Monday, July 16, 2018

Birthrate II

For those following at home, Bethany has recently written about birthrate as well, with different focus.  It makes the comments sections a little unwieldy, so I am adding my new thought here as a separate post, rather than updating the first one or following on to T99's comment.

Children are lots of fun, but they are a lot of work. I think you knew that. One of the things that softens that is being an aunt or uncle. I have heard women in particular, if they feel they are being judged for having no children, mention that they are very close to their nieces. Though keeping it to myself, I have been a bit dismissive about that, because it's not the same. On the other hand, it's got similarities, and as I have watched my three boys with no children interact with the daughters of the two who do, I can see the value for both sides more clearly than I did when my children were small.  The uh, quality of the players may have something to do with that. One has to put in some effort* to be a good aunt or uncle, but one gets considerable reward in return.

But if  birthrates are falling precipitously, the supply of uncles and aunts dries up in a generation. The last two generations have likely hit the sweet spot, with more attention from Mom and Dad (smaller families) plus more aunts and uncles to swoop in at times. Or at least, it would have been the sweet spot if Moms and Dads had stayed together.  Holiday gatherings and family reunions get complicated, and less frequent. I suppose the great mobility of the last two generations has undermined the closeness to nieces and nephews as well. My nieces would wish openly for cousins, and were ecstatic to get some. (That they were girls, even better!)

Italy, Portugal, Japan, Greece, Spain, South Korea...these all have very low fertility rates. In the first generation, a child has no siblings, or perhaps one.  But when that child has children there may be only  a single aunt between the two sides, and 0-1 cousins.  For Americans used to large Italian-American families, the idea of an Italian culture with no aunts or uncles, no cousins is inconceivable.  Yet that is the current reality.  It's not getting better.

If you thought the disappearance of the middle child was a big cultural difference going forward, wait until you see a world with no cousins or uncles, where even the concept has something of a last-century feel to it. The word nepot is 6,000 years old, and descends unchanged from Proto-Indo-European to Romanian (and you can see the root clearly in many other languages). It is still useful, but what will be its use in even fifty years?

I have cousins on one side, and even knew half-a-dozen second cousins. As with siblings, that is not an unmixed blessing.  Yet for grounding one's memories, or getting the other side of controversial family happenings, or just being nostalgic and reassuring oneself that one had a beginning. Those with close or many siblings have less need, and cousins separated by age or distance don't always provide much added benefit. I was close to one uncle and one aunt - I have been close to two nephews and moderately so to three nieces and another nephew. The benefit is real.

*If you are the first in your family to have children, then you get to palm some of the effort off on your own children, who love being the oldest cousins.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Have Statistics Killed Baseball?

For 55 years I have been saying "no, statistics are what is most interesting about baseball," and for the last 30+ years I would say it has been dying baseball's salvation. Listening to Bill Simmons discuss the declining popularity of baseball with Chuck Klosterman, I am having strange thoughts.  Simmons noted that no one has baseball arguments anymore. He gave as an example whether having Wade Boggs on your team was a good idea. People used to complain about empty stats because he didn't drive in runs, while his defenders would point to his batting average and walks, and the critic would respond with walks not being that important, and he was a leadoff hitter who didn't steal bases, on and on. Now there are answers to that.

I turned them off* and went on thinking in that vein. I talk baseball with a few people at work, but most of them don't really understand statistics all that well, they just have impressions. They "don't trust" Joe Kelly. I am betting that they are still thinking of Opening Day, when he was terrible, and let them talk.  They both immediately reference that game, no others. He had no bad outings in April or May.  None. He had one bad and two very bad outings in June in July.  41 appearances, 4 of them bad. I try to work this in, but they "just don't trust him."  This is common, and I think the people who understand statistics don't get into arguments with such people because there is really no point.

Statheads have their favorite ways of looking at things, and are always looking to uncover a new statistic that will explain some phenomenon even better.  But that window is narrower now. I might prefer ERA and you prefer WHIP, but both will tell similar stories. We will both find "Saves" unsatisfying as a measurement. You can still get into arguments about steroids and the Hall of Fame, but that is a different type of argument. Baseball stories are now about how to build a team, or how the style of swing is changing.  Mike Trout is having a spectacular season.  You can go to Single Season Leaders to find out how spectacular (projecting to full season required).  It's one of the top 20 of all time, and might hit top 10. Up there with Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, and not many others. That's it, that's the whole discussion.

So half the baseball fans can no longer talk to the other half, other than grim politeness.They can't even read the same writers that smoothly. This is a serious blow to a game that takes too long to watch.

*I like both but find them frustrating.  Both know many things, and frequently have interesting observations that have eluded others, as above. Both can be witty. However, neither seems to critique his own ideas very well, and will run off into some fairly stupid stuff and keep going. Klosterman in particular seems to think by flashes of lightning, then go dark. His But What If We're Wrong? was a great concept, with mediocre execution. I commented years ago on one of his cultural claims. (The posts overlap. Pick one or the other.)


There are a dozen explanations out there why the American birthrate is below replacement, and why middle-class and above white females in particular are having fewer children, and many seem quite plausible. There does seem to be a worldwide trend that as countries become more prosperous, and couples believe their children might have access to higher status, they limit the number of children they have. Secondly, optimism about the future seems to be a driver of having more children.

I wonder if there is a fairly simple but overlooked factor, the inertia of one cultural idea. From the age of about fourteen on, girls are not only told "Don't get pregnant," but "Smart girls don't get pregnant," which carries a double meaning of smart=birth control/less impulsive and smart=intelligent/ career-driven. It becomes something of a default position, and may embed quite strongly.  Though the original intention of "smart girls don't get caught" is not the same kind of smart, it does tie in with the idea "Upwardly mobile women have fewer children," or "this is not a good time in your career/education to have children," as above. They then have all the decision-making influences of opt-in versus opt-out. A default position of opt-in results in more people being on lists as organ donors, for example. In previous generations one did not have to opt-in to having children.  That was the default. (Exceptions abound, but I think we recognise this general cultural difference between yesterday and today.) Today's default among white middle class women is that one has to specifically opt-in to this childbearing idea.

"Smart girls" is just a song playing quietly in the background, a gravitational force that is more of the explanation than we credit.

I have written the above as if the males have nothing to do with these child-having decisions, which is not true. Men may even be equal drivers in decisions to have no children at all. But I think women have enormously more say in how many children a couple has. The Right Number is achieved and she vetoes any suggestion of more.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Sweden's New Military Preparedness

I had heard about the surprise mobilization of many thousands of Swedish Home Guard and reservists in June for an exercise responding to a hypothetical invasion by Russia of the island of Gotland. I couldn't remember ever hearing of such a thing before. I then promptly forgot about it, a great example of things not fitting the narrative and slipping away.

That is not the end of that story. I mentioned this, and Estonia's preparations, to a psychiatrist friend who is from Belarus. "When there is a bear in the woods it is a good time to practice shooting chipmunks." I was also surprised to read that 43% of Swedes favor entering NATO, with 20% unsure. A decade ago, I think it would have been a tenth of that.

In the larger picture, the population of Europe is 510 million to Russia's 144M; Europe's GDP is about $20T compared to Russia's $2T. I'm not sure why they would need us.

Ken Burns's "The Vietnam War"

I haven't seen it.  I'm not likely to.  The commentary from conservative websites is that it is hopelessly slanted, especially in that it did not give much opportunity for those who had full-throated support to speak.

Martha Bayles, writing at the Claremont Review of Books would give qualified agreement. Yet she would point out that neither did the radical opponents get a sympathetic portrayal of their side. She sees the documentary as essentially neutral, giving primary blame for a great American mistake to two Democratic presidents, and their civilian and military advisors. She opens with a quote from US Army Lieutenant General H R McMaster's 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty.
The war in Vietnam was not lost in the field, nor was it lost on the front pages of the New York Times, or on the college campuses. It was lost in Washington, D.C., even before Americans assumed sole responsibility for the fighting in 1965 and before they realized the country was at war; indeed, even before the first American units were deployed.
 I found her argument plausible, though I am in no position to have a qualified opinion.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Cargo Cult

Remember Cargo Cults?  You learned about them in freshman anthropology, or maybe just heard someone talking about them.  The idea was that primitive tribes really liked the good things that westerners brought when they came to study them, visit, set up bases for war in the Pacific. After the westerners left, the tribes would make airstrips of radios out of coconut and straw in an effort to make them come again.

Women have received more college degrees than men for years now. There is a growing advice literature about women "settling" for men who are less clever if they want to get married, most recently this, by a female anthropology professor, ironically. Less clever? Really?  Especially WRT degrees that come with high debt and no clear connection to the well-paying jobs that we are told men always end up with? Perhaps there is a tinge of cargo cult behavior in this. Women got degrees - any degrees - because these credentials were what the men had seemingly used for so many years to get power, money, and good things.  That was of course largely true at one point, yet it has gradually become less true over the years. Getting just any degree isn't quite so useless as building a radio out of straw, but it has aspects of this.

It remains true that Americans continue to think of a person with a degree as smarter and more capable than one without, and this is more true of advanced degrees. Yet that was never more than partly true, was never universally acknowledged, and is becoming less true as we go forward. A college professor is not going to saw off the branch she is sitting on, and likely will not even notice that her definition of "less clever" has serious limitations.  The rest of us can do those young women - and thus young men - a favor by pointing out that an expansion of the definition of "Mr Right" should start with expanding the definition of clever.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Freedom Of Speech

I find it fascinating that so many young people - and not-so-young-people - believe that NFL players have an inherent right to kneel during the national anthem because they have the right to protest.  They have freedom of speech under the First Amendment. That is only true on their own time. They have the right to protest on their employer's time only with the employer's permission. Whether the NFL or the team owner is their employer might be argued, and someone would likely try and make the case that it's not the employer's time until after the anthem, but really, it's pretty straightforward. Even if your employer agrees with your sentiment, you still might be told to stop.

For example, if you worked for an environmental nonprofit, you don't have automatic permission to put up LGBT banners visible to the public at the office.  The board might decide that they don't want to water down their primary message.  Wear a pin or a t-shirt, perhaps, but don't use our space.  Because it's ours, not yours. 

I think this counterargument has spread wide, but perhaps I am just positioned to hear it more often. Perhaps the young people really are quite solid on the very American idea of free speech and are just a little muddled about it.  That wouldn't be a terrible thing.

Unless, of course, they are the same people who believe that hate speech, however it is being defined this week, is not protected under the First Amendment.  Then their approval of the right to protest is just approval of the cause, subject to change when the speech goes against their thought. Then we really are screwed.


Just to review, because some Trump supporters in the comments sections at a few sites are losing this thought again.  Donald Trump did not find 63,000,000 new votes to win the election.  He unlocked some votes previous Republicans were unable to and the other candidates were unlikely to, including some Democrats. (I think Ted Cruz could have unlocked some but not all of them.  The populist difference is that Trump takes an "I am always right" attitude, which is untrue but attractive, while Cruz takes an "I am smarter than everyone else" attitude which is close to true but irritates people.)

I think it is true that had Trump not unlocked them the Republicans would not have won. However, they are only the group that put Trump over the top, not the foundation or "the base," whatever that is. The bulk of Trump's supporters were the same people who voted for Romney, McCain, Bush, Dole, etc. They voted for him because they "always vote Republican," or because "he's not Hillary Clinton." They would also have voted for Kasich, or Rubio, or whoever. Trump did in fact lose some of those votes.  He just won more back. You can still find lots of people who will say "Donald Trump continues to do a great job of not being Hillary Clinton, and that's all I ever asked of him."

The arithmetic of this is obvious, but the idea that "we true believers elected Trump" keeps creeping back in. Part of this is a very natural tendency that all groups have to see themselves as the key players. One sees it on sports teams, in businesses, or in any project.  There is some truth to it.  Everyone's part did matter, and the event may not have come to pass without them. To take an extreme, the Golden State Warriors cannot win if someone doesn't keep the floors safe, but that doesn't make the floor crew more important than Kevin Durant.

Secondly, many conservatives who have been prominent for years have turned out to be squishes, which gives the Trump supporters the idea that there are just millions of those GOPe guys out there who must be beaten back. That is not known.  Most Democrats just vote Democrat every time, because that's what they do, and would have to hate Hillary an awful lot not to vote for her. The Republicans are similar. 80% of that vote is going to show up unless Satan himself is nominated. (And some even then.) Trump found some independents and disaffected Democrats.  He re-energised some Republicans who had given up after the last few elections.  He inspired some young people who were previously unaffiliated.  These outnumbered the people who found him too offensive, or not worth driving to the polls for.

There is also the idea that the electoral world has been permanently changed by Trump and his supporters, so the others better get on board. That might be, but it is too soon to tell. All sorts of realignments might be in the future. Or not.


What a great idea! Structure the debate and build in some obstacles to crazies.

Unfortunately, the power structure does not seem to land at "Who has the better argument?" But at "What does the online audience think is the better argument?" We are back to rewarding the conventional wisdom.

However, it is probably a step up from our current debate even if it has flaws, and bsking has convinced me that this is also a worthy goal, even if it falls short of getting a grip on the truth.  There is a site LessWrong that takes this approach, and I sort of like it.  However, it has an air of being inoculated against certain ideas because it has deeply hidden assumptions that the contributors share and cannot question. Example: That the Enlightenment got almost everything right as a foundation, it just hasn't been tried properly yet. Sigh.

I give both sites three stars out of five.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Making One Uncomfortable

Ann Althouse claims that art should make us uncomfortable. To buttress her case, she notes that comedy should make us uncomfortable, that Jesus made us uncomfortable, and politics makes us uncomfortable.

The short answer is that art might make us uncomfortable, comedy might make us uncomfortable, Jesus might make us uncomfortable, and politics might make us uncomfortable, but not always. Those are largely American ideas, which we inherited from Western Europe and expanded. When one reads about other places and times in the world, one does not read this exaltation of uncomfortableness. Finding that art is for joy, comedy is for joy, Jesus is for joy is more common.  Politics is 50-50. Or also, art is for instruction, comedy is to relieve tension, Jesus is for inspiration. Art is to create magic, comedy is to create unity, Jesus is for rescue.

I am reminded of CS Lewis's First and Second Things. If we aim at the highest, we also get excellent byproducts thrown in for free.  Yet if we aim for the byproducts, considering them the main point, we get neither. In this instance, aiming at making people uncomfortable in order to teach or inspire or virtue-signal, we will pretty quickly be teaching nothing, inspiring no one, and none will think us virtuous, because no one will be listening. Yet if we aim for beauty, or truth, or humor, we will get teaching and inspiration thrown in, whether the audience is comfortable or uncomfortable.

Uncomfortableness is a false goal, but one which is common among the Arts & Humanities tribe. Comfortableness is also a false goal, and art, comedy, and Christian teaching can founder on those rocks as well.

Friday, July 06, 2018

And Now For Something Really Important

I've had no videos, no music, no comedy recently!  How dry, how boring!  I must make amends.

Well, all right then.  Semi-serious.

Search For Intelligent Life

I remember thinking that it was curious when Carl Sagan was deeply agnostic about God, yet so committed to searching for intelligent life in the universe.  I thought I noticed then that people who were so curious about that were almost invariably not believers in the Christian God in any usual form.  That just follows a prejudice of mine, that they would think that.  I don't actually know it.  I still think it true, but it would be easy to talk me out of it with a little good data.

Slate Star Codex (sidebar) has a lot of links and connections to the rationalist/humanist communities. I think I am seeing the same thing again over there. I will postulate, for contemplation, that there is some conservation of this belief in the human personality.  We want to believe that there is something out there that can instruct us, guide us, improve us. When we give up YHWH, we find some less-threatening cycle of lives, or oneness with the universe, or distant wise ones to believe in instead. (I find all of these to be ultimately much more threatening, but they don't look it at first.)

I do not claim this is universal.  I suspect there are people who have none of this belief at all, neither Abrahamic nor SETI. Yet the replacements have observably sprung up in the West in step with the reduction of monotheistic belief.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Prenatal Influence

I have waved the flag for years about prenatal influence on a variety of conditions, including schizophrenia, autism, and homosexuality. This MGH study about folic acid is not something to start changing protocols over.  It is one of those A sometimes results in B, and B sometimes results in C, so maybe A influences C sort of deals.  Still, worth noticing.

Senate Intelligence Committee

It is preliminary, and there are reasonable questions about what the practical effect was, but perhaps I am about to be proved wrong.

Of course proving what Putin was trying to do doesn't tell us what Trump's response was.

Intolerant Lutherans

Via the "Had Enough Therapy?" blog:  The NYT explains what the Danes are doing to make sure their Muslim immigrants acculturate. Imagine what would be said if this were Texas or Georgia.

I blame Trump.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018


Popular opinion is sometimes outraged at an attorney mounting a suspect or even ridiculous argument.  Having watched mental health attorneys attempting to defend very unhelpful and unsympathetic clients, I am less bothered. They have to say something. If they had a better argument, they'd use it. (When an activist attorney has a stupid idea - and a wealthy or powerful institution as a target - and then goes looking for a client to use it on I have less sympathy.)

It is similarly true about PR representatives of a person or organisation caught in a scandal or error. They have to say something. "The rescue efforts are going very well." They have to put the best face on this that they can.  It's their job. Political organisations responding to the news have a similar task.  They can't say nothing.  They have to try to change the subject, or reframe the issue, or insist that you can't prove it, or that no one cares about it, or whatever.  Yes, it is infuriating, or at least it's infuriating when it's your opponents, but it is also worth paying attention to.  If they are coming up with a deceitful or foolish argument, being merely insulting or changing the subject, it's because they haven't got anything better. If they had a good defense they'd use it.

Racist used to be a reasonable good word, a useful descriptor.  There might be disagreement at the margins about it, but we knew with tolerable certainty what someone meant when they used it. As it has broadened to mean even ridiculous things now, its use is a signal: the speaker does not have any better argument.  If he did, he would use it. And he has to say something, because he can't let your comments or actions just stand.  So be of good cheer - it means he has nothing better in the quiver.

We have reached the point where it is fair to quietly point this out. "Your use of that insult is an admission you haven't got any actual arguments. I'm afraid I'll have to consider my statement a point scored, then." I'd like to see it spread.

Spirit Of The Age

The greatest danger to the Christian Church is always the Spirit of the Age. There is always a tension, because the Christian's job is to package timeless truth in attractive modern decoration.  We are to be in the world but not of the world. 

People who put their energy into spreading the gospel, those worship leaders and preachers and writers, face the greater temptations in doing the opposite: disguising half-truth, heresy, or lack of spiritual focus in biblical language. It is easy to take what is popular and find some tertiary Christian teaching in it. They quite naturally go where the applause tells them to. Do not be quick to condemn them, for it is your applause they are hearing or not hearing. To them, the Church is in danger of disappearing because it does not capture the attention of the crowd.

As the rabbis said "Perhaps the opposite is also true." The Church is in danger of disappearing when it does capture the attention of the crowd. Ride the simplest truths, and put the others in the cart behind you. Attend worship. Pray. Be generous. Forgive those who have hurt you. Teach those who will listen.

Complicating The Narrative

A longtime friend sent along this article by a journalist who took training in mediation, and began to see what might be done differently in our political discussions. It references Jonathan Haidt's work, so I'm in already, but it also introduced me to the Center for Narrative and Conflict Resolution at George Mason, and the Difficult Conversations Lab at Columbia, neither of which I had heard of.  It's nice to know someone's trying to unlock some secrets.

The idea that attempting to complicate the discussion rather than simplify it reduces tension seems intuitively true to me, as reality tends to be messy and complicated. Whether that actually is so you will have to find out somewhere else.

Monday, July 02, 2018


There is a 2015 article by Jeff Selingo just linked by David Foster over at Chicago Boyz. Selingo is worried because college graduates don't know how to shoe a horse tolerate an ambiguous situation anymore.  Maybe so, but Selingo is drawing largely from personal anecdotes plus a Stanford psychologist who hasn't figured out the difference between correlation and causation (which means neither can Selingo), so I'm suspicious.  Also, Steven Johnson's 2005 book Everything Bad Is Good For You says the opposite, that the computer teaches kids to try all sorts of things to get where they want to go, epitomised by the videogames that just drop you off in an environment with no clue what your objective is or what the rules are.

Most likely, many Millennials are able to tolerate ambiguous situations, many are not, and many are in between. Is the trait more common now than it was? I don't know of evidence either way, but everyone has an opinion about Millennials.

I have a bias that generations are not that different from each other.  They each have their cabbages and kings. When we say "I have been teaching/coaching/hiring/supervising young people for forty years, and I think that Kids Today aren't as ______ as they used to be," there is a lot left out of that estimation.  First, that means you were 25 when you were first coaching 16 y/o's, and you were different then than you were at 45 or now are at 65.  If some percentage of your athletes challenged you, was that because they thought you too young? Or if they challenge you now, is it because they think you are too old? Are you remembering the percentages from 1978 accurately, or have you bent the impression to fit later understandings? (Answer: the latter, and it's not close.) Secondly, your sample set is extremely limited. Forty years is a long time, but at any given moment you are viewing an invisibly small percentage of the available calculus students that year, or whatever. Relatedly, what you remember about a very few young people will eventually dominate your impression - the vagaries of memory again. Thirdly, supervising kids in an economic downturn, when you can have the pick of the litter, is different from supervising them in flush times when you have to take what you can get.  Are there more real snowflakes at Yale now, or are more just acting like snowflakes because administrators let them get away with it? Your personal data is slippery and unrepresentative, start to finish. In 1968, the under-24's still supported the Vietnam war.  It was the elders who were beginning to turn away, finding it different than WWII and Korea. We don't remember it that way.  Doesn't fit the narrative.

Finally, even if there are measurable changes over time, they will be gradual, and in a narrow range. Percentage of people attending church in a month has dropped from 60% to 30%* over 70 years, with only slight changes in slope.  That's large, but there aren't any clear dividing lines. Perhaps a whole half-generation of 8-18 y/o's are affected by the Kennedy assassination or 9-11, or less visible factors like available birth control and easy pornography might change how young people coming of age might view the world, but they don't show up obviously.

I asked my two oldest plus bsking (all part of the Oregon Trail Generation, born 1977-84) for their thoughts on differences among generations.  My two lazily didn't answer, but Bethany did.  I won't give all her answers, as she may want to use them on her own, but I agree that she identified four things that are different now. However, I think these are things that have happened to all of us, not just Millennials. As a single example, she notices that the millennials are more sensitive and accepting of mental health issues than their grandparents were at a similar age.  That's true, but we all are, not just the younger generation.

How we look at endangering the body is different; how we look at endangering the family is different - one way up, the other way down. That may actually be pervasive enough to create a generational difference. I'm interested in what difference all of you think are present. So that I can shoot them down and tell you you're wrong, of course. Are Millennials actually different?

*The numbers vary wildly depending on what you ask and who is asking.

Chicago Boyz

I have been invited to join their crew, and will cross-post some things from here over there. There may come a time when I publish something there that I do not put here, but that is not the plan now. They have more commenters than I do, so if there are discussions going in both places, I have no idea what I will do about that.