Monday, October 31, 2011

Vivid thoughts about the future

From Time on the Brain: How You Are Always Living In the Past, and Other Quirks of Perception by George Musser.

The world as we perceive it is constructed and that construction depends both on reliable recollection and imagination.
The bottom line is that memory is essential to constructing scenarios for ourselves in the future. Anecdotal evidence backs this up. Our ability to project forward and to recollect the past both develop around age 5, and people who are good at remembering also report having vivid thoughts about the future.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

An influx of skilled, ambitious people

It's all about productivity. The Vanishing Middle Class by Reuven Brenner. Perhaps a source of woes is that we are losing our comparative advantage in freedom. If so, uh-oh.
For background: After World War II and well until the 1990s, the United States enjoyed an influx of skilled, ambitious people who were escaping a world largely ruled by dictatorial and unstable regimes. Hundreds of millions of others, those with skills, drive and intelligence equal to those lucky enough to be born in the West, were trapped behind iron and other curtains. As long as the US enjoyed monopoly powers on the leveraging of talent and capital, it could impose high taxes, with large segments of the population benefiting from high wages and transfer payments. Political barriers gave these groups of employees in the US the negotiating powers to extract those benefits.

The fall of communism and the political stabilization of what we now call "emerging countries" eroded the US's advantages, thus weakening these negotiating powers. Talented, entrepreneurial people and capital can and still do move to the United States, but capital and industrious individuals can also now exit it in favor of newly decentralizing parts of the world, where hundreds of millions of individuals are eager to work hard and catch up.

Practice and language shape habits of mind

From Unsettled civilizations: How the US can handle Iraq by Reuven Brenner.

On some of the critical distinctions between mobile (Enlightenment Age cultures) and immobile (those based on natural resources and agriculture) cultures. In this case he is discussing risk and probability.
Practice and language shape habits of mind. The greater the role of business and the more transactions, the more complex calculations of probability become, and the notion of probabilities change, imperceptibly, perhaps, all facets of life. To describe transactions is far from a trivial exercise, as even a casual look at any investment prospectus illustrates. Prices, which are present values of goods and services to be delivered in the future, are approximations, reflecting expectations and probabilities. Because of difficulties in fulfillment when pricing uncertain quantities, price becomes just one feature of a complex contractual agreement. It is not surprising, that in mobile societies, with developing capital markets, discussions about probability, risk and uncertainty are linked to both legal reasoning and the institutions needed to back contractual agreements.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The fruit of chance and necessity

Everything in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity
Makes sense when you think of chance as being random variation and necessity being the pursuit of survival and continuity.

Added: In researching this quote, it appears that it was misremembered by an author, Jacques Monod, who used part of the quote as a title for one of his books. From there, it has been frequently requoted, still incorrectly. Background from Antoine Danchin in The Atomists: Logos and Necessity.

Clayton Cramer highlights a similar experience where a quote gets attributed, in this case to Cotton Mather, and then enters circulation without ever being corrected. Did Cotton Mather Really Say This?

Friday, October 28, 2011

What are you rewarding, and what are you punishing?

From Black and right by Ray Sawhill.

Thomas Sowell:
Over the years, I’ve reached the point where I can hardly bear to read the preamble of proposed legislation. I don’t care what you think this thing is going to do. What I care about is: What are you rewarding, and what are you punishing? Because you’re going to get more of what you’re rewarding and less of what you’re punishing.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

If fewer than seven men attack private property, they are thieves

From Unsettled civilizations: How the US can handle Iraq by Reuven Brenner.
There is an old clause in the law codes that King Ine of Wessex established in the 8th century. If fewer than seven men attack private property, they are thieves; if between seven and 35 attack, they are a gang, and if more than 35, they are a military expedition.

Four traps

From Popular Development Economics—An Anthropologist among the Mandarins by Mike McGovern. It is interesting that what has happened in the US is mirrored at the global level: The bottom quintile have stagnated in terms of their productivity at the same time that the top quintile have blossomed.
Collier’s argument starts from the finding that the bottom billion have stagnated over the past forty to fifty years while the other four billion people living in the “developing world” have not only achieved economic development but, in most cases, a greater degree of political stability. He identifies four “traps” that reinforce economic stasis, political instability, and each other. They are conflict, reliance on natural resources, being landlocked with bad neighbors, and bad governance.Having laid out these structural challenges, Collier uses the second half of The Bottom Billion to outline some possible solutions, including judicious use of development aid, postconflict international peacekeeping missions, revised international laws that would diminish the complicity of richer governments and their businesses in bad governance and conflict, and revising trade policy in a way that actively favors the poorest countries.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Less than 1 percent of the American population is in the bottom income quintile for that duration (15 years)

From Black and right by Ray Sawhill.

We tend to think of poverty as a static condition whereas, in the US, it is highly dynamic. People move up and down over the course of a lifetime. Poor students become rich doctors. To understand poverty we have to understand durations and behaviors. What mires people in poverty and for how long. These are much more troublesome issues. As Sowell indicates, we are blessed with the fact that few are truly fated to live in poverty for lengthy durations.

And while we should rejoice in that figure of 1%, I don't think it lets us off the hook completely and for two reasons. Most people that manage to avoid poverty are highly dependent on various transfer programs that take money from one group and give to another. A safety net, and one that is necessary. However, the real goal is to be sufficiently productive that you are not in poverty. If you are not in poverty because of the generosity of others, you have mitigated a problem, not solved it.

The other issue is that you can avoid being in poverty and still be leading a frustratingly meager existance. Someone who is able to hold a job for a year or two may not be in the bottom quintile but if they are constantly gaining and losing employment, oscillating between quintile four and quintile five, they are still both unproductive and in sad material circumstances. No, they don't live continuously in quintile five but they are a frequent inhabitant.

I suspect that our problem is sourced in a much larger population than 1%. Those who are ill equipped in terms of knowledge, will, decision-making and values to sustain themselves in a productive fashion and who spend a life time floating between quintiles four and five and with no real prospects of either freeing themselves from dependency on others or of achieving sustained productivity.
You write in the new book that only 3 percent of Americans spend as long as eight years in the bottom-fifth income bracket.

That study has now been extended to 15 years. And when you stretch it out to 15 years, you find that less than 1 percent of the American population is in the bottom income quintile for that duration. Add to that the fact that most of our millionaires have made their money themselves, and you realize that it’s a tremendously fluid system.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Achievement gap is attributable to out-of-school factors

From Group Urges More Money to Aid Poor in School by Winnie Hu. A classic example of difficult decision-making, trade-offs, noble goals and hard-headed reality. What do you do in terms of fairness to enable children to more effectively participate in the productivity and bounty of this country when they are disadvantaged by the decisions made by their own parents.

As troubling, how do you pay for it. Increased spending on those in need is one solution (though problematic from an effectiveness perspective) but where do you raise that money from? Ideally, from a pure productivity perspective, you would issue a bond to be recouped by the improved productivity of the affected children in the future. That's just not practical, independent of some of the ethical issues.

The most straightforward mechanism is to raise the money from existing households that are already productive. But that, in economic terms, is simply raising the cost of being effective, and whenever you raise the cost of something, you get less of it. In order to prospectively raise the productivity of some, you are reducing the productivity of others. In that sort of trade-off, your risk and cost-benefit numbers have to be rock-solid in order to make an effective decision; yet those number are usually not much more than hopes and wishes - they aren't real numbers.
“Expanding comprehensive educational services for poor children is an essential investment even in these tough budgetary times, given how much of the achievement gap is attributable to out-of-school factors like poverty,” Ms. Weingarten said. “Economic opportunity and educational opportunity are inextricably linked, and we have no choice but to invest in our kids’ and nation’s future.”
We do have choices but they are neither obvious or pleasant.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Most of the 106 billion people who’ve ever lived are dead—around 94 percent of them

From The Geniuses We'll Never Know by Niall Ferguson. Numbers and context - always a winning proposition.
This essay is not about Steve Jobs. It is about the countless individuals with roughly the same combination of talents of whom we’ve never heard and never will.

Most of the 106 billion people who’ve ever lived are dead—around 94 percent of them. And most of those dead people were Asian—probably more than 60 percent. And most of those dead Asians were dirt poor. Born into illiterate peasant families enslaved by subsistence agriculture under some or other form of hierarchical government, the Steves of the past never stood a chance.

Chances are, those other Steves didn’t make it into their 30s, never mind their mid-50s. An appalling number died in childhood, killed off by afflictions far easier to treat than pancreatic cancer. The ones who made it to adulthood didn’t have the option to drop out of college because they never went to college. Even the tiny number of Steves who had the good fortune to rise to the top of premodern societies wasted their entire lives doing calligraphy (which he briefly dabbled in at Reed College). Those who sought to innovate were more likely to be punished than rewarded.

Today, according to estimates by Credit Suisse, there is approximately $195 trillion of wealth in the world. Most of it was made quite recently, in the wake of those great political and economic revolutions of the late 18th century, which, for the first time in human history, put a real premium on innovation. And most of it is owned by Westerners—Europeans and inhabitants of the New World and Antipodes inhabited by their descendants. We may account for less than a fifth of humanity, but we Westerners still own two thirds of global wealth.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

She has practiced, with tongue-peeking determination

From Making Room for Readers by Steve Himmer.
When we’d found enough books, my daughter strutted up to the circulation desk, stood on her tiptoes, and announced to the librarian, “I need a library card!”

The librarian, who must have been through this before, sighed and her face took on the look of someone who knows she’s about to disappoint a young patron. “Well,” she said, “here’s the rule. If a child is under five — and I know it seems kind of backwards — if a child is under five, she needs to be able to print her first and last name on this form.” She slid a small blue card in front of my daughter, and pointed to a narrow space for her name.

“She can write her name,” I said, “but maybe not small enough for that line.”

“I can do it,” my daughter said, so I got her a pencil and she did a great job writing her first name, Gretchen, but unfortunately those letters took up the whole space. We should have chosen a shorter name, I thought, as she got frustrated — understandably — and tried to print her last name, which she hasn’t practiced as much, in the margins of the card and ended up with a mess. “I can’t do it,” she said, her face melting.

“We’ll practice at home and try again soon,” I told her, while sliding my own library card onto the desk. The librarian gave us a couple of blank cards to practice with, and I drove home with a crestfallen face in the rearview. And she has practiced, with tongue-peeking determination, but she still can’t quite fit her name in that space so she still can’t quite get a library card.
It’s a mistake to rarify reading and put books out of reach. It’s a mistake to assume, as Alan Jacobs did recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education (in a passage later quoted by Shelf Awareness), that readers are, “mostly born and only a little made.” Because those discoveries in libraries and bookstores — and, yes, on my parents’ shelves, too — are what made me a reader, not some mysterious, bibliogenic accident of birth. That kind of thinking not only makes fewer readers, but might unmake the ones already forming. In an era of reduced library budgets and hours, closing bookstores, declining sales, and lost readers, discouraging anyone, of any age, from picking up a book they’re interested in seems like the last thing we should be doing.

I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty

From William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale in which the Shepherd describes the teenage years. Some things don't change over the centuries.

I would there were no age between sixteen and
three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the
rest; for there is nothing in the between but
getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry,
stealing, fighting

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Put coercion and mistake on the table, and the ability to get mutual gains is over

From Markets and Morals by Richard Epstein.
A more technical version of the same point is that we hope for all market transactions to generate Pareto improvements, by which we mean that at least one person is better off after it is completed, and no one is worse off. In a competitive market we can achieve that objective if the rules of the game are fully observed. The transaction between two (or more) immediate parties will generate gains for both that exceed their combined transaction costs, so long as the usual rules for voluntary transactions are observed, with the strict prohibitions against force and fraud for inducing agreements. These could be regarded as moral side constraints, but they flow directly from these definitions. Put coercion and mistake on the table, and the ability to get mutual gains is over. It is for that reason that every defender of laissez-faire has stressed these side constraints.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Growth is a cultural production, a society wide embrace of “bourgeois virtues.”

From Why Economics MUST Explain the Modern World by Gregory Clark
But having over many years considered the general problem of economic growth, and the specific puzzle of the timing and location of the Industrial Revolution, McCloskey has come to a stunning epiphany. This is that incentives explain very little of the huge gaps in wealth across the world. Growth is a cultural production, a society wide embrace of “bourgeois virtues.” Specifically, she claims, growth came because the activities of marketing, profiting, and innovating have become in our society uniquely respected, admired and praised.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Pleasures of the imagination that those who do not browse forgo

Of Bibliophilia and Biblioclasm by Theodore Dalyrmple.
According to the owner of a bookshop that I have now been patronising for forty years (and who seemed to me to be of the older generation when I first met him, but now seems, mysteriously, to be precisely the same age as I), browsing in the fashion and for the purpose that I have just described is a thing of the past. Young people do not do it any more, as they still did when he started his life in the trade. Instead, they have a purely instrumental or utilitarian attitude to bookshops: they come in, ask whether he has such and such a title, and if he does not they leave at once, usually with visible disgruntlement: for what is the point of a bookshop that does not have the very title that they want here and now?

There are other pleasures of the imagination that those who do not browse forgo. When first I bought books from second-hand bookshops I eschewed those with inscriptions, and to this day there are buyers who regard any mark on a book as a defect. (Orwell tells us that working in a bookshop taught him how few really bookish people there were, and how ‘first edition snobs’ are much more common than lovers of literature. I suppose that first edition snobs are to literature what hi-fi addicts are to music.) But I have changed my mind over the years, and now even prefer books to be inscribed in some way.

Only 4 individuals (0.1%) appeared on the list every year, 17 out of 17

Interesting statistics from a comment in response to an original blog post, 5 reasons why income inequality is a myth — and Occupy Wall Street is wrong by James Pethokoukis. The original post is provocative and I think probably has some marginal merit but is also fairly anemic in terms of its proof. The statistics in the comment ring true from both a logic perspective as well as in terms of anecdotal evidence. Too bad they didn't link to the study.

This would also seem consistent with the statistic cited by Thomas Sowell that only some 1% of people in poverty remain in poverty over any lengthy period of time, I think it was 15 or 17 years.

So is the real issue income inequality as I tend to think about it or is it really income volatility (income uncertainty). Even if you can anticipate moving on average from the bottom quintile (as a poor college student) to the top quintile (as a seasoned business person, entrepreneur or professional), would you still have a concern about income inequality because you could anticipate your income quintile potentially shifting one or two tranches in any given year? If things are steady and predictable, perhaps we are less concerned about lower productivity.
“Many of the top 1% this year are not in the top 1% next year.”

Correct. IRS statistics for the 17 year period 1992-2008 for the “400 Individual Tax Returns Reporting the Highest Adjusted Gross Incomes” show that a total of 3672 different individuals made the IRS list one or more times over that time period. Of that total, 2676 of them, roughly 73% of the 3672 different tax filers, appeared on this list just once, probably for the reasons you mentioned. Another 440 individuals (12% of the 3672) appeared on the list twice, while 5% appeared on it 3 times. Only 4 individuals (0.1%) appeared on the list every year, 17 out of 17.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

I proved, to my astonishment, to be as American as any Texas G.I.

From “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American” by James Baldwin.
In my necessity to find the terms on which my experience could be related to that of others, Negroes and whites, writers and non-writers, I proved, to my astonishment, to be as American as any Texas G.I. And I found my experience was shared by every American writer I knew in Paris. Like me, they had been divorced from their origins and it turned out to make very little difference that the origins of white Americans were European and mine were African — they were no more at home in Europe than I was.

The fact that I was the son of a slave and they were the sons of free men meant less, by the time we confronted each other on European soil, than the fact we were both searching for our separate identities. When we had found these, we seemed to be saying, why, then, we would no longer need to cling to the shame and bitterness which had divided us so long.

It became terribly clear in Europe, as it never had been here, that we knew more about each other than any European ever could. And it also became clear that, no matter where our fathers had been born, or what they had endured, the fact of Europe had formed us both was part of our identity and part of our inheritance.

Sustained progress through alternating guesswork and criticism requires a tradition of criticism

From Why Science is the Source of All Progress by David Deutsch.
For thousands of generations, we were in the dark. Our ancestors gazed at the night sky wondering what stars are- which was exactly the right thing to wonder about- using eyes and brains anatomically indistinguishable from ours. In every other field too, they tried to observe the world and to understand it. Occasionally they recognised simple patterns in nature, but when they tried to discover the underlying features of reality they failed almost completely. At the time of the Enlightenment they mistakenly believed that we “derive” knowledge of these features from the “evidence of our senses”, or “read” it from the “Book of Nature” by making observations, the doctrine called empiricism.

But science needs more than empiricism. Consider an audience watching a conjuring trick. The problem is not to predict that the trick will appear: I can predict that whenever a conjurer shows me an empty hat, something will later emerge from it. The problem is how the trick works, and that requires an explanation–a description of the unseen reality that accounts for the appearance.

For a new explanation one in turn needs creativity. To interpret dots in the sky as white-hot, million-kilometre spheres, one must first have conjured up the idea. That happens through guesswork - but guesswork usually produces errors, which is why observation is indeed essential to science, though not in the way supposed by empiricism. Its main use is to choose between theories that have already been guessed by rearranging, combining, altering and adding to existing ideas.

Sustained progress through alternating guesswork and criticism requires a tradition of criticism. Before the Enlightenment, that was a very rare sort of tradition. Usually, the whole point of traditions was to maintain the status quo and to defer to authority.

In turn, the scientific tradition of criticism soon led to the rule that theories must make testable predictions. This alone cannot be the secret of the success of science, however, because testable predictions have always been common too. Every prophet who claims that the sun will go out next Tuesday has a testable theory. Science must consist of testable explanations.

Though they helped to spur the Enlightenment, testable explanations are also not in themselves sufficient, since they existed long before science.
Solutions always reveal new problems. So one must also always seek a better hard-to-vary explanation. That, at its heart, is the scientific method. As Richard Feynman remarked: “Science is what we have learned about how to keep from fooling ourselves.” Because it is prior to experimental testing, the practice of requiring good explanations can drive objective progress even in non-scientific fields. This is exactly what happened in the Enlightenment. Although the pioneers of that era did not put it that way, it was, and remains, the spirit of the age. It is the source of all progress.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The widest, most expansive truth

From The Whole Truth by Julian Baggini. While I might agree on an operational level, this a very slippery slope and subject to grave abuse.
The idea that one should always say what one truly believes is narcissistic nonsense, he argued. The role of the intellectual is to say what they think needs saying most at any given time in a debate, not to bear testimony to their deepest convictions. Although this might involve some dissembling, it serves the cause of establishing truth in the long run better than simply saying the truth as you see it. What matters is how what one says helps build and expand the widest, most expansive truth—not whether as a distinct ingredient it is more or less true than another.

A product built in order to reach a long-term vision, but one that met an immediate need

In Hitting The Sweet Spot: The True Genius Of Steve Jobs thoughts on Steve Jobs.
There are, fundamentally, two subspecies of entrepreneur. One starts from the present, and visualizes the next logical step from where things are now. This type figures out how to make something better, cheaper, or more widely available, and manages to clear the financial, regulatory, and market barriers to getting it into the marketplace. The other visualizes a different world, one in which things are different and better from the way they are now, and then figures out what path of evolution brings us to that world, and, as the last step, what is the least ambitious step possible that will move things toward that goal.
It was precisely from this visionary environment that Jobs and Wozniak managed, for the first but not the last time, to hit the entrepreneurial sweet spot: a product built in order to reach a long-term vision, but one that met an immediate need, and was neither so timid that it did not stand out from its peers, nor so advanced it would cost too much or be too far ahead of user demand.
Yet from mistakes and failure, his ability to learn and correct course, and his sheer persistence again and again pulled success out of failure. And that persistence came at heart from his vision.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A pyromaniac in a field of straw men

Elizabeth Warren and liberalism, twisting the ‘social contract’ by George F. Will. Three lines:
Warren is (as William F. Buckley described Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith) a pyromaniac in a field of straw men: She refutes propositions no one asserts. Everyone knows that all striving occurs in a social context, so all attainments are conditioned by their context. This does not, however, entail a collectivist political agenda.
Many members of the liberal intelligentsia, that herd of independent minds
Government humility in the face of society’s creative complexity.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

His vision of the Socialist future is a vision of present society with the worst abuses left out

George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier, Chapter 11.
For it must be remembered that a working man, so long as he remains a genuine working man, is seldom or never a Socialist in the complete, logically consistent sense. Very likely he votes Labour, or even Communist if he gets the chance, but his conception of Socialism is quite different from that of the, book-trained Socialist higher up. To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter' hours and nobody bossing you about. To the more revolutionary type, the type who is a hunger-marcher and is blacklisted by employers, the word is a sort of rallying-cry against the forces of oppression, a vague threat of future violence. But, so far as my experience goes, no genuine working man grasps the deeper implications of Socialism. Often, in my opinion, he is a truer Socialist than the orthodox Marxist, because he does remember, what the other so often forgets, that Socialism means justice and common decency. But what he does not grasp is that Socialism cannot be narrowed down to mere economic justice' and that a reform of that magnitude is bound to work immense changes in our civilization and his own way of life. His vision of the Socialist future is a vision of present society with the worst abuses left out, and with interest centring round the same things as at present-- family life, the pub, football, and local politics. As for the philosophic side of Marxism, the pea-and-thimble trick with those three mysterious entities, thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, I have never met a working man who had the faintest interest in it.

There is no darkness that can't grow darker still

From Things could actually get a lot worse in The Economist
When systematic policy error results in low demand, it's as likely that the error will be sustained or compounded as it is to be rectified. In such cases, every bottom is ephemeral, and there is no darkness that can't grow darker still.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything

From The Truth Wears Off by Jonah Lehrer.
This suggests that the decline effect is actually a decline of illusion. While Karl Popper imagined falsification occurring with a single, definitive experiment—Galileo refuted Aristotelian mechanics in an afternoon—the process turns out to be much messier than that. Many scientific theories continue to be considered true even after failing numerous experimental tests. Verbal overshadowing might exhibit the decline effect, but it remains extensively relied upon within the field. The same holds for any number of phenomena, from the disappearing benefits of second-generation antipsychotics to the weak coupling ratio exhibited by decaying neutrons, which appears to have fallen by more than ten standard deviations between 1969 and 2001. Even the law of gravity hasn’t always been perfect at predicting real-world phenomena. (In one test, physicists measuring gravity by means of deep boreholes in the Nevada desert found a two-and-a-half-per-cent discrepancy between the theoretical predictions and the actual data.) Despite these findings, second-generation antipsychotics are still widely prescribed, and our model of the neutron hasn’t changed. The law of gravity remains the same.

Such anomalies demonstrate the slipperiness of empiricism. Although many scientific ideas generate conflicting results and suffer from falling effect sizes, they continue to get cited in the textbooks and drive standard medical practice. Why? Because these ideas seem true. Because they make sense. Because we can’t bear to let them go. And this is why the decline effect is so troubling. Not because it reveals the human fallibility of science, in which data are tweaked and beliefs shape perceptions. (Such shortcomings aren’t surprising, at least for scientists.) And not because it reveals that many of our most exciting theories are fleeting fads and will soon be rejected. (That idea has been around since Thomas Kuhn.) The decline effect is troubling because it reminds us how difficult it is to prove anything. We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us. But that’s often not the case. Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.

My job as a mother is not to rely on the village but to protect my children from it

From Are You There God? It's Me, Monica by Caitlin Flanagan.
As a parent, I am horrified by the changes that have taken place in the common culture over the past thirty years. I believe that we are raising children in a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape in which no forces beyond individual households—individual mothers and fathers—are protecting children from pornography and violent entertainment. The "it takes a village" philosophy is a joke, because the village is now so polluted and so desolate of commonly held, child-appropriate moral values that my job as a mother is not to rely on the village but to protect my children from it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Differences between individuals in self-control are present in early childhood

From A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety by Terrie E. Moffitta, Louise Arseneaultb, et al.
Differences between individuals in self-control are present in early childhood and can predict multiple indicators of health, wealth, and crime across 3 decades of life in both genders. Furthermore, it was possible to disentangle the effects of children’s self-control from effects of variation in the children’s intelligence, social class, and home lives of their families, thereby singling out self-control as a clear target for intervention policy. Joining earlier longitudinal follow-ups (7, 9, 28), our findings imply that innovative policies that put self-control center stage might reduce a panoply of costs that now heavily burden citizens and governments.

Differences between children in self-control predicted their adult outcomes approximately as well as low intelligence and low social class origins, which are known to be extremely difficult to improve through intervention.

Every moral philosophy offers a description and prescription of how we ought to live and why

Cleaning out stacks of paper, I came across the following that I had written longhand sometime in the past year on the back of a magazine-sized envelope. I have some vague recollection that it was on some camping trip with the boy scouts. I don't recall quite what the purpose was that I intended to use this. Just in case it comes back to me, here it is.
From Dictionary of Contemporary Religion in the Western World, edited by Christopher Partridge, 2002. Page 77 an essay Religion and Ethics by E.D. Cook.

Ethics - That branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.


It is perfectly possible for people to hold ethical views and behave morally without being religious. But it is clear that each and every religion embodies and propounds some kind of ethic, fundamental values, framework for moral decision making, expectations of and recommendations for appropriate behavior and some notion of sanctions for failing to act morally.


Ethical teaching and decision making in philosophy have tended to concentrate on principles (deontology), consequences (teleology) or virtue and character as the basis of morality. There are usually four main foci in ethical reflection - in deciding right, wrong, good or bad: (1) the agents (the one who acts or fails to act); (2) the motives (aims, purposes, and intentions); (3) the nature of the action itself, and (4) the principles at stake and the likely results and consequences.

Deontology is based on some form of law, principles or categorical imperative: act so that you treat others as ends in themselves rather than as means to some other end. Teleology stresses the results of actions: for example, aim for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Virtue or character ethics emphasizes that the good person exhibits positive virtues and will nearly always behave appropriately.

Every moral philosophy offers a description and prescription of how we ought to live and why. Underlying such ethical approaches are beliefs about the nature of human beings and what leads to human flourishing, what are good and worthy goals and purposes, and some account of human motivation and the place of rules and guidelines in human behavior.

All of us seem fascinated by moral issues. Matters of life and death, justice, sexual expression, relationships, work, the environment, social and political organization and responsibilities are heated topics to debate. Such questions affect us individually and collectively. They are not only theoretical questions; they are an integral part of how we live together and how we order our social life. Morality matters. Moral philosophy and ethics can play a key role in clarifying and directing our thoughts and actions.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Engage students in the search for knowledge and understanding

From 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.

60 percent of a person’s income is determined merely by where she was born

From Thy Neighbor’s Wealth by Catherine Rampell, a book review.
As Milanovic notes, an astounding 60 percent of a person’s income is determined merely by where she was born (and an additional 20 percent is dictated by how rich her parents were). He also makes interesting international comparisons. The typical person in the top 5 percent of the Indian population, for example, makes the same as or less than the typical person in the bottom 5 percent of the American population. That’s right: America’s poorest are, on average, richer than India’s richest — extravagant Mumbai mansions notwithstanding.

Any individual mind is the product of a community of brains

From Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience by Stephen S. Hall, reviewed by A.C. Grayling.
First, though, one must point to another and quite general difficulty with contemporary research in the social and neurosciences, namely, a pervasive mistake about the nature of mind. Minds are not brains. Please note that I do not intend anything non-materialistic by this remark; minds are not some ethereal spiritual stuff a la Descartes. What I mean is that while each of us has his own brain, the mind that each of us has is the product of more than that brain; it is in important part the result of the social interaction with other brains. As essentially social animals, humans are nodes in complex networks from which their mental lives derive most of their content. A single mind is, accordingly, the result of interaction between many brains, and this is not something that shows up on a fMRI scan. The historical, social, educational, and philosophical dimensions of the constitution of individual character and sensibility are vastly more than the electrochemistry of brain matter by itself. Neuroscience is an exciting and fascinating endeavour which is teaching us a great deal about brains and the way some aspects of mind are instantiated in them, but by definition it cannot (and I don't for a moment suppose that it claims to) teach us even most of what we would like to know about minds and mental life.

I think the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom put his finger on the nub of the issue in the March 25th number of Nature where he comments on neuropsychological investigation into the related matter of morality. Neuroscience is pushing us in the direction of saying that our moral sentiments are hard-wired, rooted in basic reactions of disgust and pleasure. Bloom questions this by the simple expedient of reminding us that morality changes. He points out that "contemporary readers of Nature, for example, have different beliefs about the rights of women, racial minorities and homosexuals compared with readers in the late 1800s, and different intuitions about the morality of practices such as slavery, child labour and the abuse of animals for public entertainment. Rational deliberation and debate have played a large part in this development." As Bloom notes, widening circles of contacts with other people and societies through a globalizing world plays a part in this, but it is not the whole story: for example, we give our money and blood to help strangers on the other side of the world. "What is missing, I believe," says Bloom, and I agree with him, "is an understanding of the role of deliberate persuasion."

Contemporary psychology, and especially neuropsychology, ignores this huge dimension of the debate not through inattention but because it falls well outside its scope. This is another facet of the point that mind is a social entity, of which it does not too far strain sense to say that any individual mind is the product of a community of brains.

Characteristics of what one might consider a typically wise individual

From Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience by Stephen S. Hall, reviewed by A.C. Grayling.
Hall's first and avowedly tentative attempt at a definition is as follows: "Many definitions of wisdom converge on recurrent and common elements: humility, patience, and a clear-eyed, dispassionate view of human nature and the human predicament, as well as emotional resilience, an ability to cope with adversity, and an almost existential acknowledgement of ambiguity and the limitations of knowledge." Note that this is not a definition of an abstract thing called wisdom but a sketch of the personality characteristics of what one might consider a typically wise individual.
Sounds like the effort to define productivity. One can define a range of activities which are likely to encourage increased productivity but whether they in fact do so is a function of context. What we end up with a range of behaviors which characterize that person who is wise and we also define a range of behaviors which characterize that person who we describe as productive. What is interesting is the extent to which the behaviors overlap.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Boundless intemperance in nature is a tyranny

Why Shakespeare Is For All Time by Theodore Dalrymple.
Macbeth warns us to preserve our humanity by accepting limitations to our actions. As Macduff says to Malcolm, when the latter presents himself as a heartless libertine:
Boundless intemperance
In nature is a tyranny.
Only if we obey rules—the rules that count—can we be free.

Our minds are not our physical brains, but the cultural software running on them

From The Software of Civilization by J. Storrs Hall.
A single human is not really an effective thinking machine. A feral child who manages to survive in the absence of language-speaking elders winds up not being able to learn language at all. Of all the ideas, concepts, thoughts, and so forth we use individually, only a tiny fraction are original. Almost everything we know, everything we are, is absorbed from the culture around us.

In very strong sense, our minds are not our physical brains, but the cultural software running on them. Although there is an element of the personal in memories and aptitudes, by and large the same software would run as well on someone else’s physical brain. Or, when we figure out a bit more about it, on a computer.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Why countries fight

From Myth of the Modern Religious War by John A. Tures. Testing the hypothesis that religion is a major source of international martial conflict.
To establish a baseline for comparing religious conflicts with other reasons why countries fight, we gathered information on three additional issues where Holsti collects data: real estate (territorial disputes), riches (battles over resources), and regimes (where one country attempts to replace another country’s government with one it prefers). Like the religion analysis, this involved bundling several of Holsti’s issues under a broader category for each issue of conflict, since many if not most wars have multiple issues. The results are listed below:
As you can see, in no time period since the Peace of Westphalia did religious wars ever constitute the dominant issue for why countries fight. In no case did religion ever consist of more than half the number of the next-lowest category of conflict.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The kind of illusion that may be more intellectually empowering than truth

From The Other Socrates by Adam Kirsch in which he reviews the Loeb Classical Library.
Pursuing the figure of Socrates through the Loeb Classical Library leads, then, to troubling conclusions. There's no reason to think that Xenophon's dull moralist or Aristophanes's comic foil is closer to the real Socrates than Plato's philosopher -- rather the contrary, since Plato was the closest to Socrates of any of them. But the three portraits are a reminder that we have no direct access to the real Socrates, whoever he was. We have only interpretations and texts, which both reveal and conceal -- just as ancient Athens has exercised such enormous sway on the imagination of the world based solely on the texts and images it left behind. Even so, the Loebs' promise of completeness is spurious -- after all, the Library can only give us what survives from 2,500 years ago, which is a tiny fraction of what the Greeks and Romans wrote. (We have eleven plays by Aristophanes, but we know he wrote forty.) The image of the Loebs on the bookshelf is an emblem of total knowledge, yet the totality is an illusion -- even if it's the kind of illusion that may be more intellectually empowering than truth.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Tradition is the democracy of the dead

The Ethics of Elfland by G.K. Chesterton.
But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad. Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Economists are trained to think about eventual outcomes and work backwards

From Europe Tries to Stave Off a Reckoning by Steven Erlanger. An interesting insight.
“Economists are trained to think about eventual outcomes and work backwards, and that’s the way financial markets function, too,” said Charles Wyplosz, an economist at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. “That’s 180 degrees from how politicians function. They ask themselves about tomorrow or next week or maybe the next election and solve problems as they come. So they’re always behind the markets.”

Absent fatherhood, much more than single motherhood, is the true problem

Walter Russell Mead in Don't Hate Single Moms. Sometimes the best insight is in seeing the unseen, seeing the inverse. It seems like common sense and yet it is surprising how rarely it is done.
But how much do we really need to beat up on the moms? The problem with single motherhood is not that the mother is present; it is that the father is gone. Absent fatherhood, much more than single motherhood, is the true problem. With all kinds of social and economic disadvantages, single moms are doing their best to stand by their kids and get them started. The question is where are the dads — and why so many British boys don’t seem to grow into the kind of responsible partners who stick around. Whatever problems are involved, single mothers, after all, have made the difficult decision to bear, raise and care for a child.

British fatherhood is in a far deeper crisis than British motherhood, and the next generation will not thrive until the Brits do a better job helping more boys become ready, willing and able to father children in more than a strictly biological sense.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

For I see that we are but phantoms

I enjoy Montaigne and his essays and dip into them periodically as well as scan essays about the man himself. I have a number of times read of the fact that he had a number of quotations inscribed on the beams of his library. The number varies as to how many there were but usually somewhere in the mid fifties. I went looking for them and have not found a clean list but have located a document citing the quotations. That in turn was based on a letter between two gentlemen that recorded them in situ in 1860.

Montaigne was apparently apt to make translations from memory as a number of the quotations are listed to a particular source but cannot be located in that source. For example, he frequently "quotes" Ecclesiastes but the verse references don't match. Some of the quotes were not sourced in the inscriptions (or the sourcing was illegible when transcribed).

Finally, because of electronic font constraints, I am unable to render the Greek lettering.

From the original document "Of these 54 inscriptions 19 are nominally taken from the Bible (the greater part purporting to come from Ecclesiastes), 10 from Sextus Empiricus, 7 from Stobaeus, one each from Martial, Terence, Persius, Horace, Lucan, Lucretius, Pliny, Homer, Euripides, Erasmus, L'Hospital, and of 7 the source is uncertain."

Listed below in order are the inscriptions that Montaigne had rendered in his library:


The ultimate wisdom of man is to consider things as good, and for the rest to be untroubled.
- Ecclesiastes 1

(Extrema homini scientia ut res sunt boni consider e, caetera securum.)


God gave to man the desire for knowledge for the sake of tormenting him.
- Ecclesiastes i.

(Cognoscendi studium homini dedit Deus eius torquendi gratia.)


As the wind puffs out empty wine-skins, so pride of opinion foolish men
- Attributed to Socrates.



Under the sun and the law of all things that are a match for Fortune.
- Ecclesiastes 9

(Omnium quae sub sole sunt fortuna et lex par est.)


It is no more in this way than in that or in neither.
- Sextus Empiricus. Hypotyposes I. 19.



We have a conception of the great or the small world of those things of which God has made so many.
- Ecclesiastes

(Orbis magnae vel parvae earum rerum quas Deus tarn multas fecit notitia in nobis est.)


For I see that we are but phantoms, all we who live, or fleeting shadows.
- Sophocles



O wretched minds of men! O blind hearts! in what darkness of life and in how great dangers is passed this term of life whatever its duration.
- Lucretius. II. 14.

(O miseras hominum mentesl O pectora caeca! Qualibus in tenebris vitae, quantisque periclis Degitur hoc aevi quodcunque est?)


What man will account himself great, whom a chance occasion destroys utterly.
- A fragment of Euripides



All things, together with heaven and earth and sea, are nothing to the sum of the universal sum.
- Lucretius. VI. 678-9.

(omnia cum coelo terraque manque Sunt nihil ad summam summa'i totius. )


Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit? there is more hope of a fool than of him.
- Proverbs 26.

(Vidisti hominem sapientem sibi viderif magis illo spem habebit insipiens.)


As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her who is with child, even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.
- Ecclesiastes xi. 5.

(Quare ignoras quomodo anima conjungitur corpori, nescis opera Dei.)


It is possible and it is not possible.
- Sextus Empiricus : Hypotyposes.



The good is admirable.



A man of clay.
- Adages of Erasmus


Be not wise in your own conceits.
- AD ROM. xn.

(Nolite esse prudentes apud vosmetipsos.)


God permits no one but himself to magnify himself.
- Herodotus. VII. 10.



In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.
- Ecclesiastes XL

(Nescis, homo, hoc an illud magis expediat, an aeque utrumque. )


I am a man; I deem nothing that is human to be foreign to me.
- Terence : Heautontimoroumenos.'

(Homo sum, humani a me nihil alienum puto.)


Be not overwise lest thou shouldst become senseless.
- Ecclesiastes. vii.

(Ne plus sapias quant necesse est ne obstupescas.)


If any man think that he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know.
- Incorrectly cited from COR. vm.

(Si quis existimat se aliquid scire, nondum cognovit quomodo oportet illud scire.)


If a man thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself.
- AD GAL. vi.

(Si quis existimat se aliquid esse, cum nihil sit, ipse se seducit.)


Be not wiser than may be needful, but be wise
in moderation.
- ROM. xn.

(Ne plus sapite quam op or teat, sed sapite ad sobrietatem.)


No one has ever known the truth and no one will know it.
- Xenophanes : cited by Diogenes Laertius and Sextus Em-



Who knows whether that which we call dying is living, and living is dying?
- Euripides: fragment of the Phrixus: in Stobaeus : Of the Praise of Death.



All things are too difficult for man to understand them.
- Ecclesiastes. i.

(Res omnes sunt difficiliores quam ut eas possit homo consequi.)


Wide is the range of man's speech hither and thither.
- Iliad. XX. 249.



The whole race of man has too greedy ears.
- Lucretius. IV. 598.

(Humanum genus est avidum nimis auricular um.)


How great is the worthlessness of things.
- Persius. I. i.

(Quantum est in rebus inane. )


All is vanity.
- Ecclesiastes. i.

(Per omnia vanitas.)


To keep within due measure and hold fast the end and follow nature.
- Lucan : Pharsalia. II. 381-2.

(servare modum, finemque tenere, N'aturamque sequi ....)


Earth and ashes, wherefore art thou proud?
- Ecclesiastes. x. 9.

(Quid superbis terra et cinisf)


Woe unto ye that are wise in your own eyes !
- ISA. v.

(Vae qui sapientes estis in oculis vestris!)


Enjoy pleasantly present things, others are beyond thee.

(Fruere jucunde praesentibus, caetera extra te.)


To every opinion an opinion of equal weight is opposed.
- Sextus Empiricus : Hypotyposes.

(Ilavrt Xoyw Aoyos uros dyri'icctrat. )


Our mind wanders in darkness, and, blind, cannot discern the truth.

(Nostra vagatur In tenebris, nee caeca potest mens cernere verum.)


God has made man like a shadow, of which who shall judge after the setting of the sun?
- Ecclesiastes 7.

(Fecit Deus hominem similem umbrae de qua post solis occasum quis judicabitf)


The only certainty is that nothing is certain and nothing is more wretched or more proud than man.
- Pliny: Hist. Nat. II. 7.

(Solum cerium nihil esse certi et homine nihil miserius aut superbius.)


Of all the works of God nothing is more unknown to any man than the track of the wind.
- Ecclesiastes xi.

(Ex tot Dei operibus nihilom magis cuiquam homini incognitum quam venti vestigium.)


Of Gods, of men, each maketh still his choice.
- Euripides: Hippolytus. 104.



That on which you so pride yourself will be your ruin, you who think yourself to be somebody.
- Menander: fragment of the Empipramene ; in Stobaeus : Of Arrogance.



That which worries men is not things but that which they think about them.
- Epictetus : Enchiridion; in Stoabeus: Of Death.



'Tis well for a mortal to have thoughts appropriate to men : i. e. not to be overwise.
- Sophocles: fragment of 'The Colchians' ; in Stobaeus: Of Arrogance.



Why with designs for the far future dost thou weary thy mind unequal to them?
- Horace: Carm. II. n.

(Quid aeternis minarem Consiliis animum fatigasf)


The judgments of the Lord are a great deep.
- Psalms 35.

(Indicia Domini abyssus multa.)


I determine in nothing.
- Sextus Empiricus : Hypotyposes.


I do not comprehend.
- Sextus Empiricus : Hypotyposes.



I pause.
- Sextus Empiricus : Hypotyposes.


I examine [consider].
- Sextus Empiricus : Hypotyposes.


Be led by custom and opinion.

(More duce et sensu.)


With alternating opinion.

(Judicio alternante.)


I do not understand.
- Sextus Empiricus : Hypotyposes.



Nothing more.
- Sextus Empiricus : Hypotyposes.



Inclining to neither side.
- Sextus Empiricus : Hypotyposes.


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

It is a monstrous abridgment of life

William James in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy.

Scan and focus, simplify and particularize, live in the present for the future - we are constantly tilting and balancing like some circus tumbler standing on a plank balanced on a ball. No wonder we all have different outcomes. Those dynamic, complex, chaotic, non-linear, loosely coupled systems virtually guarantee that seemingly identical inputs will lead to different outputs.
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. The passion for parsimony, for economy of means in thought, is the philosophic passion par excellence; and any character or aspect of the world's phenomena which gathers up their diversity into monotony will gratify that passion, and in the philosopher's mind stand for that essence of things compared with which all their other determinations may by him be overlooked.

More universality or extensiveness is, then, one mark which the philosopher's conceptions must possess. Unless they apply to an enormous number of cases they will not bring him relief. The knowledge of things by their causes, which is often given as a definition of rational knowledge, is useless to him unless the causes converge to a minimum number, while still producing the maximum number of effects. The more multiple then are the instances, the more flowingly does his mind rove from fact to fact. The phenomenal transitions are no real transitions; each item is the same old friend with a slightly altered dress.

Who does not feel the charm of thinking that the moon and the apple are, as far as their relation to the {66} earth goes, identical; of knowing respiration and combustion to be one; of understanding that the balloon rises by the same law whereby the stone sinks; of feeling that the warmth in one's palm when one rubs one's sleeve is identical with the motion which the friction checks; of recognizing the difference between beast and fish to be only a higher degree of that between human father and son; of believing our strength when we climb the mountain or fell the tree to be no other than the strength of the sun's rays which made the corn grow out of which we got our morning meal?

But alongside of this passion for simplification there exists a sister passion, which in some minds—though they perhaps form the minority—is its rival. This is the passion for distinguishing; it is the impulse to be acquainted with the parts rather than to comprehend the whole. Loyalty to clearness and integrity of perception, dislike of blurred outlines, of vague identifications, are its characteristics. It loves to recognize particulars in their full completeness, and the more of these it can carry the happier it is. It prefers any amount of incoherence, abruptness, and fragmentariness (so long as the literal details of the separate facts are saved) to an abstract way of conceiving things that, while it simplifies them, dissolves away at the same time their concrete fulness. Clearness and simplicity thus set up rival claims, and make a real dilemma for the thinker.

A man's philosophic attitude is determined by the balance in him of these two cravings. No system of philosophy can hope to be universally accepted among men which grossly violates either need, or {67} entirely subordinates the one to the other. The fate of Spinosa, with his barren union of all things in one substance, on the one hand; that of Hume, with his equally barren 'looseness and separateness' of everything, on the other,—neither philosopher owning any strict and systematic disciples to-day, each being to posterity a warning as well as a stimulus,—show us that the only possible philosophy must be a compromise between an abstract monotony and a concrete heterogeneity. But the only way to mediate between diversity and unity is to class the diverse items as cases of a common essence which you discover in them. Classification of things into extensive 'kinds' is thus the first step; and classification of their relations and conduct into extensive 'laws' is the last step, in their philosophic unification. A completed theoretic philosophy can thus never be anything more than a completed classification of the world's ingredients; and its results must always be abstract, since the basis of every classification is the abstract essence embedded in the living fact,—the rest of the living fact being for the time ignored by the classifier. This means that none of our explanations are complete. They subsume things under heads wider or more familiar; but the last heads, whether of things or of their connections, are mere abstract genera, data which we just find in things and write down.

When, for example, we think that we have rationally explained the connection of the facts A and B by classing both under their common attribute x, it is obvious that we have really explained only so much of these items as is x. To explain the connection of choke-damp and suffocation by the lack of oxygen is {68} to leave untouched all the other peculiarities both of choke-damp and of suffocation,—such as convulsions and agony on the one hand, density and explosibility on the other. In a word, so far as A and B contain l, m, n, and o, p, q, respectively, in addition to x, they are not explained by x. Each additional particularity makes its distinct appeal. A single explanation of a fact only explains it from a single point of view. The entire fact is not accounted for until each and all of its characters have been classed with their likes elsewhere. To apply this now to the case of the universe, we see that the explanation of the world by molecular movements explains it only so far as it actually is such movements. To invoke the 'Unknowable' explains only so much as is unknowable, 'Thought' only so much as is thought, 'God' only so much as is God. Which thought? Which God?—are questions that have to be answered by bringing in again the residual data from which the general term was abstracted. All those data that cannot be analytically identified with the attribute invoked as universal principle, remain as independent kinds or natures, associated empirically with the said attribute but devoid of rational kinship with it.

Hence the unsatisfactoriness of all our speculations. On the one hand, so far as they retain any multiplicity in their terms, they fail to get us out of the empirical sand-heap world; on the other, so far as they eliminate multiplicity the practical man despises their empty barrenness. The most they can say is that the elements of the world are such and such, and that each is identical with itself wherever found; but the question Where is it found? the practical man is left to answer by his own wit. Which, of all the {69} essences, shall here and now be held the essence of this concrete thing, the fundamental philosophy never attempts to decide. We are thus led to the conclusion that the simple classification of things is, on the one hand, the best possible theoretic philosophy, but is, on the other, a most miserable and inadequate substitute for the fulness of the truth. It is a monstrous abridgment of life, which, like all abridgments is got by the absolute loss and casting out of real matter. This is why so few human beings truly care for philosophy. The particular determinations which she ignores are the real matter exciting needs, quite as potent and authoritative as hers. What does the moral enthusiast care for philosophical ethics? Why does the AEsthetik of every German philosopher appear to the artist an abomination of desolation?

Planning and preparation

From a fellow scout master as related by my son.
Planning and preparation prevent particularly poor performance.
An alliterative adage that is pertinent both for its fundamental truth and its special relevance to 10-18 year old boys.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Industrial Evolution by Benjamin M. Friedman

Industrial Evolution by Benjamin M. Friedman, a book review.
But why not go one step further: If culture is responsible, where does it come from? Why do some countries have an economically helpful culture while others don’t? And, since no society got very far in economic terms before the Industrial Revolution, what caused the culture of the recently successful ones to change?

In “A Farewell to Alms,” Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis, suggests an intriguing, even startling answer: natural selection. Focusing on England, where the Industrial Revolution began, Clark argues that persistently different rates of childbearing and survival, across differently situated families, changed human nature in ways that finally allowed human beings to escape from the Malthusian trap in which they had been locked since the dawn of settled agriculture, 10,000 years before. Specifically, the families that propagated themselves were the rich, while those that died out were the poor. Over time, the “survival of the richest” propagated within the population the traits that had allowed these people to be more economically successful in the first place: rational thought, frugality, a capacity for hard work — in short the familiar list of Calvinist, bourgeois virtues. The greater prevalence of those traits in turn made possible the Industrial Revolution and all that it has brought.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Ideologically conservative but operationally liberal

I like this turn of phrase from Left Behind: How Democrats Are Losing the Political Center by William Galston. It seems to describe many people I know.
Granted, ideology isn’t everything. Political scientists have long observed that Americans are more liberal on particulars than they are in general—ideologically conservative but operationally liberal.