Month: September 2010

Do protagonists of great novels have children?

In his new book Encounter, Milan Kundera writes:

I was rereading One Hundred Years of Solitude when a strange idea occurred to me: most protagonists of great novels do not have children.  Scarcely 1 percent of the world's population are childless, but at least 50 percent of the great literary characters exit the book without having reproduced.  Neither Pantagruel, nor Panurge, nor Quixote have any progeny.  Not Valmont, not the Marquise de Merteuil, nor the virtuous Presidente in Dangerous Liaasons.  Not Tom Jones, Fielding's most famous hero.  Not Werther.  All Stendhal's protagonists are childless, as are many of Balzac's; and Dostoyevsky's; and in the century just past, Marcel, the narrator of In Search of Lost Time, and of course all of Musil's major characters…and Kafka's protagonists, except for the very young Karl Rossmann, who did impregnate a maidservant, but that is the very reason — to erase the infant from his life — that he flees to America and the novel can be born.  This infertility is not due to a conscious purpose of the novelists; it is the spirit of the arc of the novel (or its subconscious) that spurns procreation.

Toss in Melville and Conrad while you're at it.  What I find striking, however, is that contemporary writers seem more likely to give their protagonists children (Roth, Franzen, Updike, for a start, plus the rise of female authors helps this trend).  And that is precisely at a time when more people are having no children at all.  The decline of the heroic ideal in literature, and the decline of the journey of adventure, seem to be stronger forces in predicting fictional family size.

When is the first good Western literary characterization of a child?

I enjoyed reading this book, especially the two chapters about the still-underrated Janacek.

What stance will (should) Republicans take on payroll tax cuts?

 Let's say you are a Republican policymaker and you already contradict yourself by a) "we can afford to extend the Bush tax cuts" and b) "we can't afford the current version of Social Security" not to mention c) "tax cuts for business are good."  Do you still favor both a) and c)?  And what if you have to pile on d) "Everything Obama proposes is bad" and yet c) leads you to e) "we should defund the very system which we can no longer afford"?  What comes out at the end?  I am curious.

Might we get a cut in the payroll tax? (Department of !)

The Washington Post reports:

President Obama's economic team is considering another big dose of stimulus in the form of tax breaks for businesses – potentially worth hundreds of billions of dollars, according to two people familiar with the talks.

Among the options are a temporary payroll tax holiday and a permanent extension of the research and development tax credit…

Comedy recommendations

Steve Hely writes to me:

I'm a real admirer of your blog.  You offer such great recommendations.  But it seems you rarely recommend any comedy.  Are there any books, TV shows, movies, etc. that have made you laugh in recent years?

It's well-known that comedy hits don't usually export well to other countries, because comedy is so culturally specific and also so subjective.  So these are not recommendations.  What I find funny is this:

1. On TVCurb Your Enthusiasm and the better ensemble pieces of Seinfeld and also The Ali G Show.  The best Monty Python skits are very funny to me, although I find their movies too long and labored.  I find stand-up comics funny only when I am there in person.

2. Movies: The last funny movie I saw was I Love You, Man.  I like most classic comedies, though without necessarily finding them very funny.  Danny Kaye's The Court Jester is a good comedy which most people don't watch any more.  I enjoy the chaotic side of W.C. Fields in short doses.  Jerry Lewis is funny sometimes, plus there is Pillow Talk.  I like the first forty minutes or so of Ferris BuellerStardust Memories is my favorite Woody Allen film, though I like many of them.

3. Books: I don't find books of fiction funny, blame it on me.  I do find David Hume, and other classic non-fiction authors, to be at times hilarious.

On YouTube, I find the economics comic Yoram Bauman funny.  Colbert can be very funny.

I wonder how many dimensions are required to explain or predict a person's taste in comedy?

“Free Markets Foster Competition”

That's a chapter title from Jonathan Franzen's new book Freedom.  If you think you are going to like this book, you almost certainly will; it delivers on its promise.  The problem is, I never thought I was going to like this book.

This passage is one of many that made me cringe:

"And while you're here hon, can you help me with my taxes?  They're due tomorrow and my nails are wet." 

Is there any surer way to long for Victor Hugo and "men as they ought to be"?

I almost stopped reading it at about p.100.  I was not afraid it would get worse, rather I was afraid it would get better and I would start liking it and finish it.

Which is precisely what is happening.

The Small Schools Myth

Did Bill Gates waste a billion dollars because he failed to understand the formula for the standard deviation of the mean?  Howard Wainer makes the case in the entertaining Picturing the Uncertain World (first chapter with the Gates story free here). The Gates Foundation certainly spent a lot of money, along with many others, pushing for smaller schools. A lot of the push came because people jumped to the wrong conclusion when they discovered that the smallest schools were consistently among the best performing schools.

Schools1The chart at left, for example, shows by size the percentage of schools in North Carolina which were ever ranked in the top 25 of schools for performance. Notice that nearly 30% of the smallest decile (10%) of schools were in the top 25 at some point during 1997-2000 but only 1.2% of the schools in the largest decile ever made the top 25.

Seeing this data many people concluded that small schools were better and so they began to push to build smaller schools and break up larger schools. Can you see the problem?

The problem is that because small schools don’t have a lot of students, scores are much more variable.  If for random reasons a few geniuses happen to enroll in a small school scores jump up for that year and if a few extra dullards enroll the next year scores fall.

Thus, for purely random reasons we would expect small schools to be among the best performing schools in any given  year. Of course we would also expect small schools to be among the worst performing schools in any given year!  And in fact, once we look at all the data, this is exactly what we see. The figure below shows changes in fourth grade math scores against school size. Note that small schools have more variable scores but there is no evidence at all that scores on average decrease with school size.

States like North Carolina which reward schools for big performance gains without correcting for size end up rewarding small schools for random reasons. Worst yet, the focus on small schools may actually be counter-productive because large schools do have important advantages such as being able to offer more advanced classes and better facilities.

Schools2All of this was laid out in 2002 in a wonderful paper I teach my students every year, Thomas Kane and Douglas Staiger’s The Promise and Pitfalls of Using Imprecise School Accountability Measures.

In recent years Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation have acknowledged that their earlier emphasis on small schools was misplaced. Perhaps not coincidentally the Foundation recently hired Thomas Kane to be deputy director of its education programs.

Ignoring variance and how it relates to group size is a simple but common error. As Wainer notes, building on a discussion in Gelman and Nolan, counties with low cancer rates tend to be rural counties in the south, mid-west and west. Is it the clean country air or some other factor peculiar to rural counties which accounts for this fact? Probably not. The counties with the highest cancer rates also tend to be rural counties in the south, mid-west and west! Once again, small size and random variation appear to be the main culprit.

Why so much BS in the corporate world?

Chris, a loyal MR reader, asks:

Why does the corporate world use language so inefficiently? Why turn a simple thing like "talking to a client about their needs" into a five-step process (distinguished, no doubt, by an acronym)? Do companies think that they create net value when they brand a common thing like human conversation as a one-of-a-kind, complex process – even after the costs of being opaque, jargonistic, and long-winded are taken into account?

I assume that a large proportion of people become cynical at the sound of corporate-speak. Is it reasonable to expect that language in the business world will become more transparent and down-to-earth in the future? Or do you expect that corporate-speak will continue to serve the (perceived) need to brand the commonplace or to affect a marketable expertise – clarity, concision, and common sense be damned?

My speculation: People disagree in corporations, often virulently, or they would disagree if enough real debates were allowed to reach the surface.  The use of broad generalities, in rhetoric, masks such potential disagreements and helps maintain corporate order and authority.  Since it is hard to oppose fluffy generalities in any very specific way, a common strategy is to stack everyone's opinion or points into an incoherent whole.  Disagreement is then less likely to become a focal point within the corporation and warring coalitions are less likely to form.  

Many morale-improving corporate practices are precisely what people perceive as somewhat demoralizing, such as fluffy rhetoric, forced socializing, and a somewhat egalitarian bonus structure.  Rule of thumb: when you see the demoralizing, start with the premise that it is being done for morale.

Real "straight talk" very often is not compatible with authority, as it breeds conflict.  Do political leaders give us much real straight talk?  Do CEOs in their public addresses?

When direct financial incentives can work well, such as in sales (bonuses) or in some parts of finance, there is much more straight talk.  Disagreement and candor can flourish, because the $$ keep the workers on a common track.

My lunch group has a high level of trust and we are at little risk of a morale breakdown and thus we speak very directly with each other with a minimum of fluff or BS.  

Are cruise ships saving the theatre industry?

Cruise entertainment doesn't have the best of reputations, but I took my maiden voyage earlier this year and it was a real eye-opener. I was there to review shows on board the Celebrity Eclipse, and both the productions and facilities were extremely impressive. The theatre itself was actually of a far higher standard than many of the West End's crumbling playhouses – more comfy seats, better sightlines, excellent acoustics and high-end equipment.

Celebrity spends up to $1m per show for three 60-minute productions on every ship in its line. Each vessel has a 1,150-seat theatre, employs a cast of 18, plus nearly 40 musicians, a stage crew of six and various other technical crew across the music lounges on the ship.

And cruising is a huge growth area in the entertainment business. Looking across some of the other lines – P&O has its own on-board theatre company with more than 100 entertainers, Royal Caribbean is staging cruise versions of Hairspray and Chicago, and elsewhere there are licensed versions of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals or other popular shows such as Saturday Night Fever.

But no Chekhov.  The full story is here.

How much did interest rates matter for the housing boom?

Both theory and data suggest that lower real rates cannot account for more than one-fifth of the boom in house prices.

That's from Edward Glaeser, Joshua Gottlieb, and Joseph Gyourko; here is more.  Here is some of the theory:

If people expect to move in the future, low interest rates today will not lead them to bid up prices so much now because they realise they might have to sell later at a lower price when rates are higher. The option to prepay also weakens the link between current interest rates and house prices for the same reason. Rates also should have little or no impact on prices in elastically supplied markets as shown in Glaeser et al. (2008).

Finally, if people are credit-constrained, lower rates today need not lead to higher prices. After all, if the marginal buyer cannot take advantage of those lower rates, they should not affect the buyer’s valuation of a home. Taken together, we show that these factors can reduce the predicted impact of interest rates on home prices by about two-thirds, bringing it down to 6 or 8 from previous conclusions of around 20.

Venezuelan markets in everything

A Venezuelan politician is offering breast implants as a prize in a raffle to raise funds for his parliamentary election campaign.

"Some people raffle TVs and we decided to offer this. It's an interesting prize and there's a lot of interest," Gustavo Rojas, an opposition candidate for a National Assembly position, told Reuters while campaigning in Caracas.

Here is his defense of the policy:

"The raffle is a financing mechanism, nothing else. It's the doctor who will do the operation, not me," he said.

The link to the story is here and for the pointer I thank MikeRosenwald and also Daniel Lippman.

What I’ve been reading

1. The Private Lives of Trees, by Alejandro Zambra.  He has snuck up on us and suddenly he is one of Latin America's best writers.  As an extra bonus, you can read this in a single sitting, and still wish to read it again.

2. Burmese Lessons: A True Love Story, by Karen Connelly.  Insights into dissidents, why Burmese intellectuals love books so much, and the author's sex life.  She doesn't wish to call the country Myanmar.  I liked it, although it would be easy to mock in a hostile review.

3. Book of Days, personal essays, by Emily Fox Gordon.  She is a self-described "faculty wife" (I know her husband, the philosopher George Sher, a bit) and she has been seeing therapists most of her adult life.  This is a more multi-faceted book than it may sound, and it is good for thinking through what a workable marriage actually consists of. 

4. The Death of French Culture, by Donald Morrison and Antonie Compagnon.  Maybe there is nothing new here, but it is useful to have a statement of French culture-bashing in one coherent place.  Antonie responds, by confessing a sense of desperation.

5. Understanding The Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide, by Grant Hardy.  I only skimmed/browsed this book, but I learned a great deal from even that limited treatment.  It's a serious, substantive treatment, historical and literary rather than religious.  For instance, I had never even known before who "Mormon" was.  This book is getting very good reviews and deservedly so.

Is being interesting more important than being happy?

Vimspot asks:

2 things I'd love you to elaborate on (though perhaps you left them as cliff hangers for a reason):
1. You once said being interesting and responsible are more important values than happiness. Could you elaborate on why you think that?

It's more interesting if you get only one of the two queries, even if it makes you less happy. 

There's also the value of being interested.

"Happiness" to me sounds boring, as if the person has a limited imagination when it comes to wants and an inability to be frustrated by the difficulty of creating new peak experiences. 

"Responsible" is the right thing to do and it usually carries with it some sense of fulfillment. 

"Interesting" helps other people expand the horizon of their wants, since you show them some new goodies on the table.

Viewed as a signaling problem, "happiness" fails when it comes to credibly demonstrating the possession of some extreme quality or another.  The busier people are, and the higher wages are, the more important it should be to signal extreme qualities to command the attention of interesting others.

What does the word "important" mean anyway?  It presupposes the value judgment in question.

Penelope Trunk has interesting posts on this topic:

People with interesting lives do not get offended that they cannot be happy. Happy people are offended that they cannot have interesting lives.