Friday, September 24, 2010

Borne to Be Wild

Horse activities are not usually regarded as an extreme sport, with a few obvious exceptions such as steeple chases, rodeos, and Olympic-level jumpers. Over-protective parents don’t hesitate to buy riding lessons for their 10-year-old daughters. Yet, they are, in fact, risky. According to research conducted at the University of Calgary, horseback riders are hospitalized at 350% the rate of motorcyclists. Most of those hurt are not neophytes but experienced riders. The typical victim has 27 or more years of riding experience.

By the early 90s, the diligence of civil suit lawyers was closing the doors of commercial riding stables pretty much everywhere in the nation. Liability insurance had become unaffordable. Other than by requiring boots and helmets, as nearly all stables did anyway, there was little that could make horseback-riding safer. Horses are live animals with minds and moods of their own. Ultimately, a 1000 pound animal will do what it damn well pleases, and that may include kicking, bucking, or running off for no apparent reason. Horses sometimes spook, trip, or fall down. People do not always walk away from encounters with horses. That is the nature of the sport.

Commercial stables were saved from extinction in the late 90s by specifically targeted tort reform. Liability was strictly limited in most states (including NJ) and stables posted warnings to that effect. The one in NJ is typical:


Efforts at a more general tort reform – especially in medicine – have stalled repeatedly at state and federal levels as trial lawyers warn us that civilization will collapse if reform succeeds. They are good at this. Making arguments is what they do, and they find a sympathetic audience among legislators, 60% of whom are fellow lawyers. Not only the continuing existence of civilization in less litigious Western nations, but our own domestic experience with the equine industry, hint that our current system may not be the last line of defense against barbarism after all. Riding is not any more dangerous today than it was before the reforms of 1997. If anything, riders today are motivated to be a bit more careful after seeing scary signs and signing scarier waivers. It’s just something to keep in mind.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Major and Minor Assumptions

Bear with me through a brief synopsis:

In the 1942 comedy classic The Major and the Minor, Major Kirby (Ray Milland), travels by train to Iowa where his fiancé’s father (his commanding officer) runs a military academy. Susan Applegate (Ginger Rogers), a fed-up NYC masseuse, is on the same train. She is posing as a 12-year-old (no easy feat for Ginger Rogers) because she doesn’t have enough money for a full-price ticket. She blows her cover in front of a skeptical conductor, runs from him, and dodges into Major Kirby’s cabin. Kirby buys the 12-year-old act, and takes Susan under his protective wing. Kirby’s fiancé boards the train, catches a glimpse of Susan in Kirby’s cabin, and storms out. The major smoothes things over with her by bringing Susan to the academy. When his fiancé and her father see he merely (apparently) was helping out a kid rather than dallying with a floozy, all is forgiven. This is a rom-com, so more silliness ensues including Susan fending off underage boys on campus.

This pleasant movie is an unintended commentary – a sad one as it happens – on modern expectations of adults vs. those of nearly 7 decades ago. Today, it is unlikely that any fellow could get out of trouble with his fiancé by saying the girl in his cabin is 12 years old.

If the plot sounds familiar but the characters do not, it is likely because in the 1950s there was a gender-reversed remake of movie starring Jerry Lewis titled You're Never Too Young.

Were the assumptions of 1942 far too naïve? Probably. Are the assumptions of 2010 far too cynical? Yes, with a caveat. There always were and still are more Major Kirbys than Humbert Humberts. We tend to forget that these days, but there is no denying Humberts (and far worse) do exist. So let’s try to have enough old-fashioned generosity to assume the best of the people we meet, while we keep one eye open just in case.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

No Brainer

IQ tests have been in widespread use since World War One, when the US Army employed them to determine the aptitude of draftees and recruits. The tests are regularly "renormalized" so that the average score is always 100.

We all have heard people toss around their supposed results, and they always are phenomenally high.

"I'm 138."

"Mine is 142."

"Oh yeah, mine is 156."

All of these are very unlikely numbers, regardless of what scale is being used, but one should remember there is more than one scale. There are several well-known publishers of tests and many lesser known ones. Scorers fit the raw results of tests into a bell curve. The most common one has a standard deviation of 15, so that half the population falls between 85 and 115. Only 2% score above 130 on this scale. Scores of 140 or higher are truly rare. Some tests have standard deviations of 16 or 24. These are not preferred by most professionals, but they are very popular with test–takers who are just on the high side of average. After all, a test result of 124 simply looks better than one of 115, even though both may mean the exactly same thing when different scales are taken into account – and of course we’ll add the same number to this figure as the pounds we subtract from our weight when we mention the results in company. Tests typically found in magazines or on the net produce wildly exaggerated results in order to flatter subscribers, and ought not to be taken seriously.

IQ tests do tell us something, but they need to be treated with caution and skepticism. It is well to remember that motivated 95s often outperform lazy 125s academically and in life. High scores are no guarantee of happiness either. In Voltaire’s The Story of a Good Brahman, a Brahman and his intellectual friends conclude after much discussion that happiness is the proper goal in life. Yet, faced with proof that an ignorant cleaning woman is cheerier than any of them, none says he would opt to trade brains for happiness. Voltaire ends there and doesn't try to resolve the contradiction.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

September Dirt

The “Drive Carefully, School’s Out” posters on the roadsides once again have been exchanged for “Drive Carefully, School’s Open” posters.

Pre-schools were a rarity in my day, so my first look inside a classroom was on the day I started Kindergarten, September 5, 1957. On October 4, the Soviets launched Sputnik. There was no connection between the events, but there was a connection to school experiences that followed. I recall standing in the driveway with my parents and sister as we watched the little twinkling light pass overhead.

Politicians at all levels pointed at the twinkling light and cried that the US had been left behind educationally. This was a conclusion for which Sputnik was dubious evidence, but political arguments seldom are strong on evidence and reason. They demanded and got sharp increases in spending on schools and a widespread reshaping of curricula. The results were as dubious as the original argument. NASA overtook the Soviet space program long before the changes in schools could have had anything to do with it. High school graduates in the 60s and 70s were not noticeably more knowledgeable than their predecessors. The most lasting legacy of the Sputnik shake-up, continuing to this day, is far larger school budgets, as my property tax bill attests.

It is hard to judge how well public schools do what they are intended to do. To the extent SAT scores are any indication, average scores barely have budged in decades. Yet, the tests have been made easier, so in real terms results have gone down. (Wiki claims 70 points should be added to your verbal and 30 points to your math if you took the test more than 30 years ago to compare your results properly with those of 2010.) Every politician, it seems, touts some plan for improving schools, always with more money. The NEA constantly calls for higher wages and benefits. It is not at all clear that any of the previous changes and spending increases have made much difference in the past 50 years.

An interesting experiment, in business since 1968, is the private day school Sudbury, which famously has no established curriculum at all. This unorthodox Massachusetts school provides educational resources for any student who cares to use them, but it lets students spend their time as they wish so long as they don’t prevent anyone else from studying. The school issues no grades. It allows students to hire and fire teachers by vote. Somehow, the school’s graduates do as well in college as do graduates of conventional high schools and prep schools – no better, perhaps, but no worse. Sudbury’s per pupil expenditures are half those of the local public high school. The school lends support to the old saw, “all education is self-education.” Interested students learn. Bored ones do not, regardless of how hard we try to force-feed them.

Rocket Boys by Homer H. Hickam, Jr. is one of the most frequently assigned books in high school. The movie October Sky (an anagram) was based on it. In 1957, young Homer was inspired by the same Sputnik that I stood in the driveway to see. He was in high school at the time. He and his buddies started a rocket club. In order to send their rockets higher and higher, they took a scientific approach to weights, fuel mixtures, and nozzle designs. Homer, previously an indifferent math student, chose to study trigonometry, chemistry, and calculus because he needed them for the rockets. One rocket climbed almost 6 miles.

The book assignment is intended to inspire students to emulate Homer. More likely it inspires them to Google the Spark Notes. A rocket club might inspire them better, but this is not 1957. Today a club would face real trouble from over-protective parents, insurance companies, and land use officials, among others.