Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Four things a man must learn to do

Four Things
by Henry Van Dyke

Four things a man must learn to do
If he would make his record true:
To think without confusion clearly;
To love his fellow man sincerely;
To act from honest motives purely;
To trust in God and Heaven securely.

Monday, January 30, 2012

His last scene comported with the whole tenor of his life

George Washington Eulogy by Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee

On December 26, 1799, General Lee delivered the following funeral oration on Washington before the two Houses of Congress:

In obedience to your will, I rise, your humble organ, with the hope of executing a part of the system of public mourning which you have been pleased to adopt, commemorative of the death of the most illustrious and most beloved personage this country has ever produced; and which, while it transmits to posterity your sense of the awful event, faintly represents your knowledge of the consummate excellence you so cordially honor.

Desperate, indeed, is any attempt on earth to meet correspondingly this dispensation of Heaven; for, while with pious resignation we submit to the will of an all-gracious Providence, we can never cease lamenting, in our 'finite view of Omnipotent Wisdom, the heart-rending privation for which our nation weeps. When the civilized world shakes to its centre; when every moment gives birth to strange and momentous changes; when our peaceful quarter of the globe, exempt as it happily has been from any share in the slaughter of the human race, may yet be compelled to abandon her pacific policy, and to risk the doleful casualties of war; what limit is there to the extent of our loss? None within the reach of my words to express; none which your feelings will not disavow.

The founder of our federate republic—our bulwark in war, our guide in peace, is no more! Oh, that this were but questionable! Hope, the comforter of the wretched, would pour into our agonizing hearts its balmy dew. But, alas! there is no hope for us; our Washington is removed forever! Possessing the stoutest frame and purest mind, he had passed nearly to his sixty-eighth year in the enjoyment of high health, when, habituated by his care of us to neglect himself, a slight cold, disregarded, became inconvenient on Friday, oppressive on Saturday, and, defying every medical interposition, before the morning of Sunday put an end to the best of men. An end, did I say? His fame survives! bounded only by the limits of the earth, and by the extent of the human mind. He survives in our hearts-in the growing knowledge of our children-in the affection of the good throughout the world. And when our monuments shall be done away; when nations now existing shall be no more; when even our young and far-spreading empire shall have perished; still will our Washington's glory unfaded shine, and die not, until love of virtue cease on earth, or earth itself sinks into chaos!

How, my fellow-citizens, shall I single to your grateful hearts his pre-eminent worth? Where shall I begin, in opening to your view a character throughout sublime? Shall I speak of his warlike achievements, all springing from obedience to his country's will, all directed to his country's good?

Will you go with me to the banks of the Monongahela, to see your youthful Washington supporting, in the dismal hour of Indian victory, the ill-fated Braddock, and saving, by his judgment and by his valor, the remains of a defeated army, pressed by the conquering savage foe? or when, oppressed America nobly resolving to risk her all in defense of her violated rights, he was elevated by the unanimous voice of Congress to the command of her armies? Will you follow him to the high grounds of Boston, where, to an undisciplined, courageous, and virtuous yeomanry, his presence gave the stability of system, and infused the invincibility of love of country? Or shall I carry you to the painful scenes of Long Island, Work Island, and New Jersey, when, combating superior and gallant armies, aided by powerful fleets, and led by chiefs high in the roll of fame, he stood the bulwark of our safety, undismayed by disaster, unchanged by change of fortune? Or will you view him in the precarious fields of Trenton, where deep gloom, unnerving every arm, reigned triumphant through our thinned, worn down, unaided ranks-himself unmoved? Dreadful was the night. It was about this time of winter. The storm raged. The Delaware, rolling furiously with floating ice, forbade the approach of man. Washington, selfcollected, viewed the tremendous scene. His country called. Unappalled by surrounding dangers, he passed to the hostile shore; he fought; he conquered. The morning sun cheered the American world. Our country rose on the event; and her dauntless chief, pursuing his blow, completed in the lawns of Princeton what his vast soul had conceived on the shores of Delaware.

Thence to the strong grounds of Morristown he led his small but gallant band; and through an eventful winter, by the high efforts of his genius, whose matchless force was measurable only by the growth of difficulties, he held in check formidable hostile legions, conducted by a chief experienced in the art of war, and famed for his valor on the ever memorable heights of Abraham, where fell Wolfe, Montcalm, and since, our much lamented Montgomery; all covered with glory. In this fortunate interval, produced by his masterly conduct, our fathers, ourselves, animated by his resistless example, rallied around our country's standard, and continued to follow her beloved chief through the various and trying scenes to which the destinies of our Union led.

Who is there that has forgotten the vales of Brandywine, the fields of Germantown, or the plains of Monmouth? Everywhere present, wants of every kind obstructing, numerous and valiant armies encountering, himself a host, he assuaged our sufferings, limited our privations, and upheld our tottering republic. Shall I display to you the spread of the fire of his soul, by rehearsing the praises of the hero of Saratoga, and his much loved compeer of the Carolinas? No; our Washington wears not borrowed glory. To Gates, to Greene, he gave without reserve the applause due to their eminent merit; and long may the chiefs of Saratoga and of Eutaws receive the grateful respect of a grateful people.

Moving in his own orbit, he imparted heat and light to his most distant satellites; and combining the physical and moral force of all within his sphere, with irresistible weight he took his course, commiserating folly, disdaining vice, dismaying treason, and invigorating despondency; until the auspicious hour arrived, when, united with the intrepid forces of a potent and magnanimous ally, he brought to submission the since conqueror of India; thus finishing his long career of military glory with a lustre corresponding to his great name, and, in this his last act of war, affixing the seal of fate to our nation's birth.

To the horrid din of battle sweet peace succeeded; and our virtuous chief, mindful only of the common good, in a moment tempting personal aggrandizement, hushed the discontents of growing sedition, and, surrendering his power into the hands from which he had received it, converted his sword into a ploughshare; teaching an admiring world that to be truly great you must be truly good.

Were I to stop here, the picture would be incomplete, and the task imposed unfinished. Great as was our Washington in war, and as much as did that greatness contribute to produce the American republic, it is not in war alone his pre-eminence stands conspicuous. His various talents, combining all the capacities of a statesman with those of a soldier, fitted him alike to guide the councils and the armies of our nation. Scarcely had he rested from his martial toils, while his invaluable parental advice was still sounding in our ears, when he, who had been our shield and our sword, was called forth to act a less splendid, but more important part.

Possessing a clear and penetrating mind, a strong and sound judgment, calmness and temper for deliberation, with invincible firmness and perseverance in resolutions maturely formed; drawing information from all; acting from himself, with incorruptible integrity and unvarying patriotism; his own superiority and the public confidence alike marked him as the man designed by Heaven to lead in the great political as well as military events which have distinguished the era of his life.

The finger of an over-ruling Providence, pointing at Washington, was neither mistaken or unobserved, when, to realize the vast hopes to which our revolution had given birth, a change of political system became indispensable.

How novel, how grand the spectacle! Independent States stretched over an immense territory, and known only by common difficulty, clinging to their union as the rock of their safety; deciding, by frank comparison of their relative condition, to rear on that rock, under the guidance of reason, a common government, through whose commanding protection, liberty and order, with their long train of blessings, should be safe to themselves, and the sure inheritance of their posterity.

This arduous task devolved on citizens selected by the people, from knowledge of their wisdom and confidence in their virtue. In this august assembly of sages and of patriots, Washington of course was found; and, as if acknowledged to be most wise where all were wise, with one voice he was declared their chief. How well he merited this rare distinction, how faithful were the labors of him-self and his compatriots, the work of their hands, and our union, strength, and prosperity, the fruits of that work, best attest.

But to have essentially aided in presenting to his country this consummation of our hopes, neither satisfied the claims of his fellow-citizens on his talents, nor those duties which the possession of those talents imposed. Heaven had not infused into his mind such an uncommon share of its ethereal spirit to remain unemployed, nor bestowed on him his genius unaccompanied with the corresponding duty of devoting it to the common good. To have framed a Constitution was showing only, without realizing, the general happiness. This great work remained to be done; and America, steadfast in her preference, with one voice summoned her beloved Washington, unpracticed as he was in the duties of civil administration, to execute this last act in the completion of the national felicity. Obedient to her call, he assumed the high office with that self-distrust peculiar to his innate modesty, the constant attendant of pre-eminent virtue. What was the burst of joy through our anxious land on this exhilarating event is known to us all. The aged, the young, the brave, the fair, rivaled each other in demonstrations of their gratitude: and this high-wrought, delightful scene was heightened in its effect by the singular contest between the zeal of the bestowers and the avoidance of the receiver of the honors bestowed.

Commencing his administration, what heart is not charmed with the recollection of the pure and wise principles announced by himself, as the basis of his political life? He best understood the in-dissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and individual felicity. Watching with an equal and comprehensive eye over this great assemblage of communities and interests, he laid the foundations of our national policy in the unerring, immutable principles of morality, based on religion, exemplifying the pre-eminence of a free government by all the attributes which win the affections of its citizens, or command the respect of the world.

" 0 fortunatos nimium, sua fl bona norint !"

Leading through the complicated difficulties produced by previous obligations and conflicting interests, seconded by succeeding Houses of Congress, enlightened and patriotic, he surmounted all original obstruction, and brightened the path of our national felicity.

The Presidential term expiring, his solicitude to exchange exaltation for humility returned with a force increased with increase of age; and he had prepared his Farewell Address to his countrymen, proclaiming his intention, when the united interposition of all around him, enforced by the eventful prospects of the epoch, produced a further sacrifice of inclination to duty. The election of President followed; and Washington, by the unanimous vote of the nation, was called to resume the chief magistracy. What a wonderful fixture of confidence! Which attracts most our admiration, a people so correct, or a citizen combining an assemblage of talents forbidding rivalry, and stifling even envy itself? Such a nation ought to be happy; such a chief must be forever revered.

War, long menaced by the Indian tribes, now broke out; and the terrible conflict, deluging Europe with blood, began to shed its baneful influence over our happy land. To the first, outstretching his invincible arm, under the orders of the gallant Wayne, the American eagle soared triumphant through distant forests. Peace followed victory; and the melioration of the condition of the enemy followed peace. Godlike virtue! which uplifts even the subdued savage.

To the second he opposed himself. New and delicate was the conjuncture, and great was the stake. Soon did his penetrating mind discern and seize the only course, continuing to us all the felicity enjoyed. He issued his proclamation of neutrality. This index to his whole subsequent conduct was sanctioned by the approbation of both Houses of Congress, and by the approving voice of the people.

To this sublime policy he inviolably adhered, unmoved by foreign intrusion, unshaken by domestic turbulence.

" Justum et tenacem propositi virum, Non civium ardor prava jubentium, Non vultus instantis tyranni,
Mente quatit solida."

Maintaining his pacific system at the expense of no duty, America, faithful to herself, and unstained in her honor, continued to enjoy the delights of peace, while afflicted Europe mourns in every quarter under the accumulated miseries of an unexampled war; miseries in which our happy country must have shared, had not our pre-eminent Washington been as firm in council as he was brave in the field.

Pursuing steadfastly his course, he held safe the public happiness, preventing foreign war, and quelling internal discord, till the revolving period of a third election approached, when he executed his interrupted, but inextinguishable desire of returning to the humble walks of private life.

The promulgation of his fixed resolution stopped the anxious wishes of an affection-ate people from adding a third unanimous testimonial of their unabated confidence in the man so long enthroned in their hearts. When before was affection like this exhibited on earth? Turn over the records of ancient Greece ; review the annals of mighty Rome ; examine the volumes of modern Europe - you search in vain. America and her Washington only afford the dignified exemplification.

The illustrious personage called by the national voice in succession to the arduous office of guiding a free people had new difficulties to encounter. The amicable effort of settling our difficulties with France, begun by Washington, and pursued by his successor in virtue as in station, proving abortive, America took measures of selfdefense. No sooner was the public mind roused by a prospect of danger, than every eye was turned to the friend of all, though secluded from public view, and gray in public service. The virtuous veteran, following his plough, received the unexpected summons with mingled emotions of indignation at the unmerited ill treatment of his country, and of a determination once more to risk his all in her defense.

The annunciation of these feelings in his affecting letter to the President, accepting the command of the army, concludes his official conduct.

First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting.

To his equals he was condescending, to his inferiors kind, and to the dear object of his affections exemplarily tender. Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence, and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues.

His last scene comported with the whole tenor of his life. Although in extreme pain, not a sigh, not a groan escaped him; and with undisturbed serenity he closed his well-spent life. Such was the man America has lost! Such was the man for whom our nation mourns.

Methinks I see his august image, and hear, falling from his venerable lips, these deep sinking words:

"Cease, Sons of America, lamenting our separation. Go on, and confirm by your wisdom the fruits of our joint councils, joint efforts, and common dangers. Reverence religion; diffuse knowledge throughout your land; patronize the arts and sciences; let liberty and order be inseparable companions; control party spirit, the bane of free government; observe good faith to, and cultivate peace with all nations; shut up every avenue to foreign influence; contract rather than extend national connection; rely on yourselves only: be American in thought and deed. Thus will you give immortality to that union, which was the constant object of my terrestrial labors; thus will you preserve undisturbed to the latest posterity the felicity of a people to me most dear; and thus will you supply (if my happiness is now aught to you) the only vacancy in the round of pure bliss high Heaven bestows."

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The night has a thousand eyes

The Night Has a Thousand Eyes
by Francis William Bourdillon

The night has a thousand eyes,
And the day but one;
Yet the light of the bright world dies
With the dying sun.

The mind has a thousand eyes,
And the heart but one;
Yet the light of a whole life dies
When love is done.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Never trouble trouble

I have always heard the first two lines and never the whole poem till I just came across it.
by David Keppel

Never trouble trouble
Until trouble troubles you;
For you only make your trouble
Double-trouble when you do;
And the trouble — like a bubble —
That you're troubling about,
May be nothing but a zero
With its rim rubbed out.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Under the wide and starry sky

by Robert Louis Stevenson

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Wind of the western sea

Sweet and Low
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Sweet and low, sweet and low,
Wind of the western sea,
Low, low, breathe and blow,
Wind of the western sea!
Over the rolling waters go,
Come from the dying moon, and blow,
Blow him again to me;
While my little one, while my pretty one, sleeps.

Sleep and rest, sleep and rest,
Father will come to thee soon;
Rest, rest, on mother’s breast,
Father will come to thee soon;
Father will come to his babe in the nest,
Silver sails all out of the west
Under the silver moon:
Sleep, my little one, sleep, my pretty one, sleep.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience

The Common Law (1881), p. 1 by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience... The law embodies the story of a nation's development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics.

The best ideas probably come from people who have the broadest exposure to different views

From I'm a what? by Scott Adams.

Sounds about right.
Regular readers of my blog know that the goal of my writing is to be interesting and nothing else. I'm not trying to change anyone's opinion, largely because I don't believe humans can be influenced by exposure to better arguments, even if I had some. But I do think people benefit by exposure to ideas that are different from whatever they are hearing, even when the ideas are worse. That's my niche: something different. That approach springs from my observation that brains are like investment portfolios, where diversification is generally a good strategy. I'm not trying to move you to my point of view; I'm trying to add diversity to your portfolio of thoughts. In the short term, I hope it's stimulating enough to be entertaining. Long term, the best ideas probably come from people who have the broadest exposure to different views.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Let me live in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to man

The House by the Side of the Road
by Sam Walter Foss

There are hermit souls that live withdrawn
In the place of their self-content;
There are souls like stars, that dwell apart,
In a fellowless firmament;
There are pioneer souls that blaze the paths
Where highways never ran-
But let me live by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

Let me live in a house by the side of the road
Where the race of men go by-
The men who are good and the men who are bad,
As good and as bad as I.
I would not sit in the scorner's seat
Nor hurl the cynic's ban-
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

I see from my house by the side of the road
By the side of the highway of life,
The men who press with the ardor of hope,
The men who are faint with the strife,
But I turn not away from their smiles and tears,
Both parts of an infinite plan-
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

I know there are brook-gladdened meadows ahead,
And mountains of wearisome height;
That the road passes on through the long afternoon
And stretches away to the night.
And still I rejoice when the travelers rejoice
And weep with the strangers that moan,
Nor live in my house by the side of the road
Like a man who dwells alone.

Let me live in my house by the side of the road,
Where the race of men go by-
They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,
Wise, foolish - so am I.
Then why should I sit in the scorner's seat,
Or hurl the cynic's ban?
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

The department has more specialists in the history of Native Americans than U.S. foreign relations

From The Ruinous Reign of Race-and-Gender Historians by KC Johnson. Uh oh.

For some long time I have been aware of the issue of academic bias and groupthink highlighted by KC Johnson in this article. I have been inclined to dismiss the expressed concern as overblown. Yes, there were outrageous manifestations such as Duke's Group of 88's complete disavowal of the rule of law and due process, but I always assumed that they were just unfortunate outliers.

The case that Johnson makes is not complete but is disconcerting. That the courts should have to rely on scholarship that is two generations old because academia is no longer pursuing serious studies is alarming.
A quick summary of the decision: the Montana court ruled that "unlike Citizens United, this case concerns Montana law, Montana elections and it arises from Montana history," requiring the justices to examine "the context of the time and place it was enacted, during the early twentieth century." To provide this necessary historical background, the Court repeatedly cited books by historians Helen Fisk Sanders, K. Ross Toole, C. B. Glasscock, Michael Malone, and Richard Roeder. The Court also accepted an affidavit from Harry Fritz, a professor emeritus at the University of Montana and a specialist in Montana history, who affirmed, "What was true a century ago is as true today: distant corporate interests mean that corporate dominated campaigns will only work 'in the essential interest of outsiders with local interests a very secondary consideration.'"

An attorney analyzing the decision, however, probably would have been surprised to see that the works of history upon which the Montana court relied were all published before 1977. She might even have wondered whether the court's reliance on older works suggested that it had ignored newer, perhaps contradictory, publications. But for anyone familiar with how the contemporary academy approaches U.S. history, the court's inability to find recent relevant works could have come as no surprise at all.

The study of U.S. history has transformed in the last two generations, with emphasis on staffing positions in race, class, or gender leading to dramatic declines in fields viewed as more "traditional," such as U.S. political, constitutional, diplomatic, and military history. And even those latter areas have been "re-visioned," in the word coined by an advocate of the transformation, Illinois history professor Mark Leff, to make their approach more accommodating to the dominant race/class/gender paradigm. In the new academy, political histories of state governments--of the type cited and used effectively by the Montana Supreme Court--were among the first to go. The Montana court had to turn to Fritz, an emeritus professor, because the University of Montana History Department no longer features a specialist in Montana history (nor, for that matter, does it have a professor whose research interests, like those of Fritz, deal with U.S. military history, a topic that has fallen out of fashion in the contemporary academy).

To take the nature of the U.S. history positions in one major department as an example of the new staffing patterns: the University of Michigan, once home to Dexter and then Bradford Perkins, was a pioneer in the study of U.S. diplomatic history. Now the department's 29 professors whose research focuses on U.S. history after 1789 include only one whose scholarship has focused on U.S. foreign relations--Penny von Eschen, a perfect example of the "re-visioning" approach. (Her most recent book is Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War.) In contrast to this 1-in-29 ratio, Michigan has hired ten Americanists (including von Eschen) whose research, according to their department profiles, focuses on issues of race; and eight Americanists whose research focuses on issues of gender. The department has more specialists in the history of Native Americans than U.S. foreign relations.

Monday, January 23, 2012

We shall not flag nor fail

Winston Churchill in his June 4, 1940 speech to parliament following Dunkirk.
We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France and on the seas and oceans; we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender and even if, which I do not for the moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, will carry on the struggle until in God's good time the New World with all its power and might, sets forth to the liberation and rescue of the Old.

The power of narrative

From When It Comes To Depression, Serotonin Isn't The Whole Story by Alix Spiegel.
One critic I talked to said that the serotonin story distracted researchers from looking for other causes of depression. But Delgado agrees with Frazer and says that the story has some benefits. He points out that years of research have demonstrated that uncertainty itself can be harmful to people. Which is why, he says, clear, simple explanations are so very important.

"When you feel that you understand it, a lot of the stress levels dramatically are reduced," he says. "So stress, hormones and a lot of biological factors change."

Unfortunately, the real story is complicated, and in a way, not all that reassuring. Researchers don't really know what causes depression. They're making progress, but they don't know. That's the real story.

It's not exactly a blockbuster.
When you have the four quadrants of epistemological knowledge (heuristics, experiential, analytic and profound), even if you are primarily working in the analytic arena (spotting patterns and determining causation as in medical research), the mode of communication from the other quadrants can be overpowering. In this case, the narrative strength of the experiential quadrant has dominated and driven the direction of the analytical work, sometimes at odds with what the data has actually been saying.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

He just stares at a book

From How To Read A Pudding by Walter Russell Mead
I’m told that Chuck Norris doesn’t read; he just stares at a book until it breaks down and tells him everything it knows.

Good. Then we will fight in the shade.

I love that anecdotes can have survived for so long. From Herodotus, Histories, 7.226.
Although extraordinary valor was displayed by the entire corps of Spartans and Thespians, yet bravest of all was declared the Spartan Dienekes. It is said that on the eve of battle, he was told by a native of Trachis that the Persian archers were so numerous that, their arrows would block out the sun. Dienekes, however, undaunted by this prospect, remarked with a laugh, 'Good. Then we will fight in the shade.'

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Here obedient to their laws we lie

Simonides of Ceos. While a prolific poet in his time, only fragments have survived the 2,500 years. But what fragments. This, from a stone engraved at Thermopylae to mark the site defeat of the Spartans and Thespians which ensured that their names and lives would be marked down the centuries.
Go, tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

75% mortality rate.

Heard on NPR this morning. 750 of the first 1,000 polar explorers, died in their explorations. A 75% mortality rate for something that, when you come down to it, was purely an elective choice.

This sounds somewhat like a fact I read many years ago. Regrettably, I do not recall the details but it was an historian who calculated the mortality rate of the first 100 years of transatlantic crossings or something like that. The number was startlingly high. My recollection is 30-50%.

We sometimes fail to keep in my mind just how steep can be the price of being first.

Friday, January 20, 2012

They see themselves as readers, as members of a different group

From The Medium is the Medium by David Brooks.
Recently, book publishers got some good news. Researchers gave 852 disadvantaged students 12 books (of their own choosing) to take home at the end of the school year. They did this for three successive years.

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

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

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

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

Formed for deeds of high resolve

From Queen Mab by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Man is of soul and body, formed for deeds
Of high resolve; on fancy’s boldest wing
To soar unwearied, fearlessly to turn
The keenest pangs to peacefulness, and taste
The joys which mingled sense and spirit yield;

Or he is formed for abjectness and woe,
To grovel on the dunghill of his fears,
To shrink at every sound, to quench the flame
Of natural love in sensualism, to know
That hour as blest when on his worthless days
The frozen hand of death shall set its seal,
Yet fear the cure, though hating the disease.

The one is man that shall hereafter be;
The other, man as vice has made him now.

200 of the world’s largest metropolitan economies: nearly one-half (48 percent) of global output but only 14 percent of world population

From Global MetroMonitor 2011: Volatility, Growth, and Recovery by Emilia Istrate,et al
An analysis of per capita GDP (income) and employment changes in the 2010 to 2011 period for 200 of the world’s largest metropolitan economies, which account for nearly one-half (48 percent) of global output but contain only 14 percent of world population and employment

Neanderthals shared about 99.84 per cent of their DNA with us

From Into the mind of a Neanderthal by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge.
So what was it like to be a Neanderthal? Did they feel the same way we do? Did they fall in love? Have a bad day? Palaeoanthropologists now know a great deal about these ice-age Europeans who flourished between 200,000 and 30,000 years ago. We know, for example, that Neanderthals shared about 99.84 per cent of their DNA with us, and that we and they evolved separately for several hundred thousand years. We also know Neanderthal brains were a bit larger than ours and were shaped a bit differently. And we know where they lived, what they ate and how they got it.


As for the neighbourhood, the size and distribution of archaeological sites shows that Neanderthals spent their lives mostly in small groups of five to 10 individuals. Several such groups would come together briefly after especially successful hunts, suggesting that Neanderthals also belonged to larger communities but that they seldom made contact with people outside those groupings.

Many Neanderthal sites have rare pieces of high-quality stone from more distant sources (more than 100 kilometres), but not enough to indicate trade or even regular contact with other communities. A more likely scenario is that an adolescent boy or girl carried the material with them when they attached themselves to a new community. The small size of Neanderthal territories would have made some form of "marrying out" essential.

The federal government is today spending roughly 280 times more per citizen than it did in 1797

From A Federal Budget of Just $10 Million, but Something’s Familiar by James Barron.
The bottom line? In 1797-98, the total federal budget was $10,161,097.48. For 2012, $3.7 trillion was the amount proposed by President Obama.

The United States — “the U. States” on the cover — listed $2.8 million for domestic debt and “reimbursement of 6 pct. stock bearing a present interest.” Another line item, for $238,637.30, covered “interest on domestic loans.”
So in 1797, outstanding federal debt represented 27% of the federal budget. In 2011 our outstanding debt of $15.2 trillion is some 400% of the $3.7 trillion federal budget.

Let's look at adjusted measures to reflect both inflation and population growth. $10.2 million dollars in 1797 is worth $180 million today (using Historical Currency Conversions). The population in 1797 was roughly 4 million, 1.3% of today's population. Using this ratio to adjust for population increase, the 1797 budget would have been $13.5 billion in constant dollars for the current size of the population. That sounds like a pretty good bargain. And who would you trust more to spend that money wisely? Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams and Hamilton or the current crew? The upshot is that the federal government is today spending roughly 280 times more per citizen than it did in 1797. Which is the better value for money I wonder? We get a lot of value for what is spent but 280 times the value?

An alternative way to look at it would be to say that we would have to cut the current budget by 96.5% to bring it into alignment with 1797. I don't think there is a politician alive who would sign up for that goal. And certainly not an electorate.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Practice, Practice, Practice

From What Reading Does For The Mind by Anne E. Cunningham and Keith E. Stanovich
Reading has cognitive consequences that extend beyond its immediate task of lifting meaning from a particular passage. Furthermore, these consequences are reciprocal and exponential in nature. Accumulated over time—spiraling either upward or downward—they carry profound implications for the development of a wide range of cognitive capabilities. Concern about the reciprocal influences of reading achievement has been elucidated through discussions of so-called “Matthew effects” in academic achievement (Stanovich, 1986; Walberg & Tsai, 1983). The term “Matthew effects” is taken from the Biblical passage that describes a rich-get-richer and poor-get-poorer phenomenon. Applying this concept to reading, we see that very early in the reading process poor readers, who experience greater difficulty in breaking the spelling-to-sound code, begin to be exposed to much less text than their more skilled peers (Allington, 1984; Biemiller, 1977–1978). Further exacerbating the problem is the fact that less-skilled readers often find themselves in materials that are too difficult for them (Allington, 1977, 1983, 1984; Gambrell, Wilson, & Gantt, 1981). The combination of deficient decoding skills, lack of practice, and difficult materials results in unrewarding early reading experiences that lead to less involvement in reading-related activities. Lack of exposure and practice on the part of the lessskilled reader delays the development of automaticity and speed at the word recognition level. Slow, capacity-draining word recognition processes require cognitive resources that should be allocated to comprehension. Thus, reading for meaning is hindered; unrewarding reading experiences multiply; and practice is avoided or merely tolerated without real cognitive involvement.

The disparity in the reading experiences of children of varying skill may have many other consequences for their future reading and cognitive development. As skill develops and word recognition becomes less resource demanding and more automatic, more general language skills, such as vocabulary, background knowledge, familiarity with complex syntactic structures, etc., become the limiting factor on reading ability (Chall, 1983; Sticht, 1979). But the sheer volume of reading done by the better reader has the potential to provide an advantage even here if—as our research suggests—reading a lot serves to develop these very skills and knowledge bases (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997; Echols, West, Stanovich, & Zehr, 1996; Stanovich & Cunningham, 1992, 1993). From the standpoint of a reciprocal model of reading development, this means that many cognitive differences observed between readers of differing skill may in fact be consequences of differential practice that itself resulted from early differences in the speed of initial reading acquisition. The increased reading experiences of children who master the spelling-to-sound code early thus might have important positive feedback effects that are denied the slowly progressing reader. In our research, we have begun to explore these reciprocal effects by examining the role that reading volume plays in shaping the mind and will share many of our findings in this article.

How much is enough?

An aggravating article (Opposites Don’t Attract (And That’s Bad News) by Jonah Lehrer) only because it is such a good example of how journalists write the story they wish to write and treat evidence and logic as purely incidental dressing to the narrative.

In this instance, Lehrer wishes to make the case that people ought to want to make friends with all sorts of individuals, particularly people who are not like themselves. It is a hoary trope that almost mocks itself.

His first evidence is summarized:
It doesn’t matter where we live or how we grew up or which language we speak – we still want to spend time with people who feel similar.
Without either a rationale or evidence, he concludes this happens because:
It’s simply more comfortable.
The question Lehrer should be asking is not whether people ought to socialize with like minded people but whether they in fact do so. He does muster at least a modicum of evidence to support that argument (and I suspect that with digging a robust case can be made that in most situations people do like to socialize with their own). But having demonstrated a fact - birds of feather flock together - he fails to ask the next logical question which is - why do they flock together. Instead, he simply leaps to the conclusion that it is simply more comfortable.

Had he asked the why question he might have headed in a different direction. Several obvious alternate answers come to mind that might take precedence over the simple imputation that it is more comfortable. Perhaps socializing with similar people is easier (common assumptions), or more entertaining (shared weltanschauung), or more productive (common language and knowledge base), or less risky (accidental insults or misunderstandings), or more likely to yield commercial or social advantages down the road. Instead, in his eagerness to condemn those that don't share his goal of networking with unknown (and potentially unknowable) people, he doesn't ask but instead assumes: they are lazy rubes.

As his sole evidence for the advantage of diversity in networking, he offers this summary of a study:
Other studies have found that having a diverse social network comes with impressive payoffs, such as this analysis of Stanford Business School graduates. (Those entrepreneurs with more “entropic” and “diverse” social networks scored three times higher on a metric of innovation, suggesting that the ability to access “non-redundant information from peers” is a crucial source of new ideas.)
Well, based on my detailed scientific research at bars near harbors, fishermen consuming large volumes of alcohol also have impressive metrics of innovation, particularly in their narratives about the one that got away. This whole article is a sad joke of a stereotype. Sad in part because it deals with a real and potentially highly useful topic - how much diversity of thought and behavior can be accommodated within any stable social system. You want at least some variation in thought and behavior because that drives adaptive evolution. At the same time you don't want so much diversity of thought and behavior that you undermine the cohesion of the group in responding to exogenous shocks. I am firmly of the view that every system needs some internally generated variation in order to constantly evolve with changing circumstances but I don't know how much variation is optimum. And I won't find out from Lehrer because it appears that for him it is simply an article of faith that any amount of variation is good and anyone disagreeing is a less developed person.

Lehrer seems so intently blinkered that he entirely misses the point of the somewhat intriguing research in his eagerness to elevate his own status by putting down others. Hmmph.

Present as an inverse of the past

Longevity & health in ancient Paleolithic vs. Neolithic peoples by Ward Nicholson.

Quite fascinating. We get used to the world as we know it today and even though we know that olden times were different, it is easy to lose track of how different and in what ways. So we generally know that we live much longer than people used to but we can overlook just how recently was this life extension.

Between 30,000 years ago up till the 1920s, life expectancy bounced around between 30 and 40 years.

It was only post-1920s that life-spans doubled in the developed world.

The other fact that caught my eye was the turning on its head of a modern condition which we take for granted: that women live about 10% longer than men. Before 1920, women, on average had a life span approximately 15-30% shorter than men. So many discussions today seem predicated on the assumption that women live longer than men but that is true only for the past 90 years out of modern man's existence of 50,000 years.

Many more interesting titbits in the report.

14 hours

From What Happened to Studying by Keith O'Brien.
The average student at a four-year college in 1961 studied about 24 hours a week. Today's average student hits the books for just 14 hours.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Reading and Theory of Mind

The Business Case for Reading Novels by Anne Kreamer. Click through to the original article to access links to the studies.
In one of Oatley and Mar's studies in 2006, 94 subjects were asked to guess the emotional state of a person from a photograph of their eyes. "The more fiction people [had] read," they discovered, "the better they were at perceiving emotion in the eyes, and...correctly interpreting social cues." In 2009, wondering, as Oatley put it, if "devouring novels might be a result, not a cause, of having a strong theory of mind," they expanded the scope of their research, testing 252 adults on the "Big Five" personality traits — extraversion, emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness — and correlated those results with how much time the subjects generally spent reading fiction. Once again, they discovered "a significant relation between the amount of fiction people read and their empathic and theory-of-mind abilities" allowing them to conclude that it was reading fiction that improved the subjects' social skills, not that those with already high interpersonal skills tended to read more.

Theory of mind, the ability to interpret and respond to those different from us — colleagues, employees, bosses, customers and clients — is plainly critical to success, particularly in a globalized economy. The imperative to try to understand others' points of view — to be empathetic — is essential in any collaborative enterprise.

Education is the acquisition of the art of the utilisation of knowledge

The Aims of Education by Alfred North Whitehead.

One of those essays in which the parts sum to more than the whole. I.e. I am not sure I agree with the overall essay but there are many components of the essay which I believe to be insightful and with which I agree.
Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it. A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God's earth. What we should aim at producing is men who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction. Their expert knowledge will give them the ground to start from, and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as art. We have to remember that the valuable intellectual development is self-development, and that it mostly takes place between the ages of sixteen and thirty. As to training, the most important part is given by mothers before the age of twelve. A saying due to Archbishop Temple illustrates my meaning. Surprise was expressed at the success in after-life of a man, who as a boy at Rugby had been somewhat undistinguished. He answered, "It is not what they are at eighteen, it is what they become afterwards that matters."

In training a child to activity of thought, above all things we must beware of what I will call "inert ideas"-that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilised, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations.

In the history of education, the most striking phenomenon is that schools of learning, which at one epoch are alive with a ferment of genius, in a succeeding generation exhibit merely pedantry and routine. The reason is, that they are overladen with inert ideas. Education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful - Corruptio optimi, pessima. Except at rare intervals of intellectual ferment, education in the past has been radically infected with inert ideas. That is the reason why uneducated clever women, who have seen much of the world, are in middle life so much the most cultured part of the community. They have been saved from this horrible burden of inert ideas. Every intellectual revolution which has ever stirred humanity into greatness has been a passionate protest against inert ideas. Then, alas, with pathetic ignorance of human psychology, it has proceeded by some educational scheme to bind humanity afresh with inert ideas of its own fashioning.

Let us now ask how in our system of education we are to guard against this mental dryrot. We enunciate two educational commandments, "Do not teach too many subjects," and again, "What you teach, teach thoroughly."
The result of teaching small parts of a large number of subjects is the passive reception of disconnected ideas, not illumined with any spark of vitality. Let the main ideas which are introduced into a child's education be few and important, and let them be thrown into every combination possible. The child should make them his own, and should understand their application here and now in the circumstances of his actual life. From the very beginning of his education, the child should experience the joy of discovery. The discovery which he has to make, is that general ideas give an understanding of that stream of events which pours through his life, which is his life. By understanding I mean more than a mere logical analysis, though that is included. I mean "understanding" in the sense in which it is used in the French proverb, "To understand all, is to forgive all." Pedants sneer at an education which is useful. But if education is not useful, what is it? Is it a talent, to be hidden away in a napkin? Of course, education should be useful, whatever your aim in life. It was useful to Saint Augustine and it was useful to Napoleon. It is useful, because understanding is useful.
. . . the understanding which we want is an understanding of an insistent present. The only use of a knowledge of the past is to equip us for the present. No more deadly harm can be done to young minds than by depreciation of the present. The present contains all that there is. It is holy ground; for it is the past, and it is the future. At the same time it must be observed that an age is no less past if it existed two hundred years ago than if it existed two thousand years ago. Do not be deceived by the pedantry of dates. The ages of Shakespeare and of Molière are no less past than are the ages of Sophocles and of Virgil. The communion of saints is a great and inspiring assemblage, but it has only one possible hall of meeting, and that is, the present; and the mere lapse of time through which any particular group of saints must travel to reach that meeting-place, makes very little difference.
Education is the acquisition of the art of the utilisation of knowledge.
We now return to my previous point, that theoretical ideas should always find important applications within the pupil's curriculum. This is not an easy doctrine to apply, but a very hard one. It contains within itself the problem of keeping knowledge alive, of preventing it from becoming inert, which is the central problem of all education.
The best procedure will depend on several factors, none of which can be neglected, namely, the genius of the teacher, the intellectual type of the pupils, their prospects in life, the opportunities offered by the immediate surroundings of the school, and allied factors of this sort. It is for this reason that the uniform external examination is so deadly. We do not denounce it because we are cranks, and like denouncing established things. We are not so childish. Also, of course, such examinations have their use in testing slackness. Our reason of dislike is very definite and very practical. It kills the best part of culture. When you analyse in the light of experience the central task of education, you find that its successful accomplishment depends on a delicate adjustment of many variable factors. The reason is that we are dealing with human minds, and not with dead matter. The evocation of curiosity, of judgment, of the power of mastering a complicated tangle of circumstances, the use of theory in giving foresight in special cases-all these powers are not to be imparted by a set rule embodied in one schedule of examination subjects.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Sometimes there are easy solutions to complex problems

From The Importance of Good Building Design by Ross Pomeroy
. . . a significant study came out from Heschong Mahone Group, a design consulting firm that - like Jobs - was also ahead of the curve. Their research showed that students who took lessons in classrooms with more natural light scored 25% higher than students in the same school district!

The only justification for the real system was that it worked

How Much Does File Sharing Resemble Stealing--And Does it Matter? by Megan McArdle.
But of course, no system of property rights is built from first principles. Nor did property rights spring full-blown from the head of Zeus at the dawn of the universe. It's a highly contingent system that evolved over centuries, with all sorts of weird principles that we'd never have thought of if we'd been designing the thing from scratch. (For example, read the chapter in Moby Dick about the system for allocating rights over hunted whales. A lawyer once told me that in law school, his class was assigned to come up with a system to solve the problem. No one came up with anything that looked like what actually evolved; the only justification for the real system was that it worked.)

Twitter or Facebook speed up communication, but can slow down thought

From So Why Read Anymore? by Victor Davis Hanson.
Each day our vocabulary shrinks, our thought patterns stagnate — if they are not renewed through fresh literature or intelligent conversation. Unfortunately these days, those who read are few and silent; those who don’t, numerous and heard. In this drought, Dante’s Inferno and William Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico provide needed storms of new words, complex syntax, and fresh ideas.
There is an arrogance of an age that comes with access to always better stuff. New technology prompts an assumption that there are always better things to come. Not true. Life was far better in Rome in AD 25 than in AD 425. Would you like to buy a house in Detroit today or in 1940? Me? I would rather drive down the central section of 101 in 1970 than tomorrow. Regress — material, intellectual, and moral — can be as common as progress, if each new generation proves a poor custodian of the laws, behavior, knowledge, and learning inherited from those now gone.
There was no diversity.

When they translated or sounded off about Prometheus’s pontifications or nearly wept at poor Theramenes (who perhaps deserved his fate for his triangulation) being dragged off to his death, all “difference” disappeared. What we had in common vastly outweighed our class, gender, and racial distinctions. Thucydides could belong to an immigrant from Oaxaca as much as it did to me — or even more so.

It was almost as if the mind lived without a body or perhaps despite it. In his treatise on old age and again in the Pro Archia, Cicero made the argument that learning gives us a common bond. (omnes arts quae ad humanities pertinent habent quoddam commune vinclum et quasi cognatione quadam inter se continentur.)
I am not calling for us to be academics or scholastics with our noses in books or our heads up our posteriors; but to match physicality and pragmatism with occasional abstraction and reflection from the voices of the past — just a little, now and then, to remind us that Twitter or Facebook speed up communication, but can slow down thought.
Somehow we must convince this new wired generation that speaking and writing well are not just the DSL lines of modern civilization, but also the keys to self-mastery, a sort of code that one takes on — in addition to others, moral and legal — to uphold standards of culture itself, to keep the work and ideas alive of our long gone betters for one more generation — as if to say, “I did my part according to my time and station.”Nothing more, nothing less.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Unperceived cause and effect in evolution and survival

From Evolution for Everyone by David Sloan Wilson, page 53-4. Looks at how the body has many hidden triggers of which we are completely unaware. You can do everything that makes objective and logical sense but may have missed the consequences of the pike in the pool (see below). The question is, how many human survival "war plans" are triggered by events that we fail to recognize? In the example below, a one minute exposure by a minnow to a pike after 262,800 minutes of life affects the remaining 1,314,000 minutes of life of that (average) minnow. That is incredible sensitivity.

It is as if at 12 years of age you were exposed (not injured or harmed by, just exposed) to something for 23 minutes which then materially modified your behavor for the rest of your life.
The idea of a new environment requires clarification. The wood frog (Rana sylvatica) lays its eggs in small pools of water during the spring. A given pool might or might not have predators. For a tadpole that hatches in a pool with predators, a pool without predators would be a new environment, but the population of tadpoles lives in both environments on a regular basis. What adaptations are likely to evolve in this situation? Ideally, a tadpole should be able to first assess its local environment and then display the appropriate adaptation. We have already seen an example of this kind of flexibility in male dung beetles, who assess their size and then display horns if they are sufficiently large.

I hope that you can see by now that a prediction such as this one is not destined to be correct. It is just a reasonable guess that requires work to confirm or reject. It turns out that many species are very good at assessing their environment and displaying the appropriate adaptations. Wood frogs have a plan A and a plan B for the presence and absence of predators, just as dung beetle males do for their own body size. The presence of predators is sensed chemically, and each plan involves a coordinated suite of behaviors (such as movement), traits (such as when to emerge from the pond). The environment has a huge effect on the organism, but not in the way that we usually associate with learning. Instead, a very specific feature of the environment (the presence or absence of a certain chemical) is used as a switch to activate genetically determined strategies.

As another example, imagine raising a certain species of minnow from the egg stage in a number of aquaria under carefully controlled conditions. When they are six months old, take a plastic model of a pike (a minnow predator) on the end of a stick and move it slowly through the water for one minute in half of the aquaria. Then do nothing for eighteen more months. That incredibly brief experience has a profound and lasting effect on minnow behavior, causing them to be wary of predators for the rest of their lives. This is not learning as we typically think of it. It is more like an elaborate war plan that is set in motion by a single phone call.
The only corresponding human example I can think of is the epigenetic impact of starvation in 1944 on pregnant Dutch women in World War II. As was to be expected, their own children born in the aftermath of the famine were smaller than normal. Unexepectedly, their grandchildren were as well, seemingly indicating some sort of biological survival game plan (when nutrition scarce, make smaller babies). I wonder how many other biologically determined alternate game plans are out there?

Now that I think about it, those minnows and pikes sure sound like the kids in the study referenced in this earlier posting Teacher Value Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood

Our findings for these diverse English language corpora suggest that a positivity bias is universal

An interesting study. Positivity of the English Language by Isabel M. Kloumann, Christopher M. Danforth, Kameron Decker Harris, Catherine A. Bliss, and Peter Sheridan Dodds.

I am intrigued by the question of the degree to which the nature and structure of a language might have some predictive capacity in terms of long term survivability and productivity. Are some languages more efficient or effective than others? Do some languages have a greater orientation towards futurity or individualism or positivity, etc. than others? Whether a language does indeed have some predisposition or not, does that predisposition affect life outcomes? Or are all languages the same in their function and outcomes?

This study does not answer these questions because it is not a comparison between languages, but it does analyze whether language can have an embedded characteristic such as positiveness. A baby step towards the more fundamental questions but a step none-the-less.
In sum, our findings for these diverse English language corpora suggest that a positivity bias is universal, that the emotional spectrum of language is very close to self-similar with respect to frequency, and that in our stories and writings we tend toward prosocial communication. Our work calls for similar studies of other languages and dialects, examinations of corpora factoring in popularity (e.g., of books or articles), as well as investigations of other more specific emotional dimensions. Related work would explore changes in positivity bias over time, and correlations with quantifiable aspects of societal organization and function such as wealth, cultural norms, and political structures. Analyses of the emotional content of phrases and sentences in large-scale texts would also be a natural next, more complicated stage of research. Promisingly, we have shown elsewhere for Twitter that the average happiness of individual words correlates well with that of surrounding words in status updates

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Requiem: The Soldier

Requiem: The Soldier
by Humbert Wolfe 1916

Down some cold field in a world outspoken
the young men are walking together, slim and tall,
and though they laugh to one another, silence is not broken;
there is no sound however clear they call.

They are speaking together of what they loved in vain here,
but the air is too thin to carry the things they say.
They were young and golden, but they came on pain here,
and their youth is age now, their gold is grey.

Yet their hearts are not changed, and they cry to one another,
'What have they done with the lives we laid aside?
Are they young with our youth, gold with our gold, my brother?
Do they smile in the face of death, because we died?'

Down some cold field in a world uncharted
the young seek each other with questioning eyes.
They question each other, the young, the golden hearted,
of the world that they were robbed of in their quiet paradise.

I do not ask God's purpose. He gave me the sword,
and though merely to wield it is itself the lie
against the light, at the bidding of my Lord,
where all the rest bear witness, I'll deny.
And I remember Peter's high reward,
and say of soldiers, when I hear cocks cry,
"As your dear lives ('twas all you might afford)
you laid aside, I lay my sainthood by."
There are in heaven other archangels,
bright friends of God, who build where Michael destroys,
in music, or in beauty, lute players.
I wield the sword; and though I ask nought else
of God, I pray to Him: "But these were boys,
and died. Be gentle, God, to soldiers."

300 definitions of life

Can Science Define Life In Three Words? by Carl Zimmer. An interesting discussion that highlights the importance of language, precision and consensus, in this instance in terms of determining exactly what might constitute "life".
Defining life poses a challenge that’s downright philosophical. There’s no ambiguity in looking for water, because we have a clear definition of it. That definition is the same whether you’re on Earth, on Mars, or in intergalactic space. It is the same whether you’re dealing with water as ice, liquid, or vapor. But there is no definition of life that’s universally agreed upon. When Portland State University biologist Radu Popa was working on a book about defining life, he decided to count up all the definitions that scientists have published in books and scientific journals. Some scientists define life as something capable of metabolism. Others make the capacity to evolve the key distinction. Popa gave up counting after about 300 definitions.
Trifonov acknowledges that each definition of life is different, but there’s an underlying similarity to all of them. “Common sense suggests that, probably, one could arrive to a consensus, if only the authors, some two centuries apart from one another, could be brought together,” he writes in a recent issue of the Journal of Biomolecular Structures and Dynamics (article PDF).

In lieu of resurrecting dead scientists, Trifanov analyzed the linguistic structure of 150 definitions of life, grouping similar words into categories. He found that he could sum up what they all have in common in three words. Life, Trifonov declares, is simply self-reproduction with variations.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done

Oliver Wendell Holmes in Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47, 52 (3 March 1919).
The character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done.

Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood

The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood by Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, Jonah E. Rockoff.

Some clever analytical work that links short term tactical teacher impact with long term student outcomes. Their recommendations are perhaps less well grounded than their research. The research leaves unaddressed the debate about the balance of impact of teacher versus home environment but I would suspect that if the teacher impact value is as high as this research suggests, then the home environment impact must be even greater. The analysis still leads to the conclusion that the best results are achieved by a combination of great teaching with great parenting. The results of this study probably support the following conclusion (graphically presented; VA – value added; SD – standard deviation).

Friday, January 13, 2012

Undertaking even a little planning is associated with sizable wealth holdings

From Baby Boomer Retirement Security: The Roles of Planning, Financial Literacy, and Housing Wealth by Annamaria Lusardi and Olivia S. Mitchell. Some interesting data. A handful of key take-aways:
28% of the population have done no planning for retirement.

Of the 72% that have done any planning whatsoever, they arrive at retirement age with twice the wealth of non-planners. And remember this is only focusing on people who say they plan at least a little for retirement - it says nothing about how they translate planning into actions, a notoriously big gulf.

College graduates have more than twice the savings of high school graduates and more than 3.5 times the savings of high school dropouts.

Perhaps most striking was the fact that married couples have more than three times the wealth accumulation as non-marrieds (separated, never married, divorced, widowed, etc.)
I find the last item intriguing. I wonder how much of that large factor (3X) is attributable to the simple effect of heterogeneity- i.e. when you have two individuals, you are statistically more likely to have complimentary skills and behaviors. If one is disinclined to plan and the other is inclined to plan, by having a married unit, you have a greater probability of at least some planning occurring (with the beneficial consequences) than is likely in a single person household where, if there is a disinclination to plan, it is unlikely to occur at all.
Also clear in Table 4 is the bimodal relationship between effort devoted to planning and household net worth. That is, those who report they undertook any planning – even “a little” – are much better off than those who said they planned “hardly at all.” In other words, undertaking even a little planning is associated with sizable wealth holdings, while non-planners display less wealth. The same pattern is present among the 1992 cohort. In other words, regardless of changes in home and stock prices, failure to plan for retirement for both cohorts is tantamount to having very little retirement savings. To highlight that planners hold substantially more wealth, we group households into two types: planners (those who have thought a lot, some, or a little about retirement) and nonplanners (those who have thought hardly at all about retirement). At the median, planners hold double the amount of wealth of non-planners
Behind all the data and technical discussion, it boils down to some very traditional advice. If you want a comfortable and secure life and retirement via wealth accumulation, 1) Work (10x multiplier lowest to highest), 2) Get educated (7.5x), 3) Get married (3.5x), and 4) Plan ahead (2.5x).

Regardless of race, gender, income level, etc., if you make these four decisions, you will be in pretty good shape. I.e. decisions and behaviors outweigh snapshot factors such as race, gender, etc.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Books are an entrepreneurial exercise

Good Writing Isn't Enough: How to Sell a Book in the Digital Age by Peter Osnos.
The overriding message in the articles is that books are an entrepreneurial exercise, combining the selection of a subject, the self-confidence to stay with it through the reporting and writing ordeal, and a commitment to marketing the results, which for many authors is an especially unfamiliar process.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

None ever wished it longer than it is

From Why the West Rules - For Now by Ian Morris, page 32.
Samuel Johnson, eighteenth-century England's sharpest wit, once observed that while everyone admired Paradise Lost, "None ever wished it longer than it is."

Readers and writers are not expressly designed to be perfect for each other

Laureate of Terror by Martin Amis in the New Yorker. Amis leads into his review of an author's works with the following observations.
When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less. The vast presence of Joyce relies pretty well entirely on “Ulysses,” with a little help from “Dubliners.” You could jettison Kafka’s three attempts at full-length fiction (unfinished by him, and unfinished by us) without muffling the impact of his seismic originality. George Eliot gave us one readable book, which turned out to be the central Anglophone novel. Every page of Dickens contains a paragraph to warm to and a paragraph to veer back from. Coleridge wrote a total of two major poems (and collaborated on a third). Milton consists of “Paradise Lost.” Even my favorite writer, William Shakespeare, who usually eludes all mortal limitations, succumbs to this law. Run your eye down the contents page and feel the slackness of your urge to reread the comedies (“As You Like It” is not as we like it); and who would voluntarily curl up with “King John” or “Henry VI, Part III”?

Proustians will claim that “In Search of Lost Time” is unimprovable throughout, despite all the agonizing longueurs. And Janeites will never admit that three of the six novels are comparative weaklings (I mean “Sense and Sensibility,” “Mansfield Park,” and “Persuasion”). Perhaps the only true exceptions to the fifty-fifty model are Homer and Harper Lee. Our subject, here, is literary evaluation, so of course everything I say is mere opinion, unverifiable and also unfalsifiable, which makes the ground shakier still. But I stubbornly suspect that only the cultist, or the academic, is capable of swallowing an author whole. Writers are peculiar, readers are particular: it is just the way we are. One helplessly reaches for Kant’s dictum about the crooked timber of humanity, or for John Updike’s suggestion to the effect that we are all of us “mixed blessings.” Unlike the heroes and heroines of “Northanger Abbey,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Emma,” readers and writers are not expressly designed to be perfect for each other.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Examine life

From The Ten Golden Rules: Ancient Wisdom from the Greek Philosophers on Living the Good Life by M. A. Soupios and Panos Mourdoukoutas.
1. Examine life
2. Worry only about those things under your control
3. Treasure friendship
4. Experience true pleasure
5. Master yourself
6. Avoid excess
7. Be a responsible human being
8. Don't be a prosperous fool
9. Don't do evil to others
10. Kindness to others tends to be rewarded

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty

Wendell Phillips in a speech to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, in Boston, January 28, 1852.
Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty–power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day, or it is rotten. The living sap of to-day outgrows the dead rind of yesterday. The hand entrusted with power becomes, either from human depravity or esprit du corps, the necessary enemy of the people. Only by continual oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot: only be unintermitted Agitation can a people be kiept sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Only the fit and lucky have survived

Here is an interesting and insightful juxtaposition in a science article. A Clue In The Identity Of The ClimateGate Email Hacker? by Hank Campbell.
What did the new emails show? Not much. The investigations already cleared the researchers of scientific misconduct (well, what they were cleared of were claims they "inappropriately manipulated data") and there was nothing really new in that regard, unless you are interesting in quote-mining their emails the way Greenpeace does to everyone else; instead, the new emails showed the climate researchers in question are not immune from being assholes. That's not scientific misconduct, any more than Frankenstein-ing together graphs to make a point more obvious is. The dummies in science journalism took that hockey stick graph and ran with it a decade ago (though later, plenty of scientists rationalized it) and science journalism has clearly paid that price - corporate media recognized that scientists and bloggers are better suited to providing context for complex science issues than journalists and science journalism has been gutted in that time; evolution has won there and only the fit and the lucky have survived.
Its that last bit that caught my eye, "only the fit and lucky have survived." At any given point in time, with a portfolio of individuals (or life forms, or ideas), there will be a distribution of success (in terms of survival or wealth accumulation or some other measure), but as it is just a snapshot in time, that portfolio will include those that are successful because of their actions as well as those that are successful because of circumstances beyond their control (being in the right place at the right time). The challenge is to distinguish the two. Viewing results over longer and longer periods of time clarifies the picture but in an environment of rapid and increasing levels of change, even the longer view may fail to clarify what is luck and what is cause.