28 February 2011

Neuroscience of Binge Drinking Better Understood

[M]anipulating two receptors in the brain, GABA receptors and toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4), "caused profound reduction" of binge drinking for two weeks in rodents that had been bred and trained to drink excessively." The study was published online the week of Feb. 28 in the journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

About 30 percent of Americans who drink do so excessively, and about 75,000 people die each year from the effects of excessive drinking. Current treatments for excessive alcohol drinking include prescription drugs Revia and Campral for controlling cravings. To ease withdrawal symptoms, doctors often prescribe medications such as Valium and Librium that carry their own risks of addiction. Valium and Librium reduce the anxiety alcoholics feel when they stop drinking but do not reduce cravings for alcohol.

The new study found that treatments that manipulate both the GABA receptor and toll-like receptor 4 have the potential to reduce anxiety and control cravings, with little to no risk for addiction[.] . . .

GABA receptors are a class of receptors in the brain that react to the neurotransmitter GABA and act as inhibitory receptors, calming down or inhibiting the activity of neurons in the brain. GABA receptors react to alcohol, giving drinkers a calm and euphoric feeling and reinforcing excessive drinking behavior. . . . This is the first scientific study to document GABA receptors' key involvement in binge drinking specifically, though scientists already believed that the receptors had a role in excessive drinking in general. . . .

Science has traditionally considered TLR4 to be an innate immunity receptor involved with neuroinflammation in the brain. Scientists associated TLR4 with microglia, cells that support inflammatory responses in the brain. "What makes this finding particularly important for the field of neuroscience is that we're showing that TLR4 plays a significant role in neurons, specifically, the neurons that are connected to the GABA receptor," . . . . To establish the connection between the GABA receptors, TLR4 and alcohol, the scientists manipulated this pathway in the binge drinking rodents . . . [with] a herpes viral vector . . . to deliver a gene-modifying agent directly to the neurons in the brain, to target TLR4 and GABA receptors. The scientists found that when they artificially stimulated the GABA receptors and TLR4 in order to simulate the good feelings binge drinkers feel when drinking alcohol, the rats lost interest in alcohol for two weeks after the procedure.

Compounds exist that would stimulate the receptors in the same way the scientists did in the study. "It's very likely that, down the road, these compounds could become new therapies for binge drinking . . . These compounds would act like a substitute for alcohol, much like methadone acts as a substitute for heroin. They would help alcoholics stop drinking, giving them relief from their cravings and from the anxiety that they try to alleviate with drinking."

From here.

So, drugs to end a predisposition to binge drink may be on the horizon in our near future, and there is a methodological precedent for determining a cause and developing a treatment for other kinds of substance addictions.

Given the strong connection between alcoholism and other kinds of substance abuse, and a wide range of socially unacceptable behavior and crimes, the next question is whether these treatments promise a world in which those social ills are dramatically less of problem.

Also, if such drugs existed, what would it take to get binge drinkers to take it? Will drug testing for probationers cease to become a matter of seeing that they aren't taking illegal drugs and become a matter of confirming that they are taking drugs that treat their vulnerabilities?

Given the poor track record of science at observing ethical standards with vulnerable or institutionalized populations, there is also good reason to fear abuses along the same lines in the future.

There may also be an upside to the complexity of many polygenetic mental health traits. While it may take just a single disruption of one of thousands of genes that go into a health functioning brain, if dysfunctional processes are equally complex, a single way to disrupt that process may deal with problems that have a wide variety of causes. This seems to be the story of modern psychiatry. We have found drugs that can manipulate a handful of neurochemicals in the brain, but those drugs treat a large number of patients with neurochemical imbalances in the neurochemical systems that most commonly go awry.

Drugs that act on neurochemical receptors and reuptake channels seems to address a great many mental health conditions. This part of the brain seems particularly succeptable to treatment with drugs. There may be other parts of the brain that are equally important, perhaps miswired neurons, for example, but we don't understand how to treat them as well.

State Pension Shortfalls Driven By Financial Crisis

Most of the shortfalls in state pension funds are due to investment losses in the first year of the recent financial crisis (2007-2008), not overly generous promises made to public employee unions.

25 February 2011

Gates Wrong On Future Of Army

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, addressing West Point cadets on the future of the Army, and more broadly the U.S. Armed Services sketched a vision that, while on track for the Air Force, Navy and the Army's heavy forces, is off base when it comes to the appropriateness of a U.S. capability for handling counter-insurgency actions.

Some of his vision, I agree with:

* He made the point that there should be fewer high level officers in the military, and that more input from peers and subordinates would result in the selection of better senior officers, should not micromanage officers and should not encourage a culture that is too risk averse.

* He suggested that the Army should reduce its heavy armor forces.

* He noted that "the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements - whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf or elsewhere," he said."

But, just as the military did after Vietnam, he thinks that it is good policy to try to prevent large-scale counter-insurgency wars like those in Iraq or Afghanistan by removing the capability to conduct that operation from the Army, despite the overwhelming evidence of history that the nation will call upon it again and again to carry out these missions.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates . . . envisages a future ground force that will be smaller, pack less heavy firepower and will not engage in large-scale counter-insurgency wars like those in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it," Gates quipped.

The defense chief predicted that Army and Marine forces would increasingly be asked to focus more on short-duration counterterrorism strikes and disaster relief. As he has for the past several years, Gates called on the Army to devote more of its best personnel to training and equipping foreign militaries.

Gates said he was not advocating the Army should become a counter-insurgency or nation-building force. "By no means am I suggesting that the Army will, or should, turn into a Victorian nation-building constabulary - designed to chase guerrillas, build schools or sip tea."

Here, he is wrong. While the Navy and Air Force can take over much of the "high end" capabilities in conflicts with "near peer" opponents, at great expense, but probably with fewer soldiers as technology automates their functions, the "low end" capabilities involving asymmetric warfare and counterinsurgency are obligations that will not go away, missions that require capabilities that the U.S. Army lacks, but should have, and missions where there are no substitutes for large numbers of trained soldiers on the ground.

Indeed, Gates is himself contradictory and ambivalent on the point. He noted that "the training and equipping of foreign armies" should be a mission that the Army, despite the fact that he doesn't see that work as real soldiering, and that officers should consider the training in languages and foreign cultures that are critical to counterinsurgency operations on the ground.

Despite a big push in recent years to build the Iraqi and Afghan militaries, the U.S. Army has traditionally treated the training and equipping of foreign armies as a career backwater, and Gates's efforts to raise the importance of the mission within the U.S. military have met with mixed results.

"How do we institutionalize security force assistance into the Army's regular force structure, and make the related experience and skill set a career-enhancing pursuit? Gates asked, repeating a question he first put to the Army in 2008. "Men and women in the prime of their professional lives, who may have been responsible for the lives of scores or hundreds of troops, or millions of dollars in assistance, or engaging or reconciling warring tribes, may find themselves in a cube all day re-formatting PowerPoint slides," Gates told the West Point cadets. "The consequences of this terrify me."

To head off this malaise Gates urged the cadets to take career risks, taking assignments that in the past might have been seen by their peers as career dead-ends. "I would encourage you to become a master of other languages and cultures, a priority of mine since taking this post," he said.

The simple truth is that one can't simply outsource all counterinsurgency missions and asymmetric warfare to someone else's less loyal, less well trained and often corrupt local forces.

Even if the United States retains a Navy just as large as its current one, which is so large that it rivals the Navies of all the rest of the world's potential opponents combined, it could still reduce the number of sailors by about two-thirds by automating new ships that replace the existing fleet to the same degree as it has in the Littoral Combat Ship.

Yet, for all of the Navy's clout, it doesn't have great solutions to the vulnerabilities of its surface combatants to advanced anti-ship missiles, swarms of missile boats, mine warfare or submarines, and it hasn't figured out to deal with asymmetric conflicts like piracy.

This past week, the U.S. Navy took on seventeen pirates who were holding four Americans hostage on a captured yatch off Somalia. This was an entirely appropriate mission that is as old as the Navy. The hostages died, two pirates were killed and the rest were captured. Not the optimal result, but no one claims that a better result was possible by the time that the Navy knew of the problem.

What is outrageous about how the Navy handled the problem is the amount of resources it devoted to handling it. It deployed an aircraft carrier and three surface combatants, with several tens of thousands of sailors with twenty billion dollars of equipment, to take on seventeen pirates who probably outfitted themselves for under $100,000. Admittedly, at the moment, those ships probably had nothing better to do. We aren't fighting a major naval war right now, and we have lots of ships in the sea that are there mostly for other purposes. But, if we use that level of resources routinely to deal with such pathetic and low budget local adversaries, the Navy will lose any war of attrition it faces. It is not enough to be able to defeat pirates. We need to have the capacity to take on asymmetric naval threats in a resource efficient way.

A basic problem with the U.S. force structure is that we have too few infantry soldiers who can be deployed in places like Afghanistan or Iraq. Fighting these two small wars against vastly inferior opponents has strained the Army to its limited and required the U.S. to come just short of instituting a draft by utilizing every available Army Reserve soldier, Army National Guard solider, Marine, borrowed sailors from the Navy, and excessively long and frequent rotations for active duty soldiers. Moreover, we were stretched so thin that we could respond to no other threats in the world had they come up at that point in time.

We shouldn't need to reach that level of mobilization simply to deal with an disorganized rabble in a medium sized country, with no weapon to heavy to be stashed in the trunk of a Honda Accord, no fixed bases of operation, no aircraft, no tanks, no armored personnel carriers, no helicopters and no ships.

In the next war it may well make sense to take out opposing tanks and artillery sites with cruise missiles from ships and smart bombs. But, there is no substitute for boots on the ground in other missions. We need far more of those boots available to meet the needs of the President, we need suitable equipment for those asymmetric missions, and we need to give more of our troops skill sets, like language and cultural skills and civil affairs expertise that is needed to win those wars.

For all that Secretary Gates seems to despite the Victorians strategy of conquering the world over tea, he needs to recall that it worked. The Victorians didn't rule two-thirds of the world with unassailable air power or guided cruise missiles. They conquered the world by understanding their mission, training lightly armed soldiers in the skills needed to conduct that mission, and training gentleman officers to use their heads and recognize that the military is simply one component of a bigger picture of diplomacy and politics.

The hard reality that we are learning is that it no longer works to rely on fellow sovereign nations to take care of their own turf. Wild territory in Central Asia, or unscrupulous arms deals between distant nations with whom we are not currently at war can put the United States and its allies at grave risk. It is no longer the case that a military force in a distant land can't hurt us because we aren't close. In an area of remotely controlled weapons, dirty bombs, intermediate range rockets and trade volumes that can never be inspected in detail, any insufficiently policed state can put the U.S. at risk. We can only defend ourselves by being capable of taking on those threats before they reach our shores. And, that takes military capabilities that Secretary Gates wants to deny our Army in an ill starred effort to convince the Presidents his successors will work for to fight the kinds of wars that are at the center of what his country is calling up the Army to do right now on multiple fronts.

Yes, the heavy side of the Army, like the Air Force, like the Navy, should become more potent and less personnel intensive. But, the Army is the force that should have the primary responsibility for fighting low intensity conflicts and should have far more soldiers than it does, many with very different kinds of training, so that it is capable of addressing those threats.

Baysean SUSY Parameter Odds

Baysean statistics is the art of estimating the probability of an outcome when you already have some data to guide you in knowing that the answer should be like from prior experience. Given what we know about narrowing possibilities for SUSY parameters from the LHC what seems like the most likely SUSY parameters if SUSY exists? A new paper make some guesses (multiple omissions of entire sentences from quoted material not noted individually) for leading SUSY theories:

m_{1/2} has to be raised to from 300 GeV or so to approximately 400 GeV in CMSSM [constrained minimal extension of the Standard Model], NUHM1 [model with common non-universal Higgs masses], and VCMSSM [very constrained minimal extension of the Standard Model], and 550 GeV in mSUGRA [minimal supergravity].

m_0 may remain . . . between 70 and 230 GeV.

The best tan(beta) has to be raised from 8-11 to 9-16 in the three models and stays at 28 in mSUGRA.

The preferred Higgs mass is near 115 GeV in the three models and 120 GeV in mSUGRA.

The gluino masses around 800-1000 GeV are favored in the three models while 1100-1400 GeV wins in mSUGRA.

[Compared to prior estimates,] the 800-1,000 GeV squark masses actually became more likely than before. Also, the most likely squark mass actually decreased!

SUSY starts to be strongly disfavored if no squarks are found with masses below 1500 GeV, where they are expected.

Neutralino Mass as light as 10 GeV or so is expected.

The LHC will ultimately be providing data that should reveal all particles with masses up to about 1000 GeV. This should reveal a Higgs boson, if there is one, early on. Indeed, the predictions are close to the bottom end of the range of masses where a Higgs boson has not been ruled out yet (about 114 GeV to 140 GeV).

But, any lightest supersymmetric particle other than a neutralino (a possible dark matter candidate that may be hard to observe directly because it would not have strong interactions with other particles much like neutrinos), would be expected by this analysis to be detected only towards the end of an LHC run and can't be unequivocally ruled out by LHC.

For comparison's sake, the currently measures values of the other particles in the Standard Model are as approximately as follows (in MeV/c^2 units and 1,000 MeV = 1 GeV):

Electron Neutrino: Less than 0.000007
Electron: 0.511
Up Quark: 2-8
Down Quark: 5-15

Muon Neutrino: Less than 0.27
Muon: 105.7
Charm Quark: 1,000-1,600
Strange Quark: 100-300

Tau Neutrino: Less than 31
Tau: 1777
Top Quark: 168,000-192,000
Bottom Quark: 4,100-4,500

W Particles: 80,398
Z Particle: 91,188

Photon: Zero

Gluons: Zero

Glueballs (spin zero, low energy states of strong force bosons) have been calculated to have a mass of about 630 GeV that may vary with momentum using Standard Model equations, but have not been directly observed.

An Ancient Megadrought

Between the Last Glacial Maximum (the peak of the most recent full fledged ice age), and the Neolithic Revolution (the domestication of plants and animals), there were the worst droughts of the last 50,000 years in the regions that were home to most of the modern human population. The timing suggests that these droughts may have set in place key events from pre-history that followed including proto-farming of non-domesticated plants and the settlement of the Americas.

[O]ne of the most widespread and intense droughts of the last 50,000 years or more struck Africa and Southern Asia 17,000 to 16,000 years ago.

Between 18,000 and 15,000 years ago, large amounts of ice and meltwater entered the North Atlantic Ocean, causing regional cooling but also major drought in the tropics,
"The height of this time period coincided with one of the most extreme megadroughts of the last 50,000 years in the Afro-Asian monsoon region with potentially serious consequences for the Paleolithic humans that lived there at the time[.]" The "H1 megadrought," as it's known, was one of the most severe climate trials ever faced by anatomically modern humans.

Africa's Lake Victoria, now the world's largest tropical lake, dried out, as did Lake Tana in Ethiopia, and Lake Van in Turkey. The Nile, Congo and other major rivers shriveled, and Asian summer monsoons weakened or failed from China to the Mediterranean, meaning the monsoon season carried little or no rainwater.

What caused the megadrought remains a mystery, but its timing suggests a link to Heinrich Event 1 (or "H1"), a massive surge of icebergs and meltwater into the North Atlantic at the close of the last ice age.

Previous studies had implicated southward drift of the tropical rain belt as a localized cause, but the broad geographic coverage in this study paints a more nuanced picture. "If southward drift were the only cause," says Stager, lead author of the Science paper, "we'd have found evidence of wetting farther south. But the megadrought hit equatorial and southeastern Africa as well, so the rain belt didn't just move--it also weakened."

From here.

Life Imitates Art

Fiction is full of children who discover one day that they aren't the people they thought because their parents weren't who they thought that they were. Fairy tales are full of royals raised as peasants, changlings, and more. The impulse hasn't run its course yet. For example, Nicole Peeler's debut novel of 2009, "Tempest Rising," features a young woman who discovers that her mother was a Selkie and that she is half supernatural.

This kind of surprise, of course, isn't nearly so common in real life. But, surprise revelations about who your parents happen to be do happen, and one such event was recently recounted in "The Australian":

In the 1950s, ten Iraqi Jewish Mossad agents were sent undercover to spy on Israeli Arab communities, each married a local woman while pretending to be an Arab Muslim, and they each had children. The operation was shut down in 1964. The reveal happened and the consequences weren't very good for the children.

[T]he wives were invited to France, where they were met by the Mossad station chief. He told them they could either join their husbands in a Jewish community, where the children would be raised as Jews, or arrangements could be made for them to be resettled in an Arab country of their choice. . . . The women chose to remain with their husbands. Israeli army chaplains brought to Paris converted them to Judaism and by special dispensation their young children were also recognised as Jews without undergoing separate conversion.

The ensuing identity crisis required psychological intervention. "We tried to rehabilitate the people involved, but weren't really successful . . . . The kids experienced serious trauma. They tried to forget their past, where they came from, but they couldn't. A few succeeded in life, but most still suffer from problems."

24 February 2011

Tag Words In Rap Lyrics

Girl you always on my mind, got my head up in the sky
And I'm never looking down feeling priceless, yeah
Where we at, only few have known
Go on the next level, Super Mario
I hope this works out, Cardio
Til' then let's fly, Geronimo

- From "Rocketeer" by Far East Movement

In your city, faded off the brown, Nino
She instincts she got more class, We know
Swimming in the money, come and find me, Nemo
If I was at the club you know I ball Chemo

- From "Forever" by Drake featuring Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Eminem.

Both of the lyrics above use the device of at the end of a line of the lyrics with a specialized kind of "tag word" (such as Super Mario, Cardio, Geronimo, Nino, Nemo, Chemo), that is not a part of a sentence, that is a metaphor or homage that sums up and accentuates the line's meaning, and that completes the rhyme pattern of the lyric. The tag words used in this way provide semantic repetition without word repetition. They also work like error bits in numerical codes, clarifying what was meant by the line before in case bad diction or sound distortion left the hearer with an ambiguous meaning.

Despite the fact that one generally thinks of rap and hip-hop as "low culture" or "popular culture," devices like "tag words" are quite a bit more sophisticated than most of what you will see in most poetry in the English literature canon (just as jazz theory is quite a bit more sophisticated and complex than the music theory of conventional classical music).

While metaphor and rhyme are ancient poetic devices, but I can't think of any place that I've seen the "tag word" device used in this way outside of the rap/hip-hop music genre.

Are tag words a hip-hop invention, or are there precedents for it in other kinds of lyrics or poetry? If there are precedents for it, is the hip-hop use a reinvention of the device, or is it following a precedent that I'm not aware of?

The closest precedents seem to be some versions of call and response in the black church preaching rhetorical tradition associated with the concept of "nommo". It may also be present in soul and gospel music with which I'm not very familiar.

You see somewhat similar kinds of tag devices in Haiku as a result of its strict syllable limitations, but Haiku are generally unrhymed.

Is there a formal name for this poetic device, as there are for devices like alliteration, assonance, apostrophe onomatopoeia, internal rhyme, iambic pentameter, metaphor, etc.? This book, reviewed here and here, might say, but I don't own it.

In some ways this is the inverse of enjambment which is the continuation of the logical sense — and therefore the grammatical construction —
beyond the end of a line of poetry, and is sometimes done with the title, which in effect becomes the first line of the poem. Instead of extending a grammatical construction beyond a line of poetry, it is cut short and then filled with the tag word.

It also has some similarities to code switching, where a lyric switches from one dialect to another (e.g. from formal "Standard English" to an Afro-Caribbean dialect) to flavor the context and meaning of what is said. It is also something of an inverse of the device of using the same word in a lyric more than once with different meanings (i.e. antanaclasis).

Possible Prion Disease Drug Identified

Using trial and error methodology that Thomas Edison could relate to, scientists have located a drug that may have the potential to treat prion diseases such as mad cow disease, scrapie and chronic wasting disease in animals, and diseases including Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, Fatal Familial Insomnia, and Kuru in humans, that "result from deposits of abnormal prion protein in brain tissue. Prion diseases are invariably fatal and no treatments are yet available." At this point testing is in mouse models and cell cultures.

Treatments exist for most other major classes of disease causing agents, such as bacterial infections, viruses, funguses, venoms, and parasites, but not for prions.

Prions are also worrisome because they are resistant to sterilization methods that destroy most other disease agents: "Prions are generally quite resistant to proteases, heat, radiation, and formalin treatments, although their infectivity can be reduced by such treatments." Strong acids in combination with higher than typically used heats are necessary to render them non-infectious.

Detroit Public Schools In Death Spiral

The Michigan Department of Education gave Detroit Public Schools deadlines this month for moving forward with a deficit-elimination plan.

The plan calls for closing 70 schools [out of 142] by 2013, increasing high school class sizes to more than 60 students, and outsourcing and consolidating services with the city and the countywide education agency between this year and 2014.

The cuts will meet the goal of eliminating the deficit, but [state-appointed emergency fiscal manager Robert] Bobb contends the plan is not in the best interest of educating DPS students and could drive students away. The district has about 74,000 students, down from about 175,000 in 1999. It is expected to drop to about 58,000 students in 2014.

From here

Two years ago, the Detroit Public Schools had 194 schools.

Starting this fall, the district plans to boost class sizes in grades 4-12 and at all grade levels by fiscal 2012, which begins July 1, to save $16.8 million. The plan would hike class sizes for:

Grades K-3 from 17-25 students to 29 in 2012-13 and 31 in 2013-14.

Grades 4-5 from 30 students to 37 in 2012-13 and 39 in 2013-14.

Grades 6-8 from 35 students to 45 in 2012-13 and 47 in 2013-14.

Grades 9-12 from 35 students to 60 in 2012-13 and 62 in 2013-14. . .

[T]he district . . . [may] save another $12.4 million from the school closures if it "simply abandons" the closed buildings. Past policy has been to keep the closed schools clean and secure, officials said, but the district could cut costs by eliminating storage, board-up and security. . . .

In the past year, debt in the district has increased by more than $100 million, brought on by a mix of revenue declines in property taxes, reduced state aid, declining enrollment and an unplanned staffing surge this past fall.

The Detroit Public Schools face a deficit of $327 million this year ($4,419 per student). The median salary of teachers in the Detroit Public Schools is about 30% below the median salary of teachers in Michigan.

About 54,000 students in the District attend charter schools, leaving the district with infrastructure and debts it lacks the revenue to support as its student base shrinks and the property tax base and population of Detroit decline.

The Detroit Public Schools are 90% African-American (and 2.4% Anglo), and 87.2% of Detroit Public Schools students are in the free and reduced lunch program because they are poor. Michigan public school students statewide are 20% African-American (and 71.2% Anglo), and 40.8% of them are in the free annd reduced lunch program.

Remarkably, despite the challenges it faces, the Detroit Public Schools managed a 62% graduation rate in the most recent year. The Denver Public Schools, which a much healthier economic environment and much larger proportion of middle class students, manages only a 52% graduation rate.

Remembering Clark Bouton

Clark Bouton, my neighbor, my friend, and my client, died on early on the morning of February 22, 2011 at the age of eighty at Denver Hospice. He was a neighbor not just in the sense of someone who lived half a block away, but in the sense of being almost family. Many of my readers at this blog knew him.

Clark was a retired philosophy professor. But, philosophy is a calling from which you never really retire. When I visited him at the hospice earlier this month, he was reading a monograph on philosophical pragmatism. The author, he joked with me, had written ten books basically arguing that philosophy was a bunch of bunk. He wasn't afraid to expose ideas he'd spent a long life accumulating to new challenges, even when he knew the end was near. He watched the democracy protests in Egypt unfold with a gleam in his eye at seeing the values he'd devoted his life to prevailing in the world.

Clark wasn't content to limit his philosophical endeavors to the ivory towers of France he'd prowled during his academic career. He put his principles into action. We walked blocks together distributing political materials in our precinct. He was active volunteering for the Colorado Progressive Coalition, particularly working to make health care more widely available for our community. He did leg work, helping to conduct community forums on health care across the state, while also providing behind the scenes strategic suggestions. He was a Democrat by political affiliation, but his politics were more in tune with those of the bold movement politics of the European left than they were with the triangulation, band aid solutions and short term political tactics that are so common in these days in American politics. He excelled at keeping his focus on what was important, rather than getting sidetracked by trivialities. Yet, despite his strongly held political beliefs, he knew about to enter into civil discourse and even friendships with conservative neighbors and political players, looking for common ground and respecting their personal dignity in an effort to find solutions that everyone who sincerely cared about the greater good could accept.

Even when I first met him, more than a decade ago, he was frank. He'd had cancer, wasn't afraid to tell you his age, and was well aware of his own mortality. But, this didn't discourage him or leave him resigned to his fate. Like my own father, also a cancer survivor, this awareness gave Clark a sense of urgency. He cheerfully, but tirelessly, worked to get things done. There wasn't time to waste. Talking with him over wine and cheese, he always had a point to make or a sharp observation that no one else in the room could have added. He was a proud intellectual, but also had a deep sense of solidarity with the working man.

Clark's later years weren't restricted to politics. He tied flies. He knew a great deal about art, despite claiming to be only a humble novice. He appreciated good coffee, good wine and exquisite fresh salads. He routinely embarked on ambitious handyman projects that would have sent me running for a professional contractor. He gardened. He grappled hard with how to do the best thing to help his children when they hit rough spots in life. He was one of those people who could read a few instructions and readily grasp just how some new endeavor needed to be carried out. He was fearless when it came to taking on new challenges and learning new tricks. He considered himself a fortunate man to have the kind of life that he did. He reveled in his good fortune, lest it go to waste.

After enough forceful suggestions from his body that his days were up, he faced death gracefully, as only someone who has had a well examined life can. We will miss him. We will value the contributions that he made to our lives, and we will recall him as an example of a life well lived.

23 February 2011

Science Shorts

Physics News

The news in the land of physics is one of tighter experimental boundaries on potential weird stuff a.k.a. "new physics" without actually finding any or ruling it out.

I've previously mentioned the closing parameter space of SUSY. The LIGO and VIRGO experiments designed to detect gravity waves have similarly not found them but have placed experimental limits on their magnitude (although still about tens times larger that their expected magnitude apparently). Our Secretary of Energy, who is also a practicing physicist, is a co-author of a recent paper putting experimental limits on any potential deviations from the general theory of relativity attributable to quantum gravity theories (any deviations are less than one part per million of a certain kind of atom interferometry measurement).

New measurements have increased with accuracy with which we can determine the distance of some of the farthest galaxies which allows more precision in estimating the amount of dark energy in the universe (or, more or less equivalently, the value of the cosmological constant in general relativity).

The Large Hadron Collider (same source) has also put limits on the maximum size of any preons that could be present if quarks were composite, rather than fundamental particles: "if quarks are made of smaller particles, the constituents are no larger than 60 trillionths of a billionth of a meter in diameter. That new limit, about 60 percent smaller than the previous estimate[.]"

In terms more familiar to most people who work with subatomic physics that is 10^-21 meters. Alternately, in terms of the Plank length, the new limit is about 10^12 Plank length units. The semi-classical diameter of an electron is 10^17 Plank length units, while the semi-classical diameter of a proton is 10^20 Plank length units. (I use the caveat semi-classical because it isn't obvious that it is real meaningful to think of fundamental particles like quarks and electrons as anything other than point-like for most purposes.) Thus, the Large Hadron Collider tells us that any component part of a quark has to be at least one hundred thousand times smaller than an electron. Data gathered but not yet analyzed from LHC should make it possible to probe limits half that size.

Many physicists expect that the "minimum length" called the Plank length, is 1.616252(81)×10^−35 meters, based on natural combinations of Plank's constant (which measures the minimum energy of photons of particular wave lengths), the gravitational constant and the speed of light. String theorists, likewise, often assume that the string of string theory are of lengths on the order of magnitude of the Plank length. Thus, the LHC findings, themselves aren't inconsistent with the possibility of composite quarks and electrons although there is really nothing to indicate that they exist either.

The bottom line from all of these studies is that the Standard Model and General Relativity continue to be accurate descriptions to the universe to remarkable levels of precision, despite some lingering concerns about unexpected CP violations in the Standard Model and some theoretical disconnects between the two fundamental theories that crop up only in domains we don't have a capacity to observe at this point.

The vast majority of physicists I'm aware of who study quantum mechanics and general relativity think that there is something beyond these theories to discover and I agree with them. But, whatever new physics are out there, it is also increasingly clear that it is very subtle. In the same way, one can still do a lot of very good science and engineering in a wide variety of useful areas using classical Newtonian mechanics and gravity, classical thermodynamics, Maxwell's Equations for electro-magnetism, a proton-neutron-electron model of the atom, and the Periodic table.

It isn't that modern physics is irrelevant. Every computer designer relies on quantum tunnelling to make the machines work. Every cell phone and GPS unit makes calculations that require the application of general relativity from moment to moment. Both general relativity and quantum mechanics provide insights critical to making nuclear power plants, nuclear bombs, cancer treatments and carbon dating work. But, the weird physics that goes into making these things work seems a lot less weird when broken down to the particular aspect of them that matters for an engineering application and the average person doesn't need to know the science behind these devices and can simply view them as "black boxes" that produce certain results when used in particular ways.

It isn't at all obvious that "new physics" will have any practical engineering applications at all, even if it would be an immense source of intellectual pride and accomplishment for our species.

Also (from the news link above):

Supermassive black holes at the centers of distant galaxies, previously estimated to range in mass between 10 million to 1 billion suns, may weigh about one-half to one-tenth as much. . . . The downsizing indicates that black holes in distant and nearby galaxies weigh about the same, eliminating what had been a puzzling mismatch.

One of the more interesting experimental facts from astronomy is the close relationship between the size of a black hole and the size of its surrounding matter, and the apparent maximum black hole size that is observed. A finding that black holes in distant galaxies (whose light started moving towards us more deeply in the past) are similar in size to black holds in galaxies that are closer (and hence sending light from a less distant part of the past) would seem to rule out a scenario in which the earliest black holes were very large and have steadily shrunk over time due to Hawking radiation, and also a scenario in which the earliest black holes were very small and have steadily grown over time due to the absorbtion of more surrounding material. Shrinkage and growth appear to be roughly balanced over a long span of the history of the universe.

Psychopathy Starts Young

Finallly, the evidence that psychopathy is an early onset condition that manifests as early as age seven (or even age three!) continues to mount, most recently from a study of 9,578 British school children evaluated by teachers and parents at ages 7, 9 and 12, for behavior problems and callous-unemotional traits. The researchers involved in the latest study on the point specifically disavow the loaded "psychopth" word, because research has not yet established a definitive link between callous-unemotional traits in children with behavior problems and psychopathic traits in adults, but another study found "that 3-year-olds who have difficulties learning to fear impending punishments in lab experiments — a key facet of callous-unemotional traits — commit criminal offenses at much higher rates than their peers by age 23."

When an unrelenting penchant for misbehaving joins forces with lack of emotion, guilt and empathy, 7-year-olds are headed for years of severe conduct problems. . . . Youngsters who regularly misbehave and get into trouble at age 7, and who also display so-called callous-unemotional traits, frequently stay on a troubled course until at least age 12. . . . 5 to 10 percent of schoolchildren persistently engage in antisocial behaviors such as fighting, lying and stealing. . . . A total of 4.4 percent of these children, mostly boys, exhibited high levels of both misbehavior and callous-unemotional traits throughout the study. Compared with their peers, this group of youngsters came from particularly chaotic families that used harsh forms of punishment. These kids also displayed many hyperactive symptoms and got along poorly with peers. Another 4 percent of kids in the study displayed consistent conduct problems with either increasing or decreasing levels of callous-unemotional traits from age 7 to 12. . .

[C]hildren with high levels of callous-unemotional traits almost always misbehaved regularly. In contrast, only about half of the kids who constantly misbehaved also lacked remorse, guilt and empathy, indicating that a variety of influences play into conduct problems. . . . callous-unemotional children respond best to interventions that reward them for good behavior rather than punishing them for misdeeds[.]

"Adult psychopaths similarly show no remorse for crimes and blunted emotional reactions, although they often possess considerable empathy that they use to prey on others." Adult psychopaths respond best to the same kinds of incentives.

An important reason to care is that the DSM-V definition of conduct disorder is being revisited and there is faction that thinks it should distinguish callous-unemotional conduct disorder as something distinct from mere chronic misbehavior.

“I’m not suggesting that these children are psychopaths, but callous-unemotional traits can be used to identify kids at risk of persistent, severe antisocial behavior,” said psychologist Nathalie Fontaine of Indiana University in Bloomington, who directed the study. These findings indicate that callous-unemotional traits should be factored into the definition of a particularly virulent form of childhood conduct disorder in the next manual of psychiatric disorders, Fontaine said. Chronic misbehavior alone defines conduct disorder in the current fourth edition of the psychiatric manual used by doctors to define mental ailments, now being revised.

There are about 3 million children born each year in the United States. About 150,000 to 300,000 of them will persistently engage in anti-social behavior. About 13,000 to 26,000 of them, one or two in every couple hundred, will have notable callous-unemotional streaks. These patterns of behavior, if not in place at birth, are at least in place by the time they are in elementary school.

The extent to which it is becoming clear that both future academic performance and future behavior is predictable in early elmentary school is remarkable. But, we don't really know what to do with this knowledge. The only career paths we seem to have in our society for callous-unemotional children is gang hitman and Ponzi scheme engineer, which aren't precisely the sort of paths we'd like to encourage. Similarly, we aren't really sure what to do in our society with mentally retarded children. We don't even have support groups for parents of children who do things like torture little animals, con teachers and bully peers, much to the consternation of the adults in their lives. Sometimes we try to hold those parents morally responsibile, but we don't offer them a lot of organized resources for coping.

Alas, psychopathy (and close cousins like "borderline personality disorder") isn't anything as simple as some particular gene with a simple inheritance pattern. They've looked. It isn't there. It may be hereditary, and almost certainly has a strong congenital component at the very least, although environmental factors may influence how it develops. But, the family histories that researchers have seen involve a variety of mental health issues in a fairly wide swath of cousins and uncles and aunts, as well as closer relations, rather than a simple parent to child pattern. It isn't uncommon for siblings to be very different in this regard - one typically empathetic, another calleous and unemotional. Apparently, there are a number of pieces of the puzzle, some of which are symptomatic even by themselves, that have to come together to produce a person who has this kind of emotional makeup that are relatively independent of each other. Nobody has found a drug that turns callous-unemotional children into loving empathetic ones either.

Really Big Love and Bunhill Fields

Ziona Chana, a 66-year-old man in India's remote northeast who has 39 wives, 94 children and 33 grandchildren -- and wouldn't mind having more. They all live in a four storied building with 100 rooms in a mountainous village in Mizoram state, sharing borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh, media reports said. "I once married 10 women in one year," he was quoted as saying.

His wives share a dormitory near Ziona's private bedroom and locals said he likes to have seven or eight of them by his side at all times. The sons and their wives, and all their children, live in different rooms in the same building, but share a common kitchen.

The wives take turns cooking, while his daughters clean the house and do washing. The men do outdoor jobs like farming and taking care of livestock. . . . They are supported by their own resources and occasional donations from followers.

From here.

The man leads a Christian polygamous sect (called "Chana Pawl" after the patriarch's late father) founded in 1942 with about four hundred families as members in a single village, "this industrious group manufactures wooden furniture and aluminium utensils."

A brief historical account of the Chana puts it in the context of the "fact that it took barely 50 years for the entire Mizo community to embrace Christianity, then a totally alien religion, [which] has been attributed to the revival movements. . . . The first European missionaries arrived at Aizawl (then Aijal) in 1894, and 12 years later, revival movements effecting mass conversions started. Wave upon wave of revival swept the land until the entire Mizo community abandoned its old religion, animism, for the new religion, Christianity before the end of World War II." Mizoram State is about 95% Christian (Wikipedia puts the figure at 90.5% based on a 2001 census), and the vast majority are adherents of more traditional forms of the Christian faith, predominantly as part of Presybeterian denominations. It was granted statehood in 1986, twenty years after an armed insurgency movement began there. Another sect that arose in the same period consists of people who moved to the jungle and stopped wearing clothes. The revival movement also gave rise to a Jewish sect known as "Bnei Manashe" which has now mostly migrated to Israel.

Islam limits a man to four wives and has canons of interpretation that discourage the practice on the grounds that the fairness to all wives demanded by Islamic law is difficult to manage, although serial polygamy can circumvent this limit to some extent. The limit in Islam was a reform from prior law that permitted more spouses.

The Hebrew Bible, in contrast, has numerous examples of polygamy, some of which involve political leaders with more than four wives, and neither the Christian Old Testament nor the Christian New Testament expressly prohibit polygamy (Reformation figure Martin Luther once wrote a letter privately acknowledging this in a case involving a minor European aristocrat, which his solus scriptura stance caused him to acknowledge was permitted).

Of course, Christian tradition from early on, in part due to the preachings of early church fathers such as Saint Augustine, Basil of Caesarea, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian, has generally strongly disfavored polygamy in practice (with notable exceptions such as the early Mormons and some European Anabaptists). And, while polygamy has been banned by the main denomination of the Church of Latter Day Saints for more than a century and by Utah State law (as a condition imposed for it to receive statehood status), it has been quietly tolerated in communities like Hinsdale that are an open secret, and quietly practiced on a smaller scale in suburban Utah with only rare interruptions (usually for offenses other than polygamy itself) more of less continuously since it was legally banned.

I suspect, but do not know, that this arrangement in India is made possible legally by the facet of private law in India that assigns certain domains of the law, such as marriage, divorce and inheritance in same religion couples to religious authorities rather than secular legislatures and courts (a secular legal regime applies to mixed faith families):

Indian family law is complex, with each religion having its own specific laws which they adhere to. In most states, registering of marriages and divorces is not compulsory. There are separate laws governing Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and followers of other religions. The exception to this rule is in the state of Goa, where a Portuguese uniform civil code is in place, in which all religions have a common law regarding marriages, divorces and adoption.

The practice in India actually has roots in the laws of its British colonial rulers, and is rooted in the same freedom of religion concepts that developed into the First Amendment in the United States in a somewhat different manner at around the same time. "This system of distinct laws for each religion began during the British Raj when Warren Hastings in 1772 created provisions prescribing Hindu law for Hindus and Islamic law for Muslims, for litigation relating to personal matters." This was a natural concept for him because at that point in English history, marriage, divorce and inheritance of personal property (although not real estate) were governed by the clergy under canon law, rather than common law courts:

In the Church of England, the ecclesiastical courts that formerly decided many matters such as disputes relating to marriage, divorce, wills, and defamation, still have jurisdiction of certain church-related matters (e.g., discipline of clergy, alteration of church property, and issues related to churchyards).

Their separate status dates back to the 12th century when the Normans split them off from the mixed secular/religious county and local courts used by the Saxons. In contrast to the other courts of England the law used in ecclesiastical matters is at least partially a civil law system, not common law, although heavily governed by parliamentary statutes.

Since the Reformation, ecclesiastical courts in England have been royal courts. . . . practitioners in the ecclesiastical courts were trained in civil law, receiving a Doctor of Civil Law (D.C.L.) degree from Oxford, or an LL.D. from Cambridge. Such lawyers (called "doctors" and "civilians") were centred at "Doctors Commons", a few streets south of St Paul's Cathedral in London, where they monopolized probate, matrimonial, and admiralty cases until their jurisdiction was removed to the common law courts in the mid-19th century. (Admiralty law was also based on civil law instead of common law, thus was handled by the civilians too.)

At the time Hastings made his decree, for example, cemetaries were also segregated by faith under applicable English law, with dissenting religions tolerated, but restricted to cemetaries such as the famous Bunhill Fields that was active at the time (and was elevated to the highest level of historical preservation in England on a par with sites like Number 10 Downing Street, this week as a legacy of the path taken by the British towards religious toleration) despite the fact that it had and continues to have an established chruch, the Anglican Church (prior to the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church). Notable residents of Bunhill Fields, who would have been subject to persecution and punishment similar to that of political prisoners in authoritarian regimes today in most countries outside England included:

•William Blake (1757-1827), poet, and his wife Catherine (1762-1831)
•John Owen (1616-83), Congregational minister
•Susanna Wesley (1669-1742), mother of John and Charles Wesley
•Daniel Defoe (1661-1731), author of Robinson Crusoe
•John Bunyan (1628-1688), author of The Pilgrim's Progress - his elaborate tomb includes an effigy of Bunyan and bas-reliefs of scenes from his great allegory
•Isaac Watts (1674-1748), hymnwriter
•George Fox (1624-1691), founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers) - in the Quaker Gardens, next to the Bunhill Fields Meeting House

Of course, if you weren't a King, the scope of matrimonial law at the time was pretty meager. For the most part, it consisted of granting women "separation from bed and board" in particularly dire cases (legal separations still exist today, I've litigated them, but are now chosen by parties due primarily to religious beliefs rather than because divorce in unavailable as an option for lack of proof of fault). Divorces were about as common as death row pardons are today, they happened, but were highly exceptional. Unlike the inheritance laws for real estate, in which the most senior male heir received everything in order to prevent the fragmentation of the estate, personal property inheritance in canon law was similar to that under modern inheritance laws that divided it amongst all of a person's closest living descendants.

Obama Concedes DOMA is Unconstitutional

Learning a lesson from the decision of California's leaders in the Prop 8 litigation, where the state refused to appeal a trial court finding that Prop 8 was unconstitutional (the standing of the ballot measure proponents to appeal in that case has been certified to the California Supreme Court), President Obama has directed the Department of Justice to stop defending the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. The Justice Department has said:

The Attorney General made the following statement today about the Department’s course of action in two lawsuits, Pedersen v. OPM and Windsor v. United States, challenging Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage for federal purposes as only between a man and a woman: . . . The President has also concluded that Section 3 of DOMA, as applied to legally married same-sex couples, fails to meet that standard and is therefore unconstitutional. . . . [T]he Department will not defend the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA as applied to same-sex married couples in the two cases filed in the Second Circuit. We will, however, remain parties to the cases and continue to represent the interests of the United States throughout the litigation. I have informed Members of Congress of this decision, so Members who wish to defend the statute may pursue that option. The Department will also work closely with the courts to ensure that Congress has a full and fair opportunity to participate in pending litigation.

Furthermore, pursuant to the President ’ s instructions, and upon further notification to Congress, I will instruct Department attorneys to advise courts in other pending DOMA litigation of the President's and my conclusions that a heightened standard should apply, that Section 3 is unconstitutional under that standard and that the Department will cease defense of Section 3. . . .

Section 3 of DOMA will continue to remain in effect unless Congress repeals it or there is a final judicial finding that strikes it down, and the President has informed me that the Executive Branch will continue to enforce the law. But while both the wisdom and the legality of Section 3 of DOMA will continue to be the subject of both extensive litigation and public debate, this Administration will no longer assert its constitutionality in court.

Colorado's Attorney General, John Suthers, has filed an amicus brief arguing that the Courts should uphold the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, despite the fact that it does not directly impact state law, over the outraged protests of supporters of gay rights in Colorado.

Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act states that the federal government, when applying federal law, shall disregard legal state law marriages that are not between one man and one woman.

The key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act state that:

Section 2. Powers reserved to the states:

No State, territory, or possession of the United States, or Indian tribe, shall be required to give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other State, territory, possession, or tribe respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other State, territory, possession, or tribe, or a right or claim arising from such relationship.

Section 3. Definition of "marriage" and "spouse":

In determining the meaning of any Act of Congress, or of any ruling, regulation, or interpretation of the various administrative bureaus and agencies of the United States, the word "marriage" means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word "spouse" refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.

The decision does not by itself affect Section 2 of the Defense of Marriage Act which provides that the full faith and credit clause of the United States Constitution does not extend to same sex marriages. Thus, state, local, territorial and Indian tribe governments are not federally required to honor same sex marriages that are valid in other states.

Will President Obama's Position Be Sustained In the Courts?

President Obama's decision is likely to stick. Generally, the only parties with standing to participate in a case where a same sex couple alleges that their rights have been violated by Section 3 of DOMA are the federal government and the couple(s) bringing the lawsuit. The U.S. Supreme Court, particularly in recent years, has construed taxpayer standing (alleging the federal funds are used for an unconstitutional purpose) and citizen standing (alleging that the federal government is acting unconstitutionally) very narrowly.

I'll have to look later at the standing of members of Congress to speak for the federal government in litigation or intervene in lawsuits attacking the constitutionality of a statute. The general rule is that the Justice Department is the sole representative of the U.S. position. But, federal courts have the authority, although not necessarily the obligation, to appoint a lawyer to argue for a position like that constitutionality of a law or the rights of pro se parties, that is not represented by a party in court.

To speak for Congress, per se, or even one house of Congress, would ordinarily require the passage of a resolution by Congress or at least a house of Congress. But, members of Congress who sponsored or voted for legislation might be viewed by a court as suitable intervenors to argue to a court for a position that no party to the suit is willing to advance.

An IRS ruling last year holding that domestic partners in California were entiteld to split income for federal income tax purposes due to community property principles foreshadowed the changing position of the Obama administration on this issue.


From a practical perspective, some of the main consequences of the decision are that gay married couples can file tax returns with married filing jointly status (and receive all of the benefits of married couples for estate taxation purposes), that same sex married couples qualify for federal immigration law treatment of spouses, and that same sex married couples can receive Social Security survivors benefits and spousal Veteran's benefits. The Veteran's benefits issue looms large now that Congress has repealed the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law.

Also, while not quite spelled out by this ruling, the implication seems to be that a same sex couple that is legally married in any state will thereafter be treated as married by the federal government, even if the state in which they live does not recognize same sex marriage. Since some states do recognize same sex marriage (and allow non-residents to be married in their state), that means that same sex couples that go to those states to be married and then return to their home states can receive all of the federal government benefits of marriage.

In addition to undermining the efforts of state governments to deny federal benefits of marriage to same sex couples in their own states, the determination also increases the stakes in the civil union v. gay marriage debate in the states. Until now, this has been a strictly symbolic debate. A civil union bill (SB 11-172) that creates as the legal rights and responsibilities of marriage under state law, but doesn't call it marriage (such as one pending in the Colorado General Assembly right now) would not constitute marriage under federal law, while one that calls the relationship marriage would have that effect.

Thus, states are left with multiple options including: (1) disallow both civil unions and same sex marriages, but acknowledge that couples with legal sex sex marriages from other states may receive federal treatment as married, (2) allow civil unions but not same sex marriage, which gives copules state law marriage rights but denies couples federal treatment as married until they get legally married in another state, or (3) allow same sex marriage.

Also, while Section 2 of DOMA does not require states to recognize same sex marriages from other states, it also does not prohibit them from doing so out of comity. In many states, the issue of when comity should recognize other state's legal acts when the full faith and credit clause of the United States Constitution does not require it has been left to the courts rather than being made a subject of legislation. Thus, judges could choose, influenced but not bound by the Section 3 of DOMA interpretation, to honor out of state same sex marriage even though the constitution and federal law do not require them to do so.

Civil unions have been a sensible legislative objective for same sex couples in many states, like Colorado, where the state constitution has been amended to prohibit same sex marriage, but not more broadly to prohibit civil unions or domestic partnerships of same sex couples as well. But, there will be increasing pressure to actually call this marriage legislatively, and as courts evaluate the issue.

22 February 2011

Selectivity Matters Only Some Of The Time

Does attending an elite college increase your lifetime earnings?

No, says a new study, but applying to one does, whether or not you are accepted.

The implication is that the sorting process that causes rational students to choose to apply to particular colleges, rather than the quality of the educational experiences that take place in an educational institution, is what drives lifetime success, and that implications that flow from a belief held by students that admissions officers can sort the wheat from the chaff is more accurate than the actual accuracy of admissions officers in choosing the students most likely to succeed.


The study by Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger used looked at 19,000 students, entering college in either 1976 or 1989, controlling for SAT scores, high school grades, college applied to, college accepted by, college attended, and looking at their incomes after college based on Social Security administration records, for the graduates, some of whom were in their 40s or 50s when the study was conducted. I may even be in the study as all of the colleges and universities that I have attended are included in the study. In short, this is a very large study with very accurate data, and as explained below, a quite clever research design.


It turns out that attending an elite college (measured by selectivity) does not increase lifetime earnings for middle class second or later generation college students (who make up the bulk of all college students).

The starting point is the obvious fact that graduates of elite colleges make more money than graduates of less elite colleges. This pattern holds even when you control for the SAT scores and grades of graduates. By themselves, these patterns seem to suggest that the college is a major reason for the earnings difference. . . . They also controlled for the colleges that students applied to and were accepted by. . . . Someone who applies to Duke, Williams or Yale may be signaling that he or she is more confident and ambitious than someone with similar scores and grades who does not apply. Someone who is accepted by a highly selective school may have other skills that their scores didn’t pick up, but that the admissions officers noticed.

Once the two economists added these new variables, the earnings difference disappeared. In fact, it went away merely by including the colleges that students had applied to — and not taking into account whether they were accepted. A student with a 1,400 SAT score who went to Penn State but applied to Penn earned as much, on average, as a student with a 1,400 who went to Penn. . . .

[A] few major groups did not fit the pattern: black students, Latino students, low-income students and students whose parents did not graduate from college. “For them, attending a more selective school increased earnings significantly,” Mr. Krueger has written. Why? Perhaps they benefit from professional connections they would not otherwise have. Perhaps they acquire habits or skills that middle-class and affluent students have already acquired in high school or at home.

This finding is especially noteworthy because the new study included several historically black colleges, like Howard, Morehouse and Spelman, which are not as selective as Penn, Williams or other elite colleges. Students who choose a historically black college over an elite college may be hurting their future earnings potential.

Put another way, this study demonstrates that affirmative action in college admission benefits the intended beneficiaries without harming the individuals who end up at less selective institutions of higher education as a result.

I've seen similar results of this kind of study applied to law school admissions and career success with similar results.

Selectivity and Graduation Rates In General

Then again, these findings may only have validity among middle class, second generation or later college students at colleges that are at least somewhat selective who are basically playing the game of trying to go to a college that is close to the most selective one they can attend, even if this goal isn't the only factor in their decisions. At less selective institutions, where financial limitations and genuinely negative campus cultures can intervene, a college environment can drag a student down, even though any acceptable environment seems to allow students to reach their full potentials.

A "large study . . . has found that students who attend colleges with lower graduation rates are less likely to graduate — which does indeed have a huge effect on their earnings." The results of that study, set forth in “Crossing the Finish Line” by William Bowen (an economist and former Princeton president), Michael McPherson (an economist and former Macalester College president), and Matthew Chingos, a doctoral candidate, looked at records of 200,000 students at 68 colleges, including a much richer selection of less selective schools than the ones studied by Dale and Krueger show selectivity does matter. The study notes that "Among rich countries, only Italy is worse" in terms of graduation rates for enrolled college students, although in fairness, this is in part because the United States has one of the highest rate of college attendance and one of the largest share of adults earning degrees of any country in the world.

The first problem that . . . [they] diagnose is something they call under-matching. It refers to students who choose not to attend the best college they can get into. They instead go to a less selective one, perhaps one that’s closer to home or, given the torturous financial aid process, less expensive.

About half of low-income students with a high school grade-point average of at least 3.5 and an SAT score of at least 1,200 do not attend the best college they could have. Many don’t even apply. Some apply but don’t enroll. “I was really astonished by the degree to which presumptively well-qualified students from poor families under-matched,” . . . They could have been admitted to Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus (graduation rate: 88 percent, according to College Results Online) or Michigan State (74 percent), but they went, say, to Eastern Michigan (39 percent) or Western Michigan (54 percent). If they graduate, it would be hard to get upset about their choice. But large numbers do not. . . .

In effect, well-off students — many of whom will graduate no matter where they go — attend the colleges that do the best job of producing graduates. These are the places where many students live on campus (which raises graduation rates) and graduation is the norm. Meanwhile, lower-income students — even when they are better qualified — often go to colleges that excel in producing dropouts. . . .

[T]he only way to lift the college graduation rate significantly is to lift it among poor and working-class students. . . . it appears to have fallen somewhat since the 1970s. . . . Money is clearly part of the answer. Tellingly, net tuition has no impact on the graduation rates of high-income students. Yet it does affect low-income students. All else equal, they are less likely to make it through a more expensive state college than a less expensive one, the book shows.

The data are illustrated in the following chart:

Students with better grades and GPAs are far more likely to graduate at schools that are more selective than at those with high dropout rates.

A culture that accepts failure at less selective institutions may also be part of the problem, conveying the impression that dropping out is normal, rather than an outcome to be strenuously avoided.

A few colleges, like the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, have intensive programs that have raised graduation rates. The State of West Virginia has begun tying student aid to academic progress, and graduation rates there have risen. . . . When students fill out an online form for federal financial aid, the Obama Education Department now informs them of the graduation rate at any college in which they express interest.

Graduation Rates And Selectivity In Colorado

Colorado specific data are consistent with this general conclusion. As I noted in a blog post that I made a week ago:

For the 2003 cohort at 4 year Colorado institutions, 62.9% of students who did not need remediation graduates in six years, while 29.5% who did need remediation graduated in six years. Students requiring remedial instruction at schools with higher overall graduation rates were more likely to graduate that students requiring remedial instruction at schools with lower graduation rates. For example, 65.0% of students at the Colorado School of Mines who needed remedial classes graduated in six years, while only 19.6% of students at Metro State who needed remedial classes graduated in six years.

The question is begs, of course, is how much of the difference is due to sorting and how much of it is due to the culture of the institutions themselves. It could be that students at the Colorado School of Mines who need remedial classes are more affluent than those at Metro State, and are thus less prone to worry about whether their family's hard earned money should be spent on them when they seem themselves a marginal students who need remedial study. Or, it could be that Colorado School of Mines students need remedial work because the courses they needed to get them on track weren't available despite their strong talent for the material that they didn't study, or that many students who need remedial work there are academically talented students who lag in reading or writing because English is not their native language, who quickly recover from gaps in instruction, while remedial students at Metro State may generally lack academic moxie.

There are indications that this is happening at the high school level, as well as the higher educational level. Students who have been identified as gifted and talented who attend West High School or Lincoln High School in Denver, for example, both of which a high poverty, predominantly minority traditional high school programs are much less likely to attend college and not require remedial education than gifted and talented students who attend North High School in Denver, about a mile away from West, despite the fact that it is also a high poverty, predominantly minority traditional high school with a similar sized pool of gifted and talented students. North is doing something right, while West and Lincoln are doing something wrong. It may not be the fault of the principals and teachers involved who are simply dealing with the situation that has been created for them as well as they can. It may simply be that students at West and Lincoln are even more financially pressed than those at North, something that a simple free and reduced lunch program eligibility rate may not reveal. But, whatever the reason, high school environments do seem to have an impact on outcomes for comparable students in Denver.


Taken together, and in light of previous blogging of educational research that I've done here, these findings suggest the kind of priorities that we should have in public higher education.

* Subsidizing middle class students who want to attend highly selective private colleges and universities rather than the most selective public colleges and universities doesn't provide much value. Yet, a large share of college students are from affluent families.

* Tuition rates have little impact on the likelihood the children in affluent families will attend college or graduate from college.

* Affirmative action in higher education creates significant benefits without causing significant harm for African-American students, Hispanic students, low income students and first generation college students. These students benefit the most from attending more selective colleges and universities in lifetime earnings and in likelihood of graduation.

* The easiest way to increase the number of students who graduate from college in the short term is to increase financial aid support to academically qualified low and medium income students.

* Non-selective admissions policies that produce high college dropout rates undermine the likelihood that academically qualified students at those colleges will fail, and students who would otherwise be admitted by some level of selectivity in admissions have very high rates of academic failure and are more prone to not learn very much while they are in college even if they do graduate.

* Students who are not academically ready for college are more likely to fail at all levels. For example, the standards to determine that a student needs remedial education are basically the same at two year and four year institutions. For the 2006 cohort at 2 year Colorado institutions, 52.7% of students who did not need remediation graduated, while 19.3% of those who did need remediation graduated (from a two year program or with a certificate or after transferring to a new institution). For the 2003 cohort at 4 year Colorado institutions, 62.9% of students who did not need remediation graduates in six years, while 29.5% who did need remediation graduated in six years. But, at four year institutions with some level of selectivity, there is a graduation rate effect on the effectiveness of remedial education.

* Colorado has a system in which every high school graduate or high school dropout with a GED, no matter how academically unprepared will be admitted to some open admissions institution of higher education, and every student attending a public college or university (or one of three private colleges or universities in the state) receives an equal per student state subsidy simply for being from Colorado. This isn't unusual. Almost every state in the United States has this system.

The open admissions, universal equal subsidy system of Colorado and most state's higher education system has expensive flaws. This is a poor model despite it universality.

1. It subsidizes the very large share of college students, particularly at more selective colleges and universities, who are affluent and can afford to pay the full cost of their college education without a state subsidy. Reducing this subsidy would not significant reduce college graduation rates for upper middle class high school graduates students who are not first generation college students.

2. It admits large numbers of unqualified students who have little chance of earning a degree, who also tend to benefit least academically from their experience on average. About half of two year college students and about one in five four year college students at public colleges and universities need remedial education, and significant numbers of students who don't need remedial classes are still marginally qualified academically and likely to not graduate as a result.

3. Admitting large numbers of unqualified students devotes significant state funds to sending students who won't benefit much on average from their education (usually because they don't graduate), this also means that the state helping to create non-discharagable student loan debts for large numbers of students who won't even have the assistance of a degree earned to help pay for those debts making those students worse off than they were when they started. And, this means that a culture of failure is created that reduces the likelihood that academically qualified students will graduate.

4. This system under funds working class and middle class students who are academically ready for college. As a result, these students are much more likely to drop out for financial reasons and are much more likely to attend a college with a high dropout rate where the institutional culture makes it more likely for them to drop out.

Action Items

First, to restate a couple of conclusions from my post last week:

1. We need to change the culture at high school that are doing a poor job of sending a large share of well prepared entering high school students (such as students identified as gifted and talented), or simply to remove students with reasonable prospects of going to college from these high schools all together and remake these schools as non-traditional programs. We are doing these students a grave disservice by sending them to high schools like West High School and Lincoln High School as they exist today in Denver where their opportunities are greatly diminished.

2. We need to have something to offer its non-college bound students besides a watered down college preparatory curriculum that makes it worth the student's time and effort to stay in school and graduate, because the expectation that all students will go to and graduate from college is profoundly unrealistic for a large share of all students by the time that they enter high school, whatever prospects there may have been for this to happen earlier in the educational process. This should probably be focused on vocational programs, but this is a place where school choice among non-traditional programs may be particularly appropriate until there is consensus on what kinds of programs are most beneficial for non-college bound students. Realistically, students who enter high school well below grade level in multiple subjects or with a history of poor academic performance in middle school and earlier will not miraculously catch up in high school.

3. The dominant reason that students need remedial courses when they show up at colleges and universities in the state is weak preparation in math. The good news is that math is much more self-contained as a subject than reading and writing, and much more a product of the educational process than reading and writing which are part of language skills developed every waking hour (and many dreaming hours) for a student's entire lifetime. Beefing up the curriculum and our expectations of our students in math can reasonably be expected to make a dent in this problem.

To these I add these action items for public higher education in Colorado:

4. The best way to serve the goal of increasing access to higher education is to devote most scarce public higher education funds to scholarships that are based on both financial need and academic merit.

5. The state should greatly reduce subsidies for college students who are not in financial need, although perhaps a token subsidy (e.g. $2,000 per year) could be made as a reward to the academically highest achieving students (e.g. students whose grades and test scores put them in the top 10% of high school students) without regard to financial need.

6. The state should set a minimum floor of academic achievement that should apply as a prerequisite to admission for a large share (perhaps 90%) of students at any institution of higher education in the state (e.g. a student has graduated from high school, does not require remedial education, had at combined GPA/test score performance comparable to least a 2.7 GPA in high school/900 SAT/19 ACT, the standard at Mesa State College where about a third of students graduate). While there may be some room for exceptions in exceptional cases, the general rule should be that students who need remedial coursework, or who had a high school GPA and test score combination below the threshold level should not be admitted to any public colleges and universities, even two year programs at community colleges.

7. The state should set a standard of academic achievement significantly higher than the standard that applies to admission to any institution of higher education to achieve a scholarship covering 100% of financial need in grant form to those students whose academic preparation suggests that apart from financial need they have a very high likelihood of graduating roughly similar to the standard for admission to a selective institution of higher education (for example, a high school GPA of 3.3 and combined SAT score of 1100 equivalent). Students eligible for admission but not meeting the higher standard might receive only 50% of their financial need in grant form and the remainder in student loan form.

8. The state should fund, from its K-12 education budget, separate remedial programs for former high school students at little or minimal cost that could make them eligible for admission to a higher educational institution.

9. The state should support, perhaps through community recreation centers, educational and vocational programs designed for former high school students who aren't academically prepared for a college education and for whom going to college is not their goal.

10. The state should stop subsidizing private college and university educations.

Meanwhile at the federal level:

11. We should cease to make non-dischargable federal subsidized higher educational funds available to for profit colleges in programs with low graduation rates. One way to address that would be to set minimum academic standards for odinary student loans and Pell Grants similar to those proposed for public colleges and universities - with eligibility reopened for those who manage to show satisfactory academic performance for a year or two without dropping out. A much more closely monitored program serving a much smaller number of students might be developed for perhaps 10% of all student loan and grant recipients, which would be rationed so that they would remain a small share of all federal higher education assistance at any given institution.

Alternately, some portion of federal student aid held might be held in trust for for profit colleges, and for any institution with a low graduation rate, until a student graduated, with colleges forfeiting and not allowed to charge students for any amounts incurred for students who don't graduate.

21 February 2011

Egypt and Wisconsin

We live in a small world.

Intervention. Why not?

I am watching Aljazeera Arabic, which is calling people in Tripoli on the telephone and asking them what is going on in the capital. The replies are poignant in their raw emotion, bordering on hysteria. The residents are alleging that the Qaddafi regime has scrambled fighter jets to strafe civilian crowds, has deployed heavy artillery against them, and has occupied the streets with armored vehicles and strategically-placed snipers. One man is shouting that “the gates of Hell have opened” in the capital and that “this is Halabja!” (where Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ordered helicopter gunships to hit a Kurdish city with sarin gas, killing 5000 in 1988).

Two defecting Libyan pilots who flew to Malta confirmed the orders to strafe the crowds from the air and said that they declined to obey the order. Other pilots appear to have been more loyal.

From here.

The U.S. has the capability to deploy fighter aircraft in the region and stop this from happening. It also has a deep history of disrespect for Libyan sovereignty from the Marines sent to Tripolli in the Revolutionary era to the bombing of a Libyan chemical plant in mine. Does Ghadaffi deserve sovereign respect vis-a-vis democratic protesters from a nation like the United States that was founded on revolutionary overthrow of tyrrany? Would a single show of force in this instance establish a credible threat that would influence the behavior of dicators elsewhere even without its actual exercise? We could tell nervous monarches that we distinguish between legitimate monarchies and dicatorships.

Why not? Unlike leaders of regimes in Egypt and Bahrain, we have no history of Libyan cooperation with the U.S. We wouldn't necessarily have to take down the entire regime. There are locals on the ground who could do that. We could simply shut down one military tactic of the regime in order to show disrespect and emasculate that regime in a case where it is clearly engaging in a gross, mass violation of human rights of the worse magnitude. Perhaps we could bomb Ghadaffi's house while we were at it.

It isn't as if the U.S. has some long tradition of non-intervention in Middle Eastern affairs to defend after two U.S. initiated wars in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Also, the extingency of an unfolding situation could justify not seeking a broad diplomatic coalition. The War Powers Act permits U.S. Presidents to make brief military interventions without Congressional approval.

Mexico Still Deep In Drug War

Police in drug violence-plagued Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, say more than 50 people have been killed in a three-day span. The El Paso Times reported Monday that the 53 victims, between Thursday and Saturday, included a police officer, a municipal patrolman and a state investigator.

From here.

12 taxi drivers have been killed in attacks in Acapulco, Mexico. Acapulco also recently saw four men bound and tossed off a six hundred foot bridge:

Four men with their hands and feet tied and heads covered in duct tape were thrown 600 feet to their deaths from a bridge Friday, authorities said as Mexico's increasingly bloody drug battles reached a new level of cruelty and intimidation.

The four were among 13 people slain Friday in Guerrero, which has seen a spike in violence since rival factions of the Beltran Leyva cartel began fighting over territory after leader Arturo Beltran Leyva died in a battle with Mexican marines in December 2009.

The other nine were killed in the resort city of Acapulco. In the most gruesome of those killings, police found a severed head that had been scalped and whose face had been skinned. . . .

Nationwide, nearly 35,000 people have been killed in drug-gang violence since President Felipe Calderon deployed troops and federal police four years ago to crush the cartels in their strongholds.

Just the thing to get you excited about a vacation in a Mexican resort on the beach, where an international tennis tournament is currently underway.

Jefferson Davis On The Cause of The Civil War

Jefferson Davis unequivocally stated in 1861 that the cause of his state’s secession was that “she had heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races.” Other Confederate leaders also emphasized that slavery was the reason for secession.

From here, with links to multiple sources.

Jefferson Davis's inauguration as President of the Confederate State of America was re-enacted on its 150th anniversary on February 19th in Alabama in an event organized by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group of men, mostly in the American South, who have wide political support, who are proud that their ancestors were traitors who fought to defend slavery.

Ironically, most of them now favor the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln.

Monarchy Still Popular

In Libya:

Security forces in Benghazi opened fire on Sunday on protesters storming police stations and government buildings. But in several instances, units of the military turned against them and sided with protesters.

By Monday, protesters had claimed control of the city, overrunning its main security headquarters, called the Katiba.

Celebrating protesters raised the flag of the country's old monarchy, toppled in 1969 by a Gadhafi-led military coup, over Benghazi's main courthouse and on tanks around the city.

"Gadhafi needs one more push and he is gone," said Amal Roqaqie, a lawyer at the Benghazi court, saying protesters are "imposing a new reality. ... Tripoli will be our capital. We are imposing a new order and new state, a civil constitutional and with transitional government."

From here.

The possibility of a restored monarchy in Libya is not hypothetical. There are monarchist factions who favor that approach and men who have claims to be the legitimate heir to the throne of Libya. The man who was the King of Libya when the monarchy was ended in 1969 (King Idris I), and his son, the then crown prince, his nephew Hasan as-Senussi, have died. Idris abdicated the thrown, but the deal in which he did so was not honored by the successor government of Libya. There are two living claimants to the Libyan throne, should the Libyan people want to reinstate the dynasty that was in place before the 1969 revolution: Muhammad as-Senussi, a son of Hasan as-Senussi whom was named as heir by his father shortly before his father's death in 1992, and Prince Idris al-Senussi, a relative of the late King Idris who took up arms against the regime in 1991 with U.S. backing and is an investment banker.

The Senussi royal family is the same one that produced the Mahdi who became a model for Frank Herbert's Dune series. King Idris I took formal power as Emir of Cyrenaica at the behest of the British in 1917, and was in exile presiding over insurgents from 1922 until 1951.

In Morocco, protests have been relatively muted as a result of reforms relative to his predecessor from the nation's king. Protesters in Jordan want governmental reforms, but don't want to oust the king, who has been seens as a reformer who advocated for the average person.

The coming royal wedding in Britain still attracts interest.

And, in Bahrain, a monarchy that has had a violent attack on protesters. It may be possible to convince the the people that there was a power struggle:

The situation in Bahrain is further complicated by a palace feud between the country's prime minister and his nephew, the country's king.

The police involved in Thursday's violence are answerable to the prime minister, and the force's reliance on Pakistanis and other foreign recruits has long been a source of tension in the country.

What remains unknown is whether King Hamad agreed to the action - he had apologized publicly for earlier police violence - and whether the crackdown would continue.

One possible resolution in Bahrain would be for the young king to overrule the country's prime minister of forty-one years in favor of the people and the Crown Prince appears to be positioning himself to step into that role:

On Saturday, it was Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the son of the king and deputy commander of the military, who ordered troops to leave the square.

"I stress, once more, that our duty is to preserve security and stability, to ensure that there is no discord and that the situation does not worsen," the prince said in a statement on Bahrain's national news agency. "Join us to calm the situation, so that we can announce a day of mourning for our lost sons."

(Although the apparent injection of Saudi Arabian forces into the situation casts doubt on this scenario). The tiny Arab island nation has a population and land area similar to Denver, and a large U.S. Navy presence. The U.S. has so far not involved itself on ongoing events there. The Crown Prince has been designated as the King's liason with Shiite opposition leaders.