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Baroness Thatcher is dead.

by Harry on April 8, 2013

I presume it is a bit silly to point to any obituaries. So, instead, a heartwarming story. A few weeks before he died Eric Heffer, in one of his last interviews, Eric Heffer told a story against Neil Kinnock. (If you are too young to remember Heffer, well, here’s wikipedia). He, Heffer, was dying, and one evening, walking down a corridor in the Commons, he got to the point that he couldn’t walk any further. He thought he was alone but Mrs Thatcher was several feet behind him. Seeing his distress she made him put his arm round her, and walked him to a nearby office, made him a cup of tea, and sat with him while they waited for a nurse. His observation, about Neil Kinnock, was that he would have walked straight by.

It turns out that Heffer and Thatcher were friends of sorts; similarly Thatcher and Allan Adams. (See Frank Field on Thatcher’s liking for socialist company). The first 6 years of my political life was devoted to opposing nearly everything Thatcher did (including the Falklands War, about which I have changed my mind; the exception: sale of council houses), and that only ended because I moved somewhere that I could oppose what Reagan was doing instead. But there’s plenty of space on the internet for people who want to speak ill of the dead—I just thought I would tell a story I heard about 22 years ago and is not, as far as I can find, recorded elsewhere.

Some objective moral truths?

by Harry on April 3, 2013

Matthew Hutson’s interesting article in yesterday’s Times has, in the print edition, the unfortunate tag “How much does psychology determine moral principles?: a lot”, which led me to think it was going to be about whether ought implies can. In fact it is about research showing what anyone who teaches moral philosophy already knows, which is that people get confused the first time they encounter trolley-type problems:

For a recent paper to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, subjects were made to think either abstractly or concretely — say, by writing about the distant or near future. Those who were primed to think abstractly were more accepting of a hypothetical surgery that would kill a man so that one of his glands could be used to save thousands of others from a deadly disease. In other words, a very simple manipulation of mind-set that did not change the specifics of the case led to very different responses…..

Other recent research shows similar results: stressing subjects, rushing them or reminding them of their mortality all reduce utilitarian responses, most likely by preventing them from controlling their emotions.

Even the way a scenario is worded can influence our judgments, as lawyers and politicians well know. In one study, subjects read a number of variations of the classic trolley dilemma: should you turn a runaway trolley away from five people and onto a track with only one? When flipping the switch was described as saving the people on the first track, subjects tended to support it. When it was described as killing someone on the second, they did not. Same situation, different answers.

I haven’t read the papers he refers to, but I’d be impressed if it established either of the claims he asserts toward the end of the article:

Objective moral truth doesn’t exist, and these studies show that even if it did, our grasp of it would be tenuous.

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Merry Christmas, Everybody.

by Harry on December 25, 2012

Its easy.
Just take 5 minutes to give what you can:
Oxfam USA

Then enjoy yourselves:

Dr Who Monopoly

by Harry on December 13, 2012

Everyone knows that next year is the 50th anniversary. In fact it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out the day after the far less significant 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination: a special is promised, though no details yet. The doctor is even, right now, on the cover of TV guide magazine though not, contra the inside story, for the first time: somewhere in a depths of my 16 year old’s bedroom is the TV guide from just before she was born with Paul McGann on the cover promoting the 1996 TV movie. (And the adorable Larry Hagman is relegated to the back cover—who, when JR was shot, would have imagined that when the real JR died he’d be upstaged by John Smith?) So I thought I’d poke around for a good present for the 16 year-old from her loving siblings and found….Monopoly: Dr. Who Edition 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition. Fantastic! (PS, don’t tell her, please).

Maternal Deprivation Studies at UW Madison

by Harry on December 13, 2012

Lori Gruen has had a post up for a while at New APPS, on the renewal of maternal deprivation research at UW Madison. Here is her description of what the researchers plan to do:

A psychiatry professor who has a distinguished record of research on anxiety disorders plans to separate more monkey babies from their mothers, leave them with wire “surrogates” covered in cloth (a practice developed by Harlow) to emulate “adverse early rearing conditions,” then pair them with another maternally deprived infant after 3-6 weeks of being alone. The infants will then be exposed to fearful conditions. The monkeys in this group and another group of young monkeys who will be reared with their mothers, will then be killed and their brains examined.

Here is the experimental protocol and here is a history of maternal deprivation studies at UW Madison, from a site established by critics of the research.

The protocol describes the value of the research as follows:

While numerous studies have been performed examining the effects of surrogate/peer in nonhuman primates, no studies have been performed examining the effects of this rearing modification on brain development using state of the art imaging and molecular methods. These efforts will allow us to identify the exact brain regions affected, the changes in gene function in these regions, and the specific genes that are involved increasing the early risk to develop anxiety and depression. Such information has the potential to identify new targets in specific brain regions that can lead to new ideas about treatment and even prevention of the long-term suffering associated with early adversity. For example, understanding the involvement of brain chemicals that have never before been implicated in anxiety, will allow the field to begin to search for medications that affect these newly identified systems. In addition, the molecular information, combined with the imaging data, may allow for interventions that target novel brain regions that are critically involved in anxiety and depression.

Part of me is very resistant to forgoing human benefits for the sake of non-human animals. The other part of me thinks that the more like a human being an animal is (and thus the more likely research on it is to be useful for the treatment of humans) the more likely it is that the animal has a high degree of moral status. And there can be no question that the monkeys will be caused psychological harm by this study, since the monkeys’ susceptibility to anxiety and distress is an integral part of the research. And while studies of this kind do differ from Harlow’s experiments involving total social isolation, they still seem spectacularly cruel.

The university seems to have been pretty unforthcoming about the research. A quick Google Search for “maternal deprivation UW Madison” shows the top hits as a page against the research by Alliance for Animals, a Madison-based animal rights group, a petition by Gruen to the UW Provost to stop the research, and another website hosted by Alliance for Animals that has a pledge for alumni to refrain from donating to UW until the maternal deprivation experiments are stopped. But I don’t see anything by UW. I’d be interested to know if anyone has seen more information. Or could offer a convincing defense.

Heckman on predistribution

by Harry on December 9, 2012

Last month’s issue of Boston Review has a very good essay by James Heckman, and follow-up discussion. Heckman’s essay argues forcefully for early childhood interventions of various kinds as efficient means for mitigating inequality of opportunity.
I’d especially recommend that you read Charles Murray’s comment, just so you can read Heckman’s (devastating) response, but also Annette Lareau’s and David Deming’s. And, if you want, mine and Swift’s.

One thing I am curious about. Heckman is consistently accused by lefties of not understanding that poverty, not parenting, is the fundamental problem. For all I know that is true, and it is not impossible that I have a tin ear, but when I read his essay (and hear him talk etc) everything he says is consistent with the (entirely reasonable) assumption that as things stand, though the fundamental problem may well be poverty, elected officials are pretty determined to do very little to reduce poverty in general and child poverty in particular, so we need to look for policy levers that would improve the prospects of poor children without addressing their poverty. (And, if by some chance, this pessimistic assessment is wrong, still the measures he proposes would play an important role during the long transition to a more equal society). Is it just because he is known to be, broadly speaking, a conservative that people read him the less charitable way? Or am I, indeed, missing something?

Bomb Sight

by Harry on December 8, 2012

My friend Amy Keys alerted me to this amazing website documenting every single bomb that was dropped during the Blitz. I recommend zooming out on the main page, and then narrowing in to particular places you know well. My first trip was to Regents Park.

Apparently there’s going to be an app.

Clive Dunn is dead

by Harry on November 8, 2012

Clive Dunn is dead. The BBC obit is here. The only man to serve 4 years in a prisoner of war camp but 10 in the Home Guard.
Update: I told my 11 year old girl, after posting this, that Corporal Jones was dead. She was horrified—these guys are as live for her as Katy Perry is, and without the suspicion she has the Katy Perry is a fictional character. I assured her he was very old and lived well to the end, and that he was a lifelong socialist, all of which matter to the midwestern sisters. After looking generally sad she suddenly looked up with a grin said “maybe I should be allowed to listen to Dad’s Army in bed tonight” (usually forbidden on a schoolnight). Sure, I said, and wondered whether, whether, despite my unbelief he is in a position to watch. Because hearing that interaction would remove any doubt he may have had about the worth of his career.This weekend will be All Dad’s Army All Weekend in our house. Just in time for poppy day.

Unequal Childhoods

by Harry on February 20, 2012

Laura (from 11d) at the Atlantic on Annette Lareau:

Jonah, did you ask your French teacher about why you got that B on that assignment? At 5:00 p.m. today, you have an orthodontist appointment. We’ll pick up Thai food on the way home and then you’ll finish your English homework. Don’t forget to put a book cover on your essay. A book cover always bumps a grade up half a point. Your dad can check your math when he gets home. Do you want tofu in your green curry or chicken? Ian, do you want noodles?

Every once in a while, you step back from yourself as a parent and say, “Dude! Did I actually just say that? I used to be cool. Did some alien take over my brain and turn me into this Mom Machine?” No crab-faced alien can be blamed for transforming me from a slacker in a black dress into what I am today. According to sociologist Annette Lareau, I’m a product of my social class.

The rest here.

This reminds me that I should long ago have alerted you all that the second edition of Unequal Childhoods was published in September. The new edition has a number of additions; including a follow up study of where the children were a decade or so later (none of the outcomes are very surprising, I’m sorry to report, but the details are fantastically interesting), and a riveting and uneasy reflection on some of the methodological and ethical issues with doing a longitudinal ethnographic study, describing the families’ reactions. Lareau gave copies of the first edition to each of the families after it was published, and, predictably, many of them read it and, equally predictably, about half were quite upset about the way they were portrayed. One family refused further contact—I was rather pleased with myself for being able to figure out, when she told me about this, which it was. In fact, the predictability of their reactions is a tribute to the first edition; the adults turn out to be the very people who were displayed to us 10 years earlier; witness Mr. Marshall’s response (cheerful disbelief when told that some of the families were upset: “It complimented everyone!”). This new chapter (14) should be required reading in all graduate level social science methods courses, and I have used it very fruitfully with undergraduates already. Interestingly, some of the families shifted their attitudes to the book over time. One middle class boy gave his father a copy of Outliers as a gift, which made the father better disposed to Lareau. One story is especially poignant, though also hopeful. Like several others, Mrs. Yanelli was annoyed at the way that her family had been portrayed feeling that it “looked down” on and was “highly critical of her family”. But her attitude changed:

Mrs Yanelli cleans the home of a Sociology professor I know slightly. One day he happened to be home when she was cleaning. She saw that he had Unequal Childhoods on his bookshelf. She told him she was in the book, and described how disappointed she and her family were with the book. Later, when I called the Yanelli’s…Mrs Yanelli told me he had “explained” the book to her , saying it was about things that were not right with society, with some people having more than others. She said that he had “made her” understand the book, and now she and her family were “fine with it”.

Goodbye Walker?

by Harry on January 18, 2012

Fantastic news. The recall for Walker in Wisconsin needed about 550,000 signatures; a couple of hours ago about 1 million were turned in; in addition the recalls against 4 Republican state senators, including Scott Fitzgerald, the Republican Senate leader (about 30% over what was needed in his case) have gathered more signatures than needed. Signatures will be challenged, no doubt, but its unlikely that challenges will be successful. Prediction: once the Dems get a candidate this will be the most vicious, highest spending, election in Wisconsin history. I’ll provide links for non millionaire out of staters to help counterbalance the contributions of multi millionaire out of staters when the time comes.

Reginald Hill is dead

by Harry on January 15, 2012

Guardian obit here. Whenever I have written about mysteries on CT, Henry has put in a word for Reginald Hill. Quite rightly: by the late eighties Hill was one of the 3 or 4 best mystery writers in the English language, and, of that group, the most effortlessly enjoyable (the others?: James, Barnard, and, until he died, Symons. Go on, tell me I’m wrong). He is most famous for his Dalziel and Pascoe books, mainly for the combination of complex plotting, interesting delightful characters, and many very comedic moments. The first 5 or 6 are fairly straightforward whodunnit/police procedurals (with the exception of Deadheads which defies one of the central conventions of the whodunnit), but one reason Hill became so good is that he experimented, frequently, in the novels, with style, format, and, increasingly often, convention. Most of his non-series books (his other series about Joe Sixmith, a black detective in Luton, was much more relentlessly humorous) were written in the 70s and early 80’s, often under pseudonyms (he has published under at least 4 names, maybe more), before he got to be really good. But the last two were brilliant, especially The Woodcutter, which is riveting, as good as any of the Dalziel/Pascoe books.

Or as good as any so far. Honestly, I was expecting him to live another 15 years at least, yielding 5 or 6 more, so was sickened when I read my mum’s email this morning, which started “No more Dalziel..”. But, according the wiki page, there is one more to come, which this page seems to confirm. So, one more to come.

Don’t lecture me

by Harry on January 6, 2012

Another great radio piece by Emily Hanford (I caught the end of what I assume was just part of it on the NPR afternoon news show on Sunday) here (audio and transcript both there). She reports the research on the effectiveness of lectures in prompting actual learning: not much. Anyone reading who lectures must listen to/read it. A long excerpt (followed by some comments):

Lecturing was the way just about everyone taught introductory physics. To think there was something wrong with the lecture meant physics instructors would “have to really change the way they do things,” says Hestenes. A lot of them ignored his study and kept teaching the way they always had. They insisted their lectures were working just fine. But Eric Mazur was unusual, says Hestenes. “He was the first one who took it to heart.” Mazur is a physics professor at Harvard University. He came across Hestenes’s articles in 1990, five years after they’d been published. To understand why the articles had such a big impact on Mazur you have to know some things about his history. Mazur grew up dreaming of becoming an astronomer.

“When I was five years old I fell in love with the universe,” he says. “I tried to get my hands on to every accessible book on astronomy. I was so excited by the world of science.” But when Mazur got to university, he hated the astronomy classes.”It was all sitting in the lecture, and then scribbling down notes and cramming those notes and parroting them back on the exam,” he says. “Focusing on the details, focusing on memorizing and regurgitation, the whole beauty of astronomy was lost.” So he switched to physics. It wasn’t as heartbreaking for him to sit in a physics lecture and memorize things. Mazur eventually got a Ph.D. in physics and a job at Harvard University. Like most Ph.D.s, Mazur never got any training in how to teach.

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Inequality and Schools

by Harry on December 12, 2011

Helen Ladd and Ted Fiske have an excellent piece in today’s Times explaining the relationship between educational inequality and income inequality, drawing on Sean Reardon’s contribution to Whither Opportunity?: Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances. An excerpt:

The Occupy movement has catalyzed rising anxiety over income inequality; we desperately need a similar reminder of the relationship between economic advantage and student performance.

The correlation has been abundantly documented, notably by the famous Coleman Report in 1966. New research by Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University traces the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families over the last 50 years and finds that it now far exceeds the gap between white and black students.

Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that more than 40 percent of the variation in average reading scores and 46 percent of the variation in average math scores across states is associated with variation in child poverty rates.

International research tells the same story. Results of the 2009 reading tests conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment show that, among 15-year-olds in the United States and the 13 countries whose students outperformed ours, students with lower economic and social status had far lower test scores than their more advantaged counterparts within every country. Can anyone credibly believe that the mediocre overall performance of American students on international tests is unrelated to the fact that one-fifth of American children live in poverty?

The most striking graph in Reardon’s chapter shows the change in achievement gaps between black and white students (which declines from Brown on) against the change in gaps between children from the highest and lowest income deciles (which starts to rise as income inequality starts to rise, perhaps unsurprisingly):

More on Whither Opportunity? another time, but for now read the whole thing.

Basil D’Oliveira is dead.

by Harry on November 19, 2011

At 80. Not 77. In Basil D’Oliveira: Cricket and Conspiracy Peter Oborne suggests that D’Oliveira may have been the greatest batsman of all time. It is worth remembering that by the age at which Dolly made his test debut, many successful batsmen have retired from the international stage: he did not even play first class cricket till after he had turned 30. Whether or not Oborne is right about that, it is certain that if D’Oliveira had been white then a youtube search would show up footage of him, rather than bringing up an ESPN special about a lesser batsman, in which his name is tagged only because John Vorster preferred having SA expelled from test cricket to having Dolly tour SA with the MCC.
Guardian obit here.
My review of Oborne’s book here. I’ll embed footage of him actually playing if someone can find it. (You can see a little here if you really work at it; in clip 6 the narrator says that John Arlott regarded bringing Dolly to England as the greatest achievement of his life. See this clip of Vorster announcing the cancellation of the tour and make your own judgement).

Oborne has the last word:

Cricket writers often mourn the lost generation of white cricketers such as Graeme Pollock, Mike Proctor or Barry Richards. But at least they got to play some Tests and unrestricted first-class cricket. The penalty that Apartheid inflicted on Eric Petersen, Ben Malamba, Cec Abrahams, Basil D’Oliveira and numerous others was far more absolute. They were denied training, facilities, access to turf wickets and any chance to play for their country at all. Only D’Oliveira escaped to enjoy complete sporting fulfilment, and he got his chance only at the very end of his sporting career, by which time his reflexes had slowed and he was half the brilliant sportsman he had been as a young man in 1950’s South Africa…..It is likely that but for the barbarism of Apartheid D’Oliveira would now be remembered as one of the very greatest cricketers the world has ever seen. By rights he should have imposed his great and singular talent on the cricketing world of the 1950’s, matching himself against the great cricketers of that age: Len Hutton and Denis Compton of England, Everton Weekes, Frank Worrrell and Clive Walcott of the West Indies, Keith Miller and Neil Harvey of Australia.


by Harry on November 9, 2011

Just wanted to give our Ohio readers a chance to tell us how inordinately pleased they are with themselves. And to tell anyone who doesn’t yet know that, in an exceptionally high turnout, Ohio voters defeated their state government’s union busting legislation by a large majority. Well done everybody. And, from your friends in Wisconsin, thanks. Fantastic.