sad dads spank kids (?)

NPR says: Pediatricians Need To Help ‘Sad Dads’.

The report says that 41% of depressed dads spank their kids, whereas only 13% of non-depressed dads do so. That’s a gigantic difference, right? Think of how many spankings we could prevent if we could just make depressed dads spank at the rate of non-depressed dads. Right now a total of 15% of dads spank. So if we cured all the depressed dads, the rate would plummet to…

… wait for it…

… 14%!

Right. The report doesn’t tell you that only 7% of dads are depressed. You need to look at the abstract for that. So instead of contributing somewhat more than 2% of total spankings, as they currently do, spanking-normalized depressed dads would contribute just under 1%.

You could tell me that any spanking is a bad spanking, and I wouldn’t really be able to contradict you. I don’t have any idea how bad corporal punishment is. However, I do know that reading to kids can provide a giant boost to their intellectual development — and the study (but not the report) shows that depressed dads are much less likely than non-depressed dads to read to their kids regularly.

I’m no fan of spanking, but I’m a lot more worried about kids becoming dumb.

(Yeah, I’m aware of the irony of invoking THIS AMERICAN LIFE in an attack on the scientific foundations of an NPR article. Here are some scholarly articles on the topic if you want to chase them down.)

ETA: I posted a similar but somewhat better written analysis at Partial Objects.

the top thirteen things of which men must beware in marriage, in paragraph form

It is not Adam’s superiority of brains or brawn that gives him his absolute advantage over Eve, but his blockish stupidity. He does not notice, does not listen, is uninterested, indifferent, dumb. He will not relate to her; she must relate herself — in words and actions — to him, and relate him to the rest of Eden. He is entirely satisfied with himself as he is; she must adapt her ways to him. He is immovably fixed at the center of his own attention. To live with him she must agree to be peripheral to him, contingent, secondary.

This is from Ursula Le Guin’s essay, “Reading Young, Reading Old,” collected in THE WAVE IN THE MIND. Adam and Eve here refer to characters in Mark Twain’s book, THE DIARIES OF ADAM & EVE, which I haven’t read. Obviously one can’t wholeheartedly believe such indictments of one’s own conduct, and in any case I’d like to think that even if I could I’d have reason not to. It certainly feels like I work hard enough to avoid these sins. But as Le Guin says, and I can only regretfully agree, resolving not to be content with it,

The degree of social and psychological truth in this picture of life in Eden is pretty considerable.

the cognitive neuroscience of international relations

Vision scientists Johannes Haushofer and Nancy Kanwisher claim, in a recent PNAS paper, that “Both sides retaliate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” They use time series analysis to examine the time series of Israeli and Palestinian attacks, in the form of killings and (on the Palestinian side) the firing of Qassam rockets from Gaza into Israel. They find that both sides show retaliatory patterns in their attacks — in contrast, I guess, to the work of some other scholars, who find Israel retaliatory and Palestine unconditionally violent.

This is the kind of creative use of quantitative talent that I’d like to see more of from psychology. I’d have liked to see more direct engagement with the studies they criticize — their capstone finding is that the firing of Qassam rockets increases after Palestinians are killed, but they also find that killings on both sides follow a retaliatory pattern, which I gather other studies don’t. Presumably some detail of either data sampling or statistical analysis is relevant here, but without examining the other literature I can’t tell what. I’d also like to know if there’s a plausible modeling scheme that would make Israelis seem unconditionally violent — that is, just how flexible is this sort of modeling relative to this sort of data, in terms of the conclusions you can extract?

budget-cutting in the dirty jerz

I am not a very good resident of my state. I vote, but my votes in local elections are fairly ill-informed; I do not go to West Windsor town meetings, I do not read much state or local news except from the headlines in the boxes at the train station. But I do tithe $130 a month to New Jersey Transit for the privilege of commuting from Princeton Junction to Trention — $130, up from $108, because New Jersey Transit has been forced to raise its rates. I am also informed that the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district will have to cut 50 teachers to compensate for losses in state aid.

People are outraged by these things — I’m not happy myself — but what else are we supposed to do? I don’t ask this rhetorically — I use the public transport system now, and I may be using the public education system in a few years, and although I can afford the fare hikes and possibly tutors or other supplementary education, not everyone can. These measures will probably lead to more clogged roads, more pollution from old used cars, and lower teaching quality in the schools (since WW-P will eliminate teachers but not, presumably, students). No one seems to think that New Jersey isn’t in financial trouble, and no one likes the economies that Christie is proposing — but no one is suggesting alternatives. I could suggest one, based on a very cursory perusal of the Governor’s website: Forget controlling property tax increases, and funnel that money into schools and transport. However, that sounds a lot better when you’re thinking about McMansions than it does when you’re thinking about Hightstown storefronts, and presumably it discourages home ownership among new and/or lower-income buyers — not to mention that the savings may not be enough; I have no idea.

Anyway, the situation reminds me of a conversation I once had, more or less unwillingly, in the cafe at the Princeton Public Library. I was in line for my coffee behind an older woman, and there was a petition up for signatures protesting the proposed increase in parking fees for downtown Princeton. This woman was very incensed about it, and (this is the only reason why it became a conversation) turned around and asked me “Why would they do this?” And I said what I thought was obvious: “Maybe they need the money.” And she got a very thoughtful look on her face and said, “I never thought of that.”

The above actually happened. I don’t know how representative this woman is of the average political thinker in New Jersey, but I certainly have not detected much more sophistication in most people’s reactions to these problems — not that I’ve been looking very hard, as I am not a very good resident of my state. The next level of sophistication is achieved by a Facebook commenter on the photo that inspired this post: “Why not just tax the super-wealthy?” This is better inasmuch as it recognizes that money actually has to come from somewhere, and I suspect it’s more representative of a certain common vein of liberal thought (I do not use “liberal” as a pejorative; I voted to re-elect Corzine, who was also wildly unpopular for his attempts at fiscal discipline), but it’s fundamentally a form of magical thinking. First of all, it’s not clear to me that the super-wealthy have enough super-wealth to solve all or any, of the state’s problems. Second, the super-wealthy are, almost by hypothesis, free agents with a considerable amount of wherewithal, who pay attention to their finances — if their home state is about to tax them into the ground, they’ll move. Third, taxation is a disincentive toward earning. That doesn’t mean there should be no taxes, or that there should be no progressive taxation — I think a progressive tax schedule is just and useful. But when there’s a crunch, everyone has to contribute. Demanding that the rich solve our problems by themselves is a basically infantile approach to life. Adults pitch in and take responsibility.

Anyway, I suppose the above are the first mumbled banalities of a grouchy middle-aged Republican in chrysalis, and I absolutely don’t mean them as the final word on the topic, or as an excuse for governmental enormities. But I am not a very good resident of my state, and to me, these economies do not seem like an enormity. If someone would bother trying to convince me that the economy of New Jersey is not badly troubled, or that there is an alternative source of funds that would ease the burden on the people who can barely afford NJT, I’d be listening. But if this alternative account exists, I have not heard it.

the first amendment

And while I’m here:

“… only one out of 50 college students could name the first right mentioned in the First Amendment.” (The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, via Mark Bauerlein, via

That means only one out of 50 college students has it memorized. Here, without looking, I’ll enumerate the rights: Freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of speech. Check it out, four for five (I forgot freedom to petition the government with our grievances, which I would count as a special case of potentially any of the other four). Just because I didn’t know which one was first doesn’t mean I didn’t know the content of the amendment. I’m not proud of my ignorance, but this would seem to rank on a level with “propensity to split infinitives” on the list of defects we desperately need to expunge from our college graduates.

Should my unborn daughter come to avow a preference for vanilla ice cream over chocolate: An imagined conversation


“What color do you think vanilla is?” I dream of asking. This will be a lesson, if it is a lesson, in fact as metaphor, metonymy through field glasses.

“White,” I dream she answers. The color of vanilla ice cream.

In my sage’s dream, I am in the kitchen, or perhaps the dramaturgy admits a period of silent mystery: We are going to the supermarket, I can say, if we are closer to a supermarket than the kitchen, or we can go to the kitchen and I can spend longer than necessary rooting around in the cabinet that holds the spices. In any event, in due time I produce a bottle of vanilla extract. We know what color it is.

“The bottle is dark,” my observant daughter dreamishly protests. At this juncture, the lesson gains texture if we are in the supermarket: I perform a transgressive act, opening the bottle to pour a drop on the floor or on my fingertip (my skin is pale). There may be a digression at this point about the absolutism of values; a pimply-faced minimum-wage employee (“pimply-faced” is lazy shorthand; teenagers take very good care of their skin these days, I think) may bring chastisements only to be brushed off with assurances that the befouled product will be purchased; my daughter may be horrified at my breach of law and protocol, and of course she will be insensitive to the fine pedagogy of it all, her deep skin receptors as yet untuned to the dominant frequencies of the inference that has begun its heavy-footed slouch toward us.

“The vanilla bean is dark too,” I dream of elaborating, “not just the extract. The only additive is alcohol, which is clear.” (The class issue raised here cannot be ignored; inexpensive brands of vanilla extract contain corn syrup, which can be dark, and imitation vanilla, yet cheaper, has nothing to do with the vanilla bean at all. The sage must hold court in the organic aisle.) “Cacao and vanilla both originated in the Americas. They are both derived from beans that grow in fibrous pods; both are difficult to cultivate outside their native territory, although we have found ways. We use them both mostly in sweet foods. Both were imported into Europe by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, who killed something like 260,000 Aztecs and Tlaxcalans in the siege of Tenochtitlan.” I have brushed up on my Wikipedia for this dream-lesson. I imagine myself leaning back, spent, against a wall of spices, or of randomly collocated organic items, depending on exactly which store I have chosen as my impromptu lyceum.

What next unfurls is hard to imagine, not because there are too few possibilities but the opposite; every ensuing conversation seems to foreclose the others, and yet they all seem worthy, but to enumerate them would be to transmute this charming object lesson into lecture. We are not slaves to metaphor, begins (or ends) one conversation, but we heed its counsel. (Negative portrayals of Spanish imperialism are known as the Leyenda Negra, the Black Legend.) Or, The fantasy books were wrong: Naming is the lowest form of knowledge. (Personally, I couldn’t tell an Aztec from a Tlaxcalan if one or the other embedded a macuahuitl in my culo.) Or, Of course they taste different. They aren’t the same thing, but they aren’t opposites either. (Cortes’ victory in the siege of Tenochtitlan may have depended on his indigenous allies, dominated by Tlaxcalans but including Huexotzinco, Atlixco, Tliliuhqui-Tepecs, Tetzcocans, Chalca, Alcohua and Tepanecs, all of whom had once been conquered by Aztecs — and this alliance may account for the carnage and rapine thereafter.) Or — and perhaps this is most appropriate for my nonexistent daughter, as the entire premise of this didactic dream rests on her being too young to know the color of a basic baking ingredient — Even chocolate ice cream has vanilla in it. (This may not be true of all ice cream, but it is true of Alton Brown’s Google-topping recipe, and so it is true enough for me.)

The reverse is, of course, not true. And after all that, I still feel guilty for observing this asymmetry.

So much for racial politics. What next?


“Vanilla is the color of maple syrup.”

Close enough; I doubt I could do better. What then? There is nothing to correct. But, of course, the lesson was never about vanilla. Is this whole exercise the didactic equivalent of baking spinach into brownies? I want nothing but the best for my daughter, and if Socrates isn’t there to show her that the slave boy always knew the diagonal of a unit square was sqrt(2), I will do my damnedest with what is at hand. But Socrates had a good editor, and I am working ex tempore. (Maple syrup was first collected by the Algonquins, whose relationship with French conquerors and other Native American tribes would seem to be just as complicated as the Aztecs’ with Cortes and other local civilizations. Perhaps all is not lost.)

“Who cares?”

The gurus of the Internet economy claim that attention is a person’s most precious commodity; my daughter would be more than within her rights to deny the importance of the question. If a blight struck all vanilla beans with a true-breeding albinism tomorrow, her ice cream would taste just as good. In the meantime, her concern with the color of a flavoring agent whose name has become a synonym for mundanity competes with such pressing questions as how to amass resources, find love, forge happiness, and face death well. One must pick one’s battles.

“Why do you care?”

This is not the same as the previous question. This is the one that I would hope and fear the most to hear. It is good if she knows the fact; it is better if she knows what she needs to know, or at least is thinking about it; but it is best, it is critical, if she knows when someone is trying to manipulate her. Socrates’ slave boy, to our knowledge, did not profit from his lesson.

But this is not a question children ask, nor is it one whose answer they should credit. If adults are not to be trusted with the best interests of children, still less are children. There is an irreducible conflict at the heart of this relationship, which we maintain even through its nadirs is based on love.

And so I leave the question. Why do I care to force this cunning little parable down the throat of a girl with thoughts and passions of her own? What change am I trying to work in her, and who will benefit the most from it? I could speculate, I could defend, and so I do, in the chambers of my own mind; but, if she should not trust my answer, why should you?

seth roberts on scientists as wandering ants

I’m competing for postdoc funding from the National Institutes of Health; my career path, if I follow it to its logical culmination, will be regularly punctuated with similar competition. So I’m keenly interested in claims like this:

Scientists don’t like thinking of themselves as wandering ants. But that’s how they are most effective. This goes against human psychology because wandering (Nassim Taleb calls it “tinkering”) is low status and lonely. The payoff is too rare and too unclear. It isn’t supported by powerful institutions, such as research universities and medical schools. Imagine an ant who says “I know where food is!” This is a way to get many ants to follow him, to feel important, to have high status, to get support from his employer. That’s why he does it. But he doesn’t know. The effect on the rest of us, the potential beneficiaries of progress, is that instead of having a thousand ants wandering everywhere, we have a thousand ants following one ant who doesn’t know what he’s doing. (Full post.)

This is one reason to move away from neuroimaging research: It’s slow and expensive. You can’t explore cause-effect space as finely. There are, of course, lots of good reasons to do neuroimaging research, and there is good, illuminating neuroimaging research out there — but there are big drawbacks. In light of that, it’s interesting and weird that cognitive neuroscientists seem to think that neuroimaging is required to get grants. (I have no reason to think they’re wrong about this, but I haven’t experienced it myself.) Wouldn’t granting agencies rather fund more, cheaper research, all things being equal?

Note: I neither endorse nor deny the assertion that my boss, or any other scientist I know, is an ant who doesn’t know what he or she is doing.

the [hero|startup|explorer] & the [king|giant|exploiter]

Looks like the permalink URL for this post is pretty hilarious. Oh well.

Anyway, I just finished reading THE HERO AND THE KING: AN EPIC THEME, by the late W. T. H. Jackson of Columbia, which basically talks about how most European epics involve a conflict between a king, who’s a powerful guy with a lot of responsibility for and influence over society, and a hero, who’s a powerful, mobile, ambitious guy who threatens the king’s power. Of course, the book immediately starts in on how the various epics complicate this dynamic, especially the ones that are influenced by romance and/or Christianity, and also the ODYSSEY, in which Odysseus is of course both hero and king — but, you know, I don’t know this field, and presumably it’s not ridiculous for the famous works to be the ones that are formally groundbreaking in ways that less enduring ones weren’t, and it’s hard for me to deny that the problems of succession and the trajectory of a king’s power are preoccupations of these works. In any case, it’s a nice way to organize all this important literature that I haven’t read, and there seems to be a sizable kernel of usefulness to it. And, you know, I keep up with Paul Graham, who’s a startup evangelist, and I read this Slate article about how trustbusting of tech companies is basically slower and less effective than Darwinian market forces. And one of the preoccupations of cognitive neuroscience and AI, just to keep the whiplash coming, is figuring out a mechanistic account of action selection — how an agent might allocate its actions to maximize resources. A standard tradeoff in this sort of work is between exploration and exploitation — once I find a source of resources, how long do I sit on it and mine it before I go looking for new ones?

So anyway, all this business about heroes and kings and startups and giant companies got me thinking that these succession dynamics might be a response to natural explore-exploit dynamics. A given king, or a given company, has a certain set of advantages, around which him/it adapts him/itself. That adaptation to exploitation, though, renders it inflexible (famously so in the case of big companies). At some point, the king or company will have mined all the advantage available — or, if not all of it, will have at least mined enough of it that there are greater efficiencies to be gained elsewhere. But the adaptation to exploitation has made the king or company unsuited to do new things. So in comes a usurping hero, or startup, with a new set of advantages tailored to the efficiencies currently available. The actual dynamics in business are presumably just as varied as they are in epic; sometimes the hero unseats the king, sometimes the king co-opts the hero, sometimes the hero screws up and flames out. But the basic dynamic of conflict between establishment and usurper determines succession is a constant.

Put that way, maybe it’s not all that interesting an idea. I guess the interesting part, if there is one, is the idea that it’s hyperspecialization that accounts for the king’s rise and fall, the company’s boom and bust. The weakest part of the analogy, at this point, is the idea that a given king arises because he has a set of advantages that he can mine, and that those advantages run out. You might be able to make the case for a bloodline (or, more easily, for a political party), but the problem with hereditary succession is regression to the mean — it’s unusual that a person is strong and smart and driven enough to usurp a kingship, and so it’s likely (though not certain) that his descendants won’t be as strong or smart or driven as the usurper was. And then you start thinking that, well, the skills necessary for usurpation probably aren’t the same as those necessary for a good kingship anyway, and does the ability to usurp bear any relation at all to the ability to rule…

Well, so the idea’s got some problems. But at least it’s off my chest and on yours now. Ha!


(Cross-posted, mostly intact, from planworld.)

“This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change.” — BHO

W, a conservative friend of mine on Amherst’s online community, has written a reaction to Obama’s victory that was, all told, pretty measured and reasonable, although I wasn’t necessarily in the mood to hear it. In the bipartisan spirit that both Obama and McCain commended so eloquently to us last night, I will focus on the part that was both the truest and the hardest to accept:

“He’s just a politician. The things he’s said, the promises he’s made, are not within his power to effect.” — W

Admittedly, some reasonable hermeneutics could uncover areas of disagreement here (e.g. the implicit universal quantifier in the second sentence) — but the point is that, even with a unified Congress, Obama is not immune to any of the bullshit attendant to American politics, nor will he be granted powers above and beyond those granted to other presidents, some equally intelligent and with similar values, who didn’t fix everything either. And it remains to be seen whether the nobility and broad-mindedness expressed by both candidates last night will transfer meaningfully to the houses of Congress, where the rubber meets the road. And, hearing the leaders of various foreign powers express their joy at Obama’s victory this morning, I was happy to contemplate the rejuvenation of our image abroad, but also apprehensive: These countries are our competitors, in meaningful respects, and we have elected a man whose foreign policy experience is slim; perhaps their excitement is not an unalloyed good.

This is not, I hasten to insist, voter’s remorse. More to the point, it isn’t a repudiation of the idea that this moment is a fulcrum in history. But Obama himself did not create that fulcrum. Obama himself is, as W observes, nothing more than a smart man who ran a good campaign, a man who’s overall within about half a standard deviation of any given Democratic party talking point. Later, he could be more — and I have faith, whether well- or ill-founded, that he will be — but that is what he is right now.

“Will people maintain their enthusiasm and desire to make this country a better place? Or was this a one off for a unique historical circumstance?” — D

“It can’t happen without you, without a new spirit of service, a new spirit of sacrifice.” — BHO

This is, of course, hackneyed sentiment, and “spirits” on the loose in the population do not exactly provide good grist for policy, especially when you don’t even know whether they exist yet, or ever did or will. Nonetheless, I think the success of the Obama presidency will turn on the answer to D’s question.

To continue in the spirit of hackneyed sentiment, with a grace note of grandiose pronunciamento: Obama is not important for what he is. Obama is important for what he helped us see in ourselves. His victory is our declaration of independence — not from an oppressive foreign power, but from a corrupting social force. The measure of our generation, just coming into the fullness of its power in the world, will be whether we rise to or shrink from the responsibility attendant to that independence.

There is every reason to think that we will shrink from it. Based on past performance, there’s every reason to think that I, personally, will shrink from it.

I’m not going to end on a note of optimism. I have so much hope for what Obama means for this country, but none of it is based on anything real — just my own reactions, my own perceptions, which may or may not be shared by enough people to have any meaningful impact. The only thing I can do is view his victory as a gift, and try, having accepted it, to deserve it.

I don’t know what this means for me. I just have a strong feeling that it had better mean something, or all this celebration, all this hope, will be politics as usual in the worst sense — effortful, expensive, trivial and transient. If I can care so much about this, and not be changed, then what does that make me?