You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Author

Software that blurs a writer’s meaning is not progress.

We all know that you can’t tell a book by its cover, but technology is about to deliver its newest mixed blessing: Soon we won’t be able to tell a book by its author.

Last week one of the large textbook publishers, Macmillan, announced new software to let college instructors rewrite textbooks by substituting new material for what the author wrote. This will allow options such as deleting paragraphs or editing down to the level of individual sentences. The software can bring to print and e-textbooks what’s called a “mashup” in other forms like music and videos, where people alter the original with their own preferred version of the real thing.

This seems like another step in the progress of technology. Mistakes can be corrected and new views expressed with the wisdom of crowds—or at least the wisdom of professors—improving the work of a single author. Just as Wikipedia often delivers excellent group work, textbooks can get better with many people altering them.

But we have to wonder about the unintended consequences of a textbook absent an author. For example, since 1948 generations of students learned from Paul Samuelson’s “Economics,” which has sold four million copies. It had quirks and went through many editions. But it also was elegantly written and became canonical. What happens when students learn from what appears to be the same text but isn’t?

“Appalling and preposterous” is how Jaron Lanier described this idea to me last week. Mr. Lanier, the Silicon Valley computer scientist who popularized the term “virtual reality,” is now among a band of Internet pioneers who worry about its effects. Contrary to original assumptions about technology as a force for personal expression, he worries about minimizing individual creativity.

“Without Richard Feynman, where would physics be?” he asks. “Education is the ultimate form of expression. To think of it as a dry process devoid of personal creativity is to take a very antihuman approach.”

Without Feynman’s individual creativity, where would physics be?

Mr. Lanier’s new book, “You Are Not a Gadget,” rails against the Internet for promoting a “digital Maoism,” in which “a mashup is more important than the sources who were mashed.” He says anonymous groups creating content lack the accountability of an individual. “If you’re worried about history or science being politicized, a mashup will be even worse. Individual textbook authors are not perfect, but at least they have a voice with consistency and creativity.”

It is understandable that textbook publishers would embrace new technology. Their business model is under pressure from secondhand sales. Print and e-books customized by instructors for their own classes won’t be valuable in the used-book market, so innovative publishers reckon this will boost their economics.

Mr. Lanier warns this is another step in the open source, information-wants-to-be-free ideology. “Authors, journalists, musicians and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind,” he writes.

Blogs and social networks have boosted individual expression, but the Web paradoxically makes it harder to support professional creativity. Mr. Lanier, who is also a musician, researched the question of how new technologies have affected the ability of musicians to make a living. His conclusion is glum.

“By now, a decade and a half into the web era, when iTunes has become the biggest music store, in a period when companies like Google are the beacons of Wall Street, shouldn’t there be at least a few thousand initial pioneers of a new kind of musical career who can survive in our utopia?” Instead, “maybe after a generation or two without professional musicians, some new habitat will emerge that will bring them back.”

Mr. Lanier calls creative people the “new peasants” and likens them to “animals converging on shrinking oases of old media in a depleted desert.” In contrast, Silicon Valley views its own creativity differently and doesn’t give it away. Google and Apple don’t make the work product of their legions of engineers available for free. Venture capitalists would not agree to a mashup of their early-stage companies, with their investments reduced to divvied-up profits, if any.

In the case of textbooks there should at least be transparency when the relationship between authors and students is amended. Readers should be able to know they’ve read the book the author intended or what changes were made and why.

Technology creates opportunities, and the genie shouldn’t go back in the bottle. Still, the integrity and authenticity that a single author provides should not be lost. As Mr. Lanier reminds us, technological progress is great, but we need to be sure it doesn’t devalue our greatest growth driver, individual creativity.

Gordon Crovitz, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704231304575092032363611308.html

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Iran’s New World Order

Its nuclear program is part of a larger plan to radically reduce U.S. power.

Ahmad Khatami, an influential cleric and mentor to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, recently said publicly that the United States has to “regard Iran as a great power in the political sphere. The people of Iran have realized there is nothing you can do to us.”

The statement is part bravado, but it also offers an important clue about the Iranian regime’s mind set and ultimate goal. Its nuclear program, support for terrorism and stirring of anti-American sentiments are aimed at vaulting Iran to a position of global prominence.

Iran regards acquiring a nuclear-weapon capability as a crucial step to achieving international stature. And from its leaders’ perspective, why not? All five of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council have nuclear weapons and Israel, India and Pakistan all saw their influence grow after becoming nuclear states.

So Iranian officials dismiss the impact economic sanctions have on their country, use Western talk of regime change to repress internal opposition, and play down the extent of damage that military strikes could have on their nuclear programs. Mr. Ahmadinejad demonstrated Iran’s nonchalant response to foreign fury by announcing at the Islamic Revolution’s 31st anniversary celebration on Feb. 11 that Iran had successfully enriched uranium to 20% and is now “a nuclear state.”

Yet Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared a week later that use of nuclear weapons is undesired by Iran and prohibited by Islam: “We don’t have any belief in the atomic bomb and don’t pursue it.”

In an interview in Tehran last September, Mr. Ahmadinejad said, “We believe nuclear arms belong to the past and to the old generation.” And during his visit to Japan last week, Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran’s parliament, said that Iran could follow Japan’s example—gain the technology to build nuclear warheads, but not actually assemble them until they are necessary.

These statements suggest that the Iranian regime is rational and making a series of calculated geopolitical maneuvers. In Ahmadinejad’s own words, Tehran is attempting to craft a new world order: “We need to establish new systems and take measures based on those systems,” he said in October 2009, adding that “Many countries will join the new systems.”

To craft this new order, Iranian officials are testing the limits of U.S. power and influence, seeking to show that both are limited to hollow words and ineffective deeds. One way is by splitting Russia and China from the other nations in the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany) when it comes to imposing sanctions on Iran. By forcing such a split, Iranian officials hope to demonstrate that America and its partners are no longer pre-eminent.

Another way is by the support Tehran is extending to Hamas and Hezbollah; this is to thwart the U.S. and Israel and thereby become a player in the Middle Eastern peace process. The regime is also building strong diplomatic, economic and military ties with countries in Latin America to extend its influence to a region considered U.S. dominion since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.

When asked by American news media in September 2009, Mr. Ahmadinejad stressed that “The world is on the threshold of major developments . . . . [F]or one or two countries to think . . . they are the ones who make the major global decisions which others should follow, well that period has come to an end.”

The Islamic Republic, in short, regards the U.S. as a washed-up world power that can no longer run the global show.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both said recently that the U.S. must lead the world. They are right. As the leader of the Free World, the U.S. can do much more than any other nation to extend prosperity and human freedom across the globe.

But words are insufficient. After constant demands, sporadic threats and inconsistent economic sanctions, the U.S. faces a profound leadership test on Iran. To keep its position of unparalleled influence, the U.S. must demonstrate that it can thwart both the Iranian regime’s nuclear and world-wide ambitions.

Mr. Choksy is a professor of Iranian, Islamic and international studies and a former director of the Middle Eastern studies program at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704231304575092102024112256.html

Congress Tries to Break Hawaii in Two

A racial spoils precedent that could lead to new ‘tribal’ demands across the U.S.

Last week, the House of Representatives, in a largely party-line vote, passed the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act. Popularly known as “the Akaka bill,” this piece of legislation might turn out to be this Congress’s single most calamitous decision.

The bill creates a complex federal framework under which most of the nation’s approximately 400,000 ethnic Hawaiians can organize themselves into one vast Indian tribe. It endows the tribe with the “inherent powers and privileges of self-government,” including the privilege of sovereign immunity from lawsuit. It also by clear implication confers the power to tax, to promulgate and enforce a criminal code, and to exercise eminent domain. Hawaii will in effect be two states, not one.

The method used to create this tribe should make everyone squeamish. The bill delegates the delicate task of deciding who may join the tribe to a federal commission appointed by the secretary of the Interior. Ultimately, the tribe itself will have the power to expel members or invite new ones.

Earlier versions of the bill demanded that the secretary appoint only ethnic Hawaiians as commissioners. In the current version, only those with “10 years of experience in the study and determination of Native Hawaiian genealogy” and “an ability to read and translate . . . documents written in the Hawaiian language” may serve on the commission. These commissioners will examine an applicants’ backgrounds to ensure that only “qualified Native Hawaiians” with the right amount of Hawaiian blood join the tribe.

To understand all of this, you have to know something about the Aloha State’s racial entitlement system. The State’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), established in 1978, administers billions of dollars generated from lands the federal government ceded to the state decades ago. These monies should be used to benefit all Hawaiians. Instead they are spent on benefits for ethnic Hawaiians, including home loans and business loans as well as housing and education programs.

The protection of these benefits is what motivates supporters of the Akaka bill. Ten years ago, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a Hawaiian law that limited the right to vote for those who oversee OHA to ethnic Hawaiians. The court ruled in that case, Rice v. Cayetano, that it violated the 15th Amendment’s prohibition on racial discrimination in voting rights.

Rice set off a firestorm that has not yet subsided. If OHA’s election methods were unconstitutional, then its racially-exclusive benefits were almost certainly also in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. Something had to be done.

And it was. Shortly after Rice, Hawaii’s Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka introduced a bill in Congress to protect race-based benefits in his state. He did so by seeking to exploit a 1974 Supreme Court decision, Morton v. Mancari. In that case, the court found that racial discrimination on the basis of membership in “quasi-sovereign tribal entities” was constitutional. Following the logic of the ruling, Mr. Akaka and others hoped that by transforming ethnic Hawaiians from a race into a tribe they would effectively protect special benefits for ethnic Hawaiians.

Indeed, the benefits pot might even be sweetened by such a transformation. The Akaka bill provides that after the tribe is established, its leaders may negotiate with Hawaii for the transfer of land. Everyone involved understands this to refer to 1.4 million acres known as the Ceded Lands—lands that were ceded to the state by the federal government when statehood was granted in 1959. Some activists take the position that since these lands were once owned by the Hawaiian monarchy, they rightfully belong to ethnic Hawaiians. Some even argue the tribe’s ultimate goal should be secession from the United States.

Nevertheless, two problems remain. First, the Akaka bill privileges what is in fact a race, not a tribe. The very act of transforming a racial group into a tribal group confers a privilege on one race and not others and is thus unconstitutional. Second, while the Constitution implicitly gives the federal government the power to recognize tribes with a long and continuous history of separate self-governance, it does not give the power to confer sovereignty on new tribes, or to reconstitute a tribe whose members have long since become part of the mainstream culture.

If it did, all manner of mischief could be accomplished, as ethnic Hawaiians will not be the last group to demand special status. Some activists argue that Southern California should be set aside as a homeland for Mexican Americans of Indian descent. Right now, that idea looks like pure fantasy. If the Akaka bill becomes law, it will suddenly become more plausible.

What’s more, the Amish in Pennsylvania and the Orthodox Jews in New York could also start to see a benefit from constituting themselves as a tribe, since tribes, unlike federal and state governments, are free to establish theocratic governments. On what ground will Congress say no to these and other would-be tribes?

Mr. Akaka’s supporters argue that the American government was complicit in the 1893 overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani, which they believe illegally denied not just the queen’s individual right of sovereignty, but her subjects’ collective right, too. They see this bill as an appropriate remedy.

This historical claim has been hotly debated. Even assuming American complicity, however, it is beside the point. The Kingdom of Hawaii was a multiracial society from its inception in 1810, when King Kamehameha united what had previously been a group of warring islands.

In the true spirit of Aloha, its rulers were welcoming of immigrants, who came from all over the world, including Portugal, China, Japan, the United States, Great Britain and Germany. The 1840 Hawaiian constitution declared that “all races” were of “one blood” and established a bicameral parliament whose members were multiracial. By 1893, ethnic Hawaiians were a population minority.

This cosmopolitan, constitutional monarchy was no kinship-based tribe. Anyone born on Hawaiian soil or swearing allegiance to the queen was considered the queen’s subject and hence “Hawaiian.” No single race was deprived of “its” sovereignty rights by the overthrow.

In 1959, 94.3% of Hawaiian voters cast ballots in favor of statehood. Within months, Hawaii became the 50th state. No one argued then that ethnic Hawaiians were part of a separate political system that needed special status. To the contrary, everyone acknowledged that ethnic Hawaiians were part of the political mainstream. It is now too late in the game to argue otherwise.

The U.S. Senate is expected to take up the Akaka bill in the coming weeks or months, where its opponents are insisting on a thorough debate. One reason for hope is that Hawaii’s Republican Gov. Linda Lingle has finally withdrawn her support for the legislation. For years she advocated passing the bill, establishing a tribe, and then using vigilance to ensure that the tribe does not acquire undue power or resources during its negotiations with the state. She has now reconsidered.

Good for her. This is a train that needs to be stopped before it leaves the station.

Ms. Heriot and Mr. Kirsanow are members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

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Full article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703411304575093180795586118.html

Why Financial Reform Is Stalled

Partisan gridlock is not the reason. The administration’s plans are flawed, and they’re encountering resistance from both sides of the aisle in Congress.

According to the media’s narrative about Washington, the Obama administration’s financial regulation proposals have not gotten through Congress because the town is gridlocked by partisan warfare. It’s a simplistic story that does not require much thought to generate or accept.

Here’s a better explanation: The proposals are not grounded in a valid explanation of what caused the financial crisis, reflect the same impulse to control a sector of the economy that underlies its health-care and cap-and-trade proposals, and more than anything else reflect Rahm Emanuel’s iconic motto for all statists that a good crisis should never go to waste.

The administration appears to have begun its regulatory reform effort with the idea propagated by candidate Barack Obama that the financial crisis was caused by deregulation. There was never any evidence for this. The banks, which were in the most trouble, are the most heavily regulated sector of the economy and their regulation has only gotten tighter since the 1930s.

Since its proposals first met with congressional opposition, the administration has been impervious to contrary evidence, and to this day it continues to lunge for ideas that will further government control of the financial system without giving them serious thought. So we have the spectacle of Paul Volcker, having recently persuaded Mr. Obama to back the idea of restricting proprietary trading by banks or bank holding companies, telling a puzzled Senate Banking Committee he can’t really define proprietary trading but knows it when he sees it. Didn’t anyone in the White House ask him what it was before the president moved to restrict it?

So it goes with the rest of the administration’s plan. More power to Washington, but neither a persuasive analysis of why that additional control was necessary nor a recognition of the fairly obvious consequences.

For example, the central element of the administration’s reforms was to give more power to the Federal Reserve. That agency was to become the regulator of all large nonbank financial companies deemed likely to cause a systemic breakdown if they fail. These companies—securities firms, hedge funds, finance companies, insurers, bank holding companies and even the financing arms of operating companies—were to be regulated like banks.

It didn’t take long for both Democrats and Republicans in Congress to see the flaws in this scheme. The Fed had been regulating the largest banks and bank holding companies for over 50 years—among the very companies that would be considered systemically important—yet it failed to see the risks they were taking or the impending danger.

How, then, did it make sense to give the Fed the vast additional power to regulate all the largest nonbank financial companies? Wouldn’t designating particular companies as “systemically important,” and subjecting them to special Fed regulation, signal to the markets that these companies were too big to fail? How was that a solution to the too-big-to-fail problem? And wouldn’t these big companies—designated as too big to fail—then have the same preferred access to credit that enabled government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to drive all competition from their market?

Then there is the proposal to give a government agency the authority to take over and “resolve” failing financial firms. Here, the administration has pointed to the chaos that followed the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. To prevent that kind of breakdown, the administration says all large and “interconnected” financial firms in crisis should be dealt with by a government agency, rather than by a judge in bankruptcy proceedings.

The term “interconnected” is important here. It implies that when one large firm fails it will carry others down with it, causing a systemic crisis. But that is clearly not the lesson of Lehman. Although the company went suddenly and shockingly into bankruptcy, none of its large financial counterparties failed. The systemic significance of “interconnectedness” proved to be a myth.

To be sure, there was a freeze-up in lending after Lehman. But that episode demonstrated the power of moral hazard—the tendency of government action to distort private decision-making. After Bear Stearns was rescued by the Fed in March 2008, market participants assumed that all companies larger than Bear would be rescued in the future. As a result, they did not take the steps to protect themselves against counterparty failure that would have been prudent in a panicky market. When Lehman was not rescued, all market participants immediately had to review the credit standing of their counterparties. No wonder lending temporarily froze.

The same failure to understand the power of moral hazard is what makes the administration’s call for a resolution authority most inapt and troubling. Although the administration has argued, and some in Congress believe, that moral hazard and too-big-to-fail would be curbed by a resolution authority, the opposite is true. Both would be enhanced.

This is because the principal danger of moral hazard—the key to its adverse effects on private decision-making—is its impact on creditors and counterparties. The fact that shareholders and managements will lose everything in a government resolution is largely irrelevant. What really matters are the lessons creditors draw about how they will be treated. And it is clear creditors will be treated far more favorably in a government resolution process than in a bankruptcy.

To understand why this is true, consider the administration’s reasons for preferring a government resolution process. The claim is that large, interconnected firms will drag down others when they fail. The remedy for this is to make sure their creditors and counterparties are fully paid when the takeover occurs. That’s why the Fed made Goldman Sachs and others whole when it rescued the insurance giant AIG. It’s also what distinguishes a government resolution process from a bankruptcy, where a stay is imposed on most payments to creditors when the bankruptcy petition is filed.

Creditors will realize that by lending to large companies that might be taken over and resolved by the government, their chances of being fully paid are better than if they lend to others that might not. Thus a resolution authority will enhance moral hazard not reduce it—and as creditors increasingly assume that large firms will be rescued, the too-big-to-fail phenomenon will grow, not decline. In the end, a resolution authority becomes, in effect, a permanent Troubled Asset Relief Program.

The image of partisan gridlock standing in the way of sensible financial regulation is wildly misleading. Twenty-seven Democrats in the House voted against the Barney Frank bill that mostly mirrored the administration plan. Democrats and Republicans in the Senate Banking Committee revolted against the first bill offered by Chairman Chris Dodd. That bill adopted most of the administration’s flawed ideas.

Now Mr. Dodd is trying to negotiate a Plan B. But the longer he channels the White House, the longer it will take to get a bill that both Democrats and Republicans can support.

Mr. Wallison is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703787304575075410035602660.html

Viva Zapata

A Cuban dissident is murdered while Latin leaders schmooze with Castro.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón wore a broad smile as he warmly greeted Cuba’s Raúl Castro at the Rio Group summit on the posh Mexican Riviera last week. The two men, dressed in neatly pressed guayabera shirts, shook hands as Mr. Calderón, with no small measure of delight, gestured to his audience to welcome Mexico’s very special guest.

A mere 300 miles away, in a military prison hospital in Havana, political prisoner Orlando Zapata lay in a coma. For 84 days the 42-year-old stone mason of humble origins had been on a hunger strike to protest the Castro regime’s brutality toward prisoners of conscience. His death was imminent.

Zapata’s grim condition was no secret. During his strike, for 18 days, he had been denied water and placed in front of an air conditioner. His kidneys had failed and he had pneumonia. For months human-rights groups had been pleading for international attention to his case.

But over at the Playa del Carmen resort on the Yucatán, Mr. Calderón wasn’t about to let Zapata spoil his fiesta, or his chance to improve his image among the region’s undemocratic governments. The summit went on as planned with no mention of Havana’s human-rights hell. On Tuesday Zapata passed away.

Zapata’s death while Latin American leaders broke bread with Castro is a coincidence that captures the cowardice and expediency toward Cuban oppression that has defined the region for a half century. Now the Latin gang, with Cuba as a prominent member, has decided to form a new regional body to “replace” the Organization of American States. To make their intentions clear, they banned Honduras’s democratically elected President Porfirio Lobo from last week’s meeting.

The Mexican foreign ministry did not respond to several requests last week for a statement from Mr. Calderón on Zapata’s death. Its silence suggests that the only thing the Mexican president regrets is the unfortunate timing of the dissident’s demise.

Yet Zapata hasn’t gone quietly. His passing has once more elevated the truth about the lives of 11 million Cubans enslaved for the last 50 years under a totalitarian regime. And it has embarrassed the likes of Mr. Calderón. Newspapers across the globe, from Buenos Aires to Madrid, are denouncing the mind-boggling hypocrisy of those who feign concern for human rights while embracing Castro.

Like most Cuban dissidents, Zapata did not so much choose his role as martyr as it chose him. Born in the province of Holguin in the eastern part of the country, he moved through the Cuban education system as any ordinary citizen.

But the requisite Marxist indoctrination didn’t take. Like so many Cuban patriots before him, once his conscience had been awakened no measure of cruelty could stop him from speaking out.

Zapata became part of a wave of peaceful resistance that began to organize and grow bolder in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was detained three times in 2002. According to Miami’s Cuban Democratic Directorate, which tracks dissident activity, he was arrested for a fourth time on Dec. 6, 2002, “along with [the prominent pacifist and medical doctor] Oscar Elías Biscet.”

Dr. Biscet, a devout Catholic and disciple of Martin Luther King Jr.’s adherence to nonviolence, began opposing the regime when he learned of its policy of suffocating babies who survived abortions. Today he is considered one of the island’s most important human-rights defenders. His continuing imprisonment and torture are well documented. It is not known whether Mr. Calderón, who also describes himself as a Catholic, discussed Mr. Biscet’s plight with his guest Raúl.

Zapata was arrested again in March 2003 along with 74 others in what the resistance calls the “black spring.” This time he was held and in May 2004 he was sentenced to 25 years. But his commitment to his brethren never wavered. Indeed, it deepened.

In July 2005, at the Taco Taco prison, he took part in a nonviolent protest marking the 1994 massacre of 41 Cubans who had tried to flee the island on a tugboat and were drowned by state security. That got him another 15 years in the clink.

Zapata was judged guilty of “disobedience to authority” and was repeatedly tortured. But he died a free man, unbroken and unwilling to give up his soul to the regime, which is more than can be said for Mr. Calderón. Word is that Mr. Calderón noticed the offshore drilling contracts Castro has given to Brazil’s Petrobras and is cuddling up to the dictator in hopes that Mexico’s Pemex will be next.

As to Cuban freedom, the yearning lives on, and Zapata’s death is already serving as a source of renewed inspiration to the movement. The regime knows this, which is why state security put his hometown on lockdown the day of his funeral. Even as Cubans mourn their loss, it is certain that, treasuring his personal triumph over evil and his gift of bravery to the nation, they will not let his death be in vain.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704625004575089751014975986.html

Warning: Your reality is out of date

Introducing the mesofact

This artist rendering provided by the European South Observatory shows some of the 32 new planets astronomers found outside our solar system

When people think of knowledge, they generally think of two sorts of facts: facts that don’t change, like the height of Mount Everest or the capital of the United States, and facts that fluctuate constantly, like the temperature or the stock market close.

But in between there is a third kind: facts that change slowly. These are facts which we tend to view as fixed, but which shift over the course of a lifetime. For example: What is Earth’s population? I remember learning 6 billion, and some of you might even have learned 5 billion. Well, it turns out it’s about 6.8 billion.

Or, imagine you are considering relocating to another city. Not recognizing the slow change in the economic fortunes of various metropolitan areas, you immediately dismiss certain cities. For example, Pittsburgh, a city in the core of the historic Rust Belt of the United States, was for a long time considered to be something of a city to avoid. But recently, its economic fortunes have changed, swapping steel mills for technology, with its job growth ranked sixth in the entire United States.

These slow-changing facts are what I term “mesofacts.” Mesofacts are the facts that change neither too quickly nor too slowly, that lie in this difficult-to-comprehend middle, or meso-, scale. Often, we learn these in school when young and hold onto them, even after they change. For example, if, as a baby boomer, you learned high school chemistry in 1970, and then, as we all are apt to do, did not take care to brush up on your chemistry periodically, you would not realize that there are 12 new elements in the Periodic Table. Over a tenth of the elements have been discovered since you graduated high school! While this might not affect your daily life, it is astonishing and a bit humbling.

For these kinds of facts, the analogy of how to boil a frog is apt: Change the temperature quickly, and the frog jumps out of the pot. But slowly increase the temperature, and the frog doesn’t realize that things are getting warmer, until it’s been boiled. So, too, is it with humans and how we process information. We recognize rapid change, whether it’s as simple as a fast-moving object or living with the knowledge that humans have walked on the moon. But anything short of large-scale rapid change is often ignored. This is the reason we continue to write the wrong year during the first days of January.

Our schools are biased against mesofacts. The arc of our educational system is to be treated as little generalists when children, absorbing bits of knowledge about everything from biology to social studies to geology. But then, as we grow older, we are encouraged to specialize. This might have been useful in decades past, but in our increasingly fast-paced and interdisciplinary world, lacking an even approximate knowledge of our surroundings is unwise.

Updating your mesofacts can change how you think about the world. Do you know the percentage of people in the world who use mobile phones? In 1997, the answer was 4 percent. By 2007, it was nearly 50 percent. The fraction of people who are mobile phone users is the kind of fact you might read in a magazine and quote at a cocktail party. But years later the number you would be quoting would not just be inaccurate, it would be seriously wrong. The difference between a tiny fraction of the world and half the globe is startling, and completely changes our view on global interconnectivity.

Mesofacts can also be fun. Let’s focus for a moment on some mesofacts that can be of vital importance if you’re a child, or parent of a child: those about dinosaurs. Just a few decades ago, dinosaurs were thought to be cold-blooded, slow-witted lizards that walked with their legs splayed out beside them. Now, scientists think that many dinosaurs were warm-blooded and fast-moving creatures. And they even had feathers! Just a few weeks ago we learned about the color patterns of dinosaurs (stripes! with orange tufts!). These facts might not affect how you live your life, but then again, you’re probably not 6 years old. There is another mesofact that is unlikely to affect your daily routine, but might win you a bar bet: the number of planets known outside the solar system. After the first extrasolar planet around an ordinary star made headlines back in 1995, most people stopped paying attention. Well, the number of extrasolar planets is currently over 400. Know this, and the next round won’t be on you.

The fact that the world changes rapidly is exciting, but everyone knows about that. There is much change that is neither fast nor momentous, but no less breathtaking.

Samuel Arbesman is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School. He is a regular contributor to Ideas. He has started a new website devoted to mesofacts, which can be found at mesofacts.org.

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Full article and photo: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/02/28/warning_your_reality_is_out_of_date/

Uncommon Knowledge

What raises murder rates

A recent analysis of global homicide rates came up with some interesting conclusions. It turns out that the proportion of young males, population density, degree of urbanization, and income inequality are not significant predictors of the homicide rate. Instead, ethnic and linguistic diversity, education, and the quality of governing institutions were the most significant factors. Although it’s not surprising that ethnic strife and law enforcement matter for the homicide rate, there was a surprising effect found for education: An extra year of school for the average female increased the homicide rate almost as much as one less year of school for the average male.

Cole, J. & Marroquín Gramajo, A., “Homicide Rates in a Cross-Section of Countries: Evidence and Interpretations,” Population and Development Review (December 2009).

What executives’ voices give away

A good interrogator can often detect dishonesty by paying close attention to the way someone talks. A new analysis of corporate earnings conference calls suggests that Wall Street might benefit from these same skills. Using sophisticated voice analysis software, researchers found that the emotions of the executives who were grilled by stock analysts on these calls were predictive of future company performance. When executives were positive, positive future news releases and earnings surprises were more likely, and likewise for negative emotions and negative performance. Nevertheless, although these emotions did induce a market reaction, the analysts themselves generally incorporated positive but not negative emotions into forecasts, so stock prices didn’t completely anticipate the bad news.

Mayew, W. & Venkatachalam, M., “The Power of Voice: Managerial Affective States and Future Firm Performance,” Duke University (November 2009).

It’s cheaper to say you’re sorry

Don’t offer me money, just say you’re sorry. That’s the conclusion of a customer-service experiment with a company selling goods on eBay. Customers who gave the company neutral or negative evaluations – a rare and public signal of disapproval – were randomly offered either an apology, a small amount of money, or a larger amount of money to rescind their evaluation. Even though the apology was nothing more than a self-serving corporate message, customers were twice as likely to rescind their evaluation if offered the apology than if offered money.

Abeler, J. et al., “The Power of Apology,” Economics Letters (forthcoming).

”A” is for achievement

In case you haven’t noticed, subliminal influences are everywhere. In some of the latest experiments, researchers found that incidental exposure to letters associated with grades (like “A” or “F”) can enhance or undercut subsequent performance on tests. When “Test Bank ID: A” or “Subject ID: A” was written in the corner of their test pages, students performed significantly better on analogy and anagram tests compared to tests with “F” instead of “A” written in the corner. Although none of the students expected this effect, it seems to have worked by increasing motivation – students with “A” tests generated more achievement-oriented words on a word-completion test.

Ciani, K. & Sheldon, K., “A versus F: The Effects of Implicit Letter Priming on Cognitive Performance,” British Journal of Educational Psychology (March 2010).

Handsome is as handsome drives

Sure, we all know the stereotype about guys driving fancy cars to impress the ladies. But is there a real effect, and does it also apply to men who see women driving fancy cars? Psychologists in Britain showed people photographs of an average-looking man or woman, each seated in either a Bentley Continental or a Ford Fiesta. Consistent with the stereotype, women thought the man looked more attractive in the fancier car. However, a fancy car didn’t make the woman more attractive to the men.

Dunn, M. & Searle, R., “Effect of Manipulated Prestige-Car Ownership on Both Sex Attractiveness Ratings,” British Journal of Psychology (February 2010).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.

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Full article: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/02/28/what_raises_murder_rates/