The Greatest Invention Ever for Ugly People
There's an annual symposium on undergraduate research held on campus here, featuring students from all disciplines talking about work that they've done with faculty. It really spans quite a wide variety of topics, from stuff that would be more at home in an SF con ("Better Homes and Gardens on Mars-- Terraforming the Red Planet as Science (Fiction)") to social sciences ("An Economic Analysis of the Effectiveness of D.A.R.E."), to pure, hard science ("Basis Function Expansion for Coupled Integral Equations in Quantum Field Theory").
The award for Best Topic of the Day (at least of talks that I saw) goes to "Beauty and Academic Performance." This was the thesis work of a student in Economics, who surveyed the senior class about their grades and various other traits, and then had pictures of the respondants rated as to "beauty" by students at another college. Analyzing these data, she found a significant negative correlation between attractiveness and GPA. That is, ugly people got better grades.
Future work will probably attempt to explain how to reconcile this with studies that have shown that attractive people tend to have higher salaries. One possible explanation was put forward by a biologist on the faculty: Maybe all the ugly people who get good grades go on to become college faculty, and don't make very much money.
One of the advantages of being part of a college faculty is that there's never a shortage of ways to kill time during the day. For example, yesterday, I attended a lunchtime talk by a colleague in Political Science, titled "Why Is Turkey the Only Democracy in the Muslim Middle East?"
It's a fairly provocative title, and the talk started off with a couple of disclaimers about the title: first, an acknowledgement that Israel is a democracy in the Middle East, but not relevant to the talk at hand (Israel being even more of an exception than Turkey); and second, that Turkey isn't actually much of a democracy in the sense that we normally mean the term (three military coups in the last fifty years), but it is the closest thing in the region, namely, a society with multi-party politics and mostly peaceful transfers of power from one to another.
A lot of reasons were suggested for the exceptional status of Turkey ranging from cultural (it's not an Arab state) to geographic (it's right next to Europe) to historical (Turkey was never colonised by a European power), to geopolitical (they were a NATO member during the Cold War). As is always the case with such things, the speaker had a preferred interpretation to push (her Ph.D. dissertation topic, which she's trying to turn into a book): she said it's all about political parties and polarization right after independence.
She considered a long list of countries in the region which won independence from colonial powers at one time or another, and found they could be divided into two groups: those which had a single dominant political party after independence, and those which had multiple parties in existence. The single-party states (Algeria, Tunisia, and... Yemen? I forget, and I didn't take notes) all slid immediately into single-party authoritarian rule, because the group which had led the fight for independence had no opposition.
In the multi-party states (which included Turkey, along with Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and a few others), the picture is more complicated, but (she said) a pattern can be seen. In most cases, there was a strong polarization of politics, with a group of "conservative" parties drawn from traditional elites, and a group of "challenger" parties with support based in the lower classes, and the newly urban parts of the population. The conservative groups tended to favor maintaining ties with the former colonial powers, keeping the borders more or less constant, and tended to oppose any sort of land reform (as they were made up of members of the landed elites). The challenger parties opposed some or all of these things, and generally had better organization than the conservative parties.
This is the central part of the argument: an essential precondition for a functioning democracy, she argued, is that all of the participating groups must be able to face the prospect of losing to the opposition. As long as everyone in an election is sure that they can cope with rule by the other parties, elections tend to proceed smoothly and fairly, and the transfer of power is peaceful.
When the stakes get too high for one of the parties, though-- when they just can't possibly stand the idea of being ruled by their opponents-- that's when democracy breaks down. Then they have an incentive to rig elections, suppress opposition parties, and stage coups. And that's what she claims happened in most of these countries: the landed elites in the conservative parties saw that the oppisition parties (who were better organized, and had better future prospects) stood in opposition to everything that made them elite. The challengers wanted land reform and a severing of colonial ties, which were anathema to the elites, who then proceeded to "defect from democracy," kicking off a vicious cycle of competing chicanery, ending with the complete breakdown of democratic rule.
Turkey ends up being different in large part because of Ataturk. Not because he was a wonderful person (in a sentence which ought to win some sort of "Understatement of the Century" award, she described the suppression of some opposition parties, and then added "Ataturk's credentials as a democrat are problematic." Um, yeah. There's also the whole genocide thing...), but because he ended up allowing the right kind of opposition party-- the first major parties to spring up in opposition to his party's rule all rejected the idea of a republican system of government and the dramatic program of secularizing Turkey. Those parties, he shut down. After the last of them burned, fell over, and sank into the swamp, somebody got the message, and founded a party that opposed Ataturk's party, but accepted the conditions of republicanism and secularism. they were allowed to grow, and eventually won power in 1950, establishing competitive politics in Turkey.
I had to run off to another meeting, so I didn't get to ask the questions that came to mind on hearing all this. First of all, it sort of sounds like the difference between Turkey and Iraq, under her model, is just that in Turkey, the radical reformers got power first, and put the land-owning elites in a position where they couldn't mess up the system to preserve their position. That's what it sounded like to me, but my knowledge of the region is pretty minimal,and I could be completely misreading things.
The second, more flippant, question is: Does this analysis have any implications for modern American politics. 'Cause, boy, there's a couple of paragraphs in there that sound an awful lot like what Graydon Saunders and Erik Olson write in comments over at Making Light...
You Will Be Assimilated
What De Vany did learn is that moviegoers behave according to the principles of Bose-Einstein condensation — a fancy way of saying they are more likely to go to a movie if they receive an "authentic signal" that other people have enjoyed it.
And students complain that physics isn't relevant...
White That's Got Grubby
I haven't written anything about the Abu Ghraib situation because-- well, actually, that's not true. I wrote a long post about it yesterday morning, which I meant to edit and post later on in the day, but the virus of the moment shut down the campus network, leaving me Internet-less for the day. By the time I actually got around to reading it, I had calmed down a bit, and just deleted it. It was very cathartic to write, but I doubt anybody would've wanted to read it.
In the meantime, of course, the issue has been covered very well by people who write more eloquently than I do about painful subjects. Patrick and Teresa have long posts which include a round-up of blog commentary from the sensible side of the issue. I also recommend this post in which Billmon deeply resents being made to feel like a nutbar conspiracy theorist.
I will add one thing, though: spare me the "Saddam was worse" defenses. First of all, it's an asinine argument-- if all we can claim is that we're not as despotic as Saddam Hussein, we should apologize to the Queen and rejoin the British Empire (pipe down, Alistair Young, that was rhetorical). More than that, though, I'm not even sure I believe that it's true.
Saddam never claimed to be a Good Guy. He never said he was "liberating" anyone. We've done both.
There are a few things Thou Shalt Not Do if you expect to be one of the cowboys in the White Hats, and they all start with treating people as things. You don't get to torture prisoners, and then claim to be a Good Guy. You don't "liberate" people from tyranny by snatching civilians off the street more or less at random, and then abusing and humiliating them in prison. And you definitely don't get to take grinning souvenir snapshots of yourself while doing it.
Saddam was a bastard, through and through, but at least he was up-front about it. We haven't reached the level of his documented cruelty (let alone the more fanciful stuff reported in some quarters), but the fact that we've adopted his tactics while loudly claiming to be liberators, not occupiers makes the sting all the worse.
As I wrote a bit over a year ago, from a similar Bad Place, another little part of what makes me proud to be an American has died, and is lost forever. I only hope there's still something left come November.
Stick to Football
There's a lame joke in science circles, that runs something like this:
The chair of a university physics department is called in to the Dean's office at the end of one fiscal year, and berated about the huge expense of maintaining the department's large stock of apparatus. "Why can't you be more like the mathematicians," the Dean asks, "All they need to function is paper, pencils, and wastebaskets. Better yet, why can't you be like the philosophers? All they need is paper and pencils."
(Hey, I said it was lame...)
I was reminded of this when Sean Carroll directed me to this blog post by Gregg Easterbrook, lamenting the high cost of doing science. Sean cited a nicely absurd bit, but I really like the sentence immediately preceding:
Abstract knowledge is a worthy goal in and of itself, but most of the great scientists of the past, including Einstein, pursued abstract knowledge at their own expense, or at the small cost of a professor's salary and modest funding for lab equipment.
Einstein pursued abstract knowledge at his own expense because he was a theorist. It's easy to do theory on a shoestring budget. You will note, however, that Lord Rutherford (for example) did not perform his experiments in his lordly garage (he only became a Lord later, having been born a potato farmer in New Zealand), but rather at places like the Cavendish Laboratory which cost 8,450 pounds in 1870, or close to a million US dollars in modern terms (1998 dollars, according to this study of inflation (Google cache of a PDF)). And that appears to be just the cost of the building...
Top-flight science has always been expensive, and will always be expensive. And I'm sure that there were outraged Victorians writing scathing editorials denouncing the high cost of research in Rutherford's day, and suggesting that the money would be much better spent on buying Bibles for missionaries to distribute in distant parts of the Empire. And I'm sure there will be such editorials written in the distant future. (One of the great little touches in Jack McDevitt's Omega is a bit where he provides excerpts from a fictional editorial complaining about the high cost of continued space exploration... in 2234, when humans have explored dozens if not hundreds of worlds, and have a large number of off-Earth colonies.)
There's an interesting discussion to be had about whether we as a society really want to pay the high cost of modern science. Pretending that science used to be cheap, and it's only gotten expensive because today's scientists are engaged in price gouging is not the way to start that discussion.
I enjoy Easterbrook's writing about football. He takes an entertainingly contrarian stance toward a lot of received wisdom about the game, and he says some really interesting things that seem to be right more often than wrong.
Unfortunately, he shoots for the same "entertainingly contrarian" tone in everything else that he writes, and more often than not, ends up with "titanically stupid". This is never more obvious than when he tries to write about technical issues where I actually know something about the subject, in which case it begins to appear that everything he knows about science, he learned from watching Star Trek.
I was annoyed when ESPN canned him, and he was without a football column for a few weeks. I can't say I'm sorry to see him giving up blogging, though.