Thursday, December 27, 2007

Bad news from the world today

Bullets cut short Bhutto's epic life: I had always regarded her as a strong headed but corrupt politician but her recent desire to return to Pakistan to lead the country made me revise my priors. If she were corrupt and had enriched herself why would she risk her life to return to the country? Then again, there's Nawaz Sharif, so I'm probably wrong yet again. Regardless, this is not good for the country or the region.

A note to self: There was some discussion in Steve Coll's book Ghost Wars on the role Bhutto played in trying to decrease the influence of the Pakistani intelligence service in politics as well as some details on how she managed to walk the tightrope between trying to appease the military and at the same time keep them from influencing the politics. It might be time for me to reread those sections.

Enjoying the CapitalWeather Blog

This was a good entry on 12.23.2007 - Shoveling My Way to Snow Hatred:

I'm terrified that I'm turning into a snow-hating, rain-loving citizen in the same way as I worry that aging has altered my taste in candy (suddenly licorice makes more sense to me than it used to, but I'm still fiercely loyal to Sour Patch Kids). ...

My brothers and I had a snow shoveling business called, and this is so lame, "Freedman, Freedman and Freedman." It should have been called just "Freedman and Freedman" though, since my little brother Russ had a habit of shoveling one or two steps on a walkway before giving up in favor of critiquing the work of my older brother Brett and myself. "You've missed that entire part of the driveway," and, "man, we got a lot of snow, didn't we guys?" were some of his most helpful suggestions.Russ understood what I didn't comprehend until this past week: shoveling is stupid, boring, and tiring work. There was a reason households paid my brothers and I to shovel for them, which was that they hated shoveling for themselves. I had always naively thought that it was because they loved seeing children be happy and enthusiastic.

And, a nice picture of the snows in Maine in this post: Haunting, yet beautiful scene in Northern Maine in the wake of this past weekend's strong east coast storm

Catching up on some fiction

1. Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children - didn't quite enjoy this. It was about the lives of twenty something bright young things in NYC around the time of 9/11. I was a little disappointed after the hype. I just borrowed The Last Life and hope that it will be better.

2. Lee Vance's Restitution - enjoyed this even though the fact that the police did not bother to ask about Andrei's other relatives (i.e. his twin sister) was a little hard to believe for me. (I must be watching too much Law and Order.) The plot was very well constructed with a nice twist at the end. Some would have probably guessed the mastermind of the plot by about 2/3rds of the book.

3. Kim Stanley Robinson's Antartica - even though KSR is a science fiction writer I would not classify this as science fiction. The book dragged on for me in parts but the geological details were fascinating.

4. Andrew Trees' Academy X - was quite enjoyable. Most memorable passage (coming off Judith Warner's Perfect Madness: "They were there to convince an admission's officer that their child's finger painting displayed a color sensibility reminiscent of Rothko or that their child's tantrum was a sign of leadershop qualities. Once this pattern was established, it was difficult to break. By the time the students reached high school, everyone was well trained." (p. 17)

5. Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days - was okay. This was my first Michael Cunningham and I found the first story tremendous. I agree with some reviewers who consider the third and last story to be the weakest. This was set in the future and in parts, rather than to let us feel what the characters feel, he plunges into a narrative of how things evolved to be the way they were. In the interest of expediency I realize that this makes things a little easier but something along the lines of Oryx and Crake might have worked better. In any case, it makes me want to explore his other works. I do want to keep the book description here to remind me about the book though, so here goes:

In each section of Michael Cunningham's bold new novel, his first since The Hours, we encounter the same group of characters: a young boy, an older man, and a young woman. "In the Machine" is a ghost story that takes place at the height of the industrial revolution, as human beings confront the alienating realities of the new machine age. "The Children's Crusade," set in the early twenty-first century, plays with the conventions of the noir thriller as it tracks the pursuit of a terrorist band that is detonating bombs, seemingly at random, around the city. The third part, "Like Beauty," evokes a New York 150 years into the future, when the city is all but overwhelmed by refugees from the first inhabited planet to be contacted by the people of Earth.

Presiding over each episode of this interrelated whole is the prophetic figure of the poet Walt Whitman, who promised his future readers, "It avails not, neither time or place ... I am with you, and know how it is." Specimen Days is a genre-bending, haunting, and transformative ode to life in our greatest city and a meditation on the direction and meaning of America's destiny. It is a work of surpassing power and beauty by one of the most original and daring writers at work today.

6. Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End - was okay for me. It was interesting to see one view of what the future might be. The problem with trying to describe the future with today's perspective is that there are some page read like a manual of how things came to be - rather dry and descriptive. And having to describe the ability to use one's clothes as a browser to be connected to the Internet at all times in terms of Internet Explorer was a little inelegant -- it seems like there must be a better way but this would mean having to invent a whole new language. Certainly 10 years ago, bookmark, page view, cut and paste, click etc. meant different things.

7. Charles Stross' Singularity Sky - was interesting. This was interesting after having read the Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. Stross and Vernor Vinge are considered hard science fiction writers and this book has a lot of stuff in it -- with the hard science a little overwhelming for me - description of how faster than light travel would work for instance, as well as causality violation. It reminded me of some old Star Trek episodes -- here, telephones fall out of the sky and we can order what we want over these telephones. Most memorable passage: "... the viability of a postsingularity economy of scarcity is indicated by the transition from an indirection-layer-based economy using markers of exchange of goods and services to a tree-structured economy characterized by optimal allocation of productivity systems in accordance with iterated tit-for-tat prisoner's dilemma." (p. 143)

I think markers in the text might be a typo for markets but the passage seems meaningless to me. I go a good chuckle out of it though.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Self service gas in NJ?

I've wondered why there were no self-service gas in NJ. I always thought it had something to do with unions but it turns out it is because of a law passed in 1949. The status-quo is to keep full service -- people seem to like it (and it protects the jobs of gas station attendants). I find it incovenient. I think the lines would move a lot faster if there were self service. When there is a line, there is no incentive for the attendant to work any faster. Of course, if a station is empty it doesn't really bother me although I think it's funny. With the new self serve technology, instead of me sticking my credit card into the pump, the gas attendant does it for me. It reminds me of Keynesian economics -- digging holes and then filling it up again just to generate jobs. Unlike some, I'm not sure how low gasoline prices will be with self serve.

Some references here:
1. I Want to Pump Myself Up
2. N.J. just says no to pumping gas
3. NJ rejects self-service gas

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Respecting parents

Previously in response to MR's post Why don't American kids respect their parents more, I had wondered if we could actually measure respect. Some data from the World Values Survey was posted by Tyler in a subsequent post:

Here was my earlier post on the topic, now Ban Chuan Cheah is kind enough to send me questionnaire data from the World Values Survey.
The question is:
With which of these two statements do you tend to agree? (CODE ONE ANSWER ONLY)

A. Regardless of what the qualities and faults of one's parents are, one must always love and respect them.
B. One does not have the duty to respect and love parents who have not earned it by their behaviour and attitudes.
1. Always
2. Earned
3. Neither
Some rates of answering "Always" are:
Netherlands: 31.9 percent, Denmark: 35.9, Germany: 59.2, Belarus: 70.9, Japan: 71.6, France: 74.7, United States: 77.2, Canada: 77.6, India: 88.8, China: 94.5, Puerto Rico: 97.5, Vietnam: 99.3.
Based on these and other numbers, I tentatively conclude that wealth breeds parental disrespect, being Asian brings greater respect for parents, and having a strong welfare state is correlated with disrespect for parents. Being a former East Bloc totalitarian state doesn't have nearly the oomph I would have expected; many East European countries fall into the 70-80 percent range.

I would not have gone so far as to conclude that the question asked (with the categories A or B) were identical to the original question, i.e. that saying that parents have to earn respect is not the same as being disrespectful. There is also the issue of acting respectful and feeling respectful which may not always be the same thing.

Incidentally, Denmark is also one of the happiest nations. Here's the BBC report.

Medical myths

Yahoo had an item which I eventually found thanks to Mark Thoma Medical myths even doctors believe. I'm wondering after the discussion on junk science and child care, how much of this is actually settled and has achieved a concensus.

Why do teenagers take so many risks

MR pointed to this NYT article Why do teenagers take so many risks and a comment was that perhaps it's the adults that are not taking enough risk.
1. What is the optimal amount of risk?
2. Too many with respect to what?
3. Risk taking behavior varies by age profile. Should it?

I'm partial to some comments that point to evolutionary arguments but not completely convinced.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Gas Pricing revisited

There is an intersection on Rockville Pike where there are 3 Shell stations. One day two of them were selling regular for $3.17 while the third was selling regular for $3.19

Thursday, December 20, 2007


We were in Gettysburg this week for a couple of days.
1. Surprisingly, the official site does not show up in my Google search.
2. Took the self guided auto tour. I must not be a Civil War fan because I didn't get it.
3. Decided that I should take a look at Ken Burn's Civil War and Shelby Foote's volumes in the future.
4. Read Silent Witness by Robin Friedman and Claire A. Nivola. I didn't fully understand the reason for the removal of the doll. Seemed rather callous.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Update on what parents need to know/junk science

Googling I found a book by Jane Waldfogel titled What Children Need which seems to be a good summary of what I might have wanted to see. Unfortunately, I don't have a copy of the book so I can't comment on it but the following interviews with her would indicate that this might be an interesting book.
1. Prevention Action: Why do we sometimes care so little about what children need
2. Mother's Movement: What children need

The interviews also addresses some of Judith Warner's discussion on attachment theory in her book Perfect Madness.

Update: I was also reminded of Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption which I still have to read. Michael Foster the original person who asked Andrew Gelman subsequently followed up with this post on AG's blog:

First, Carrie linked to these two studies with evidence linking toddler TV viewing to attention and learning disorders:
Christakis DA, Zimmerman FJ, DiGiuseppe DL, McCarty CA. Early television exposure and subsequent attentional problems in children. Pediatrics. 2004;113:708-713.
TV Has Negative Impact on Very Young Children's Learning Abilities (Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2005;159:619-625)

Michael then responded,
See--this is why I need to write that book. Those two papers you cite are terrible--exhibit A for bad research. Seriously.
It's very difficult to infer causal relationships from observational data like that. As you know, there could be a lot of confounding factors. But it's difficult but not impossible. One can do a range of things, such as including more variables in the analysis, adjusting for their impact in a flexible way, and so on.
In the Pediatrics paper, we took the same data and found that the effect of TV was very sensitivity to the addition of even a few covariates. And the ones we added should have been included in the first place. We also found that the effect of TV was only at extremely high levels (>10 hours / day). It's hard to believe that those "effects" were really effects--one has to wonder about those families letting kids watch that much TV being just different.
Now, one might say, this paper went through peer review at a good journal--isn't that evidence of quality? The problem is that reviewers often share the same biases as authors. It's also hard to get methodologists to evaluate papers for these applied journals . And the American Academy of Pediatrics has a policy statement urging parents not to let their little kids watch much TV. So, I think they give papers like this the benefit of the doubt in the review process.
We're writing a paper offering counter-analyses, but we had an earlier version that was more of a direct critique. Pediatrics rejected it. Of course, one of the reviewers was an author of the original paper. I'm not sure they were quite objective. I've attached an earlier version of our response. We've extended the analysis still further, and we just don't find any effects. It's probably overkill. The whole thing is just a myth.
Of course, there's the myth that living in single-parent family is bad for a child. 8-) Just published a paper on that, too. Of course, the press ignored it.

As indicated by Warner's book, it's difficult to get the press to focus on something without being able to sell an "angle" as well. It reminds me of the time when I had read in a parenting magazine that night lights were bad for the eyes of children.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Blog debates/comments

I have been commenting on Andrew Gelman's blog entry on Mankiw and Weinzierl's height taxation paper. I've been wondering if this is the best medium for having a conversation. My reading of blog comments in the past have been that it's not the best or most effective way and I'm falling into this pattern. My problem is that (and with other blog commenters in general) I didn't read Gelman's entry carefully enough and ended up repeating him and myself. In any case, I also didn't seem to make my case very clearly. The differences hinge on the following the difference between how economists think and how political scientists think and right now I don't know what the difference is. At worst, I think I failed in communicating clearly.

Update: It sounds to me like political scientists like Andrew Gelman would never consider the kind of exercise that M&W considers. This type of exercises I think are typical of many economics models.

Junk science for parents

Here was an interesting post on Gelman's blog: What's been written on junk science aimed at parents? Here's what I had said previously on child care based on Judith Warner's book. There is a need to bring the research together in some reasoned way. I do agree with the commenters in Gelman's blog that the term "junk science" is a loaded phrase. However, I also think that trying to get some concensus out of the research will be hard.

For instance, the NYT reported on the findings from an NICHD sponsored study titled Poor Behavior is Linked to time in Day care which was countered by the following by Emily Bazelon on Slate: The Kids Are Alright: What the latest day-care study really found. Which should we believe?

Disturbing news from home

I'm not quite sure what to make of these news items. It's hard after being away for more than 20 years not to look at these with Western eyes and mindset:
1. 2007 Bersih Rally The 2007 Bersih Rally was a rally held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on November 10, 2007. Event organizers intended to have a peaceful, non-violent rally, advising participants in the days and weeks beforehand how to keep the rally peaceful. However the rally was marred by government sanctioned police violence. The aim of this walk was to campaign for electoral reform. It was precipitated by allegations of corruption and discrepancies in the Malaysian election system that heavily favor the ruling political party, Barisan Nasional, which has been in power since Malaysia achieved its independence in 1957.
2. Five ethnic Indian rights activists have been arrested in Malaysia, under a rarely used security law that allows indefinite detention without trial. The men belong to the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), which organised a mass rally last month alleging discrimination against ethnic Indians.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Alternative theory to stock buybacks as a cause of lower investment

I was surprised to read this in Rubin's An Uncertain World:
Pension funds became a driving force for short term thinking in corporate America. (p. 333) The [pension] contribution is a charge against earnings. But the better the performance of the stocks in the [pension] fund's portfolio, the smaller the company's annual contribution would have to be -- or perhaps no contribution would be needed at all. Earnings would this be higher, which would help raise the company's stock price. So, as companies were being evaluated more and more on their quarterly earnings, those companies began to began to focus more on the short-term performance of their own pension-fund portfolios. The very CEOs who complained about quarterly pressure were putting quarterly pressure ont their own money managers, who would in turn put pressure on the companies in whose stocks they were invested. The result was a cycle that was, depending on one's perspective, either virtuous or vicious. (p. 333)

I'm offering this as an alternative to stock buybacks as a possible cause for lower investment. I had originally commented here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What might be the next step in human evolution?

Today's Marginal Revolution pointed to the following:
1. Culture speeds up human evolution
2. Accelerated adaptive human evolution
3. Human Evolution Has Accelerated

The Scientific American title is a little misleading I think. All discuss the growth in population (and perhaps the adaptation to agricultural life) for the acceleration in the changes in genes. (I may have this wrong since I don't really know my gene from a genome.)

In any case, it reminded me of Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio and it's sequel Darwin's Children. In the book, it was theorized that population pressure and a virus (called SHEVA) causes a genetic mutation that moves humans along to the next step in the evolutionary process.

What else I've been reading

Judith Warner's Perfect Madness was good for at least a dozen blog entries. It turned out to be a good vent for me. I've also finished:
1. Steve Coll's Ghost Wars
2. Gary Schroen's First In
3. Gary Berntsen's Jawbreaker

Without doubt, Steve Coll's Pulitzer Prize winning book was the best of the three. The two Gary books provided the continuation from Coll's book but was told mainly from a first person narrative. It lacks the intricacies that Coll's book provides on the differing points of view among the different departments/groups/fiefs in the decision making processes. Mainly, the one decision that interests me is why the military decided not to enter Tora Bora. We may have to wait for time to pass before we can get an answer as well as possibly some declassified documents. Certainly, the two Garys believe that this was a wrong decision. While Schroen is more nuanced in his view of Tommy Franks and George Tenet, Berntsen does not care for either of them. Coll's book presents the many viewpoints that were involved in trying to capture Bin Laden prior to Sept. 11. Reading this I can sort of sympathize with the current administration's view of executive power and the need to take decisive action but I'm not fully convinced that this would have had the desired result.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Is the government the solution to our child care needs?

It is not surprising that Judith Warner (Perfect Madness) advocates some kind of government intervention in the provision of child care for this country. The first step would be some kind of national standards to ensure that child care is of adequate quality. My initial response was that this seems rather hypocritical -- are there minimum standards to determine if we are fit to be parents? Having said that I am still all for the idea and certainly when we were looking for high quality child care the NAEYC stamp was one of the main driving factors.

I don't know how likely this will come to fruition and in her book she describes how polarized this debate can get with extremists on the left and right weighing in so shrilly that reasoned debate is almost impossible. However, my feeling is that there seems to be some momentum building that high quality child care is needed with Nobel laureate James Heckman (here, and here) weighing in as well a series of articles from the FRB of Minneapolis.

In her book, her basis for comparison is France and as I had eluded to in an earlier post, the book needs a more comprehensive description of the French system before I can buy into her argument. But in the end (pp. 280-281) as she notes, even the French system isn't perfect:

The future "France" I've constructed in my mind doesn't exist. School aged French children are every bit as stressed as their American counterparts, if not more so. Public schooling there is often a soul-crunching experience, and certain popular parenting techniques("You're an idiot... You're a slob ... Do you want me to hit you again?") leave something to be desired. If French children are not being drugged not in order to meet the kind of Olympian performance standards we hold dear, it's probably just a matter of time. Because according the the French newspaper Le Point, French children too are now being reared like racehourses, dragged to an average of three after-school activities per week and filled, from the earliest possible age, with the fear of failure. "A child must not only be seductive," wrote journalists Irene Inchauspe and Valerie Peiffer in January 2004, "he must also be ultrahigh-performing: first in his class, accomplished at sports, and a friend like none other ..." .... Life for French mothers, in the long term isn't necessarily such a bowl of cherries either. For there is a price they pay for the wonderful (and expensive) benefits they enjoy: a pervasive and all-but-unchallenged kind of institutional kind of sexism. It can keep women of childbearing age from being hired.

Should we believe any parenting advice?

After all the fads in early childhood development, on p. 235 of Judith Warner's Perfect Madness, there appears to be some sane advice. But why should we believe this when we already bought into attachment theory (our children need to be "securely attached" versus "dangling loosely")? In the end I think these statements were selectively used to support her notion that hyperparenting is bad:

... overmothered children were showing "an inability to endure pain or
discipline or pursue any self-sustained goal of any sort." In 1978, Psychology Today argued that overprotecting children might deprive them of a chance to develop a sense of control over their environment and breed a kind of "learned helplessness" -- a habit of giving up in the face of difficulty. By doing too much for their children, overly solicituous parents could make their kids believe they were unable to do for themselves. "Comfortable levels of stress," the magazine warned, "may be better for a child's ego development than things that happen without any effort on the child's part. Self-esteem and a sense of competence may not depend on whether we experience good or bad events, but rather whether we perceive some control over what happens to us." ... Bruno Bettelheim warned that the overbearing boomer parenting style was keeping kids from having sufficient mental room -- or spielraum, as he called it -- to develop a rich inner life. This lack of an inner life, he warned, would eventually lead to a situation where children needed constantly to be entertained -- either by parents or by TV. In 1996, family psychologist John Rosemond wrote that children were suffereing from "hand-and-foot disease, which is usually prompted by being waited on by an overly solicitous parent, usually female." The symptoms of this ailment: "Today's children whine more, are more disrespectful, and throw tantrums long past the age when yesterday's children were over them completely."

I'm tempted to dissect and play devil's advocate to each and every statement above but that would be too easy. In the end, I probably don't know much more about parenting today than I did 8 years ago.

School readiness

This was an issue that we struggled with on a project: how to measure school readiness which Judith Warner brings up on p. 231 of Perfect Madness:

While hyperparenting can induce anxiety, depression, and stress in older kids, among younger children it now seems chiefly to produce bad behavior. Educators complain that many children have trouble transitioning to preschool because they've been played with so constantly ahd have gotten so much of what they want all the time at home. The come to kindergarten overprepared intellectually and underprepared in social skills. As a result, wrote Judy Azzara, a recently retired school principal who topped off her career with an impassioned cri de coeur in Education Digest in 2001, teachers are having to deal with a "spoiled generation" of young children who simply don't know how to behave. "Some five-year-olds actually come to kindergarten reading, writing, talking with extensive vocabularies and capable advanced math," she wrote, "but many do not know how to share or play cooperatively and often demand continuous one-on-one attention and entertainment. Ironically, despite these obvious academic gains, educators see more and more children still lacking in important developmental gains such as basic social skills or even potty training." ... Azzara argued that many problems teachers face now in school stem from parents' inability to simply let go and let their children be. She mentioned mothers sobbing at the classroom door while their children entered kindergarten and said it is now an educational goal among teachers to get parents to "let go." She made a plea for larger doses of parental benign neglect ...

As much sympathy as I have with this view, I find the causal chain to be be weak: from hyperparenting to bad behavior. And even if it were the case, how does this translate into outcomes when they are adults? For instance, she tries to make the claim that in our parents' day, their style of parenting combined with the choices available to women from the women's movement led the women to become a generation of bulimics and other food disorders when when they went to college. (Actually, she doesn't actually say it was causal, but the implication is there.) And what parent doesn't feel a tug in the heart as they let go on the first day of school?

Here is another example of anecdotes (and a powerful one) trumping actual data. I wonder what the reality/truth is. I can't say I've observed these types of "bad" children or parents in our kids' preschools (and yes, we are in the Washington, DC metro area) although yes, there probably are parents (like me) who go into fits of anxiety and guilt over field trips, birthday parties, play dates and such. Although, our brother-in-law reports that he sees such "bad parents" in his school district in NJ.
The proof/effects of this causal chain will be in the future as on p. 233:

Others question whether our incessant coddling and cheerleading won't eventually lead our children to have weakened self-esteem by making them doubt both the veracity of our praise and their abilities to really accomplish worthwhile things. Too much focusing on themselves can lead some children toward the kind of self-obsession that shows up later in depression. And "selfism," some say, can lead children not to care about the outside world at all. "I think this generation will be totally self-centered," a veteran teacher in a Washington, D.C. nursery school told me. "I think they'll feel a real need to produce and have things. I don't think they'll have a clue about the human side of our lives."

Even so, I think it will be hard to prove causality. I can only point to Levitt's attempts to show how abortion leads to a decrease in crime as an illustration of the difficulties. The crux here is how individual decisions (hyperparenting/abortion or not) translate in to some aggregate outcome measure (percent of self centered people/crime rate). If we had micro data to show some of the above linkages then I may be convinced. My prior however, is on the side of Warner's text.

Emergency Preparedness

Oh, how I identified with this! On p. 228 of Judith Warner's Perfect Madness:

When emergency perparedness plans were made here in Washington, and we had to fill in contact sheets listing who would be authorized to take our children home from school in case of a terrorist attack, most parents put down relatives who lived miles away, across potentially impassable bridges, rather than organize with other neighborhood families. Caring for outher people's children at a time of real emergency, everyone understood, was just too much of an "imposition."

And we still don't do too well on trying to get lists of emergency contacts down although we know that in reality with myself at home, there will not be a need for it. I think it's a reflection just as she says in the book that it's parenting only for ourselves instead of trying to build a community or network that we and our children can rely on. A lot of this is also due to personality as well. In general, I'd say we're more reserved and less likely to want to impose on others.

Did working mother's really choose to stay home?

On p. 119, Judith Warner in Perfect Madness tires to argue that women didn't really "choose" to stay home:
Redbook also noted that a 1999 Yankelovich poll had shown that 55 percent of women aged twenty-five to thirty-four agreed with the statement "Having a career is not as rewarding as I thought it would be." The issue, then, for most women wasn't the idea of work (or the idea of stay-at-home motherhood) but the reality of life in the workplace. ... Despite these inconvenient nuances of fact, the story that women were "choosing" to go home in order to be better mothers to their kids stuck, and soon became de facto reality.

Thinking back on my decision, I would say, Yes, I was a little bored with my work and its schedule and yes, a large part for the reason I decided to stay home. My other excuse was to "explore other options". In the end, I went back to work full-time and we got a nanny for about 3 years, and then I decided to stay home again and got onto a part-time track. In both cases, my ideals were not quite met, but never mind about that since in some measure this situation has worked out in the best for me. "Exploring other options" is going too slowly -- my excuse now is that I have to work. Life's full of excuses.

Are we reparenting ourselves?

This was another interesting passage from Judith Warner's Perfect Madness (pp. 104 - 106):
What became obvious to me after listening to these women was that much of what we do these days in the name of perfect motherhood is really about "reparenting" ourselves. It's about compensating for the various forms of lack or want or need or loneliness that we remember from our childhood.

I'd agree with this statement in so far as how we act is usually influenced by how we've been treated in the past. My mother used to yell at us a lot probably because of the stress (I don't really know) but I made an effort to remember to not to do this when I became a parent. No one really likes being yelled at but sometimes I do lose control (and it's more often than I'd liked) and I'm afraid of the effect it would have in future on the kids.

Later on the next page:
Why did attachment theory take root so deeply -- and how did things get so out of control? Jerome Kagan, the Harvard University child psychologist, has some interesting theories. He argues, in part, that attachment theory became so big -- so very life-defining -- in our time because it reinforced what we naturally feel to to be true about babies (they need their mothers). Partly, he says, it was accepted by the psychological establishment and has endured so well because, in a "soft" field of science always eager to produce demonstrable results, the major testing method of attachment theory -- Mary Ainsworth's Strange-Situation test, which could evaulate babies in a laboratory setting to see whether they were "securely" or "anxiously" attached to their mothers -- was easy to carry out and replicate.

My take is that attachment theory is very intuitive and I remember feeling lonely up through my elementary school years without my mom and yes, it does affect how I feel we should take care of our kids. (Our as in ours not generally.) Even having her around but napping was better than not having her around and in the later years we did grow up in some "latchkey" manner which I am afraid of doing to our kids. This has very little to do with testing of the theory and all of it is due to personal experience. I actually take tests with some skepticism as with all standardized tests -- for instance, does it really measure what we want it to measure? Is the construction of the test really valid (not in terms of its psychometric properties) but does it translate into some measure of insecurity that is intense and long lasting and affects us into the future. In other words, does it affect their lives as adults? After all, I've seen books that say that kids are resilient and can survive many things that are thrown at them by life's experiences.

On p. 106 she writes:
Social science doesn't exist in a vacuum. It doesn't spring from an absolute universe of "pure" inquiry and observation. Instead, it tends to hew closely to social anxieties -- what Kagan calls "historical nodes of worry." And these nodes of worry determine not only what social scientists study but, often enough, what results they find (because of the way research is focused), and also, afterward, which of their findings are picked up by the media, and, which ideas take hold and became popular with the public at large.

Again, I'd agree with this. Research funding is partly funded by organizations that have a tendency to want to find something in particular and they will in general keep looking (and funding) until they find it. Also the funding may become part of some politicized process. She goes into this somewhat in her book -- about how general economic and security anxieties translated into the need to control our environment and protect our children and shaped our beliefs as to what is best for them. I actually found this to be the weaker part of the book.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Guilty parents

On p. 98 of Judith Warner's Perfect Madness:
... by the turn of the millenium -- at a time when not providing transportation to and from high school extracurricular activities could be construed as a form of abuse (and invoked as a significant factor at the trial of a daughter who arranged to have her father killed) -- the it of abuse or neglect could be, on some weird, personal, psychological level, not getting your child into private school; not scheduling your child for enough play dates; or not managing to hunt down each and every piece of the requested Hello Kitty party set.

Only a short list? What about not being able to go on all those field trips, performances, art shows, etc. I thought these kids went to school to learn something -- how can they learn anything if they're spending all their time doing all these other stuff.

Face to face interaction with kids

This was one aspect of staying home that I found hard to deal with. I knew I wasn't the kind of person to go down on my hands and knees and constantly stimulate our kids. I can do this for about 15 minutes at a time and I admit I was one of those who wanted our home set up like a preschool with "activity" centers in large part because I did not want to be the entertainer and I admit using the TV when she was younger than 3. Am I going to hell for this? Judith Warner brings these all up in her book as well for which I was immensely grateful because I thought I was the only one. On p. 71, she trains her sights on the child experts who made us this way:

Stanley Greenspan said she could not let her preschool child play on his or her own for longer than fifteen minutes and that most of her child's waking time had to be spent in "face-to-face" interaction. T Berry Brazelton said to take inspiration from the women in the highlands of Mexioco, who, he wrote, breastfeed up to 70 to 90 times a day ... And above all, they agreed on one thing: that none of this -- none of the gooing and cooing and crawling and bonding and talking and singing and Popsicle-stick-gluing -- would work, would mean a thing, if it was not done with absolute joy, with "great delight and pleasure," at each and every moment in the day.

Child development specialists need to take a dose of reality (or have kids again!). After this spell with kids I've taken everything published about early childhood development with a big grain of salt -- even stuff coming out of zero to three which I had found pretty convincing in the beginning. Both our kids are now past 4 and I know I did not do everything that was required of me before they were 3 and now we're all doomed to mediocrity.

Kids parties

Here was another passage from Judith Warner's Perfect Madness that I identified with:

And here is how a transportation consultant, a graduate of the Kennedy School, described to me the "immense stress" of her son's fourth birthday party:
First, there was the whole debate about whether to have the whole class or just a few friends. Then there was the whole debate about whether to do the party at home or whether to go to some place that does package deals. If we stayed home, would we have the magician, the clown the musician, the Moon Bounce? ... I felt great angst about whether this measured up. How would the other mothers judge me for the decisions I made and would I be labeled in some negative way? What does my decision indicate about our financial status, our organizational talents or lack of them, or our willingness to indulge our child?
... (pp. 41-42)

We've replaced our lack of feedback of how we are doing as parents by using opinions of other parents as feedback instead. Shouldn't it be the opinions of our children that count? Of course, we can't get that from our 4 year olds.

We've only had one birthday party so far for our 2 kids. Does this make us bad parents? It's certainly been a lot less stressful. K1 is old enough to plan her parties now - so if she wants one this year (which she does), she's in charge.


Reading Perfect Madness reminded me of our experiences:
...... the general culture of motherhood in America -- oppressive. The pressure to perform, to attain levels of perfect selflessness was insane. And it was, I thought, as I listened to one more anguished friend ... expressing her guilt at not having "succeeded" at breastfeeding ... (p. 16)

I agree that there was a lot of pressure on my wife to breastfeed mainly because of all the literature and the preaching of the benefits of breastfeeding. It turns out that she couldn't produce enough milk and I still fume when I hear women huffily proclaim that this can never happen if we had just kept on trying. Once in a social situation, a woman nodded her head smilingly and said we should have just kept on trying. I almost slapped her. A coworker came up to me when we had our first and asked how breastfeeding was going and I said that it was hard and she laughed and said to keep it up and not to let the zealots (she actually used another word but I thought it too be too inflammatory for the blog) at the LaLeche League get to us. In the end we did supplement with formula because our baby was losing too much weight -- yes it was a medical decision by the pediatrician even though we had said we'd keep trying. She looked horrified and I thought she was going to report us to child services.

For our second child, we went straight to supplementing without even batting an eyelid and we felt no guilt, got lots of sleep (compared to the first time), and had no problems. Trust your heart and head, I say.

A job that defines our sense of self

I had previously posted about whether jobs can define people's sense of self here. It turns out there is one job that does -- it's parenting and this struck me as I was reading Judith Warner's Perfect Madness. It's also a "job" where the rewards don't really come until much later (when they are adults) or some times we don't even see the rewards. Unlike working at an office or an occupation there is very little immediate feedback on whether what I'm doing is right or wrong or good or bad. Some of it has also to do with the fact that we are accustomed to be being evaluated, measured at how good we are doing, putting everything we do on scale of 1 to 5 or what have you. A child can't give that kind of feedback -- somtimes the hugs are the bonuses.

From page 6 of her book:
And the real problem was -- the worst of it all was -- it wasn't altogether clear that what they were doing with their lives was actually worthwhile. The choices and compromises -- when all was said and done, they didn't seem to add up all that much. Not to a great sense of achievement. Not to a great sense of pride.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Wikipedia over reliance?

I've been going first to Wikipedia for a lot of things today:
1. Carmina Burana (Orff)
2. Gloria in Excelsis Deo
3. O holy night
4. Trans Siberian Orchestra

And then to YouTube.

For the most part, these searches were rather uncontroversial so I did accept the information in them. There was a lot more information in there than I needed but sometimes this stuff is interesting.

Am currently reading ...

Judith Warner's Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. I won't say too much about it now except that it resonates and I can see why it was so hyped when it was first published in 2005. It seems like I'm dog ear-ring every other page. Coincidentally, I heard Harry Chapin's Cat's In the Cradle today which seems to reinforce the guilt of parenthood (I realize it's supposed to be motherhood) seeping into popular culture.

I'm about half way through the book and I like the way she traces through the evolution in what I would call child care/parenting "fads". The weakest part so far is that even though she compares France favorably, she does not answer what the first question that comes to mind: Why didn't French parents buy into the same fads?

Also, I would point out that perhaps one reason dads always bury their heads behind the papers and rely on mom to tend to the kids (and certainly this has been my experience) is that I get crap whenever I intervene which just makes a bad situation worse. Perhaps it's my inexperience or impatience with mediating/moderating/bargaining like the parenting books suggest. Perhaps sometimes I don't think the situation calls for bargaining but in the end I end up screaming at the kids and angry at my wife. My wife is definitely better at talking things out and even though I "hide behind the paper" fuming, glowering and ready to explode, I find that things eventually simmer away and am glad that I sat that one out. In a nutshell, I do butt in sometimes when I feel that I have a handle on the situation (which is probably not as often as I should).

Also I find that kids tend to prefer their moms. This is perhaps biased since I've mainly observed our kids. Even though I stayed home during K1's first 2 years and am on the slow lane right now, there is no doubt that they have a bond with her that I never will have.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Happy Holidays

Today K1 and K2 came back with an art project - dutch clogs made of paper in celebration of Saint Nicholas in the Netherlands. In it was a tangerine and a note explaining the significance of the clog and how Saint Nicholas Day (December 6) is celebrated in Netherlands. Some Googling provided the source of the note:

In mid-November Dutch television broadcasts the official arrival of St. Nicholas and his helper Zwarte Piet live to the nation. Coming by steamer from Spain, each year they dock in the harbor of a different city or village. Wearing traditional bishop's robes, Sinterklaas rides into town on a white horse to be greeted by the mayor. A motorcade and a brass band begin a great parade which leads Sinterklaas and his Piets through the town. Nearly every city and village has its own Sinterklaas parade.

In the following weeks before St. Nicholas Day, December 6, Sinterklaas goes about the country to determine if the children have been well-behaved. He and his Zwarte Piet helpers visit children in schools, hospitals, department stores, and even at home. The bakeries are busy making speculaas molded spice cookies of the saint. During this time children put out their shoes with wish-lists and a carrot or hay, or maybe a saucer of water, for the horse. When St. Nicholas happens by, the next morning children may find chocolate coins or initial letter, candy treats, pepernoten, and little gifts in their shoes. Everyone hopes for sweets, not coal or a little bag of salt.

The Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas on December 5th, St. Nicholas Eve, with festive family parties when gifts and surprises are exchanged. In the Netherlands, unlike other places, adults as well as children join in the fun. As the Dutch like an element of surprise, a small gift may be wrapped in a huge box, or it may be hidden and require following clues to discover where it is.
Gifts are prettily wrapped in special Sinterklaas paper or they may be hidden, for example, in a potato or an old sock. Each gift, anonymously signed "from Sinterklaas," comes with a clever rhyme that may point out a person's shortcomings in a humorous way. (For the less creative, there are books with suggestions for making rhymes and packaging disguises.) Originality, not value of the gift, is what counts.

Children sing traditional Sinterklaas songs while waiting for the saint to appear. A knock comes on the door and a black gloved hand appears to toss candies and pepernoten inside. Children scramble to gather up the treats. A large burlap bag, "de zak van Sinterklaas," also appears filled with gifts. At the table, decorated with speculaas and other sweets, guests may find their initial in a chocolate letter at their places. Food is apt to include hot chocolate, Bishop's wine, and letter banket.

The Dutch feast of Saint Nicholas is about giving, for "it is in giving that we receive." The fun is in trying to surprise people, to tease in a well-meaning way, to make a good joke, to produce a rollicking rhyme. The gift itself is just a bonus, as the fun is in the doing.

Using a blog as a reminder

I had earlier noted that I'm blogging partly to keep notes for myself. Looks like Andrew Gelman is doing the same. Here's his entry on Optimal Properties of Some Bayesian Inferences and Weakly Informative Priors. This entry is also a reminder to myself to look at Bayesian methods at some point in the hopefully near future.

Don't tell your kids they're smart

I had seen something similar to this before. This one is from Scientific American which headlines as The Secret to Raising Smart Kids - Hint: Don't tell your kids that they are. More than three decades of research shows that a focus on effort—not on intelligence or ability—is key to success in school and in life. I agree with this - I grew up with everyone praising me about how smart I was and when I can't do something right I think I'm stupid. I see the same effects on K1. We've been careful not to praise her but she still thinks she's stupid when she can't get something right. Unfortunately, I can't seem to do anything about her teachers or some of her peers' parents. She hears that she's smart - a lot more than she needs to, I think. In parent-teacher conferences, the teachers tell us she's smart and I think she sometimes overhears them when they sometimes tell it to us informally. This article has the benefit of describing an experiment though not on young children. By itself the experiment doesn't convince me so my bias is due to my prior. The effect of hearing they are smart is cumulative and the earlier they hear they are smart the harder it is for them to shake off the label. In any case, these are just gut feelings colored by personal experience more than any sound data or scientific evidence.

Snow today

Not the earliest snow we've had but certainly great to start off the winter. It looks like 2"-3" accumulation from our deck. Shoveled twice. Love our new wider driveway. We had been hemmed in by retaining walls on both sides and there was nowhere to put the snow in previous years. This time I actually enjoyed shovelling (twice!). K2 loved it -- stomped around in the school playground while waiting for K1's dismissal. And thank goodness the drive to and back from school was stress free. I was worried about gridlock -- my biggest gripe about living in Washington, DC. Otherwise, I love this place. Let's see what tomorrow brings.

Posner's Catastrophe: Risk and Response

This is not really a review but just a record of my impressions. It was a little surreal to read a conservative judge's review of movies like Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, and Matrix. Surreal but pleasant. It was also a little surreal to hear him discuss the possibility of a strangelet disaster and gray goo. Ultimately, his view of catastrophe (complete annihilation of the human race or something of the same magnitude) is not the same as my idea of a catastrophe (e.g. Katrina, earthquakes) possibly because these are already written somewhere else. However, he sometimes switches between human extinction with just extinction of Americans and its a little confusing and inconsistent.

He does take on issues such as abrupt climate change rather than gradual climate change which he views not as a catastrophe but something that we can adapt to. If I'm reading him correctly he advocates that we take action now even though the probability of an abrupt climate change is remote (small probabilities of extremely large losses). So he is not in the same camp as those who propose cap-and-trade and/or small hikes on gasoline. He proposes a large tax on emissions rather than on fossil fuels to induce innovation in cleaner fuels and carbon sequestration technology.

Not surprisingly, given his background, he advocates using cost benefit analysis as a guide not because it is problematic but because it is hard to put numbers on probabilities and costs. CBA in his view is a way to focus on the issues and to think through them. Rather than to dismiss CBA by saying the cost is infinite or we should not use any discounting, CBA forces a disciplined approach to whether we should undertake any measures to counter the possibility of a catastrophe or to not fund a project because of the possibility of a catastrophe. His analysis indicates that Brookhaven's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider should not have been built. He also goes through CBA exercises with numbers as examples. This is refreshing since he also debates the value of the numbers being used as in, "I plucked this number out of the air".

This was also the first time I've read a critique on the uncertainty in measuring species and biological diversity (estimates of the number of species) and the rate of extinction. The end notes (I would have preferred footnotes) were a wealth of information on this and other disaster scenarios.

Some interesting passages:
Conservatives seize on the existence of doubt about the magnitude or causality of global warming to oppose emission controls, while liberals seize on doubt concerning the likelihood of bioterrorism to oppose limitations on granting visas to foreigners to do research on lethal pathogens. In neither case is the existence of doubt a valid ground for rejecting expert opinion. Doubt properly is an input into analysis rather than a substitute for analysis. [Fred] Singer's basic error is to suppose that the only rational response to the existence of doubt is to conduct research aimed at dispelling it. (p. 57)

Not only is there no census of species, but it is infeasible to conduct one, because many species, especially those in danger of extinction, have minute populations and restricted habitats, often in hard-to-reach places. As a result, we do not know how many of the species that are not being conserved will become extinct unless heroic mesausres are taken to preserve their habitats. If we take a strictly anthropocentric view of catastrophic risks, eschewing philosophical questions, we must ask what exactly humankind loses by extinctions. Maybe nothing beyond the charm of the unusual life forms if extinctions are considered one by one; what is worrisome from the point of view of this book is the unknown consequences of mass extinctions. (p. 65)

I stopped noting these after the first chapter (which is probably the best chapter out of the four chapter of the book). Chapter 3 on CBA is interesting as well not only in his attempt to apply it but in his simultaneous critique of his attempts.

Donors Choose

Received an interesting offer from Crate and Barrel -- it was a $25 gift certificate to donate on In other words, I get to give away Gordon Segal's money. I found the website interesting -- essentially a list of classroom projects from all over the country. (I'm hoping that there is some verification and auditing that these projects are authentic. It would be a shame if a few rotten apples gave this a bad image much like how embezzlement by DC Teachers Union officials have in some small way smeared the image of teachers.) I also thought that this would be an interesting impact project -- to compare outcomes of kids in classrooms who participate in DonorsChoose versus those who don't. Selection problems immediately come to mind as well as the usual problem -- what outcomes? I'm interested in something fuzzy like child well being. Are children happier in classrooms whose projects are funded (fully versus partially versus not funded versus not participating)? Do they have less behavioral problems? My quick look at projects in DC seem to indicate that these are to make classrooms easier to manage but I'm probably wrong on this.

Kindle and Sony Reader

Thoughts from someone who has neither but is tempted by both:
1. Agree with others that being able to load PDF and read them as well as DRMed books is essential.
2. Problem with PDFs is that it is a fixed size. The screens on these readers are small so looking at a PDF formatted on a letter size page is going to be difficult.
3. Paperback size is overrated but slimness is essential. I'm thinking maybe a 7"x10". This sort of overcomes the PDF problem so that there is no need to translate a PDF to a native Kindle or Sony Reader format.
4. For the $300-$400 price range I'd like something more than just a reader. The reason I don't carry my laptop around is the bootup time. I'd like something that has a dual bootup option - full operating system or a strip down version that will just quickly load the reader or even play music (e.g. MP3 or an Ipod like ability). Ability to just use a reader or to play tunes would also not suck as much battery juice.
5. So yes, I'd be willing to pay more for a small laptop that does all of the above perhaps $800-$1000.
6. Unfortunately, a laptop like the one I imagine might be heavy. Too bad.
7. I'm predicting an eventual joint venture between Apple and either Kindle/Amazon or Sony to produce something like that. (I wish!)
8. I like Kindle's bundling of Wifi and download without any additional charges. Of course, its been bundled into the price of the Kindle books.
9. Which brings me to the complaint that $9.99 per Kindle book (on average) is way too much. I'd go for something like $4.99.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Can data dampen anti-immigrant feelings?

Another example of the power of anecdotes versus data. I don't hold out much hope for data.
Even in England, where the attitude towards immigration and assimilation is more relaxed than in France, the terrorist attacks of recent years gave rise to alarming observations that children of Pakistani and Bangladeshi families weren’t able to adapt to British society. This was made particularly salient by the video message of one of the July 7 London bombers (British-born but whose parents were from Pakistan), which said “your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people and your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters”, clearly contrasting “we” and “you”.
But aside from a few anecdotes and these dramatic, but isolated examples, it has never been shown that young Muslims stay foreign to the culture of their adopted country more than any other immigrants.

Earlier in the article,
Immigration stirs up strong enough fears to justify questionable measures of protection against it – from arrests at the doors of French schools to the border wall that separates the USA from Mexico. ... Economic research suggests that the intensity of these reactions seems completely disproportionate to immigration’s real economic impact on the local population. Economic reasons don’t seem to provide a sufficient explanation for the persistent distrust of immigrants among the native population. (emphasis mine).

Monday, December 3, 2007

Disrespectful Americans

When MR asked Why don't American kids respect their parents more I was also reminded by an incident when we were in Bangkok last summer. We were in a Skytrain when four teenagers came running up the stairs and burst into our train car. "Dude! I can't believe you did that!" one them said loudly and they proceeded to talk loudly and laugh amongst themselves, mainly about drinking and hwo they got drunk. They didn't seem to notice that Thais are generally reserved and the ride on the Skytrain is almost peaceful and quiet. Is this another example of American boorishness and the stereotype of the "Ugly American" abroad? This leads then to the question: Does disrespect of parents also lead to disrespect of others and other cultures? (Quite a leap for a causal chain to be sure.)

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Economists and their models and why they tend to be skeptics

In Robert Rubins' In An Uncertain World:
The now famous Black-Scholes formula was my first experience with the application of mathematical models to trading, and I formed both an appreciation for and a skepticism about models that I have to this day. ... reality is more complex than models. Models necessarily make assumptions. ... But a trader could easily lose sight of the limitations. Entranced by the model, a trader could easily forget that assumptions are involved and treat it as definitive. (p. 80)

I can see how users of models can be misled by their elegance and in particular their ability to deliver "an answer". However, I believe that economists tend to be skeptical about models (even their own models) because they know the underlying assumptions (or are aware of assumptions) made to simplify reality. In part, I think that this is why they initially tended to be skeptical about climate models and the predictions on climate change. This attitude is changing now with the overwhemning evidence that climate change is real. I think though that where there is a divide now is in mitigating climate change -- the go-slow approach versus the do-all-we-can now. This also reflects the uncertainties about the possibility of gradual climate change versus abrupt climate change.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Parents behaving badly

In a somewhat related note to an entry on why American children do not respect their parents, M pointed out the following blog entry from Judith Warner:

Megan Meier, a 13-year-old from Dardenne Prairie, Missouri, killed herself last year after an online relationship she believed she was having with a cute 16-year-old boy named Josh went very sour. What she didn’t know – what her parents would learn six weeks after her death – was that “Josh” was the fictitious creation of Lori Drew, a then-47-year-old neighbor and the mother of one of Megan’s friends.

The story is here in the NYT but what caught my attention was the following in Judith Warner's entry was this:

In part, Levine blames parenting experts for this turn of events.
She blames the self-esteem movement, decades of parenting advice that prized "communication” over limit-setting and safety. She blames the narcissistic needs of parents who want their children to like them at all costs.

This is a pretty strong accusation. I had always wondered about some of the parenting books that I had read and whether there was any basis for the kinds of recommendations that they were making. Some of the recommendations are pretty innocuous for instance, I've read that when babies cry they may be wet. Alternatively, I've also read that babies like being in a wet diaper because it reminds them of being in their mother's womb. I've often thought of relegating these books to the recycle pile.

There are others that are not so innocuous, for instance Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish's book on How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk is almost a bible in day to day dealings with children (and people in general). Although I give them credit for arguing for limit setting and letting children learn the consequences of their actions, I sometimes wonder if their recommendations have any basis on data (and I emphasize data rather than their personal experiences or anecdotes). No doubt that they have learned through their personal experiences but some times I have to wonder about the "other" cases, i.e. those kids that do not follow the script that is in their book.

The accusation made by Madeline Levine in Warner's blog entry is directed toward the PC/liberal environment that children are in today which in some way makes them not respect their parents. I'm starting to lean in the same direction as well although personally, I am still confused about how to handle the day to day stuff without seeming to be an "enabler" and wanting them to like me. I guess I sometimes think of it as this: I'm here to be their parent not their friend. This begs the question: What is a parent?