Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A startling mobility of views

The Search for Truths, an essay by Jacques Barzun in The Jacques Barzun Reader by Michael Murray. An essay worth quoting at length. Much wisdom, pithily delivered.
As an historian, I am naturally, professionally, interested in truths - thousands of them - and this interest brings with it several kinds of puzzle. The first is the disentangling of the muddled reports of the past. Another is how to describe faithfully what bygone ages took to be absolute truths, now disbelieved or forgotten. A third is what test of truth to apply in each case. The last and most baffling is to frame a clear idea of what truth actually is.

In any definition of truth, reality is mentioned or implied. What is said to be true must relate to something experienced and must state that experience accurately. Moreover, the whole vast store of recorded truths is supposed to hang together, and every new one must jibe with the rest of them as well. These demands make up a tough assignment, and when one looks at any sizable portion of these claims to truth, one keeps finding a good many more to challenge than to adopt. An obvious sign of this is the amount of nonstop arguing and fighting in the world. Human beings, individually and in groups, are sure that they possess the truth about things here and hereafter, and when they see it doubted or attacked by their neighbors, they find such dissent intolerable and feel that it must be put down.

There is, of course, an obvious exception to this chaos of thought and action. If one measures by the yardstick, then this piece of string is 28 1/2 inches long. One can measure carelessly and make an error, but as soon as it is pointed out, one agrees with the correct answer. Other measures - the meter, the calendar, the clock, the number series, or any other system that rests on common agreement and fixed standards - yield statements that are not denied by anyone in his senses who is familiar with the terms.

These conventions are endlessly useful, both in science and in practical life. But there is a host of equally immediate and important concerns for which no system and no terms have been agreed upon. It is about these interests that the battle of ideas and the bloodshed took place. This in turn tempts one to think that these contested truths are the most important of all. They have to do with religion, art, morals, education, government, and the very definition of man and his nature and his role in the universe.

A cultural historian's work brings him face to face with those passionately held ideas. At a certain time and place, millions of human beings felt sure that a divine revelation proved the existence of God, who dictated all men's beliefs and actions. The uniformity of that faith stamped it as unshakeable truth. After more than a thousand years, some of the descendants of those millions began to question the revelation and all it meant. Since then, there have been many different "truths" about it, each clung to with the same fervor and confidence as before. A like diversity runs through the rest of the culture - in morals, government, and the arts.

The only sure thing is that mankind is eager for truth, lives by it, will not let it go, and turns desperate in the teeth of contradiciton. That may be a noble spectacle, but it is tragic too - and depressing. If, as required, all truths must hang together consistently, it would seem that in religion, art, and the rest, truth has never reigned. Human beings begin to look like incurably misguided seekers for something that never was.

At this point, a small but remarkable group of people put on a superior grin and say: "You forget the method that clears up all doubts and delivers truth on a platter. We scientists are busy taking care of your troubles. Look at what we have done: We have gotten rid of all the follies and superstitions dreamed up about the real world in the first five thousand years of man's existence. Give us a little more time and we will mop up all the other nonsense still in your heads and give you cast-iron truth."

This sounds delightful, but even in those disciplines where exactness and agreement appear at their highest, there is a startling mobility of views. Every day the truths of geology, cosmology, astrophysics, biology, and their sister sciences are upset. The earth is older than was thought; the dinosaurs are younger; the stars in huge galaxies have so much space they can't collide, yet they collide just the same; Mars, after being dry as dust, has liquid water; the human bones in Central Africa do not mean what they were said to mean; a new fossil shows the origin of birds to be different from the origin posited yesterday; as for the speed of light, it can be exceeded. If only the latest is true, then all earlier ideas were hardly better than superstitions.

The condition is still worse in the semi-sciences or psychology and medicine, and confusion grows as we get to the social sciences, ethics, and theology. There are "schools" in each - the telltale sign of uncertainty. The boasts of an earlier day about finding laws governing society and predicting its future have been muted for some time. In history and philosophy, some wise heads have admitted that these laws are not exact transcripts but simply documented visions, respectively, of the past and of Being as a whole. None excludes other accounts of the same particular subject.

A number of scientists have taken time to ponder these puzzles of their own making and have offered two suggestions. One is that science is not description but metaphor. It seems a poor term. A metaphor needs four parts: in "the ship plows the ocean," the ship is likened to a plow and the ocean to a field. The facts and the language of science add up to two parts, not four. Perhaps the meaning is that science is not literal but poetic, its phrasings inspired by observation and calculation. That must be why we now come across the word "charm" and others like it in theoretical physics, a tacit recognition of its suggestive, poetical character.

If so, it also means that reality is beyond our grasp, and truth along with it. Such is, in fact, the other suggested answer to the riddle, which is that there is no need for the idea of reality. From this negative it follows that we should stop being so solemnly intent on truth. Above all, we should stop fighting over tentative notions we believe in. Imagine instead that we are at a picnic, making up disposable fictions about what we see and feel. We then play with the jigsaw, but pieces are missing and others don't fit.

Where does that leave me as an historian who struggles to discover what happened in the past and to make of events and persons some intelligible patterns? First, I am not ready to throw reality into the trash can. I feel it ever present and call it by the more vivd term experience. It includes all my thoughts and feelings, the tabletop and the electrons, light as waves and as particles, the current truths and the past superstitions. The common task, I conclude, is to place each of these within its sphere and on its level; they are incompatible only under a single-track system. One must, moreover, be ready to deal with new paradoxes and contradictions, because experience is neither fixed nor finished; it grows as we make it by our restless search for truth. Truth is a goal and a guide that cannot be dispensed with. The all-doubting skeptics only pretend to do without it.

But we must recognize that our work to attain truth succeeds only piecemeal. Where our hope of truth breaks down is at the stage of making great inferences from well-tested lesser truths. Still, we cannot help inferring. Our love of order impels us to make theories, systems, sets of principles. We need them both for comfort and for action. A society, however pluralist, needs some beliefs in common and will not trust them unless they are labeled truths. It is there that our efforts betray us. Sooner or later, experience jabs us with an event, a feeling, or a perception that shatters the truth-value of the great inferred idea. It is like actually going to the moon or prospecting the planets with a sensor and finding that the entirely logical and satisfying inference is dead wrong. As the historian knows, the breakup of old truths is painful, often bloody, but it does not condemn the search for truth and its recurrent bafflement, which are part of man's fate. It should only strengthen tolerance and make us lessen our pretensions. Just as in the past man was defined as the rational animal and later comers said, "No - only capable of reason," so man should not be called seeker and finder of truth but fallible maker and reviser of truths.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Getting better and more equal

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. Page 19.
In another respect, too, inequality has been retreating. The spread of IQ scores has been shrinking steadily - because the low scores have been catching up with the high ones. This explains the steady, progressive and ubiquitous improvement in the average IQ scores people achieve at a given age - at a rate of 3 per cent per decade. In two Spanish studies, IQ proved to be 9.7 points higher after thirty years, most of it among the least intelligent half of the group. Known as the Flynn effect, after James Flynn who first drew attention to it, this phenomenon was at first dismissed as an artefact of changes in tests, or a simple reflection of longer or better schooling. But the facts do not fit such explanations because the effect is consistently weakest in the cleverest children and in the tests that relate most to educational content. It is a levelling-up caused by an equalisation of nutrition, stimulation or diversity of childhood experience. You can, of course, argue that IQ may not be truly representative of intelligence, but you cannot argue that something is getting better - and more equal at the same time.

Die Ente

I once spoke German with some fluency - more correctly, I once passed a fluency exam in German. An interesting language of a fascinating and impressive culture. I still have very occasional opportunities to use my remaining German.

A theme that recurs in some of my posts is the role of serendipity in life. The more intensely one leads life, the greater one reads, the more likely there will be improbable coincidences. Sometimes that serendipity is momentous, sometimes inconsequential but intriguing. The following falls into the latter category.

Yesterday I was reading an interesting article, Immanuel Kant's Guide to a Good Dinner Party. At the end of the essay is a brief remark on Kant's humor, hinging on a circumlocutious play on the German and English words for Ant, Aunt, Ente and Duck. It registered in my mind simply because I had forgotten the word for duck in German was Die Ente. That, and the fact that it was a reminder not to expect too much slapstick humor at the dining table of a German philosopher.
Kant, by the way, at one point gives an example of a joke he apparently thought very good and that he apparently heard told at a dinner party. Countess von Keyserling was visited by Count Sagramoso, who knew only broken German; at the time a schoolmaster came by who was putting together a natural history collection in Hamburg and therefore had birds on the brain. In order to make conversation, the Count said, "I have an aunt in Hamburg, but she is dead." To which the schoolmaster replied, "Why didn't you have her skinned and stuffed?" The Count had used an anglicism, Ant, for the German word for 'aunt', Tante and the schoolmaster had heard Ente (duck) instead of Ant (aunt). Life of the party; that's Kant.

Now it is some thirty years since I received instruction in German, and probably close to that since I last encountered Die Ente.

Today I was glancing over an essay, How to Learn Facts by Steven Dutch, a professor at the University of Wisconsin. With my oldest just having started college, pursuing an engineering degree and likely being deluged by facts, I was considering whether he might find it interesting. There, lurking in the middle of the essay:

The interesting thing is that when information is fully learned, it actually travels in a loop in the brain. You get new data in an often passive way (reading, hearing in lecture). Thinking about what it means leads to ideas about what you can do with the information. If the application is enticing enough, you try it out. If it works, the learning has been powerfully reinforced. If not, you have to go back, review what you learned, and try again.

Example: you learn that the German word for "duck" is "die Ente." The integration part isn't all that challenging. Later that day you see a duck in the park, think "I just learned that word" and say to a classmate "Das ist eine Ente." You now have reinforced the learning with a concrete, successful application.

So what are the odds that, knowing the word Die Ente but not having used it for some thirty years, I should come across two instances of it in the space of twenty-four hours. As astronomical as those odds might be, what then are the odds that the experience should so nearly mirror the example being offered in the second instance? Close to impossible one would say, but there you have it. We look for patterns and meaning but sometimes life just gives us improbabilities.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Such immortal vermin

There is nobody like Mencken to put an argument so robustly that even if you agree with him to a point, you still shrink back from his articulation. Mencken, reporting on the Scopes trial in his column, Homo Neanderthalensis:
Such obscenities as the forthcoming trial of the Tennessee evolutionist, if they serve no other purpose, at least call attention dramatically to the fact that enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed. It is common to assume that human progress affects everyone -- that even the dullest man, in these bright days, knows more than any man of, say, the Eighteenth Century, and is far more civilized. This assumption is quite erroneous. The men of the educated minority, no doubt, know more than their predecessors, and of some of them, perhaps, it may be said that they are more civilized -- though I should not like to be put to giving names -- but the great masses of men, even in this inspired republic, are precisely where the mob was at the dawn of history. They are ignorant, they are dishonest, they are cowardly, they are ignoble. They know little if anything that is worth knowing, and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge.

Such immortal vermin, true enough, get their share of the fruits of human progress, and so they may be said, in a way, to have their part in it. The most ignorant man, when he is ill, may enjoy whatever boons and usufructs modern medicine may offer -- that is, provided he is too poor to choose his own doctor. He is free, if he wants to, to take a bath. The literature of the world is at his disposal in public libraries. He may look at works of art. He may hear good music. He has at hand a thousand devices for making life less wearisome and more tolerable: the telephone, railroads, bichloride tablets, newspapers, sewers, correspondence schools, delicatessen. But he had no more to do with bringing these things into the world than the horned cattle in the fields, and he does no more to increase them today than the birds of the air.

On the contrary, he is generally against them, and sometimes with immense violence. Every step in human progress, from the first feeble stirrings in the abyss of time, has been opposed by the great majority of men. Every valuable thing that has been added to the store of man's possessions has been derided by them when it was new, and destroyed by them when they had the power. They have fought every new truth ever heard of, and they have killed every truth-seeker who got into their hands.

Re-establishing our former ignorance

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799)
Today we are trying to spread knowledge everywhere. Who knows if in centuries to come there will not be universities for re-establishing our former ignorance?

Somtimes it seems as if we may have arrived at that date.

define: Amphigoric

From Unnatural Causes by P.D. James.
The snippets of information, most of which changed subtly in the telling and some of which were founded on hope rather than fact, built up an incomplete and amphigoric picture.

From The Free Dictionary:
a. 1. Nonsensical; absurd; pertaining to an amphigory.

Not because men will become better

From Anatole France in Sur la Pierre blanche:
Universal peace will come about one day, not because men will become better (one cannot hope for that) but because a new order of things, new science, new economic needs, will impose a state of peace on them, just as the very conditions of their existence formerly placed and maintained them in a state of war.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A story is a doorway

By Richard Peck? From his Ezra Jack Keats Lecture:
A story is a doorway
That opens on a wider place;
A story is a mirror
To reflect the reader's face.

A story is a question
You hadn't thought to ponder;
A story is a pathway
Inviting you to wander.

A story is a window,
A story is a key,
A story is a lighthouse
Beaming out to sea.

A story's a beginning,
A story is an end,
And in the story's middle
You might just find a friend.

A shore alien, eerie, and utterly desolate

From Unnatural Causes by P.D. James.

A marvelous description of the North Sea along England's East Anglia, a region where I have visited and even spent a year in boarding school.
Buffeted and foam-flecked, he squelched onward over the shingle finding the occasional and welcome stretch of firm serrated sand, and pausing from time to time to watch the smooth green underbelly of the waves as they rose in their last curve before crashing at his feet, in a tumult of flying shingle and stinging spray. It was a lonely shore, empty and desolate, like the last fringes of the world. It evoked no memories, cosily nostalgic, of the enchantments of childhood holidays by the sea. Here were no rockpools to explore, no exotic shells, no breakwaters festooned with sea weed, no long stretches of yellow sand sliced by innumerable spades. Here was nothing but sea, sky and marshland, an empty beach with little to mark the miles of outspate shingle but the occasional tangle of tar-splotched driftwood and rusting spikes of old fortifications. Dalgliesh loved this emptiness, this fusion of sea and sky. But today the place held no peace for him. He saw it suddenly with new eyes, a shore alien, eerie, and utterly desolate.

As long as we cannot prophesy

From Jacques Barzun's Teacher in America:
As long as we cannot prophesy who will turn out a winner, we have no right to question initiative and self-dedication.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Remarkably, astonishingly, dramatically positive

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. Page 12. A very extended quote. What Ridley has to say is often overlooked or discounted - we are all far better off than we were only a generation or two ago. What is also interesting is the means by which Ridley seeks to communicate this message (oddly unwelcome and disputed in some quarters). First he uses the ancient method of telling a story and then he uses the modern approach of telling the story through numbers: he pursues Aristotle's two classes of knowledge, rhetoric and analytic.
This should not need saying, but it does. There are people today who think life was better in the past. They argue that there was not only a simplicity, tranquillity, sociability and spirituality about life in the distant past that has been lost, but a virtue too. The rose-tinted nostalgia, please note, is generally confined to the wealthy. It is easier to wax elegiac for the life of a peasant when you do not have to use a long-drop toilet. Imagine that it is 1800, somewhere in Western Europe or eastern North America. The family is gathering around the hearth in the simple timber-framed house. Father reads aloud from the Bible while mother prepares to dish out a stew of beef and onions. The baby boy is being comforted by one of his sisters and the eldest lad is pouring water from a pitcher into the earthenware mugs on the table. His elder sister is feeding the horse in the stable. Outside there is no noise of traffic, there are no drug dealers and neither dioxins nor radioactive fall-out have been found in the cow's milk. All is tranquil; a bird sings outside the window.

Oh please! Though this is one of the better-off families in the village, father's Scripture reading is interrupted by a bronchitic cough that presages the pneumonia that will kill him at 53 - not helped by the wood smoke of the fire. (He is lucky: life expectancy even in England was less than 40 in 1800.) The baby will die of the smallpox that is now causing him to cry; his sister will soon be chattel of a drunken husband. The water the son is pouring tastes of the cows that drink from the brook. Toothache tortures the mother. The neighbour's lodger is getting the other girl pregnant in the hayshed even now and her child will be sent to an orphanage. The stew is grey and gristly yet meat is a rare change from gruel; there is no fruit or salad this season. It is eaten with a wooden spoon from a wooden bowl. Candles cost too much, so firelight is all there is to see by. Nobody in the family has ever seen a play, painted a picture or heard a piano. School is a few years of dull Latin taught by a bigoted martinet at the vicarage. Father visited the city once, but the travel cost him a week's wages and the others have never travelled more than fifteen miles from home. Each daughter owns two wool dresses, two linen shirts and one pair of shoes. Father's jacket cost him a month's wages but is now infested with lice. The children sleep two to a bed on straw mattresses on the floor. As for the bird outside the window, tomorrow it will be trapped and eaten by the boy.

If my fictional family is not to your taste, perhaps you prefer statistics. Since 1800, the population of the world has multiplied six times, yet average life expectancy has more than doubled and real income has risen more than nine times. Taking a shorter perspective, in 2005, compared with 1955, the average human being on Planet Earth earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children and could expect to live one-third longer. She was less likely to die as a result of war, murder, childbirth, accidents, tornadoes, flooding, famine, whooping cough, tuberculosis, malaria, diptheria, typhus, typhoid, measles, smallpox, curvy or polio. She was less likely, at any given age, to get cancer, heart disease or stroke. She was more likely to be literate and to have finished school. She was more likely to own a telephone, a flush toilet, a refrigerator and a bicycle. All this during a half-century when the world population has more than doubled, so that far from being rationed by population pressure, the goods and services available to the people of the world have expanded. It is by any standard, an astonishing human accomplishment.

Averages conceal a lot. But even if you break down the world into bits, it is hard to find any region that was worse off in 2005 than it was in 1955. Over that half-century, real income per head ended a little lower in only six countries (Afghanistan, Haiti, Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Somalia), life expectancy in three (Russia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe), and infant survival in none. In the rest they have rocketed upward. Africa's rate of improvement has been distressingly slow and patchy compared with the rest of the world, and many southern African countries saw life expectancy plunge in the 1990s as the AIDS epidemic took hold (before recovering in recent years). There were also moments in the half-century when you could have caught countries in episodes of dreadful deterioration of living standards or life chances - China in the 1960s, Cambodia in the 1970s, Ethiopia in the 1980s, Rwanda in the 1990s, Congo in the 2000s, North Korea throughout. Argentina had a disapointingly stagnant twentieth century. But overall, after fifty years, the outcome for the world is remarkably, astonishingly, dramatically positive. The average South Korean lives twenty-six more years and earns fifteen times as much as income each year as he did in 1955 (and earns fifteen times as much as his North Korean counterpart). The average Mexican lives longer now than the average Britain did in 1955. The average Botswanan earns more than the average Finn did in 1955. Infant mortality is lower in Nepal today than it was in Italy in 1951. The proportion of Vietnamese living on less than $2 a day has dropped from 90 per cent to 30 per cent in twenty years.

The rich have got richer, but the poor have done even better. The poor in the developing world grew their consumption twice as fast as the world as a whole between 1980 and 2000. The Chinese are ten times as rich, one-third as fecund and twenty-eight years longer-lived than they were in 1955. Despite a doubliing of the world population, even the raw number of people living in absolute poverty (defined as less than a 1985 dollar a day) has fallen since the 1950s. The percentage living in such absolute poverty has dropped by more than half - to less than 18 per cent.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Confusing possibility with inevitability

From Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment. Contra Malcolm Gladwell's argument in Outliers. Murray argues for the weight of accomplishment to tilt toward the individual, Malcolm that it should tilt more toward the circumstances. Of course it is neither one or the other - sometimes independent discoveries are almost mystically contemporaneous, it is clear there was some element of inevitability. Sometimes those discoveries are uniquely individual. Murray:
The second blind spot is the tendency to confuse that which has been achieved with that which must inevitably have been achieved. It is easy to assume that someone like Aristotle was not so much brilliant as fortunate in being born when he was. A number of basic truths were going to be figured out early in mankind's intellectual history, and Aristotle gave voice to some of them first. If he hadn't, someone else soon would have. But is that really true? Take as an example the discovery of formal logic in which Aristotle played such a crucial role. Nobody had discovered logic (that we know of) in the civilizations of the preceding five millennia. Thinkers in the non-Western world had another two millennia after Aristotle to discover formal logic independently, but they didn't. Were we in the West "bound" to discover logic because of some underlying aspect of Western culture? Maybe, but what we know for certain is that the invention of logic occurred in only one time and one place, that it was done by a handful of individuals, and that it changed the history of the world. Saying that a few ancient Greeks merely got there first isn't adequate acknowledgement of their leap of imagination and intellect.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Few things were more demoralizing

Death of an Expert Witness by P.D. James. p.25
Few things were more demoralizing than to stand uselessly by while other men demonstrated their professional competence.

Probably explains why politicians have such trouble leaving well-enough alone.

Electronic Home Library (1959)

From Matt Novak's Paleo-Future blog, a recollection of the past's anticipation of a future library, Electronic Home Library (1959):


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Irrational optimism

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. Page 9.

Had I only known it, experiments in laboratories by the economist Vernon Smith and his colleagues have long confirmed that markets in goods and services for immediate consumption - haircuts and hamburgers - work so well that it is hard to design them so they fail to deliver efficiency and innovation; while markets in assets are so automatically prone to bubbles and crashes that it is hard to design them so they work at all. Speculation, herd exuberance, irrational optimism, rent-seeking and the temptation of fraud drive asset markets to overshoot and plunge - which is why they need careful regulation, something I always supported. (Markets in goods and services need less regulation.)

This touches on the crux of the issue regarding cultivating a culture of enthusiastic reading - the trade-off between the present and the future, the trade-off between the tactical and the strategic.

Learning to read is like goods and services for immediate consumption. All OECD countries achieve nearly uniform levels of technical reading capability, i.e. 99% of the population can read at a fifth grade level. Most countries are pretty effective at teaching the skill of reading.

Cultivating the culture and behaviors that reinforce continued habitual and enthusiastic reading is a different matter entirely. It is much more like markets in assets, "prone to bubbles and crashes", "herd exuberance, irrational optimism", etc. Cultivating the culture of habitual and enthusiastic reading involves (unlike immediate consumption) trading off present goods for probable future value and requiring tactical sacrifices for strategic gains. It is all about trade-offs and risk taking. Do I keep reading to my child or do I force him to do more reading for himself? Do I allow them to read what they want or what I think is good for them? Is it worth my time reading myself so that my child has a role-model? How much money do I spend on providing an environment rich in books when I know that my child won't necessarily enjoy all of those books?

These are all trade-off and risk taking decisions. There are some heuristic rules of thumb that are useful (see Growing a Reading Culture: Just for Parents) but there are no gurantees. Just like asset markets - past performance is no guarantee of future outcomes. Individual judgment and weighing of options rules over simple analytic algorithms.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Epochcentric bias

From Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment. A very intriguing and rigorous discussion of what constitutes accomplishment, how do we measure it, and how do we explain it.

Such lists exhibit the same bias that plagues more sophisticated histories and chronologies, found whenever historiometricians have looked for it: The recent past gets more attention than it will prove in the long run to have deserved. Dean Simonton, one of the first scholars to document this effect, named it epochcentric bias. The magnitude of the bias for general histories is large. Two scholars who measured it for a news almanac published in 1978 found the decay in attention given to preceding eras to be exponential. Applying their findings, the implication is that (for example), the half-century from 1800-1850 gets only 35 percent as much coverage as 1900-1950, for reasons having nothing to do with the potential amount of material that might have been included, but simply because those events were a century further back in time.

Learning involves processing information

From Literacy and Intrinsic Motivation by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
In a series of studies based on in-depth interviews in various cultures of the world, including India, Thailand, the American Southwest, and various European countries, a team of psychologists from the University of Milan concluded that reading was one of the most ubiquitous and widespread activities people did for sheer enjoyment.

But what constitutes a challenge? This question raises the most profound issue in the theory of motivation, and points to the pons asinorum where so many well-intentioned educational programs fall. The problem is that the same thing will be an attractive challenge to one person and a bothersome nuisance to another. Imagine leaving a copy of Livy's Histories among the magazines in a doctor's waiting room, and then observing the reaction of the patients. Most people will look puzzled as they start thumbing through the pages, and quickly replace the book on the table with a faint air of having been insulted. Perhaps one person in a hundred - or a thousand? - after the initial puzzlement will start reading, and eventually get immersed in the book. Why would this imaginary person find Livy challenging, while everyone else did not?

A related outcome is that flow provides a sense of control even when the person is involved in dangerous activities such as spelunking, sky diving, or rock climbing. Because these activities are clearly demarcated, and the appropriate rules are identified, the participant is able to anticipate risks and minimize the unexpected. Besides, there is just too much to do to worry about failure. Those individuals who cannot keep their attention concentrated on the task at hand start worrying about the possibility of losing control. They do not enjoy the activity and eventually drop it.

A matching of challenges and skills, clear goals, and immediate feedback, resulting in a deep concentration that prevents worry and the intrusion of unwanted thoughts into consciousness, and in a transcendance of the self, are the universal characteristics associated with enjoyable activities. When these dimesions of experience are present, the activity becomes autotelic, or rewarding in itself.

It is important to note that what people enjoy the most in their lives is almost never something passive, like watching television or being entertained. When reading is enjoyed, it is active reading, which involves choosing the book, indentifying with the characters, trying to recreate visually the places and the events described, anticipating turns of the plot, and responding with empathy, yet critically, to the writer's craft. Nor is enjoyment the same as pleasure. Flow requires the use of skills and depends on gradual increments of challenges and skills so that boredom or anxiety will not take over. Pleasure, on the other hand, is homeostatic: pleasurable experiences like resting when tired, drinking when thirsty, or having sex when aroused do not require complex skills and can be repeated over and over without losing ther rewarding quality. For this very reason, pleasure does not drive us to develop new potentialities and thus does not lead to personal growth.

Reading cannot be enjoyable unless the student can imagine, at least in principle, that the symbol system of letters is worth mastering for its own sake. If the child knows adults he respects who read, he will take it for granted that reading is worthwhile.

Learning involves processing information. Complex information processing requires the allocation of attention to the task. There cannot be any learning unless a person is willing to invest attention in a symbolic system. Human behavior is determined in all sorts of ways, but in one sense, for better or worse, we are relatively free: short of torture or other drastic means, no one can force us to pay attention to something unless we want to. The old saying "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink" is really a metaphor for the human ability to "tune out" at will. And that is what students usually do when the material fails to interest them - which is what invariably happens when challenges are either much too high, or much too low, relative to their skills.

Even talented students in mathematics and science (who score in the upper 5 percent of national norms in these subjects) generally report overwhelming challenges when involved with math and science, and only rarely report matching challenges and skills. As a result, their self-ratings of intrinsic motivation are very significantly below baseline when involved in the area of their talent. (Conversely, students talented in the arts or in music - that is, in fields which notoriously lack extrensic rewards such as status or monetary incentives - show an opposite trend: challenges and skills are usually in balance when students do art or music in school, and consequently their level of intrinsic motivation is much above baseline when involved with their talent. These findings help flesh out the distinction between "hard" sciences and the arts).

It is not only the lack of balance between skills and challenges that detracts from intrinsic motivation in learning. The second condition that makes flow possible is the clarity of goals and the immediacy of feedback. Both of these are usually lacking in formal learning settings.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The craft of written words

From Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound:
Hearken to the plight
Of man, in whom, born witless as a babe,
I planted mind and the gift of understanding.
I speak of men with no intent to blame
But to expound my gracious services:
Who first, with eyes to see, did see in vain,
With ears to hear, did hear not, but as shapes
Figured in dreams throughout their mortal span
Confounded all things, knew not how to raise
Brick-woven walls sun-warmed, nor build in wood
But had their dwelling, like the restless ant,
In sunless nooks of subterranean caves.
No token sure they had of winter's cold,
No herald of the flowery spring or season
Of ripening fruit, but laboured without wit
In all their works, till I revealed the obscure
Risings and settings of the stars of heaven.
Yea, and the art of number, arch-device,
I founded, and the craft of written words,
The world's recorder, mother of the Muse.

Human intentions

Cicero, Pro Murena -
Nothing is more unreliable than the people [or populace, or masses], nothing more obscure than human intentions, nothing more deceptive than the system of elections.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The consolation of imaginary things . . .

From The Murder Room by P.D. James.
I remembered some words I'd read written by a philosopher, I think Roger Scruton. 'The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.'

Roger Scruton - Wikipedia entry.


We are bounded by nature but not predestined by it.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Specialisation encouraged innovation

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley on extrasomatic evolution. Page 7.
By exchanging, human beings discovered 'the division of labour', the specialisation of efforts and talents for mutual gain. It would at first have seemed an insiginificant thing, missed by passing primatologists had they driven their time machines to the moment it was just starting. It would have seemed much less interesting than the ecology, hierarchy and supersistitions of the species. But some ape-men had begun exchanging food or tools with others in such a way that both partners to the exchange were better off, and both were becoming more specialised.

Specialisation encouraged innovation, because it encouraged the investment of time in a tool-making tool. That saved time, and prosperity is simply time saved, which is proportional to the division of labour. The more human beings diversififed as consumers and specialised as producers, and the more they then exchanged, the better they have been, are and will be. And the good news is that there is no inevitable end to this process.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

I wonder what turns of fate have protected it

A story of a remarkable life and the survival of a book across seven centuries. The Book of Michael of Rhodes: A Fifteenth-Century Maritime Manuscript is reviewed by Anna Marie Gillis in her article, Sailor of Fortune in Humanities magazine.
Michael of Rhodes wrote down that he had signed on as an oarsman with a Venetian galley in Manfredonia on the coast of Apulia, in southern Italy, before arriving in his new home city in June 1401. From then until 1443, he served on forty-three voyages and reached the highest ranks attainable to a man not born of Venice's noble families. He fought the Turks and the Genoese, served in a fleet that carried a papal delegation, and navigated the Mediterranean and the Atlantic to Flanders and England. His private life too was eventful: He lost two wives and at least one child while he was away at sea.

Other men who advanced in the Venetian fleet would have also fought, traded goods, and observed the pomp displayed for papal personages; some certainly would have had wives and children to mourn in the age before medical miracles. But the contrast between Michael being a man of war and a scribe has completely hooked me in a way that the imagined stories of his peers cannot. He must have had remarkable patience first to study and then to make a book, draw and paint its illustrations, and write page after page in a tiny, neat hand on unlined paper during 'wet winters.

I'm also captivated by the life of his manuscript. I wonder what turns of fate have protected it and who has touched it. Prior to the Dibner's efforts, the manuscript had never undergone scholarly dissection, although its existence was well known. Federico Patetta, a collector and member of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Turin, had held it in the early twentieth century, and the manuscript sold at Sotheby's in 1966 and again in 2000 to private collectors.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

We do not all desire the same things

C.S. Lewis in Willing Slaves of the Welfare State:
Progress means movement in a desirerd direction, and we do not all desire the same things for our species.

The company of adults a strain

From Unnatural Causes by P.D. James.
Digby watched him with the puzzled and slightly apprehensive air of a small boy who has found the company of adults a strain but isn't sure that he actually wants them to leave.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A man that is young in years, may be old in hours

From Francis Bacon's Of Youth and Age
A man that is young in years, may be old in hours, if he have lost no time. But that happeneth rarely.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The causal process is circular

From Contexts of Optimal Growth in Childhood by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Persons who are willing to invest attention in the creation of a community are likely to trust their neighbors, to have a sense of autonomy, initiative, and industry - in fact, they are likely to be those individuals whose childhood conditions resembled the ideal. So the causal process is circular: an effective problem-solving community is needed to provide optimal conditions for childhood growth, but optimal childhood conditions are needed to have an effective community. In organic systems this is often the case; one must somehow cut into the circle of causality to get the process on the right track, and then keep it going.

Community as the basis for epistemology

From Contexts of Optimal Growth in Childhood by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Every individual must question the values and norms of the community, and there are times when one must stand up in opposition to the group, whatever the personal costs. But even our precious individuality is the result of interacting with others in a mutually binding relationship. C.S. Pierce and Karl Popper saw community as the basis for epistemology: our sense of what is real and what is true comes from matching our individual expreience with the experiences of others; Hannah Arendt believed we create our selves through action in the "public sphere," with its unique opportunities for learning about ourselves from the feedback given by impartial others.

See What Other People Say May Change What You See by Sandra Blakeslee for related observations.

The problem of predicting what will last

The problem of predicting what will last by Allan Massie in the January 4th, 2000 edition of the Daily Telegraph.
Each week for the past two years The Daily Telegraph's literary editor has asked a contributor to name and describe his or her "Book of the Century", and today the series concludes with Arthur C. Clarke's choice. The full selection invites comparison with a list drawn up by The Telegraph a century ago; we print both here.

The comparison cannot, however, be exact. All the books chosen in 1899 were fiction - the paper offered its readers the "100 Best Novels in the World", selected by the editor "with the assistance of Sir Edwin Arnold, K. C. I. E, H. D. Traill, D. C. L, and W. L. Courtney, LL. D.".

The modern list includes poetry, plays, history, diaries, philosophy, economics, memoirs, biography and travel writing. It is certainly eclectic, ranging from Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, selected by David Sylvester, to The Wind in the Willows, chosen by John Bayley, and Down with Skool, Wendy Cope's Book of the Century.

Read the whole thing.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Transition from a human context

From Contexts of Optimal Growth in Childhood by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
One of the least noticed changes in the last hundred years or so has been a transition from a human context ruled by face-to-face interactions and the weight of public opinion to an anonymous social context ruled by abstract laws and institutional rules. In the past, entire communities exercised selective pressures on individual behavior; now much of what we do goes on unobserved and unjedged by others. Of course, this means that we are relieved of the weight of conformity that pressed so heavily on face-to-face communities; on the other hand, we are also unable to effectively influence behavior that conflicts with the common good.

Before setting out to find the solution

From Finding in History the Right to Estimate by Shirley Brice Heath.
Yet, cognitive theorists, developmental psychologists, and anthropologists have shown repeatedly that formal educational learning has relatively little direct application to complex problem-solving or to the pragmatic reasoning and communication needs of adult life (Schwebel, et al., Sternberg and Frensch). A substantial reason for the failure of academic learning to carry over into other areas of life has to do with the fact that in formal education, problem-solving comes after someone else has constructed the problem. Learning beyond formal education comes more often through the need - for the individual in either isolation or in collaboration - to isolate, identify, and shape the problem before setting out to find solutions.

The Orc-Urizen cycle

From The Anti-Teleological Dialogism of the Imagination in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by Steven M. Streufert.
As these states are cyclic, not linear or mutually exclusive, so are they constantly reflective of one another, discursive and commingling. This cycle repeats itself throughout Blake's work, arising most notably and significantly as the Orc-Urizen cycle, wherein no rational ordering of the universe can exist for long at the expense of rampant energy without giving rise to new generative and imaginative profusions. No telos may long stand, as with any other trope or passing fashion. These made meanings feed upon one another, need one another, as they continuously reconstitute the very fabric of both organic reality and human society and understanding. The result is best represented by and understood as a fugue, a melding of seeming opposites in a complex, higher order of being within which forces and states of being are collaborative and mutually informative.

With his nasty hair and hands

Harsh Lesson by Ellen Handler Spitz in The New Republic, April 15, 2010, reviewing the history and nature of the spritely controversial perennial favorite of children, Struwwelpeter.
Humorous, whimsical, outrageous, and bursting with wild exaggeration as well as with an undeniable and notorious streak of terror, Struwwelpeter is in truth a delight. It grips child readers and teaches them not only about the baleful consequences of misbehavior, but also about the subtle lesson that art is made up of powerful contradictory feelings and ideas: that art and literature can be both grim and funny, frightening and cheerful, momentous and banal - like myths and legends and fairy tales.

Here is just a snippet of the Struwwelpeter prose.

Just look at him! there he stands,
With his nasty hair and hands.
See! his nails are never cut;
They are grimed as black as soot;
And the sloven, I declare,
Never once has combed his hair;
Anything to me is sweeter
Than to see Shock-headed Peter.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Focused attention

From Contexts of Optimal Growth in Childhood by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
It could be said that the optimal human growth environment is an extension of the Aristotelian maxim of "nothing to excess." While it seems like an easy prescription to follow, in reality it is not. The catch is that in order to provide the best range of opportunities to a developing child, the caretakers have to invest a great deal of attention into monitoring both the child and the environment, to make sure that the latter is neither too threatening, nor too barren, in relation to the former. And as we know all too well, if there is one thing parents are not willing to sacrifice for their children's sake, even when they can afford it, it is their own time. Yet it is the focused attention of caring adults that a child needs most if he or she is to develop a positive attitude towards the world.

That snarky comment regarding "as we know all too well . . . " is based on time studies showing how little time teens spend interacting with their parents.

This echoes the new data arising from studies which indicate the degree of influence focused attention on children has, particularly in the first year: Studies Show Talking With Infants Shapes Basis of Ability to Think by Sandra Blakeslee

Red of tooth and claw

From Contexts of Optimal Growth in Childhood by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
The process of societal regulation can only take spontaneously when there is an intact community responsible for its own self-preservation. When social structure is changing too rapidly, when there are no legitimate lines of authority, when norms fluctuate and have no hold on members' behavior, the safeguards against over-reproduction are undermined, and the conditions are set for a return to a state of nature "red of tooth and claw."

Cameos in history

Every now and then you come across some figure in a history of whom you would like to know more. Someone interesting and improbable. Most recently, I came across John Harriott. P.D. James (the mystery writer) and T.A. Critchley wrote a book, The Maul and the Pear Tree, in 1971 recounting and reconstructing a brutal set of murders, the Radcliffe Highway murders which occurred in 1811 in dockside London.

John Harriott was the man in charge of the Thames River Police. Born in the 1750's he had led an interesting life. His peripatetic wanderings seem so improbable but there they are.
Harriott joined the Navy as a boy and sailed to the West Indies. He was shipwrecked off the Levant, then served under Admiral Pocock at the taking of Havana and again at the capture of Newfoundland. When peace came he enlisted as first mate in the Merchant Navy, lived for some time with the American Indians, then suddenly re-appeared in the East as a soldier, where he was acting chaplain and Deputy Judge Advocate. Sent to quell a refractory rajah, he sustained a matchlock wound in the leg, sailed off to Sumatra and the Cape, then after a spell in the wine trade settled down to farm in Essex, where he became a magistrate. In 1790 the farm was destroyed by fire. Harriott emigrated to the United States, returned after five years to England, and then (in 1798) helped Patrick Colquhoun to plan the River Police, with its headquarters in Wapping. In 1811 he was sixty-six; a flamboyant, brave, crafty old buccaneer, a founding father of the first British Empire, typecast for the pages of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Friday, August 13, 2010


From Contexts of Optimal Growth in Childhood by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
The Greeks had a clearer idea of how impoverished a life outside the community can be; they called "idiots" those who lived outside the norms of their peers.

Transmitting extrasomatic information

From Contexts of Optimal Growth in Childhood by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
As the importance of cultural values increases, our attitudes about children are bound to become more complex. When only biological evolution is at stake, the issues are quite simple: those individuals whose genes spread relatively more frequently in the succeeding generations are the most "successful." The prolific inherit the earth. But to the degree that culture makes us self-reflective, and the quality of life gains in importance relative to its sheer quantity, reproductive success begins to be defined in terms of the values our children learn, the skills they acquire, the happiness they experience throughout their lives. It is no longer enough to scatter one's genes into the future; it becomes important to project one's memes as well. Reproductive success is not simply a matter of passing on chemical information coded on chromosomes, but involves transmitting extrasomatic information coded in words, works, and behavoral models.

Where you are now depends on where you've been

From Studies Show Talking With Infants Shapes Basis of Ability to Think by Sandra Blakeslee.
The brain is a self-organizing system, Dr. Thelen said, whose many parts co-operate to produce coherent behavior. There is no master program pulling it together but rather the parts self-organize. '"What we know about these systems is that they are very sensitive to initial conditions,"' Dr. Thelen said. "Where you are now depends on where you've been."

How the past has shaped our behavior

From Ernest A. Vargas' article Cultural Contingencies: A Review of Marvin Harris's Cannibals and Kings.
We want and require a determination of the future in which we are aware of what might happen. In practical terms this means simply that we can tell ourselves the possible consequences of our actions prior to their occurring. In this way we come under current control of what could be said to be verbal surrogates of the future.

Harris, too, believes in the potential importance of verbal behavior: "To change the world in a conscious way one must first have a conscious understanding of what the world is like (p. 194)."

In short, we can design our future if we know how the past has shaped our behavior and the present controls it.


We see patterns in retrospect that we could not have recognized a priori.

The metropolitan who lacks urbanity

Jill Lepore wrote an article in the April 19, 2010 edition of The New Yorker, Untimely: What was at Stake in the Spate Between Henry Luce and Harod Ross. Each publisher, Luce with Time magazine and Ross with The New Yorker sought to distinguish themselves from the other.
In 1923, Luce started Time, a magazine meant to "appeal to every man and woman in America." Two years later, Ross launched The New Yorker, which he described - in a prospectus, in the inaugural issue, and on posters pasted all over New York - as the magazine that is "not edited for the old lady in Dubuque."

The editors of Time wrote a faux article claiming some correspondence with an old lady in Dubuque. Having purportedly sent her an edition of The New Yorker, her supposed response as recorded in the article was:

The editors of the periodical you forwarded are, I understand, members of a literary clique," she wired. "They should learn that there is no provincialism so blatant as that of the metropolitan who lacks urbanity."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

They see themselves as readers

Interesting news from a column by David Brooks in The New York Times, July 8, 2010, The Medium is the Medium. This is consistent with and supportive of the recommendations in Growing A Reading Culture.
Recently, book publishers got some good news. Researchers gave 852 disadvantaged students 12 books (of their own choosing) to take home at the end of the school year. They did this for three successive years.

Then the researchers, led by Richard Allington of the University of Tennessee, looked at those students' test scores. They found that the students who brought the books home had significantly higher reading scores than other students. These students were less affected by the "summer slide" - the decline that especially afflicts lower-income students during the vacation months. In fact, just having those 12 books seemed to have as much positive effect as attending summer school.

This study, along with many others, illustrates the tremendous power of books. We already knew, from research in 27 countries, that kids who grow up in a home with 500 books stay in school longer and do better. This new study suggests that introducing books into homes that may not have them also produces significant educational gains.

But there was one interesting observation made by a philanthropist who gives books to disadvantaged kids. It's not the physical presence of the books that produces the biggest impact, she suggested. It's the change in the way the students see themselves as they build a home library. They see themselves as readers, as members of a different group.

The Internet-versus-books debate is conducted on the supposition that the medium is the message. But sometimes the medium is just the medium. What matters is the way people think about themselves while engaged in the two activities. A person who becomes a citizen of the literary world enters a hierarchical universe. There are classic works of literature at the top and beach reading at the bottom.

A person enters this world as a novice, and slowly studies the works of great writers and scholars. Readers immerse themselves in deep, alternative worlds and hope to gain some lasting wisdom. Respect is paid to the writers who transmit that wisdom.

A 2 percent chance of falling into poverty

I had mentioned before finding and then immediately losing track of source data that bore out a contention I had heard my father advance when I was young: "If you graduate highschool, get married and stay married, and get a job and keep a job, any job, you won't be poor." I have now come across, not the original data but the reported work of a researcher that has done that analysis. From Family Matters by Ron Haskins:
In our recently published book Creating an Opportunity Society, my Brookings colleague Isabel Sawhill and I analyze data from the Census Bureau to show that if young people finish high school, get a job, and get married before they have children, they have about a 2 percent chance of falling into poverty and nearly a 75 percent chance of joining the middle class by earning $50,000 or more per year.

Rags to riches

An interesting perspective. From the executive summary of Economic Mobility of Families Across Generations from the Pew Charitable Trust:

The "rags to riches" story is much more common in Hollywood than on Main Street. Only 6 percent of children born to parents with family income at the very bottom move to the very top.

Only? I would have said that for 6% from among the most impoverished in the nation to move to the richest in the nation in a single lifetime demonstrates a remarkable mobility.

Healthy, wealthy, and wise

An interesting juxtaposition over the past couple of days of old heuristic decision making processes. Healthy Lifestyles On Decline in United States from FuturePundit identifies five simple behaviors for good health (physical activity, eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, maintaining a healthy weight, moderate alcohol use and not smoking) but observes that only 8% of the population follows those basic guidelines.

Family Matters by Ron Haskins points out that you only have a 2% chance of being poor if you simply 1) graduate from highschool, 2) get married and stay married, and 3) get a job, any job. Other figures I have seen put it at less than 1%. I can't find a figure that provides the percentage of the population that meets all three criteria, but estimating from percentages, I am guessing that only about 25% of the population have graduated highschool and are married without divorce and have been continuously employed. It might be closer to 10%.

Then of course there is Through the Magic Door's research on reading which indicates that if you simply talk a lot to your child, read to them, have plenty of books available, let them choose what to read, and and be seen reading yourself, then they have a 70% chance or better of being among the 10% of the population that are habitual and enthusiastic readers. Less than 5% of the population routinely do most of these things.

So supposedly, early to bed and early to rise, makes you healthy, wealthy and wise.

More reliably you can:
Undertake physical activity
Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables
Maintain a healthy weight
Moderate alcohol use
Not smoke
Graduate from highschool
Get married and stay married
Get a job, any job
Talk a lot to your child
Read to them
Have plenty of books available
Let them choose what to read
And be seen reading yourself

Do these thirteen seemingly innocuous and simple things and you are almost guaranteed to be healthy, wealthy, and wise.

Storytelling, communication, and limits

From What You Don't Know About Your Friends by Drake Bennett. Read the whole thing.
A similar effect arises when people are asked questions about right and wrong rather than politics. Recent research by Francis Flynn, a psychology professor at Stanford, and Scott Wiltermuth, a doctoral student there, looked at people in tight-knit workplace and graduate-school settings. The researchers found that people assumed, often unquestioningly, that their responses to a series of ethical dilemmas were shared by the majority of their close colleagues. In reality they often were not. More strikingly, it was the more socially connected among the test subjects who were more likely to be wrong. (The resulting paper has been accepted by the Academy of Management Journal but not yet published).

The problem, Flynn says, is that interacting with people and sharing experiences with them doesn't necessarily translate into knowing lots of things about them. The main hurdle is the way we talk to those we're close to: our conversations are usually meant not so much to gather information as to establish rapport and to bond - in short, to make friends. And we do that by focusing on areas of agreement and avoiding topics that might cause friction. Our natural tendency toward comradeship makes us, ironically, leery of learning too much about the people we're befriending.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Children's Books and Adult's Issues

Jesse Walker has two entertaining posts interpreting children's books in a fashion beyond that which we might ordinarily do.

The Giving Fish covers Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree and We Are All Canny Hens Now covers the tale of The Little Red Hen.

A phenomenal ability to consciously focus their attention

From Lost in the Crowd by David Brooks in the New York Times (December 16th, 2008).
Yet, I can't help but feel that Gladwell and others who share his emphasis are getting swept away by the coolness of the new discoveries. They've lost sight of the point at which the influence of social forces ends and the influence of the self-initiating individual begins.

Most successful people begin with two beliefs: the future can be better than the present, and I have the power to make it so. They were often showered by good fortune, but relied at crucial moments upon achievements of individual will.

Most successful people also have a phenomenal ability to consciously focus their attention. We know from experiments with subjects as diverse as obsessive-compulsive disorder sufferers and Buddhist monks that people who can self-consciously focus attention have the power to rewire their brains.

Control of attention is the ultimate individual power. People who can do that are not prisoners of the stimuli around them. They can choose from the patterns in the world and lengthen their time horizons. This individual power leads to others. It leads to self-control, the ability to formulate strategies in order to resist impulses. If forced to choose, we would all rather our children be poor with self-control than rich without it.

Solvitur ambulando

Solvitur ambulando

Define: Lubricity

From Unnatural Causes by P.D. James.
During the first part of this recital Miss Calthrop had assumed a quick variety of expressions - curiosity, disapproval, lubricity, and a gentle sadness - as if trying to decide which suited her best. She settled for the gentle sadness, a good woman grieving once more over the frailty of men.

From Wiktionary.
Noun Singular lubricity Plural lubricities

1.The quality of being lubric; slipperiness; instability; as, the lubricity of fortune. <
2.Smoothness; freedom from friction; also, property which diminishes friction; as, the lubricity of oil.
3.Lasciviousness; propensity to lewdness; lechery; incontinency.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Why, a machine

An exchange between a robot and her family in Ray Bradbury's I Sing the Body Electric. She has been asked what she is.
"Why, a machine. But even in that answer we know, don't we, more than a machine. I am all the people who thought of me and planned me and built me and set me running. So I am people. I am all the things they wanted to be and perhaps could not be, so they built a great child, a wondrous toy to represent those things."

A machine you say - perhaps also a book.

Emerson on manners

Ralph Waldo Emerson in The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume VIII Letters and Social Aims
Good manners are made up of petty sacrifices.

Different men seek after happiness in different ways

Different men seek after happiness in different ways and by different means, and so make for themselves different modes of life and forms of government.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The books they read

You can always make too great a deal about the impact of a particular book but I don't think you can underestimate the cummulative impact of an enthusiastic reader's reading. Tevi Troy writes an article on presidential reading in the White House, For Obama and Past Presidents, the Books They Read Shape Policies and Perceptions, Washington Post, April 18, 2010.
Consider Harry Truman. He was the last American president not to have completed college, but he was a voracious reader and particularly interested in history and biography, once musing that "the only thing new in this world is the history that you don't know."

Dora and SpongeBob

'Dora' Special Explores Influence on Children by Elizabeth Olson in the August 6th New York Times.

Ten years old and she's everywhere.
"Dora is one of the most popular consumer brands in the world, along with SpongeBob," he said, referring to another Nickelodeon animated program.

The Kids' Books Are All Right

The Kids' Books Are All Right by Pamela Paul in the August 6th, 2010 New York Times.

About book discussions by adult readers of young adult books.
And none of it feels like homework. The themes are serious and the discussions intense, but the books are fast-paced and fun. "A lot of contemporary adult literature is characterized by a real distrust of plot," Grossman said. "I think young adult fiction is one of the few areas of literature right now where storytelling really thrives."

Sunday, August 8, 2010

You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding

Plato's dialogues (Phaedrus 14 274c-275b):
Socrates: [274c] I heard, then, that at Naucratis, in Egypt, was one of the ancient gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis, and the name of the god himself was Theuth. He it was who [274d] invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters.

Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Thamus, who lived in the great city of the upper region, which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth to show his inventions, saying that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. But Thamus asked what use there was in each, and as Theuth enumerated their uses, expressed praise or blame, according as he approved [274e] or disapproved.

The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters, [274e] "This invention, O king," said Theuth, "will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered." But Thamus replied, "Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; [275a] and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess.

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem [275b] to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

Phaedrus: Socrates, you easily make up stories of Egypt or any country you please.

Socrates They used to say, my friend, that the words of the oak in the holy place of Zeus at Dodona were the first prophetic utterances. The people of that time, not being so wise as you young folks, were content in their simplicity to hear an oak [275c] or a rock, provided only it spoke the truth; but to you, perhaps, it makes a difference who the speaker is and where he comes from, for you do not consider only whether his words are true or not.

Phaedrus: Your rebuke is just; and I think the Theban is right in what he says about letters.

Socrates: He who thinks, then, that he has left behind him any art in writing, and he who receives it in the belief that anything in writing will be clear and certain, would be an utterly simple person, and in truth ignorant of the prophecy of Ammon, if he thinks [275d] written words are of any use except to remind him who knows the matter about which they are written.

Phaedrus: Very true.

Socrates: Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when [275e] once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.

Phaedrus: You are quite right about that, too.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

It evens itself out

I.F. Stone, The Observer March, 20th, 1988.
When you are younger you get blamed for crimes you never committed and when you're older you begin to get credit for virtues you never possessed. It evens itself out.

Friday, August 6, 2010


The Reporter Who Time Forgot by Michael Shapiro in the Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 2010. The article recounts the writing career of Cornelius Ryan, most famous for his two World War II books, The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far.

Ryan was not a children's author but a writer somewhat in the mould of Walter Lord - a meticulous researcher with a gift for bringing historical moments alive. These two are excellent books for young adults, fifteen and up. Compelling narrative describing events that become even more incredible as they recede from us in time.

From the article:
Ryan was fifty-four when he died in November 1974, survived by his wife, son, and daughter. The material he had gathered in twenty years of reporting about the war went to Ohio University in Athens, where the dean of the College of Communications was an old friend. The collection's curator, Doug McCabe, told me that even now, sixty-six years after D-Day, historians from around the world, as well as the children and grandchildren of men who fought that day, stop by to search through Ryan's papers in the archive center of the library. It is, he said, the most heavily used collection in the center.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Adventure is a sign of incompetence

Sometimes I don't agree with an aphorism but like it none-the-less. In this instance, I have had plenty of great adventures, only some of which were the consequence of incompetence.

Viljalmur Steffanson:
Adventure is a sign of incompetence.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The significance of language for the evolution of culture

Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human. This is one of those instances where I think there is something reasonably insightful here but not exactly sure of its nature without some more extended mulling. Nietsche can be like that though. There's a thin line between profundity and guff sometimes.
The significance of language for the evolution of culture lies in this, that mankind set up in language a separate world beside the other world, a place it took to be so firmly set that, standing upon it, it could lift the rest of the world off its hinges and make itself master of it. To the extent that man has for long ages believed in the concepts and names of things as in aeternae veritates he has appropriated to himself that pride by which he raised himself above the animal: he really thought that in language he possessed knowledge of the world.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Monday, August 2, 2010

A centuries-long period of Lent

From Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment. A very intriguing and rigorous discussion of what constitutes accomplishment, how do we measure it, and how do we explain it.
Aquinas made the case, eventually adopted by the Church, that human intelligence is a gift from God, and that to apply human intelligence to understanding the world is not an affront to God but is pleasing to him. Aquinas taught that human autonomy is also a gift from God, and that the only way in which humans can realize the relationship with God that God intends is by exercising that autonomy. Aquinas taught that faith and reason are not in opposition, but complementary.

In sum, Aquinas grafted a humanistic strain onto Christianity that joined an inspirational message of God’s love and his promise of immortality with an injunction to serve God by using all of one’s human capacities of intellect and will - and to have a good time doing it. In Ferdinand Braudel's words, "The Renaissance distanced itself from medieval Christianity much less in the realm of ideas than in that of life itself. It could perhaps be called a cultural, not a philosophical betrayal. Its atmosphere was one of lively enjoyment, relishing the many pleasures of the eye, the mind and the body, as if the West were emerging from a centuries-long period of Lent."

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Tobacco, alcohol and books

Yesterday's post made me think about the numbers implied behind Henry Ward Beecher's statement that "a man may every year add a hundred volumes to his library for the price which his tobacco and his beer would cost him." Whether or not it was true then I cannot say, though it probably was in the ball park. Is it true today? I know that the average household in the US only spends about $40 on books per year, an incomprensibly small number to enthusiastic readers. But how much could they be spending were they to forego tobacco and drink?

Courtesy of Visual Economics, who have taken the annual income and expenditure information collected by the Department of Labor, and have created an expenditure map, we can do a quick and dirty estimate of the current accuracy of Beecher's comment.


The first thing to note is that Visual Economics have added together the expenditure on books with the average household expenditure on newspapers and magazines for a Reading category of expenditures of $118 (0.2% of average household expenditures). Regrettably average annual household expenditures on smoking are $323 (0.7%) and for alcohol $457 (0.9%). I am somewhat surprised that these numbers are as low as they are but they still represent homes spending nearly seven times as much on smoking and drinking as they do on reading.

More pertinently to the question posed, $780 ($323 plus $457) would buy you about 35 brand new hardback books (using a rough average of $22) or 65 brand new paperbacks (using a rough average of $12) (Source: School Library Journal). If you purchased only mass market paperbacks, you would be able to buy about 95 books a year with $780; strikingly close to Beecher's number from more than a century ago.

So, at the lower end of the market, Beecher's comment is still relevant. For more permanent collections (hardback books) it is less true today than then. However, not all books need be purchased new. Used book stores, library sales, etc. afford good prices for good books. The typical used book store usually sells books at roughly 50-60%. Using the 50% number, you are looking at annually being able to buy 70-130 books (representing a range of hardbacks to paperbacks) for the amount that the average household spends on tobacco and alcohol. Interestingly, the midpoint of that number, 100 books, is precisely in line with Beecher's observation.