David McCullough on Reading Up

I am a great fan of escapist literature, but I also routinely get myself booed for being a snotty elitist when I tell people they really shouldn’t just read for escape. They should read to be challenged in addition.

Think of this way: you don’t run a marathon every day to train for a marathon. You do bits, big bits and small bits, and sometimes you just run around waving your hands in the airs chasing a little one in a game. The latter, taken alone, doesn’t train you for the marathon, but life would be terribly, terribly sad without it.

Or, you can’t eat chocolate all day every day. Gotta have some salad in there, too. But a life of salads, though many are delicious, is a lot less fun if there is never any chocolate.

So for those of us who write, we should be reading to understand our craft better, and we should be reading to understand how thinking occurs on the page and with the page.

This conversation with David McCullough is, like just about all conversations with him, delightful, and here he talks about “reading up, reading something that is just a little past your grasp.” You should. You’ll be surprised at how much you will grow doing that. Those stretch goals help a lot.

I was recently reminded of this with my foray in Thucydides in Greek. GOD THAT WAS HARD and it took me FOREVER. I’m translating Julius Caesar now and GOD THAT IS HARD. But I’ve learned a lot. I shall have to go back again and again. But those stretches have been so good.

Committing plagiarism is easier to do than people think

I work with plagiarism all the time as a college professor, and I send my *own* papers through Turnitin.com because I think it’s far easier to plagiarize by accident than people realize. Now, I am not a fan of Melania Trump. As I said on Fboo, I’ve always seen her as the mean girl at Durmstrang who joined the Death Eaters as soon as she possibly could, and this little teapot tempest is especially delicious granted that Mrs. Trump got her similar material from Michelle Obama and gave the speech, to yells and cheers, to a group of people who have treated Michelle Obama with so much unmitigated, unwarranted, and blind hate they should be ashamed of themselves.

The fact that all “First Lady” convention speeches are always the same “family valooos, my man is a Good Man, Daddy loves the Kiddies” blah blah means that I have to take my hat off to whoever first recognized the similarities.

Obviously, computers have done quite a bit to change plagiarism. Of course, detecting it is a million times easier. When people were just typing out of books or articles, it was harder to find. Now it’s easy to find.

But even easier to do, I think.

I still take notes by hand on notecards. My students think I am insane. Why would you do that when you can just type notes or cut and copy those notes from the original. That just strikes me as really dangerous on multiple levels. The first is that unless you really force yourself to put the concepts from the original piece in your own words, you may not really move much beyond the authors’ ideas and into your own ideas. You want to fairly represent what they author says, but for me, it’s important that I summarize the ideas in my own words so that I get a stronger grasp of how those ideas fit in with my own and others that are floating around. The second is simply making a mistake by not flagging what you have typed as a direct quote if it is a direct quote, you might forget and use it later in the writing.

Now, I think it’s possible to do notes and summarizing by typing. I just don’t do it that way, and these reasons are why.

The other reason I work by hand is to slow down and really think about the words and the concepts. I type so fast that I am not thinking much when I am typing.

I also have to watch myself. I have a good memory and I love bon mots. I’m also conceited enough to think I came up with a clever turn of phrase when actually I didn’t. I still check Turnitin even though I also try to plagiarism-proof my notes.

Slow scholarship….

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On police legitimacy regardless of social science findings

On Wednesday I wrote about how statistical innumeracy has led to way too much being read into Roland Fryer’s recently released NBER study. Despite my appalling lack of talent ;^), I feel a little like it’s my job to write those kinds of posts in order to help people understand the mechanics of social science. I’m a somewhat unusual planner in that I have spent most of my career in economics before heading into planning and urban studies, and I was fortunate to wind up at USC Price where, though they drive me to drink on a daily basis, I am surrounded by excellent social scientists from both economics and political science. So I’m still learning every day.

That said, I don’t think the answer to #BLM advocacy is going to come from social science. Social science is good for many, many things, but with #BLM and the individual cases like Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland, there are two things going on which really have nothing to do with things that social science can detect.

The first are individual injustices: even if we did show, for example, that there were no disparities in police violence by race (which is not the case, but let’s say it was), any person unjustly harmed by representatives of the state–police–is a wrong that should be addressed if the system we have set up is functioning in a manner that people consider broadly just. Each individual case, from Freddie Grey to Sandra Bland, has to be correctly adjudicated even if there are no broad social trends that might be detectable with social science.

Fumbling on the adjudication of one wrong now and then does not mean the entire system is terrible; most people who aren’t Frederich Hayek understand that there is no perfect justice. A mistake here and there might be the best we can do.

But with Black Lives Matter and the issues they highlight, we aren’t talking about a few isolated incidents here and there.That’s the second issue. We are talking about multiple wrongs (or harms at the very least) that, over time, have accumulated so that a subgroup within the political community has lost faith in both policing and courts as public institutions. To some degree, we might be able to use social science to inform experiential knowledge of being subjected to policing. Experience matters, however, in how people know and learn, and it is itself a very important component to public policy formation, as well as institutional conduct.

The lack of legitimacy among police in black communities has been a forever problem in the US. What BLM seeks to do is get other parts of the political community to see and experience what they see: That trust is gone, the way they are treated is vastly different than the way others are treated, and that this policing is done under the tacit consent of all of us in the political community. When that trust is broken, then it’s gone, and it doesn’t come back because of social science. It comes back through governance: by demonstrating trustworthiness through changing behavior and practices.

#BLM advocates are not getting rich doing this. They are not looking for “special rights”, whatever that means. They are going to a great deal of trouble–I strongly suspect they would rather be playing Pokemon Go or watching television or painting or gardening or going for a hike than getting arrested and shoved around, don’t you? But they don’t have that privilege. They are protesting, like all those who protest in majoritarian or elite-dominated systems, because they have, through experience, listening, and observing, identified change they need and they do not have influence through lobbying or other back-door means.

Social science does not really have an answer to any of it, and it’s wrong to ask it to, just as it is wrong to try to use social science to undermine the calls for change.

About that Roland Fryer study and conceptual-level differences in statistical probabilities

(I swear I have corrected and corrected this post, darn it, and I keep finding typos and skipped words. Sorry.)

Roland Fryer, Jr. is a brilliant economist–I’ve always enjoyed reading his work on education, and thus when he produced a study on police shootings, the combination of Roland Fryer/Harvard/New York Times coverage has resulted in a ton of press for it. Here is the paper at NBER. Here is the original NYT piece, which I thought did a nice job writing up the study. It’s super irritating to me that what people have highlighted about the study is that he finds no statistically significant differences in shooting deaths between white and black suspects. For some reason, THAT is getting the headlines. But he finds disparities in _every_other_aspect of police treatment.

Taser use (ow) and rough treatment consistently show disparities. These conclusions are drawn from Stop and Frisk data from NYC and the Police Contact Survey (national data). The data on officer-involved shootings come from data solicited by the author from Boston, Camden, NYC, Philadelphia, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, six Florida counties, and Tacoma, Washington.

There is a very detailed discussion of their data collection process from police narratives, where they coded and back-coded nearly 200 variables from these cities. They then do a separate set of codings on Houston, and I’m not sure why, other than what Fryer reports: the Houston data has more detail than the others. I guess the differences in the data were enough to make Fryer think they might find something different in Houston than from the other 10 cities, so they analyzed them separately. I probably wouldn’t have done that; I probably would have kept the coding the same for all the cities and simply had empty cells for concepts missing in the other cities. It’s not clear, to me anyway, what he gets out of the second coding around Houston.

Like any good economist, he beats on the data pretty hard; he does robustness check after robustness check and finds really no evidence in the data that in individual interactions with police, there is a difference by race or ethnicity in the odds that deadly force will be used.

Now, that’s an interesting and important finding, but it’s limited, and people are not listening overmuch to Fryer as he points this out. Fryer’s data are used to model an interaction game among individuals. He’s not able to answer some of the questions that BLM has raised. There is a substantive difference between these two statistical propositions:

1) that, when a policeman has encountered an individual, they use deadly force. This is modeled as an odds ratio that examines the difference by officer demographics, some context variables and the race of the suspect. (if f is force and e is an encounter, we have the posterior probability (P(f|e))

2) that a police encounters an individual and then uses deadly force: the union of two probabilities (I’m too lazy to present the formula as it’s not straight up on my keyboard. Maths types who care about such things know what I am talking about anyway.)

It’s the second he doesn’t have, and that’s important. The first can tell us whether or not, in the statistical sense, individual policemen make racist choices when they have encounters with suspects in various situations. You can envision Fryer’s data as he does: as a series of conditional probabilities that begin to unfold at e. That’s a good thing to know. Whether an individual officer is a member of the Aryan Nation or not–that is, whether the individual police officer is explicitly racist and making explicitly racist choices in individual interactions–does not seem to be moving Fryer’s findings. (It still makes such an individual officer somebody I really, truly do not want having state-sanctioned capability to use deadly force, but the “bad apple making bad choices” idea does not seem to be driving the numbers).

Fryer does not really have P(e)–but his precinct data are suggestive–and that’s a problem. He discusses it over and over in the paper, and then again in his discussion with readers in this very nice NYT follow up. Disproportionality–the idea that relative to their population percentages, African Americans are disproportionately represented in police encounters/arrests/violence–could enter into the probability in proposition #1 at either point (e) or (f), and with out (e), we can’t use Fryer’s study except as a partial answer to BLM critiques of US policing. What we can conclude from Fryer’s study is that the disproportionality in the aggregate statistics are not likely due to P(f).* And that’s important–it’s way more than I’ve accomplished lately.

But anyway:

Fryer argues in the follow up that we should be able to understand whether P(e) is an issue somewhat in instances where police are called to a specific situation. I think that’s a good argument, but not a great one, because I don’t think we can treat race as exogenous in police calls or in police responses to calls. Who gets called on, what types of behaviors prompts calls, how quickly police are able to access the scene of the report (and thus, encounter a suspect), etc–those are all factors where race and place may factor into whether there is a suspect encountered. For instance, one reason his rates on deadly force use among whites may be relatively high compared to those of African Americans might be that white behaviors have to be extreme in some way before the police are called in the first place, and that extremeness, or interpretations of it–could prompt use of deadly force once police arrive. Police are likely to cluster geographically, and so is crime, and so are background populations–race and ethnicity are not geographically random.

* Well, back up. We can’t use one social science study, no matter how good (and this is a good study), as the answer. Social science evidence has to accrue across many, many high-quality studies before we should start deciding we know what’s going on. Here’s another good study that finds significant bias, but the data are aggregate.

Augustine on Grief

“My heart grew dark with grief, and where I looked, I saw only death. My own town became a torment to me and my own home a grotesque abode of misery. All we had done together was now a grim ordeal without him. My eyes searched everywhere for him, but he was not be seen. I hated all the places we had been together, because he was not in them, and they could no longer whisper to me “Here he comes!”

(Confessions,IV, iv, 9).

Reviewer #2 on the Declaration of Independence



When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

The introduction is overly long, and there is no statement of the problem. The author should tell us right away, and clearly, what the argument is. As it is, this weak problem statement does not convince me that the issue at hand is worthy of study. Also, what is up with the false dichotomy between “God” and “Nature”?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.-

Vague attribution that assumes a unitary public. Author has not defined rights anywhere previously in the text. It is also question-begging.

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The theme of safety is introduced after prior focus on happiness, with no transition. Does not adequately cover the literature on either topic to make these claims.

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

This is a distraction, not a valid counterfactual. This work could benefit from additional case studies where Prudence and evils vary systematically.

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

The author has provided no empirical proof of bad government–merely asserts a ‘long train of abuses’ and fails to specify them until much later in the document. The manuscript is thus poorly organized and needs to be entirely restructured.

Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.

Again, question-begging conclusion that follows, inappropriately, from a simple set of assertions that political revolution is the answer to poor representation in government. The list of offenses, entirely unspecified, comes later, so that this assertion is out of place and unfounded. Thus, the entire theoretical frame is unsound.

It also assumes that everybody is in an equal position to pursue revolution, and thus renders invisible and silences all other voices and perspectives on revolution.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good…..He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

This long list of affronts sounds very serious, indeed, but it lacks specify and citations. Which laws, on what occasions? How do you know these events occurred as you represented them? Which coasts have been “ravaged?” Which merciless Indian Savages have been brought to which frontiers? When, exactly? According to which sources?

I am surprised the author does not seem to know about an important study in this area entitled “Mercilessness as Social Hermeneutic and Construction: A Examination of Savagery as Metaphor.” It is important that this study by cited here and discussed at length.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

This argument would be more effective if the author cited the petitions and presented them in detail. The author suggests that such behavior may define a Tyrant. Does it define a Tyrant or not? Granted the fuzzy definition, the conclusion is over-stated and far beyond what you can conclude from the evidence you have presented. I suggest the following improvements to the language: “which may define a Tyrant, is perhaps unfit to the multiple tasks of governance in collaboration with a pluralistic society.”

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

This paragraph is out of place at the end; it should go at the beginning, along with a clearly stated conceptual framework that specifies, exactly, how repeated warnings and pleas factor into the relationship between revolution and repeated rights violations.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

This conclusion suffers from its vainglorious and overwrought language. It is sufficient to the point to say “Subjects will leave and form another nation once the original government fails to demonstrate sufficient legitimacy in the political community.”

How to sit down, for those who need a little help

I have now been told I have no talent by somebody clearly FURIOUS about the Smartest Boy Urbanist send-up, which only kind of proves my point. Smartestest is the coin of the realm for the smartest of the smart; there’s no way to know anything about urbanism unless you smart; they soooo smartttttttt that they KNOW when they are confronted with a minor mind, such as mine because, as pointed out, I would haven’t to rely on mean meanypants stereotypes to make my points rather REAL ARGUMENTS, like theirs.

Or they might be proving my point for me.

Because this isn’t about who is smart and who isn’t, who has talent and who does not. This is about your heart and how you conduct yourself.

The smartest boy urbanist in the room is VURRRRRRRRY SERIOUS and

The Smartest urbanists do not like being called out.

And that’s unfortunate, because I am not backing down. Because some of us need to learn to sit down more often, even if we have read all the pages from Jane Jacobs.

Sitting down and shutting up can be a radical action. Why? Because it’s hard for oppressed people to be heard as it is, without people who possess privilege hogging all the air time and oxygen in the room. Privilege gives one a platform that other people don’t have; it gives us a microphone and amplifiers that other people do not have.

So some radical humility is in order, and it’s pretty easy to practice. Here’s a guide:

1. When somebody who, unlike you, actually experiences injustice and oppression speaks about it, sit down and listen to them.

2. When somebody who experiences injustice and oppression speaks about how to change it, sit down and listen to them.

3. Believe people when they tell you that things that work for you do not necessarily work for them. Instead, sit down and listen to what they say might work for them.

Now, there are additional steps here, but those go beyond “sitting down” into “learn to ally with people seeking racial justice.”

Ultimately, whether I have any talent is, of course, probably not debatable. I can’t tap dance or sing worth a crap, which is a source of some sadness to me, as I always wanted to sing Wotan.

But if you really want to show me–I mean *really* make me feel like a fool for making you uncomfortable with my Smartest Boy Urbanist snark–then retweet and quote black urbanists just as often as you do Market Urbanism and Alon Levy. Don’t get me wrong. These are very bright people who have written and, I’m sure, will continue to write fine things. But they do not know everything. Robert Bullard (@DrBobBullard ) is on Twitter. That guy is important.Julian Agyeman (@julianagyeman). Kristen Jeffers (@blackurbanist). Manuel Pastor (@Prof_MPastor). Lots of people are out there generating important ideas about cities from perspectives other than your own. And trust me, these folks are smart, genuinely smart, real-deal smart, and worth more of your time than shaking your little fist at me through the computer screen.