Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for November 22nd, 2013

On fresh discoveries made in re-reading

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A “book”, in the sense of what the item conveys in total (i.e., both the physical object and the reader’s experience/understanding of the content) is notoriously unstable. Just as one cannot step in the same river twice, so one cannot read the same book twice—“book” being the result of the interaction between the reader and the physical object and its content.

A specific example: I read J.F. Powers’s Morte d’Urban shortly after graduating from college and it bowled me over. Like, say, Bernard Malamud’s A New Life, Morte d’Urban is a book that sticks to one’s intellectual ribs, providing enough to mull over from time to time for years. And when you re-read it a decade or so later, it’s as though it’s an entirely different book. Everything’s different: the theme, the characters, the comedy, the plot. It’s a strange sensation when you think you’ve remembered the book extremely well.

What’s going on, I believe, is that one’s life experience subsequent to the last reading has changed us. Those experiences shape the flow of our intellectual attention when we read the book: we now notice things that earlier we missed, or interpret actions and speeches quite differently from before. And sometimes, of course, we feel we misread it all.

Stringfellow Barr had a good anecdote about his reading Macbeth at an early age—5 or 6, a precocious child—and wearing a cape and strutting about pretending to be Macduff. And, he said, to read Macbeth and get the idea that Macduff is the principle character shows about as serious a misreading of the play as it’s possible to have. When he read it again a couple of years later, he thought, “You fool! You totally missed the entire point!” And, he said, every time he reads the play, he thinks the same thought about his previous reading.

This came to mind when I just now idly picked up a copy of the Iliad and thought about rereading it, and then thinking about why do we reread books, and I recalled how different they became. Madam Bovary is a good example for me. I read it in high school, probably because it was on some list of great novels, and totally didn’t get it. Why that? Then I read it in college (senior year?) and thought, okay, it is interesting when you think about it and talk about it seriously with a group who has also read it: you kind of unpack what’s in the book as a group effort.

But then when I read it again in my 40’s, I couldn’t put it down. I was gripped by the novel. So I would say that the “book” (meaning the experience of reading the book) had definitely changed, and since we remember the book by the experience we had, the book (for us) has changed.

Man, as I think about it, I can think of a lot of books that have changed like that. But it’s probably not possible to experience that sort of thing until you’re in your 40’s: you need an accumulation of life experience—the integral of all the new individual experiences over those years—in order to approach the book from a noticeably new perspective and get the full impact. Still, sequential readings even without any significant passage of time leads one to notice new things in a much-read book: as though the brain’s pattern-recognition engine belatedly makes out a pattern in the novel. I recall one of my tutors (Bill Darkey) saying that whenever he lead the seminar on Thucydides, he would underline striking passages that he’d not noticed before. He realized in around the 7th go-around that he had, over the previous readings, underlined every sentence in the entire book.

And we know those stories of someone reading the same book repeatedly—finish it and start again. Or the businessman acquaintance of Ford K. Brown who told him that he could only find time to read one book a year, so every year he read Don Quixote. (And that’s another famous changer of shape in rereadings.) And certainly there are those who treat series that way: straight through Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, and start again. Or Jane Austen. Or Dickens or Trollope and so on. Probably even Fleming.

Now I want to reread a long list of books. And I just happened on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I last read that in high school, and the Kindle edition is only $2…

Written by Leisureguy

22 November 2013 at 1:44 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

Interesting point: The GOP has a strong interest in making sure the state exchanges work

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Don Peck explains. Note particularly the third reason.

Written by Leisureguy

22 November 2013 at 11:58 am

Predictive analytics applied to you in your job

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Very interesting article in the Atlantic by Don Peck:

In 2003, thanks to Michael Lewis and his best seller Moneyball, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, became a star. The previous year, Beane had turned his back on his scouts and had instead entrusted player-acquisition decisions to mathematical models developed by a young, Harvard-trained statistical wizard on his staff. What happened next has become baseball lore. The A’s, a small-market team with a paltry budget, ripped off the longest winning streak in American League history and rolled up 103 wins for the season. Only the mighty Yankees, who had spent three times as much on player salaries, won as many games. The team’s success, in turn, launched a revolution. In the years that followed, team after team began to use detailed predictive models to assess players’ potential and monetary value, and the early adopters, by and large, gained a measurable competitive edge over their more hidebound peers.

That’s the story as most of us know it. But it is incomplete. What would seem at first glance to be nothing but a memorable tale about baseball may turn out to be the opening chapter of a much larger story about jobs. Predictive statistical analysis, harnessed to big data, appears poised to alter the way millions of people are hired and assessed.

Yes, unavoidably, big data. As a piece of business jargon, and even more so as an invocation of coming disruption, the term has quickly grown tiresome. But there is no denying the vast increase in the range and depth of information that’s routinely captured about how we behave, and the new kinds of analysis that this enables. By one estimate, more than 98 percent of the world’s information is now stored digitally, and the volume of that data has quadrupled since 2007. Ordinary people at work and at home generate much of this data, by sending e-mails, browsing the Internet, using social media, working on crowd-sourced projects, and more—and in doing so they have unwittingly helped launch a grand new societal project. “We are in the midst of a great infrastructure project that in some ways rivals those of the past, from Roman aqueducts to the Enlightenment’s Encyclopédie,” write Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier in their recent book, Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think. “The project is datafication. Like those other infrastructural advances, it will bring about fundamental changes to society.”

Some of the changes are well known, and already upon us. Algorithms that predict stock-price movements have transformed Wall Street. Algorithms that chomp through our Web histories have transformed marketing. Until quite recently, however, few people seemed to believe this data-driven approach might apply broadly to the labor market.

But it now does. According to John Hausknecht, a professor at Cornell’s school of industrial and labor relations, in recent years the economy has witnessed a “huge surge in demand for workforce-analytics roles.” Hausknecht’s own program is rapidly revising its curriculum to keep pace. You can now find dedicated analytics teams in the human-resources departments of not only huge corporations such as Google, HP, Intel, General Motors, and Procter & Gamble, to name just a few, but also companies like McKee Foods, the Tennessee-based maker of Little Debbie snack cakes. Even Billy Beane is getting into the game. Last year he appeared at a large conference for corporate HR executives in Austin, Texas, where he reportedly stole the show with a talk titled “The Moneyball Approach to Talent Management.” Ever since, that headline, with minor modifications, has been plastered all over the HR trade press.

The application of predictive analytics to people’s careers—an emerging field sometimes called “people analytics”—is enormously challenging, not to mention ethically fraught. And it can’t help but feel a little creepy. It requires the creation of a vastly larger box score of human performance than one would ever encounter in the sports pages, or that has ever been dreamed up before. To some degree, the endeavor touches on the deepest of human mysteries: how we grow, whether we flourish, what we become. Most companies are just beginning to explore the possibilities. But make no mistake: during the next five to 10 years, new models will be created, and new experiments run, on a very large scale. Will this be a good development or a bad one—for the economy, for the shapes of our careers, for our spirit and self-worth? Earlier this year, I decided to find out.

Ever since we’ve had companies, we’ve had managers trying to figure out which people are best suited to working for them. The techniques have varied considerably. Near the turn of the 20th century, one manufacturer in Philadelphia made hiring decisions by having its foremen stand in front of the factory and toss apples into the surrounding scrum of job-seekers. Those quick enough to catch the apples and strong enough to keep them were put to work.

In those same times, a different (and less bloody) Darwinian process governed the selection of executives. Whole industries were being consolidated by rising giants like U.S. Steel, DuPont, and GM. Weak competitors were simply steamrolled, but the stronger ones were bought up, and their founders typically were offered high-level jobs within the behemoth. The approach worked pretty well. As Peter Cappelli, a professor at the Wharton School, has written, “Nothing in the science of prediction and selection beats observing actual performance in an equivalent role.”

By the end of World War II, however, American corporations were facing severe talent shortages. Their senior executives were growing old, and a dearth of hiring from the Depression through the war had resulted in a shortfall of able, well-trained managers. Finding people who had the potential to rise quickly through the ranks became an overriding preoccupation of American businesses. They began to devise a formal hiring-and-management system based in part on new studies of human behavior, and in part on military techniques developed during both world wars, when huge mobilization efforts and mass casualties created the need to get the right people into the right roles as efficiently as possible. By the 1950s, it was not unusual for companies to spend days with young applicants for professional jobs, conducting a battery of tests, all with an eye toward corner-office potential. “P&G picks its executive crop right out of college,” BusinessWeek noted in 1950, in the unmistakable patter of an age besotted with technocratic possibility. IQ tests, math tests, vocabulary tests, professional-aptitude tests, vocational-interest questionnaires, Rorschach tests, a host of other personality assessments, and even medical exams (who, after all, would want to hire a man who might die before the company’s investment in him was fully realized?)—all were used regularly by large companies in their quest to make the right hire.

The process didn’t end when somebody started work, either. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

22 November 2013 at 11:56 am

The American Police State

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Based on news accounts it seems that American police are becoming more and more aggressive and the attempts to combat unprovoked violence through court cases is not working well. Marc Parry writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education about a new book by a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin Madison, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City:

On a winter afternoon in 2004, a woman waits in the detective unit of a Philadelphia police station. Two officers, outfitted with combat boots and large guns, enter the room. The cops place their guns on the table, pointed at her.

The woman is 22, tiny, and terrified.

The officers show her a series of photos of men from around her neighborhood. Two of the men are her roommates, Mike and Chuck, low-level drug dealers who keep crack and guns in the shared apartment. Some of the photos were taken in front of her home.

Spewing obscenities about the woman’s supposed appetite for casual sex, the cops press for information about her roommates and threaten criminal charges if she fails to cooperate.

“If you can’t work with us,” one cop says, “then who will you call when he’s sticking a gun to your head? … He’ll kill you over a couple of grams. You know that, right?”

Such scenes are nothing unusual in the lower-income black neighborhood where this woman spends most of her time. Girlfriends and relatives routinely face police pressure to inform on the men in their lives.

Unknown to the cops, though, there is one difference this time. The woman under interrogation, Alice Goffman, has been watching them.

Nearly a decade later, Goffman is emerging as a rising star of sociology. The 2004 interrogation shows why. After spending her 20s immersed in fieldwork with wanted young men—a project she began as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania—Goffman has brought back the story of a “profound change” in the way America governs urban ghettos.

In a book coming out this spring, Goffman, now a 31-year-old assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, documents how the expansion of America’s penal system is reshaping life for the poor black families who exist under the watch of its police, prison guards, and parole officers.

Starting in the mid-1970s, the United States stiffened its laws on drugs and violent crime and ratcheted up the police presence on city streets. The number of people in American jails and prisons has risen fivefold over the past 40 years. There are now roughly six million people under criminal-justice supervision. “In modern history,” Goffman writes, “only the forced labor camps of the former U.S.S.R. under Stalin approached these levels of penal confinement.”

Goffman’s book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City(University of Chicago Press), is an up-close account of that prison boom told largely through the story of a group of young friends in Philadelphia’s 6th Street neighborhood. (The location and names in the book are pseudonyms.) The study describes how fear of confinement has transformed work, health, and family life, causing men to disengage from the very mainstream institutions that might put them on a better path.

The threat of incarceration has created “a new social fabric,” Goffman writes, “one woven in suspicion, distrust, and the paranoiac practices of secrecy, evasion, and unpredictability.” It has turned ghettos into “communities of suspects and fugitives.”

Over six years of fieldwork, Goffman shed much of her old life to view the world through her subjects’ eyes. With them, she dodged police, partied, and discussed shootings. She watched a nurse’s aide pull a bullet out of one boy in an off-the-books, kitchen-table surgery; accompanied various people who arranged for drugs to be smuggled into jail; and attended nine funerals of young men killed in the neighborhood. This drama came to a boil the year Philadelphia police officers brought her in for the interrogation.

But after braving violence and intimidation to get this story, Goffman now faces a different challenge. How can she keep the focus on black poverty, and not her own biography?

To her frustration, when she discusses her research publicly, many people want to hear about the details of her own unusual story. Instead of mass incarceration, they ask questions about what she dismisses as “the story of a blond young woman living in the ‘hood.” Questions like:Did they ever hit on you—the guys that you were writing about?

 “This is a community worried that at any moment its members will be taken away,” Goffman says. “So, to me, that’s the story. It’s part of the racial politics of this country, right? It’s way more interesting to people to hear about the experience of a white woman. I’m completely irrelevant to the story that I’m trying to tell.”

Goffman’s bid to remain irrelevant is hampered by another personal detail. Her father, the late Erving Goffman, was one of the defining sociologists of the 20th century. . .

Continue reading.

The aggressiveness of domestic police is a very bad sign. Obviously, not all police are like those above, or those we often see in action in our larger cities and in high-profile small-town cases. But the trend is clear and ominous.

From later in the story:

Because only during the past 10 or 15 years has the country seen the emergence of extraordinary incarceration rates among young, poorly educated black men, answers Bruce Western, a professor of sociology at Harvard who is vice chair of a National Research Council panel investigating the causes and consequences of high incarceration rates. About 35 percent of black male high-school dropouts under age 40 are now behind bars, he says, compared with an incarceration rate of 0.7 percent for the population as a whole. “What this means for day-to-day life has never really been shown in such detail before,” he says.

And:

“What her research shows is that these institutions may be self-defeating and may carry very significant social costs,” Western says. “And so the whole effort to improve public safety through criminal-justice supervision and through incarceration may have significantly backfired, and may in many ways have contributed to the ongoing poverty and shortage of opportunities that we see there. That’s a fairly new story.”

Written by Leisureguy

22 November 2013 at 9:12 am

Posted in Daily life, Government, Law

Great shave with the Sodial

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SOTD 22 Nov 2013

A really fine shave today. Lather comments later, but as you see I brought out a Whipped Dog 22mm silvertip, this one with an octagonal resin handle.

The Sodial really is quite a good razor for me: very comfortable during the shave, no inclination to nick, and can readily product a BBS result with the right brand of blade—for me, this morning, it was a Kai blade. I think the thin head helps in maneuverability and access. Truly, this would work as an “only razor.” Do not underestimate it just because it costs $2 shipped.

A good splash of Spanish Leather, and the weekend appears on the horizon.

Written by Leisureguy

22 November 2013 at 7:54 am

Posted in Shaving

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