Thursday, August 25, 2005

Bet on the West

No, this won't be a grand entry about the clash of civilizations; it will be a much more down-to-earth one about sports gambling. TrueHoop.com (which is a great website for a true basketball fanatic) has an intriguing item about how to make money gambling on the NBA. Abbott's correspondent details some old (but apparently still good) advice he once got from a colleague:
it takes the east coast about two weeks, during the season, to catch up to what's going on in the west... if you pay attention to west-coast teams, you can make a ton of money betting on them to win or lose, based on very recent trends, because the east just doesn't pay much attention...
Sounds plausible! Once I get some money to play with, I definitely plan to find out if I can consistently come out ahead while betting on the NBA (I'm sure I follow it more closely than most people who bet). Perhaps this will form part of my strategy...

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Academic egalitarianism

Jane Galt links to a Brian Caplan post accusing egalitarian academics of a grave inconsistency:
If you assign grades based on merit, and merit depends on performance unadjusted for opportunity, then why shouldn't the same principle hold for income and wealth? Just because you feel sorry for someone, why does that entitle them to a share of the riches of the more successful? And if you do not adjust for unequal opportunities when you grade, why should you adjust for unequal opportunities when you contemplate redistribution?
Now, I love busting on left-wing academics, and I guess I would like to be convinced by Caplan's point, but basic intellectual honesty forces me to admit that I'm not. There's a hundred differences between redistributing wealth and redistributing grades! Here are a few possibilities:

1) 'Merit-based' grades seem to be a lot more merit-based than 'merit-based' wealth. All the students these professors encounter in their classrooms have the basic tools necessary to succeed in the class (textbooks, etc) and must perform the same basic tasks in order to get an A. Nobody inherits an A; nobody randomly wins an A on an essay, as they might in a lottery; nobody is prevented from even working towards an A by something like hunger. Of course outside factors still matter quite a bit, but they surely don't matter as much as in the distribution of wealth.

2) Income and wealth are a lot more important to people's lives than grades. Getting a C is a lot less stressful than being unable to buy food or basic health care. Caplan thinks he has a counter for this:
You could say that money affects people's lives more than grades, but I beg to differ. The empirical evidence cuts the other way. Job satisfaction - which probably depends heavily on having the education and grades to open up the doors you want to walk through - matters a lot more for happiness than dollars of income. So if you really wanted to even out the ultimate inequality of life, you'd redistribute grades before money.
But that just takes us to...

3) Unlike with income, redistributing grades largely destroys their value! As Caplan himself acknowledges, "If employers, other schools, and parents knew that pity grading went on, it would make all grades less informative." So grades open up the doors you want to walk through now, but in the world of redistributed grades they wouldn't open jack.

The bottom line is that I don't think Caplan has discovered a "basic inconsistency" -- there seem to be perfectly reasonable ways of distinguishing between redistributing income and redistributing grades. I am a lot more receptive to Jane Galt's observation that the supposedly egalitarian academia is, ironically, "one of the most radically inegalitarian societies to be seen since Louis XVI fled Versailles". This is an important illustration of the principle that taking greed out of the equation (as academia has largely done -- most professors aren't in it for the dough) does not take status-consciousness, competitiveness and selfishness out of the equation. In fact, it often magnifies them.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Names that sell

"To Woo Students, Colleges Choose Names That Sell," runs the headline of an NYT story. Some may interpret this as additional proof that higher education is excessively commercialized. But I think that what the story describes is a healthy response to student needs and demands. In the case of what used to be called Beaver College, a more apt headline might have read "Colleges Choose Names That Don't Cause People to Giggle"; in the case of what used to be called Western Maryland College (and is actually located in central Maryland) a better headline might have been "Colleges Choose Names That Aren't Misleading".

In fact, I think colleges often aren't attentive enough to such issues. At Harvard, for example, there is a major ("concentration", in Harvard-speak) that is intended to allow students to escape the narrow and sometimes imperialistic perspectives of the various social sciences by adopting an interdisciplinary approach. It's an interesting idea (though one can certainly quibble with the execution). Anyway, this concentration is called "Social Studies", which of course makes most people think of a silly middle school class. Social Studies concentrators are doomed to a lifetime of explaning themselves and making self-deprecatory jokes every time they are asked what they majored in. Here, some concern with the concentration's branding would certainly have helped (even something as primitive as "Social Analysis" would have been ten times better), but nobody cared enough about the students' perspective.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

On using philosophers efficiently

I dabbled in philosophy a fair amount during my undergrad years, so I was pleased to discover a sharp and insightful blog called Maverick Philosopher, written by William Vallicella. It's hard not to love a blog with a whole category devoted to posts critiquing continental philosophy.

A couple of days ago Vallicella complained about the division of labor in philosophy. The problem, as he sees it, is that the biggest questions in philosophy are often pursued by the least careful thinkers while some of the best philosophers confine themselves to comparatively narrow topics like philosophy of science.

At first blush, this arrangement certainly appears suboptimal -- intuitively it seems as though the best philosophers should be working on the biggest problems. But in his brief post, Vallicella does not ask how this division of labor came to be. Why are these very impressive thinkers limiting themselves to narrow topics, instead of having a go at the existential stuff? I am certainly not enough of an expert to judge, but it seems at least possible that the best philosophers are attracted to the fields in which they think they are likeliest to make a meaningful contribution. If a philosopher is likely to move philosophy of science forward, but unlikely to make any contribution to a "more important" field, then being a "mere handmaiden of positive science" may no longer be "an unworthy use of his abilities", at least relative to his other options.

If this is true, then the sloppy thinkers might be attracted to the big questions precisely because they are less likely to accurately evaluate their chances of contributing something meaningful, and the lack of progress in addressing these issues might be due to their inherent difficulty rather than to the frustrating incompetence of the philosophers who pursue them.

The virtues of asceticism.

Michael Lopez, guestblogging for Joanne Jacobs, complains about the excess of stuff that today's college students lug around. He thinks that "a little asceticism can actually go a long way towards focusing the consciousness on the matter at hand, which presumably is to get an education." Due to a fortuitous confluence of two deadly sins -- sloth and greed -- I lived through college without ever having a TV, or a computer that could play DVDs. I also owned virtually no computer games. To some extent, this did in fact help me focus on academics. But mostly, it just forced my procrastination into pursuits that were arguably even more pointless, such as Flash games and (ahem) blogs.

He also contemplates the phenomenon of teachers following their students through the first couple of grades. In my own early education -- which took place in a system quite different from the American public school system -- one teacher followed my class through the first five grades or so. The ultimate representative of this practice, of course, is Mr. Feeny, who managed to follow his students to college.

Slam and the age minimum

Slam is among the critics of the NBA age limit; I've noted before that I do not understand this position. And Slam's writers haven't made it any easier for me to understand it, as they seem to refuse to take up the issue at any length.

Here is all we get in the latest issue, which (I believe) is Slam's first after the age limit was instituted. First, we get this potshot from the editor:
I can't help wondering... why a League that's largely pinning its future on guys like LeBron and Amare (who might be pretty good one of these days -- you heard it here first!) feels compelled to make sure that stories like theirs won't have encores.
It's not LeBrons and Amares the league is worried about, it's Kwames and DeSaganas. And as for the encore bit -- yes, these stories won't have encores in the narrow, formal sense. Yes, high school players will no longer be drafted, that's what the age limit is. It's not true, however, that there won't be encores in the sense of stories that are just as good as LeBron's or Amare's. Think about it: was Carmelo's story worse because he spent a year in college and led his school to the championship? Or was it better?

Then, we get this insightful comment in NOYZ: "Glad to see the CBA got figured out, but no matter how you break it down, the whole age minimum thing is still stupid..." Not even bothering with an argument there. Finally, there is the "Bargaining for Dummies" story by Lang Whitaker which has a paragraph on the age minimum but fails to note any obviously negative effects that the minimum is expected to have.

I'm not asserting that Slam writers have no argument against the age minimum; in general, they are thoughtful and knowledgeable. In fact, it is because I think they probably do have some sort of argument that I am irritated at their total failure to explain their views. In general, although I'm a big fan of Slam, I wish they would spend more time thoughtfully tackling the big issues in the game instead of writing another puff piece on a marginal player. Unfortunately, that probably puts me in a tiny minority of Slam's readers.

Just what Tony Parker deserves.

On the cover of the post-Finals issue of Slam: Manu, Duncan... and Horry.

Leaving sex to the independents.

I wrote earlier about the dissonance between the reality of a more virtuous (and possibly Puritannical) America and the media narrative of decadence and moral decay. A Slate article about the dearth of sex in Hollywood movies these days illustrates this dissonance nicely.

Epstein begins by discussing the three major forces that are keeping sex out of mainstream films: the rating system, Wal-Mart, and TV. The combination of the three makes sex scenes a very tenuous proposition for the major studios. But right after he describes the factors that stifle 'indecent' cinema in our society, Epstein feels the need to acknowledge the validity of the decadence narrative. He writes:
We may live in an anything-goes age, but if a studio wants to make money, it has to limit how much of "anything"—at least anything sexually explicit—it shows on the big screen.
How could the dynamics he just described in his own article be part of an anything-goes age? Isn't it time to ask if we aren't living in an age where anything increasingly doesn't go?

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Wrap rage

While continuing to browse old ALDaily entries, I came upon this fun little article about annoying food packaging. It starts as follows:
Mona Doyle recently filmed people attempting to open bags of pre-cut lettuce. The tape plays like a bit from the television show "America's Funniest Home Videos." Everybody uses force and torque that would otherwise be reserved for the gym. Either the bag opens suddenly and sprays lettuce all over the floor, or defeat is conceded and scissors or knives are employed.
This really spoke to me, because only yesterday I was in fact trying to open a bag of pre-cut lettuce and utterly failed (I had to have someone more competent do it for me; this may have been a wise move, since apparently 60,000 people have been injured as a result of "wrap rage" in Britain alone).

I've long been puzzled about why packaging remains so inconvenient, while everything else seems to get better. I get particularly enraged by the packaging that things like headphones, CD players and software comes in -- those hard plastic cases that one always ends up maniacally taking a pair of scissors to. This article suggests that one of the reasons (at least with food packaging) is that convenience conflicts with another increasingly important goal -- prevention of tampering. It also suggests, and to some extent this is right, that packaging actually is getting more convenient, we're just more spoiled. I still don't feel like my question has been completely answered, however.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Law school rankings

Andrew Morriss links to a discussion of law school rankings by Paul McKaskle, a former law school dean. McKaskle's main point seems to be that beyond a small set of top schools, the USNews ranking are just about meaningless. This is interesting and plausible, but it doesn't exactly provide a solution to the problem of the rankings. USNews certainly won't stop ranking second-tier schools just because they're no good at it; as Morriss notes, the demand from students is clearly there. Morriss thinks, and I agree, that a plausible way of improving the situation is to encourage many different kinds of rankings to develop and challenge USNews' hegemony.

On a slightly different note, I want to flag one particularly insightful observation by McKaskle. He writes: "I think the biggest advantage at being at a top ranked school for most students is the chance to interact with other very bright students–who are more plentiful at top rated schools." This certainly squares with my undergraduate experience. I went to a very highly rated college where professors were often distant and indifferent, and the administration tended to ignore student needs and desires (with some exception for vociferous, self-righteous leftists, who often got their way). I've said all along that it was the other students who really made it all worthwhile. It is a cliche to say that you learned more from your peers in college than you did from your professors, but for me that is unequivocally true.

Addicted to the drug war

Two of the Three Instapunditeers link to persuasive and commonsensical opinion pieces today.

John Tierney discusses the excesses of the war on meth. He reminds us that when you look at the statistics, rather than Newsweek's hysterical reporting, meth is not that bad of a drug; meanwhile, the very real dangers associated with amateur meth labs are, of course, entirely a result of the drug war itself. Tierney points out that this pattern is similar to what happened with alcohol during Prohibition. Eventually we realized that even for a more harmful drug, like alcohol, attempts to outlaw it only made things worse.

Not that our alcohol policies are particularly rational, however, as Radley Balko reminds us. His op-ed focuses on the ridiculous "zero-tolerance" crackdowns on parents who have supervised parties for their teenage kids where they serve alcohol but take away everyone's car keys. Such parents are almost certainly lowering the levels of drunk driving, but we are sending them to prison.

When there's fruit hanging this low for op-eds to pluck, you know things aren't going well.

Public school teachers

Erin O'Connor notes the alarming levels of absenteeism among Indianapolis public school teachers. A particularly generous leave policy seems to be involved; predictably, the teachers' union is blocking various attempts at reform.

Whatever Indianapolis's particular issues are, I believe that there are structural problems that cause public school teachers to be unhappy (my thinking on this issue has been heavily influenced by this book.) These teachers have to work in schools which have no unified purpose, since they can't specialize and must try to be everything to everybody; they have to work in schools where their lazy and incompetent colleagues are protected by tenure while talent and initiative go unrewarded; they have to work in schools where effective discipline is impossible; they have to work in schools where excessively centralized decision-making burdens them with endless paperwork. It should not be surprising that private school teachers are happier, even though they make less money.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Academic Legal Writing

Eugene Volokh plugs his Academic Legal Writing here. I have been reading the book as part of my half-hearted "preparation" for law school. While I obviously can't vouch for its helpfulness or accuracy yet, I can vouch for its clarity and readability. I was sort of amazed, given the usual (and somewhat ironic) turgidity of writing manuals, to find myself reading this one with great interest. For what it's worth, I recommend it.

A healthier multiculturalism.

In one of my undergrad philosophy classes, I had to write a paper about whether the concept of toleration was self-contradictory because it would lead one to tolerate the intolerant. I looked at two views of toleration and concluded that neither was self-contradictory. First, you have the straightforward relativist who doesn't think any culture is better than any other. For such a person, it wouldn't be a contradiction to tolerate the intolerant, since the intolerant wouldn't be any worse than the tolerant. Second, you have something like Mill's defense of toleration, which is based on some sort of higher value (in his case, utility). That sort of toleration doesn't have to contradict itself because it can simply exclude anything that harms the larger value; so you might think that allowing the KKK to march is conducive to utility, but allowing it to act on its beliefs is not.

For too long, European liberals have endorsed a multiculturalism that reminds me of that first kind of toleration -- a multiculturalism that tried to accommodate every culture without making judgments. This was, as Johann Hari notes, partly in reaction to ugly nativist sentiments from the right. But at the same time, as he also notes, it "force[d] multiculturalists into alliance with the most conservative and unpleasant parts of immigrant communities".

Recent trends and events in Europe (from the general difficulties with assimilating the immigrants to the recent terrorist attacks in London) are forcing even the leftists to get over their disdain for any attempt to rein in multiculturalism. People are realizing that multiculturalism is not our highest value; it is one of the values that serves our greater goal of creating a safe, prosperous, free society.

(Link via Michael Totten; the guestbloggers are doing well by Instapundit once more.)

Oversimplifications

It is worth noting that the Lind post I discussed earlier oversimplifies quite a bit for the sake of cleaner analysis. He suggests that libertarians are "socially liberal", but then cites as examples of Jimmy Carter's social liberalism his support of affirmative action and abortion, neither of which libertarians necessarily support. Two of the many senses of the word "liberal" are in play here, and they're being treated as the same thing.

The same problem reoccurs with the phrase "economically conservative". Clinton's health-care plan is called economically conservative because it was "business-friendly". That's a pretty damn low bar to set for calling something economically conservative, but if you're going to use it in that sense, you certainly shouldn't say that libertarians are economically conservative!

I'm not sure any of this undercuts Lind's fundamental point, however.

Lind on the Democrats

Michael Totten links to an already much-commented-upon post by Michael Lind, which suggests that the Democrats should trade in their social liberalism for social conservatism. He thinks that doing so would be a way for the Democrats to regain a majority, while I think that it would be one of the few ways in which they could unambiguously suck more than they do now; I suppose both could be true.

In all seriousness, Lind might unfortunately be correct. I fear that he's right when he says that "the United States has a right-of-center majority with respect to social issues and a a left-of-center majority with respect to economic issues." In light of this, it is certainly plausible that the Democrats could regain the majority by moving to the right on social issues. Now, Totten might be right that the Democrats can't take this advice just because they won't be able to abandon their social liberalism; but the combination of social conservatism and economic liberalism is already beginning to be practiced (as Lind also notes) by Republicans. I don't really care which party becomes dominant by combining excessive government intervention in the economic sphere with excessive government intervention in the social sphere!

Lind's conclusion is that dark times are a-comin' for social liberals:
Social liberals can be the minority in a majority party. Or social liberals can be the majority in a minority party. But social liberals can't be the majority in a majority party--not in the United States, not in the foreseeable future. There just aren't enough social liberals in the American electorate.
He doesn't spare a thought for libertarians (whom he defines as socially liberal, but economically conservative), but of course by his analysis they're even more screwed. Not exactly news, I suppose.

Ignoring Iraq

For some reason -- perhaps having to do with his unusual ideological position -- Christopher Hitchens is sometimes able to make blindingly obvious points that are nevertheless rarely or never made otherwise. In an unusually powerful and persuasive Slate column, he wonders why so few of the do-gooders in the women's rights, minority rights, environmentalist or any other such community have taken up the cause of Iraq. The answer, of course, is that Iraq is viewed as Bush's war; the administration alone is viewed as having responsibility for what happens there, and the administration alone would be held responsible for failure. In the meantime, women, Kurds, progressives and environmentalists struggle in Iraq against the sort of chaos that should any civilized person shudder.

NBA age limit

I don't understand where the opposition to the NBA age limit is coming from. As far as I can tell, the case for the age limit is a slam dunk (no pun intended).

The primary purpose of the draft is to give bad teams a chance to become competitive. Ideally, the draft would allow them to become competitive a) quickly and b) reliably. Drafting high schoolers detracts from both of these goals. The occasional LeBron aside, high schoolers are generally unable to contribute right away. This means that they sit on the bench for years while the team continues to suck. As for reliability, since these kids have never seen anything beyond high-school competition, and since their bodies haven't fully matured, it's naturally harder to tell if they'll be good. Thus, allowing high-schoolers in the draft increases the likelihood that bad teams will be saddled with someone like Kwame Brown -- who helps them neither immediately, nor ever.

A stupid response to the above is something like the following: "if you want to win right away, nobody's making you take the high schooler". The fact is, teams are trying to do what's best for them over the long run; right now, this means taking a gamble on a high schooler because failing to do so means you might be letting the next Kobe or T-Mac go. Anyway, there generally isn't anyone coming out of college who can fundamentally improve your team. We shouldn't force teams to choose between mediocre college players who will help a little in the short term, and high schoolers who might help a lot in the long term!

Another stupid argument that I've heard a lot is that it's a double standard (or even racist!) to have an age limit in basketball when there isn't one in tennis or golf. But sports which don't have a draft that works like the NBA's do not have to deal with the problems described above. And since those problems are the biggest impetus for the age limit, the golf and tennis comparisons are entirely irrelevant.

Another purpose of the draft is to generate publicity for the NBA, create excitement among the fans and get high ratings. Again, unknown high school players hurt this cause, while college players bring built-in fan bases into the league. Plus, rivalries that develop in college can carry on into the pros and spice things up a bit. (Also, nobody disputes that this would be good for the college game, and all of its fans... This is a side benefit that doesn't get the attention it deserves.)

And what are the drawbacks? The only one I can see is that a couple of kids a year have to wait another year or two before becoming millionaires. I certainly don't begrudge them trying to get this money; I would, too, in their position. However, I don't understand why they're entitled to it, if allowing them in the draft hurts the game. Finally, it's not clear to me why the age limit is considered "anti-player", since the high-schoolers must take a veteran's roster spot when they come into the league (and the veteran is about as likely to be black, so don't start with the racism stuff). Often, they don't even play, they just sit there waiting for their potential to kick in. Why is such a high schooler is more deserving or meritorious than a veteran?

I have another, subtler complaint about all the hand-wringing about the poor black teenagers who are getting screwed over. Understand that this is a tiny handful of kids, who are most likely destined for vast wealth anyway. The emotional power of the argument derives from a subtle association of these few with black teenagers in general; to hurt them, the argument suggests, is to hurt poor African-American youths. This, of course, is just the other side of the dangerous delusion, unfortunately shared by too many teenagers, that they have a realistic shot to make it in the NBA. This belief is pernicious and needs to be challenged.

Now, in this post I've been defending some vague, ideal age limit. I'm not sure that the one that was actually put in place will make much of a difference -- it seems too weak (though of course that also mitigates any possible harms of it). Nevertheless, it seems like at least a step in the right direction.