Pointing out Reflexive Preferences

WashingtonWhen Julie Washington, herself being black, tried to encourage improving literary skills in black children by teaching code-switching skills to speakers of the various dialects of AAE (African American English), she met resistance from both Black and Whites. This Atlantic article tells of well-meaning, or outwardly well-meaning, Whites claiming it will marginalize black further by creating a linguistic version of “separate but equal”.   She tells the story of Blacks, on the other hand, also did not like the move because they didn’t like being told they talk different. Labelling their language as a “dialect” or as “Black English” was offensive to them.

Yet the stats are not surprisingly clear, the stronger your Black English, the worse you do on standardize tests. So what is the answer?  It appears Washington, and many before her, are on to something in treating all languages as equals, and thus teaching home languages as a second language.

But I have had similar experiences to Washington by discovering that pointing out the linguistic habits of a speaker, is almost universally irritating, especially if that dialect is not held in high regard. Likewise, pointing out someone’s AAE, their religious preferences or their sexual preference when that preference is not held in high regard can also be offensive to that person. We don’t like our reflexive habits illustrated, when it puts us in a bad light, even if an unjust light.  Thoughts?

Source & pic: The Atlantic April 2018, p18-20



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The Power Distribution

The world is a messy place, reality is not as neat as we may like. But nothing is as simple as it seems, even the sloppy stuff.  Behind apparent chaos, lies informative patterns – one such group of patterns mathematicians call probability distributions. For this post, I just want to mention two distributions: The Normal Distribution and The Power Distribution.

Almost NormalThe Normal Distribution

Most of you know this distribution, but even though “normalacy” is largely a myth (which I won’t get into here), we do find distributions of phenomena where there is a large majority in a narrow range and then the rest of the distribution falls on either side of that large group. If both sides of the distribution are symmetric, it is called a normal distribution, but often there is some skew to either side. Examples of these distributions are human height, weight, intelligent, shoe size and more. I will let you imagine where the skew lies in each case.

Power Distribution.pngThe Power Distribution

Power Distributions are why I am really writing this post. I am embarrassed to say, I did not know about this distribution until just recently.  Unlike the normal distributions, power distributions have the vast majority only to the left and all the rest (the minority) tail off rapidly to their right.

All business students learn about the Pareto principle or “the 80-20 rule” — it is an consequence of a power distribution. This rule states that, 80% of your business is from only 20% of your customers. Here is a paper talking about power laws in economics, indeed, 80% of the wealth of a society is held by 20% of its population.

But it wasn’t economics that recently let me to discover power distributions. Instead, it was linguistics. Apparently, if you tally up all the words in hundreds and hundreds of English books (often many fewer), the frequency of the words follow a power curve — it even has a name, “Zipf’s Law”. The most frequent word in English, for instance, is “the” with the next most frequent at about half as often being “of”, then comes “to”, then “and”, then “in” — all declining in inverse square frequency.  The amazing thing is that this distribution happens in all natural languages. And we still don’t really know why this happens, though (of course) there are many theories.

So, Pareto’s Principle and Zipf’s law are all just particular consequences of power distributions. Since I may refer to these distributions in future posts, I thought I’d write this short introduction and make these cute diagrams.. Your thoughts?

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The Truth about the SATs

SAT SuccessMy son is awaiting word on colleges he has applied to.  And yesterday, I read Wall Street Journal article “The Truth About the SAT and ACT” which confirms things I have known for years that which I can see during my son’s applications.

My judgement is not only based on research I have read, but also because I use to be on the selection committees for University graduate programs, where I watched my colleagues approach selections foolishly.

Here are the ways applicants are often sorted, along with my comments:

  1. Interviews: research has clearly shown that both job and college interviews are horrible at predicting success.  Why?  Because interviewers over estimate their own brilliance — surprising, eh?
  2. Letters of Recommendation:  What a joke.  I won’t even elaborate.
  3. Personal Statements:  They may have value if they are written on the spot with a no computer and a time limit.  But that is not how they are done. And so these too are often highly polished cooperative or plagiarized works and unreliable.
  4. GPA:  My kids are in High School and I have been disgusted at their grades inflation since they were very young.  Sure, low grades may be negatively meaningful, but to sort out those with high grades is almost impossible.
  5. SAT / ACT scores:  I’ve always felt these were the only way to sort out those with high grades. The WSJ tells us that indeed these high scores predict: choice of difficult majors, school success and even future job performance. Interesting.

Of course there is much more involved in the person which these scores can not begin to capture: life experiences, sports, clubs, and project portfolios to mention a few.  But  I wish colleges, employers, teachers and more would drop talking about the first 4 things on that list.

Success Wizard

All that said, though these other applications requirements have been proven to be horrible predictors of school or career success, most faculty on admission committees still feel they are accurate.  Further, they feel that they have to power to use them correctly and clever enough to know how to read those predictions.   They feel themselves to be brilliant wizards predicting student success in a crystal ball.  So, until wizards of all sorts disappear, sometimes it almost helps to believe the fiction yourself, or act like you are a believer.  See the parallels to others posts on this site?  Comments?

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Byrne: Then & Now

David Byrne Then and now

David Byrne, of Talking Heads, has a new album called “America Utopia”. I loved his 1981 song “Once in a Lifetime“, which describes awaking from the generic, robotic, shopping-mall, success-oriented mind of consumerism America that I ran from in the 80s. In that song, when he was 28 years-old, he asked “How did I get here” but now in his new album’s songs, as a Variety review states, “David Byrne’s 65-year-old counterpart has grown no closer to finding an answer. The difference now, however, is that Byrne no longer assumes he needs one.”

Reading that review, I thought: We do ourselves a favor by not being tricked by questions others ask of us. Often their questions are loaded with wrong assumptions and nuances.  Even our own minds (the voice in our head), which are tuned for survival and not for truth, spin out bizarre questions for us.  So keeping this in mind, it is wise to understand when we don’t need an answer to many of our nagging questions.  But the question is, do we stop answering out of fatigue, apathy or insight.

Bryne is still trippy and vague, but ever young and enjoyable!

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Embracing Your Polk Dots

KnowTheyselfHumans have bragged about themselves ever since bragging became possible. They not only put themselves above their enemies but also above their supposed friends. For millenia they’ve even bragged themselves superior to all other animal species. With each attempt — “only humans can reason”, “only humans make tools”, “only humans have language” and many more — biologists, zoologists and even lay people, have proven those grandiose claims wrong, over and over.

Yet, and here I shamefully join that possibly doomed trend attempting to claim an ,albeit embarrassing, unique superior trait that humans have over other animals. The human mind has the ability to intentionally deceive itself and others.  That may sound bad, but like most traits, it is adaptive.  Self-deceptions allows humans to create fictions, nonexistent abstractions, like gods, currency, corporations and freedom which can motivate and coordinate themselves and others to cooperate and compete in very productive ways. Self-deception, it seems is a very useful tool, like bragging, I guess.

Sure, it may be an embarrassing trait, but should we then deny it or cast it off? Imagine a male ladybug seeing himself in a mirror and saying, “Damn, polkadots — I thought myself much more handsome — like with racing stripes!” The bug then has five optional actions:

  1. Destroy: Get angry at the mirror and shatter it, but mirrors are not moral agents and thus deserve no punishment.
  2. Loath: Or the bug could hate himself — a very counter-adaptive mood
  3. Change:  Paint itself differently — well, the dots will still be there.
  4. Hide: Try not to let those parts function or hide them — good luck with that.
  5. Embrace: Embrace his embarrassing trait for what it is. He can even embrace it by reimagining it or re-labeling it so as to use it in some positive, desirable, admirable or functional way.



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Does your interface deceive you?

WeiQi ClientsAs readers know, I love the game of WeiQi (“Go” in English, “Baduk” in Korean). It is the best strategy board game ever! And for years, I have played it on-line a server called KGS with a client called “CGoBan”. But last month, KGS opened their server access to other clients — and sure enough people started building new KGS Clients.

So I have been experimenting with two more clients: UniverseGo and ShinGo. But no matter which of the clients I used, the players, the rules, the players, the rankings, the handicaps and all that WeiQi stuff is the same. All three of these different interfaces access the exact same game.

So, here is my interesting observation: even with me knowing that the board game was no different between interfaces (clients), I nonetheless felt they were. Being a person who loves change, I was enticed to use clients which were inferior to the client I was used to because the game felt different. Most people are not like me. Most people are not very fond of change and so for them, they would stick with a client they are familiar with before would use a better client.

And that observation could be generalized. For instance, religions can be like that — they may all access the same game but the users confuse the interface with the game. And familiarity blinds them to understanding the difference. Cultures, Languages and Sports and many other things can be the same — the enticing superficial differences can hide the deep informative principles.

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A Perception Puzzle: The Solution

As promised, in this series,  here is the solution.  If you re-read the Hint post, the answer will be obvious.

Series Solutions

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