Sunday, October 19, 2014

Income gaps mean class warfare. Cognitive gaps mean classroom warfare

Much is made of Einstein's poor academic record. The future scientific giant was a hopeless student, and his even more hopeless teachers failed to recognize his brilliance! This well-worn narrative is a tad exaggerated; when taking his college entrance exam Einstein knocked it out of the park in math and physics. Nevertheless, the Einstein example of classroom failure and subsequent success has been used to offer hope to academic laggards since at least the days of my youth.

It's a nice yarn, but on further analysis, it probably isn't the best story to share with kids who struggle academically. Underlining that the man with the greatest mind since Isaac Newton eventually managed to bring attention to his brilliance doesn't give the struggling student with the middle-of-the-road brain much to hope for: "So even though the strain of pre-algebra has me popping Ritalin like Tic-Tacs, all I have to do to overcome this is prove I understand space and time better than any mortal before me? Uh, what kind of GPA do you need to be accepted into the Crips?"

The subtext to the Einstein example is that grades aren't everything, and by extension, upsetting measurements like SAT aren't everything. The Einstein tale is part of the popular modern "wisdom" that we're all an equally skilled ball of clay waiting to be molded into excellence. The SAT just measures your test-taking ability, not innate cognitive skill, right? Good students are just kids who work harder thanks to the village's loving embrace. Careful teacher: your worst student might be contemplating a sequel to relativity!

Einstein aside, many of the brilliant, accomplished, visionary folks DID have their brilliance recognized by conventional means. It WAS able to be measured in some capacity.

Francis Crick attended Cambridge. Watson attended University of Chicago.

Stephen Hawking studied at Oxford and Cambridge.

Alan Turing...Cambridge.

William Shockley attended MIT and Caltech.

Tesla completed his four years in three years.

Marvin Minsky went to Harvard and Princeton.

Brin and Page met at Stanford.

Bill Gates did drop out of college...but it was Harvard. And he got a perfect score on the math part of the SAT.

Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard. In prep school he won academic prizes.

Jobs dropped out of Reed College; a virtual Rhodes Scholar factory. Wozniak failed to finish at Berkeley...

Because most people's measurements aren't stellar, they reflexively proclaim that measurements either don't matter or don't measure everything. Well no shit they don't measure everything. But if you look at a list of great achievers, you'll see that A LOT of them had at least some of their talent measured and recognized before their ultimate breakthrough. Einstein was very much the exception. John Q. Average is going to need a hell of a lot of intangibles to outrun Zuckerberg's tangibles (not to mention Zuckerberg's intangibles). And P.S.: Mark Zuckerberg also knows how to work hard.

An Einstein example in athletics - where every nook and cranny is measured to analyze a player's chances at success - is Jerry Rice. You routinely hear that Rice ran a poor (for a receiver) 4,71 time in the 40-yard dash. Great, but here are the times of some other dominant receivers: Randy Moss: 4:25, Terrell Owens: 4:45, Calvin Johnson: 4:35, Steve Smith: 4.39, Marvin Harrison: 4:38. Jerry Rice's "slow" time is a rarity. Most dominant receivers show much more speed in the NFL Combine and Rice's incredible success doesn't alter that. Pointing to the "slow" receiver to give hope to a kid who should probably consider another position (or sport) isn't doing the kid any favors.

This is just as true in school. You can tell a kid to dream without telling him to hallucinate. If he has no grip on calculus, make his dream to be an electrician; better yet, an electrician in business for himself. Incidentally, that will earn him a better living than many of the liberal arts hallucinaters outscoring him in class.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Fashionable Superstitions: Food Allergies

Have you noticed all the new food "allergies" sprouting up; nuts, gluten, wheat. "Allergy" warnings on food packaging are becoming ever more verbose. I just ate some bread that came with a warning that it had spent time in the same hemisphere as tree nuts.

I'm going to be sensitivity-allergic and submit that maybe all these new food allergies shouldn't be classified as allergies. When you eat something, your body does indeed react. Red meat is generally harder to digest than chicken. Some folks are more bloated after yogurt than others. These are reactions that can be unpleasant. But of those two, only dairy is something people claim a distinct allergy to*. You don't hear much about red meat allergies. Given how the slightest unpleasant reaction is now called an allergy, perhaps that should change. Perhaps we should be warning people about foods whose name includes the letter C, O, or W.

If the slightest unpleasant reaction (sometimes imagined) is now termed an allergy, what isn't an allergy?

Spicy food can cause heartburn. Should that now be called an allergy?

Plenty of folks now claim to have celiac disease, obviously unaware of how serious actual celiac can be. Some people are more sensitive to sugar than others; imagine if everyone who couldn't handle intense desserts went around advertising their "diabetes."

What about alcohol? Alcohol is the one ingestible where people gladly look past all the side effects (and unlike many of the foods they do avoid, alcohol has little nutritional value). After consuming booze, even in moderation, people experience headaches, stomach aches, sensitivity to light, etc. Yet no one talks about having a booze allergy. They will however say they can't have beer because of the gluten...

The way popular usage has warped the word allergy, having a hangover should now be classified as a serious allergic reaction. Your body is telling you alcohol doesn't sit well with you. The side effects are much easier to measure than the supposed impacts of many of the foods people are now swearing off.

Everyone has different sensitivities, but as with all things, magnitude matters. Someone who sneezes slightly after spending a day in a dog kennel shouldn't be classed with the same word as someone who can't breath after a few minutes around a poodle. Unfortunately with food, that perspective has fled the stage. Given how perennially fat Americans seem to be, perhaps they are allergic to all that
"health food" they claim to be consuming. Or maybe the allergy labels are what's making us pudgy. There is as much science to that claim as there is to a lot of today's homespun "allergy" wisdom.

*Obviously, I'm not talking about genuine, harsh sensitivity to lactose, etc. Notice that those with that kind of hypersensitivity don't suddenly "discover" it after skimming an allergy article in Cosmo while eating an airport pizza.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Why "not being ready for primetime" will soon be a selling point

Magic Johnson - has there ever been a smarter basketball player? Has a point guard ever been more deserving of the label "court general?"

Surprising then that Magic is such a subpar basketball commentator. The guy sits there awkwardly saying unbelievably generic things in unbelievably generic ways.

Not everyone who excels at something excels at discussing it. But I think there is something else sabotaging Magic; I smell hours of "broadcast training" courses on him. He has been turned into a human laugh track in an oversized six piece suit. If he were any more canned, his comments would come out shaped like Alpo.

Magic appears to be a smooth communicator when he is being himself. Check out this clip for a remarkable contrast between Canned Magic and Real Magic. In this clip you see Magic in front of a reporter's mic, sounding like an inarticulate substitute teacher. Then a fellow player walks by and the two interact - Magic's verbal dynamism quickly becomes apparent. It really does sound like two different people speaking.

Part of the reason Magic Johnson's talk show failed was because he couldn't talk. On The Magic Hour he was stiff, lost for words, futilely scrambling to end sentences smoothly. I'm sure this is because some hack trained him on "how to be a TV host" and in doing so rubbed away his natural speaking skills. What too many producers/managers don't understand - and I think podcasts are exposing this fact to the world - is that there is more than one way to be ready for primetime. If Magic had been encouraged to talk like he did in the locker room; if it had been the The Magic Shit-Talking Hour, it would have been a much better show.

And then there's Phil Simms, the out of tune, AW SHUCKS NFL analyst that no one can stand. The guy's chatter is more painful than a late hit, and I think the same forces are at work. Listen to the beginning of this clip; listen to how fluid his banter is with Dan Patrick when he isn't trying speak like a broadcaster.

No one likes radio announcers, no one likes paint-by-numbers TV why do we keep training them to be that way? Why have a color commentator if you're going to train him to be colorless? I have high hopes that the explosion of successful podcasts - complete with "unprofessional" modes of speech - will help put an end to this received "wisdom" about their being one "proper" way to speak on television. Ex-athletes are there to be ex-athletes, not Sotheby's auctioneers.

I don't know if Charles Barkley has had TV training classes. If he has, it doesn't show...which is why millions tune in to watch. I'm not saying Simms or Johnson would ever be that entertaining, but at least they wouldn't be wearing out mute buttons all over the country.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

All the football pads on Earth can't protect you from the demands of football fans

Football has supplanted Christianity as America's supreme religion. The games are even played on Sunday. But unlike priests and pastors, football players are extended little forgiveness by the congregation.

"Get out there and play!"

Fans complain when an injured player sits out. Then they complain when he plays hurt and doesn't overcome it. Fans whinge when a guy doesn't risk his ability to walk by playing with serious injury. The person who calls in sick to work with the sniffles is often the one who screams "Get out there and play!" Apparently the team physician who sees the players week in, week out knows less about their condition than the fan sitting in the upper deck watching the game behind a pillar. Do these humps not realize they sound like the ultimate slave-driving boss?

A football game has 60 minutes on the clock; a player crippled in his 20s or 30s has five or six decades of life he'll have to live with that handicap. The NFL is littered with casualties. A serious injury occurs every few weeks. Lots of ex-players have sued the NFL for being mislead about the seriousness of concussions. I know, I know, it's typical spoiled athlete behavior to not want Alzheimer's at 39. We cheer when someone plays in the Wheelchair Games We boo when someone tries to avoid becoming a candidate for the Wheelchair Games.

Fans complain about athletes being drug addicts; part of the reason players are hopped up on drugs is because they're expected to play hurt. Which do you want: Athletes who sit out more often or athletes carrying duffel bags full of pain pills? A little Oxycontin can mean a lot more yards per carry. Life has trade-offs.

Athletes get reproached for leaving college early; it's bad for them as people, sets a bad example for the kids, blah blah blah. Ask yourself: Would YOU leave all that money on the table? An athlete - particularly a football player - can have his career ended rather easily, but you want him to play another year or two of high risk college football to fulfill your idea of what a "well-rounded young man" should be?

The whole reason people get degrees is to help them prosper. A touted college athlete can leave after his sophomore year and prosper beyond the dreams of 99% of people who graduate. But you're right, he should stay in school (where he will likely be majoring in something useless like sociology) and blow out a knee instead.

Interesting, isn't it, the way the ideals of the labor movement scurry away when it comes to sports? A janitor shouldn't have come to work with a sprained ankle, but a guy whose (literal) survival on the field depends on mobility should? College athletes shouldn't be paid despite generating millions for the colleges while putting their health in serious jeopardy? Somehow it isn't exploitation when the name tag is on the back of the uniform instead of the front.

The irony is that because football is considered such a manly sport, you're given less slack when you sit out with injury (How ironic that there is a football play called a safety?) from the world's first or second most dangerous sport. When a tennis player cramps up and plays through it, it makes the news. Cramps may be painful, but how many people do you know who have been paralyzed by cramps? Djokovic cramping up would be a lot more dramatic if Nadal were allowed to hop over the net and tackle him.

Playing football under optimal conditions can lead to permanent disability. Imagine playing with part of your body already compromised. NBA champion Willis Reed is famous for playing hurt, Every time a basketball player plays hurt, they mention Willis Reed. The pain he played through, a torn thigh muscle, though severe for basketball, would be less noteworthy in the NFL. But that hasn't stopped Reed from becoming one of the most famous symbols in all of sports for playing through pain.

Contrast that with NFL legend Ronnie Lott, who had his pinkie finger amputated to avoid being sidelined by the necessary surgery. The NFL triggers enough perverse sacrifices to keep Lott's sacrifice from being the go-to reference for player toughness. Remember that the next time you strain your back getting off the sofa to change the channel during a bad Sunday for your team.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Why do articles about diversity lack diversity?

New York asks: What's the Matter with Connecticut?

Well, New York says Connecticut is an unequal place. Plus it apparently still suffers from a dreaded WASP plague (not to be confused with the locust kind). From the article:

Representing the R half of the equation is Fairfield County, home to an extraordinary concentration of money-management businesses and many of Connecticut’s one percenters. It’s a pretty, Waspy place, Wall Street’s buttoned-up suburb.

As we all know from years of hackneyed articles like this, WASPy is always shorthand for buttoned-up. When you see WASP in an article, it only has one implication: Those fair-skinned Episcopalians just don't know how to cut loose! It sucks when DEAD WHITE MEN aren't dead.

But predictable anti-WASP inferences aside, let's examine the demographics of Fairfield County. From Wikipedia, here are the demographics of its five most populous towns:


Bridgeport is less than 1/2 white. Hispanics comprise at least 1/5 of the population in four of these towns. And there seems to be a fair bit of OTHER.

Pieces like this also forget or just ignore that the P in WASP stands for Protestant. Yeah, about that: of the Fairfield residents with a religious affiliation, 70% identify as Catholic, which is, you know, sort of what Protestants were protesting by becoming Protestants. 

“Connecticut ranks among the highest, and possibly the highest, in total unfunded pensions and retiree health care per taxpayer in the nation.” 

CT may be the “most unequal state in the country,” but not because it’s a tax haven; CT has the third highest tax rates in America. Underfunding is the result of fantastical projections/promises made by sociopathic politicians and bureaucrats (some of whom, it turns out, aren't WASPs!). I wonder if the writer will bother reconsidering the premise that high taxation leads to broader distributions of wealth...

And though this isn't stated in the article, buttoned-up and WASP is typically shorthand for "conservative" (see the 1,000,000^15 articles scrutinizing Orange County's demographics). Probably worth pointing out that Fairfield hasn't gone Republican in a Presidential election since 1996. Connecticut hasn't gone to a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.

Nothing is stuffier and more button-up than articles decrying the perils of the now completely imaginary WASP elite.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Another pop psychology expression goes pop

Today every third woman under 30 talks like a Magic 8-Ball. Far from rebelling (never has rebellion been so necessary!) against the self-help foolishness their parents imbibed and their teachers espoused, they have absorbed it so completely that these Empowered Modern Women don't realize they sound like late '70s housewives.

One daytime talk show truism that seems to have penetrated everyone's IQ defenses: If you don't love yourself, how can you love someone else?

How screwy is it that the generation that has made government recognition of all forms of love the defining issue of their time, that has bravely taken to Twitter to battle "slut shaming," touts such rigid, one-size-fits-all dogma about love.

How can you love others if you don't love yourself is like a palindrome of confused thinking. Let's try some others.

Why not say to a solider: "If you can't kill yourself, how can you kill someone else?" I don't see this increasing enlistment stats.

How can you give someone an orgasm if you can't give yourself an orgasm?

Uh, how many frigid women have gone through life giving orgasms without ever achieving one themselves? The men they were with probably didn't forget how to orgasm in the wake of this climax famine.

How can you make other people laugh if you don't laugh yourself?

The "sad clown" thing has been discussed forever, well before Robin Williams' suicide. But as anyone in the humor business will tell you, comedians are the hardest people to make laugh. Many are dark, brooding buzzkills offstage. Yet they somehow manage to make others laugh...FOR A LIVING.

How can you teach someone else to sing if you can't teach yourself to sing?

Can you imagine how much different the music landscape would be if we actually took lines like this seriously? Same with sports coaching. In fact, we have long had much more accurate expressions for just this kind of scenario: Those who can't do, teach.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Guess you can't nurture foot speed

Just one white sprinter has broken the 10-second barrier in the 60 meters; France's Christophe Lemaitre. His analysis of the achievement:

"Of course, it was my goal to break it. One has to run under 10 seconds in order to be part of the world's best. I will be recognised as the first white man to do so, but today's achievement is mainly about making history for myself!...It is not about the color it is about hard work." 
Hard work...that old staple. I'm sure you've heard it too: you're having a late night conversation at the bar. The topic comes up (usually in a hushed voice): why don't all groups excel equally in sports?
Progressive "Nurture is Everything" Guy: The poor and disadvantaged excel in athletics because they don't have access to the other rungs of economic mobility.
Once or twice I've even seen a mote of sincerity in the eyes of these people. If they truly believe this, one can only conclude they are intellectually disadvantaged. Or blind.
I don't deny that economic status plays a factor. How many prep school kids take up serious boxing? How many trailer park residents become elite skiers? But economics alone don't come close to telling the whole (apparently uncomfortable) story.
Below is a list of the top 25 recorded times in the 100-meters. 10 countries are represented. Now Google Image these folks. Tell me if you notice they all have something in common; despite the number of different nations represented.
Spoiler alert: None of them resemble Rick Astley:

Wind (m/s)
9.58 WR
16 August 2009
 United States
20 September 2009
23 August 2012
2 September 2008
29 August 2010
 United States
16 June 1999
 United States
5 August 2012
4 June 2011
 Trinidad and Tobago
21 June 2014
27 July 1996
22 August 1999
 United States
6 July 1994
12 May 2006
 United States
4 June 2011
 United States
25 August 1991
3 July 1996
 Trinidad and Tobago
19 April 1998
22 August 2004
 Trinidad and Tobago
23 June 2012
 United Kingdom
15 August 1993
11 September 1998
 United States
19 June 2004
 United States
8 August 2010
 United States
29 August 2010
30 June 2011

Apart from Mr. Fredericks, everyone on this list is of predominantly West African descent. Mr. Lemaitre is the sole white man to break 10 seconds. No Asian sprinter has been recorded breaking 10 seconds.
If poverty is such a determinant factor, why don't we see any U.S. Hispanics on this list? There are estimates that perhaps 1/4 live in poverty. What about the poor South Asians who flock to the U.K.; why don't they become elite sprinters? Where are the poor Arabs from France? Why does just one "disadvantaged group" show up time and time again no matter the country? 

The disadvantaged group doing the elite sprinting is in a better position economically than they were in, say, 1974. So why haven't the demographics shifted a bit to reflect this? The last white sprinter to win Olympic gold in the 100 meters was Allan Wells in 1980. Last white sprinter to win the 200: Pietro Mennea, 1980. Yes, Jeremy Wariner won gold in 2004 in the 400, but did you have a look at the rest of the field? Which one of these things is not like the other? In 2012, the aforementioned Lemaitre was just the fifth white sprinter since '84 to make the 200 meter final.
China and India make up more than 1/3 of the world's population. Why hasn't a single sprinter from either country, poor or otherwise, broken 10 seconds? They aren't capable of the same "hard work" as Lemaitre? None of them have enough interest to pursue sprinting with the same dedication?
Given that Mr. Lemaitre studied industrial engineering, I find it hard to believe he can't calculate how unlikely that is.