Friday, September 30, 2011

You must also assess the strength of the evidence given your hypothesis

John Alen Paulos in a book review article titled, The Mathematics of Changing Your Mind.
At its core, Bayes’s theorem depends upon an ingenious turnabout: If you want to assess the strength of your hypothesis given the evidence, you must also assess the strength of the evidence given your hypothesis. In the face of uncertainty, a Bayesian asks three questions: How confident am I in the truth of my initial belief? On the assumption that my original belief is true, how confident am I that the new evidence is accurate? And whether or not my original belief is true, how confident am I that the new evidence is accurate?
The theorem itself can be stated simply. Beginning with a provisional hypothesis about the world (there are, of course, no other kinds), we assign to it an initial probability called the prior probability or simply the prior. After actively collecting or happening upon some potentially relevant evidence, we use Bayes’s theorem to recalculate the probability of the hypothesis in light of the new evidence. This revised probability is called the posterior probability or simply the posterior. Specifically Bayes’s theorem states (trumpets sound here) that the posterior probability of a hypothesis is equal to the product of (a) the prior probability of the hypothesis and (b) the conditional probability of the evidence given the hypothesis, divided by (c) the probability of the new evidence.

Consider a concrete example. Assume that you’re presented with three coins, two of them fair and the other a counterfeit that always lands heads. If you randomly pick one of the three coins, the probability that it’s the counterfeit is 1 in 3. This is the prior probability of the hypothesis that the coin is counterfeit. Now after picking the coin, you flip it three times and observe that it lands heads each time. Seeing this new evidence that your chosen coin has landed heads three times in a row, you want to know the revised posterior probability that it is the counterfeit. The answer to this question, found using Bayes’s theorem (calculation mercifully omitted), is 4 in 5. You thus revise your probability estimate of the coin’s being counterfeit upward from 1 in 3 to 4 in 5.
I guess a variant on the adage that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

A web of interconnected relationships is therapeutic enough to increase one’s odds

From Robin Dunbar How Many Friends Does One Person Need? Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks, book review by Michele Pridmore-Brown. This is consistent with the posts from Deep Survival and the idea that a big portion of survival (and perhaps by extension, success) is motivation. The essay alludes to the Donner Party.
From an evolutionary point of view, what makes the story interesting is not the cannibalism — which, in the annals of anthropology, is relatively banal — but who survived and who did not. Of the 87 pioneers, only 46 came over the pass alive in February and March of the next year. Their story, then, represents a case study of what might be termed catastrophic natural selection. It turns out that, contrary to lay Darwinist expectations, it was not the virile young but those who were embedded in families who had the best odds of survival. The unattached young men, presumably fuller of vigor and capable of withstanding more physical hardship than the others, fared worst, worse even than the older folk and the children.

For Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary biologist cum anthropologist, stories such as this one highlight how human kin networks aid survival — and, therefore, why people may take great pains to manufacture kin, via godparents for instance, or marriage, or by obscuring or playing up paternity. He points to another earlier case of extreme selection: of the Mayflower colonists who set foot on the American mainland in 1620, 53 of 103 died in the first New England winter. Here, too, mortality was disproportionately high among the unattached. To take a less dramatic example, several retrospective studies suggest that children embedded in large families get sick less often than those embedded in much smaller kin networks. Dunbar’s conclusion is not just the obvious one — that families share resources, and thus have advantages over less connected, well-endowed individuals — but also that being at the center of a web of interconnected relationships is therapeutic enough to increase one’s odds of withstanding pestilential (and presumably existential) slings and arrows.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Let bookworms gnaw his entrails

A rather excellent curse as related in Dwight Garner's review of Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.
Mr. Greenblatt reprints a curse that one monastery placed in its manuscripts upon those who neglect to return books. Some readers, I suspect, will wish to write it in their own books, perhaps even this evening. It begins: “For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted.” It goes on: “let bookworms gnaw his entrails”; “Let the flames of Hell consume him forever.” Amen, brother.

Noticing differences

From Learning and Memory Linked to Holding Objects in Hands by Susan Guibert. Proximity allows us to see differences. Distance allows us to see commonalities.
According to a study conducted by Associate Professor of Psychology James Brockmole and post-doctoral fellow Christopher Davoli, people holding objects they’re learning about process detail and notice differences among objects more effectively, while keeping the hands away from the objects help people notice similarities and consistencies among those things.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

It translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab world has in the past thousand years

Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science by Hillel Ofek. Measurement of things can be horribly abused but it can also significantly clarfiy situations and focus the mind.
There are roughly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, but only two scientists from Muslim countries have won Nobel Prizes in science (one for physics in 1979, the other for chemistry in 1999). Forty-six Muslim countries combined contribute just 1 percent of the world’s scientific literature; Spain and India each contribute more of the world’s scientific literature than those countries taken together. In fact, although Spain is hardly an intellectual superpower, it translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab world has in the past thousand years. “Though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West,” Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has observed, “for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading.”

Comparative metrics on the Arab world tell the same story. Arabs comprise 5 percent of the world’s population, but publish just 1.1 percent of its books, according to the U.N.’s 2003 Arab Human Development Report. Between 1980 and 2000, Korea granted 16,328 patents, while nine Arab countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E., granted a combined total of only 370, many of them registered by foreigners. A study in 1989 found that in one year, the United States published 10,481 scientific papers that were frequently cited, while the entire Arab world published only four. This may sound like the punch line of a bad joke, but when Nature magazine published a sketch of science in the Arab world in 2002, its reporter identified just three scientific areas in which Islamic countries excel: desalination, falconry, and camel reproduction.

A slippery slope

It is important to always expand our understanding of the world and to recognize patterns out there. But once you have identified a pattern you then have to figure out whether anything should be done about it. Take as a for instance this research: Lower Turnover Rates, Higher Pay for Teachers Who Share Race with Principal, MU Study Shows by Nathan Hurst.
Key Findings
There is lower turnover in schools among teachers of the same race as the principal.

African American principals are more even handed in awarding supplemental salaries to teachers.

White principals are more even handed in awarding administrative support, encouragement, autonomy, intangible benefits and recognition.

African American teachers are more positive about working for a principal of the same race than are white teachers.

Minority teachers improve the educational experience of minority students

The studies authors conclude that "Our results illustrate that an important factor in maintaining the racial diversity of teachers is the diversity of the principals that supervise these teachers. We hope these findings could provide justification for policymakers to undertake programs targeted at increasing the flow of minority teachers into the principal pipeline."

Fair enough but it would also seem, to follow their thinking, that it would be logical to conclude that schools ought to be resegregated. Minority teachers improve the educational experience of minority students AND African American teachers are more positive about working for a principal of the same race than are white teachers. However, a logical answer isn't necessarily the right answer. The right answer depends on what are the goals, how are those goals prioritized and what are the trade-offs between goals.

Lots of questions about the rigor of the study, the sample size, etc. However, it would seem an object lesson about distinguishing the difference between recognizing patterns (is it real?) versus determining what is causing the patterns (why are they more positive?) versus the really critical decisions: Can we change it? Is it important to change it? Is it worth changing it?

Interesting data can be a slippery slope.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The correlation between growth and the creative class is by far the strongest

From The Metro-covery and the Limits of Growth Without Growth by Richard Florida. Talking about which cities are recovering and why - basically those cities with high productivity via a strong human capital base.
Let’s start with what’s not associated with regional economic growth. The economic growth of metros between 2007 and 2010 had little or no relationship to population size, density, levels of innovation, wages or places with warmer summers. It had only a weak relationship to high-tech industry and a weak negative association with housing prices.

Several factors clearly do stand out. Many commentators, from Peter Drucker and Daniel Bell to me have charted the shift from an industrial to a more knowledge-based, creative economy. The crisis appears to have accelerated this shift, as evidenced by the fact that the economic growth of metros has been most closely associated with the share of the workforce in knowledge, professional, and creative industries. The correlation between growth and the creative class is by far the strongest of any in our analysis (about 0.4). Education or human capital levels – measured as the share of adults with at least a college degree, another way of measuring knowledge-intensity – also plays a strong role (with a correlation of about 0.3). Despite the strong showings posted by some metros with traditional manufacturing economies, economic growth was much less likely to occur in metros where the working class makes up a greater share of the workforce. Metro GDP is negatively associated with the share of working class jobs in a metro (with a correlation of -0.2).

Monday, September 26, 2011

You Americans never made simple stupid decisions

The Qwikster and the Dead by Megan McArdle.
The whole thing reminds me of a quote I once heard from some foreign diplomat about the US. "You Americans never made simple stupid decisions. You only make complicated stupid moves that make the rest of us wonder if we aren't missing something."

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Viewing things as worse when they are getting better

As we move closer to the goal of obviating something we dislike, there is a tendency to invest more in proving how bad the remaining problem is. This is particularly true when we never paid close attention to how to measure the goal in the first place or when we never clarified priorities and trade-offs.

There is a tendency to refocus from first-order impacts to second-order impacts and to make the case that the second-order has a greater impact than the first order. In 1950, there were many forms of first order institutionalized racism, de facto and de jure. Today there is no de jure racism and very little first-order (overt) de facto racism. The focus has shifted from the obvious first-order issues to second-order issues of unconscious racism, racism manifested by unintended systemic design etc. It is indisputable that first order racism was materially deleterious to all concerned in 1950. We tend to treat second-order racism, much less measurable and to some extent therefore much less real, as if it were as consequential as first-order racism. It is not. We have made progress and yet in the noise of our discourse it would seem we have not.

Part of this is perhaps owing to a shift from systemic driven events to events driven by randomness. We have control over systemic events, we do not have control over random events (though we can mitigate them). Of the top twenty systemic events by loss of life in the US (building fires, shipwrecks, explosions, mining disasters, etc.) none of them have happened in the past fifty years. Even among the randomly driven events (tornadoes, floods, forest fires, hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes, etc.), only three of the largest events by loss of life have occurred in the past fifty years.

Virtually all desirable human goals (such as longevity, health, wealth, education levels, etc.) have dramatically improved in the past fifty years to levels never seen before.

At the same time, virtually all negative outcomes (such as infant mortality, crime, environmental degradation, wars, etc.) have also dramatically declined.

Logically, one would conclude that we are living in a privileged and halcyon period of the human species (as I believe we are) but there is little sense of that in our common forms of shared communication (songs, movies, news reports, popular novels, etc.). In fact the reverse. Things are always painted as getting worse. Why?

It is good to always be striving to improve things but it is also important to maintain a sense of perspective and reality. The more we exaggerate the consequences of second-order issues, the less likely we are to focus on other first-order issues we have not yet tackled and which might have greater consequence. In other words is this simply a function of social inertia? We rally around some set of issues that need resolving. After twenty years we make great progress but instead of then reexamining what are now the top list of things that need fixing, we continue to focus everything on the remaining agenda of the original problems despite the declining return on the effort.

Mothers co-read books communicated significantly more with their children

TV found to have negative impact on parent-child communication and literacy from e!ScienceNews.
The results demonstrated that who mothers co-read books communicated significantly more with their children than mothers watching TV. The amount of communication involved in reading was not significantly higher than playing with toys. However, the quality of maternal responsiveness was higher in books than toys.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish

George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language.
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.

How to provide inducements which will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do

Friedrich Hayek, The Use of Knowledge in Society.
I have deliberately used the word “marvel” to shock the reader out of the complacency with which we often take the working of this mechanism for granted. I am convinced that if it were the result of deliberate human design, and if the people guided by the price changes understood that their decisions have significance far beyond their immediate aim, this mechanism would have been acclaimed as one of the greatest triumphs of the human mind. Its misfortune is the double one that it is not the product of human design and that the people guided by it usually do not know why they are made to do what they do. But those who clamor for “conscious direction”—and who cannot believe that anything which has evolved without design (and even without our understanding it) should solve problems which we should not be able to solve consciously—should remember this: The problem is precisely how to extend the span of our utilization of resources beyond the span of the control of any one mind; and therefore, how to dispense with the need of conscious control, and how to provide inducements which will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do.
This excerpt and its point about the miracle of evolution without design reminds me of this post from a week or so ago, To continue to survive, an Earth-like world must also continue to be lucky, which had a similar observation.

Friday, September 23, 2011

At the lowest possible cost

Walter Russell Mead in a post, Dick Cheney: Learning from Mistakes?
Yet power is about more than the ability to impose your will overseas — it is about getting the results you need at the lowest possible cost.

Mobile civilization

From a review by Reuven Brenner of David Goldman's How Civilizations Die.

Another point. He is contrasting land-based civilizations (immobile and dependent on agriculture and mineral extraction) with commercial civilizations (mobile, commercial, and industrial).
The origins of the conflict between the two types of civilizations is, as I once wrote, that the idea of “individual rights” did not exist in those land-based, immobile societies. By individual rights I mean the idea of negotiating rights and obligations that are unconnected to one’s inherited status. It was the idea of equality before the laws, and the freedom to contract unless explicitly prohibited, that eventually allowed people from all walks of life to use their talents, abandon the status they were born to, and bet on ideas without rulers’ favors.

Freedom to contract, backed by a variety of possible, independent sources of capital, made one “mobile” – upward, or if one failed, downward. This is what eventually brought about Europe’s first version, then, in a better way, the U.S.’s unique version of ”mobile civilization.”

Humankind’s search for immortality

From a review by Reuven Brenner of David Goldman's How Civilizations Die.
This leads him to one of his “universal laws,” namely, that “The history of the world is the history of humankind’s search for immortality.” A large part of the book is about the intricate ways in which this law interacts with demographic changes, and sheds light on national/tribal destinies from antiquity to our days.

According to Goldman, when a tribe or a nation suddenly realizes its demise into insignificance, whether defeated in war or leapfrogged by newcomers who accidentally stumble on better ideas, institutions, or technology, reproduction declines. When the fertility of the tribe or nation falls below replacement level, its civilization eventually disappears. At times, the tribe gradually dies out, literally speaking.

In other instances the tribes’ unique features disappear as its members emulate the leapfrogging civilization’s institutions and are absorbed in larger entities. These leave their tribal/national cultures behind for historians to explore the “death of births.”

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A philosophic conception of nature is thus in no metaphorical sense a labor-saving contrivance

William James in The Will to Believe and Other Essays, page 65.
The facts of the world in their sensible diversity are always before us, but our theoretic need is that they should be conceived in a way that reduces their manifoldness to simplicity. Our pleasure at finding that a chaos of facts is the expression of a single underlying fact is like the relief of the musician at resolving a confused mass of sound into melodic or harmonic order. The simplified result is handled with far less mental effort than the original data; and a philosophic conception of nature is thus in no metaphorical sense a labor-saving contrivance.

Communicating in the real world

Ethan Siegel has a most excellent graphic in his blog post Fighting on the Internet. True not only for the internet but in most walks of communication life.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The fable is, taken as a whole, false, but there is truth in it also?

Socrates in Republic
“Don't you understand,” I said, “that we begin by telling children fables, and the fable is, taken as a whole, false, but there is truth in it also? And we make use of fable with children before gymnastics.” “That is so.” “That, then, is what I meant by saying that we must take up music before gymnastics.” “You were right,” he said. “Do you not know, then, that the beginning in every task is the chief thing, especially for any creature that is young and tender? For it is then that it is best molded and takes the impression that one wishes to stamp upon it.” “Quite so.” “Shall we, then, thus lightly suffer our children to listen to any chance stories fashioned by any chance teachers and so to take into their minds opinions for the most part contrary to those that we shall think it desirable for them to hold when they are grown up?” “By no manner of means will we allow it.” “We must begin, then, it seems, by a censorship over our storymakers, and what they do well we must pass and what not, reject. And the stories on the accepted list we will induce nurses and mothers to tell to the children and so shape their souls by these stories far rather than their bodies by their hands. But most of the stories they now tell we must reject.” “What sort of stories?” he said. “The example of the greater stories,” I said, “will show us the lesser also. For surely the pattern must be the same and the greater and the less must have a like tendency. Don't you think so?” “I do,” he said; “but I don't apprehend which you mean by the greater, either.” “Those,” I said, “that Hesiod and Homer and the other poets related. These, methinks, composed false stories which they told and still tell to mankind.” “Of what sort?” he said; “and what in them do you find fault?” “With that,” I said, “which one ought first and chiefly to blame, especially if the lie is not a pretty one.” “What is that?” “When anyone images badly in his speech the true nature of gods and heroes, like a painter whose portraits bear no resemblance to his models.” “It is certainly right to condemn things like that,” he said; “but just what do we mean and what particular things?” “There is, first of all,” I said, “the greatest lie about the things of greatest concernment, which was no pretty invention of him who told how Uranus did what Hesiod says he did to Cronos, and how Cronos in turn took his revenge; and then there are the doings and sufferings of Cronos at the hands of his son. Even if they were true I should not think that they ought to be thus lightly told to thoughtless young persons. But the best way would be to bury them in silence, and if there were some necessity for relating them, that only a very small audience should be admitted under pledge of secrecy and after sacrificing, not a pig, but some huge and unprocurable victim, to the end that as few as possible should have heard these tales.” “Why, yes,” said he, “such stories are hard sayings.” “Yes, and they are not to be told, Adeimantus, in our city…"

The relevant problem is how it creates and destroys them

From 2007 Bust: How Could They Not Have Known? by Alex J. Pollock.
Some commentators long for the financial stability of the post-World War II United States. Unfortunately for those longings, the 20 years after that horrifically destructive war was a unique and unsustainable period of international economic and financial dominance by the U.S. Its anomalous character means it cannot form our model for stability. Indeed, economic reality is never lasting stability, but constant adjustment and transition.

In considering the financial adventures of the past, present or future, in America, Europe or elsewhere, we cannot too often re-read that profound dictum of Joseph Schumpeter:

"The problem usually being visualized is how capitalism administers existing structures, whereas the relevant problem is how it creates and destroys them."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"Visas, visas."

The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism by Pascal Bruckner
What did the crowd of young people shout to Jacques Chirac in 2004, during the first visit by a French president to Algeria since decolonization? "Visas, visas." A malicious wit might say: they drove us out and now they all want to come live with us! That does not cast doubt on the legitimacy of their independence, but it does explain this disturbing truth: Europe got over the loss of its colonies much more quickly than the colonies got over their loss of Europe.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Because those things are wholly incompatible

Thomas Sowell quoted by Ray Sawhill in Black and Right
But the question becomes, are you going to have everyone play by the same rules, or are you going to try to rectify the shortcomings, errors and failures of the entire cosmos? Because those things are wholly incompatible. If you're going to have people play by the same rules, that can be enforced with a minimum amount of interference with people's freedom. But if you're going to try to make the entire cosmos right and just, somebody has got to have an awful lot of power to impose what they think is right on an awful lot of other people. What we've seen, particularly in the 20th century, is that putting that much power in anyone's hands is enormously dangerous.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Has all this been just coincidence?

Thomas Sowell, Random Thoughts
Those who say that all cultures are equal never explain why the results of those cultures are so grossly unequal. When some cultures have achieved much greater prosperity, better health, longer life, more advanced technology, more stable government, and greater personal safety than others, has all this been just coincidence? Moreover, people from other cultures are constantly migrating to these cultures, which fashionable dogmas say are no better than any other.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Do we need to keep repeating the same mistakes forever?

Thoomas Sowell in Random Thoughts
One of the most important reasons for studying history is that virtually every stupid idea that is in vogue today has been tried before and proved disastrous before, time and again. Do we need to keep repeating the same mistakes forever?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Not given to anyone in its totality

Friederick Hayek, The Use of Knowledge in Society.
The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate “given” resources—if “given” is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these “data.” It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.

The effect, then, of every increase is, to enrich and strengthen the one, and impoverish and weaken the other

Some problems are ever-green. From John C. Calhoun in A Disquisition on Government, 1810.
Whatever amount is taken from the community, in the form of taxes, if not lost, goes to them in the shape of expenditures or disbursements. The two — disbursement and taxation — constitute the fiscal action of the government. They are correlatives. What the one takes from the community, under the name of taxes, is transferred to the portion of the community who are the recipients, under that of disbursements. But, as the recipients constitute only a portion of the community, it follows, taking the two parts of the fiscal process together, that its action must be unequal between the payers of the taxes and the recipients of their proceeds. Nor can it be otherwise, unless what is collected from each individual in the shape of taxes, shall be returned to him, in that of disbursements; which would make the process nugatory and absurd. Taxation may, indeed, be made equal, regarded separately from disbursement. Even this is no easy task; but the two united cannot possibly be made equal.

Such being the case, it must necessarily follow, that some one portion of the community must pay in taxes more than it receives back in disbursements; while another receives in disbursements more than it pays in taxes. It is, then, manifest, taking the whole process together, that taxes must be, in effect, bounties to that portion of the community which receives more in disbursements than it pays in taxes; while, to the other which pays in taxes more than it receives in disbursements, they are taxes in reality — burthens, instead of bounties. This consequence is unavoidable. It results from the nature of the process, be the taxes ever so equally laid, and the disbursements ever so fairly made, in reference to the public service.


The necessary result, then, of the unequal fiscal action of the government is, to divide the community into two great classes; one consisting of those who, in reality, pay the taxes, and, of course, bear exclusively the burthen of supporting the government; and the other, of those who are the recipients of their proceeds, through disbursements, and who are, in fact, supported by the government; or, in fewer words, to divide it into taxpayers and tax-consumers.

But the effect of this is to place them in antagonistic relations, in reference to the fiscal action of the government, and the entire course of policy therewith connected. For, the greater the taxes and disbursements, the greater the gain of the one and the loss of the other — and vice versa; and consequently, the more the policy of the government is calculated to increase taxes and disbursements, the more it will be favored by the one and opposed by the other.

The effect, then, of every increase is, to enrich and strengthen the one, and impoverish and weaken the other. This, indeed, may be carried to such an extent, that one class or portion of the community may be elevated to wealth and power, and the other depressed to abject poverty and dependence, simply by the fiscal action of the government; and this too, through disbursements only — even under a system of equal taxes imposed for revenue only. If such may be the effect of taxes and disbursements, when confined to their legitimate objects — that of raising revenue for the public service — some conception may be formed, how one portion of the community may be crushed, and another elevated on its ruins, by systematically perverting the power of taxation and disbursement, for the purpose of aggrandizing and building up one portion of the community at the expense of the other. That it will be so used, unless prevented, is, from the constitution of man, just as certain as that it can be so used; and that, if not prevented, it must give rise to two parties, and to violent conflicts and struggles between them, to obtain the control of the government, is, for the same reason, not less certain.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness

Quoted in an essay, A Walk to Remember to Remember by Jesse Miller.
I like walking because it is slow and I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.
I like that, living faster than the speed of thoughtfulness.

Which is text and which is footnote

In an essay, Dubya and Me by Walt Harrington.
History is composed of significant and less significant moments, the trouble being that we often don’t know at the time which is text and which is footnote.

My experience is what I agree to attend to

William James in The Principles of Psychology, page 402
. . .one sees how false a notion of experience that is which would make it tantamount to the mere presence to the senses of an outward order. Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground —intelligible perspective, in a word.

The poor have rapidly gotten poorer

Poor Are Still Getting Poorer, but Downturn’s Punch Varies, Census Data Show by Jason DeParle and Sabrina Tavernise. Support for the proposition that the capacity to accumulate wealth through surplus production is the necesary predicate to survival. Those with the lowest produuctivity are the most exposed to derailment when exogenous shocks occur.
The discouraging numbers spilling from the Census Bureau’s poverty report this week were a disquieting reminder that a weak economy continues to spread broad and deep pain.

The Midwest is battered, but the Northeast escaped with a lighter knock. The incomes of young adults have plunged — but those of older Americans have actually risen. On the whole, immigrants have weathered the storm a bit better than people born here. In rural areas, poverty remained unchanged last year, while in suburbs it reached the highest level since 1967, when the Census Bureau first tracked it.

Yet one old problem has not changed: the poor have rapidly gotten poorer.

Demonstrated expertise trumps latent talent

Proposition - The benefits of specialization in terms of expertise outweigh native capability. How would you test this proposition which I suspect is true?

Teasing the idea out a bit - I suspect that while variance and normal distribution means that there are some fortunate individuals who are extremely competent at a wide range of things (and for lack of any better measure, lets use IQ as the designator) and might be considered one or two standard deviations better off than the average person for some portfolio of capabilities, picking a single applied competency would yield a population of individuals with lower overall capabilities but superior performance on that single metric.

Putting it this way, it begins to seem obvious. Any decent plumber, gardener, carpenter, brick-layer, etc., regardless of average IQ, will have superior performance to a high IQ generalist. Partly this would be due to the difference between tacit and explicit knowledge. The decent carpenter may have a narrower and shallower set of explicit knowledge about wood and woodworking than a high IQ generalist but they have a broader and deeper pool of tacit knowledge gleaned from experience.

The bigger effect though, I suspect, is that the specialist invests the time in practice and experience to achieve superior competency. Were they to both invest the same number of hours of practice, I suspect the high IQ individual would achieve a higher level of demonstrated expertise sooner. However, they don't spend the same amount of time because of the law of comparative advantage. The high competency individual has a broader range of opportunities to which to apply their gifts and presumably pursues those opportunities with the greater benefit but the lesser gifted individual still outstrips them in the narrower field of their expertise.

The implication would then seem to be that lower competency individuals ought to be encouraged to find the activities they are most interested in (and best at performing) as early as possible in order to begin specializing. The earlier they specialize, the more focused time they invest in honing their particular skills and therefore refining their unique level of expertise. As long as they are able to demonstrate in some fashion the value of that expertise, they should then be able to glean higher levels of benefit.

I do not have them at hand, but my recollection is that high-end plumbers are capable of commanding compensation that is in the range of general practitioner doctors even though the social prestige, level of education, and required IQ of the two professions are markedly different.

This scenario, if accurate, shifts the burden for outcomes away from native talent, which is presumably genetic and not controllable, and on to behavioral traits such as self-discipline and perseverance which can be cultivated.

If one is seeking to find a way to narrow the gap in outcomes between groups and wish to do so in a non-coercive fashion, this line of thought suggests that the emphasis has to be on behavior in addition to knowledge acquisition. There will always be variance in outcomes based on variance in initial circumstances but those differences in outcomes can be ameliorated based on behaviors rather than fatalistically throwing up the hands and accepting that it is all in the genes. If true, thank goodness for comparative advantage.

Not what we actually asked

From a post, AGoogleADay-inspired research, at the fascinating blog, SearchReSearch. Evidence of confirmation bias even among high-functioning individuals. Possibly it should be especially among high functioning individuals.
Most often people write to let us know that their answer was correct, when in fact they hadn’t read the question fully. This is probably the most common email we get, which worries me slightly. The people playing AGAD are for the most part pretty careful readers and searchers—such comments always make me review the question to see if we couldn’t have phrased it better. But often, no, we couldn’t have… they just misread the question and found an answer to a question THEY had in their head, not what we actually asked.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

To continue to survive, an Earth-like world must also continue to be lucky

Carl Sagan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, page 14.
None of these worlds, you remind yourself, has volition; none intends to be in a particular orbit. But those that are on well-behaved, circular orbits tend to grow and prosper, while those on giddy, wild, eccentirc, or recklessly tilted orbits tend to be removed. As time goes on, the confusion and chaos of the early Soar System slowly settle down into a steadily more orderly, simple, regularly spaced, and, to your eyses, increasingly beautiful set of trajectories. Some bodies are selected to survive, others to be annihliated or exiled. This selection of worlds occurs through the operation of a few extremely simple laws of motion and gravity. Despite the good neighbor policy of the well-mannered worlds, you can occassionally make out a flagrant rogue worldlet on collision trajectory. Even a body with the most circumspect circular orbit has no warrantee against utter annihliation. To continue to survive, an Earth-like world must also continue to be lucky.

Kids know what they like, which usually has little to do with what they are supposed to like

Dr. Seuss vs. Madonna: Can Celebrities Write Good Children's Books? by Betsy Morais
Kids know what they like, which usually has little to do with what they are supposed to like. "That's why I love writing for kids. Because they're not really persuaded by the hype. They just love a good story,"

Random events and consent of the governed

Two articles, read in close chronological proximity to one another, seem to reemphasize the importance of the concept of the consent of the governed as well as a proper sense of the potential of any "leader" to truly affect, at anything beyond the margin, the course of externally generate events.

Why Obama Was Never Going to Be the Next FDR by Megan McArdle. McArdle's central thesis is that macro events in the external environment tend to be a better predictor of whether a particular politician comes to be considered a "great" politician. The policy choices of a politician and how they choose to sell those choices can have some marginal impact, both pro and con, on an outcome but the impact is marginal and the great luster of reputation is a matter of timing. If a recession is going to average four years based on identifiable predicate circumstances, you might be able to shorten it by a year with good policies or lengthen it by a year with bad policies but you are still going to have a 3-5 year recession. If you come in at the beginning of the recession, you have a tough row to hoe. If you come in at the end (and don't do anything stupid), you almost have a free ride. If you are dealt a bad hand, it helps to play the hand well but it doesn't override that you were dealt a bad hand.

This immutability of external circumstances ties in to the second article, China's Imminent Collapse by John Quiggin. Quiggin is not really focusing on the coming collapse of China so much as highlighting the importance of the consent of the governed. He doesn't put it in those terms but that is how I am reading it. When we seek to propose that democracy leads to prosperity, or alternatively that prosperity leads to democracy, we are focusing on the wrong issue.

Democracy is simply a means to an end - the consent of the governed. What Quiggin's article is pointing out is that as long as prosperity is increasing faster than expectations, the greater majority of people will tend to consent to their government, whatever form that might take. The challenge is to stay ahead of expectations and even more critically, to adjusting when expectations begin to outstrip performance.

The people of China, with a long recent history of famine and repression, appear for the past twenty years to consent to the continued form of government because of the delivery of near continuous disproportionate growth. The concern is that, with a fairly insular ruling cadre, there is little mechanism for the interests and concerns of the average citizen to be reflected in the policies of government and as more time passes, distancing individuals from the excesses of the past, there is less and less to hold expectations in check. What happens when the country's growth hits a road bump? Will the citizens continue to consent?

My conclusion from the article is that prosperity and democracy are independent variables. What links them together is the Darwinian outcome arising from external events. Centralization and repression are not completely incompatible with economic growth. However, over the longer run and through constant testing by external events, systems are more likely to survive repeated external disruptions where there is some mechanism for obtaining the consent of the governed and while there are many short-term ways to do that, the only longer term means of obtaining that consent is via some consequential form of democracy.

What I take away from these two articles is threefold:
1) Centralized authority is usually poor at micromanagement and poor at speedy execution of policies. There are some things that can be done well centrally, and with proper motivation, there are a few things that can be done speedily. Politicians (or anyone at the center) tend to overestimate both the magnitude of their policy impact as well as their capacity to execute effectively and speedily.

2) It is better to acknowledge the external reality and trim one's message to the real potential for change than to flail about trying anything till something works.

3) Every government has to find some means for accomplishing the consent of the governed whether that is through superior services (Singapore), consistent growth (China), cultural cohesion (Japan) or through some agreed mechanism for individual input (elections).

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Supplement their education with something more important—namely, knowledge and understanding

What's wrong with our universities? by James Piereson.
Of course, it is possible that no conceivable test can accurately measure what students should really learn during their college years. The purpose of higher education, after all, is not to train students in the basic skills of reasoning and writing but to take students who already have them and supplement their education with something more important—namely, knowledge and understanding. The campaign to turn colleges into glorified high schools has been as misguided as the effort to turn the humanities into a science. It is not possible to educate students in something called “critical thinking” in the absence of a foundation of knowledge. Students who have taken the trouble to fortify themselves with knowledge will naturally develop the capacities both to criticize and to affirm, and to understand the difference between the two. An education in the liberal arts, rightly understood, is one means by which educators in the past sought to engage students in the search for knowledge and understanding. Whatever the weaknesses of that approach, academic leaders have yet to find an effective substitute for it.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Universe is lavish beyond imagining

Carl Sagan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, page 13.
Stars formed in batches from huge clouds of gas and dust. A dense clump of material attracts adjacent gas and dust, grows larger and more massive, more efficiently draws matter into it, and is off on its way to stardom. When the temperatures and pressures in its interior become high enough, hydrogen atoms - the most abundant material in the Universe by far - are jammed together and thermonuclear reactions are initiated. When it happens on a large enough scale, the star turns on and the nearby darkness is dispelled. Matter is turned into light.

The collapsing cloud spins up, squashes down into a disk, and lumps of matter aggregate together - successively the size of smoke particles, sand grains, rocks, boulders, mountains and worldlets. Then the cloud tidies itself up through the simple expedient of the largest objects gravitationally consuming the debris. The dust-free lanes are the feeding zones of young planets. As the central star begins to shine, it also sends forth great gales of hydrogen that blow grains back into the void. Perhaps some other system of worlds, fated to arise billions of years later in some distant province of the Milky Way, will put these rejected building blocks to good use.

In the disks of gas and dust that surround many nearby stars, we think we see the nurseries in which worlds, far-off and exotic, are accumulating and coalescing. All over our galaxy, vast, irregular, lumpy, pitch-black, interstellar clouds are collapsing under their own gravity, and spawning stars and planets. It happens about once a month. In the observable Universe - containing as many as a hundred billion galaxies - perhaps a hundred solar systems are forming every second. In that multitude of worlds, many will be barren and desolate. Others may be lush and fertile, on which beings exquisitely adapted to their circumstances are growing up, coming of age, and attempting to piece together their beginnings. The Universe is lavish beyond imagining.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

It is a stern message, but it need not be a grim one

From A Man in Full Pay-Back Mode by Jonathan Kay
During our interview, I asked Mr. Black about his Catholic faith, and how it had helped him deal with his reversal in fortune. “I accepted [the Pope’s] view that life is a cruciform, and we all suffer personally or through natural disasters, though we don’t know why,” he told me. “And only those people who have some faith imagine that there is a reason at all. It is a stern message, but it need not be a grim one — because it shows that there is some intrinsically worthwhile aspect to coping with suffering. At a certain point, there is no practical alternative. You either resist it and fight on or you roll over and give up.”

The great bottomless gulf into which all Falsehoods, public and private, do sink

From Thomas Carlyle, History of the French Revolution
Great is Bankruptcy: the great bottomless gulf into which all Falsehoods, public and private, do sink, disappearing; whither, from the first origin of them, they were all doomed. For Nature is true and not a lie. No lie you can speak or act but it will come, after longer or shorter circulation, like a Bill drawn on Nature’s Reality, and be presented there for payment, — with the answer, No effects. Pity only that it often had so long a circulation: that the original forger were so seldom he who bore the final smart of it! Lies, and the burden of evil they bring, are passed on; shifted from back to back, and from rank to rank; and so land ultimately on the dumb lowest rank, who with spade and mattock, with sore heart and empty wallet, daily come in contact with reality, and can pass the cheat no further.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

They cannot be found in living memory or in the annals of our species

I am fond of lists, particularly lists that establish perspective or some form of comparison. For example, I find it intriguing that the average healthy adult human can survive about three minutes without breathing, three days without water, and three weeks without food. Why I find this intriguing, I cannot answer.

In Carl Sagan's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, there is such a list on page 4. Indirectly he is speaking of the issue of Deep Time and the human incapacity to comprehend relatively longer periods of time in with any reasonable sense of scale.
Had life and humans first come to be hundreds or even thousands of years ago, we might know most of what's important about our past. There might be very little of significance about our history that's hidden from us. Our reach might extend easily to the beginning, But instead, our species is hundreds of thousands of years old, the genus Homo millions of years old, and life about 4 billion years old. Our written records carry us only a millionth of the way back to the origins of life. Our beginnings, the key events in our early development, are not readily accessible to us. They cannot be found in living memory or in the annals of our species. Our time-depth is pathetically, disturbingly shallow. The overwhelming majority of our ancestors are wholly unknown to us. They have no names, no faces, no foibles. No family anecdotes attach to them. They are unreclaimable, lost to us forever. We don't know them from Adam. If an ancestor of yours of a hundred generations ago - never mind a thousand or ten thousand - came up to you on the street with open arms, or just tapped you on the shoulder, would you return the greeting? Would you call the authorities?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Nature is essentially mean, mediocre

From The Note-Books of Samuel Butler by Samuel Butler:
Nature is essentially mean, mediocre. You can have schemes for raising the level of this mean, but not for making every one two inches taller than his neighbour, and this is what people really care about.
And that is the eternal conundrum. We can raise the mean but in doing so we do not address the distribution. We can tighten the distribution, making virtually everyone centered on the mean, but in doing so, we lower the mean. Related to Churchill's observation that:
The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.

This animal barely up from the apes

This I Believe by Robert A. Heinlein.
I am not going to talk about religious beliefs, but about matters so obvious that it has gone out of style to mention them.

I believe in my neighbors.

I know their faults and I know that their virtues far outweigh their faults. Take Father Michael down our road a piece --I'm not of his creed, but I know the goodness and charity and lovingkindness that shine in his daily actions. I believe in Father Mike; if I'm in trouble, I'll go to him. My next-door neighbor is a veterinary doctor. Doc will get out of bed after a hard day to help a stray cat. No fee -- no prospect of a fee. I believe in Doc.

I believe in my townspeople. You can knock on any door in our town say, 'I'm hungry,' and you will be fed. Our town is no exception; I've found the same ready charity everywhere. For the one who says, 'To heck with you -- I got mine,' there are a hundred, a thousand, who will say, 'Sure, pal, sit down.'

I know that, despite all warnings against hitchhikers, I can step to the highway, thumb for a ride and in a few minutes a car or a truck will stop and someone will say, 'Climb in, Mac. How how far you going?'

I believe in my fellow citizens. Our headlines are splashed with crime, yet for every criminal there are 10,000 honest decent kindly men. If it were not so, no child would live to grow up, business could not go on from day to day. Decency is not news; it is buried in the obituaries --but it is a force stronger than crime.

I believe in the patient gallantry of the tedious sacrifices of teachers. I believe in the unseen and unending fight against desperate odds that goes on quietly in almost every home in the land.

I believe in the honest craft of workmen. Take a look around you. There never were enough bosses to check up on all that work. From Independence Hall to the Grand Coulee Dam, these things were built level and square by craftsmen who were honest in their bones.

I believe that almost all politicians are honest. For every bribed alderman there are hundreds of politicians, low paid or not paid at all, doing their level best without thanks or glory to make our system work. If this were not true, we would never have gotten past the thirteen colonies.

I believe in Rodger Young. You and I are free today because of endless unnamed heroes from Valley Forge to the Yalu River.

I believe in -- I am proud to belong to -- the United States. Despite shortcomings, from lynchings to bad faith in high places, our nation has had the most decent and kindly internal practices and foreign policies to be found anywhere in history.

And finally, I believe in my whole race. Yellow, white, black, red, brown --in the honesty, courage, intelligence, durability....and goodness.....of the overwhelming majority of my brothers and sisters everywhere on this planet. I am proud to be a human being. I believe that we have come this far by the skin of our teeth, that we always make it just by the skin of our teeth --but that we will always make it....survive....endure. I believe that this hairless embryo with the aching, oversize brain case and the opposable thumb, this animal barely up from the apes, will endure --will endure longer than his home planet, will spread out to the other planets, to the stars, and beyond, carrying with him his honesty, his insatiable curiosity, his unlimited courage --and his noble essential decency.

This I believe with all my heart.

Disgust at diversity of opinion

Peter Berkowitz, The Debt Deal and the Progressive Crack-Up
The evident panic of the progressive mind stems from a paradox as old as progressivism in America. Progressives see themselves as the only legitimate representatives of ordinary people. Yet their vision of what democracy requires frequently conflicts with what majorities believe and how they choose to live.

Add to this the progressive belief that human beings can be perfected through the rule of experts, and you have a recipe—when the people make choices contrary to progressive dictates—for generating contempt among the experts for the people whose interests they claim to alone represent. And not just contempt, but even disgust at diversity of opinion, which from the progressive's perspective distracts the people from the policies demanded by impartial reason.

The progressive mind is on a collision course with itself. The clash between its democratic pretensions and its authoritarian predilections has generated within its ranks seething resentment for, and rage at, conservatives. Unless progressives cultivate the enlightened virtues they publicly profess and free themselves from the dogmatic beliefs that undergird their political ambitions, we can expect even more harrowing outbursts to come.

The 3-legged stool of understanding

Robert Heinlein in The Happy Days Ahead in Expanded Universe (1980)
Span of time is important; the 3-legged stool of understanding is held up by history, languages, and mathematics. Equipped with these three you can learn anything you want to learn. But if you lack any one of them you are just another ignorant peasant with dung on your boots.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity

Hanlon's Razor:
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Man is not a rational animal--he is a rationalizing animal

Robert Heinlein in Assignment in Eternity.
Man is not a rational animal--he is a rationalizing animal.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises

From The Note-Books of Samuel Butler by Samuel Butler:
Life is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.

Sometimes a man survives a considerable time from an era in which he had his place into one which is strange to him

Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence.
Sometimes a man survives a considerable time from an era in which he had his place into one which is strange to him, and then the curious are offered one of the most singular spectacles in the human comedy. Who now, for example, thinks of George Crabbe? He was a famous poet in his day, and the world recognised his genius with a unanimity which the greater complexity of modern life has rendered infrequent. He had learnt his craft at the school of Alexander Pope, and he wrote moral stories in rhymed couplets. Then came the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and the poets sang new songs. Mr. Crabbe continued to write moral stories in rhymed couplets. I think he must have read the verse of these young men who were making so great a stir in the world, and I fancy he found it poor stuff. Of course, much of it was. But the odes of Keats and of Wordsworth, a poem or two by Coleridge, a few more by Shelley, discovered vast realms of the spirit that none had explored before. Mr. Crabbe was as dead as mutton, but Mr. Crabbe continued to write moral stories in rhymed couplets. I have read desultorily the writings of the younger generation. It may be that among them a more fervid Keats, a more ethereal Shelley, has already published numbers the world will willingly remember. I cannot tell. I admire their polish—their youth is already so accomplished that it seems absurd to speak of promise—I marvel at the felicity of their style; but with all their copiousness (their vocabulary suggests that they fingered Roget's Thesaurus in their cradles) they say nothing to me: to my mind they know too much and feel too obviously; I cannot stomach the heartiness with which they slap me on the back or the emotion with which they hurl themselves on my bosom; their passion seems to me a little anaemic and their dreams a trifle dull. I do not like them. I am on the shelf. I will continue to write moral stories in rhymed couplets. But I should be thrice a fool if I did it for aught but my own entertainment.

We can achieve either one or the other, but not both at the same time

Frederich Hayek
From the fact that people are very different it follows that, if we treat them equally, the result must be inequality in their actual position, and that the only way to place them in an equal position would be to treat them differently. Equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict with each other; and we can achieve either one or the other, but not both at the same time.

Has thus far exceeded human wisdom, and possibly ever will

From John C. Calhoun in A Disquisition on Government, 1810. E-text.
Having its origin in the same principle of our nature, constitution stands to government, as government stands to society; and, as the end for which society is ordained, would be defeated without government, so that for which government is ordained would, in a great measure, be defeated without constitution. But they differ in this striking particular. There is no difficulty in forming government. It is not even a matter of choice, whether there shall be one or not. Like breathing, it is not permitted to depend on our volition. Necessity will force it on all communities in some one form or another. Very different is the case as to constitution. Instead of a matter of necessity, it is one of the most difficult tasks imposed on man to form a constitution worthy of the name; while, to form a perfect one — one that would completely counteract the tendency of government to oppression and abuse, and hold it strictly to the great ends for which it is ordained — has thus far exceeded human wisdom, and possibly ever will. From this, another striking difference results. Constitution is the contrivance of man, while government is of Divine ordination. Man is left to perfect what the wisdom of the Infinite ordained, as necessary to preserve the race.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Perhaps not today

Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival. Page 220.
Survival is the celebration of choosing life over death. We know we're going to die. We all die. But survival is saying: perhaps not today. In that sense, survivors don't defeat death, they come to terms with it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Perceive, believe, then act

Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival. Appendix.

Gonzales attempts to answer the question posed in his title, Who lives, who dies, and why? He lays out a handful of guiding principles which are true enough in themselves but I think he actually provides the information in his case stories for a slightly different answer. Those that survive are the ones that:
1) Want to survive
2) Plan and prepare for survival
3) Take an active role in their own survival (and that of others).
Obviously there is a huge swag of fate and fortune but it would seem that those three elements are common to all the survivors.

Gonzales identifies the rules that increase the probability that you will avoid threatening trouble in the first place and then he identifies the rules for when you are unavoidably in trouble.

Planning for trouble
Perceive, believe, then act
Avoid impulsive behavior, don't hurry
Know your stuff
Get the information
Commune with the dead (find out what has gone wrong before)
Be humble
When in doubt, bail out

Responding to trouble
Perceive, believe (look, see, believe)
Stay calm (use humor, use fear to focus)
Think/analyze/plan (get organized; set up small, manageable tasks)
Take correct, decisive action (be bold and cautious while carrying out tasks)
Celebrate your successes (take joy completing tasks)
Count your blessings (be grateful - you're alive)
Play (sing, play mind games, recite poetry, count anything, do mathematical problems in your head)
See the beauty (remember: it's a vision quest)
Believe that you will succeed (develop a deep conviction that you'll live)
Surrender (let go of your fear of dying; "put away the pain')
Do whatever is necessary (be determined, have the will and the skill)
Never give up (let nothing break your spirit)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Now you're a rescuer, not a victim

Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival. Page 171.
Helping someone else is the best way to ensure your own survival. It takes you out of yourself. It helps you to rise above your fears. Now you're a rescuer, not a victim. And seeing how your leadership and skill buoy others up gives you more focus and energy to persevere. The cycle reinforces itself: You buoy them up, and their response buoys you up. Many people who survive alone report that they were doing it for someone else (a wife, boyfriend, mother, son) back home.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities

Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival. Page 161.
One of the many baffling mysteries concerns who survives and who doesn't. "It's not who you'd predict, either," Hill, who has studied the survival rates of different demographic groups, told me. "Sometimes the one who survives is an inexperienced female hiker, while the experienced hunter gives up and dies in one night, even when it's not that cold. The category that has one of the highest survival rates is children six and under, the very people we're most concerned about." Despite the fact that small children lose body heat faster than adults, they often survive in the same conditions better than experienced hunters, better than physically fit hikers, better than former members of the military or skilled sailors. And yet one of the groups with the poorest survival rates is children ages seven to twelve. Clearly, those youngest children have a deep secret that trumps knowledge and experience.

Scientists do not know exactly what that secret is, but the answer may lie in basic childhood traits. At that age, the brain has not yet developed certain abilities. For example, small children do not create the same sort of mental maps adults do. They don't understand traveling to a particular place, so they don't run to get somewhere beyond their field of vision. They also follow their instincts. If it gets cold, they crawl into a hollow tree to get warm. If they're tired, they rest, so they don't get fatigued. If they're thirsty, they drink. They try to make themselves comfortable, and staying comfortable helps keep them alive. (Small children following their instincts can also be hard to find; in more than one case, the lost child actually hid from rescuers. One was afraid of "coyotes" when he heard the search dogs barking. Another was afraid of one-eyed monsters when he saw big men wearing headlamps. Fortunately, both were ultimately found.) The secret may also be in the fact that they do not yet have the sophisticated mental mapping ability that adults have, and so do not try to bend the map. They remap the world they're in.

Children between the ages of seven and twelve, on the other hand, have some adult characteristics, such as mental mapping, but they don't have adult judgment. They don't ordinarily have the strong ability to control emotional responses and to reason through their situation. They panic and run. They look for shortcuts. If a trail peters out, they keep going, ignoring thirst, hunger, and cold, until they fall over. In learning to think more like adults, it seems, they have suppressed the very instincts that might have helped them. But they haven't learned to stay cool. Many may not yet be self-reliant.


We like to think that education and experience make us more competent, more capable. But it seems that the opposite sometimes is true. . . . I couldn't help thinking, then, of the Zen concept of the beginner's mind, the mind that remains open and ready despite years of training. "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities," said Zen master Shunryu Suzuki. "In the expert's mind there are few."

Saturday, September 3, 2011

You make about four hundred observations for every two miles you travel

Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival. Page 131.
When you cross a busy street, you make calculations involving speed, distance, time, and so on, but you can't explain how you do it. When driving a car, you make about four hundred observations for every two miles you travel. You have to make about forty decisions. And you also make one mistake. You aren't born knowing how to drive, and you aren't naturally able to cross a busy street. Children can't. They have to be taught. But our culture places such great importance on that type of learning that, by the time you grow up, you don't even have to think about crossing the street. People from other cultures, say Polynesia, might not be able to do that; but they, unlike us, would be able to navigate the open ocean in a raft and hit a tiny island spot on. That kind of learning is important in their culture.

The future is random

The future is random to us and generates its own events in ways that we cannot anticipate. It is not that the future is unknowable. Every year we accumulate greater knowledge of facts and more wisdom about cause and effect. We slowly encroach on the jungle of the unknown, clearing out confusing undergrowth and letting more light shine in. But the more we know, the more we discover what we don’t know – just how deep and impenetrable is that jungle. It goes on and on. As must we. We will never obtain true wisdom but we can become wiser.

All the while, as we become more knowledgeable and wiser, we are still overswept by those random events, always challenging our very existence. Our greater knowledge and greater wisdom facilitate a better future but do not guaranty it. We face a severe teacher and always have to have the right answer even if it is a test for which we are unprepared.

Doing the right thing, unseen

Cheaters Prosper by Rob Long.

I wonder if the figure quoted in this article is indicative of a more general question: What percentage of individuals are inclined to break the ethical rules if they believe they won't be discovered? It is a question that has echoed down the ages in one form or another. Basically, how many people can you expect to do the right thing even if no one is watching? 80% sounds like a good number but is it enough for a complex inter-dependent society where the continued smooth functioning depends to so great a degree on Trust.
In all, 22 of the 108 students in the class admitted using their classmates’ answers, or unattributed internet sources such as journals, on assignments, he wrote. Most of the assignments included at least 20 percent plagiarized material, and in some cases far more.

We have but one rule here, that every student is a gentleman

From an essay, Disturbing Trends in College Education, by Terrence O. Moore.
On ethics amongst students, a couple of anecdotes:
When Robert E. Lee as president of Washington College (now Washington and Lee) said, “We have but one rule here, that every student is a gentleman,” everyone knew what that meant. Does anyone know what honor means today? Do educational institutions teach honor?
and a second:
I am reminded of an anecdote told by Christina Hoff Sommers. She taught moral philosophy, and a colleague of hers did also. The difference was that Professor Sommers taught a traditional Aristotle-based course in what is now called “virtue ethics.” Her colleague taught a Nietzschean-derived “values clarification” class that amounted to moral relativism. When the students of the other professor’s class turned in their papers, over half had cheated.

The dignity of knowledge as opposed to ignominy of ignorance

From The Amazing Colossal Syllabus, an essay by Thomas Bertonneau. In the form of the age old lament that children today are not what they used to be; an accusation ineluctably true but sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. In this instance, Bertonneau provides a little bit of meat on the bones of the accusation.

I cannot determine whether his experience, which I don't doubt, is universal or not. I certainly hope not. If it is common, then we almost certainly have a problem.
When I took college courses, I knew in advance that I would leave the bookstore with an armful of paperback editions. Students nowadays often email me just before the semester begins asking what book, in the singular, they will need to buy for my courses. In high school, as I know because my son is currently a high school student, there often is one book for one course. In college too, there is often one book for one course, even in literature departments.

The notorious classroom anthologies, a collusive racket run by the Ivy League professoriate and the academic publishing houses, here account for the prevailing student impression. I dislike the anthologies intensely, not least because they eclipse the legitimate and civilized notion that a primary reason for going to college—or let us say for pursuing higher education—is to have the opportunity and the leisure to read books, in the plural.

The singularization of a formerly plural noun might seem a trivial matter. I think not. The sadly impoverished student expectation of one book for one course, reveals that the image of college studies as an abundantly literate activity has no contemporary hold in the youthful, college-bound imagination. Moreover, the pedagogical practice of one book for one course, speaks of the triumph of the bureaucratic-administrative view of higher learning beyond the domain of deans, provosts, and presidents. Instructors are also to blame.

It follows that students who never expect books, in the plural, to constitute the foci of a fifteen-week semester will experience confusion about how to comport themselves with a six- or seven-book demand in a three-month period. (Their trepidation is real; I would not discount it.) The Amazing Colossal Syllabus reaches to blot out the sun in part from the need to specify, in a day-by-day and page-by-page manner, the optimum schedule of reading.
For my two in high school and my one in college, I know this focus on single books for a course is not true. I can't imagine an education that did so little in terms of establishing broad parameters of knowledge. Regrettably, I can imagine the circumstances of bureaucracy and governance that would allow such a focus to evolve and pretend that it constituted a decent university education.
The enlargement of the syllabus also stems from the need to define, explain, and insofar as possible justify the course itself, something that no syllabus from my undergraduate career ever bothered to do. The syllabus of my survey of ancient literature (“Western Heritage”) addresses the basic notion of historical indebtedness, the idea of continuity of insight, and of the dignity of knowledge as opposed to ignominy of ignorance. The syllabus also addresses the difficulty of reading; it tells students that an epic poem by Homer or a philosophical dialogue by Plato is not like a TV drama or a movie, in which in the first few minutes, one can predict the remainder.
That the rot is there, I have no doubt. I just hope that it is not extensive.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Everywhere in contact with chance

Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival. Page 121.
Carl von Clausewitz introduced a related concept in On War, published posthumously in 1833. His text has been a classic guide for generals ever since and is still taught at military schools around the world. Clausewitz writes of "countless minor events" that "conspire to decrease efficiency, and one always falls short of the goal. These difficulties happen over and over again, and cause a sort of friction." He's talking about an army in the field, which is not altogether different from groups or people in the wilderness, where the qualities Clausewitz identified as ideal in a general can come in handy.

Clausewitz observed, "The military machine . . . is basically very simple, which makes it seem easy to manage." Again, some simple systems are capable of complex behavior.
But we must remember that no part of it consists of a single piece, that everything is made up of individuals, each of whom still has his own friction at every turn. . . . The battalion is always made up of a number of men, the least significant of whom may very well bring things to a halt or cause things to go awry. . . . Therefore, this terrible friction . . . is everywhere in contact with chance, with consequences that are impossible to calculate, for the very reason that they are largely elements of chance.
And most important for those undertaking such challenges as nature presents, the army general "must have knowledge of friction in order to overcome it, where possible, and in order not to expect a level of precision in his operation that simply cannot be achieved owing to this very friction."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

This is my civilization!

From A flash at the heart of the West with a great video, Flash mob at Copenhagen Central Station
These musicians took heritage art, pried it out of its stuffy conventional box, and made it shine again. And the audience understood what they were doing. The 2500-year conversation we call Western civilization is made of moments like this, when we connect with the best of our past and re-purpose it for the present and the future. And that conversation is not over; our capacity for keeping that best, casting off the junk and accretions around it, and using it in fresh ways it is still with us.

Ravel could not even have imagined the cellphones the musicians used for coordination; our capacity to transvaluate old forms – and our willingness to do so – is unparalleled in human history. What I saw in that video is that embracing this process of perpetual reinvention is what being “Western” means. We have developed more than any previous or competing civilization the knack of using our past without being limited by it.

I looked at those musicians and that audience, and what I didn’t see was decadence or exhaustion or self-hating multiculturalism. I felt like pumping my fist in the air and yelling “This is my civilization!” It lives, and it’s beautiful, and it’s worth defending.

I always live without knowing

From The Meaning of it All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist by Richard Feynman. h/t Jaltcoh.
It is necessary and true that all of the things we say in science, all of the conclusions, are uncertain, because they are only conclusions. They are guesses as to what is going to happen, and you cannot know what will happen, because you have not made the most complete experiments. . . .

Scientists, therefore, are used to dealing with doubt and uncertainty. All scientific knowledge is uncertain. This experience with doubt and uncertainty is important. I believe that it is of very great value, and one that extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.

So what we call scientific knowledge today is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty. Some of them are most unsure; some of them are nearly sure; but none is absolutely certain. Scientists are used to this. We know that it is consistent to be able to live and not know. Some people say, "How can you live without knowing?" I do not know what they mean. I always live without knowing.

We live in a continuous reinterpretation of sensory input and memories

Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival. Page 117.
Al Siebert, a psychologist, writes in The Survivor Personality that the survivor (a category including people who avoid accidents) "does not impose pre-existing patterns on new information, but rather allows new information to reshape [his mental models]. The person who has the best chance of handling a situation well is usually the one with the best . . . mental pictures or images of what is occurring outside of the body."

Everyone, to one degree or another, sees not the real world but the ever-changing state of the self in an ever-changing invention of the world. We live in a continuous reinterpretation of sensory input and memories, and they are contained in presets that can, at any given moment, light up neural networks in a shifting kaleidoscope of energy, which we come to think of as reality. It is all part of the dynamic dance of adaptation that accounts for our survival as an organism and the survival of the species.