Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Children are beautifully adapted to learn about many possible worlds

From The Wisdom of Not Being Too Rational by Michael Balter.
The children were allowed five trials per experiment lasting 2 minutes each to learn the tasks. As might be expected, the older children did better than the younger children: By age 8, most children were able to successfully perform all three tasks during the first trial, and younger children required more trials, the researchers report today in PLoS ONE. But their performance contrasted in an important way with that of the birds. While the jays were able to learn the first two tasks by trial and error, they could not master the third experiment, in which the solution was not obvious and even counterintuitive.

Cheke and her colleagues conclude that this suggests a fundamentally different learning process between the birds and the children. Whereas the birds were put off by a seemingly physically impossible setup and couldn't learn the third task, children weren't stymied by the apparent impossibility of the task, but forged ahead and learned to raise the tokens anyway—even if it wasn't obvious how it was happening or the solution didn't seem to make intuitive sense.

"Children start off with no idea of what is possible and what is not possible," Cheke says. "If they did, they would never be able to learn. This is why children like magic, and why they will believe you when you tell them all kinds of fanciful things."

Alison Gopnik, an expert in child developmental psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, calls the study "fascinating and illuminating." The main difference between the birds and the children, Gopnik says, is that members of the crow family "have sophisticated but specific knowledge about how physical causal relationships work in the world," whereas children "seem to have broader and more wide-ranging causal learning abilities."

As a result, Gopnik adds, the birds "are beautifully adapted to learn about this world," but "children are beautifully adapted to learn about many possible worlds."
This strikes me as relevant to Stuart Kauffman's concept of adjacent possible. It would seem in this case that the adjacent possible for crows is simply a direct extension of acquired physical knowledge (put in a pebble and water rises) whereas for children the adjacent possible consists not only of extended knowledge but actually an extrapolation using imagination, analogy and metaphor. So that might prompt the question, does extensive childhood reading increase one's capacity to imagine, to think analogously and to think metaphorically and does that in turn improve one's problem solving capability?

Monday, July 30, 2012

It will incur a revision of belief

From The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A great explication about the differences between risk and uncertainty as well as an epistemological discussion about what is knowable and how we know it.
Consider a turkey that is fed every day. Every single feeding will firm up the bird’s belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race “looking out for its best interests,” as a politician would say. On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey. It will incur a revision of belief.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Distinguishing fish from bubbles

From Do dolphins think nonlinearly? from e! Science News, an excellent example of Kauffman's Adjacent Possible concept in play.
Research from the University of Southampton, which examines how dolphins might process their sonar signals, could provide a new system for human-made sonar to detect targets, such as sea mines, in bubbly water. When hunting prey, dolphins have been observed to blow 'bubble nets' around schools of fish, which force the fish to cluster together, making them easier for the dolphins to pick off. However, such bubble nets would confound the best human-made sonar because the strong scattering by the bubbles generates 'clutter' in the sonar image, which cannot be distinguished from the true target.

Taking a dolphin's sonar and characterising it from an engineering perspective, it is not superior to the best human-made sonar. Therefore, in blowing bubble nets, dolphins are either 'blinding' their echolocation sense when hunting or they have a facility absent in human-made sonar.

The study by Professor Tim Leighton, from the University's Institute of Sound and Vibration Research (ISVR), and colleagues examined whether there is a way by which dolphins might process their sonar signals to distinguish between targets and clutter in bubbly water.

In the study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A, Professor Leighton along with Professor Paul White and student Gim Hwa Chua used echolocation pulses of a type that dolphins emit, but processed them using nonlinear mathematics instead of the standard way of processing sonar returns. This Biased Pulse Summation Sonar (BiaPSS) reduced the effect of clutter by relying on the variation in click amplitude, such as that which occurs when a dolphin emits a sequence of clicks.

Professor Leighton says: "We know that dolphins emit sequences of clicks and the amplitude of each click can vary from one to the next, so that not all the clicks are the same loudness. We asked, what if this variation in amplitude was not coincidental, but instead was key to distinguishing fish from bubbles.

"These clicks were shown to identify targets when processed using nonlinear mathematics, raising the question of whether dolphins also benefit from such mathematics. The variation in amplitude of these clicks is the key: it produces changes in the echoes which can identify the target (fish) in the bubble net, where human-made sonar does not work.

"Although this does not conclusively prove that dolphins do use such nonlinear processing, it demonstrates that humans can detect and classify targets in bubbly water using dolphin-like sonar pulses, raising intriguing possibilities for dolphin sonar when they make bubble nets."
The frontiers of knowledge and the leaps of innovation, advancing a sonar click at a time.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Complex ideas transmitted across time

From The limits of universalism by Henry A. Kissinger
Such an effort must be based on an awareness of our cultural heritage—the preservation of which is a vast challenge in our social media and Internet age. The generations brought up on books were obliged to internalize concepts and think through complex ideas transmitted across time. When information is acquired by being “looked up” on the Internet, a surfeit of information may inhibit the acquisition of knowledge, and respect for it. When facts are disaggregated from their context and called up only when needed, they risk losing the coherence of historical perspective. As Burke wrote, “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”

When identity is established by a consensus of episodic “friends” on social media pages, the immediate may overwhelm the important. Reaction to stimuli may transcend reflection on substance. Overcoming this danger may be the ultimate cultural task for the Burkean conservative.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Inheritance and a point of departure

From The limits of universalism by Henry A. Kissinger
Burke confronted the conservative paradox: Values are universal, but generally have to be implemented as part of a process, that is to say, gradually. If they are implemented without respect for history or circumstance, they invalidate all traditional restraints. Burke sympathized with the American Revolution because he considered it a natural evolution of English liberties. Burke opposed the French Revolution, which he believed wrecked what generations had wrought and, with it, the prospect of organic growth.

For Burke, society was both an inheritance and a point of departure. As he wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, “[T]he idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation and a sure principle of transmission, without at all excluding a principle of improvement.” A society proceeding in this spirit will discover that “in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete.”

Hence prudence is “in all things a virtue, [and] in politics the first of virtues.” Its practice yields a politics which, as Burke wrote in November 1789,

lead[s] us rather to acquiesce in some qualified plan that does not come up to the full perfection of the abstract idea, than to push for the more perfect, which cannot be attained without tearing to pieces the whole contexture of the commonwealth.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The gaps between our assumptions and reality

The Science of Expectation: Using Humor To Understand Creativity by Sam McNerney.

There is a trade-off between heuristic knowledge that is readily available and can be deployed at the drop of a hat and analytical knowledge that requires time and diligence and that is more likely to be useful. Heuristic assumptions yield answers that are usefully right but not reliably right, the answer is good enough most of the time. For many less consequential issues, that is sufficient. Still it would be nice if our heuristic assumptions had a means of becoming more accurate over time so that we had both speedy decision-making as well as better decision-making.

In this article, it is posited that humor is the means by which the brain refines and improves heuristic assumptions.
In the book Inside Jokes cognitive scientists Matthew Hurley, Dan Dennett and Reginald Adams explore humor, jokes, and mirth with an evolutionary lens. They begin with the premise that the brain simplifies the world by creating and relying on a never-ending series of assumptions. This cognitive shortcut allows us to comfortably exist in the day-to-day without having to worry about trivial matters, but mistakes are inevitable and the brain sometimes guesses incorrectly. Mirth, according to the scientists, is an evolutionary adaptation that evolved to reward the brain when it corrects a mistaken assumption about the world; it helps our neurons stay on the lookout for the gaps between our assumptions and reality.

Humor takes advantage of this cognitive system by delivering super normal stimuli in the same way Big Macs and pornography deliver super normal stimuli for our appetite and libido. Like a good chef or porn star, a good comedian reverse engineers the mind to create jokes that generate the most mirth.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

These results falsify the claim that Morton physically mismeasured crania based on his a priori biases

Scientists Measure the Accuracy of a Racism Claim by Nicholas Wade. This is disappointing. I had a long run of reading Stephen Jay Gould's articles and books and found them erudite and entertaining. I particularly enjoyed his The Mismeasure of Man and have occassionally used his example of measuring brain capacity to illustrate the subtle influence of unconscious bias.

And now it appears that it was Gould who was biased.
Scientists have often been accused of letting their ideology influence their results, and one of the most famous cases is that of Morton’s skulls — the global collection amassed by the 19th-century physical anthropologist Samuel George Morton.

In a 1981 book, “The Mismeasure of Man,” the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould asserted that Morton, believing that brain size was a measure of intelligence, had subconsciously manipulated the brain volumes of European, Asian and African skulls to favor his bias that Europeans had larger brains and Africans smaller ones.

But now physical anthropologists at the University of Pennsylvania, which owns Morton’s collection, have remeasured the skulls, and in an article that does little to burnish Dr. Gould’s reputation as a scholar, they conclude that almost every detail of his analysis is wrong.

“Our results resolve this historical controversy, demonstrating that Morton did not manipulate his data to support his preconceptions, contra Gould,” they write in the current PLoS Biology.

Dr. Gould, who died in 2002, based his attack on the premise that Morton believed that brain size was correlated with intelligence. But there is no evidence that Morton believed this or was trying to prove it, said Jason E. Lewis, the leader of the Pennsylvania team. Rather, Morton was measuring his skulls to study human variation, as part of his inquiry into whether God had created the human races separately (a lively issue before Darwin decreed that everyone belonged to the same species).

In his book, Dr. Gould contended that Morton’s results were “a patchwork of fudging and finagling in the clear interest of controlling a priori convictions.” This fudging was not deliberate, Dr. Gould said, but rather an instance of unconscious doctoring of data, a practice he believed was “rampant, endemic and unavoidable” in science. His finding is widely cited as an instance of scientific bias and fallibility.

But the Penn team finds Morton’s results were neither fudged nor influenced by his convictions. They identified and remeasured half of the skulls used in his reports, finding that in only 2 percent of cases did Morton’s measurements differ significantly from their own. These errors either were random or gave a larger than accurate volume to African skulls, the reverse of the bias that Dr. Gould imputed to Morton.

“These results falsify the claim that Morton physically mismeasured crania based on his a priori biases,” the Pennsylvania team writes.

Dr. Gould did not measure any of the skulls himself but merely did a paper reanalysis of Morton’s results. He accused Morton of various subterfuges, like leaving out subgroups to manipulate a group’s overall score. When these errors were corrected, Dr. Gould said, “there are no differences to speak of among Morton’s races.”
Gould was always something of a lightning rod but that was part of what made him fun to read. You felt that here was someone unconstrained by convention, willing to tackle anything and bringing an inspiring breadth and depth of knowledge to every inquiry.

So I am left a little disillusioned to find a hero's reputation tarnished. What is particularly striking to me though are two items. I do not recall being aware at the time of reading The Mismeasure of Man, that Gould's analysis was not based on a physical replication of Morton's measurements. I think I must have assumed that he did. That assumption combined with his credibility made for a powerful argument. Back to the old time religion - Trust but verify even from trusted sources, Never assume, etc.

The second striking item is the time frame. The Mismeasure of Man was published in 1981, excited much comment, was quite influential and among the reasons for its influence was the striking claim of Gould that Morton had been subtly and unconsciously influenced by his own biases. 31 years later, someone actually tests the data by reproducing the experiment.

Sometimes it seems as if we don't deserve the scientific method because we are so casual about it. Gould had a good story and we ran with that for a whole generation before anyone bothered to validate the data - Step 1 for any significant claim.

Oh dear.

UPDATE: This article, When Bad Theories Happen to Good Scientists by Matt Ridley would seem to suggest that the 31 year lag between proposition and testing might be because we want to believe that in the olden days, scientists were biased and racially prejudiced. When Gould came along with a good story confirming that assumption, we allowed our confirmation bias to play so well that we never got around to testing Gould's assertion for thirty one years. Someday we will learn to be humble. But not today.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

We are rich and blessed to have such young men

I saw this article (The Victims: Real movie heroes saved their sweethearts during Colo. ambush by Caitlin Gibbons) the other day but decided not to post about it. Too great a tragedy.
Three young men are being hailed as heroes for their old-fashioned chivalry and courage under fire in saving the lives of their girlfriends.

While using their bodies as shields, Matt McQuinn, 27, Jonathan Blunk, 26, and Alex Teves, 24, were killed in the worst mass shooting in US history.
Then my son, just returned from Philmont, sent me the following article, Boy Scouts use talents to aid scout leader at Philmont by Aric Mitchell, and I reconsidered.
Ric Cooper, a resident of Northwest Arkansas, felt the clutching at his chest too late to turn back on Trek 4 of the Philmont Boy Scout Camp near Cimarron, N.M.

All he could get out was the word “Jim,” and he was tumbling backwards.

“Jim,” because the second chaperone on this journey was Dr. Jim Hattabaugh, principal at Trinity Junior High School in Fort Smith and second of a required two adult chaperones on the trip.

Cooper didn’t have time to call out the names of the nine boys with him: Brian Boatright, Eric Boltuc, Joseph Boltuc, Eli Hattabaugh, Ian Hattabaugh, Cameron Mask, Matthew Schultz, Alex Sharum, and Joseph Smith.

He didn’t need it. Instantly, the members of Boy Scout Troop 3 sprung to action and did “exactly what needed to be done to save the man’s life,” Hattabaugh said.

Jim rushed to Cooper, who’d taken “a five-foot drop,” according to 17-year old Subiaco Academy student Joseph Boltuc, and began chest compressions.

Then, Jim’s son Eli, a 17-year old student of Fort Smith Southside High School, stepped in and “gave two breaths” followed by another set of 30 chest compressions. Halfway through, “he started gasping for air and came back,” Eli said.

Meanwhile, Mask, Smith, and Sharum, set up a tarp using “ropes, hiking sticks, stuff like that,” said Smith, a 15-year old student of Fort Smith Northside High School. Their goal: to keep Cooper safe from the raging July sun.

“We (Mask, Sharum, Smith) actually stuck together most of the time. The wind coming through the trees kept sounding like there were cars coming down the roads, so me and Cameron went down to see if there actually was,” said Smith.

Boatright, Eric, Ian, and Schultz, lit out for the Cyphers Mine base camp to report the emergency.

The four boys made the run after three hours on the trail carrying 45-pound backpacks on an uphill journey of 2,000 feet, Jim Hattabaugh added.

They had four miles in front of them starting from an altitude of 11,000 feet.
As a scout master, I am proud of these young men. But there is something more.

News is news but it isn't always the type of news we need or want.

These articles are a testament to what is too often overlooked. We get caught up in the minutiae of things to worry about. We anticipate decline. We bemoan the loss of social cohesion and spiral of negativity. There is plenty of misery and tragedy upon which we can fixate.

It is too easy to overlook that there are many, many young men and growing boys out there eager and able to do the right thing, in a split second, as best they can and no matter the cost. We should bring attention to them and celebrate them. That is news worth reading. We are rich and blessed to have such young men.

Jonathan Blunk, 26
Matt McQuinn, 27
Alex Teves, 24
Brian Boatright
Eric Boltuc, 14
Joseph Boltuc, 17
Eli Hattabaugh, 17
Ian Hattabaugh, 14
Cameron Mask, 17
Matthew Schultz, 16
Alex Sharum, 15
Joseph Smith, 15

Competence without comprehension

From ‘A Perfect and Beautiful Machine’: What Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Reveal About Artificial Intelligence by Daniel C. Dennett.
What Darwin and Turing had both discovered, in their different ways, was the existence of competence without comprehension. This inverted the deeply plausible assumption that comprehension is in fact the source of all advanced competence. Why, after all, do we insist on sending our children to school, and why do we frown on the old-fashioned methods of rote learning? We expect our children's growing competence to flow from their growing comprehension. The motto of modern education might be: "Comprehend in order to be competent." For us members of H. sapiens, this is almost always the right way to look at, and strive for, competence. I suspect that this much-loved principle of education is one of the primary motivators of skepticism about both evolution and its cousin in Turing's world, artificial intelligence. The very idea that mindless mechanicity can generate human-level -- or divine level! -- competence strikes many as philistine, repugnant, an insult to our minds, and the mind of God.
and later;
It was, indeed, a strange inversion of reasoning. To this day many people cannot get their heads around the unsettling idea that a purposeless, mindless process can crank away through the eons, generating ever more subtle, efficient, and complex organisms without having the slightest whiff of understanding of what it is doing.
Is this not a mirror of much of the current political discourse between the centralizers who wish to achieve outcomes through directed action and the laissez-faire people who trust to an uncontrolled process as long as it bounded within some moral or ethical code (as Adam Smith presupposed). Both world views have a logical basis but only one is frequently demonstrated in reality. Enthusiastic seekers of justice believe that it can be attained through sufficient intellectual artifice. Every utopia predicated on the intelligence and rationality of man (or some small cadre of thought leaders of men), though, seems to come crashing down, not before having wreaked terrible injustice and inflicted suffering far and wide. But all of it logical. It calls to mind Thomas Wolfe’s “the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.” There would seem to be a groundedness or pragmatism in the culture of the Anglosphere (or perhaps it is the attributes of agency, individualism and skepticism) which tends to forestall the worst excesses of scientific behaviorism and logical zeal.

In contrast, there are those believers in freedom and liberty who rely on the mysterious forces of dispersed individual decision-making, the chaos of the marketplace and the wisdom of crowds. Time and again, when exercised within some constraining moral or philosophical framework, the individual agent, market and the crowds end up delivering superior outcomes to those achieved by credentialed, cognitive, or inherited elites.

The markets and crowds deliver competence without comprehension while reason-based utopias seeking to achieve desired outcomes time and again founder on the human fallibilities of those deemed the best and the brightest and deliver up only failure and human misery.

It seems that the challenge is not to choose one or the other but to recognize the circumstances under which one may be more likely to yield success than the other, or really, how to blend a balance of the two for the particular situation. My guess is that the bedrock recipe is maximum liberty with a rare dash of occassional centralism.

Highfalutin but fun speculation.

Inattentional deafness, confirmation bias and lying

From Introducing "inattentional deafness" - the noisy gorilla that's missed by Christian Jarrett.

Inattentional Blindness and Inattentional Deafness would appear to be kissing cousins with the logical fallacy of confirmation bias.

I am currently involved in a neighorhood project to protect a nature preserve from being converted to a recreational hiking trail against the wishes of the neighbors. The advocacy group who are pushing the agenda appear to neighbors to be blatant liars in how they represent information neighbors have shared with them.

In faciliated sessions where the advocates are facilitators, neighbors will offer up a criticism of the project and the facilitator will record it on the flip chart as a positive comment. A neighbor will meet with an advocate and express opposition to the project and then the advocate will relay the conversation indicating that the neighbor was in support.

This comes across as blatant lying and misrepresentation.

A more charitable view is that the advocates are just so zealous that they suffer from confirmation bias. They are so convinced of the goodness of their project that they are incapable of comprehending alternate perspectives, a suspension of theory of mind. They hear only that which they expect or wish to hear.

What Inattentional Blindness and Inattentional Deafness suggest is that the problem might be even more deeply rooted. That the advocate is so focused on their own weltanschauung that they literally do not hear an alternate argument. It is not that they have heard the alternate argument and have cognitively screened out that which they did not wish to hear. Rather, they simply did not hear what they did not wish to hear.

An intriguing speculation. It goes a little bit against human nature to be quite that charitable but if we wish to think the best of our fellow man, that is one avenue to take.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Precise behavior can emerge from imprecise knowledge

From The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman, page 54.
It is easy to show the faulty nature of human knowledge and memory. A common classroom exercise in the United States demonstrates that students cannot recall the pairing of letters and numbers on their telephones. One of my graduate students found that when professional typists were given caps for typewriter keys, they could not arrange them in the proper configuration. American students dial telephones properly, and all those typists could type rapidly and accurately. Why the apparent discrepancy between the precision of behavior and the imprecision of knowledge? Because not all of the knowledge required for precise behavior has to be in the head. It can be distributed - partly in the head, partly in the world, and partly in the constraints of the world. Precise behavior can emerge from imprecise knowledge for four reasons.
1. Information is in the world. Much of the information a person needs to do a task can reside in the world. Behavior is determined by combining the information in memory (in the head) with that in the world.

2. Great precision is not required. Precision, accuracy, and completeness of knowledge are seldom required. Perfect behavior will result if the knowledge describes the information or behavior sufficiently to distinguish the correct choice from all others.

3. Natural constraints are present. The world restricts the allowed behaviors. The physical properties of objects constrain possible operations: the order in which parts can go together and the ways in which an object can be moved, picked up, or otherwise manipulated. Each object has physical features - projections, depressions, screwthreads, appendages - that limit its relationships to other objects, operations that can be performed to it, what can be attached to it, and so on.

4. Cultural constraints are present. In addition to natural, physical constraints, society has evolved numerous artificial conventions that govern acceptable social behavior. These cultural conventions have to be learned, but once learned they apply to a wide variety of circumstances.
Because of these natural and artificial constraints, the number of alternatives for any particular situation is reduced, as are the amount and specificity of knowledge required within human memory.
This seems to me linked in some fashion to the thoughts of Steven Johnson in his book Where Good Ideas Come From but also mentioned in his recent article, The Genius of the Tinkerer.
Evolution advances by taking available resources and cobbling them together to create new uses. The evolutionary theorist Francois Jacob captured this in his concept of evolution as a "tinkerer," not an engineer; our bodies are also works of bricolage, old parts strung together to form something radically new. "The tires-to-sandals principle works at all scales and times," Mr. Gould wrote, "permitting odd and unpredictable initiatives at any moment—to make nature as inventive as the cleverest person who ever pondered the potential of a junkyard in Nairobi."

You can see this process at work in the primordial innovation of life itself. Before life emerged on Earth, the planet was dominated by a handful of basic molecules: ammonia, methane, water, carbon dioxide, a smattering of amino acids and other simple organic compounds. Each of these molecules was capable of a finite series of transformations and exchanges with other molecules in the primordial soup: methane and oxygen recombining to form formaldehyde and water, for instance.

Think of all those initial molecules, and then imagine all the potential new combinations that they could form spontaneously, simply by colliding with each other (or perhaps prodded along by the extra energy of a propitious lightning strike). If you could play God and trigger all those combinations, you would end up with most of the building blocks of life: the proteins that form the boundaries of cells; sugar molecules crucial to the nucleic acids of our DNA. But you would not be able to trigger chemical reactions that would build a mosquito, or a sunflower, or a human brain. Formaldehyde is a first-order combination: You can create it directly from the molecules in the primordial soup. Creating a sunflower, however, relies on a whole series of subsequent innovations: chloroplasts to capture the sun's energy, vascular tissues to circulate resources through the plant, DNA molecules to pass on instructions to the next generation.

The scientist Stuart Kauffman has a suggestive name for the set of all those first-order combinations: "the adjacent possible." The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. In the case of prebiotic chemistry, the adjacent possible defines all those molecular reactions that were directly achievable in the primordial soup. Sunflowers and mosquitoes and brains exist outside that circle of possibility. The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.

The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations. Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven't visited yet. Once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn't have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you'll have built a palace.

Basic fatty acids will naturally self-organize into spheres lined with a dual layer of molecules, very similar to the membranes that define the boundaries of modern cells. Once the fatty acids combine to form those bounded spheres, a new wing of the adjacent possible opens up, because those molecules implicitly create a fundamental division between the inside and outside of the sphere. This division is the very essence of a cell. Once you have an "inside," you can put things there: food, organelles, genetic code.

The march of cultural innovation follows the same combinatorial pattern: Johannes Gutenberg, for instance, took the older technology of the screw press, designed originally for making wine, and reconfigured it with metal type to invent the printing press.
And I would link these ideas with the idea that the structure and nature of a language can facilitate or retard the capacity to comprehend the world. I wonder whether the blossoming of innovation and productivity in the Classical Liberal world/Age of Enlightenment/Anglosphere was not in some way a function of the efficiency of the English language married to its amoeba-like tendency to absorb new words and concepts from other languages lending it not only efficiency and precision but also adjacent possibilities. The richer the population of disparate concepts, the greater the probability that there will be serendipitous leaps forward in productivity and conceptual discovery, precision, and exploitation.

Competence without comprehension (tomorrow) and precise behavior from imprecise knowledge. Paradoxes galore. Chesterton would have had something to say.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Law of Fortuitous Reversals

Musings prompted by the serendipitous near simultaneous reading of How Moral Education Is Finding Its Way Back into America’s Schools by Christina Hoff Sommers, Dan Quayle Was Right by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, and Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do’ by Jason DeParle.

Most of our public speakers and pundits seem unable to keep two thoughts in their minds at a single time – that life can be understood both as a snapshot in time and as a process of continuity. Actions taken to further one’s goals in the here-and-now can work against one’s simultaneously held desires for the future. Likewise, all of the present can be sacrificed to the ends of some distant future that never arrives. Success is the wise balancing of those competing goals between present and future which occur in an environment rife with repeated and unexpected exogenous shocks; such shocks confounding our best laid plans.

Heuristics, knowledge and narrative structures feeding in to a sophisticated decision-making process helps us navigate the terrain of the present. Profound knowledge/wisdom helps us prioritize those present actions and goals so that they also support our future goals, all of which are contingent on productivity and which are based on survival and continuity.

Analytic knowledge, as a consequence of empiricism, the scientific method and the tradition of rationalism, has grown at an exponential rate. Narrative knowledge likewise, with the printing press, tradition of freedom and accelerating technology development (radio, telephone, internet, etc.), has also exploded. Yes there are still classics but there are literally hundreds of thousands of narratives new each year to which people can expose themselves. Heuristics, being knowledge accumulated through simple trial and error, is fairly static. Accumulated Profound knowledge (philosophy and religion) is, like heuristics, evolutionary in nature. An unexpected insight here, a variation there, slowly demonstrating their value by their capacity to help not just individuals but groups of individuals (cultures) to weather the constant and repeated exogenous shocks to win through survival and continuity.

So what are the elements of philosophy and religion which facilitate cultural survival and continuity? Ay, there’s the rub. And there’s the opportunity. We have spent two generations shying away from the brutal reality that some cultural constructs do a better job of facilitating productivity than others and some do a better job of integrating productivity with survival and continuity than others. It is no good simply getting richer, if in doing so, you lose your future.

Thoughts sparked by Christina Hoff Sommers in How Moral Education Is Finding Its Way Back into America’s Schools . Her argument has a greater tendency towards rhetoric over logic and evidence but I think she is addressing an important topic. What is overlooked is the challenge presented of trying to incorporate evidenced-based values (what values are associated with productivity, survival and continuity and what are the mechanisms by which those values achieve productivity, survival and continuity) into a heterogeneous society where some sub-cultures adhere to patterns of values and behavior which are deleterious to their long term well-being. It is not an easy question to answer, particularly when a disproportionate number of our intellectuals are wedded to overthrowing eternal varieties in pursuit of the bauble of cognitive celebrity for professing some untenable but novel proposition.

She ends on an optimistic note.
Social critics often refer to the Law of Unintended Consequences. According to this law, seemingly benign social or political changes often have unfortunate, even disastrous, side effects. Few romantic idealists of the 1920s and 1930s, for example, had any idea that applying utopian principles to real societies might cause their total degradation. Nor did anyone in the 1970s expect that applying Rousseau’s perspective to moral education would set children adrift, denying to them the essential guidance they need in life. Fortunately, a Law of Fortuitous Reversals
also operates in social life. According to this second law, when bad, unintended consequences seem irreparable, the situation suddenly improves dramatically. One fortuitous reversal was the rapid, unforeseen disintegration of the Soviet system a decade ago. Another, just under way, is the unexpected return of Aristotelian common sense in the moral education of American children.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Five requirements for scientific rigor

From Why psychology isn't science by Alex B. Berezow, a nice succinct definition of the essential attributes of the scientific method.
That's right. Psychology isn't science.

Why can we definitively say that? Because psychology often does not meet the five basic requirements for a field to be considered scientifically rigorous: clearly defined terminology, quantifiability, highly controlled experimental conditions, reproducibility and, finally, predictability and testability.
Convert it to a checklist. When someone says something is real/true/scientific, then one is right to ask whether it has all these attributes:
Clear and unambiguous definitions of critical terms

Clear and comprehendible measurements

Clear, transparent and documented methodology of experimentation or data collection

Results replicated by independent and disinterested parties

Concrete, measurable predicitions of novel outcomes that can be tested as to their veracity

Friday, July 20, 2012

On the path of communication, truth fades away

From Science, health, medical news freaking you out? Do the Double X Double-Take first by Emily Willingham

There’s a recurring problem here. Valuable research is done. Research is disseminated. Information is reported. Articles are read. Findings are spread. What starts in a lab ends up in a Facebook status. What starts as truth ends up as mistruth in something like a child’s game of telephone. Along the way, piece by piece, truth fades away in favor of headlines and pageviews and gossip.

Here is the Double X Double Take, i.e. heuristics for interpreting popularly reported science.
1) Skip the headline
2) What is the basis for the article: original research, opinion, review of previous work?
3) What words does the article use? Link, correlation, risk, association don't mean "biological cause".
4) Look at the original source of the information. Is it from a journal, a conference presentation, a marketing tool?
5) Remember that everyone involved in what you're reading has some return they're seeking.
6) Ask a scientist for clarification. Don't be afraid. We like to talk about science.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Improve, mitigate, tolerate

The New York Times seems to be on a role with articles that highlight people's desire to avoid having to make trade-off decisions.

There was Friends of a Certain Age by Alex Williams highlighting the consequences of having a busy life which crowds out sustaining close friendships.

Then there was Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do’ by Jason DeParle highlighting the consequences of poor choices.

Seems there have been others. They are of a piece with the recent controversial Atlantic article, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All by Anne-Marie Slaughter

It is as if there is a sudden dawning among the chattering classes that you can't have it all, life is a series of decisions that both open up some opportunities and close down others, decisions that oft-times we are ill-prepared to make and the consequences of which we are reluctant to accept when it emerges we chose poorly. Given that many decisions cannot be unmade, it seems as if there are really only three possible positive outcomes: 1) learn from the experience and determine how to avoid making similarly bad decisions in the future, 2) figure out how to mitigate the undesired consequences, 3) adopt a value system that permits you to put everything into a tolerable context.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Good storytelling and bad argument

Here is an article by Jason DeParle from the NYT that encapsulates many of the themes discussed on this blog in the past couple of years, principally what causes individual and social outcomes and what are the parameters of who benefits and what are the parameters of who bears an obligation to others. And finally the overarching theme of what are the critical elements of northwestern European culture of humanism, empiricism, age of enlightenment values that have rendered subsequent cultures (and individuals) so productive and which of those values remain critical moving forward. The article also serves as an illustration of what happens when someone nominally logical and rational, which I presume Jason DeParle to be, has to deal with both narrative and data that contradicts his own worldview.

In this case his story and the data says that there are many negative consequences to single parenthood, that those consequences are material and long lasting and that they are the result of both changing values and changing decision-making on the part of individuals. What DeParle appears to want to believe is that single parent families are the victims of changing economic circumstances and other factors such as racism. The article is filled with hidden assumptions which betray a particular cast of mind which can only survive on the sustenance of bad reasoning.

The article is an attempt to fuse a narrative (story of two contrasting lives) with data that underpins the contrasts between the two families. The article also, though, is a wonderful illustration of how a reporter can allow emotionalism or ideology to cloud his own argument. There are multiple instances through the article where the reporter renders data so that it seems to indicate the opposite of what it actually says. It becomes clear that the reporter wishes to believe that the two protagonists are subjects of impersonal forces acting on them, rather than (as Classical Liberalism would have) as agents who act on the randomness of the world to extract the best outcome they can achieve. Both protagonists are rather sympathetic but both of them seem to illustrate exactly the opposite of what the reporter wants readers to conclude. Schairer (the poor family) says it herself. ‘“I’m in this position because of decisions I made,” she said.’

Take this example.
Despite the egalitarian trappings of her youth, Ms. Schairer was born (in 1981) as a tidal surge of inequality was remaking American life. Incomes at the top soared, progress in the middle stalled and the paychecks of the poor fell sharply.
Notice the passive voice instead of the active in “a tidal surge of inequality was remaking American life.” But think about it. Take it out of the passive. Did inequality drive the changes in American life? Or did changes in American life change inequality? The data in the article as well as the life stories he is reporting suggest changes in values and decision-making behavior came first and drove the bad outcomes. Yet the reporter can’t help but take the burden of responsibility away from individuals. Stuff happens to them. They don’t cause what happens to them.

Here is another example of the reporter trying to distance decisions from consequences.
She got pregnant during her first year of college, left school and stayed in a troubled relationship that left her with three children when it finally collapsed six years ago.
Again, notice the passive writing. “A troubled relationship left her with three children.” Put it in the active voice and you have the hard fact that she had a prolonged troubled relationship and she had three children. The troubled relationship did not cause the three children. She chose them or chose actions that led to them.

Another example. Look at the first two pictures in the picture gallery. They are supposed to represent parallel boys, one in a family at the brink of poverty and one well ensconced in prosperity. But can you actually tell that looking at the materials in their respective rooms? I can’t. With just a quick glance, I see three contrasts between the two pictures, none of them having to do with material markers of prosperity. In one, the boy is listless staring off into space in the middle of a clean but chaotic, disorganized room. In the other, the boy is focused and engaged, sitting in the middle of a clean organized room. In the background there is a man doing laundry. If you only had those two pictures as data points, knew nothing else and were commanded to place a $1,000 bet on which boy would grow to be successful, which would you choose? I would wager 90% would pick boy two even if they were unconscious of reasons why they did so. In a high volume, high velocity, high churn, dynamic life environment, all of us make decisions on the barest of information. Each decision then has a compounding effect. Which of these two boys is more often going to get the benefit of the doubt by somebody making a split-second decision?

Some of the sentences are so mangled as to hardly make sense. You have to fill in a lot of unstated assumptions to really understand what the reporter is trying to say.
Economic woes speed marital decline, as women see fewer “marriageable men.”
Take the first element and recollect the discussion pyramid.

Economic woes speed marital decline – Really? Literally is that real? Break it further into two parts

Everyone is far more prosperous (both in terms of income and in terms of wealth) today than fifty years ago and yet there is a decline in marriage rates from 72% in 1960 to 51% in 2010. So if people are materially better off but are marrying less, is that consistent with “economic woes speed marital decline”? Doesn’t seem like it. The statistics would say that the wealthier you become over time, the less likely you are to marry. Even in the lowest quintiles real income and real wealth are up but that is where the decline in marriage is concentrated. So the statistical link between marriage and prosperity appears to be weak from a causative perspective. No doubt there are individuals where economic circumstances prevent marriage or exacerbate problems in a marriage leading to divorce. But policy is not made based on anecdotes and the exceptions. Again, it seems the reporter has gotten his own story backwards. In the bulk of the article he is showing that declining marriage speeds economic woes. It is nice to blame the economy but keep your story straight.

Interestingly, what the reporter’s data says, and which he omits to link together, is that 1) Over fifty years the US has become much wealthier and average real incomes have increased for everyone, for some faster than others. 2) Over those fifty years, marriage rates have declined by 30% (from 72 to 51) while everyone was becoming wealthier and richer (income). 3) Income inequality has risen in those decades from 5:1 to 10:1 between the richest and poorest 10% of the population. 4) Those among the richest whose incomes have increased the fastest have maintained or increased their traditional high rates of marriage. Those among the poorest whose real incomes have stagnated have seen their marriage rates plummet. The logical conclusion one would draw from this sequence of factual statements is that either marriage itself or the behaviors and values that sustain a marriage are directly correlated with large increases in individual and familial productivity. So what do you do if you want to decrease income inequality? Seems like marriage or the values and behaviors that sustain marriage have to be in the mix of solutions but that is not offered by the reporter.

The second part, ‘women see fewer “marriageable men.”’ – Really? Do women not marry because they see fewer marriageable men? Is it that men have become less attractive in some fashion, or that women have changed their expectations. Or is it men that are choosing not to marry? I don’t know without researching it. While the explanation is at least plausible it is extremely imprecise and therefore on the face of it improbable. I can come up with any number of potential reasons why men or women might be electing not to marry at the same rates as in the past. Data has to tell me which speculations have any grounding in reality. I doubt, once rendered into a rigorous proposition, that fewer “marriageable men” is a tenable root cause. Trade-offs and choices.

The Pew Charitable Trust had a recent report on this issue and which seems to be the basis of parts of this article and it indicates:
Fallout from the Great Recession may be a factor in the recent decrease in newlyweds, although the linkage between marriage rates and economic hard times is not entirely clear.
So the author is making a statement that removes the burden of responsibility from the unmarried parent but in a fashion that contradicts the rest of his article as well as the empirical research on which the article is based.

Here’s where we begin to get to the heart of the issue. What argument is the reporter making?
But for inequality more broadly, Mr. Western found that the growth in single parenthood in recent decades accounted for 15 percent to 25 percent of the widening income gaps. (Estimates depend on the time period, the income tiers and the definition of inequality.) Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution found it to account for 21 percent. Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute, comparing lower-middle- and upper-middle-income families, found that single parenthood explained about 40 percent of inequality’s growth. “That’s not peanuts,” he said.

Across Middle America, single motherhood has moved from an anomaly to a norm with head-turning speed. (That change received a burst of attention this year with the publication of Charles Murray’s new book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” which attributed the decline of marriage to the erosion of values, rather than the decline of economic opportunity.)
From that last paragraph, the reporter appears to be making the argument that decline in economic opportunity is the driver rather than Murray’s argument of decline in values. But the reporter’s own reporting this far into the article has already demonstrated that change in values preceded change in personal economic decline.

The author’s straining to remove accountability from the individual is played out further down the article.
Scott Winship of the Brookings Institution examined the class trajectories of 2,400 Americans now in their mid-20s. Among those raised in the poorest third as teenagers, 58 percent living with two parents moved up to a higher level as adults, compared with just 44 percent of those with an absent parent.

A parallel story played out at the top: just 15 percent of teenagers living with two parents fell to the bottom third, compared with 27 percent of teenagers without both parents.

“You’re more likely to rise out of the bottom if you live with two parents, and you’re less likely to fall out of the top,” Mr. Winship said.

Mr. Winship interprets his own results cautiously, warning that other differences (like race, education or parenting styles) may also separate the two groups. And even if marriage helped the people who got married, he warns, it might hurt other families if it tied them to troubled men.
“Interprets his own results cautiously” really means “wants to avoid the obvious conclusion”. Charles Murray wrote his book focusing on whites because he wanted to remove the issue of race from the possible causes. Murray found identical results to Winship (in terms of mobility), so Winship’s explanation of race (in the last paragraph) as a possible cause of differences is disqualified. Yet the reporter allows it to be introduced though he must be aware that it is wrong.

Again, the reporter seems to be straining to make the participants in this morality play to be the victims of impersonal forces such as globalization, declining economic opportunity and racism and to similarly make the argument that rising income inequality is rooted in globalization, declining economic opportunity and racism. In fact the entire article, despite the reporter’s gloss, seems an endorsement of all the Classical Liberal/Age of Enlightenment bedrock beliefs such as agency, effort, family, etc.

Ms. Shairer seems a very sympathetic character. She was raised in comfortable circumstances, she had the full range of opportunities made available by the wealthiest country in the world. She made some bad decisions, each compounding the other, which cumulatively have had a very material impact on her prosperity. She continues to do the right things, seeks the best for her children, works hard, hopes for the best, takes responsibility for decisions rather than trying to ascribe her circumstances to the actions of others. I wish her the best.

But the reporter wants to make her a victim. By doing so he disrespects her and misdirects the reader.

In some ways this is similar to a news report three or four years ago as the foreclosure crisis appeared to be cresting. I think it was NPR rather than NYT but the report was intended to show a middle class victim of the foreclosure crisis suffering the travails imposed by an inequitable system. When you listened to the report though, all the problems seemed to be sourced to the quality (or lack thereof) of decision-making by the protagonist. My recollection is that it went something like this. She held a solid middle management salaried job in NYC. She was divorced and had a single adolescent daughter. She decided to move to Florida to be near family. She quit her job in NYC without first having found one in Florida (mistake one). She was enamored with the space in Florida and cheapness of real estate compared to NYC and ended up buying a four bedroom home for she and her daughter (mistake two). She took out a no money down balloon mortgage (mistake three). She did not read the contract or forecast her monthly payments (mistake four). Etc. All classic bad decisions likely to lead to trouble. So the report, which was intended to make out the financial institutions to be the cruel bad guys (and no doubt they also made bad decisions), ended up making the protagonist to appear the lead author in her own tragic downfall.

This article by DeParle is actually a pleasant read about a relevant and concerning issue but it illustrates how important it is to constantly read materials with a skeptical cast of mind to understand the difference between information that is being offered (which supports one conclusion) versus the narrative into which it is being forced to fit (which leads to a different conclusion).

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

“No,” said Grandfather Bear. “But I may be scared.”

Else Holmelund Minarik passed away on Thursday July 12th, aged 91.

I wrote an essay in August 2007 in the Featured Author series on Through the Magic Door which is worth resurrecting in commemoration. So few people in the headlines can anticipate having such a subtle but lasting influence as authors of children’s books.

* * * * * *

According to Else Holmelund Minarik, although she has degrees in psychology and education, her primary work has been done in her garden where she does her best thinking. In fact, her garden was the place where one of her most enduring ideas came to her: the idea of publishing some of the stories she had written for her daughter, Brooke, who had wanted to learn to read at a young age. Minarik (who was at the time a first grade teacher) recalls:
“I considered one day, while setting out the spring garden, that plants and children are alike in this respect – they flower beautifully if placed in the right setting, and subjected to no gaps of neglect, either by us, or by nature. I thought of my first graders, all as willing and marvelous as the plants I was tucking into the earth. They had learned the elementals of reading, and yet would, almost to a one, spend the summer without using this fine new skill, and would return in September to astonish their second grade teacher with a seemingly complete lack of memory. Here was a gap that needed mending! I submitted my books to Miss Ursula Nordstrom of Harper and Row, who said this was just what she had been looking for, and promptly began the I Can Read series with my first book Little Bear – so superbly illustrated by Maurice Sendak.”

- Third Book of Junior Authors, edited by Doris de Montreville and Donna Hill
Little Bear, published in 1957, was very successful and popular for a variety of reasons. The language was simple enough for a young reader to read and enjoy on his own, yet the stories were not overly simplified or full of repetition. Instead, they were interesting and offered a character (Little Bear) with whom young readers could identify as his experiences with his loving family and friends were similar to those of many young children: visiting grandparents, hearing stories about his parents when they were young, making new friends, going to birthday parties, playing and visiting with old friends, etc. The tone of the stories is gentle, yet humorous. For example, in Little Bear’s Visit, when Little Bear asks Grandfather to tell him a goblin story, the following exchange occurs:
“Yes, if you will hold my paw,” said Grandfather

“I will not be scared,” said Little Bear.

“No,” said Grandfather Bear. “But I may be scared.”

Else Holmelund Minarik ©
My mother read Little Bear to me before I learned to read for myself. The stories were particular favorites and I loved poring over every detail of the illustrations. I clearly remember coming home from school one day, picking up one of the Little Bear books just to look at it and finding that I could read it. What a thrill that was!

Minarik’s success with early readers for children did not stop with Little Bear and the subsequent books in the Little Bear series. She has over forty five books to her credit and has continued to write books for young readers with the most recent being published within the last couple of years. Some, but not all, of her more recent titles are extensions to the Little Bear series. It should be noted that there was a 30+ year hiatus in the Little Bear series. The last of the original Little Bear books (written by Minarik, illustrated by Maurice Sendak) was entitled A Kiss For Little Bear and was published in 1968. The Little Bear books published more recently (after the Little Bear television show came out in the late 1990’s) are still written by Minarik, but are not illustrated by Maurice Sendak, although there does appear to have been an attempt to make the characters look roughly similar to the way they do in Sendak’s drawings. They are often focused on a particular problem (Little Bear’s Loose Tooth, Little Bear’s Bad Day) and read more like a summary of a television show. Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer the originals.

No Fighting, No Biting! (another of my personal favorites) was published in 1958. Its appeal lies in Minarik’s ability to capture the little squabbles that young children have with their siblings in a very humorous way, comparing the children to little alligators. My mother frequently admonished my siblings and me with the phrase “no fighting, no biting!” when she wanted us to behave nicely and we knew just exactly what she meant.

Else Holmelund Minarik was born in Denmark in 1920, but immigrated to the United States at the age of four. She found learning English daunting and was rather put off by the language. In an autobiographical sketch done for the Third Book of Junior Authors, Minarik states “I hated the language immediately. Father coped by introducing me to cowboy movies. Mother took me almost daily to the park where she taught me to communicate with playmates. In time I became American.” Of course, anyone who reads her books will know that Minarik is particularly gifted in telling stories in simple, captivating language – a difficult feat for any writer.

Minarik went on to receive a degree in education New Paltz College of the State University of New York and a B.A. in psychology at Queens College (now Queens College of the City University of New York) in 1942. Both were no doubt useful during her brief career as a newspaper reporter during World War II and, later, as a first grade teacher on rural Long Island, NY. She married Walter Minarik in 1940 and they had one daughter, Brooke, for whom Minarik first began writing stories. She has moved south to North Carolina, but continues to write stories for children. I hope you and your children will enjoy her stories as much as we and our children have. Fortunately, there is a good selection of her work still in print.

Comkitsch Fusion

Well this is just wonderfully bizarre. A North Korean news clip of a performance for the new leader Kim Jong Un. An almost incomprehensible fusion of:
Communist dictatorship
Disney kitsch
Hollywood theatrical showmanship
Confuscian culture
Western musical instruments
Hereditary autocracy
Manufactured enthusiasm
Stiff regimentation

Monday, July 16, 2012

Especially if you don't think too hard

From Ann Althouse, "Money the government is spending on old people means young people are free not to take care of them." Moral hazards and unintended consequences.
The government is taking over the role once provided by family. It was not so long ago that people believed that if they didn't save up money and provide for their own old age that they would be a burden on their children. And it was quite common to worry that your aging parents would need to move in with you and be economically dependent on you. Many families had a grandmother living in their home.

And now, the government has become the basis of our expectations. There's a feeling of security (especially if you don't think too hard). And there's a freedom from the bondage of family. The government is more your family than your family.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

I have found that no exertion of legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another

Thoreau in Walden
Men frequently say to me, "I should think you would feel lonesome down there, and want to be nearer to folks, rainy and snowy days and nights especially." I am tempted to reply to such, — This whole earth which we inhabit is but a point in space. How far apart, think you, dwell the two most distant inhabitants of yonder star, the breadth of whose disk cannot be appreciated by our instruments? Why should I feel lonely? is not our planet in the Milky Way? This which you put seems to me not to be the most important question. What sort of space is that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary? I have found that no exertion of legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another.

Mysterious pattern of technology adoption

Consumption Spreads Faster Today from the New York Times

Makes the point discussed in Steve Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From that for the past fifty years there has been a rather reliable but mysterious relationship for major technology adoption - ten years between idea and deployment and an additional ten years between technology introduction and mass adoption.

Proximity, Connectivity, Trust - The magical elixir

From Friends of a Certain Age by Alex Williams.

Discussing the making of new friends as one ages.
As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other
Never heard of those as the three conditions before but it makes logical sense. Also sounds like the preconditions for meme exchange as well as creativity. Also would support the sense of history accelerating. If you are a hunter-gather society, hardly any of those conditions are ever met. As communal living becomes more dense through agriculture and then hamlets, villages, towns, all three conditions can be met more often. People may or may not end up with more friends but there is a greater and greater capacity for meme exchange and serendipitous insight leading to innovation.

The critical item is the last one. In hetergenous society where people increasingly have the opportunity to live self-constructed lives in the midst of high density (i.e. are able to effectively isolate themselves from that with which they do not wish to engage), how do you encourage the creation of trust. Trust seems to me to be the linchpin for experimentation.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A lot of the rationality that goes into running a business sometimes doesn’t go into these projects

From We Built Way Too Many Cultural Institutions During the Good Years by Emily Badger.

Talking about the inclination of individuals and groups, when on a circumstantial rise (rising economy, improving education, etc.) to suspend rational thought and make decisions based on raw speculation and enthusiasm rather than measured empirical evidence and logical thought.
"These projects are very much emotional, they’re projects that have a lot of passion in them," Woronkowicz says. "A lot of the rationality that goes into running a business sometimes doesn’t go into these projects."

Friday, July 13, 2012

Mutable aspects of life that we tend to think of as settled and universal

From Vanishing Languages by Russ Rymer.

I have a profound yet largely ignorant fascination with language and languages. I regard them as one of the most critical facilities that distinguish humans from the majority of other life on planet earth.

In this article Rymer waxes melancholic about the risk of extinction among the smaller of the 7,000 languages currently spoken on earth. While I share the emotional attachment and regret, to some extent, I believe this to be one of those inexorable copybook headings, to wit, "If you don't work you die."

As populations reconnect after their long dispersal out of Africa 50,000 years ago (and which led to the diversity of languages in the first place), and after long periods of evolutionary diversity in terms of technology, governance, religious belief, cultural values, etc. it would seem inevitable that some configurations (and their attendant languages) work far better for ensuring security of life and propagation, than others. Those that don't work (and their languages) will fall by the wayside unless there is some sort of benefit. Pure Darwinism.
In an increasingly globalized, connected, homogenized age, languages spoken in remote places are no longer protected by national borders or natural boundaries from the languages that dominate world communication and commerce. The reach of Mandarin and English and Russian and Hindi and Spanish and Arabic extends seemingly to every hamlet, where they compete with Tuvan and Yanomami and Altaic in a house-to-house battle. Parents in tribal villages often encourage their children to move away from the insular language of their forebears and toward languages that will permit greater education and success.

Who can blame them? The arrival of television, with its glamorized global materialism, its luxury-consumption proselytizing, is even more irresistible. Prosperity, it seems, speaks English. One linguist, attempting to define what a language is, famously (and humorously) said that a language is a dialect with an army. He failed to note that some armies are better equipped than others. Today any language with a television station and a currency is in a position to obliterate those without, and so residents of Tuva must speak Russian and Chinese if they hope to engage with the surrounding world. The incursion of dominant Russian into Tuva is evident in the speaking competencies of the generation of Tuvans who grew up in the mid-20th century, when it was the fashion to speak, read, and write in Russian and not their native tongue.
On the pathos of linguistic passing.
Much of public life in Palizi is regulated through the repetition of mythological stories used as forceful fables to prescribe behavior. Thus a money dispute can draw a recitation about a spirit whose daughters are eaten by a crocodile, one by one, as they cross the river to bring him dinner in the field. He kills the crocodile, and a priest promises to bring the last daughter back to life but overcharges so egregiously that the spirit seeks revenge by becoming a piece of ginger that gets stuck in the greedy priest’s throat.

Such stories were traditionally told by the elders in a highly formal version of Aka that the young did not yet understand and according to certain rules, among them this: Once an elder begins telling a story, he cannot stop until the story is finished. As with linguistic literacy, disruption is disaster. Yet Aka’s young people no longer follow their elders in learning the formal version of the language and the stories that have governed daily life. Even in this remote region, young people are seduced away from their mother tongue by Hindi on the television and English in the schools. Today Aka’s speakers number fewer than 2,000, few enough to put it on the endangered list.

One night in Palizi, Harrison, Anderson, an Indian linguist named Ganesh Murmu, and I sat cross-legged around the cooking fire at the home of Pario Nimasow, a 25-year-old teacher at the Jesuit school. A Palizi native, Nimasow loved his Aka culture even as he longed to join the outside world. In his sleeping room in an adjacent hut was a television waiting for the return of electricity, which had been out for many months thanks to a series of landslides and transformer malfunctions. After dinner Nimasow disappeared for a moment and came back with a soiled white cotton cloth, which he unfolded by the flickering light of the cooking fire. Inside was a small collection of ritual items: a tiger’s jaw, a python’s jaw, the sharp-toothed mandible of a river fish, a quartz crystal, and other objects of a shaman’s sachet. This sachet had belonged to Nimasow’s father until his death in 1991.

“My father was a priest,” Nimasow said, “and his father was a priest.” And now? I asked. Was he next in line? Nimasow stared at the talismans and shook his head. He had the kit, but he didn’t know the chants; his father had died before passing them on. Without the words, there was no way to bring the artifacts’ power to life.
On the capacity of different languages to profile unexamined assumptions inherent in other languages.
Different languages highlight the varieties of human experience, revealing as mutable aspects of life that we tend to think of as settled and universal, such as our experience of time, number, or color. In Tuva, for example, the past is always spoken of as ahead of one, and the future is behind one’s back. “We could never say, I’m looking forward to doing something,” a Tuvan told me. Indeed, he might say, “I’m looking forward to the day before yesterday.” It makes total sense if you think of it in a Tuvan sort of way: If the future were ahead of you, wouldn’t it be in plain view?

Thursday, July 12, 2012


From At Last: A Gettysburg Address America Can Be Proud Of by Walter Russell Mead

Mead, tongue in cheek, renders famous American texts into modern politi-speak. His contrast of the Gettysburg Address as delivered by Lincoln versus what might be rendered by an academic would seem to highlight the six criteria identified by Chip and Dan Heath as to what are the attributes that make a book, idea, speech, product, song, poem, etc. perennial. Their book is Made to Stick and the six criteria are:
* Simplicity
* Unexpectedness
* Concreteness
* Credibility
* Emotional
* Stories
Lincoln's version meets most these criteria. The politi-speak version fails on most these criteria.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Who says meritocracy says oligarchy

Back to Why Elites Fail by Christopher Hayes and his thoughts on the challenges of meritocracy.
The dynamic Michels identifies applies, in an analogous way, to our own cherished system of meritocracy. In order for it to live up to its ideals, a meritocracy must comply with two principles. The first is the Principle of Difference, which holds that there is vast differentiation among people in their ability and that we should embrace this natural hierarchy and set ourselves the challenge of matching the hardest-working and most talented to the most difficult, important and remunerative tasks.

The second is the Principle of Mobility. Over time, there must be some continuous, competitive selection process that ensures performance is rewarded and failure punished. That is, the delegation of duties cannot simply be made once and then fixed in place over a career or between generations. People must be able to rise and fall along with their accomplishments and failures. When a slugger loses his swing, he should be benched; when a trader loses money, his bonus should be cut. At the broader social level, we hope that the talented children of the poor will ascend to positions of power and prestige while the mediocre sons of the wealthy will not be charged with life-and-death decisions. Over time, in other words, society will have mechanisms that act as a sort of pump, constantly ensuring that the talented and hard-working are propelled upward, while the mediocre trickle downward.

But this ideal, appealing as it may be, runs up against the reality of what I’ll call the Iron Law of Meritocracy. The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible. The Principle of Difference will come to overwhelm the Principle of Mobility. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up. In other words: “Who says meritocracy says oligarchy.”
I think Hayes is on to something important though I think it more complex than he indicates.

A complicating factor is that the challenge is our comprehension of "matching the hardest-working and most talented to the most difficult, important and remunerative tasks." I suspect that on first read, most people would interpret this as matching the smartest and hardest working to the most productive work. However, productive work consists of two elements, maximizing a desired outcome AND minimizing risk. Measuring maximized outcome can be complicated but it is relatively straightforward compared to measuring the impact of minimizing/mitigating risk.

For a number of years I ran global consulting businesses and as part of that we had reasonably rigorous and measured performance reviews semi-annually. Individual consultants were measured based on their contributions to the culture of the organization, the stockpile of knowledge, sales, service delivery, and people management. It was very meretricious and in general it worked extremely well. The one structural challenge arose from the practical realities of major project management.

Periodically we would have a project begin to head off the rails. It might have arisen from some poor performance of key members of our team but usually the problems were sourced on the client side. Their people were not delivering critical path deliverables, there was conflict among their executives, etc. When these situations arose, you needed to put in someone who not only was good at project management and service delivery and billing and collecting, etc. You needed someone with diplomacy and negotiating skills and most critically a strong sense of risk management.

From a performance measurement perspective this created a paradox. You would tend to put your very best people on the most challenging projects with the worst prospective metrics. Projects where simply delivering a break-even outcome might be a huge achievement. So how do you build an objective performance measurement system that rewards people not only based on what they did achieve but also rewards them for what they were able to avoid? We never got to a good systematic solution on that and basically ended up making select executive decision interventions to ensure fairness; a work-around sufficient as long as all participants trust the judgment of the executives but one prone to abuse.

I raise this as an example of complexity in the meritocratic system. Success is as often about problems avoided as it is about opportunities realized but avoided problems are far more difficult to measure objectively. This is another aspect of the Bastiat's issue of the seen and unseen (The Broken Window)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The man of system . . . is apt to be very wise in his own conceit

Regarding the need for values/religion to serve as reins on the otherwise unbridled arrogance of the technocrat/meritocrat, Adam Smith spotted this problem long ago in that dawn of classical liberalism.
The man of system . . . is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Who says organization says oligarchy

Why Elites Fail by Christopher Hayes. Another interesting article on the challenges of meritocracy. There are several premises to Hayes' argument which I think are suspect however there is a lot of good material and some keen insights.

He references a German social theorist of whom I had never heard but who sounds interesting, Robert Michels. Hunter is the merit based competitive public high school which the author attended in the 1990s.
By 2009, Hunter’s demographics were radically different—just 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic, according to the New York Times. With the rise of a sophisticated and expensive test-preparation industry, the means of selecting entrants to Hunter has grown less independent of the social and economic hierarchies in New York at large. The pyramid of merit has come to mirror the pyramid of wealth and cultural capital.

How and why does this happen? I think the best answer comes from the work of a social theorist named Robert Michels, who was occupied with a somewhat parallel problem in the early years of the last century. Born to a wealthy German family, Michels came to adopt the radical socialist politics then sweeping through much of Europe. At first, he joined the Social Democratic Party, but he ultimately came to view it as too bureaucratic to achieve its stated aims. “Our workers’ organization has become an end in itself,” Michels declared, “a machine which is perfected for its own sake and not for the tasks which it could have performed.”

Michels then drifted toward the syndicalists, who eschewed parliamentary elections in favor of mass labor solidarity, general strikes and resistance to the dictatorship of the kaiser. But even among the more militant factions of the German left, Michels encountered the same bureaucratic pathologies that had soured him on the SDP. In his classic book Political Parties, he wondered why the parties of the left, so ideologically committed to democracy and participation, were as oligarchic in their functioning as the self-consciously elitist and aristocratic parties of the right.

Michels’s grim conclusion was that it was impossible for any party, no matter its belief system, to bring about democracy in practice. Oligarchy was inevitable. For any kind of institution with a democratic base to consolidate the legitimacy it needs to exist, it must have an organization that delegates tasks. The rank and file will not have the time, energy, wherewithal or inclination to participate in the many, often minute decisions necessary to keep the institution functioning. In fact, effectiveness, Michels argues convincingly, requires that these tasks be delegated to a small group of people with enough power to make decisions of consequence for the entire membership. Over time, this bureaucracy becomes a kind of permanent, full-time cadre of leadership. “Without wishing it,” Michels says, there grows up a great “gulf which divides the leaders from the masses.” The leaders now control the tools with which to manipulate the opinion of the masses and subvert the organization’s democratic process. “Thus the leaders, who were at first no more than the executive organs of the collective, will soon emancipate themselves from the mass and become independent of its control.”

All this flows inexorably from the nature of organization itself, Michels concludes, and he calls it “The Iron Law of Oligarchy”: “It is organization which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization says oligarchy.”

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Whatever the argument does not supply, the paradigm conveniently fills in

From To Predict Environmental Doom, Ignore the Past by Todd Myers.

While the essay is a critique of a poorly argued article on global warming, the author has a deeper insight which I think is significant.
The need to avoid perceived global catastrophe also encourages the authors to blow past warning signs that their analysis is not built on solid foundations – as if the poor history of such projections were not already warning enough. Even as they admit the interactions “between overlapping complex systems, however, are providing difficult to characterize mathematically,” they base their conclusions on the simplest linear mathematical estimate that assumes nothing will change except population over the next 40 years. They then draw a straight line, literally, from today to the environmental tipping point.

Why is such an unscientific approach allowed to pass for science in a respected international journal? Because whatever the argument does not supply, the paradigm conveniently fills in. Even if the math isn’t reliable and there are obvious counterarguments, “everyone” understands and believes in the underlying truth – we are nearing the limits of the planet’s ability to support life. In this way the conclusion is not proven but assumed, making the supporting argument an impenetrable tautology.
I have been arguing in my work on decision-making about how critical it is for a team of individuals to explicitly articulate what they understand about the context of the decision they are about to make, i.e. describe the environment and its characteristics in which this decision is to be made.

Myers' comment suggests that there is a more fundamental issue that needs to be explicilty brought to the fore - what is your paradigm? Somewhat challenging to do but probably not wrong that it ought to be done. I have often encountered individuals and teams who have an unshakeable conviction that what they are doing is the right thing without their being able to articulate why it is the right thing to do. Simply refuting them on a factual point by factual point basis is hard work and usually not all that productive. That is not the way to take down an "impenetrable tautology".

At this particular point I do not have a good answer as to how you do that but I recognize that in some circumstances that is what needs to be done.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

If, during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life . . .

Charles Darwin in On The Origin of Species, describing in a single paragraph one of the most monumental cognitive leaps forward in all of human history. While dense, I suspect the meaning would be clear to virtually anyone.
If, during the long course of ages and under varying conditions of life, organic beings vary at all in the several parts of their organization, and I think this cannot be disputed; if there be, owing to the high geometric powers of increase of each species, at some age, season or year, a severe struggle for life, and this certainly cannot be disputed; then, considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other and to their conditions of existence, causing an infinite variety in structure, constitution, and habits, to be advantageous to them, I think it would be a most extraordinary fact if no variation ever had occurred useful to each being’s own welfare, in the same way as so many variations have occurred useful to man. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterized will have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life; and from the strong principle of inheritance they will tend to produce offspring similarly characterized. This principle of preservation, I have called, for the sake of brevity, Natural Selection.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Attempt to close minds of people on the same side as the author

From Opening Minds, Closing Minds by Arnold Kling.
The following thought occurred to me recently. Suppose we look at writing on issues where people tend to hold strong opinions that fit with their ideology. Such writing can

(a) attempt to open the minds of people on the opposite side as the author

(b) attempt to open minds of people on the same side as the author

(c) attempt to close minds of people on the same side as the author

So, think about it. Wouldn't you classify most op-eds and blog posts as (c)? Isn't that sort of pathetic? Here are some more thoughts:

1. The default is (c). If you are not consciously trying to do (a) or (b), then you will almost surely do (c).

2. Most of us, most of the time, do (c).

3. Doing (c) 100 % of the time can earn you fame and fortune. Yes, you get criticized for it by people on the other side, but the positive reinforcement you get probably more than makes up for it.

4. Try to think of folks who try to have a high proportion of (a) and (b). The first ones that I think of are David Brooks and Tyler Cowen. I wish I could think of more.
I struggle to interpret Kling's nomenclature. My understanding would be that a is when you seek to change the belief of others who disagree by using facts and logic, b is when you try and reinforce the belief of people who already agree using facts and logic and c is when you try and reinforce the belief of those who already agree by using rhetoric. Which, by extension of the implied model means that there is a d when you try and change the belief of others who disagree by using rhetoric.

I agree with the fundamental point though that there is an awful lot of noise to signal, i.e. a lot of c and d compared to a and b. The challenge with c and d are that there is a short and slippery slope between rhetoric and demonization/ad hominem attacks. Also, there is a legitimate question as to which is more effective, rhetoric or logic and analysis. The answer, I suspect, being that it is the seamless integration of logic and analysis with good rhetoric that is the most effective.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Reasons for failing, reasons for succeeding

Kind of flawed as I think is Acemoglu's over-reliance on institutional effectiveness as the total explanation for the varying degrees of economic development/productivity around the world. See Occam’s Butter Knife by Steve Sailer for a sharp take down of Acemoglu's theory. And to be clear, it is not that I think institutional effectiveness is unimportant. It is simply that I view it as one among several important conditions necessary to optimize personal and group prodictuivity.

But I am a sucker for lists and here is one on a topic near and dear. 10 Reasons Countries Fall Apart by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson.

Acemoglu and Robinson's list of ten reasons:
Lack of property rights
Reliance on coercion in production
Rent seeking
Rejection of innovation
Absence of law and order
Weak government
Poor services/infrastructure
Zero Sum orientation
I have renamed their ten items to better reflect the underlying principles. I think there is relative merit in most of these items, particularly recast as they are. I think they were running out of steam to get to ten because weak government doesn't seem to belong here or is a duplication of other items already on the list.

So these ten items (or nine) serve the function of a canary in a coal mine. The greater degree to which a country manifests any or all of these factors, the more likely they are to be a failure in terms of sustained productivity. What is interesting to me is that in many ways these seem to be the inverse elements of the attributes which have underpinned classical liberalism/age of enlightenment culture:
Natural Rights
Rule of Law
Consent of the Governed
Property Rights
Scientific Method
Checks and Balances
With these two lists, you have the opportunity of doing the wrong things as well as the opportunity to cultivate the right things. Ought to be able to make some progress on that basis.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The first problem is arrogance

I have long been trying to figure out exactly what type of role a religious belief system plays in the long term success of individuals and cultures. It seems indisputable to me that it does play a role but teasing out which are the key attributes that are the causative components to survival and productivity is extraordinarily difficult.

My suspicion is that certain religious traditions, by their stated value systems, encourage certain behaviors that contribute to productivity and discourage other behaviors more contributive of destructive outcomes. But which values and which behaviors, "ay, there's the rub!"

Walter Russell Mead has an interesting essay that contributes some thoughts on this issue, Is Meritocracy a Sham? Mead is discussing some of the weaknesses that undermine an otherwise generally positive picture of meritocracy as a useful model for social organization. Essentially Mead's answer is that there tends to be a correlation between meritocracy and atheism. This is important because, from Mead's perspective, meritocracy needs religion to serve as a restraint on megalomania; in this instance Mead is speaking specifically to some of the attributes of Christianity in general and Protestant Christianity in particular. I think he is on to something.
This has to do with another dimension of today’s American meritocracy that I think is deeply problematic: atheism.

Now before all the atheists out there ignite a new flame war in the comments pages, let me make some points. I’m not about to argue that all religious people are nicer or better than all atheists. And there are many atheists who avoid some or all of the pitfalls I’m about to explore. I am not writing this as a criticism of particular individuals; there are lots of atheistic meritocrats in America today who I consider friends and for whose achievements and character I have both admiration and respect. And before the foreign readers go incandescent in gibbering rage, let me also point out that I’m talking much more about atheism in an American context than in a European one. The dynamic Whiggish optimism that is such a deep element of American culture needs the kind of balance that, classically, comes from a theologically grounded sense both of Original Sin and of God’s transcendence of all human history and thought.

But caveats and cautions aside, there are certain consequences of success in a meritocracy that put people, and especially American people, without a strong religious faith at great risk, and I think we can see today in American life some of the consequences that come when a powerful but to some degree godless social elite lacks the spiritual resources and vocabulary that would better equip it for its role.

The first problem is arrogance. A practicing and committed as opposed to a theoretical or a birth Christian (and I talk about Christians rather than Jews, Muslims or Hindus or other people because this is what I know best, not because I’m trying to say that only Christians derive these kinds of benefits from their faith) who succeeds in a meritocratic structure has all kinds of inner convictions and reflections that can keep his or her arrogance within limits. This doesn’t always work; the case of Woodrow Wilson is one that we should all study.
Read the whole thing. Mead identifies humility, sanctity of life, equality of life, duty, obligation to serve, personal agency, necessary acceptance of variation in behavior (Original Sin) among other values as ones which Protestant Christianity inculcates and which in turn serve as necessary behavioral attributes to the succesful functioning of a system of meritocracy. He seems to be raising the valid concern that meritocracy absent certain critical values derived from religion might be as bad a system of governance and social organization as many others which we more readily recognize as flawed.

Then there is Doomsday Scenarios Make Better Fiction Than Science, Says Researcher Karl Butzer by David Ochsner in which Butxer comments vis-a-vis the historical record regarding societal collapses:
“There are cultural and psychological factors to consider that are grounded in human perceptions, values and solidarity, factors that cannot be measured through examination of physical evidence alone,” says Butzer, who notes that wars, foreign trade, internal power struggles, even personality quirks of certain leaders are all major factors in the success or failure of a society. He adds that the belief in a “cosmic order” — which gives power and legitimacy to a ruling elite — is a critical factor that is often overlooked in empirical, data-driven research.

For example, Butzer describes the immense complexity of collapse in Egypt after the long but unsteady reign of Pepi II (2278 to 2184 BCE) that was marked by internal power struggles and loss of foreign markets — both part of an intricate, downward spiral of cascading feedbacks. A semblance of order was eventually restored by the high priesthood, legitimized by their connection to the gods or the “cosmic order.”
So in one case we have religion serving as a necessary vehicle for cultivating the values and behaviors that enable systems of governance and societal interaction to work and in the second case we have religion serving essentially as a default system of governance when the primary system fails. I like A better than B but suspect both have a degree of truth.