well, but he didn't offer to bet me. 

My suspicion at the time was that Simmons was, more or less, writing a $5,000 check postdated January 1, 2011 to buy his book publicity right now on the NYT op-ed page. That might explain why he didn't haggle and try to split the difference with Tierney, such as putting the win-lose line halfway between $65 and $200, the way a real betting man trying to make money would. But a public bet that the price of oil would be, say, $132.50 or higher would have been kind of a boring story. In contrast, a man confident enough to put $5,000 on the round number of $200 is a man who is acting like he might know something, and thus you'd better buy his book to find out what it is.

All that said, I fully expect to see gasoline pump prices of $5 to $10 per gallon. (I'm just not telling you when.)

"True Grit"

From my review in Taki's Magazine:
The new True Grit doesn’t get as many laughs in the theater as the genial 1969 version, which was powered by John Wayne’s happy-to-be-alive status as America’s most famous lung-cancer survivor. Shortly after the Surgeon General’s 1964 Report on Smoking, Wayne, a six-pack-a-day man, had to have his left lung and four ribs cut out. At a time when the word “cancer” was assumed to be a death sentence, to most everyone’s surprise (except his own), Wayne, although diminished, was ready for fun on True Grit.

Jeff Bridges, who received his own de facto Career Achievement Oscar last year for playing a drunken country singer in Crazy Heart, does his usual competent, creative job. Still, The Dude doesn’t quite have The Duke’s screen presence. For a force of nature large enough to fill the legendary boots of that “one-eyed fat man” Rooster Cogburn, the Coens might have turned instead to Bridges’s co-star in The Big Lebowski, Walter Sobchak himself, John Goodman.

Read the whole thing here.

Denis Dutton, RIP

Denis Dutton, founder of the invaluable Arts & Letters Daily website, has died at age 66 of prostate cancer. He was a professor of philosophy at the U. of Canterbury in New Zealand. When I mentioned to him once where I was from, he pointed out that he'd grown up in the San Fernando Valley, too, and his parents had owned the well-known Dutton's bookstore in North Hollywood.

His recent book is The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. He also wrote insightfully about the always interesting topic of art forgery.

You can't make this stuff up

For years, the Atlantic Monthly would run a back page column, "Word Fugitives," that solicited readers to invent clever terms for common phenomena for which there ought to be a word. And each month, brilliant suggestions would pour in and columnist Barbara Wallraff would then pick one as the best of the best. And then ... nothing would ever happen. As far as I could tell, none of these useful and self-explanatory terms would ever enter common use. 

Similarly, in 2003, while reviewing a Matrix sequel, I coined the term frauteur to refer to one of a pair of brothers who make films together, fraternal auteurs such as the Coens, Farrellys, Wachowskis, Wayans, and on and on. 

It's a genuine phenomenon of some interest that deserves explication: we need a frauteur theory, if you will. The emergence of frauteurs appears to have slowed down a little in recent years, probably because of the decline in the number of pairs of brothers due to the decline in family sizes after the Baby Boom, but 2010 did see the emergence of the Duplass brothers with Cyrus, starring John C. O'Reilly, Jonah Hill, and Maria Tomei. In contrast, I've never heard of a sisterly equivalent or a mixed sex pair of siblings who make movies together as a team, although I may be missing somebody.

With the Coen Brothers in the news for True Grit, I checked Google to see how far my convenient coinage had spread over the last seven years. 

As you might guess, it hasn't spread at all. Zero. Zip. Zilch.

In contrast, the wholly non-self-explanatory phrase "jump the shark" shows up on 376,000 webpages. That phrase requires the recounting of an incredibly boring backstory about some television episode, which suggests that the Atlantic got it all backward by looking for clever terms. The stupider and more abstruse the etymology, the more likely chance it has to flourish.

That seems to be true not just with neologisms. Etymology is perhaps the most intellectually frustrating field of study because, as a general rule, all clever theories about the origin of any word are wrong. The real explanation is always something boring and senseless, like "from a West Frisian word for turnip greens."

By the way, that reminds me of a question: how many well-known brother-sister partnerships are there outside of male-female entertainment fields such as singing (Donny & Marie Osmond), dancing (Fred & Adele Astaire), and figure skating (various)?

For example, the Versace designing family has had two flamboyant celebrities, the late Gianni and his sister Donatella, but I'm drawing a blank on other well-known brother-sister partnerships. I'm sure there are other ones, but I just can't think of any more.