Quick hits (part II)

1) This nice post from the Economist on how females are out-classing males in education throughout the developed world has been sitting open in my browser deserving it’s own post for too long.  So, here it is.

2) Jamelle Bouie makes a good case that Patty Murray should be the next Democratic leader in the Senate.

3) Republicans of late have been suggesting they actually care about inequality. John Cassidy just says follow the money in their latest proposed budget:

As long as a Democrat occupies the White House, there’s practically no chance that G.O.P. spending cuts will be enacted, marking the Price budget as more of a political wish list than an actual funding bill. But wish lists matter, too, especially for a Party that is supposedly trying to change its public image. And in 2015, it seems, the most that the Republicans can hope for is to shower more gifts on the wealthiest households in America, while depriving poor families of health care, food stamps, and college tuition.

4) So apparently “the left” has a problem with Mark Kleiman’s great idea for prison reform.  I’m very much with Kleiman.  It’s good to have people suggesting we need to radically re-think our incarceration nation, but I’m not a big fan of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.  And Kleiman’s proposals would be a very good improvement.

5) Back to John Cassidy as I enjoyed his take on Ted Cruz.   Also, I have to say that Cruz’s “imagine a world without the IRS” is just preposterous pandering to the most ignorant.  So, is that a world without any federal income tax (how does that work?) or a world where people get to cheat on their taxes with impunity (ask Greece how well that works out)?

6) I was just commenting in class the other day how the NFL is a model of socialism.

7) Philip Gourevetich sure knows how to write about tragedy (he wrote the definitive book on the Rwandan genocide), so he certainly has a thoughtful commentary on the recent horrible air crash tragedy.

8) As if our completely over-reliance on prison isn’t enough, we make life way too hard for former prisoners to get jobs.  Most importantly, we’re pretty stupid about what the statistics actually show:

Consider that over-reliance on background checks inevitably screens out qualified, trustworthy job applicants. More than one in four adults in America has a criminal record, and the vast majority of them currently pose no threat to public safety and will not go on to commit crimes in the future: Most recidivism occurs within three years of an arrest, and beyond that point, recidivism rates begin to decrease so dramatically that a criminal record no longer indicates that a person is more likely to be arrested than someone without a record. At the same time, some individuals who commit violent crimes—such as the San Francisco Uber driver charged with attacking a passenger with a hammer—have no prior criminal record that would show up on a background check.

9) America’s police kill way too many people. It doesn’t have to be this way.  And a great Vox interview with an enlightened police chief on how we need to change police training and culture so less people needlessly die.

10) With all the focus on the corrupting potential of money in campaigns, it’s easy to overlook the hugely distorting effects of all the money in lobbying.

Whom to give to?

A few years ago I heard Peter Singer’s argument about charitable giving and it definitely made an impact on me.  That, along with several other writers advocating against giving to already wealthy institutions (e.g., my undergraduate alma mater), as well as some really interesting reporting on organizations like Givewell has really influenced my own charitable contributions.  In fact, thanks to Givewell, I spent my New Year’s eve giving to Give Directly, the Fistula Foundation, and Living Goods.  Anyway, in light of that, I was intrigued by Eric Posner’s Slate article suggesting that perhaps I should have given to Duke or some local disadvantaged kids.

First, his summary of the compelling Singer augment:

But the idea that one should contribute one’s excess wealth to the poor is only one prong of effective altruism. Singer elaborates on the other prong in a new book calledThe Most Good You Can Do.

After you resolve to donate your excess wealth to the poor, Singer says, you have an additional ethical obligation to ensure that the money is used in the most effective way possible. This might seem like an obvious idea, but it isn’t. Suppose you donate $5,000 to the local Little League so that it can buy baseball equipment for poor children. You might feel good about yourself, but an effective altruist will realize that this amount of money could be used to buy malaria nets or medicine that would save as many as five lives in a poor country. Then you should ask yourself: Which is better, some kids playing baseball or some kids getting a chance at life? Or put differently, should you really let children in Niger die so that some First World kids get to play baseball?

Posner, though, finds some reasons to doubt Singer’s admonitions:

GiveWell does not say that the other charities are worthless but typically declines to recommend them because they do not supply enough information for GiveWell to evaluate their programs. GiveWell declined to recommend Oxfam, for example, because Oxfam does not publish “high-quality monitoring and evaluation reports on its website” and implements many programs that GiveWell does not think are particularly effective. So how do we know that Oxfam does any good? Yet this is a charity that Singer has extolled many times.

Academic research on foreign aid has painted a similarly bleak picture. There is little evidence that the trillions of dollars donated to developing countries has helpedthem develop…

Aid is often lost to corruption, or misused because donors do not understand foreign cultures. Aid can even stoke conflict and damage institutions, as groups compete for access to foreign funds. Well-intentioned aid efforts frequently illustrate the law of unintended consequences. A good illustration is the poster child for aid, the malaria net, which is a cheap and effective way of saving lives. As the New York Timesreported, many net recipients use them as fishing nets, which kill fish, destroy fisheries, and poison water sources, because malaria nets are treated with insecticide. Of course, not everyone misuses malaria nets, but the story illustrates an old finding in the foreign aid literature, which is aid interventions that seem obviously good frequently go awry…

So what’s an effective altruist to do? The utilitarian imperative to search out and help the people with the lowest marginal utility of money around the world is in conflict with our limited knowledge about foreign cultures, which makes it difficult for us to figure out what the worst-off people really need. For this reason, donations to Little League and other local institutions you are familiar with may not be a bad idea. The most good you can do may turn out to be—not much.

That’s a little too easy.  Sure, much of foreign donations may go awry.  But even if 90% of your donation for a charity for starving Haitian orphans goes awry, I would argue that there’s still more benefit to that then getting a poor kid in America a baseball bat.  Not to be holier than thou, as I still give plenty to charities that surely don’t make Givewell or Singer’s cut, but I’m under no illusions as to the relative merit.  For that matter, imagine how much good I could do with poor, staring 3rd world orphans just by giving up HBO and sending them the money (which I actually try not to think about).

Quick hits (part I)

[This was supposed to auto-publish this morning, as usual, but somehow didn’t]

1) Since it’s been Ted Cruz week, here’s a nice piece putting him into context of the Paranoid Style in American politics.

2) I’d read that redheads are typically more susceptible to pain, but I had not read before that it is tied to a particular genetic mutation in about 70% or redheads.  Not that I’m tough or anything, but I think I am in the other 30%.

3) Nice piece from Bill Ayers on how to make sense of scientific controversies.  Suffice it to say, that an understanding of the scientific method (yeah, social science in addition to “real” science) helps.

4) Nice to see at least one prosecutor who erroneously convicted an innocent man of murder feels bad about it.  Now, prosecutors need to read this and think about being more careful before it’s too late.

5) Totally deserving of it’s own post, but as you’ve noticed, I’ve had a hard time getting to things this week.  Any way, the way police handle the mentally ill in this country is just appalling.  Police were dispatched and told they were dealing with a mentally ill person.  Then, he basically seems to get shot (there’s a video) for carrying a screwdriver.  Worst part, the way police endlessly defend this action.  Whether legally justified or not, for this situation to end up with a man dead, is just horrible policing.

6) Adam Davidson on the myth of job-stealing immigrants.  My favorite part about this is that most of what Davidson does is summarize the research of mainstream economists from across the political spectrum, but oh boy does that enrage the commenters.

7) Some interesting research on receptiveness to scientific expertise.  So apparently, it’s not the Republicans are resistant to listening to science, just that Democrats are particularly receptive.  (Hmmm, something seems weird about that formulation).  Also, the religious not liking science so much.

8) Dogs can actually know the difference between words, not just tone of voice.  Cool.

9) A trailer for Monty Python and the Holy Grail cut in the form of a modern thriller.  Fun.

10) Enjoyed this NYT editorial on the coal industry versus the Clean Air Act.  For some reason I don’t really trust the coal industry’s preferred interpretation of the coal industry.

11) One of my great recent regrets?  That I got an episode behind on the Jinx and had the stunning, stunning ending ruined for me by the news coverage.  That was some ending even knowing it was coming.  Enjoyed this story about Durst’s younger brother.

12) Loved this essay from a Biology professor on what it’s like teaching evolution at the University of Kentucky.

Quick hits (part II)

1) The Republican Senate’s delay on confirming Lorretta Lynch for Attorney General is literally historic in its wrongness.

2) There’s new research that says, no, it’s actually liberals who are happier, not conservatives.  When actually reading about it, I find it entirely unconvincing.

3) Help an NCSU professor do some cool citizen science on heartbeats.

4) Loved this history of the origins of Mad Men (my co-favorite show ever, with The Wire).

5) The good news on Obamacare just keeps coming.

6) The real story of the Irish famine and exodus.  It’s not just the potato blight, but why that was so deadly.

7) Good to know that racism in America is over and the only problem is Democrats spreading “phony racial narratives.”  Or so says old white guy who happens to be a US Senator.

8) Lincoln Peirce, creator of Big Nate comics, came to my son’s elementary school last week.  My son loves Big Nate books and Wimpy Kid books head-and-shoulders above any others.  I really enjoyed reading about the connection between these two authors.

9) So, apparently contestants on the Bachelor(ette) are basically not allowed to have any access to the outside world:

Contestants can’t have cell phones, use the internet, watch movies, or even read books, so they have no choice but to talk to each other, and to stew about their feelings for their Bachelor or Bachelorette, the object of their competitive affection.

That’s like being in solitary confinement, but with other people.  As if there weren’t enough problems with it, I have to wonder what kind of person would subject themselves to such conditions.  No books even??!!

10) Read a lot of good stuff on Robert “Bowling Alone” Putnam’s new book about poverty in America.  It’s important stuff.  Here’s a nice summary.

11) There’s been a lively debate among academics about the group-based nature of the Democratic versus Republican parties. Seth Masket does a nice job summarizing the issues and splitting the baby.

12) How climate change denying scientists are much like scientists of 50 years ago who tried to convince people that cigarettes are harmless.

13) Love my cereal for breakfast.  Thus, loved this Wonkblog post on the most popular cereals.

14) One of my students/advisees with no prior experience with animation software, made this awesome video on redistricting in NC.

15) What happens to a Texas prosecutor who gets a man put to death based on false testimony?  You know– nothing.

16) Speaking of Texas “justice,” Dahlia Lithwick writes

Last week I wrote about thesuspension of David Dow, one of the country’s most prominent capital defense attorneys. He was benched for an entire year by Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals—the state’s highest criminal appeals court—for allegedly filing a late petition in a death penalty case. The sanction was doubly bonkers, I argued, because other death penalty lawyers never seem to be sanctioned for sleeping, drinking, or otherwise rendering themselves incompetent at trial. In any event, Dow was barred from appearing before the CCA for 12 months. Which means that his death row clients—whom he represents pro bono, and who may not find other lawyers to do so—literally have their lives on the line because a motion may or may not have been filed a few hours late. Or, as one lawyer quipped after the piece was posted: “Apparently Texas finally found one lawyer to be incompetent: the one who is actually good at his job.”

 

Quick hits (part I)

So, this was supposed to be last week’s quick hits part II and then I was going to do a mid-week quick hits, but whatever, here it is.

1) Are we teaching our children that there are no moral facts?

2) On a similar note, great Lawrence Krauss piece on the importance of teaching doubt and skepticism:

One thing is certain: if our educational system does not honestly and explicitly promote the central tenet of science—that nothing is sacred—then we encourage myth and prejudice to endure. We need to equip our children with tools to avoid the mistakes of the past while constructing a better, and more sustainable, world for themselves and future generations. We won’t do that by dodging inevitable and important questions about facts and faith. Instead of punting on those questions, we owe it to the next generation to plant the seeds of doubt.

3) Do parents create narcissists by praising too much?  Maybe.  I like how the research makes an important conceptual and measurement distinction between narcissism and self esteem:

Of course, self-esteem and narcissism are two very different things. The difference has to do with how you value yourself compared to other people. “Self-esteem basically means you’re a person of worth equal with other people,” Bushman tells Shots. “Narcissism means you think you’re better than other people.”

4) Josh Barro writes about Marco Rubio’s “puppies and rainbows” tax plan.  I think that about gets it.

5) Love the Vox guide to using science to win at rock, paper, scissors.

6) NYT and Deadspin on what’s wrong with the Blurred Lines copyright ruling.  After listening to the two songs, I’ve got to agree (unlike that guy where I was like, “he totally stole ‘Won’t back down’ and just made it slower.”

7) Pi, primes, and cryptography.

8) The world’s most painful insect sting.  No thanks.

9) Synthetic genes in place of vaccines?  Just maybe.

10) Somehow, I had missed John Oliver on Ayn Rand.  As good as you would expect.

11) The really cool part of Apple’s latest product announcement is actually their battery innovations.

12) Time to end the ethanol rip-off.  Indeed.

13) Companies are doing a lot less screening of employees for drug use because– surprise, surprise– it doesn’t really work in improving workplace safety or productivity.

14) So, all this oil we are now shipping throughout the country by railroad.  The infrastructure is simply not meant for it and it is thus a very dangerous and bad idea.  Of course, we’re doing a ton of it anyway.

15) Advice to the unmarried: don’t spend so damn much on your wedding.  It’s crazy how much Americans now spend on weddings.  You know what matters?  That you have a good enough party with your family, friends, loved ones about you.  Nobody remembers how fancy the venue or the food or whatever is.  Just have a good time and save  your money.

16) Yes, a movie with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence did just go straight to video.  I had no idea.  That said, this is one of those rare books that I finished that I should have just given up on.

17) So, the estrogen replacement Premarin is still made from the urine of female horses.  It’s no fun for the horses, but this system makes the manufacturer way more money.

18) Safe to say if General Petraeus had been an enlisted soldier, he would not have gotten off so easily.

19) I gave up on Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, in part, because I was pretty well persuaded by his case and felt like I was getting beaten over the head with it.  Sure you need good data, but you also need to make it a good story.  Anyway, according to this essay in the Guardian, Pinker is wrong and humans have not become dramatically less violent.

20) The case for free range parenting from a German parent who has moved to America.  Why do we have to be so uniquely dumb and paranoid in this country?!

21) A fascinating case of evolution in California Scrub Jays that calls into question just exactly what it means to be a species and our understandings of how speciation happens.  Good stuff.

Quick hits

Sorry to be a day late.  Went to the ACC tournament three days in a row and it really threw me off.  Anyway.

1) Forget critical thinking and fancy software, the key to success is Microsoft Excel.

2) Despite the fact that we have way too many people in prison, it was harder than I expected to cut the prison population 50% with this very cool interactive feature.

3) The evidence for the success of Obamacare just keeps accumulating.  The latest budget estimates look great.

4) Mentally ill black man with a knife, watch out.  But it’s an amazing what a white guy with a gun can get away with in a police confrontation.

5) Some evidence from the US Senate that the tide is turning on more sensible marijuana legislation.

6) Found this video on addiction featuring a kiwi bird really, really compelling.

7) I loved this essay on the awesomeness of Pi, for yesterday’s Pi day.

8) Did North Georgia fire a professor just for being rude?

9) You remember that awful USDA animal research facility in Nebraska.  Looks like there’s going to be some more oversight now.  Yeah, journalism!

10) Either computers are really good at writing poetry, or poetry is just too easy to imitate.  Interesting either way.

11) The state of New York has decided that any school in the bottom 5% is “failing” no matter what.  If you actually know math, you realize that’s nuts.  Might as well decide no schools will be below average.

12) Forget asteroids, apparently it’s the massive solar flares that may ruin things for all of us.

13) Pretty fascinated by this treatment to literally freeze your scalp to help prevent hair loss from chemo.

14) Some nice evidence on how welfare really matters.

15) Most people (including me) are not that impressed by the new Apple Watch.  Tim Lee points out that the first PC’s and smartphones received skeptical reviews.  (Of course, I’m sure that skepticism proved apt for many a product).

16) Loved Jon Stewart on the OU racist fraternity.  But especially on how Fox News somehow felt that even this they had to defend.

17) We should probably do a lot more to actually ensure that police know the laws they are supposed to be enforcing.

18) Really liked Amy Davidson’s take on Tom Cotton’s Iran letter.

19) What Obama got wrong in his Selma speech:

But he’s wrong if he thinks Ferguson doesn’t represent a larger “endemic” problem that is “sanctioned by law and custom.”

If there’s one takeaway from Ferguson—and the takeaways are legion—it is that the law is stacked against ordinary citizens. That police are largely shielded from liability when a life is taken. That the Supreme Court has a tendency to give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt. That prosecutors can use and abuse the grand jury processto fit their needs. That the bar for bringing a civil rights prosecution against a cop is almost insurmountable. That constitutional rights, in the face of state violence and oppression, are anything but enforceable.

20) NC Republicans like to brag about the huge tax cut they provided.  Yes, the state is taking in less dollars, but many taxpayers, especially elderly with significant medical expenses are paying more.  But hey, at least rich people can get more luxury options on their new Mercedes now.

Quick hits (part I)

1) Of course the NRA is utterly lacking in decency.  And not surprisingly, they are not so good at logic (or empathy) either.

2) Oh, this Radley Balko column made me so, so mad.  A cop beats somebody up and the rest of them lie about it under oath.  Fortunately for the victim, it was caught on video.  At last check, no punishment for any of the malefactors in uniform.

3) It appears that in North Carolina, it is now legal for a lobbyist to provide a politician with a prostitute.  Seriously.

4) Oklahoma’s new AP courses (the satire version).

5) I had no idea the Mona Lisa had once been stolen (I learned this from a wrong answer on Trivia Crack).  Led me to this fascinating story of how that theft is what led the Mona Lisa to be so famous.

6) A former federal prosecutor on just how easy it is for prosecutors to abuse their power.

7) Vox on what firefighters are up to now that there are so many fewer fires.

8) I loved the SNL sketch on ISIS.  Those people so offended need to get over it.

9) How Kareem Abdul Jabbar re-invented himself as a really tall public intellectual.

10) So, maybe presidential democracy doesn’t doom America.  Maybe.

11) Given my picky eating, I only first tried Indian food a few years ago.  Love it!  The science behind what makes it so good.

12) Enjoyed this take down of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech.

13) Nine rules for all interactions between Coyote and Road Runner.

14) Tiny and remote Sweet Briar College is shutting down.  I certainly feel bad for the faculty and students, but how in the world is a college with just 500 students in the middle-of-nowhere supposed to survive?  Also, what’s the opposite of an economy of scale, because universities that small have always struck me as monstrously inefficient.

15) Got a good laugh out of this creative (and effective) attempt to distract free throw shooters.

16) I so want this new camera!  (And for that matter,  my Canon S100 has been missing for about a month).

17) Damn, the culture regarding women in general and rape in particular is just do damn deplorable in India.

18) So, you want to cut the prison population in half?  Have at it with this cool interactive feature.

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