Not only is Ken Jennings (record-winning Jeopardy champion) super-smart, he’s a pretty funny writer, too.  I watch Jeopardy all the time, now, but sadly was not watching it back during Jennings’ run.  He takes to Slate to detail his experience taking on IBM’s super-computer, Watson.  Here’s some really good lines:

Indeed, playing against Watson turned out to be a lot like any other Jeopardy! game, though out of the corner of my eye I could see that the middle player had a plasma screen for a face. Watson has lots in common with a top-ranked human Jeopardy! player: It’s very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman…

That was Watson’s role, as a symbol and product of human innovation and ingenuity. So my defeat at the hands of a machine has a happy ending, after all. At least until the whole system becomes sentient and figures out the nuclear launch codes. But I figure that’s yearsaway.

Slate also has this terrific (satirical) video of Watson competing in a variety of game shows.
Vodpod videos no longer available.

Teacher Blogging

So, apparently there’s a High School teacher in PA who’s been suspended for saying some not very nice things about her students on her blog:

Pennsylvania teacher Natalie Munroe got an F at school last week when parents discovered she was bashing students on her blog.

Munroe, 30, was suspended from her job at Central Bucks East High School in Doyleston, Pa. when vicious comments she wrote about her pupils went public.

In her blog, which has since been removed, Munroe referred to her students as “out of control,” “rude, lazy, disengaged whiners,” and called one “a complete and utter jerk in all ways.”

“There’s no other way to say this, I hate your kid,” she wrote in one post. “Although academically okay your child has no other redeeming qualities,” she said in another.

Despite the instant controversy generated by her comments (captured by many outlets thanks to Google’s cache archive system), Munroe defended herself on Wednesday.

“I don’t think I did anything wrong,” she told ABC News. “I’m sorry that it was taken out of context but I stand by what I said.”

The pregnant teacher says her blog was up for over a year without incident.

“What I’d done was written a casual blog,” she wrote in a post on Saturday to address the issue. She argues she kept her blog “as anonymous as possible” and never named names of students or disclosed her location.

I’m pretty sure I fall on the side of thinking she should not be punished as she never did anything to identify students, but certainly as a parent of school-age children, I can appreciate the outrage if one of my children’s teachers were blogging something like this.  Still, I think I’d side with personal expression.

For the record, my NCSU students, are the brightest, most engaged, all around terrific students any professor could ask for ;-).

Follow the money

I’m not sure what it says that Kevin Drum does a better job pointing out relevant political science research than me, but the least I can do is follow up when he does a nice job of it.  Actually, I realized I need to modify my lecture on the relationship of public opinion to public policy.  I talk about the correspondence between intensity of opinion and new policy, but I’ve ignored the fact that it depends upon the wealth of those opinions.  Drum cites political scientist Martin Gilens on the matter:

The charts below come from a 2005 paper by Martin Gilens (a revised 2007 version is here). His study is based on a dataset of polling questions about public policy issues between 1981 and 2002 (raising the minimum wage, sending U.S. troops to Haiti, requiring employers to provide health insurance, allowing gays to serve in the military, etc.) in which the responses differed significantly between the rich and the poor. On the left, you can see the impact that support from low-income voters had: when 10% of them supported a position, there was about a 32% probability of that change becoming law. When 90% supported a position, there was a….33% probability. The chart on the right shows the same for median income voters. They did slightly better, but not much.

Rich voters, on the other hand, had a much better chance of getting their way, as the steep solid line in both charts shows. Why? Gilens’ guess is that “the most obvious source of influence over policy that distinguishes high-income Americans is money.” This sounds like a pretty good guess to me.

As depressing as it is not surprising.

Fear of crime

Among the more interesting developments in recent years is that fear of crime has increased while actual crime has decreased.  Surely, a big part of this is an increasing media emphasis on crime.  While the late Michael Crichton’s State of Fear was largely a ridiculous anti global-warming polemic, he also made the provocative point that with the end of the Cold War, the news media in the early 1990’s needed something new to scare us with (fear sells) and it ended up being crime.  If you’re old enough, perhaps you remember stories of juvenile “super predators” roving area malls in pursuit of your Air Jordans.  Anyway, earlier this week Slate had a nice story on the reality of crime versus the fear of crime:

His concern highlights the bizarre way we think about crime. Even as crime rates have gone down around the country over the last 20 years, our fear of crime hasn’t changed much at all. Between 1990 and 2009, the national violent-crime rate was halved, while property crime dropped to 60 percent of its previous rate,according to the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data. But almost every year since 1989, most Americans have told pollsters they believe crime is getting worse.

The disparity has been especially clear in New York City. That city saw the most dramatic crime decline of all: Since 1990, the homicide rate has dropped 82 percent, robbery by 84 percent, rape by 77 percent, and auto theft a stunning 94 percent, according to the New York Police Department. These numbers have now been confirmed in an independent study by Frank Zimring of the University of California, Berkeley, who confirms that the drop in crime is “real.”

But New Yorkers don’t feel correspondingly safer.

So, why is this anyway.  Some answers:

Zimring says it’s typical for people to ignore drops in crime. “[T]he recent public reaction to New York’s epidemic of public safety is rather complacent,” he writes in a summary of his new study. “In one sense, this is understandable—crime statistics only command attention when citizens are worried about crime just as people only think about dentists when their teeth hurt.”…

Part of the reason is that most people can’t measure the crime rate accurately based on their own experience. While you may be twice as safe statistically speaking, the odds of getting assaulted at any given moment have merely gone from very small to extraordinarily small. Perception of crime has less to do with overall trends than those in your immediate vicinity…

It also matters who you are. Old people are typically more scared of crime than young people—even though they’re the demographic least likely to be victimized. Women are generally more worried about crime than men. Fear of rape in particular has little relationship with the statistical risk, says Lewis….

And, surely there’s something to be said for blaming the politicians:

One possible reason fear of crime remains high is that powerful people have an incentive to ring the alarms anyway. Politicians score points by promising to get “tough on crime,” even after those efforts pay off and crime levels hit historic lows.

An irrational public fear of crime is not harmless.  It leads to irrational public policies, e.g., three strikes and your out; mandatory minimum sentences that keep non-violent drug offenders in prison for far too long.  Of course, it’s not just criminal justice policy where the disjunction between reality and what the public believes has some serious consequences.  Heck, imagine how much better off we’d be if more Americans realized you could not solve our budget issues just by cutting “waste, fraud, and abuse” and foreign aid.

The GOP chair

So, there’s been much talk of the 3-legged stool of health care reform (mandate, subsidies, universal coverage).  David Frum gives us the 4-legged chair of the modern Republican party.  A big difference, of course, is that you can kick out a leg but still sit in a chair.

Money troubles can ruin even the happiest relationships. No wonder that the conservative coalition is experiencing so much strain.

Conservatism could once be described as a three-cornered stool: social, economic and national security conservatives.

Today though it’s more relevant to think of conservatism as an attempt to draw a line connecting four points:

1) No tax increase
2) No defense cuts
3) No Medicare cuts
4) Rapid move to a balanced budget.

Obviously it’s impossible to meet all four of those commitments. It would be difficult enough to combine #4 with even two of the first three.

The reason Frum remains my favorite conservative, it that he actually appreciates these internal contradictions exist whereas most at least pretend (or actually are) to be in denial.  Frum discusses how commitment to different aspects of these 4 elements advantages various candidates for 2012 and are related to various parts of the base.   What he fails to mention, is that no Republican can ever get anywhere these days without strict adherence to #1.  Sure values voters may be less committed to this aspect, but can any Republican seriously when any elected office this side of dogcatcher while admitting he’s willing to increase tax revenue?  I doubt it.  Quite a shame, as if there’s one thing we need to do to address our long-term budgetary problems, it’s increase tax revenue.


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