The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

In praise of B students

Research (and life experience) suggest strongly that kids who get straight As in school may not actually have the best preparation for real life:

The evidence is clear: Academic excellence is not a strong predictor of career excellence. Across industries, research shows that the correlation between grades and job performance is modest in the first year after college and trivial within a handful of years. For example, at Google, once employees are two or three years out of college, their grades have no bearing on their performance. (Of course, it must be said that if you got D’s, you probably didn’t end up at Google.)

In a classic 1962 study, a team of psychologists tracked down America’s most creative architects and compared them with their technically skilled but less original peers. One of the factors that distinguished the creative architects was a record of spiky grades. “In college our creative architects earned about a B average,” Donald MacKinnon wrote. “In work and courses which caught their interest they could turn in an A performance, but in courses that failed to strike their imagination, they were quite willing to do no work at all.” They paid attention to their curiosity and prioritized activities that they found intrinsically motivating — which ultimately served them well in their careers.

Straight-A students also miss out socially. More time studying in the library means less time to start lifelong friendships, join new clubs or volunteer. I know from experience. I didn’t meet my 4.0 goal; I graduated with a 3.78. (This is the first time I’ve shared my G.P.A. since applying to graduate school 16 years ago. Really, no one cares.) Looking back, I don’t wish my grades had been higher. If I could do it over again, I’d study less. The hours I wasted memorizing the inner workings of the eye would have been better spent trying out improv comedy and having more midnight conversations about the meaning of life.

I've known all of this since first grade, when I realized that getting straight As would require me to do hundreds of pointless math problems every night for six months. Around that time I encountered the Terrible Trivium in The Phantom Tollbooth and the pieces fell into place. (For the record, I do arithmetic on paper just fine—and I also have Microsoft Excel to do it for me.)

Long weekend

The Apollo Chorus of Chicago performed yesterday with the Peoria Symphony, which involved two 3-hour bus rides and two complete runs-through of Händel's Messiah. Coming up this week, we have two full rehearsals, two community outreach events, and two more performances next weekend.

Then after a committee meeting Monday, I'll actually have...one night off.

So there's a lot going on this month.

But today, I need a nap.

No smarter than the average bear

It turns out, trying to demonstrate that canis lupus familiaris are smarter than other similar animals winds up proving the null hypothesis instead:

If you are convinced your dog is a genius, you may be disappointed in the conclusions of a study just published in the journal Learning and Behavior.The study finds that dogs are cognitively quite ordinary when compared to other carnivores, domestic animals, and social hunters. “There is no current case for canine exceptionalism,” the authors conclude.

Nevertheless, systematically reviewing the animal cognition literature, British psychologists Stephen Lea and Britta Osthaus found dogs to be unremarkable in their cognitive capabilities compared to wolves, cats, dolphins, chimpanzees, pigeons, and several other species. For example, dogs seem no better at learning associations—such as between a behavior and a reward—than other species. Similarly, dogs can spatially navigate within small spaces, but other species can, too. And while dogs have an excellent sense of smell, the “pig’s olfactory abilities are outstanding and might even be better than the dog’s.”

On the other paw, having dogs appears linked to longer and healthier lives for dog owners. Take that, Wilbur!

What's he doing?

Eddie Lampert's hedge fund proposes to buy Sears for $4.6 bn:

The bid from Lampert’s ESL Investments includes about 500 Sears and Kmart stores, headquarters and distribution centers, and Sears brands and businesses including Kenmore, DieHard and Sears Home Services.

“ESL believes that a future for Sears as a going concern is the only way to preserve tens of thousands of jobs and bring continued economic benefits to the many communities across the United States that are touched by Sears and Kmart stores,” Lampert’s hedge fund said in the letter sent to Sears’ investment banker Wednesday and filed Thursday with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The $4.6 billion offer includes up to $950 million in cash that would be funded by a new loan and a $1.8 billion credit bid, in which ESL would swap Sears debt it holds for ownership of a newly formed company. Other financing includes an estimated $1.1 billion from taking on Sears’ obligations to honor Sears Home Services protection agreements, gift cards, and loyalty program points.

ESL’s offer would also depend on its ability to secure financing and the Bankruptcy Court’s approval.

Others interested in acquiring Sears’ assets have until Dec. 28 to submit bids under the timeline approved by the Bankruptcy Court. If other bids come in, the auction would be held Jan. 14.

Why, though? He's just going to kill it anyway.

Detecting Alzheimer's in a novel

Researchers used the Iris Murdoch's last novel to quantify how Alzheimer's first signs show up in language:

As [neurologist Peter] Garrard explains, a patient’s vocabulary becomes restricted, and they use fewer words that are specific labels and more words that are general labels. For example, it’s not incorrect to call a golden retriever an “animal,” though it is less accurate than calling it a retriever or even a dog. Alzheimer’s patients would be far more likely to call a retriever a “dog” or an “animal” than “retriever” or “Fred.” In addition, Garrard adds, the words Alzheimer’s patients lose tend to appear less frequently in everyday English than words they keep — an abstract noun like “metamorphosis” might be replaced by “change” or “go.”

Researchers also found the use of specific words decreases and the noun-to-verb ratio changes as more “low image” verbs (be, come, do, get, give, go, have) and indefinite nouns (thing, something, anything, nothing) are used in place of their more unusual brethren. The use of the passive voice falls off markedly as well. People also use more pauses, Garrard says, as “they fish around for words.”

For his analysis of Murdoch, Garrard used a program called Concordance to count word tokens and types in samples of text from three of her novels: her first published effort, Under the Net; a mid-career highlight, The Sea, The Sea, which won the Booker prize in 1978; and her final effort, Jackson’s Dilemma. He found that Murdoch’s vocabulary was significantly reduced in her last book — “it had become very generic,” he says — as compared to the samples from her two earlier books.

Apparently there's a movie about Iris Murdoch too.

Two Illinois anniversaries

First, today is the bicentennial of Illinois becoming a state, which involved a deal to steal Chicago from Wisconsin:

If Illinoisans had played by the rules to get statehood, Chicagoans would be cheeseheads. By all rights, the Wisconsin border should have been set at the southern tip of Lake Michigan when Illinois was admitted into the union, 200 years ago Monday.

That would have made a 60-mile strip of what’s now northern Illinois a part of southern Wisconsin. Stripped of the smokestacks of Chicago’s factories, Illinois’ landscape would have been dominated by grain elevators and dairy barns. But that didn’t happen.

The fix was in, even as the state of Illinois was conceived.

It's a good story. Today is also the 75th anniversary of Pizzeria Uno opening in Chicago, which introduced deep-dish pizza to the masses:

Pizza had been around the city’s Italian cafes for decades.  It was served in tiny wedges, and mainly used as an appetizer.  Even on a full pie the crust was wafer-thin.

The pizza at Pizzeria Uno was going to be different—cooked in a deep dish, with a thick crust and heaps of cheese.  Who came up with this innovative style?  Riccardo?  Sewell?  Their chef, Rudy Malnati?  The debate goes on.

So on a wartime Friday evening in December, Pizzeria Uno opened with little fanfare.  Business was slow at first.  Gradually, Chicago-style pizza caught on.  By 1955, people were lining up outside in the cold, waiting to get in.

Longtime readers know that despite my Chicagoan heritage, I prefer New York-style big slices that you have to drain before eating. Preferrably bought from a window on 3rd Avenue around 4am.

George H.W. Bush, 1924-2018

The 41st president of the United States died last night at the age of 94. President Bill Clinton, who succeeded Bush in 1993, remembers his friend:

No words of mine or others can better reveal the heart of who he was than those he wrote himself. He was an honorable, gracious and decent man who believed in the United States, our Constitution, our institutions and our shared future. And he believed in his duty to defend and strengthen them, in victory and defeat. He also had a natural humanity, always hoping with all his heart that others’ journeys would include some of the joy that his family, his service and his adventures gave him.

His friendship has been one of the great gifts of my life. From Indonesia to Houston, from the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast to Kennebunkport — where just a few months ago we shared our last visit, as he was surrounded by his family but clearly missing Barbara — I cherished every opportunity I had to learn and laugh with him. I just loved him.

We should all give thanks for George H.W. Bush’s long, good life and honor it by searching, as he always did, for the most American way forward.

I voted against Bush in my first election, and helped defeat him in the 1992 campaign. Back then, we opposed people in the other party; we didn't hate them. Bush embodied that decency. He will be missed.

One measure of stiffening support for Trump

New research suggests that men insecure about their masculinity tend to support the president more. No, really:

We found that support for Trump in the 2016 election was higher in areas that had more searches for topics such as “erectile dysfunction.” Moreover, this relationship persisted after accounting for demographic attributes in media markets, such as education levels and racial composition, as well as searches for topics unrelated to fragile masculinity, such as “breast augmentation” and “menopause.”

In contrast, fragile masculinity was not associated with support for Mitt Romney in 2012 or support for John McCain in 2008 — suggesting that the correlation of fragile masculinity and voting in presidential elections was distinctively stronger in 2016.

The same finding emerged in 2018. We estimated levels of fragile masculinity in every U.S. congressional district based on levels in the media markets with which districts overlap.

[I]t remains to be seen whether any link between fragile masculinity and voting will persist after Trump exits the national stage. We suspect, however, that Trump’s re-engineering of the GOP as a party inextricably tied to many Americans’ identity concerns — whether based on race, religion or gender — will ensure that fragile masculinity remains a force in politics.

Again, it's not the size of the correlation that matters, it's how we use the data.

This is why my reading list occupies two whole bookshelves

CityLab describes new Daily Parker bait:

When a new rail or bus line gets built in the United States, its mere opening is often cause for celebration among transit advocates. That’s understandable, given the funding gaps and political opposition that often stymie projects.

But not all trains are bound for glory, and it’s often not hard to see why. In the new book, Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of U.S. Transit (Island Press, $40), Christof Spieler, a Houston-based transit planner, advocate, and former METRO board member, takes stock of the state of American transit with a tough-love approach. In nearly 250 pages of full-color maps, charts, and encyclopedia-style entries, Spieler profiles the 47 American metropolitan regions that have rail or bus rapid transit to show what works, what doesn’t, and why.

But a dunk-fest this is not. Spieler highlights several examples of cities that are often commonly described as transit failures, but where the data tells another story. “Though Los Angeles’ first rail system was gone by 1963, it left a city that is still friendly to transit,” he writes of the iconically car-oriented city. And who knew that Buffalo, New York, and Fort Collins, Colorado, have transit systems to admire? The former may have the shortest and most oddly configured light-rail system in the country, but as it turns out, “Metro Rail outperforms most of the light-rail lines in the United States,” Spieler writes. (It’s also laden with glorious public art, as CityLab’s Mark Byrnes recently noted.) And Fort Collins has top-quality BRT for its size.

So, do I waive the rule against buying more books until half of this shelf is empty? Or do I hold fast and get this book when it goes paperback in a year or two?

Stuff to read later

Of note:

Fun times!