Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The social divide is even starker than the income divide

From an article by David Brooks, The Wrong Inequality. He discusses Red and Blue inequality. Red Inequality is that between the educated and the uneducated. Blue Inequality is that between the richest and poorest. An interesting distinction. Red Inequality is about an aggregate life outcome inequality, encompassing as it does, the accumulation of multitudinous decisions. Blue Inequality is about a statistical snapshot in time. Most people that manage to make a million dollars in a year will do so only once in their life. Red and Blue do overlap (the high functioning individuals that translate that high functioning into high productivity that is also highly compensated productivity).

His description of the consequences of Red Inequality:
Then there is what you might call Red Inequality. This is the kind experienced in Scranton, Des Moines, Naperville, Macon, Fresno, and almost everywhere else. In these places, the crucial inequality is not between the top 1 percent and the bottom 99 percent. It’s between those with a college degree and those without. Over the past several decades, the economic benefits of education have steadily risen. In 1979, the average college graduate made 38 percent more than the average high school graduate, according to the Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke. Now the average college graduate makes more than 75 percent more.

Moreover, college graduates have become good at passing down advantages to their children. If you are born with parents who are college graduates, your odds of getting through college are excellent. If you are born to high school grads, your odds are terrible.

In fact, the income differentials understate the chasm between college and high school grads. In the 1970s, high school and college grads had very similar family structures. Today, college grads are much more likely to get married, they are much less likely to get divorced and they are much, much less likely to have a child out of wedlock.

Today, college grads are much less likely to smoke than high school grads, they are less likely to be obese, they are more likely to be active in their communities, they have much more social trust, they speak many more words to their children at home.

Some research suggests that college grads have much bigger friendship networks than high school grads. The social divide is even starker than the income divide.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Paradox of Chesterton's Fence

The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic by G.K. Chesterton, Chapter 4.
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A lot of bad habits have gotten hardwired into Chinese life

From IMF: China Isn’t Ten Feet Tall by Walter Russell Mead. He is highlighting that with which I have been concerned for the past ten years. The development of China has been a blessing in the past thirty years, one of, if not the greatest, improvements in human well-being ever. And yet it is not sustainable. All countries go through cycles of political and economic development - if we are lucky they are in synch and reinforcing. Mead highlights four key transitions. Number three in particular has a resonance in the US.
First, as the IMF report suggests, China faces a dynamic of inexorably mounting complexity: as the Chinese economy grows, the economy and Chinese society become more complicated and harder to manage. There are more domestic interests that need to be consulted, more economic issues to manage, more complicated interactions between financial markets and the real economy to watch, to regulate and to manage. Even in the absence of formal democratic structures, the Chinese government is accountable to powerful domestic interest groups and public opinion. As society grows more complex and new actors become more empowered, it is harder and harder for the government to deliver “pure” technocratic solutions.


Second, China’s development model will not work forever. Every other country that has developed on the basis of an export-oriented manufacturing strategy did spectacularly well for a long time before hitting a wall when lower, slower growth became inevitable. Look at Japan.


Third, over a long period of nearly unbroken prosperity, a lot of bad habits have gotten hardwired into Chinese life. Banks have made speculative loans to party officials, shady developers and to their own brothers-in-law and over time, with ten percent growth, most of these loans have worked out pretty well. Prudence and transparency have long been hooted out of town: there has been no interest in being careful for a very long time. When the music stops, a lot of loans are going, very suddenly, to look terrible.


Fourth, there is the global situation. China can’t control the global economy and can’t even influence it very much. But the mess in Europe, the slow growth in the US and problems like the impact of a US-Iran crisis on world oil prices can all serve as the matches that could ignite a conflagration in China.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking

Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus
We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking. In that race which daily hastens us towards death, the body maintains its irreparable lead.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities

From Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will? by Eddy Nahmias. I like his definition of free will: "a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires."
These discoveries about how our brains work can also explain how free will works rather than explaining it away. But first, we need to define free will in a more reasonable and useful way. Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.

These capacities for conscious deliberation, rational thinking and self-control are not magical abilities. They need not belong to immaterial souls outside the realm of scientific understanding (indeed, since we don’t know how souls are supposed to work, souls would not help to explain these capacities). Rather, these are the sorts of cognitive capacities that psychologists and neuroscientists are well positioned to study.

Friday, November 25, 2011

What we may become

William Shakespeare
We know what we are, but we know not what we may become.

It still sported the bullet hole

True Achievers by Jeremy Lott is a book review of Daniel J. Flynn's Blue Collar Intellectuals. It contains this eye-catching pebble.
That chapter, "Poet of the Pulps," is a short biography of Ray Bradbury. In it, we learn that Bradbury was born poorer than dirt. How dirt poor? "In 1938, Ray graduated from high school wearing his only suit, which his uncle had been wearing when murdered by a stick-up man six years earlier. It still sported the bullet hole."

Thursday, November 24, 2011

For people always applaud the most for the song that is newest

From Homer, Odyssey I.351-352
For people always applaud the most for the song that is newest to circulate among the listeners.
Is there anything those ancient Greeks didn't get to first?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Real expertise predicated on predictability: no predictability, no expertise

In that article, Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence by Daniel Kahneman, Kahneman is making the suggestion that in systems that are complex, chaotic, and loosely coupled (ex. stock markets), there is little comprehension about the linkage between cause and effect, so participants are not able to extract useful information and therefore their performance is going to be random. In systems that are simple, stable, and have good feedback systems, practitioners have the capacity to develop and demonstrate expertise and accuracy of forecasts, i.e. their performance will be predictable.

The corollary insight, such as it is, is that where you do not have predictable performance, you are likely dealing with a complex, chaotic, loosely coupled system.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Open societies have unequal outcomes, societies that pursue equal outcomes sacrifice openness

From The Paradox of the New Elite by Alexander Stille one might conclude that inclusive societies (ease of immigrant absorption) tend to yield unequal market outcomes (growing income disparity). This describes the US. Conversely, the data suggests that societies that pursue an equalization of outcomes are more likely to reject non-members. This describes OECD Europe.

This set of observations seems to relate to the observation by Milton Friedman IIRC, that you can have a generous welfare system or an open immigration policy but you can't have both.

This is an interesting insight by Stille.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Decision-Making, Limits and Pitfalls

Following on from The illusion of validity.

Kahneman's discussion leads to the modification of this decision-making graphic that I created identifying the four different modes of decision-making based on their present:futurity, tactical:strategic, incremental:consequential and reversible:irreversible orientations. All decisions are made in a context of more or less time available and we tend to default to that mode of decisioning which is most relevant to the time constraint rather than the mode of decision making relevant to the nature and impact of the decision as we ought to do.
This new version incorporates the delimiters associated with each mode of decision-making. Experiential, for example, depends on creating useful narrative stereotypes but there is a boundary of stereotypes beyond which we will not accept for any of a variety of reasons - lack of utility, conflict with values, incongruence with assumptions, etc. The other modification is at the center of the graphic. Once we have digested inchoate data and made sense of it, i.e. arrived at a decision using the four modes of decision-making, we then undertake action based on that decision. There is the direct set of actions necessary for the here and now, and then there are the more policy related actions relevant to the strategic, future state.
A final iteration prompted by Kahneman's comments. Each mode of decision making (heuristic, experiential, analytic and profound) is subject to biases and effects pertinent to that particular mode. In Kahneman's article he is focusing on the tendency to lock on to narrative coherence. We like stories that make sense and hang together and we are biased towards those coherent stories regardless of what else we might know about the utility of those narratives (stereotypes). So what are some of the common biases and effects?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The illusion of validity

From Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence by Daniel Kahneman.

Quite intriguing.
The statistical evidence of our failure should have shaken our confidence in our judgments of particular candidates, but it did not. It should also have caused us to moderate our predictions, but it did not. We knew as a general fact that our predictions were little better than random guesses, but we continued to feel and act as if each particular prediction was valid. I was reminded of visual illusions, which remain compelling even when you know that what you see is false. I was so struck by the analogy that I coined a term for our experience: the illusion of validity.

I had discovered my first cognitive fallacy.


The confidence we experience as we make a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that it is right. Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable. The bias toward coherence favors overconfidence. An individual who expresses high confidence probably has a good story, which may or may not be true.


I coined the term “illusion of validity” because the confidence we had in judgments about individual soldiers was not affected by a statistical fact we knew to be true — that our predictions were unrelated to the truth. This is not an isolated observation. When a compelling impression of a particular event clashes with general knowledge, the impression commonly prevails.


Although professionals are able to extract a considerable amount of wealth from amateurs, few stock pickers, if any, have the skill needed to beat the market consistently, year after year. The diagnostic for the existence of any skill is the consistency of individual differences in achievement. The logic is simple: if individual differences in any one year are due entirely to luck, the ranking of investors and funds will vary erratically and the year-to-year correlation will be zero. Where there is skill, however, the rankings will be more stable. The persistence of individual differences is the measure by which we confirm the existence of skill among golfers, orthodontists or speedy toll collectors on the turnpike.


More important, the year-to-year correlation among the outcomes of mutual funds is very small, barely different from zero. The funds that were successful in any given year were mostly lucky; they had a good roll of the dice. There is general agreement among researchers that this is true for nearly all stock pickers, whether they know it or not — and most do not. The subjective experience of traders is that they are making sensible, educated guesses in a situation of great uncertainty. In highly efficient markets, however, educated guesses are not more accurate than blind guesses.


The illusion of skill is not only an individual aberration; it is deeply ingrained in the culture of the industry. Facts that challenge such basic assumptions — and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem — are simply not absorbed. The mind does not digest them. This is particularly true of statistical studies of performance, which provide general facts that people will ignore if they conflict with their personal experience.
Kahneman then concludes:
To know whether you can trust a particular intuitive judgment, there are two questions you should ask: Is the environment in which the judgment is made sufficiently regular to enable predictions from the available evidence? The answer is yes for diagnosticians, no for stock pickers. Do the professionals have an adequate opportunity to learn the cues and the regularities? The answer here depends on the professionals’ experience and on the quality and speed with which they discover their mistakes. Anesthesiologists have a better chance to develop intuitions than radiologists do.
This doesn't seem quite right to me. "Is the environment in which the judgment is made sufficiently regular to enable predictions from the available evidence?" It seems to me as if this is incomplete and that the question should actually be "Is the relationship between cause and effect well understood and stable?

Also, "Do the professionals have an adequate opportunity to learn the cues and the regularities?" seems too unspecific. I would think that it ought to be something more like "Is there consequential feedback that is timely, accurate, relevant, and contextual?"

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Other nations seem to face the same challenge: either inclusive, or economically just.

From The Paradox of the New Elite by Alexander Stille. Some very interesting observations and questions.
It’s a puzzle: one dispossessed group after another — blacks, women, Hispanics and gays — has been gradually accepted in the United States, granted equal rights and brought into the mainstream.

At the same time, in economic terms, the United States has gone from being a comparatively egalitarian society to one of the most unequal democracies in the world.

The two shifts are each huge and hugely important: one shows a steady march toward democratic inclusion, the other toward a tolerance of economic stratification that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

The United States prides itself on the belief that “anyone can be president,” and what better example than Barack Obama, son of a black Kenyan immigrant and a white American mother — neither of them rich.


It’s a surprising contradiction. Is the confluence of these two movements a mere historical accident? Or are the two trends related?

Other nations seem to face the same challenge: either inclusive, or economically just. Europe has maintained much more economic equality but is struggling greatly with inclusiveness and discrimination, and is far less open to minorities than is the United States.

European countries have done a better job of protecting workers’ salaries and rights but have been reluctant to extend the benefits of their generous welfare state to new immigrants who look and act differently from them. Could America’s lost enthusiasm for income redistribution and progressive taxation be in part a reaction to sharing resources with traditionally excluded groups?


Inequality and inclusion are both as American as apple pie, says Jerome Karabel, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “The Chosen,” about the history of admission to Harvard, Yale and Princeton. “I don’t think any advanced democracy is as obsessed with equality of opportunity or as relatively unconcerned with equality of condition,” he says. “As long as everyone has a chance to compete, we shouldn’t worry about equality. Equality of condition is seen as undesirable, even un-American.”


“After the immigration reform of 1965, this country went from being the United States of Europe to being the United States of the World. All with virtually no violence and comparatively little trauma,” Professor Karabel said. This is no small thing, particularly when you compare it to the trauma experienced by many European societies in absorbing much lower percentages of foreign-born citizens, few of whom have penetrated their countries’ elites.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Usually speaking in riddles or gibberish

Heh. An extended allegory of Alice in Wonderland and American politics in American Wonderland by Morton Keller.
What do we find in the fantastical worlds of Wonderland and the mirror-image Looking-Glass House through which Alice passes? They are populated with bizarre collections of sorts-of-people and not-quite-right animals, usually speaking in riddles or gibberish. They engage in endless, often nonsensical disputations, mutual threats, and generally antisocial behavior: a not inapt metaphor for our political culture. “It’s really dreadful the way all the creatures argue. It’s enough to drive one crazy!” says Alice, as if she had just emerged from a bout of listening to a panel “discussion” on cable television, or reading what passes for “comments” on the internet.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and blind us to the truth

From an essay post, The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight by David McRaney.
As psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, our minds “unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and blind us to the truth.”

Depending whom you ask, you’ll hear that the problem is too little money. Or it’s too . . .

Andrew J. Rotherham Forget Wall Street. Go Occupy Your Local School District has a convenient listing of root causes of school education failures:
Depending whom you ask, you’ll hear that the problem is too little money. Or it’s too much money and too little performance. Or poverty. Or lack of standards. Or lousy curriculum. Or teacher effectiveness. Or archaic rules and regulations. Or lack of innovation. Or lack of choice. Or too much power in the hands of the teachers unions. Or too little power in the hands of teachers.
To which I would add some other commonly ascribed root causes such as poor facilities, administration bloat, too much testing, unaligned culture, family environment, too little time in school, too long a summer break, family demographics (single parent), poor role models, etc.

All of these are potential root cuases, and all will prove to be actual root causes in some instances. But not all of them are equally contributive to poor results all the time, everywhere. And some of them are masks for the real underlying issues. Poverty is not itself the cause of poor results but some of the burdens of poverty are - the trick is to identify those specific burdens and address them rather than the nebulous concept of poverty. A rigorous root cause analysis of systemic poor results will force some unpleasant truths to be faced but we cannot move forward until we quit chasing generic chimera and start tackling concrete problems.

The first lesson of economics is scarcity

From Thomas Sowell.
The first lesson of economics is scarcity. There is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ascribing actions to "pressure" is as much a fraud as the original crime

I wonder if it is simply a randomness in statistical sampling but it seems as if more and more, people are ascribing bad behavior to the simple existance of "pressure". Four or five months ago, there was a big scandal when it was revealed that a significant percentage of Atlanta Public School teachers and administrators were involved in or aware of systemic cheating, including test fixing parties. One of the excuses commonly advanced in that incident, and in similar incidents that have emerged since then in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and other major cities was that the teachers did it because they were under such pressure to get good results.

Before that, there was the global climate data set fraud that emerged from East Anglia University in the UK which set back the environmental agenda by a decade. In that particular instance, it may not have been direct fraud so much as simply sloppy science (they adjusted their data but kept no record of how and why it was adjusted). Again, the excuse was that they were under pressure to demonstrate results.

And it isn't a recent phenomenon. This article from back in 1997 chronicles the many instances "When good guys lie" in order to advance a particular agenda. Again, pressure to get people to believe.

Today, there is Christopher Shea's article Fraud Scandal Fuels Debate Over Practices of Social Psychology which quotes one psychology professor, "If high-impact journals want this kind of surprising finding, then there is pressure on researchers to come up with this stuff"

This seems an entirely unforgiveable and slishod transferance of agency from individuals to the system or to others or just elsewhere so that nobody is to blame. The data falsifying psychology researcher in the article, Diederik A. Stapel, didn't falsify his data because he was under pressure, he falsified it because he wanted the rewards that came from novel psychological findings. Teachers didn't cheat because they were under pressure, they cheated because they wanted to demonstrate the results and reap the rewards for outcomes they hadn't achieved. The climate researchers didn't present undocumented data because they were under pressure, they did so to advance a particular agenda (which included more grant money).

We are all under pressure all the time and forced against our wills to make trade-off decisions we don't like. We all want our cake and to eat it as well. To ascribe these bad actions to pressure is to completely ignore that we are all under pressure and only some of us betray our fellow man by cheating, engaging in fraud, and perpetrating deceptions. Ascribing actions to "pressure" is as much a fraud as the original crime.

Nobody ever said anything about immature

From Argentina: Tick, Tick, Tick by Walter Russell Mead.
“You can’t stay young forever,” says writer John Helyar, “but nobody ever said anything about immature.” Argentina seems to bent on proving his point; the most cosmopolitan and in some ways most European of Latin American countries is getting older, but its commitment to underdevelopment and economic failure appears undiminished with time.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Like a painter whose portraits bear no resemblance to his models

Plato on children's stories in The Republic, Book 2.
“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,1 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.”

Country to town, agriculture to services

A couple of thoughts.

There are two momentous trends occurring globally which match what is happening (or has happened in the US) – 1) Movement from country to town and 2) redeployment of people from agriculture and manufacturing into the services/knowledge sector. These trends have a couple of common elements which change the dynamics of success from that which existed in the past.

Relocating from thinly populated countryside to the much denser environment of the city requires a dramatic increase in communication skills and behavior management capabilities. The new arrival has many more people to deal with who operate from many and much more varied cultural assumptions. The communication skills and behavior management competencies necessary for dealing with an environment where you might interact with 100 people in a day are dramatically higher than those where you might interact with 100 people in a year.

Similarly, the migration from labor intensive agriculture and manufacturing environments where there is some level of standardization and predictability (which is not to say that bad things don’t happen but bad weather for a farmer is a predictable event) to the services or knowledge economy, characterized by rapid change, constant churn, high levels of ambiguity and uncertainty, also call for certain skills to be practiced at much higher levels. Skills and attributes such as communication, behavior management, empathy, networking and creativity are much more highly required and rewarded in the services/knowledge economy than in agriculture and manufacturing.

As a single example of some of the implications: An employer might have relatively little concern about hiring a young person with a spotty arrest record to work in a field, pick apples, or function on an assembly line. They are going to have very significant concerns about doing so in a comparable role (where it exists) in a services environment where that individual will have to function and communicate with many colleagues.

With both these two trends of urbanization and knowledge economy concentration, there is an increasing premium on empathy, communication, self-control/behavior management, etc. (in addition to the traditional idea of education). It is not so much that most of the traditional values (patience, temperance, diligence, humility, perseverance, tolerance, etc.) that have been selected for in the past five hundred years in those countries earliest in the urbanization cycle are no longer relevant, but rather that the cost on non-adherence has risen dramatically. The 20 year-old with a demonstrated work ethic (summer and part time jobs), confident and clear communication capabilities (reading and conversation), self-control, empathy (volunteer activities), etc. has ever more opportunities open to them with increasing probabilities of success. For those that have not acquired these traits or who have blotted their copy-book in some fashion, the chances for recovery and success are dramatically lessened. A twenty year-old unable to communicate in the language of the land (both linguistically as well from a cultural literacy perspective), or with a youthful criminal record for a relatively minor offense, no track record of accomplishment or application, no activity of giving back to the community, etc. has incredibly bleak prospects in the urban, knowledge-based, economy.

It doesn’t help that many of our national policies have been disproportionately focused on interpreting everything through the lens of race (here in the US) or class (in Europe). Instead of seeking to identify what values and attributes are more likely to make a person successful, we have instead been eagerly seeking to identify those barriers which prevent them from being successful. It is not the same thing and the probability of success is much less with the latter approach than the former. We broadly know what those attributes of success are (see above, work ethic, diligence, patience, careful risk-taking, generosity, kindness, trust, temperance, etc.) but are strangely reluctant to grasp the nettle and proclaim them. By focusing on race and class and the removal of barriers we have had only very selective successes (either here in the US or in Europe) and have been distracted from the main arena. Race and class matter but not nearly as much as values and character attributes.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Surrounded by an amorphous boundary of uncertainties

From Why Scientific Progress Sometimes Goes Boink by Adam Mann.
Science certainly is not the static statement of universal laws we all hear about in elementary school. Nor is it a set of arbitrary rules. Science is an evolving body of knowledge. Many of the ideas we are currently investigating will prove to be wrong or incomplete. Scientific descriptions certainly change as we cross the boundaries that circumscribe what we know and venture into more remote territory where we can glimpse hints of the deeper truths beyond.

The paradox scientists have to contend with is that while aiming for permanence, we often investigate ideas that experimental data or better understanding will force us to modify or discard. The sound core of knowledge that has been tested and relied on is always surrounded by an amorphous boundary of uncertainties that are the domain of current research. The ideas and suggestions that excite us today will soon be forgotten if they are invalidated by more persuasive or comprehensive experimental work tomorrow.


Nonetheless, even when improved technology makes a broader range of observations possible, we don’t necessarily just abandon the theories that made successful predictions for the distances and energies, or speeds and densities, that were accessible in the past. Scientific theories grow and expand to absorb increased knowledge, while retaining the reliable parts of ideas that came before. Science thereby incorporates old established knowledge into the more comprehensive picture that emerges from a broader range of experimental and theoretical observations.

Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will? by Eddy Nahmias

Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will? by Eddy Nahmias

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The merely wrong, and the valuable wrong

From Is Philosophy the Most Practical Major? by Edward Tenner.
From such experiences I learned the difference between the merely wrong, and the valuable wrong.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Unencumbered by truth

Thomas Carew, quoted in Decoding the Brain's Cacaphony.
One of the toughest things in any science, but especially in neuroscience, is to weed out the ideas that are really pleasing but unencumbered by truth

Friday, November 11, 2011

The per capita GDPs of the low income economies have jumped by an average of more than 40 percent

From Seven Billion Reasons to Celebrate by Nicholas Eberstadt. That is a phenomenal number, the poorest member states of the world have improved their productivity by 40% in only 12 years. Unprecedented.
And incidentally: what of this veil of tears into which Baby Seven Billion is being born? Baby Six Billion is now about 12 years old (having been born in 1999)—and Baby Five Billion has recently marked his or her 24th birthday (he or she was born in early 1987). The world has changed over these years—and not for the worse, if material living standards are our benchmark.

The child will most likely be born in what the UN calls the 'less developed regions.'

Since 1987, according to the World Bank, life expectancy for the planet as a whole has risen by 4 years, to 69, adult literacy rates have increased by over 8 points, to 84 percent, and per capita income (in real 2005 PPP-adjusted dollars) has risen by over 50 percent, the ongoing global economic crisis notwithstanding.

These gains, to be sure, were unevenly distributed. Even so, since 1999, according to the World Bank’s numbers, the per capita GDPs of the low income economies have jumped by an average of more than 40 percent and the percentage of children completing primary school has risen by 16 points, to 65 percent. Over those same dozen years, the risk of infant mortality in these low income economies has dropped by about 1 percent per annum.

The plain fact is that Baby Seven Billion will have a greater chance to live to adulthood and receive an education—and a lower chance of suffering extreme material poverty—than a child at any previous juncture in history. This prospect, in and of itself, should be a cause for celebration.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Nobody can do for the Europeans what they cannot do for themselves

From Quit Asking, I'm Still Not Your Daddy by Walter Russell Mead. While written in the context of the EU seeking loans from China, these comments are broadly applicable to any party that has behaviors and values poorly aligned with the goal of increasing productivity.
China’s response, however, is equally predictable. As Via Media has pointed out before, if helping Europe means lending money at market rates on good security and buying valuable properties at attractive prices, you can count China in. But they operate as a wealth fund, not a charity. A healthy Europe is in export-pushing, US-balancing China’s best interest, but China isn’t ready to be Europe’s organ donor, sharing one of its two kidneys out of solidarity and love.

It’s simple, really. China is like a bank. If you don’t need money, the bank stands ready and willing to lend. If you are in trouble, you are on your own.

Let Europe put together a reasonable and practical plan, and the whole world will join in to be part of the solution. Nobody wants Europe to fail. But nobody can do for the Europeans what they cannot do for themselves.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Economic forecasts are not very good. In fact, they are completely terrible.

From Is Obama Toast? Handicapping the 2012 Election by Nate Silver
There is, however, another problem: economic forecasts are not very good. In fact, they are completely terrible. In November 1995, economists expected the economy to grow at 2.6 percent the next year; it actually zoomed upward by 4.4 percent. In November 2007, they expected it to grow at 2.5 percent, but it shrank by 3.3 percent, as the effects of the global financial crisis became manifest. Frighteningly enough, the margin of error on an economic forecast made a year in advance is about plus or minus 4 percent of G.D.P.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

39,000 economic indicators

From Is Obama Toast? Handicapping the 2012 Election by Nate Silver
The government tracks literally 39,000 economic indicators each year. Although many (say, privately owned housing starts in Alabama) are obscure or redundant, perhaps two or three dozen of them are looked at regularly by economists.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sunday, November 6, 2011

So far like the present period

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities. Page 1, the opening paragraph. I read some abridged version of A Tale of Two Cities when I was quite young, perhaps ten or twelve, making me think now that it must have been very abridged. However that may be, it began with the full original paragraph which siezed my imagination. There was something not only of the image conjured but also the very cadence of the words, their resonance. Rereading them now there is also a remarkable viability to them - as true a sentiment now as then.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Reality is tireless

Megan McArdle in Could Smarter Rules Have Protected MF Global's Clients?
Reality is tireless, and eventually she almost always catches up with her quarry. But she is not necessarily speedy, and the denouement may be a long time coming.

Cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life

Edward Tenner in What the iPhone 4S Says about Inequality. We live in interesting times and our latent concern about unbridled technophilia and its possible impact on the quality and value of life has much fuel. Yet there are strange things going on. When the bottom 20% in income in the US have an asset profile (home ownership, cars, computers, TVs, etc.) equivalent to that of middle income Europeans, our sense of who is poor and what constitutes poverty becomes unmoored. The disruption to established work forces arising from new technology is well established. That said, for all the decades of anguish about change, people are ever better off in terms of measurable things.

Our conundrum is that people, by and large, have what they need and much of what they want. What is poverty then?

It is interesting to see that this discussion is age old.
Or perhaps the times are actually driving technophilia. That's what George Orwell argued about England in the Great Depression, in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937):
And then there is the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon people with empty bellies. ... Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life.

Friday, November 4, 2011

We have no compass to govern us

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution.
When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment, we have no compass to govern us, nor can we know distinctly to what port to steer.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe

From commenter Andrei Radulescu-Banu recounting the origin of a somewhat famous quote.
The fascism quote is from Tom Wolfe, recounting an episode at a Princeton conference with Günther Grass, the scion of post-war German literature:
“The next thing I knew, the discussion was onto the subject of fascism in America. Everybody was talking about police repression and the anxiety and paranoia as good folks waited for the knock on the door and the descent of the knout on the nape of the neck. I couldn’t make any sense out of it. I had just made a tour of the country to write a series called “The New Life Out There” for New York magazine. This was the mid-1960’s. The post-World War II boom had by now pumped money into every level of the population on a scale unparalleled in any nation in history.


“Suddenly I heard myself blurting out over my microphone: “My God, what are you talking about? We’re in the middle of a … Happiness Explosion!”

“That merely sounded idiotic. The kid up in the balcony did the crying baby. The kid down below did the raccoon … Krakatoa, East of Java … I disappeared in a tidal wave of rude sounds … Back to the goon squads, search-and-seize and roust-a-daddy …

“Support came from a quarter I hadn’t counted on. It was Grass, speaking in English.

“For the past hour I have my eyes fixed on the doors here,” he said. “You talk about fascism and police repression. In Germany when I was a student, they come through those doors long ago. Here they must be very slow.”

“Grass was enjoying himself for the first time all evening. He was not simply saying, “You really don’t have so much to worry about.” He was indulging his sense of the absurd. He was saying: “You American intellectuals—you want so desperately to feel besieged and persecuted!”

“He sounded like Jean-François Revel, a French socialist writer who talks about one of the great unexplained phenomena of modern astronomy: namely, that the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.”

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A pile of stones is not a house

Jules Henri Poincaré
Science is facts; just as houses are made of stone, so is science made of facts. But a pile of stones is not a house, and a collection of facts is not necessarily science.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Their thoughts and behavior are responsible for much of their fortune

From The Luck Factor by Richard Wiseman.
Over the years I have interviewed these volunteers, asked them to complete diaries, personality questionnaires, and intelligence tests, and invited them to my laboratory to participate in experiments. The findings have revealed that luck is not a magical ability or the result of random chance. Nor are people born lucky or unlucky. Instead, although lucky and unlucky people have almost no insight into the real causes of their good and bad luck, their thoughts and behavior are responsible for much of their fortune.

My research revealed that lucky people generate their own good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.
Echoes of Hamlet, "For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."