Mike Kueber's Blog

May 15, 2015

My kidney

Filed under: Biography,Medical,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 5:50 pm
Tags: , ,

A couple of weeks ago, NY Times columnist David Brooks proposed that his readers write their personal eulogy and submit it to him for a project he is working. He thinks that the process of writing a eulogy may cause participants to recognize what is meaningful to their lives and to shift away from things that are unimportant.  It might also prompt participants to get after things they have been putting off.

As I started writing my eulogy, I was immediately prompted by something I had been putting off for months – namely, donating a kidney.

I’ve heard of thousands of people dying each year or living a debilitating life because they couldn’t receive a kidney transplant.  Then last year, I read an article in the Express-News about a donor who started a chain of transplants by agreeing to give her kidney to a stranger, who in-turn had a relative who would donate a kidney to another stranger.  The first donor, called the altruistic donor, triggered a chain of 17 relative-friend donations.

That sounded amazing.  Why shouldn’t I become an altruistic donor by donating my kidney, especially since medical advances made the donation relatively safe and pain free?

I’ve casually mentioned this possibility to friends and family, and my M.D. son later informed me that he did some research that indicated my life expectancy would not be shortened because of the donation.

That was comforting, but due to my dawdling retirement lifestyle, I didn’t make a lot of progress toward getting this done, other than a few phone calls, until I started working on my eulogy.  My eulogy made me realize that a kidney transplant would be one of those meaningful things that I wanted to include in my eulogy.

So I went back to work on this project and made contact with a local hospital in town that specializes in transplants.  The process is underway.

In an amazing coincidence, two days after getting in contact with the hospital, I started reading a new book called The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer.  In the book, which describes becoming an effective altruist, donating a kidney is listed as the gold standard of altruists.

My patron saint, Ayn Rand, is probably turning over in her grave.


September 13, 2012

Why men fail?

Filed under: Culture — Mike Kueber @ 5:12 pm
Tags: ,

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about a book called The Richer Sex.  The book explains why women will become the dominant breadwinner in most families and then describes how families will be affected by having a female as the dominant breadwinner.  A few days later, The New York Times Magazine published an extensive 8-page article titled “Who Wears the Pants in this Family?” that adapts a book titled The End of Men: And the Rise of Women by Hanna Rosin.  I commented in my blog that brilliant minds apparently think alike because Mundy’s book and Rosin’s article are strikingly similar. 

Today, we achieved a trifecta on man-bashing when my favorite NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote a column titled “Why Men Fail.”   In his column, Brooks goes over the same information provided in the Mundy and Rosin books and comes to the same conclusion – i.e., women are thriving in a world that puts a premium on brawn over brain and men are floundering.  Previously, Brooks has propounded the following theory for why this is happening:

  • Over the years, many of us have embraced a certain theory to explain men’s economic decline. It is that the information-age economy rewards traits that, for neurological and cultural reasons, women are more likely to possess.  To succeed today, you have to be able to sit still and focus attention in school at an early age. You have to be emotionally sensitive and aware of context. You have to communicate smoothly. For genetic and cultural reasons, many men stink at these tasks.”

In today’s column, however, Brooks examines Rosin’s book and expresses fascination for the book’s thesis that women are doing well because they are operating with more of a blank slate in these turbulent times, whereas men are doing badly because they nostalgically cling to a lifestyle in an environment that no longer exists.

All of this reminds me of the introduction to one of my all-time favorite movies, Gone with the Wind

  • There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind.

In Gone with the Wind, Ashley Wilkes remained mentally in antebellum times, while Scarlett O’Hara engaged in the rebuilding of Atlanta.  That situation may repeat itself for a time, but eventually men will adjust their attitude and get back in the game.

November 15, 2011

The Bystander Effect

Filed under: Culture,Sports — Mike Kueber @ 6:19 pm
Tags: , ,

Last Sunday, I listened to NY Times columnist David Brooks engage in a Face the Nation panel discussion of the Penn State scandal.  Unlike the confidence emanating from virtually every other panelist on every other talk show regarding what they would have done if they had been grad assistant McQueary (their reaction ranged from physically rescuing the kid to physically assaulting Sandusky), Brooks warned that he wasn’t so confident.  According to Brooks, there was a broadly-accepted behavioral concept called the bystander effect that often prevented moral, decent individuals from intervening in troubling situations, especially when there was no generally-accepted script for how to react in that situation.  Brooks suggested that, based on this behavioral science, we should not be so quick to judge grad assistant McQueary, who stumbled across something beyond his imagination involving a person (Sandusky) who was an icon in his life.

As is often the case, insightful comments from Sunday panelists are often fleshed out in subsequent columns, and Brooks’ insights were fleshed out in his NY Times column today, aptly titled, “Let’s all feel superior.”  In his column, Brooks elaborates on the bystander effect and talks about Normalcy Bias and Motivated Blindness, but his essential point is that humans have a weakness for not acting and that we should recognize that weakness instead of looking for some anomaly, like the football culture, to blame.  He closed his powerful column as follows:

  • In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness.  These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.”
  • “But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.”
  • “Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: ‘How could they have let this happen?’  The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.”

After hearing Brooks’ comments on Sunday, I did some research on the internet to learn some more about the Bystander Effect and the salutary effects of scripts.  Although there are reams of information on the Bystander Effect, a/k/a Genovese Syndrome, there is virtually nothing about the role of scripts to ameliorate the effect.  Ironically, the only discussion of a script came
from a cognitive scientist (applied psychologist) from Penn State, Edward G. Glantz.  Shortly after the Sandusky case was reported, this scientist blogged about it in the context of the Bystander Effect.

  • “Ethical problems are certainly not easy.  To improve response, it behooves the decision maker to work from a specific ‘perspective.’  Thus, reflecting on ethical problems in advance may provide a framework for more appropriate decisions.”
  • “Similarly, ‘Naturalistic Decision Making’ (NDM) is the cognitive study of people making complex decisions in situations typically marked by high stakes (e.g., death) and time constraints.”
  • “What if you witness a victim-would you get involved?  In 2011, bystanders lifted a burning car to rescue an injured motorcyclist.  I would like to think all of us would put ourselves in harm’s way to do the same, but I am not so sure.  For example, at least twelve people observed the1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, yet did nothing.  Here I would like to think all of us would react differently, but again, I am not sure.”
  • Lack of witness action is called the ‘Bystander Effect,’ or ‘Genovese Syndrome.’  Unfortunately, there is no shortage of examples including, for example, claims that a graduate assistant witnessed the rape of a child and then took no immediate action, nor notified authorities.  I would hope that others in a similar situation would intervene, as they
    have claimed, but again am not so sure.  The encountered scene was indeed horrific and most likely absent a scripted response.”

The Penn State scientist suggested two steps that should be scripted:

  1. Take a Stand.  A child cannot consent to a sexual act.  Thus, any sexual act involving a youth has to be considered an assault.  Problematic here, perhaps, was alleged eye contact between victim and witness.  Plain and simple, assume action is required – do not expect or require a plea.  [The Penn State grand jury report does not address this issue, and I look forward to learning more details regarding how Sandusky and the 10-year-old child reacted after seeing McQueary.]
  2. Anticipate Your Action.  Plan ahead so your action is quick and without anguish.  In any case that may involve a victim, set as a minimum the anonymous 911 call.

This two-part script is a good starting point.  Although Brooks mentioned scripting during the Sunday talk show, I think he shortchanged the subject in his column, so I am going to suggest to him that, because he loves the topic of behavioral science, he should do some more research on the type of scripting that would help us deal quickly and effectively with the Sanduskys of the world.

October 31, 2011

My Christmas present to David Brooks

Filed under: Uncategorized — Mike Kueber @ 7:40 pm
Tags: , ,

In a recent column, David Brooks said what he wanted from his readers for Christmas:

  • “If you are over 70, I’d like to ask for a gift. I’d like you to write a brief report on your life so far, an evaluation of what you did well, of what you did not so well and what you learned along the way. You can write this as a brief essay or divide your life into categories — career, family, faith, community, and self-knowledge — and give yourself a grade in each area.”

Brooks went on to say that in November he would write a few columns about the so-called “Life Reports,” and he would post many more online.  He was hopeful that the Reports would benefit not only old people, who rarely have such a formal opportunity for self-appraisal, but also those young people who are interested in thinking about “how a life develops, how careers and families evolve, what are the common mistakes and the common blessings of modern adulthood.”

In elaborating on the concept of Life Reports, Brooks mentioned that he had recently stumbled across some short autobiographies written by some oldsters for their 50-year college reunion.  The following is one of his observations about the autobiographies:

  • The most common lament in this collection is from people who worked at the same company all their lives and now realize how boring they must seem. These people passively let their lives happen to them. One man described his long, uneventful career at an insurance company and concluded, ‘Wish my self-profile was more exciting, but it’s a little late now.’”

Because of my career in insurance, including the last 22 years at the same company, that observation stuck me like a 2×4 across the forehead.  Even though I am too young for the demographic that Brooks is interested in, I am going to do a Life Report for me.

What did I do well?

My number-one objective in life has been to father a large family of good kids.  So far, so good.  Although the kids are still maturing (the oldest is 29, but the youngest is only 18), they show every sign of being exceptionally good kids.  Using my modified Golden Rule, suffice it to say that if all of the kids in the world were like my kids, this would be one helluva great world.  Grade A.

I am pleased with my career of work.  Because I was raised with a farmer’s work ethic, I have always shown up for work and then worked hard to do a good job.  Although I was blessed with energy and thinking skills that could have taken me higher up the ladder of success, I never saw anything higher up the ladder that would have been worth the sacrifice.  Perhaps I am still affected by the mindset of the 60s regarding too much ambition, ego, and materialism.  Grade A-.

I have always placed a high value on my relationships with friends, and that is consistent with one of my ex’s favorite sayings – the grass is greener where you water it.  Because I valued my relationships, I devoted time and energy to maintaining them.  In fact, I used to resent friends who shared their time with me only if they didn’t have anything to do with their family.  While family should have the highest priority, it shouldn’t be your exclusive priority.  Grade A.

What did I do not so well?

I didn’t do well at marriage.  I was brought up to think that a marriage was forever, but mine lasted only 26 years.  Grade C-.

I also didn’t do well with my community.  They say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but that couldn’t be more untrue if applied to my dad and me.  Dad lived for his community and was involved in everything.  By contrast, I had my family, my job, and my friends, in that order.  My dad and his four brothers served in the military.  By contrast, I was in Army ROTC in college during Vietnam, but then obtained a conscientious-objector discharge.  A few years later, I applied for the Peace Corps, but was rejected for medical reasons.  After changing my conscientious-objector views during law school, I tried to enlist in the National Guard, but was too old.  And finally, last year I ran for the U.S. Congress and lost in the Republican Primary.  Using my modified Golden Rule, my community and my country would be piss-poor if everyone acted like me.  Grade D.

What did I learn along the way?

You must be comfortable in your own skin.  I don’t know who coined that expression, and it certainly might be easier said than done, but there is no quicker, more instructive shorthand for how to live a good life.  Unfortunately, many Americans are afflicted with too much ego and insecurity.

Raising good kids is easier than having a good marriage.  As a recent convert to evolutionary biology, I might conjecture that raising good kids comes naturally, especially if you are comfortable in your own skins; having a good marriage takes hard work and discipline.

After years of drifting between atheism and agnosticism, I have recently settled into Deism.  Having been brought up by Christians (my dad was a devout Catholic), I have always felt guilty for not believing in Christianity.  My friend Mike Callen gave me some comfort by saying that I was more spiritual than most Christians that he knew, and further reflection in recent years has caused me to buy into the Deism of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin.  So I am in good company.

For many years, I believed that my relationships with friends were highly important to me, but I have begun to question that.  Since I have retired, I have not maintained many personal relationships and instead have drifted toward a life of personal life of reading and writing.  Yet I feel content.  Perhaps this is merely a phase, and the next couple of years will reveal whether I miss those personal relationships.

Having a good attitude is critical to enjoying life, and I have discovered a zillion techniques for maintaining good attitude – such as being tolerant of (disagreeable) people who disagree with you, and being nonjudgmental about people who have a different perspective than you.

Merry Christmas, David

October 18, 2011

Return to fundamentals

Filed under: Culture — Mike Kueber @ 12:31 pm
Tags: ,

In the past few days, my blog has occasionally touched on the need for America and Americans to return to the fundamental values that have historically provided us with direction.  In recent years, we have drifted away from those values, and now we are hesistant to return to them because doing so may cause short-term economic damages.  With that in mind, I titled one of my blog postings, “America Needs to Take Its Medicine.”

Based on today’s column by David Brooks of the NY Times, I can infer that my blog has been on the right path.  In Brooks’ column, which is titled “The Great Restortion,” he says many of the things that I tried to say:

  • While the cameras surround the flamboyant fringes, the rest of the country is on a different mission. Quietly and untelegenically, Americans are trying to repair their economic values.  This project begins with the pessimism and anger you see in the protest movements. Seventy percent of Americans now say their country is in decline, according to various polls….  But that doesn’t mean people are just shrinking back. Quietly but decisively, Americans are trying to restore the moral norms that undergird our economic system.  The first norm is that you shouldn’t spend more than you take in. After an explosion of debt over the past few decades, Americans are now reacting strongly against the debt culture.”
  • This values restoration is reshaping the way Americans see the world around them. Many economists say the cutback in consumption will hurt the economy in the short run. But, according to the Heartland Monitor poll, 61 percent of Americans said the decline in consumption would ‘help the economy as it would create more savings that could be invested to create or expand business.’  Some economists say the government should be spending more now to stimulate a recovery. Thirty-eight percent of Americans seem to agree with that. But 56 percent have said ‘government spending when the government is already running a deficit is the wrong approach during an economic downturn because it is only a temporary solution that increases long-term debt.’  These majorities are focused on the fundamentals. They say that repairing the economic moral fabric is the essential national task right now. They are suspicious of government action in general, saying that government often undermines this fabric. But they support specific federal policies that nurture industriousness, responsibility and delayed gratification, like spending on infrastructure, education and research. They distinguish between the deserving and undeserving rich.  America went through a similar values restoration in the 1820s. Then, too, people sensed that the country had grown soft and decadent. Then, too, Americans rebalanced. They did it quietly and in private.”

Like Brooks, I am optimistic that Americans will return to fundamental values thatprefer long-term progress over short-term satisfaction.

August 7, 2011

Sunday Book Review #41 – Manning Up by Kay S. Hymowitz

No, this is not a football book about one of the three Manning quarterbacks – Archie, Peyton, or Eli.

And yes, once again, the subtitle provides an excellent description of the book.  Manning Up is subtitled, “How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys.”  In a nutshell, Hymowitz believes that modern society has created a new stage of life between adolescence and adulthood and that women are thriving in it while men are floundering.

David Brooks wrote about two new phases of life in his book, The Social Animal.  Brooks said, “There used to be four life phases – childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age.  Now there are at least six – childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement, and old age.”  Instead of using the term odyssey, Hymowitz uses a more prosaic term – preadulthood – by which she means someone without a stable identity, someone both undefined and unformed. In the past, an individual would quickly transition from adolescence to adulthood, primarily by starting a career and finding a spouse, whereas today an individual is more likely to go many years before deciding on a career or a spouse.

Hymowitz asserts that women and men are handling preadulthood in dramatically different ways:

  • Among preadults, women are the first sex.  Women graduate from college in greater numbers than men, with higher grade point averages; more extracurricular experience….  They are aggressively independent….  These strengths carry them through much of their twenties, when they are more likely to be in grad school and making strides in the workplace, to be buying apartments and otherwise in aspiring mode….  By contrast, men can come across as aging frat boys, maladroit geeks, or unwashed slackers.”

Although these are obviously generalizations, Hymowitz backs them up with a plethora of statistics mixed with anecdotes and caricatures taken from books, movies, and TV.  In fact, the book is larded with so many anecdotes and caricatures that I started skimming past most of them.  Her conclusion is that there is a “new girl order” in the world.

Hymowitz concedes that pre-adult women are flourishing in the modern world, not only because of feminism (including Title IX) and the pill (which enabled pregnancy to be deferred), but more importantly because the knowledge economy requires skills that women are more likely to possess (people skills and emotional intelligence) and men lack.  By contrast, men have physical skills that are more appropriate to the industrial age.

Instead of evolving in a favorable way to the changing economy, many men have become what Hymowitz calls a child-man, or the opposite of her alpha girl:

  • If she is ambitious, he is a slacker.  If she is hyper-organized and self-directed, he tends toward passivity and vagueness.  If she is preternaturally mature, he is happily not.  Their opposition is stylish as well: she drinks sophisticated cocktails in mirrored bars, he burps up beer on ratty sofas.”

Again, Hymowitz uses statistics and a surfeit of anecdotes to support her generalizations.

In the end, Hymowitz is not optimistic because, in her opinion, alpha women are concluding that men are expendable.  In fact, the number of women deciding to go it alone (with sperm donors) – so-called “choice mothers” – is exploding.  Her concern is that, although women can go it alone, all research indicates that kids benefit from having both a mom and a dad.

I agree with a lot of what Hymowitz says.  She talks about the celebration of “girl power” in the 1990s – “Cultural institutions and marketers joined to celebrate girl power, even the government became a ‘you-go-girl’ cheering section.”  From a personal perspective, I remember getting out of law school in 1979 and wanting to apply for a job with the IRS and being told that they only considered applicants in the top 25% of their class or females/minorities.

America has spent so many years rooting for women vis-à-vis men that we shouldn’t be surprised that men get discouraged.  But assuming that neither sex has any significant inherent mental advantage, I expect that men will eventually get back in the game.


July 19, 2011

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat

Earlier today, NT Times columnist David Brooks lamented the fact that Republicans had apparently squandered a remarkable opportunity during the debt-ceiling negotiations to make great progress toward fiscal sanity.  He opined that the cause of this disappointment was the Republican’s slavish adherence to their “no new taxes” mantra.  Brooks’ column was titled “The Road Not Taken,” but an equally apt title would have been “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”

Developments later in the day suggest that Brooks may have given up too soon.  The Gang of Six (Senator
Coburn is back in) has resurfaced, and their revised proposal was warmly received by a large, bi-partisan group of Senators and President Obama.

While the House Republicans are debating their “cut, cap, and balance” proposal on a purely partisan basis, the Senate is responsibly developing something big (Gang of Six) and something small (McConnell’s “failsafe” option).  Thank God for the Senate, and let’s hope they can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

July 12, 2011

The debt-ceiling deadlock

Filed under: Economics,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 5:08 pm
Tags: , , , ,

According to news reports, President Obama is attempting to resolve the debt-ceiling crisis by finding a middle ground between extreme Republicans (those who will not support any tax increase) and extreme Democrats (those who will not support any reduction in entitlements).  As numerous commentators have previously suggested, this is a standard Obama deception because, although there are serious Republicans who will not support any tax increase, there are no serious Democrats who think entitlements can avoid cuts.

Serious conservatives are torn.  On one hand, David Brooks of the NY Times has argued that a compromise is called for because modest tax increases are supported by 80% of America.    On the other hand, Ross Douthat of the NY Times has pointed out that now is the time for conservatives to secure big cuts in spending because (a) President Obama actually wants the cuts, and (b) tax increases are almost inevitable in the next few years as the Bush tax cuts expire.

As is my wont, I agree with Brooks and Douthat.  Conservatives should agree to a compromise
after driving a really hard bargain.  Removing tax loopholes should be on the table, but not tax increases on our successful people.   Ultimately, however, President Obama actually holds the strongest hand because responsible conservatives will not let American default on its debt.

July 5, 2011

Sunday Book Review #36 – The Social Animal by David Brooks

Filed under: Book reviews,Culture,Education — Mike Kueber @ 11:57 pm
Tags: , , ,

David Brooks, the author of The Social Animal, is widely known as the conservative columnist at the Times, but I don’t know any conservatives who accept Brooks as one of their own.  Most consider him to be, at best, a moderate Republican, a/k/a a quintessential RINO.

Brooks is one of my favorite columnists because he is not a political ideologue, but rather has a practical interest in the social sciences.  Because he is not tethered to a specific ideology, he is able to develop solutions that incorporate ideas from a variety of sources.

Because I hold Brooks in such high esteem, I was disappointed with The Social Animal.  In the Introduction, Brooks suggested that he would explain how people acquire noncognitive skills – “the catchall category for hidden qualities that can’t be easily counted or measured, but which in real life lead to happiness and fulfillment … good character and street smarts.”

You can imagine how that statement set my heart aflutter.  I have blogged previously about successful parenting, and can’t think of anything more worthwhile that teaching kids to have good character and street smarts, which Brooks described as follows:

  • Good character.  They are energetic, honest, and dependable; persistent after setbacks and acknowledge their mistakes; possess enough confidence to take risks and have enough integrity to live up to their commitments.  Recognize their weaknesses, atone for their sins, and control their worst impulses.
  • Street smarts.  They know how to read people, situations, and ideas.

Brooks went on to note that, historically, books about success focus on the surface level – wealth, prestige, worldly accomplishments.  He promised that The Social Animal would be a study of success on a deeper level – i.e., human  flourishing and how character is formed and street smarts grow.  The problem with The Social Animal is that it didn’t deliver on the promise – at least it didn’t to me.

Brooks attempts to educate his readers by creating two fictional characters – Harold and Erica – and describing events in their  lives that resulted in flourishing lives.  Brooks admits that he borrowed this concept from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his 1760 book called Emile.

I haven’t read Emile, but I suspect it doesn’t include nearly as much psychological side-bar commentary as does The Social Animal.  In fact, The Social Animal contains probably less than 30% narrative about Harold and Erica and more than 70% information gleaned from various psychological or sociological studies.  Such as:

  • The mind can take in 11 million pieces of information at any given moment, but is consciously aware of no more than  40.  “Some researchers have gone so far as to suggest that the unconscious mind does virtually all the work and that  conscious will may be an illusion.  The conscious mind merely confabulates stories that try to make sense of what the  unconscious mind is doing on its own accord.”  That’s too extreme.  A better view – “To paraphrase Daniel Patrick Moynihan from another context, the central evolutionary truth is that the unconscious matters most.  The central humanistic truth is that the conscious mind can influence the unconscious.”
  • “Modern society has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of hard skills, while failing to develop the moral and emotional faculties down below.
  • Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops.  Yet by far the most important decisions they will make are about whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise, and how to control impulses.  On these matters, they are almost entirely on their own.”
  • Research study: an attractive woman goes up to college men and asks them to sleep with her – 75% say yes.  An attractive man goes up to college women and ask them to sleep with him – zero say yes.  Answer – women are more careful who they sleep with because they are looking for long-term support.
  • “As the novelist Frank Portman has observed, the troika is the natural unit of high-school female friendship.  Girl 1 is the hot one; Girl 2 is her side-kick; and Girl 3 is the less attractive on who is the object of the other two’s loving condescension.”
  • “Human decision making has three basic steps.  First, we perceive a situation.  Second, we use the power of reason to calculate whether taking this or that action is in our long-term interest.  Third, we use the power of will to execute on our decision.” Character building in the 19th century focused on Step 3; 20th century focused on Step 2.  Brooks says that Steps 2 and 3 are both important, but actually Step 1 is more important.
  • “Raw intelligence is useful in helping you solve well-defined problems.  Mental character help you figure out what kind of problem you have in front of you and what sort of rules you should use to address them.”
  • “There used to be four life phases – childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age.  Now there are at least six – childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement, and old age.”
  • 95% of American men believe they are in the top 50% when it comes to social skills.  Women are more likely to be status deflaters.
  • “When people do select their party affiliation, they do not choose parties by comparing platforms and then figuring out where the nation’s interests lie…. Party attachment is more like attachment to a religious denomination or a social club.  People have stereotypes in their heads about what Democrats are like and what Republicans are like, and they gravitate toward the party made up of people like themselves.  Once they have formed an affiliation, people bend their philosophies and their perceptions of reality so they become more and more aligned with the members of their political tribe….  Party affiliation even shapes people’s perceptions of reality.”
  • The easiest way to measure IQ is vocabulary.
  • A fetus grows 250,000 brains cells every minute and has 20 billion by birth.
  • A fetus will withdraw from pain at five months.
  • A six-month old baby can spot different features in a monkey even though adults can’t.
  • A child born into a family making $90k has a 50% chance of graduating from college by age 24; if the family makes
    $70k, the chances drop to 25%; $45k-10%; and $30k-6%.
  • “Gender roles begin to merge as people age.  Many women get more assertive while many men get more emotionally attuned.”

Even when Brooks was providing some narrative, it was obviously thinly veiled results from studies, such as:  “Between the ages of 4 and 10, Harold would interject some snippet of TV dialogue or a commercial jingle, and it was always exactly appropriate to the conversation.  He’d use difficult words appropriately, though if you asked him later what the word meant, he couldn’t consciously define it.”

In a nutshell, Harold was an upper middle-class, WASPish kid who had a lot of inherent advantages, and Erica was a lower middle-class ethnic (Chinese/Mexican) girl.  Harold’s life-defining event was a high-school teacher who taught him her method for thinking deeply, and Erica’s event was getting into a charter school.  Eventually they meet, fall in love, marry, and live happily ever after, with Brooks continually creating life events than enable him to tell the reader about some study that Brooks finds interesting.

The problem is that I never was able to discern what their lives had to do with character and street smarts.  Although Brooks immodestly says that, “This is the happiest story you’ll ever read,” I don’t think that Harold and Erica led the kind of life that I would be happy with.  Significantly, they never had kids, and they did not appear to have any heartfelt relationships with other human beings.  They were professionally successful and intellectually stimulated, but they didn’t humanly flourish.

Late in his life, Harold was writing about public policy and concluded that “personal development and social mobility were at the heart of his vision of a great society…. But he did, like most Americans, believe in progress.  Thus, while he had an instinctive aversion to change that alters the fundamental character of society, he had an affection for reform that repairs it.”  That sounds like me, but it also sounds like David Brooks.  In a cute, thinly veiled admission, Brooks said, “[Harold] spent those years writing his essays, peppering the world with his policy proposals.  Not many people seemed to agree with him.  There was a New York Times columnist who views were remarkably similar to his own, and a few others.  Still, he plugged away, feeling that he was mostly right about things and that someday other would reach the conclusions he had reached.”

In the end, Brooks seems to have forgotten some wisdom he earlier cited, “As Roy Baumeister summarizes the evidence, ‘Whether someone has a network of good relationships or is alone in the world is a much stronger predictor of happiness than any other objective predictor.'”

July 1, 2011

Testing in American schools

More than a year ago, I posted an entry in my blog about the issue of testing in American schools.  Most of the entry focused on information that
I had gleaned from a book by Diane Ravitch, one of the leading American experts on educational policy (although she seems to lurch from one extreme to the other).

Today, one of my favorite columnists, David Brooks from the NY Times, columnized that Ravitch has become a strident union ideologue whose
firm opposition to testing is misguided.  Brooks suggests that testing isn’t the problem, but rather the problem is that weak schools over-emphasize testing.  His solution isn’t to eliminate testing, but rather to reform or kill weak schools.

Brooks’ column reflects his thoughtful steadiness while Ravitch continues to sound like an advocate, not an intellectual.

Next Page »