Saturday, January 28, 2006

Ceding the Moral High Ground

Occasionally, noted pundits claim the conservative movement is about values, but I believe almost all liberals are value driven, and this is particularly true among the far left - although often not Democrat-party aligned - but the American debate is typically, at best, practical and materialistic, so liberal values are often expressed as the positive ends of liberal policies. The reason that many of us have the concerns we have are that we have higher moral concerns, and as a rule, most of us are:

  • Against the war
  • Environmentally concerned
  • Humanitarian (gay rights, women's concerns, race issues)
  • Egalitarian (concerned with inequality, poverty, power abuses)

I could go on, but obviously liberals have taken a moral high ground, although some conservatives have taken an equivalent moral high ground, although many would disagree since the most vocal Republicans are by their nature of the low moral ground, e.g., only concerned with money and business.

Freakomonics - Vaunted but Flawed

Although I generally avoid books on the NY Times bestseller lists, my interest in economics and statistics led me to read Freakonomics. I found it an enjoyable, easy and quick read. Since my undergraduate was in lab psychology, I have strong abilities in economics, e.g., International Economics Honor Society member, and in finance, e.g., disturbed the curve in my first MBA-level course in finance and scored highest in large classes for tests of mathematics, the application of statistics and economics to social issues was both intriguing and something I did quite often. My own dabbling in such relationships finds interesting correlations between GINI coefficients, economics outcomes with various national cultural qualities.

As with The Bell Curve, the book was insightful and flawed, even more so than the former, since it often assumed correlation was causation, and the breadth of its tested variables was less than comprehensive.

Einstein: Atheist and Activist

Although most educated people are aware of Einstein's greatest equation, E=MC^2, few know of his intense social activism. In the creation of the myth of Einstein a belief in god is proposed, when in fact, Einstein was a humanitarian and an atheist.

Religion and Social Dysfunction

A recent article in the journal Religion and Society noted significant correlation between religiosity, as the percentage of the population believing in a god, and social dysfunction. How many honest and humane people wonder if America's extreme religious and rightist philosophy could have a positive social impact. I for one did.

That wonder has been laid to rest.

The Economics of Not So Innocent Fraud

I was doing a bit of research, and being obliged to truth, no matter how ugly, I decided to research some issues on political affiliation. Although I had at times read that education increased with Republican voting - an exit poll, a questionable source - I found a Pew study that showed income and Republican values go hand-in-hand. Although this seems commonsensical, it contradicted my sense that educated people are typically liberal, although IQ correlates with income at 0.3, a relatively low degree. Alternatively, the most educated people, i.e., professors, are more often affiliated with the Democratic party, rather than the Republican, by a 7 to 1 ratio.

Regardless, it did make me question myself, and I was reminded of Galbraith's The Economics of Innocent Fraud: Truth For Our Time, that many people in power, both corporate and political, believe in fallacies that are self-rewarding. For those that enjoy economics, the book is a very worthwhile but slender read.

Piracy versus Corporate Control - The Larger Issue

I have not followed this closely, and I do generally adhere to using purchased music only, although I will admit to pirating a few songs that were otherwise not easily available.

My concern is not with the issue of sharing licensed products, which really does seem like theft, but the egregious control exercised by corporations over patents and copyrights. As an educated person, you have likely noticed that corporate control over the US government has become contemptuously strong. The constriction of intellectual freedom is not inherently fair, and although stealing music seems inappropriate, one might consider it a growing rebellion against the age of corporate plutocracy. At one time, the law did allow one to copy media for personal use, even to transfer recordings to another person, provided it wasn't for money, so the idea that it is now wrong is at least partially the effect of corporate pressure and propaganda. It wasn't a crime until Congress made it one, after the issue had already been out for several years.

Power User View

I am a VBA programmer for Excel and Access on Windows, and my technical background includes stints as desktop/server support, project management, and departmental IT management, but all with Windows. Several years ago, before the switch ads, I purchased an iMac with OS X, partially for aesthetics and partially for novelty; I upgraded it to 1Gb RAM a few months ago. Counter to the hype, I would often hang my iMac, and although the software availability is greater for PC's, I've found Mac software much more appealing. Obviously I am not a gamer. My technical background means I have the knowledge required to secure a wireless network, setup firewalls, and avoid viruses/phishing, so my biggest issue with my iMac is speed in everyday use.

Generally, the Mac versus Windows debates hovers around several issues, e.g., ease of use, speed/power, installed base, total cost of ownership. There are others, but the reason that Intel in Mac matters is primarily power. The move to Intel reduces one of the largest single complaints about Mac's, that they are slow. Recent tests tend to show Windows outperforming Apple's PC's, even for vaunted design applications, and now with Intel processors inside, that criticism is muted. I think kudos should also be given for the ease at which they've ported/recompiled OS X on Intel. Since the base OS is UNIX, it might translate into easier upgrade paths for Mac OS X users, besides the increased power Mac users will enjoy. It has simply made a great product better.

No Mention of Intelligence or Poverty

Although many people are quick to point out the supposed benefits to religion, few people mention its relation to intelligence, or at least, lack thereof. Generally, the highly intelligent are not religious, and I have heard from some religious spokespeople, that their ranks are coming from the least intelligent. Considering America's dismal performance on international comparisons of academic abilities, i.e., TIMSS- 12th grade (near adult, when it really matters), one could wonder if the swing to the right had more to do with ignorance than with any supposed benefit.

From my own, non-academic, statistical analysis, educational performance seems to be related to levels of economic inequality, such that countries with higher Gini coefficients, measures of economic inequality, have lower TIMSS performance and lower IQ. The US has the highest Gini coefficient in the developed world. Additionally, you could recognize that religion is seemingly the salve to poverty. China's rural poor are turning to Falun Gong, and in some ways, something similar is happening here, such that the rural and economically disenfranchised are turning to god.

I have not vetted the following for veracity, but following are links supporting the the IQ correlation:

IQ by Religiosity (Country)

Intelligence and Religious beliefs - Studies (redundant)

Schwarzenegger versus Clinton

Women have often voted for males who were womanizers, Kennedy and Clinton, in particular.  But both were appealing, and certainly not abusive, unlike Schwarzenegger.  The crux of the difference, is that Arnold is a Republican, and the media is controlled by Republican interests.  Also, considering what seems to be a swing to traditionality, and some denigration of female style, a recent NY Times Week in Review article asked if the French were too feminine, implying that masculinity was required for preventing terrorism.

The Illusion of Wealth

I would find it hard to even justify the support of big-time sports in college, let alone paying the students competing in them.

From The Game of Life, a review encompassing top-tier public and private school’s athletics:

  • Athletes have lower SAT scores and attain lower grades, and their involvement in sport does not justify their lower performance.  Students with extracurricular activities attain higher grades while spending more time on those activities.
  • Most sports teams actually lose money, and although some schools earn money, many of those only seem to do so because the colleges and universities provide direct and indirect monetary support, either as funding for support activities, or by providing services directly.
  • Athletes give very little as alumni.  A review of top donors would find high academic performers, those with incomes over $150,000, and those admitted as children of alumni, as the strongest contributors.
  • Additionally, removing support for athletics would not negatively effect minority enrollment.

Personally, I feel anger when I see that my alma mater, Rutgers University, expends so much energy on football and its ilk.  The school’s money would be so much more effectively spent on academic activities, and I assume Rutgers’ slide in college rankings indicates the decreasing emphasis on the intellectual life that should be its primary focus.

A Response to Sanctions on Syria

Loretta Napoleoni, writing in Modern Jihad: Tracing the Dollars Behind the Terror Networks, details the financing behind terrorist organizations, little of which is state financed.  The fund-raising activities of such groups are often via goods and drugs smuggling, activities likely to flourish if the legitimate economy of Syria is sanctioned.  Sanctioning, which works among the developed economies of Europe and North America, is useless when dealing with developing and rogue states, and putative measures actually increase the potential activities for terrorist funding.  The current administration's attitude of confrontation and denial must give way to a more enlightened and effective style, utilizing coalition and aid, as well as a more comprehensive understanding of resistant group support.

What’s Going on with Reading?

Appreciation of reading, as well as education, isn't decreasing because parents aren't instilling an appreciation of it.  If one looked at the facts, one can see that young children do fine academically, but several studies, as well as research presented in Freakonomics, show that adolescent children are more influenced by their peers, and turn away from education as they enter junior high school.  Cutting through the self-important belief that parents, teachers, and schools matter, one sees that fourth graders are responsive to parental influences, but adolescents are primarily affected by their peers.

What's to blame?  I can offer several possibilities, one being the effects a grossly unequal society; high economic inequality correlates with low measures on tests comparing academic abilities between countries.  Why this is so is subtle, but it could relate to a culture which primarily appreciates education as a path to make money.  Other causes, include, a culture devoid of quality of life concerns, and one that values working, but not leisure.  Additionally, the push to regiment education in young children drives children away from education as they enter adolescence, such that increases in 4th grade academic performance are matched with decreases in eighth grade academic performance; American 12th grade performance, as compared internationally, is a joke.  And then there's explosion of media culture.

Like much of the focus on education in general, the root causes, hence, the provided solutions, are incorrect and inappropriate.

Review: The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision

An excellent, incredibly insightful and informative book, somewhat marred by the tedium experienced in the authors' rehashing the ideas ...