Thursday, May 31, 2012

First quality (worth), then cost

From What is the Answer to High Student Debt? by Bill Henderson.
My own belief is that educational quality is the next great frontier. If we can put a man on the moon in the 1960s, surely with four years and $120K we can turn a reasonably able and motivated 22 year old into a critical thinker who can reliably communicate, collaborate, gather facts, assess data, lead, follow, and approach problems with both empathy and objectivity. Further, improving quality changes the debate from "how much does higher education cost?" to "how much is higher education worth?" And if the worth is sufficiently high, both public and private employers would be willing to subsidize it in exchange for preferred access to graduates.

The only barrier is institutional focus. To make this happen, a university has to take an "Apollo Project" approach that focuses purely on education. After figuring out the "how high" and "how fast" possibilities, an institution could then focus on controlling costs through process improvements and building modules. First quality (worth), then cost. This is not trade school education; this is about fully exploring human potential.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Fundamental insights can arise from the most unexpected sources

Carl Sagan in The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God.
The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and there’s no place for it in the endeavor of science. We do not know beforehand where fundamental insights will arise from about our mysterious and lovely solar system.

The history of our study of our solar system shows us clearly that accepted and conventional ideas are often wrong, and that fundamental insights can arise from the most unexpected sources.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

These preference differences help explain why some earn more than others

An interesting paper, De Gustibus non est Taxandum: Theory and Evidence on Preference Heterogeneity and Redistribution by Benjamin Lockwood and Matthew Weinzierl.
Individuals differ in the value they place on consumption relative to leisure. These preference differences help explain why some earn more than others, and they are a central part of popular and scholarly debates over taxation. In this paper, we show that variation in these preferences may also help explain why the extent of redistribution varies across countries and U.S. states, and why (at least in the case of the United States) redistribution is weaker than conventional theory would suggest.
Translation: people that value money over other lifestyle choices such as leisure, tend to earn more. When put baldly, it doesn't seem that big a deal but it becomes so when you consider the implications. One implication being that people who are poorer are likely to be poorer because they have differently valued their choices, putting greater weight on such things as leisure and less on saving and work. When put that way, it becomes fairly explosive.

It is, however, consistent with some of the IRS, BLS and census figures. I am calling these numbers from memory so they will not be accurate but the proportions will be close. My recollection is that the cummulative hours worked per year in a bottom quintile home was something on the order of 800 hours whereas in the top quintile, it was something like 3,500 hours. So even if they made exactly the same per hour, ceteris paribus, you would expect top quintile homes to earn 4.5 times as much as bottom quintile homes simply as a function of work preference/capability.

There is a second translation and implication as well. Countries where there is greater heterogeniety of the extent to which work is valued demonstrate a reduced commitment to redistibution of income. This makes logical sense but is still stark. If you don't think your neighbor is as committed to working hard as you are, you are less inclined to be generous when it comes to income transfers.

So greater cultural variety leads to bigger difference in work preference leads to less generosity in transfer payments leads to less security leads to greater income inequality. It seems to imply a tradeoff between greater homogenity (around value of work) with greater tolerance for income transfers/equalization VERSUS greater tolerance for cultural variety but lower income support.

Monday, May 28, 2012

A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.

David Hume in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Chapter X, Of Miracles.
Though experience be our only guide in reasoning concerning matters of fact; it must be acknowledged, that this guide is not altogether infallible, but in some cases is apt to lead us into errors.
[snip]
All effects follow not with like certainty from their supposed causes. Some events are found, in all countries and all ages, to have been constantly conjoined together: Others are found to have been more variable, and sometimes to disappoint our expectations; so that, in our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence.
[snip]
A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Privileged Cluelessness

Interesting discussion about perspective, context, stereotypes and assumptions. Privileged cluelessness on the internet and in the classroom: How context destroys empathy by Rick Hills. I love his phrase, Privileged Cluelessness. A plague-like cognitive virus.

Hills opening definition:
“Privileged cluelessness” is the state of being oblivious about how one’s words or acts might affect others because of some privilege that one enjoys even as one forgets that one enjoys it. At its core, it is one’s loss of social empathy as a result of some advantage enjoyed over one’s audience.
And then his discussion.
As I shall suggest after the jump, both the privilege of being a tenured academic and the privilege of being anonymous commenter on the internet present a similar risk – the danger of loss of empathy (become “clueless”), because the ordinary social consequences of one’s words are removed by one’s social context. Oddly, one form of privileged cluelessness can be an antidote to the other.
[snip]
It is no big surprise that professors are often guilty of privileged cluelessness. We hold the proverbial conch shell for so long in the classroom that we can easily forget that our position of perceived authority and actual power deprives us of useful feedback about the effects of our words and actions. Our “provocative” comments come off as pompous or arrogant; our lectures, riveting in our own minds, are, in reality, an opportunity for our students’ e-mailing checking or web browsing. Students are understandably cowed at providing feedback to such an authority figure, and professors can easily overlook how students’ sense of self-worth can be disrupted by the professors’ questions intended as provocative but coming across as humiliating.
He has several, what seems to me, sensible tactics he has undertaken to mitigate his own potential "privileged cluelessness." At a more abstract level, but still useful I believe, I think the best antidote to "privileged cluelessness" is to constantly remain alert to the objective, means, context, logic, data, consistency, trade-offs and implications of any particular issue or circumstance. It's a mouthful, something of a tautology and less convenient than a check-list but it is pretty robust.

The existence of "privileged cluelessness" is a rally to address the unseen in Frederick Bastiat's What is Seen and What is Not Seen. We all live in a bubble circumscribed by our connections and our experience. We have to make the greatest epistemological hay we can with those connections and experience but we need also to always keep in mind, the much greater realm of the unknown.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Who starves first?

George Orwell in an essay Charles Dickens.

All our struggles are intertwined around three questions. How do we produce enough to survive, thrive and reproduce?, Who starves first?, and Who gets to decide? The more prosperous we become (the more effective at addressing question 1), the more we are able to skirt questions 2 & 3. All biological history addresses question 1. In Europe until 1700 or so, and everywhere else until much more recently, the chief question in recorded history was question 2. All social structure and hierarchy was really just a mask of a latent scheme of prioritization - in a world of scarcity and uncertainty, who suffers first and most during adverse circumstances? Question 3, dependent on better answers to question 1 and a passing of the immediacy of question 2, really only came to the forefront in the 1700s and is still being worked through.

Our history is a rich mix of answers as we try and optimize the balance between effective productivity, necessary hierarchy, and collaborative decision-making. The challenge is that the balance is never in stasis, there are always exogenous shocks, and that assessments have to be taken between the balance of short and long term views. On top of that, evidentiary data is not always patently clear. China learned the lesson of the need for at least some form of competitive market thirty years ago and began their economic rise. In that time, they have not made any significant change in the previously established hierarchy of starvation (peasants first, politburo last). And even though prosperity has made collaberative decision-making both more necessary and more feasible, they don't want to risk the transition from centralized decision-making to localized decision-making. Centralized rule-setting which worked for the first thirty years, is unlikely to work in the next fifty years - short term and long term issues.

Orwell, in his passage, reminds us that Dickens was bringing to our attention the knowledge which should be still fresh in our minds and articulating the dynamic balance between these age-old pillars: productivity, hierarchy, and collaboration.
The one thing that everyone who has read A Tale of Two Cities remembers is the Reign of Terror. The whole book is dominated by the guillotine — tumbrils thundering to and fro, bloody knives, heads bouncing into the basket, and sinister old women knitting as they watch. Actually these scenes only occupy a few chapters, but they are written with terrible intensity, and the rest of the book is rather slow going. But A Tale of Two Cities is not a companion volume to The Scarlet Pimpernel. Dickens sees clearly enough that the French Revolution was bound to happen and that many of the people who were executed deserved what they got. If, he says, you behave as the French aristocracy had behaved, vengeance will follow. He repeats this over and over again. We are constantly being reminded that while ‘my lord’ is lolling in bed, with four liveried footmen serving his chocolate and the peasants starving outside, somewhere in the forest a tree is growing which will presently be sawn into planks for the platform of the guillotine, etc., etc., etc. The inevitability of the Terror, given its causes, is insisted upon in the clearest terms:
It was too much the way... to talk of this terrible Revolution as if it were the only harvest ever known under the skies that had not been sown — as if nothing had ever been done, or omitted to be done, that had led to it — as if observers of the wretched millions in France, and of the misused and perverted resources that should have made them prosperous, had not seen it inevitably coming, years before, and had not in plain terms recorded what they saw.
And again:
All the devouring and insatiate monsters imagined since imagination could record itself, are fused in the one realization, Guillotine. And yet there is not in France, with its rich variety of soil and climate, a blade, a leaf, a root, a spring, a peppercorn, which will grow to maturity under conditions more certain than those that have produced this horror. Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.
In other words, the French aristocracy had dug their own graves.


Friday, May 25, 2012

Good question

It sometimes seems as if much or most of our public dialogue consists of a back and forth between two extreme factions, neither interested in truth, and both wanting only to fight the easy fight of strawmen. Your opponent's position is far easier to defeat when you recharacterize it in the terms you wish to tear down, rather than actually having to address the real issues about which they are concerned. Is this sheer ignorance, laziness, or something else? I don't know. I like the observation below from Rick Hills in his blog post, On being assigned a role in other people's ideological dramas.
Why is it that people obsessed with some ideological dispute feel the need to assign everyone else a role in their personal drama -- either as heroic and scrappy rebels or as minions of the Evil Empire? Why does it not occur to such fanatics that others might simply be indifferent to the fanatic's particular obsession -- that others are bored bystanders who are not going to buy a ticket to the fanatic's peculiar summer epic?
Non-interference in matters not our own and respect for truth do seem to be mere shadowy spectators these days rather than stalwart participants in the public debates.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Relational models theory

From Mitt Romney, One Night Stands, and the Economics of Relationships by Gabriel Rossman

An interesting discussion on the nature of relationships between people.
Human beings have a variety of ways to exchange goods and services and the ways we do so both reveals and structures the nature of our relationships. Alan Fiske's relational models theory describes four types of exchange:
•communal sharing -- people are effectively a common unit and can freely draw resources from communal property, as with households
• authority ranking -- people have asymmetric duties and obligations to one another, as with patron-client ties
• equality matching -- people match actions on a like-for-like and tit-for-tat basis, as with friends
• market pricing -- people commensurate across categories on the basis of ratios (with prices being a special case of these ratios when we have money as a unit of account), as with traders in a market

I wonder what percentage of disputes arise because of confusion when one party sees their relational model differently than the other party?

Baloney Detection Kit

I am in the process of writing up a couple of posts about how to assess an argument or more broadly how to read with a skeptical cast of mind. Three quarters of the way through I come across an approach by Carl Sagan in his book The Demon Haunted World and which he described as his Baloney Detection Kit. His approach serves the same end as I was headed towards. Since I am so far along on the other two posts, I will complete them as well. Slightly different approaches and weightings of issues, but, I think, probably both useful.

Sagan identifies nine useful tools for skeptical thinking and then twenty common logical fallacies.

Skeptical Thinking Toolkit
• Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the "facts".

• Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.

• Arguments from authority carry little weight -- "authorities" have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.

• Spin more than one hypothesis. If there's something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among "multiple working hypotheses," has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.

• Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it's yours. It's only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don't, others will.

• Quantify. If whatever it is you're explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you'll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are the truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.

• If there's a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) -- not just most of them.

• Occam's Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.

• Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle -- an electron, say -- in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.
Common Logical Fallacies

It is important to note that just because an argument contains a logical fallacy does not make the argument false. Logical fallacies may invalidate an argument but sometimes all they are is a red flag that one thing does not follow from another. I may use an ad hominem attack against my opponent. The fact that I do so does not make my position right or his wrong. All the ad hominem fallacy highlights is that the attack is irrelevant to the argument.

ad hominem -- Latin for "to the man," attacking the arguer and not the argument (e.g. The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously);
• argument from authority (e.g., President Richard Nixon should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to end the war in Southeast Asia -- but because it was secret, there was no way for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument amounted to trusting him because he was President; a mistake, as it turned out);
• argument from adverse consequences (e.g., A God meting out punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn't, society would be much more lawless and dangerous – perhaps even ungovernable. Or: The defendant in a widely publicized murder trial must be found guilty; otherwise, it will be an encouragement for other men to murder their wives);
• appeal to ignorance -- the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g., There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist -- and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we're still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
• special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble (e.g., How can a merciful God condemn future generations to torment because, against orders, one woman induced one man to eat an apple? Special plead: you don't understand the subtle Doctrine of Free Will. Or: How can there be an equally godlike Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the same Person? Special plead: You don't understand the Divine Mystery of the Trinity. Or: How could God permit the followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- each in their own way enjoined to heroic measures of loving kindness and compassion -- to have perpetrated so much cruelty for so long? Special plead: You don't understand Free Will again. And anyway, God moves in mysterious ways.)
• begging the question, also called assuming the answer (e.g., We must institute the death penalty to discourage violent crime. But does the violent crime rate in fact fall when the death penalty is imposed? Or: The stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors. But is there any independent evidence for the causal role of "adjustment" and profit-taking; have we learned anything at all from this purported explanation?);
• observational selection, also called the enumeration of favourable circumstances, or as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it, counting the hits and forgetting the misses (e.g., A state boasts of the Presidents it has produced, but is silent on its serial killers);
• statistics of small numbers -- a close relative of observational selection (e.g., "They say 1 out of every 5 people is Chinese. How is this possible? I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese. Yours truly." Or: "I've thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can't lose.");
• misunderstanding of the nature of statistics (e.g., President Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence);
• inconsistency (e.g., Prudently plan for the worst of which a potential military adversary is capable, but thriftily ignore scientific projections on environmental dangers because they're not "proved". Or: Attribute the declining life expectancy in the former Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States (now highest of the major industrial nations) to the failures of capitalism. Or: Consider it reasonable for the Universe to continue to exist forever into the future, but judge absurd the possibility that it has infinite duration into the past);
non sequitur -- Latin for "It doesn't follow" (e.g., Our nation will prevail because God is great. But nearly every nation pretends this to be true; the Germans formulation was "Gott mit uns"). Often those falling into the non sequitur fallacy have simply failed to recognize alternative possibilities;
post hoc, ergo propter hoc - Latin for "It happened after, so it was caused by" (e.g., Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila: "I know of ... a 26-year old who looks 60 because she takes [contraceptive] pills." Or: Before women got the vote, there were no nuclear weapons);
• meaningless question (e.g., What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? But if there is such a thing as an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and vice versa);
• excluded middle, or false dichotomy -- considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities (e.g., "Sure, take her side; my husband's perfect; I'm always wrong." Or: "Either you love your country or you hate it." Or: "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem");
• short-term vs. long-term -- a subset of the excluding middle, but so important I've pulled it out for special attention (e.g., We can't afford programs to feed malnourished children and educate pre-school kids. We need to urgently deal with crime on the streets. Or: Why explore space or pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?);
• slippery slope, related to excluded middle (e.g., If we allow abortion in the first week of pregnancy, it will be impossible to prevent the killing of a full-term infant. Or, conversely: If the state prohibits abortion even in the ninth month, it will soon be telling us what to do with our bodies around the time of conception);
• confusion of correlation and causation (e.g., A survey shows that more college graduates are homosexual than those with lesser education; therefore education makes people gay. Or: Andean earthquakes are correlated with closest approaches of the planet Uranus; therefore -- despite the absence of any such correlation for the nearer, more massive planet Jupiter -- the latter causes the former);
• straw man -- caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack (e.g., Scientists suppose that living things simply fell together by chance -- a formulation that wilfully ignores the central Darwinian insight, that Nature ratchets up by saving what works and discarding what doesn't. Or -- this is also a short-term/long-term fallacy -- environmentalists care more for snail darters and spotted owls than they do for people);
• suppressed evidence, or half-truths (e.g., An amazingly accurate and widely quoted "prophecy" of the assassination attempt on President Regan is shown on television; but – an important detail -- was it recorded before or after the event? Or: These government abuses demand revolution, even if you can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Yes, but is this likely to be a revolution in which far more people are killed than under the previous regime? What does the experience of other revolutions suggest? Are all revolutions against oppressive regimes desirable and in the interests of the people?);
• weasel words (e.g., The separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct a war without a declaration of Congress. On the other hand, Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting themselves re-elected. Presidents of either political party may therefore be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and calling the wars something else -- "police actions," "armed incursions," "protective reaction strikes," "pacification," "safeguarding American interests," and a wide variety of "operations," such as "Operation Just Cause." Euphemisms for war are one of a broad class of reinventions of language for political purposes. Talleyrand said, "An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public").

The affections colour and infect the understanding

Francis Bacon in Novum Organon. Not 2012 but 1620. Nearly four hundred years old and yet you can pick up any magazine or newspaper and see this observation alive and well. Bridled, the affections infecting our understanding is not necessarily a bad thing. It is our "affections" that drive us forwards as implied in the motto of the Britsh RAF, Per Ardua ad Astra; Through Adversity to the Stars. Unbridled and the affections that color and infect our understanding is more akin to a mental virus, darkening our perceptions and spreading cognitive pollution.
The human understanding is no dry light, but receives infusion from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which may be called 'sciences as one would'. For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research; sober things, because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride; things not commonly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless in short are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections colour and infect the understanding.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

But as we climb a ladder of phenomenological complexity from physics to biology to sociology, this problem of generalization becomes more severe

From What Is Causality? by Jim Manzi.

Translating experience and empirical evidence into useful knowledge (knowledge which allows us to make reliable forecasts).
There are big problems with this approach. One obvious one is that it is often impossible or impractical to run the experiment. But even if we assume that I have done exactly this experiment, I still have the problem of measuring the causal effect of the intervention. In a complicated system, like shoe stores, I have to answer the question of how many pairs I would have sold in the, say, three months after changing my design to narrow toes - I can't just assume that I would have sold the same number of wide-toed shoes that I did in the prior three months. For reasons well-known to you, and that I go through at length in the book, the best way to measure this in a complicated system is a randomized field trial (RFT) in which I randomly assign some stores to get the new shoes and others to keep selling the old shoes. In essence, random assignment allows me to roughly hold constant all of the "screwy" effects that you reference between the test and control group.

But what many cheerleaders for randomized experiments gloss over is that even if I have executed a competent experiment, it is not obvious how I turn this result in to a prediction rule for the future (the problem of generalization or external validity). Here's how I put this in an article a couple of years ago:
In medicine, for example, what we really know from a given clinical trial is that this particular list of patients who received this exact treatment delivered in these specific clinics on these dates by these doctors had these outcomes, as compared with a specific control group. But when we want to use the trial's results to guide future action, we must generalize them into a reliable predictive rule for as-yet-unseen situations. Even if the experiment was correctly executed, how do we know that our generalization is correct?
A physicist generally answers that question by assuming that predictive rules like the law of gravity apply everywhere, even in regions of the universe that have not been subject to experiments, and that gravity will not suddenly stop operating one second from now. No matter how many experiments we run, we can never escape the need for such assumptions. Even in classical therapeutic experiments, the assumption of uniform biological response is often a tolerable approximation that permits researchers to assert, say, that the polio vaccine that worked for a test population will also work for human beings beyond the test population.

But as we climb a ladder of phenomenological complexity from physics to biology to sociology, this problem of generalization becomes more severe. As I put it in Uncontrolled:
We can run a clinical trial in Norfolk, Virginia, and conclude with tolerable reliability that "Vaccine X prevents disease Y." We can't conclude that if literacy program X works in Norfolk, then it will work everywhere. The real predictive rule is usually closer to something like "Literacy program X is effective for children in urban areas, and who have the following range of incomes and prior test scores, when the following alternatives are not available in the school district, and the teachers have the following qualifications, and overall economic conditions in the district are within the following range." And by the way, even this predictive rule stops working ten years from now, when different background conditions obtain in the society.
We must have some model that generalizes. What we really need to do is to build a distribution of results of "experiments + model" in predicting the results of future experiments.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

In very stable environments, the returns to formal schooling are small

From a the slide show of a research paper, Good Schools Make Good Neighbors: Human Capital Spillovers in Early 20th Century Agriculture by John Parman.

Studying epistemology, there is a pervasive question about the nature and structure of knowledge development and knowledge transferance. What, and when, is the right balance between experiential learning (learning by doing and conversing and seeing examples set) and didactic learning (learning by listening, memorizing, discussing and parroting). Both have value, but their effectiveness differs by individual, by circumstance and by timing. This study contributes a couple of nuggets, i.e. experiential education is more important (or additive to productivity) in stable environments and structured, school-based learning, is more important in dynamic environments.
In very stable environments, the returns to formal schooling are small.

In these environments, experience appears more effective than schooling for improving productivity.

Schooling is more important in dynamic settings: educated farmers are more likely to seek out information, experiment with and adopt new technologies and adapt to changing market conditions.

There is a small body of evidence suggesting that diffusion of information through social networks is important:
Bandiera & Rasul (2006): adoption of new crops depends on decisions of family and friends
Conley & Udrey (2001): farmers learn from experimentation of members of their social network
Foster & Rosenzweig (1995): farmers learn how to successfully adopt new seed varieties from neighbors’ experimentation
Ryan & Gross (1943): hybrid seed corn diffusion in Iowa based largely on neighbors talking to each other
As with the formal schooling, these social networks will be more important when the agricultural sector is more dynamic.
We live in very dynamic times. Does that disavow the value of education? Not all, but it does suggest a rethink of the balance between learning as it occurs in the family environment (usually mostly experiential) and learning at school (usually didactic), and the balance between didactic and experiential within school.

That would seem to make sense. When things are changing a lot, you have to adapt quickly and you need to acquire and incorporate new knowledge at a faster rate than can be acquired only through experience. Experiential learning is great for acquiring tried and tested knowledge and usefully true heuristics. Schools are better at rapidly assimilating, assessing and transmitting newly emerging knowledge that might be broadly useful but to which only a small group might be exposed on an experiential basis. Schools are the source of didactic learning – the near rote generation, aggregation, vetting, teaching, memorization and testing of new information. Sitting and listening versus doing.

Experiential knowledge has the advantage of being well vetted and appropriate to known conditions and circumstances. It has predictability. The disadvantage is that it takes time and large participation to truly vet knowledge for its usefulness and validity. For every adage (representing knowledge built from experience) of recent provenance (e.g. Trust but verify), there are many dozens of truly ancient adages still valid (a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush). As long as there is sufficient stability in the external environment, there is usually plenty of time to accumulate and assimilate new knowledge. A period of some two million years lapsed between Australopithecine’s developing very basic chipped hand axes and the development of crafted axes and spear heads (by Neanderthals). The challenge arises when the average time taken to assimilate new knowledge broadly on an experiential basis is greater than the mean time of innovation (Mean Time of Assimilation > Mean Time of Innovation). At that point you have a cognitive pile up. By the time you have experienced and trialed something new, it has already been superseded. It is, in those circumstances easier to learn didactically than to learn by experience. For example; you buy the current version of Adobe Photoshop. You don’t use it often. It takes two or three years of occasional experimentation to get comfortable with it and begin to use it at all effectively. By that point in time, there are at least two, if not three, significant upgrades. Far better to learn didactically (taking an online course) and shorten the assimilation time down to days, than to learn experientially over three years.

Our past century can be characterized as a period of accelerating change along multiple dimensions including technology, business, economic, manufacturing, transportation, communication, government, society, cultural, moral, etc. In the first fifty years, 1900-1950, we responded by seeking to get more children into primary and secondary education and for longer. And in that, we largely succeeded. In 1900 only about 5% of the population graduated from high school and that population would have been heavily skewed towards urban and wealthy demographics. By 2010, virtually everyone has the opportunity to obtain a secondary level of education – 100%. Regardless of opportunity, some 70% actually complete a secondary degree. We increased our stock of human capital simply by increasing the quantity. And it paid off in terms of strengthening national economy (increased productivity) as well as material improvements in the lives of virtually all citizens (income, length of life, health, education attainment, etc.)

After the 1950’s, the dynamic changed somewhat. The pace of change continued to accelerate and we met that acceleration with increased resources per capita in school with an increase of more than 300% in the share of GNP dedicated to education. We ran out of opportunity to increase the number of people being educated, and started focusing on increasing the volume and quality of that education. However, on most measurable counts such as graduation rates, test scores, etc. we seem to hit a plateau sometime around the 1970s. Results either flat-lined or began declining marginally. This began to show up in some of the national productivity and income numbers. Up until the 1980s, everyone was getting richer albeit some got richer at a greater rate than others. From the 1980s onwards we began to encounter situations where segments of the population were only holding their own in terms of productivity and income, while others were still increasing their productivity. Certainly some of the source of those changes would have to be changes in the global economic structure (freer trade, more competition, etc.). But some of that slowdown in productivity growth is also almost certainly attributable to changes in educational attainment and effectiveness.

It is almost as if schools, which are the more effective means of increasing productivity during periods of change, may have been outpaced. Even though they are the more effective means of increasing productivity in periods with a high rate of change, they haven’t been able to keep up. What might be going on to explain that?

I wonder if there isn’t an interdependency that is being overlooked. Two assumptions: 1) Families are more effective at generating and transmitting long term, experiential learning. Things like learning table manners, how to get along with difficult family members, how to hold a conversation, how to help those that don’t want help, how to express one’s views so that others can comprehend, how to reconcile people’s words with their actions – these are important lessons, usually learned best through experience and that experience is usually most available in a family structure. 2) Schools are structured to drive the transmission of formal knowledge via didactic means. Lessons in a classroom based on reading materials, memorizing, discussing and then repeating it back in terms of structured tests. This is not to say that families don’t occasionally teach didactically or that there aren’t opportunities for experiential learning in a school setting. Both things occur. However, the bulk of experiential learning likely occurs within a family setting and the bulk of didactic transmission of knowledge occurs in schools.

Accepting the premise that schools (didactic learning) are better are disseminating and transmitting new knowledge in times of high change which will in turn lead to greater productivity – why has there been a slowdown in productivity growth in the past few decades when we have been increasing the amount of resources dedicated to schools? This seems paradoxical. We are spending more on that mode of knowledge transmission that ought to be of the greatest assistance in productivity growth and we are not getting the results we seek.

Perhaps what we are seeing is both an interplay and a tipping point. In order for didactic learning to be effective, perhaps there is a dependency on effective experiential learning. Children bring to school a portfolio of knowledge about appropriate behaviors, self-discipline, implicit comprehension of hierarchies, etc. which they have learned experientially. What happens if they no longer bring that critical portfolio?

There are at least three candidates that might cause this; 1) Decline in the integrity of the nuclear family, 2) Decline in family size, and 3) Decline in family epistemological effectiveness.

The flattening out of didactic results (circa 1970-1980) matches with the time frame in which numerous measures of family capacity began to erode. The percentage of children born out of wedlock and the percentage in a single-parent home have skyrocketed with fully 34% of children now in a single-parent home (from ~20% in 1900). The capacity for a child to acquire a full portfolio of experiential learning in a single parent home is sharply constricted.

Also happening in the same time frame, though on a more gradual basis, was a decline in the makeup of a household. Household used to be larger and more likely to be multi-generational. In 1915, the average household size was 4.5 people. Today it is 2.6 . That is a very large decline in potential experiential learning. It is actually more than a change in numbers but also a change in type. If there were an average of three siblings way back then, there was plenty of opportunity to learn experientially. If there is on average an only child in the house, not only is there much less opportunity for experiential learning but also, the child essentially has two teachers that can focus their full attention, i.e. the interaction is more likely to take on the characteristics of didactic learning rather than experiential learning.

Achieving universal secondary education in the period 1900-1950 would have meant an increasing diversity of child capability and preparedness in any single classroom. As long as families were relatively stable and intact in this period when representation of the full normal distribution of capability in the classroom began to match that in the nation, there would have been an increasing return on effort. Average performance would have declined (because of a greater normal distribution) but average productivity would have increased because of more people benefitting from didactic education.

However, after the 1960s family structure began to decline at roughly the same time that representativeness in the classroom reached a plateau (everyone who could be educated was being educated). Statistical diversity in the classroom ceased to increase because education was now universal. (Ethnic diversity did continue to change though because of emigration changes). However, ceteris paribus, diversity of school preparedness continued to increase owing to more and more children coming from a family environment less and less supportive of experiential learning.

So perhaps the decline in overall productivity growth as well as the stagnation in productivity in the bottom quintiles is due to a decline in the volume of experiential learning to which children are exposed (because of family structure erosion), an increase in the sheer volume of didactic learning that needs to occur (society is more complex and requires more set knowledge than twenty years ago), and an increase in heterogeneity in the classroom (percentage foreign born in 1970 was 5% and the percentage in 2010 was 12%).

So the paradox of stable or declining measured educational performance from classrooms in recent years, even when resources have been tripled and when classroom education should be most pertinent and contributing to productivity increases (per Parman’s research) might be explained by the facts that:
• There is an increasing heterogeneity of classroom preparedness owing to declining experiential learning (decline in traditional family structures)
• There is an increasing heterogeneity of student capability because of foreign born nationals (foreign born raised in agriculture communities and in a different language are going to have a harder transition which will show up as reduced scores)
What this suggests is that, contrary to the full bore condemnation to which schools are usually exposed, they ought to at least be recognized for having held the performance results in line while at the same time absorbing an ever increasing range of child capabilities (language and background for emigrants and declining family structure for native born). Parman’s research suggests that, as long as the external environment continues to change rapidly, we ought to continue investing in schools as the avenue with the greatest prospect for increasing productivity, that we ought to continue to explore how to customize didactic education to accommodate the increased diversity of child preparedness, and that we ought to explore means of making families more effective in performing their traditional role of experiential learning. The latter effort likely including strategies for restoring the overall capacity of citizens to form stable family structures.

Monday, May 21, 2012

They are different lies

Well, yes, I guess that's usually so. Perhaps not often enough in fact. Anonymous comment via Later On.
A government lies, and newspapers lie, but in a democracy they are different lies.

He sees himself as a power broker, dealing in privilege

From Ann Althouse, How Would Tom Barrett Have Erased the $3.6 Billion Budget Deficit in Wisconsin?. Althouse is a law professor and blogger with a penchant for textual analysis of which this is an example. Regardless of what people are intending to say, when you listen closely, what are they actually saying?

She is hammering on a candidate in the recall election for evading answering the direct question, How would you have reduced the deficit? She is brutal in her take down only because she is persistent. If there were even a whisper of an answer, it might not be so uncomfortable to read. But there isn't.
Still trying to get to the answer to how Barrett would deal with the budget, Gousha asks: So you would repeal those? Barrett's answer is stodgily cagey:
I'm going to look at those and see whether they are tied to job creation, 'cause for me — and I've seen this as mayor — I have people who come in or businesses that come in who want to have tax incentives, and my questions are always the same: How many jobs are we talking about and are they family-supporting jobs? So that, to me, is the tie.
That is, he doesn't want to generally lower tax rates to stimulate business. He wants particular businesses to come to him and ask for an individual incentive and convince him somehow that their business is the right kind of business, to work through him. He sees himself as a power broker, dealing in privilege. And, of course, in case you haven't noticed, he still hasn't expressed a single idea about how to deal with the budget. He adopted Walker's "hole" metaphor, ignored the fact that Walker filled the hole, told us the now-filled hole shouldn't be dug deeper, and keeps reverting to an urge to re-dig the hole!
I like that phrase, "dealing in privilege". It does seem as if so much legislation today is not predicated on roles and responsibilities or true problem solving; they seem mere exercises in "dealing in privilege." When a white middle class Harvard law professor can achieve advantage over competitors by merely claiming distant Native American ancestry, we have moved past solving some legitimate problem such as underrepresentation or disadvantage and are now merely "dealing in privilege." This "dealing in privilege" chimes with a train of thought I had this morning. It seems as if most people have completely lost sight of and commitment to the desirability of the rule of law and not of man, of pluralism, of representative democracy, etc. and of a nation constituted of responsible citizens equally subject to the laws and of equal agency. Instead, we have more people subscribing (by action rather than word) to the idea of rule by oligarchy of the cognitive elite.

Our national dialogue seems increasingly dominated by echoes of this disrespect of one's fellow citizen. Ideas are advanced to be imposed on others based on expert testimony rather than agreement on the part of those involved or on the basis of actual achieved results. The agenda appears to be set by the oligarchy of the cognitive elite out of Big Government, Big Business, Big Labor, Big Academy, Big Media. The talking heads talk about what they wish to talk about and that often has little to do with or in common with the other 95% of the nation. The oligarchy sustains itself by "dealing in privilege". Regulations are passed, permissions have to be sought, payments have to be made, favors have to be extended.

It all sounds and feels conspiratorial. I don't think there is any particular conspiracy, it is just the nature of the beast. Left untended, rent seeking and self-interest overtake obligation to the commonweal.

It is easy to feel as politics is no longer the mechanism to establish what is in the best interest of the community, but is rather, as Thomas Sowell said, "the art of making your selfish desires seem like the national interest."

No need to be melodramatic or get carried away by a train of thought, but an oligarchy of the cognitive elite sustained by dealing in privilege has a certain chilling sense of familiarity.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

But at the creative frontier of the economy, and at the moment of innovation, insight is inseparable from action

From Hayek Was Right: Why Cloud Computing Proves the Power of Markets by Jim Manzi. A great article articulating the contingency of knowledge, effort, outcome and success.
The Hayekian knowledge problem is not a mere abstraction. Our innovations that have driven the greatest economic value uniformly arose from iterative collaboration between ourselves and our customers to find new solutions to hard problems. Neither thinking through a chain of logic in a conference room, nor simply "listening to our customers," nor taking guidance from analysts distant from the actual problem ever did this. External analysis can be useful for rapidly coming up to speed on an unfamiliar topic, or for understanding a relatively static business environment. But at the creative frontier of the economy, and at the moment of innovation, insight is inseparable from action. Only later do analysts look back, observe what happened, and seek to collate this into categories, abstractions and patterns.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A sea of barely readable crap

From Ann Althouse, a blog post, Book Reviewer's Weapon: the Kindle Search. I thought one of the commenters was on the money:
But this startling new era in literary offerings cuts both ways. While the technology now exists in a sufficiently diffuse manner that allows an author to cut all ties with New York/London/etc, that same technology creates both a sea of barely readable crap along with the means for the outstanding to be cut to ribbons in short order.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Or maybe there's a problem with her model

From There is No Easy Button for R&D by Jim Manzi.

Manzi is right, that the inclination to stray far beyond the knowledge frontier into the realms of rank speculation driven by personal ideologies and biases is common/prevalent/ overwhelming in the humanities but is not an unknown phenomenon in the more rigorous fields of study. His is an excellent take-down of one such example.
I often criticize social scientists for making overly-aggressive claims for understanding causality in complex systems by building regression and other pattern-finding models. This is not evidence of some unique weakness of social scientists. The same thing happens in business all the time, but business analyses tend not to be published for obvious reasons. A good example of one that has been published is in the current Harvard Business Review. This matters a lot, because HBR holds a unique position as the most important serious business publication in America.
[snip]
Maybe Knott has discovered an incredible, remediable market inefficiency, and somebody is about to get very, very rich. Or maybe there's a problem with her model.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

If the Interstate System Were Designed by a Slime Mold

I am intrigued by laws and phenomenon which seem to have a power and life of their own. The principles of Darwin's theory of evolution (evolution via random variation and differential survival) which apply to politics, economics and sociology; Pareto distributions which show up in the oddest places, logarithmic scales, etc. See the linked graph for the relationship between length of a species and the time at which reproduction can occur. Why is there a relationship and in particular, why is it characterized by a logarithmic scale. I have no idea, but it is one of those discoveries that gets you thinking deeply.

A neat, but technical article, Evolutionary Entropy: A Predictor of Body Size, Metabolic Rate and Maximal Life Span, describes the interplay of logarithmic scales, body size, metabolism and survival.
Furthermore, entropy characterizes Darwinian fitness, the efficiency with which a population acquires and converts resources into viable offspring. Accordingly, entropy predicts the outcome of natural selection in populations subject to different classes of ecological constraints. This predictive property, when integrated with the macroscopic representation of entropy, is the basis for enormous differences in morphometric and life-history parameters across species.
Along comes If the Interstate System Were Designed by a Slime Mold by Joseph Stromberg showing the capacity of undirected slime mold to mimic the interstate highway system. I have read of this before, but this is the first time I have seen a video version. Neat.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Somebody’s Mother

Hat tip to The Art of Manliness: Reviving the Lost Art of Manliness. If you have sons, introduce them to the website. It is an excellent resource in general with such articles as Improve Your Listening or The Cardinal Virtues - Temperance, or How to Make Maple Syrup Like a Vermonter. Everything that a man might want to know. None of your beating drums, finding your inner caveman, exploring your metro-sexuality or any other such fads - just a revisiting of what used to be called a classic gentleman. Anyway, they posted this mother's day poem.
Somebody’s Mother
By Mary D. Brine

The woman was old and ragged and gray,
And bent with the chill of a winter’s day;
The streets were white with a recent snow,
And the woman’s feet with age were slow.

At the crowded crossing she waited long,
Jostled aside by the careless throng
Of human beings who passed her by.
Unheeding the glance of her anxious eye.

Down the street with laughter and shout.
Glad in the freedom of “school let out,”
Come happy boys, like a flock of sheep,
Hailing the snow piled white and deep;
Past the woman, so old and gray.
Hastened the children on their way.

None offered a helping hand to her,
So weak and timid, afraid to stir,
Lest the carriage wheels or the horses’ feet
Should trample her down in the slippery street.

At last came out of the merry troop
The gayest boy of all the group;
He paused beside her and whispered low,
“I’ll help you across, if you wish to go.”

Her aged hand on his strong young arm
She placed, and so without hurt or harm
He guided the trembling feet along,
Proud that his own were young and strong;
Then back again to his friends he went,
His young heart happy and well content

“She’s somebody’s mother, boys, you know,
For all she’s aged, and poor and slow;
And some one, some time, may lend a hand
To help my mother—you understand?—
If ever she’s old and poor and gray,
And her own dear boy so far away.”

“Somebody’s mother” bowed low her head
In her home that night, and the prayer she said
Was: “God be kind to that noble boy,
Who is somebody’s son and pride and joy.”

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Psyche, faces and memory

See Psyche's Sister by Jessa Crispin.

A weird kind of literary advice column, fascinating in an odd way. I do like how the author's answer to a question about rather unusual modern day living arrangements focuses on tradition and literature. What I find especially fascinating is the reference to the story of Psyche and C.S. Lewis' rendition in Till We Have Faces. I recall reading and enjoying the story guite a bit as part of a college English class. I recall that it had an impact in the sense that I remember pondering passages and implications. And I don't recall at all that it had anything to do with Psyche. Since it is only a remote probability that we read it and discussed in class and no-one ever mentioned the link to the Psyche story, the necessary implication is that my memory has been very selective. It wounds me, taking rather material pride in having a fairly capacious memory, to be confronted by such a reality, but there it is. The evidence is pretty damning. Humph.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

When the need for illusion is deep

Saul Bellow:
A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.
Objectively I would wager that is true but I suspect it shines a light on an underlying paradox. Reality serves up many unexpected, and not infrequently, undesirable changes. Some of those changes we can resist or mitigate and others we cannot. Our challenge is to know the difference between the two. That challenge is famously reflected in Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Resisting usually entails sustained effort over long periods of time, frequently in circumstances where objective data supports that it is a lost cause. We sustain our activity by creating the illusion that we will win out despite what our objective senses are telling us. Some cultures are more prone to this than others. In the US, there is a deep love and admiration for the lone individualist who bucks the trends, stays the course and triumphs against the odds.

In those circumstances, we celebrate the fact that "a great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep." But it doesn't always turn out that way and then we are puzzled that so much intelligence was invested in so clearly a stupid idea for so long. It calls to mind Shakespeare's words in Hamlet Act III, Scene 1:
To sleep: perchance to dream: ah, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal call,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorn of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's confumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodlcin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale ease of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of actions.
How do we know when it is appropriate to invest a great deal of intelligence in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Truth fades away

From The path from science to alarmism: How science gets twisted before it gets to you via Double X Science
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.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Like a succession of dazzling but useless phantasmagoria

From History of Medical Delusions by Worthington Hooker and published in 1850.

In his introductory paragraph, Hooker describes what I refer to as the frontiers of knowledge. As we conquer new terrain, we often forget what is behind us and we take for granted that before us, not stopping to acknowledge the realm of that which we do not know but think we do.
The lessons which are taught by the history of past delusions are slowly learned by the medical profession, and still more slowly by the community at large. In the progress of human knowledge medicine has not been disencumbered of error so rapidly as the other sciences have been. So little does it bear the character of an exact science, especially in its Therapeutics, and so prone are men to conjecture and theorize where they cannot know, that the errors of the past on this subject have very generally failed to guard effectually against errors in the future. The history of medicine, therefore, presents to our view a succession of errors, standing out in bold prominence; each one having, as it rose to its ascendancy, supplanted some favorite error which preceded it. Truth, however, let it be remembered, has been all the time more and more developed, by a constant accession to the facts and established principles of our science. And these facts and principles remain as permanent acquisitions, the property of the profession through all time; while its array of baseless, but splendid theories and doctrines has passed away, like a succession of dazzling but useless phantasmagoria.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Do not feel absolutely certain of anything

From A Liberal Decalogue: Bertrand Russell’s 10 Commandments of Teaching by Maria Popova.

I have long been intrigued by Bertrand Russell. One the brightest individuals to come along, he seemed to make rather a mess of things as he translated ideas into real life. He is one of those individuals that I suspect was held in higher regard by his contemporaries, before time could reveal the outcome from all the sparks and insights. Still, he was exceptional. An interesting list from his pen.
Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.
It is also worth noting how stale political labels become. In this essay, Russell is clearly referring to Liberal as in the Classical Liberal sense, which often today seems closer what we now call conservatives. Regardless - is there any poltician or political party which could be said to adhere to any items on this list. A few individuals here and there, but overall, pretty few and far between.

There are quibbles to be had but a list of good principles.

In a democratic society like ours, relief must come through an aroused popular conscience that sears the conscience of the people's representatives

Ann Althouse has a post in which she discusses and cites the different uses and meanings of seared, wound, prick. In passing she references a profound judgment by Supreme Court Justice, Felix Frankfurter, who, she notes, was born in Vienna, Austria and for whom English was a second language.
We were soothingly told at the bar of this Court that we need not worry about the kind of remedy a court could effectively fashion once the abstract constitutional right to have courts pass on a statewide system of electoral districting is recognized as a matter of judicial rhetoric, because legislatures would heed the Court's admonition. This is not only a euphoric hope. It implies a sorry confession of judicial impotence in place of a frank acknowledgment that there is not under our Constitution a judicial remedy for every political mischief, for every undesirable exercise of legislative power. The Framers, carefully and with deliberate forethought, refused so to enthrone the judiciary. In this situation, as in others of like nature, appeal for relief does not belong here. Appeal must be to an informed, civically militant electorate. In a democratic society like ours, relief must come through an aroused popular conscience that sears the conscience of the people's representatives. In any event, there is nothing judicially more unseemly nor more self-defeating than for this Court to make in terrorem pronouncements, to indulge in merely empty rhetoric, sounding a word of promise to the ear sure to be disappointing to the hope.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves - such an ethical basis I call more proper for a herd of swine

From The World As I See It by Albert Einstein
To inquire after the meaning or object of one's own existence or of creation generally has always seemed to me absurd from an objective point of view. And yet everybody has certain ideals which determine the direction of his endeavours and his judgments. In this sense I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves - such an ethical basis I call more proper for a herd of swine. The ideals which have lighted me on my way and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind, of preoccupation with the objective, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific research, life would have seemed to me empty. The ordinary objects of human endeavour - property, outward success, luxury - have always seemed to me contemptible.