Friday, April 29, 2011

In Large Friendly Letters: Don't Panic

Oh my God! American students are falling behind the rest of the world!! Soft Liberal Communist Hippies have ruined the once vaunted American eduction system!!!

Or not:
Back in 1964, American 13-year-olds took the First International Math Study and ended up ranking in 11th place. Considering that only 12 nations participated, including Australia, Finland, and Japan, our next-to-last performance was pretty abysmal.
This was six years into the Sputnik panic. We have never been a super-educated society. Christ, doesn't any one remember the Scopes trial? America has enjoyed an anti-elite, anti-intellectual run of about 250 years. Even Thomas Jefferson put his trust in dirt farmers.

Oh yeah, and:
Between the 2006 and 2009 PISA tests, our scores "increased 5 points in reading, 13 points in math, and 13 points in science."
Did I mention that the US also has the largest disparity between top and bottom performers of any of the countries tested (China only tested in Shanghai...)?

Separate but "equal" lives!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Screw the Poor: Social Security Edition

When someone suggests that we raise the age on Medicare or Social Security benefits, it seems like such an intuitively fair solution. Surely it affects all of us equally, right?

As it turns out, this is just another way that the poor are going to suffer in order to save everyone else a tax increase. You see, the poor are living longer but not nearly as long as the rich! The life expectancy for those in the top income brackets has been increasing at twice the rate as that of lower income workers.

Below is the Social Security Administration's calculation for median* life expectancy based on birth year. The figures are given for those in the bottom half of the income distribution and the top half.

Birth yearBottom 50%Top 50%

In the end, low income Americans are subsidizing their richer neighbors. Every year of benefits we shave off further distorts the "fairness". Add to that the fact that many of the low paying jobs are also more physically demanding (a lawyer can eek out a longer career than a coal miner) and you are left with not a fair policy but a cruel one.

*- approximated as "first age at which less than half the sample of male Social Security-covered workers is alive"

ht: Paul Krugman

Friday, April 22, 2011

Islam vs Christianity: A Travelog

More than periodically we are confronted with the claim that Islam is a violent religion. Two issues seem to drive this response: violent jihad and honor killings (or other forms of "justice"). I have had to confront this in my own Sunday school class.

My first thought is always that honor killings, at least, are not a part of Islamic culture but are a hang over from the tribal culture in some areas where Islam predominates. I strongly suspect that violent interpretations of Jihad can be traced to the similar sources. This is not to deny that Muslim writings do not contain verses that can be used to support of atrocities. They may even be more common than in Christian writings. However, there are enough calls to stoning or polygamy in the Christian scriptures that the fact we manage to ignore them indicates that human kind is not in thrall to Law. We pick and chose. Which parts of the Quran are ignored in Indonesia or Nigeria?

Given that Islam grew and evolved within certain cultural milieu, how has Christianity's historical path affected its current "culture"? Was there a specific difference between spreading through the cultures of 7th/8th C North Africa, Middle East and Asia Minor versus spreading in 1st-4th C Roman Empire? A difference between conquering local populations versus "co-opting" the Imperial machinery?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

No Wonder

It's no wonder that I sometimes feel like I can't get ahead. I have been weened on the promise of the American Dream. Upward and onward!

Then there is this:

There are currently 130.738 million payroll jobs in the U.S. (as of March 2011). There were 130.781 million payroll jobs in January 2000. So that is over eleven years with no increase in total payroll jobs...

And the median household income in constant dollars was $49,777 in 2009. That is barely above the $49,309 in 1997, and below the $51,100 in 1998....

Just a reminder that many Americans have been struggling for a decade or more. The aughts were a lost decade for most Americans.
Is it fair to expect standards of living to improve continually? That's been the American exceptionalist mantra for my entire life.

Some will say that income and quality of life are not strongly correlated or that technology has driven down the price of many goods (computers, TVs, iPads). Show me the math and we can discuss.

More on Gene COMT

The article describing how COMT gene may influence learning patterns that generated my Free Will post has triggered another thought.

Is this the beginning of the discovery of the biology underlying the personality patterns described Carl Jung and expanded by Briggs and Myers in the MBTI? My ENTP brain is all lit up with the possibilities!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Free Will vs COMT

If this pans out, then Free Will has taken a hit: confirmation bias may actually be influenced by your genes...
People's willingness to let advice color their experience hinges at least in part on the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is associated with pleasure, reward and learning. The researchers pinpointed one gene in particular, COMT, that seems to play a role in a person's inclination to learn from his or her own experiences...

People with an exceptional ability to spot inaccurate instructions and start making decisions using their own experience tended to have the Val/Val version of the gene, whereas those who needed "greater confidence" that their experience was telling them to jettison earlier advice were more likely to have the Met allele.

Scientific American, "Refuse to learn from experience? Thank your genes"

Monday, April 18, 2011

Amateur Psychology Moment: for Monday, April 25

Why is it I frequent mostly religious and economics blogs? Am I sucker for lost causes?!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Twin Peeks

For those who loved all the eery results of the Minnesota Twin Study and/or found The Bell Curve persuasive:
In one study, Eric Turkheimer and colleagues studied 320 pairs of 7-year-old twins who were raised in extreme poverty. Among the poorest, the shared environment accounted for most of the differences in IQ (60%), and the genes accounted for very little; consequently, in this study, the heritability of IQ was reported to be close to zero! Among the richest, however, the heritability of IQ approached what Bouchard found: variations in the genes accounted for most of the differences in IQ scores, and the shared environment accounted for very little of the variance. This study points to the fact that estimates of heritability depend on the sample that is studied, and the environment of that sample.

Straight Talk about Twin Studies, Genes, and Parenting: What Makes Us Who We Are, Psychology Today
It would seem that these studies of twins raised largely in upper-middle class homes (US adoptions have almost exclusively been to well-off, two parent homes) may be poisoned by the uniform environment of employed parents and decent schools. As Turkheimer's along with various French studies (described here) have discovered, growing up in a poor environment has a marked effect on outcomes.

The appeal of the Minnesota study can be the same as that of eugenicist works like The Bell Curve: they comfort us with seeming proof that our comfortable lives are if not self-made, at least predestined. Our responsibility for reaching out to others who have not shared our luck - say through more equitable school funding - can safely be ignored.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Safe Nuclear Energy?

I will admit that other forms of energy beside nuclear have negative effects - coal mining, oil drilling, hydroelectric projects. I find the effects of uranium mining are under-covered but perhaps there is a lower volume of ore required in the case of uranium that mitigates the effects.

The burr under my saddle today is the claim that a much smaller number of people are killed by nuclear incidents than other energy-related industries. This is likely true but I have a question? What other activity requires the evacuation of the population for 20 some odd miles following an accident? Could this "precaution" be affecting the numbers a wee bit? And what about the impact of that contaminated zone through the years? The area around Chernobyl turns out not to be the wildlife haven that some would have had you believe.

So, we have the fact that actual deaths from radiation is low versus the fact that large areas might be declared off limits following the Fukushima Daiichi and future accidents. Sounds like the nuclear mavens are playing a little game of misdirection to me.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Twin Peaks

At the same time I have been checking up on ol' Mister Oil Supply, my interest has peaked (pun intended) concerning the future of Uranium. The latest official word from the IAEA seems be from 2009:
At 2008 rates of consumption, total identified resources are sufficient for over 100 years of supply.
Am I the only one who is noticing that, if the promises of the current so-called Nuclear Renaissance come to fruition, that we could easily be looking at consumption rates twice that of 2008? Would this not bring the supply down to something closer to 50-60 years - approximately the service life of a reactor? Throw in a few undiscovered sources and we might squeeze out another 20 or 30 years. Are we talking about building a generation and a half of reactors and then having to ditch those and find some other form of energy? If this is what passes for planning for the future I certainly hope our grandchildren are far more resourceful than we are.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

You May Want To Go Ahead And Fill Up Your SUV Now

In case you missed it,we are running out of oil, well at least oil that you can afford.

Above is a slide presented by the US Energy Information Agency back in 2009. It clearly shows that world oil production is expected to drop off in the coming years. In case you are wondering what "Unidentified Projects" are, think alternative liquid fuels - namely ethanol. That's right, we Americans think we can replace that oil with ethanol. Once all those acres of corn are planted, we can start talking about Peak Food.