Glenn Beck’s not insane– his viewers are

Via Kevin Drum:

I really don’t pay a lot of attention to Glenn Beck.  His logic is typically of the sort that “Communications and Communism are both based on Comm!”  The guy is clearly a first-rate huckster and charlatan.  He’s gotten quite rich fooling a lot of the people a lot of the time.  But he really is just completely out there.  How can anybody with an IQ over 80 buy any of this stuff.

Starting about 3 and half minutes in he explains how the crisis in Egypt will ultimately lead to a Muslim caliphate over all of Western Europe.  Riiiiiight.  Again, he’s a rich man fooling people I get it.  But how sad that millions of Americans actually fall for this crap.

A little more on Wikipedia and gender

Kevin Drum has an interesting take on the article I discussed earlier today:

Still, even accounting for that, the gender disparity is real. But I suspect the reason has less to do with women having trouble asserting their opinions and more to do with the prevalence of obsessive, Aspergers-ish behavior among men. After all, why would anyone spend endless hours researching, writing and editing a Wikipedia post for free about either The Simpsons or Mexican feminist writers? I think that “having an opinion on the subject” is far too pale a description of why people do or don’t do this. You need to be obsessed. You need to really care about the minutia of the subject and whether it’s presented in exactly the right way. And you need to care about this in a forum with no professional prestige. You’re really, truly doing it just for the sake of the thing itself.

I’ve long been convinced that this tendency toward obsession is one of the key differences between men and women. I don’t know what causes it. I don’t know if it helped primitive men kill more mastodons during the late Pleistocene. But it does seem to be real, and it doesn’t seem to be something that’s either culturally encouraged or discouraged in children of either gender. I just don’t know. But I’ll bet that an obsessive outlook on life is something that produces a lot of Wikipedia articles.

I think he may very well be onto something.  There’s got to be some studies on this somewhere.

Wikipedia and the gender gap

Really interesting article in the Times today about the huge (but, not at all surprising) gender gap in Wikipedia contributors:

In 10 short years, Wikipedia has accomplished some remarkable goals. More than 3.5 million articles in English? Done. More than 250 languages?  Sure.

But another number has proved to be an intractable obstacle for the online encyclopedia: surveys suggest that less than 15 percent of its hundreds of thousands of contributors are women.

I think far more than the content of individual posts, the effect is on what gets covered and how extensively it gets covered.  Some examples:

With so many subjects represented — most everything has an article on Wikipedia — the gender disparity often shows up in terms of emphasis. A topic generally restricted to teenage girls, like friendship bracelets, can seem short at four paragraphs when compared with lengthy articles on something boys might favor, like, toy soldiers or baseball cards, whose voluminous entry includes a detailed chronological history of the subject.

Even the most famous fashion designers — Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo — get but a handful of paragraphs. And consider the disparity between two popular series on HBO: The entry on “Sex and the City” includes only a brief summary of every episode, sometimes two or three sentences; the one on “The Sopranos” includes lengthy, detailed articles on each episode.

Is a category with five Mexican feminist writers impressive, or embarrassing when compared with the 45 articles on characters in “The Simpsons”?

Not surprisingly, what’s going on in Wikipedia is simply part of a larger social phenomenon:

According to the OpEd Project, an organization based in New York that monitors the gender breakdown of contributors to “public thought-leadership forums,” a participation rate of roughly 85-to-15 percent, men to women, is common — whether members of Congress, or writers on The New York Times and Washington Post Op-Ed pages.

It would seem to be an irony that Wikipedia, where the amateur contributor is celebrated, is experiencing the same problem as forums that require expertise. But Catherine Orenstein, the founder and director of the OpEd Project, said many women lacked the confidence to put forth their views. “When you are a minority voice, you begin to doubt your own competencies,” she said.

A great example of this is the gender gap in political knowledge.  Almost half the observed gap in men knowing more about politics than women actually comes from the fact that men are much more willing to guess when uncertain of the answer to a political question.  There’s still a gap once this accounted for, but it certainly is interesting how much of it is really about men’s greater confidence to express political opinions.

Music and dopamine

Pretty cool story on Quirks and Quarks a couple weeks ago about the ways in which our brains respond to music.  And here’s a nice summary of it in the Guardian:

In the experiment, participants chose instrumental pieces of music that gave them goosebumps, but which had no specific memories attached to them. Lyrics were banned because the researchers did not want their results confounded by any associations participants might have had to the words they heard.

The pieces chosen ranged from classical to rock, punk and electronic dance music. “One piece of music kept coming up for different people – Barber’s Adagio for Strings,” said Salimpoor. It was the favourite classical piece and a remix of the tune was the most popular in the dance, trance and techno genres.

As the participants listened to their music, Salimpoor’s team measured a range of physiological factors including heart rate and increases in respiration and sweating. She found that the participants had a 6-9% relative increase in their dopamine levels when compared with a control condition in which the participants listened to each other’s choices of music. “One person experienced a 21% increase. That demonstrates that, for some people, it can be really intensely pleasurable,” she said.

In previous studies with psychoactive drugs such as cocaine, Salimpoor said relative dopamine increases in the brain had been above 22%, while a relative increase of up to 6% was experienced when eating pleasurable meals.

Salimpoor and her colleagues concluded: “If music-induced emotional states can lead to dopamine release, as our findings indicate, it may begin to explain why musical experiences are so valued. These results further speak to why music can be effectively used in rituals, marketing or film to manipulate hedonistic states. Our findings provide neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry and serve as a starting point for more detailed investigations of the biological substrates that underlie abstract forms of pleasure.”

So, music you love– just a bit more enjoyable than food you love.  But, at least for most of us, no cocaine.  Personally, I do love Barber’s Adagio for Strings, but I think I might have chosen the 4th movement of Beethoven’s 5th.  What was kind of cool (as I learned in the interview) was that even among those who brought in techno as their favorite music, the most popular was actually a techno version of Adagio for Strings.  I think there’s something quite emotionally resonant in the way in which this particular music just builds and builds before resolution.  Anyway, pretty interesting stuff.

Whither the cuts

Really nice article in the N&O yesterday about just how hard it will be to balance the state budget on the back of state workers, i.e., cutting jobs.  In my media and politics class this semester, a consistent theme is that news articles often fail to provide the larger context and to do the research to help make sense of that context.  This article gets it right, by showing just what cutting jobs would entail and from where these jobs would have to be cut.  In the abstract, voters are plenty happy to cut “government workers.”  When you are talking about a state budget, though, most of those “government workers” are teachers, prison guards, and law enforcement.  I’d like to see how many people really want cuts there.  Here’s the nice chart on the matter from the article:

The legislature appropriates money through the general fund to pay for tens of thousands of positions. Special funds and state receipts pay for thousands of other state jobs. For example, the state’s highway fund pays for the equivalent of roughly 13,800 full-time positions in the Department of Transportation.

In all, the state’s coffers fund what is equal to nearly 317,000 full-time positions. Here’s a breakdown of General Fund full-time equivalents:

Agency FTEs budgeted
Public schools 153,188
UNC system 35,067
Justice and public safety 31,091
Community colleges 18,722
Health and Human Services 8,468
Natural and economic resources 3,761
General government 4,235
Education – state administration 653
Total-General Fund 255,185

Another really good point the article makes is that when you fire somebody, you lose the cost of their salary, but, at least in the short term, pick up a lot of related costs.  All of a sudden, there’s unemployment insurance to be paid and a good chance that the fired employee will need other forms of social welfare assistance.  In the first year, you only save an average of $18,000 on a $50,000 employee.  Not the best trade-off.   My guess is that if you gave the voters of NC a straight-up choice of a higher sales tax versus firing teachers, they’d take the sales tax.  If you gave them the choice of a higher tax rate for the richest residents over firing teachers, you’d get overwhelming support.  (Not that I advocate government my public opinion, as I’ve clearly indicated earlier).  Still, when they fire a bunch of teachers, the Republicans in charge will most definitely not be carrying out the will of the people (of course, that’s in part because it is impossible to do so– the people have been fooled into thinking they can have everything they want plus low taxes).

Thursday Nights

Something I should’ve done a while ago, I finally did this week– I stopped watching the Office.  Damn, what a shell of its former self this show has become.  It’s depressing that they won’t just put it out of its misery already.   The good news is, I’ve now started watching Parks and Recreation, which is just as entertaining as the Office back at its peak.  If you haven’t given it a try, you really ought to.  If you have any doubts, just watch:

Swimsuits and math tests

So, I’ve written a little bit about gender and math before.   There’s really quite solid evidence that the bulk of the math performance gap between males and females can be explained by socialization (as for whether it accounts for the full 100%, that still seems up for debate).  Among the most interesting findings in this regard, is that when you make females aware of the negative stereotypes of gender and math, they perform worse (same effects happens with minorities on tests of academic performance).

Anyway, caught just a few minutes in the car the other day of an interview on Dianne Rehm with the author of Cinderella ate my Daughter (damn, I love that title– I think this is going in my reading queue).  I’m not planning on breaking Sarah’s heart when she’s a little older, but she’s going to have to really, really want a princess party before I give in on that one.  Anyway, on the show, Peggy Orenstein mentioned a fascinating study I had not previously heard about.  Apparently, they had teen boys and girls go to a dressing room and try on a sweater or a swimsuit before taking a math test.  Did you guess the results?  For the boys, it didn’t matter what they tried on;  they’re performance was the same.  For the girls, trying on a swimsuit led to lower math performance.   That’s depressing and tells us we’re really doing something wrong with how we raise our daughters and address gender issues in this country.  Also, don’t let your daughters go swimsuit shopping before math tests.

How to report the news

I love it when satire is 100% dead on.  This is brilliant.  (Viewer discretion advised for a bit of bad language about 25 seconds in]

The anti-stimulus

I was sitting in on the discussion section (run by a grad student) for my American Government class today and one of the students asked how can it be that Obama is calling for thousands of new math and science teachers while at the same time North Carolina is anticipating firing thousands of teachers in the coming year.  Good question.  Of course, the problem is that unlike the USA, North Carolina (and most states) has to balance its budget every year and cannot rely on borrowing to do so.  Last year ended up being not so bad for the state budget due to a modest sales tax increase, but mostly the stimulus money.  This year, there’s no more stimulus money so NC is looking at a yawning $3 billion budget hole.  Given that most of any state’s expenses are on education (and law enforcement/prisons) you can guess where the bulk of these cuts are going to come from.  In essence, last year we had a illusory cushion and this year it’s all pulled away, leaving us the anti-stimulus.  And its not pretty.  Of course, we could keep the modest sales tax increase, broaden the sales tax base a bit, maybe raise the rate for highest earners just a bit, and that would go a long way.  Of course, not that Republicans are in charge of the legislature, it’s all about firing teachers (it’s not like they want to let non-violent drug users out of prison to save money).  NC State is, of course, protecting tenured and tenure-track faculty, but our students are going to have a devil of a time getting the courses they need and the quality will go down as course sizes increase.   As for K-12 education, I shudder to think of what might happen to class sizes and the impact on kids (hang out for a while in an elementary school classroom and tell me class size doesn’t matter).  It’s all very depressing.

Friday book post (Cancer edition)

Haven’t done one of these in a while, but I just finished reading a fabulous book I want to mention: The Emperor of All Maladies A biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.   Fascinating book that tackles the history, the sociology, and the science of cancer.   Took a lot longer to finish than I’d like, as the new baby cuts into reading time, but it was terrific.  I think the history of breast cancer treatment is particular interesting.  I knew a “radical masectomy” was removing a whole breast, but I had no idea how radical.  Surgeons were in a competition to see who could cut away more of a woman’s flesh to presumably get every last possible bit of cancer.  Of course, now we know that once cancer has metastaticized and spread beyond its local origin, it can go anywhere and it doesn’t matter how much tissue you cut away around the tumor.  Should you not be up to reading the book, there’s a great interview with the author on Fresh Air.

Also, reminded me of a seemingly unrelated science fiction novel that’s one of my favorites of recent years– Calculating God by Robert Sawyer.  The main theme of this book is the implications of discovering that amazing similaries with other extra-terrestial civilizations which would seem to prove the existence of God.  Really thought-provoking stuff.  A secondary plot, though deals with universality (in the broadest sense) of cancer where ever life is found and the implications for the relationship between cancer and life.  There were definitely some echoes of the cancer science in Sawyer’s work.

Anyway, two great and totally different books which you should both consider reading.


The dead filibuster and Alexander Hamilton

Well, any meaningful filibuster reform is now officially dead.  Details (and great conclusion) from Ezra:

But this process kicked offbecause Democrats were furious at Republican abuse of the filibuster. It’s ended with Democrats and Republicans agreeing that the filibuster is here to stay. And the reason is both simple and depressing: Democrats want to be able to use the filibuster, too. Both parties are more committed to being able to obstruct than they are to being able to govern. That fundamental preference, as much as any particular rule, is why the Senate is dysfunctional.

This reminded me of something I meant to post a while ago and never did.  Not only does the filibuster clearly have nothing to do with the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton actually wrote against the idea of super-majority requirements except for where they are explicitly called for in the Constitution.  Via the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg:

That’s bad enough in itself, but it becomes positively dangerous in times of serious trouble:

In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. And yet, in such a system, it is even happy when such compromises can take place: for upon some occasions things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impracticability of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction. Its situation must always savor of weakness, sometimes border upon anarchy.

Emphasis mine, though I imagine it would be Hamilton’s if he had known how grotesquely his “conservative” heirs have disfigured the meaning of the Constitution he helped formulate and get ratified.

Ditto on that emphasis.  Other than the sometime arcane language, Hamilton could have easily been writing about the modern usage of the filibuster.  As a Democrat, I’m actually fairly confident that the Republicans enacting their agenda unobstructed would lead to large Democratic electoral victories.  I’m willing to make that trade in allowing the Democrats to actually accomplish their goals while in the majority, which I think history suggests would not be repudiated by the public.  Plus, I’ve clearly got Alexander Hamilton on my side.

I speak the truth (at least in Slovak)

So, went to Pravda to check out my comments on the State of the Union.  Here they are:

Obama údajne v poslednom čase študoval prejavy Ronalda Reagana a duch bývalého prezidenta, povestného hľadaním lepších stránok vecí, sa ocitol aj v jeho správe. “Obama predstavil optimistickú víziu americkej budúcnosti, v ktorej aktívna, no štíhlejšia vláda bude zohrávať dôležitú úlohu prostredníctvom investícií do infraštruktúry, výskumu a vzdelávania,” myslí si Steve Greene, expert na americkú politiku zo Severokarolínskej univerzity. “Myslím si, že svoje slová smeroval k nezávislým voličom a že im trafil do nôty. Okrem toho sa prihováral aj médiám, ktoré pomáhajú formovať politickú diskusiu,” povedal Greene pre Pravdu.

Good stuff, eh!  Then, I used the handy Google translate feature:

Obama reportedly has recently studied the speeches of Ronald Reagan and former President of the spirit, the notorious site search of better things, he found himself in his report. “Obama presented an optimistic vision for America’s future, which is active, but leaner government will play an important role by investing in infrastructure, research and education,” said Steve Greene, an expert on American politics from the University of North Carolina. “I think his words directed to independent voters and giving them to hit notes. In addition, advocates and media to help shape the political debate,” Greene told the truth.


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