Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

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Dan is a student at Georgetown University. He is currently trying to think of a new biography for this space.

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This blog translated:


Two wrongs don't make a right, but three lefts do.

"There are three types of lies - lies, damn lies, and statistics." - Variously attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, Alfred Marshall, Mark Twain and many other dead people.

Currently reading:

Songbook by Nick Hornby

The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

You should read:

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

Bobos In Paradise by David Brooks

Madam Secretary: A Memoir by Madeleine Albright

Damned Lies and Statistics by Joel Best

Books written or edited by my professors (well, only the good ones)

Nick Barr

The Economics of the Welfare State

The Welfare State As Piggy Bank

Chris Dougherty

Introduction to Econometrics

David Gewanter

The Collected Poems of Robert Lowell (ed. with Frank Bidart)

In the Belly

The Sleep of Reason

Meredith McKittrick

To Dwell Secure

John McNeill

The Human Web (with William H. McNeill)

Something New Under the Sun

Max-Stephan Schulze

Western Europe: Economic and Social Change Since 1945

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Abu Aardvark
Across the Atlantic
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2004 ESPN Information Please Sports Almanac

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"Phantom Planet" by Phantom Planet

The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell

"One Plus One Is One" by Badly Drawn Boy

"Sultans of Swing" by the Dire Straits

"Best of the Talking Heads" by the Talking Heads

How Shareholder Reforms Can Pay Foreign Policy Dividends, James Shinn, ed.

Weaving the Net, James Shinn, ed.

Fires Across the Water, James Shinn, ed.

Panasonic ES8017SC Men's Triple Blade Pro Curve Rechargeable Linear Shaver

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Wednesday, April 28, 2004
In defense of grade inflation - since it isn't all it's cracked up to be

There's an article in the WaPo today looking at efforts at Princeton to roll back the tide of rising grades. The article states that:

"More than 45 percent of the grades awarded at Princeton from 1997 to 2002 were A's, compared with just 30 percent a quarter-century earlier. The number of C grades declined over the same period from 15 percent to 7 percent."


"Experts on grade inflation trace the phenomenon to the Vietnam era, when professors were reluctant to give grades that would lead to their students flunking out and becoming eligible for the draft. Grade averages tapered off during the '70s and '80s and then shot up again during the '90s, according to Stuart Rojstaczer, a Duke University professor who has collected nationwide data on grade inflation."

Er, yes and no.

There's anecdotal evidence that grades were inflated to prevent flunking out in the Vietnam years. On the other hand, it's pretty clear that a large element of rising grades at most universities reflects the fact that students today are smarter and better prepared for their university studies, and seem to be working harder as well. Looking at average SAT scores, it's pretty clear that aptitude levels have risen pretty dramatically over the last thirty years or so, even once you account for the recentering of the SATs in the mid-90's.*

This change is particularly true at elite universities. Rising aptitude levels are the result of a couple of factors - the reduction of widespread legacy admissions, demographic issues (the children of baby boomers have entered the educational system more quickly than many top universities have expanded their slots), and improvements in secondary education. Students also appear to be working harder - there is a decent amount of evidence that the greater pressures to seek post-graduate studies and to build directly for a professional career have led to higher workloads. This appears to be particularly true when one looks at trends in extra-curricular participation - there has been a fairly noticeable shift (again, particularly at elite universities) - away from fraternities and sororities and towards pre-professional groups on a relative basis.

In other words, the university students of today are smarter and harder working than those of thirty years ago. And those of thirty years from now will likely smarter and harder working than those today (frightening, no?). There may be some inflation of grades that has gone on. But it's worth noting that a sizable part of the trend has been a real increase in academic achievements.

*SATs aren't perfect of course, but they're the best measure I can think of that is used on a widespread basis. ACTs aren't as common, and grade point averages are measured in a multitude of different ways.

Popping a few bubbles

There's a good deal of speculation going around that Google is about to offer an IPO. The reasoning is that Google gave out stock options to most of its 1,000+ employees recently. SEC regulations require that any company with more than 500 shareholders and $10 million in assets must file an annual report with the SEC. Since filing an annual report is a fairly onerous process - and also necessary before going public - it's possible that Google may just go public soon.

Not to burst anyone's bubble, but there are a couple of problems with this. First, the options may not have been exercized yet - that is, it's possible that while most of the employees have a rightt to buy stock at a certain time, there may not be 500 actual shareholders yet. The other thing is that there is, as I understand it, a clause in SEC regulations allowing for exemptions under certain circumstances. So it's quite possible that Google may not go public quite yet.

UPDATE (4/30/04): OK, so there's no two ways about it, I was wrong.

Monday, April 26, 2004
So I went down to the abortion protest today.

I have to say that the organizers had seriously weird tastes in music while they were waiting for the marchers to arrive back at the Mall. I mean, I'm not expecting them to play "Brick" by Ben Folds Five, but "Ice Ice Baby"?

Yep, definitely tackling the tough issues here.

Friday, April 23, 2004
Matt Yglesias has an interesting post discussing the applicability of the Law of One Price to gasoline and blog ads.

My response (which I already posted in the comments there, but then, I'm lazy) is this:

The Law of One Price fails to hold in its strong form pretty much everywhere (as do many economic rules when applied to reality, which is so much messier than the theoretical world), even with fairly mobile commodities

There's an intersection in the East Side of Cleveland (Cedar & S. Green) where there are three gas stations. The price is usually pretty close for most grades of gasoline - I can't remember it ever varying more than a nickel a gallon from high to low, but it often varies by a cent or two. The stations differentiate themselves by convenience in terms of location - it's easier to just turn right than go left across traffic - in terms of facilities - one has a small convenice store, another has a garage - and in terms of the exact grade of the gasoline.

Interestingly, though, the price divergence seems to be smaller for the price of standard unleaded gas than for the premium higher octane gasolines. Standard unleaded rarely deviates by more than a penny, but the higher octane gasolines sometimes vary by three or four cents per gallon. One possibility is that the suppliers for the different stations offer different prices. Another, more interesting, possibility is that the station owners think that customers just look at the price of standard gasoline rather than the grade that they're actually buying.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004
Rep. John Hostettler was briefly detained yesterday after he tried to board a plane with a loaded gun in a carry-on.

Hostettler claimed that he "completely forgot" that the gun was in his bag. And considering how dumb he is, that's a wholly plausible explanation. Hostettler may be one of the dumbest members of Congress, definitely among those I've seen in action - he's one of the few who can make Jim Moran look smart by comparison.

Georgetown (finally) hired John Thompson III today (actually, yesterday, as I write).

Back to work. (writing/editing the neverending thesis)

Monday, April 19, 2004
Say what you want about Bob Woodward's new Plan of Attack, but the man clearly knows how to do PR for a book right. (hell, he's only had about three decades to get it right)

By the way, why the hell was anyone in the White House willing to speak to Woodward?One would think that Bush at War would have been education enough for them. There are a couple of possibilities - one is that one major White House figure spoke to Woodward, and the rest were essentially obliged to follow in order to prevent a view that made that person look like a hero and the others badly (i.e., Powell talks and denigrates Rumsfeld, or vice versa). Another possibility is that they were just that idealistic and sure of being correct. Or that they're complete and total idiots (which even I don't believe).

UPDATE: CNN is reporting that Colin Powell is saying that the White House told him and others to speak to Woodward. Honestly, what the hell were they thinking?

Saturday, April 17, 2004
There's an op-ed in the Washington Post today by Steve Hayes, who served alongside John Kerry in Vietnam, suggesting that the Democratic presidential nominee earned three Purple Hearts for relatively minor wounds and then used them as a means to apply for an early return to the States (the article does not question the Silver Star earned for gallantry) - as well as criticizing the current administration for blindly sending men and women into combat with little experience or idea of the dangers.

From what I know, it seems that this is realistically more an indictment of the military culture in Vietnam than of Kerry, who may have used the system to his advantage. Purple Hearts were generally allotted in a rather generous manner during the war (I have no way of knowing whether this is still true today). One of my high-school teachers, who worked various support jobs at the base and never actually went into combat, nearly earned a Purple Heart - during a hot night, he had gone up to sleep up on the roof of one of the buildings at the base, and, briefly forgetting where he was when the base came under light arms fire from the Viet Cong, fell off and suffered a cut to his leg. This made him eligible for a Purple Heart, but, more embarassed than proud, he refused to put in the necessary paperwork.

Long story, short: getting a Purple Heart during the Vietnam War wasn't always a difficult thing.

NOTE: Obviously, this isn't meant to denigrate the contribution and risks borne by thousands of men and women who did put themselves in great danger during the war.

Thursday, April 15, 2004
Kriston Capps has moved off Blogger and into the wonderful world of Moveable Type. The new address is

(by the way, who the hell would have thought to have squatted already at!?)

Rumors are swirling around campus that Princeton John Thompson III is about to be hired as the new head coach of the men's basketball team, replacing the recently fired Craig Esherick. Thompson, for the uninitiated, is the son of legendary G-Town coach John Thompson, whom Esherick rather unsuccesfully replaced.

I can't help but think that this isn't the best possible outcome. It isn't that Thompson won't improve the team and restore it to adequacy - pretty much anyone would be an improvement over Esherick - but that he'll face a very hard time restoring it to glory. Working under his father's shadow - and his father still works on both local radio and national TV covering basketball - will be incredibly difficult. Thompson has succeeded at Princeton, but hasn't done anything spectacular there, and hasn't exactly taken the Tigers to new heights.

Thompson has previously stated that he wouldn't be tied to Princeton's legendary old-school style of basketball if he moved elsewhere - he would be willing to consider something more up-tempo. The back-to-fundamentals style of basketball actually might be a significant improvement at Georgetown over Esherick's schizoid style of play, but one has to wonder whether we have the right perimeter personnel to make such a strategy work right now. The alums probably wouldn't be happy at first, given Georgetown's traditional style of relying on the biggest guys possible in the low post - Ewing, Mourning, Mutombo, Sweetney, etc. - but that wouldn't be too much of the problem if the team were to start winning again.

That said, financial considerations undoubtedly played a role in the choice, given the current dire financial situation of the university. Getting a big name mid-major coach like Bobby Gonzalez would probably be too expensive, as would getting a widely known assistant (the name of Duke Assistant Coach Johnny Dawkins has been repeatedly floated, but one can't help thinking that Dawkins would be little different than Esherick). So the university pretty much has to go in-house to some extent, in order to get someone who's willing to work for less than they might demand on the open market.

Thursday, April 08, 2004
Uh, anyone know of a source where I can find historical data on Finnish police strength levels?

Actually, at this point, I'd take pretty much any data on the subject I can get.

About the Kerry speech yesterday in Gaston:

It was pretty good. As a speaker, Kerry comes across far better (i.e., less aloof and more emotive) in person than he comes across on TV. He's still not Clinton-esque, though. He's also far better than Bush, whose public speaking style is - in the words of a staunch Republican I know - 'somehow both incredibly boring and cringe-inducing,' due to his habits of mumbling and lapsing into malaprops. That said, Kerry has developed a habit of ad-libbing during his speeches. Some of this is quite entertaining and beneficial to his speaking style - particularly when responding to hecklers - but it looked like he's going to end up putting his foot in his mouth pretty soon in a manner that's going to require the jaws of life to get it out. It seems almost certain that Kerry is going to say something that - possibly by getting taken out of context by the Republican spin-and-smear machine or possibly just by misspeaking - is going to cost him a few points in the polls.

As far as the actual text of the speech, it was good to start to hear specifics about Kerry's economic plan. Much of it was stuff I'd endorse, particularly on his deficit reduction plans (The New York Times likes it, while the Washington Post doesn't like it, because they feel that it doesn't go far enough away from Bush's economic governance). He also tended to make a couple of vaguer remarks about supporting American manufacturing - slowing the decline of American manufacturing, particularly where it has occurred due to the pegging of the Chinese Yuan, is admirable, but the idea that the decline can be halted or reversed is pretty stupid - and moving away from free trade, seemed to be more politically-driven and far beneficial - or even harmful - to the national economy.

Pointless addendum: I can be seen on the C-SPAN tape of the event at a couple of points, sitting in the balcony. As far as anyone who can actually recognize me - I really need to shave and get a haircut (the broken finger has impeded the former, my laziness has impeded the latter) - and I don't usually look quite that morose.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004
Kerry is speaking at Georgetown tomorrow, apparently to give the vaunted speech laying out the economic policy that he expects to campaign on, and I expect to be able to see the speech. Usually (though not always), Georgetown sets up microphones so that speakers can take Q-And-A's after the speech. Any suggestions for a question, should I get the chance?

Summarizing Charlie Cook's round-up of the upcoming elections, Wonkette roughly quotes Cook as saying the following:

"Cook (ignoring his own advice about making VP predictions) suggested that Kerry should pick Gephardt. Ohio is most important state in race. Northern Ohio is where job losses are hurting Bush; Southern OH is more conservative; but the votes are in the North."

Well, he could have been more wrong, but it'd have been pretty difficult. It's true that job losses are hurting Northern Ohio, and that Ohio may well be the most important state in the presidential race (though, seven months out, it's something that could well change in the coming weeks). The problem is that, as the past decade has shown, Democrats do very well in Northern Ohio, but can't win without enough support in the south.

Unfortunately, this isn't something the incredibly incompetent state Democratic party has realized. As a result, it's run a series of Democrats from the northern part of the state (mostly, though not all, from the Cleveland area) with almost no success. Tim Hagan, Mary Boyle, Ted Celeste. Lee Fisher, yet again. As a result, no Democrat has been elected to a state-wide office other than the State Supreme Court in a decade. Rather than give a Democrat from down-state a chance for once, Eric Fingerhut is running for the Senate this year.*

Bill Clinton did win the state twice, by understanding that winning Ohio means showing up in the north once in a while to get sufficient turnout, but mostly by running strongly enough in the southern half of the state to keep ahead overall. It isn't necessary to win the southern half of the state - it's pretty damn near impossible - but just to do well enough in the Canton and Columbus areas and to get enough voters out in inner-city Dayton and Cincinnati to let Cleveland, Toledo and Youngstown the Republican votes in the deep south. Running toward the northern half of the state might be easier, but it'll also be running away from victory.

Hell, I think the Democrats could still carry the Cleveland area if they nominated a houseplant (though this isn't as true as it used to be).

*Disclosure: Eric is, broadly speaking, a family friend. He served the East side of the Cleveland suburbs in the House for one term in the early '90's. He's a nice guy, and a good politician. Barring an unforseen anti-Bush tidal wave, he doesn't stand a chance of winning.

Friday, April 02, 2004
Sorry for the lack of posting here of late, but I've got a pretty good excuse this time - a broken finger, injured late last week playing football. I can still type adequately, but somewhat slower than normal, and it's slowing up all my coursework and leaving me with less time for other things.