Sunday, March 31, 2013

About 7,500 generations have passed since our ancestors lived on the savannas of eastern Africa

Though just a little dated at this point, I did enjoy Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins by Steve Olson which I have just finished. Page 29.
In a way, the details of how modernity in humans arose are not important. What must count as one of the most profound biological insights of all time is the recognition of our remarkable genetic similarity. About 7,500 generations have passed since our ancestors lived on the savannas of eastern Africa. In evolutionary terms, that's the blink of an eye. The chimpanzees living on a single hillside in Africa have more than twice as much variety in their mitochondrial DNA as do all 6 billion people living on the earth, because today's species of chimpanzees have been in existence much longer than have modern humans.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence

David Hume in Treatise of Human Nature.
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it … [I] am persuaded, that a small attention [to this point] wou’d subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv’d by reason.”
"This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence" - Rings true. I notice this most in news and magazine articles rather than in books (though I perhaps ought to be more alert).

Rarely is the article so unsophisticated as to use the terms "ought" or "ought not". Instead, they often move from a series of statements of fact to a series of unstated assumptions which actually hide the embedded "ought". If you agree with the assumptions, you never even notice. And if you don't agree with them, you are left wondering how you arrived at an indefensible conclusion from uncontested premises.

But reading Hume's passage, I was thinking of his point from a slightly different perspective. When dealing with "is", you are reporting facts as you understand them: in other words, non-fiction. However, when dealing with "ought" you are dealing with facts not as they are but as you would wish them to be. One might characterize such unproven desires as fictions. In which case, in reading the article, you are slowly led from a non-fiction reportage to a fictional piece. And you often don't notice it at all.

But think of characterizing a book as such, a book that goes from a non-fiction account to a fictional account. Are there any such out there? Non-fiction books with so much incorrect information that it feels to be fictional - sure. But I can't think of any book that is deliberately structured as a non-fiction book and then transitions without comment to fiction. It is an odd concept which, for some reason, I find intriguing.

It is a premise of science, not a finding.

From The Heretic: Who is Thomas Nagel and why are so many of his fellow academics condemning him? by Andrew Ferguson
Materialism, then, is fine as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go as far as materialists want it to. It is a premise of science, not a finding. Scientists do their work by assuming that every phenomenon can be reduced to a material, mechanistic cause and by excluding any possibility of nonmaterial explanations. And the materialist assumption works really, really well—in detecting and quantifying things that have a material or mechanistic explanation. Materialism has allowed us to predict and control what happens in nature with astonishing success. The jaw-dropping edifice of modern science, from space probes to nanosurgery, is the result.

But the success has gone to the materialists’ heads. From a fruitful method, materialism becomes an axiom: If science can’t quantify something, it doesn’t exist, and so the subjective, unquantifiable, immaterial “manifest image” of our mental life is proved to be an illusion.

Here materialism bumps up against itself. Nagel insists that we know some things to exist even if materialism omits or ignores or is oblivious to them. Reductive materialism doesn’t account for the “brute facts” of existence—it doesn’t explain, for example, why the world exists at all, or how life arose from nonlife. Closer to home, it doesn’t plausibly explain the fundamental beliefs we rely on as we go about our everyday business: the truth of our subjective experience, our ability to reason, our capacity to recognize that some acts are virtuous and others aren’t. These failures, Nagel says, aren’t just temporary gaps in our knowledge, waiting to be filled in by new discoveries in science. On its own terms, materialism cannot account for brute facts. Brute facts are irreducible, and materialism, which operates by breaking things down to their physical components, stands useless before them. “There is little or no possibility,” he writes, “that these facts depend on nothing but the laws of physics.”

Friday, March 29, 2013

Stress and argument

Rather interesting, though fragmentary, interview, 'One Nation Under Stress,' With To-Do Lists And Yoga For All by NPR Staff. Dana Becker has written a new book, One Nation Under Stress, in which she makes the observation that the concept is really a relatively recent construct, emerging some time after the 1970s. She appears to document this observation, i.e. this part of the argument appears to be well founded.

From this observation, she apparently then argues that, having bought into the idea that stress is real and increasing, the middle class and the therapeutic industry have then created a model by which stress is ameliorated through personal and individual action. She then advances the argument that by internalizing stress management and making it a personal responsibility, people and society allow themselves to ignore the external factors that she believes are the source of stress, oppression, poverty and violence. Here is the book's blurb which I believe comports with my summary above:
Stress. Everyone is talking about it, suffering from it, trying desperately to manage it-now more than ever. From 1970 to 1980, 2,326 academic articles appeared with the word "stress" in the title. In the decade between 2000 and 2010 that number jumped to 21,750. Has life become ten times more stressful, or is it the stress concept itself that has grown exponentially over the past 40 years?

In One Nation Under Stress, Dana Becker argues that our national infatuation with the therapeutic culture has created a middle-class moral imperative to manage the tensions of daily life by turning inward, ignoring the social and political realities that underlie those tensions. Becker shows that although stress is often associated with conditions over which people have little control-workplace policies unfavorable to family life, increasing economic inequality, war in the age of terrorism-the stress concept focuses most of our attention on how individuals react to stress. A proliferation of self-help books and dire medical warnings about the negative effects of stress on our physical and emotional health all place the responsibility for alleviating stress-though yoga, deep breathing, better diet, etc.-squarely on the individual. The stress concept has come of age in a period of tectonic social and political shifts. Nevertheless, we persist in the all-American belief that we can meet these changes by re-engineering ourselves rather than tackling the root causes of stress.

Examining both research and popular representations of stress in cultural terms, Becker traces the evolution of the social uses of the stress concept as it has been transformed into an all-purpose vehicle for defining, expressing, and containing middle-class anxieties about upheavals in American society.
I have not read the book and only have the interview and some reviews to go on so my commentary may be off base. However, this seems to be the argument she is making, or at least it is the argument that most reviewers understand her to be making.

I came of sentient age in the 1970's and stress has always been part of the ambient conversation. It was interesting to see that the emphasis on stress actually arose during that period.

But what about the argument that stress is generated by external conditions such as poverty and oppression and violence? I am skeptical and find it surprising that someone who has just identified stress as a social construct and possibly passing whim, should then treat it as a real thing with real causation. There has a been a long known set of disconnects between individual perceptions and empirical objective realities. The two most common disconnects have to do with risk assessment and with economics.

With risk, it is well known, and has been for a long time, that people significantly over-estimate risks that are beyond their perceived control and significantly under-estimate risks over which they perceive they have control. Consequently, as an example, people tend to believe that they are at greater physical risk from terrorist acts than from falling in the shower. Numerically, it is indisputable that many more people are injured and/or die from bathroom slips and falls than from terrorist acts, but that is not what people feel or believe.

Likewise, it has long been known that we overestimate the quality of life in the past and underestimate the advantages of living in the present. We live longer, healthier, wealthier, more productive lives today than ever in the past. The environment is cleaner, in general more secure, the world is at greater peace, our personal security is greater, more people are educated to higher levels, everyone has many more physical and financial assets (even the very poorest) than in the past. On virtually every conceivable metric of human well-being, we are better off than in the past. And not just the distant past but even the recent past of ten and twenty years ago (the past five years being an anomaly in the trend).

So how on earth can we be more stressed than in the past? And how can stress be rising if violence, poverty, and oppression have declined exponentially in recent decades? Are we really willing to argue that people in the first half of the last century (cholera, polio, WWI, WWII, advent of cars and electricity, etc.) led less stressful lives than those of the first half of this century? This argument has the hallmarks of a manufactured crisis in order to justify predetermined solutions. In other words, what appears to be a real phenomenon (people have manufactured the concept of stress and now integrate it into their life stories) is being used to support a hypothesis that does not otherwise have much evidence.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Accept the truth from whoever utters it

From A Darwinist Mob Goes After a Serious Philosopher by Leon Wieseltier. The context is that a long esteemed scientist, Thomas Nagel, has published a new book Mind and Cosmos which suggests that perhaps not all answers can be derived from a reductionist view of matter, energy and evolution. Wieseltier laments the science establishment attack on Nagel.
I find this delicious, because it defies the prevailing regimentation of opinion and exemplifies a rebellious willingness to go wherever the reasoning mind leads. Cui bono? is not the first question that an intellectual should ask. The provenance of an idea reveals nothing about its veracity. “Accept the truth from whoever utters it,” said the rabbis, those poor benighted souls who had the misfortune to have lived so many centuries before Dennett and Dawkins.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Culture, technology and persistent differences

From We Aren’t the World by Ethan Watters. The researchers identify the degree to which most (97%) of our understanding of human psychology comes from studies based on small sample sizes of undergraduate populations in Western countries (mostly the US) and why this is likely a problem.
Henrich has challenged this “cognitive niche” hypothesis with the “cultural niche” hypothesis. He notes that the amount of knowledge in any culture is far greater than the capacity of individuals to learn or figure it all out on their own. He suggests that individuals tap that cultural storehouse of knowledge simply by mimicking (often unconsciously) the behavior and ways of thinking of those around them. We shape a tool in a certain manner, adhere to a food taboo, or think about fairness in a particular way, not because we individually have figured out that behavior’s adaptive value, but because we instinctively trust our culture to show us the way. When Henrich asked Fijian women why they avoided certain potentially toxic fish during pregnancy and breastfeeding, he found that many didn’t know or had fanciful reasons. Regardless of their personal understanding, by mimicking this culturally adaptive behavior they were protecting their offspring. The unique trick of human psychology, these researchers suggest, might be this: our big brains are evolved to let local culture lead us in life’s dance.
Heine and others suggest that such differences may be the echoes of cultural activities and trends going back thousands of years. Whether you think of yourself as interdependent or independent may depend on whether your distant ancestors farmed rice (which required a great deal of shared labor and group cooperation) or herded animals (which rewarded individualism and aggression). Heine points to Nisbett at Michigan, who has argued (pdf) that the analytic/holistic dichotomy in reasoning styles can be clearly seen, respectively, in Greek and Chinese philosophical writing dating back 2,500 years. These psychological trends and tendencies may echo down generations, hundreds of years after the activity or situation that brought them into existence has disappeared or fundamentally changed.
This observation might explain this paper's conclusion, Was the Wealth of Nations Determined in 1000 bc? by Diego Comin, William Easterly, and Erick Gong.
ABSTRACT: We assemble a dataset on technology adoption in 1000 bc, 0 ad, and 1500 AD for the predecessors to today’s nation states. Technological differences are surprisingly persistent over long periods of time. Our most interesting, strong, and robust results are for the association of 1500 AD technology with per capita income and technology adoption today. We also find robust and significant technological persistence from 1000 BC to 0 AD, and from 0 AD to 1500 AD. The evidence is consistent with a model where the cost of adopting new technologies declines sufficiently with the current level of adoption.
In other words, perhaps the cultural construct that evolved so long ago was what enabled the development and exploitation of the technologies and it is the substructure of continued culture which drives the differences today and not the technology per se.

It remains still long enough to promote life and grow cultures within it

An interesting perspective from Douglas Rushkoff in Why You Won't Probably Won't Read This Article Properly, adapted from his book Present Shock.
Stored time is more like a pond than a stream. It remains still long enough to promote life and grow cultures within it. A pond may be stagnant and unsuitable for drinking, but that only attests to its ability to support a living ecosystem within itself. A stream, on the other hand, is defined by its constant movement. It is never still.

This doesn’t mean it lacks power. Over time, its flow can cut a path through solid rock. But it’s a hard place for cultures to develop. The pond creates change within itself by staying still. The stream creates change beyond itself by remaining in motion. If we think of them as media, the pond contains its content, while the stream uses the earth around itself as its content.

Likewise, our informational content comes to us both as ponds and streams — stored data and flows of data. The encyclopedia is relatively static and stored, while the twenty-four-hour news channel is closer to flow. Yes, the encyclopedia may change every few years when a new edition comes out, and the news channel may broadcast some canned video reports. But the value of the encyclopedia rests in the durability of its assertions and the cumulative authority of its institutional history. The value of the twenty-four-hour news channel is based in the freshness of its data— the newness of its news.

Where we get into trouble is when we treat data flows and data storage interchangeably. This is particularly easy to do in digital environments, where even fundamentally different kinds of information and activities are rendered in ways that make them all look pretty much the same. So we scan a digital book or article with the same fleeting attention as we regard a Twitter stream or list of Facebook updates.

This means we are likely to race through a longer text, hoping to get the gist of it, when the information is just too layered to be appreciated this way. By rushing, we relegate deep thoughts to the most transient, temporary portions of our memory and lose the ability to contemplate anything. We are attempting to compress a lengthy, linear process into a single flow moment.

Or just as futilely, we attempt to catch up with a Twitter feed, as if yesterday’s Tweets needed to be absorbed and comprehended like the missed episode of a television series. Instead, Twitter needs to be embraced as the stream it is— an almost live flow of facts and commentary whose relevance is conditional on the moment. Twitter is how we complain that there was no instant replay of a questionable pass reception, how we share our horror about a school shooting that just occurred, how we voice our solidarity with a protest in progress, or how we let other protesters know where the cops are stationed.

What is the business of literature? It is about making culture

What is the Business of Literature? by Richard Nash. An excellent article crammed with interesting and provocative ideas and which strips away a lot of the miasma of unicorn gibberish so often associated with "Literature" and deals in the hard ideas that might make a difference.

Nash lays out a history of writing and publishing, highlighting the serial inflection points where the technology of book creation has led the way and transformed the cultural landscape, each time amidst howls of transitional anguish.

He offers the insight, explored by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in both Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness, that in systems of large numbers characterized by hidden feedback mechanisms, non-linear processes, volatility and excessive sensitivity to exogenous shocks, that the outcome cannot be predicted in advance. One chooses to play the game but one cannot reliably forecast winning.
What is published is published, and from that pool we choose to celebrate what we celebrate, and we say the system produced these celebrated works because, well, they’re available.
He points out what is obvious:
Editors are also needed to produce books, of course. But beyond their editorial skills, what has kept editors in demand is relationship skills. The skill that is commonly associated with the pinnacle of editorial talent—picking the right book—is, frankly, nonsense. Success, in terms of picking things, is a hybrid of luck with the non-self-evident and money with the self-evident, and even the self-evident often requires luck. This is not to say that people don’t work hard on those books that have gotten lucky, but all the retrospective justifications for why, say, The Da Vinci Code, or the Harry Potter series succeeded are trumped by what really was a matter of luck and network effects. Books, like most entertainment media, live in what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls Extremistan, a place with vast amounts of commercial failure and spectacularly high and extremely infrequent success.
To his titular question, his answer is that
It is not about making art; it is about making culture, which is a conversation about what is art, what is true, what is good.
He asks
So why is the margin attributable to the ideas in a book so low, at times in fact negative, whereby the total revenue earned by the book is less than the cost of producing and distributing it? Not because our society doesn’t value literature, as so many of us complain, but because it takes so long to discover whether or not you’ll actually like the book.
I believe this to be one of the central challenges for book culture - in an environment of universal access to an essentially infinite number of books and the practical reality that only the most enthusiastic readers are likely to read even 1,500 books as adults, how can we reduce the cost (make it easier) for an individual to be able to identify those books they are likely to be interested in at a given moment in time?
Abundance, it turns out, is a much bigger problem to solve than scarcity
He concludes
Book culture is in far less peril than many choose to assume, for the notion of an imperiled book culture assumes that book culture is a beast far more refined, rarified, and fragile than it actually is. By defining books as against technology, we deny our true selves, we deny the power of the book. Let’s restore to publishing its true reputation—not as a hedge against the future, not as a bulwark against radical change, not as a citadel amidst the barbarians, but rather as the future at hand, as the radical agent of change, as the barbarian.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

None more blameable

David Hume in Part III, Section II of A Treatise of Human Nature.

Regrettably, despite it being blameable, this seems still to be one of the primary rhetorical devices in civic discussion today. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
There is no method of reasoning more common, and yet none more blameable, than in philosophical debates to endeavour to refute any hypothesis by a pretext of its dangerous consequences to religion and morality.

We perceive only as much of reality as our mechanisms of transduction, our sensory organs, afford us

From Moral Matter by Ian Dewitt.
In 1884, Scientific American asked and answered the famous question, “if a tree were to fall on an uninhabited island, would there be any sound?” In short, no:
Sound is vibration, transmitted to our senses through the mechanism of the ear, and recognized as sound only at our nerve centers. The falling of the tree or any other disturbance will produce vibration of the air. If there be no ears to hear, there will be no sound.
Absent an observer, sound, per se, does not exist.

That sound is a construct of the organism is also clear from species’ hearing ranges. Dolphins, for instance, hear 150–150,000 Hz oscillations, whereas humans hear in the range of 20–20,000 Hz. We perceive only as much of reality as our mechanisms of transduction, our sensory organs, afford us. The remainder, the un-transduced portion, is lost to oblivion (or to instrumentation).

Monday, March 25, 2013

Likes - The World Is Too Much With Us

Reading Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior by Michal Kosinskia, David Stillwella, and Thore Graepel made me, for some reason, think of Wordsworth's The World Is Too Much With Us.
The World Is Too Much With Us

THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
We pour forth incidental information which becomes a means for others to know who we are beyond our knowing, to risk losing ourselves to other's intentions.

The search for meaning and the search for explanation are two different enterprises.

Philosopher Roger Scruton.
The search for meaning and the search for explanation are two different enterprises.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

We live in magical times.

From Dizzying but invisible depth by Jean-Baptiste Queru.
In another part of the chip, they're combined into address and data multiplexers and timing circuitry to create a memory controller. There's even more. Those are actually such incredibly complex technologies that they'll make any engineer dizzy if they think about them too much, and such that no single company can deal with that entire complexity.

Can we simplify further?

In fact, very scarily, no, we can't. We can barely comprehend the complexity of a single chip in a computer keyboard, and yet there's no simpler level. The next step takes us to the software that is used to design the chip's logic, and that software itself has a level of complexity that requires to go back to the top of the loop.
A great post explicating the levels of technological complexity which we take entirely for granted. I was there close enough to the beginning to have osmotically absorbed some of the essentials such as programming in PL1 and other languages, networking (star vs. daisy chain), etc. I can look back and have at least a conceptual understanding of what is going on behind the click of the button. For those coming of age today, I suspect there is not even that conceptual understanding.

Arthur C. Clarke formulated three laws, the third of which said that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." We live in magical times.

It reminds me a little of my dad and cars. He came of age in the 1940's and had a shade tree mechanic's view of cars - all the basics of battery and engine maintenance and repair when most of that could be done with a couple of wrenches, a hammer, and a screwdriver. I learned at his elbow in the seventies just such skills, just about the point in time when engines took a dramatic leap forward in complexity. Then along came the 90's when diagnosing and repairing an engine problem entailed complex computer based diagnostic equipment and even more sophisticated tools. No shade tree mechanic anymore.

Looking back, I feel privileged to have had an oiled hand and bruised thumb concept of the engine and its mechanics. At the same time, with the complexity of today's engines, I am as helpless as the next person when the funny noise, black smoke or alarm occurs. I can stare under the hood in incomprehension and then take it to the mechanic.

This is not intended as a Luddite lament. We are almost incomprehensibly better off from the functionality enabled by increasing complexity. It is simply an acknowledgement that that complexity is both awe-inspiring and concerning.

They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis, Letter I.
My dear Wormwood,

I note what you say about guiding your patient's reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naif? It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy's clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons, we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily "true" or "false," but as "academic" or "practical," "outworn" or "contemporary," "conventional" or "ruthless." Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don't waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That's the sort of thing he cares about.

The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy's own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He has been shown for centuries to be greatly the inferior of Our Father Below. By the very act of arguing you awake the patient's reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result! Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it "real life" and don't let him ask what he means by "real."

Remember, he is not, like you, a pure spirit. Never having been a human (oh, that abominable advantage of the Enemy's!) you don't realise how enslaved they are to the pressure of the ordinary. I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years' work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument, I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control, and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear what He says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line, for when I said, "Quite. In fact much too important to tackle at the end of a morning," the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added "Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind," he was already halfway to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man's head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of "real life" (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all "that sort of thing" just couldn't be true. He knew he'd had a narrow escape, and in later years was fond of talking about "that inarticulate sense for actuality which is our ultimate safe guard against the aberrations of mere logic." He is now safe in Our Father's house.

You begin to see the point? Thanks to processes which we set at work in them centuries ago, they find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes. Keep pressing home on him the ordinariness of things. Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can't touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don't let him get away from that invaluable "real life." But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is "the results of modern investigation." Do remember you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!

Your affectionate uncle

We do so much asserting these days and so little conversing and arguing. Assertions get us nowhere while conversation and argument can move us forward. I was pondering this earlier today and came up with the following equation: C° > K. The degree of certainty of belief is always greater than the actual knowledge supporting that belief.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Intellectual noise

There is an interesting set of pieces in the Boston Review around the issue of social mobility, all anchored on an essay by James Heckman, Promoting Social Mobility. I like Heckman's economic work and find this essay an odd contrast. In his economic work, he is rigorous and self-skeptical. The detailed studies of his which I have read are great examples of how to frame an argument, generate hypotheses, design experiments to test and how to rigorously vet one's work by seeking to argue alternate hypotheses. Elements which are lacking in this essay.

This appears to be an essay with a recommendation in mind and a loose aggregation of arguments from disparate sources which sort of appear to be consistent with the preferred conclusions. The goal is clearly a good one: given the disparities in birth circumstances, how do you prepare children so that they are likely to have equal opportunity to achieve desirable life outcomes. Regrettably, from there, the argument dissipates into a thousand different fissures with no participant having much of a well grounded, reasoned or evidentiarily supported recommendation. We agree on the goal but no one has any confidence, much less agreement, on how to go about achieving the goal. There is plenty of effort to show why Heckman's solutions would not work but there is little or no alternative advanced.

The other feature of this discussion of essays is the frustration arising from varied agendas that creep in and are at odds with the proclaimed goal. Agree or disagree with Heckman's proposed solutions, they are at least aligned with the stated goal. Rather than seeking equality of opportunity, others are far more concerned with gender equality issues, class and multicultaralism. Which is OK as a lens, but you still need to be able to generate workable solutions to the main goal otherwise you are simply shouting into an empty canyon.

Many of the commentators are really working towards entirely different goals and appear to be willing to sacrifice equality of opportunity as long as their particular goal is served. There is a complete absence of prioritization and reality in some of the discussion.

So one commenter rejects Heckman's proposals because she deems them to be demeaning of women.

Another is concerned that Heckman's proposals might work but are inappropriate because they impose white middle class cultural values.

Another argues that poverty is imposed by circumstances and inadequate resources and is not a function of values and behaviors.

Yet another acknowledges that the proposed solutions are poorly supported in terms of evidence but argues that money should be spent regardless in the hopes that something might work.

For another, the issue is clearly institutional inequities and not a function of individuals.

And so on. I have to some small degree satirized each of these positions, but shockingly not all that much. How can we make progress on real issues when no one is willing to take off their ideological glasses? How can we make progress when everyone is willing to sacrifice the good for the best? How can we progress without agreement to prioritized objectives even if they require us to make trade-offs we might not wish? And how can we make progress when there is such a willful disengagement from reality?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Deposit insurance and the like are a giant statement of faith in your fellow man

From Europe Is Full of Unique, Bad Situations by Megan McArdle.

In her post, she incidentally makes a point that I think is quite central. Effective institutions are necessary for any national economy but they can only be as good as the motivating value system (culture) behind them. The European Union has created the pan-continental institutions without creating a European culture with shared values and weltanchauung.
What they could to is create truly multinational institutions for things like deposit insurance, bond guarantees, and bank regulation, but there's no national will to do this among the solvent countries--and it's hard to blame them. Deposit insurance and the like are a giant statement of faith in your fellow man. And when those men do not share a culture or a set of political and economic institutions, it's hard to generate that sort of faith.
Where there are transfers of resources from one group to another, there needs to be enough cultural commonality between them for both to believe that this is the right and effecive thing to do.

Inescapable choices

From Realism on Infrastructure Investment by Alex Tabarrok.

An excellent post highlighting the typical issues which can be anticipated to distort the governmental capital decision making process, leading to lower than expected benefits. A similar list could and ought to be prepared for the human capital side of the equation.
1.Multiple policy goals
2.Geographic politics distorts and often dominates government investment in physical infrastructure.
3.Non-geographic politics can distort government capital spending.
4.Once “investment” is favored, everything gets relabeled as investment.
5.There’s a difference between government investments in the commons and government spending that primarily benefits individuals.
6.Government investment in physical infrastructure is slow.
7.Government investment in physical infrastructure is intentionally expensive because of “prevailing wage” requirements
8.We should evaluate the marginal productivity benefits of additional investment.
9.International comparisons of government infrastructure are silly.
10.Government investment faces no market discipline.
11.Government capital investment financed by raising taxes on private capital investment will slow long-term economic growth.
Every decision has a trade-off and individuals and organizations usually choose to act as if they are able to escape the trade-off decision and their consequences. They can't. Best to plan for those consequences no matter how much we dislike them.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Man's a Man for a' that:

I attended a lecture at our local Burns club recently in which this classic was quoted.

A Man's A Man For A' That
by Robert Burns

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Does the structure of language influence the behaviors of those within the language

From The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement Assets by M. Keith Chen. Does the structure of language influence the behaviors of those within the language.
Languages differ in whether or not they require speakers to grammatically mark future events. For example, a German speaker predicting rain can naturally do so in the present tense, saying: Morgen regnet es which translates to ‘It rains tomorrow’. In contrast, English would require the use of a future marker like ‘will’ or ‘is going to’, as in: ‘It will rain tomorrow’.1 In this way, English requires speakers to encode a distinction between present and future events, while German does not.2 Could this characteristic of language influence speakers’ intertemporal choices?

In this paper I test a linguistic-savings hypothesis: that being required to speak in a distinct way about future events leads speakers to take fewer future-oriented actions. This hypothesis arises naturally if grammatically separating the future and the present leads speakers to disassociate the future from the present. This would make the future feel more distant, and since saving involves current costs for future rewards, would make saving harder. On the other hand, some languages grammatically equate the present and future. Those speakers would be more willing to save for a future which appears closer. Put another way, I ask whether a habit of speech which disassociates the future from the present, can cause people to devalue future rewards.
His conclusions?
Overall, my findings are largely consistent with the hypothesis that languages with obligatory future-time reference lead their speakers to engage in less future-oriented behavior. On savings, the evidence is consistent on multiple levels: at an individual’s propensity to save, to long-run effects on retirement wealth, and in national savings rates. These findings extend to health behaviors ranging from smoking to condom use, as well as to measures of long-run health. All of these results survive after comparing only individuals who are identical in numerous ways and were born and raised in the same country.

One important issue in interpreting these results is the possibility that language is not causing but rather reflecting deeper differences that drive savings behavior. These available data provide preliminary evidence that much of the measured effects I find are causal, for several reasons that I have outlined in the paper. Mainly, self-reported measures of savings as a cultural value appear to drive savings behavior, yet are completely uncorrelated with the effect of language on savings. That is to say, while both language and cultural values appear to drive savings behavior, these measured effects do not appear to interact with each other in a way you would expect if they were both markers of some common causal factor.

In addition, differences in the use of FTR do not seem to correspond to cognitive or developmental differences in the acquisition of language. This suggests that the effect of language that I measure occurs through a channel that is independent of either cultural or cognitive differences between linguistic groups.

Nevertheless, the possibility that language acts only as a powerful marker of some deeper driver of intertemporal preferences cannot be completely ruled out.

Teenagers - a decade-long hormonal storm a parent absolutely must tend to in person

From He Hasn't Had It All Either by Michael Winerip. Discussing family roles, attainment and trade-off decisions.

Interesting sentences.
It was also crucial for me to have control over which long hours I worked. To do that, I had to be selective about the reporting positions I took, and I earned that freedom by working so hard there was no question I was working so hard.

Fortunately, my balancing act didn’t feel hard because I love what I do.

I’d put in an hour or two before waking the four of them each morning, made their lunches and got them on the bus. Then I’d work until they came home, oversee the activities, cook dinner and make sure they were on top of their homework and in bed on time. When they became teenagers — a decade-long hormonal storm a parent absolutely must tend to in person — I’d enforce the curfews, police the drinking, keep an eye on the friends.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

80% Self Absorption

Fascinating. From Good News Beats Bad on Social Networks by John Tierney.
One of his first findings to be reported — which I still consider the most important social-science discovery of the past century — was that articles and columns in the Science section were much more likely to make the list than nonscience articles. He found that science aroused feelings of awe and made Times readers want to share this positive emotion with others.
Past research into everyday conversation showed that a third of it is devoted to oneself, but today that topic has become an obsession thanks to social media. Rutgers researchers classify 80 percent of Twitter users as "meformers" who tweet mainly about themselves.

The result is even more Polly Positivity, and not just because people are so adept at what psychologists call self-presentation: pointing out one’s own wonderfulness. While people have always said nice things about themselves in traditional conversations and saved the nastier comments for others, today they’re more diligent in spreading the word through written media like e-mail, Facebook and Twitter.

US Education: Expensive and ineffective? Not so fast.

I came across an interesting cache of data which begins to answer a supposition I have held for a good while; that American schools are better than they are given credit for. In international educational comparisons which are conducted from time to time, the US usually comes out somewhere in the middle of the pack despite spending inordinately more money per student in both absolute dollars as well as in terms of percent of GDP. Having seen and experienced education in Europe, Asia and Australasia (and Africa) and hired people who were the product of education systems across the globe, I have long harbored the suspicion that those rankings were not telling the complete story. It is notoriously difficult to do international comparisons of performance in any field – health outcomes, productivity, crime, etc. There tend to be three sources of problems (other than outright gaming of the rankings) - 1) Definitions (ex. what constitutes a student?), 2) Ensuring like is being compared to like, and 3) Reliability and consistency of data collection. Even when these are done well and accurately, there is still a missing back-story and context.

The problems of ensuring comparability are easy to anticipate. What constitutes a 15 year old (by age, by grade, by birthday at time of test, etc.)? Are all 15 year-olds included? What about the 10% in private schools or parochial, what about home schoolers, what about charter, what about those who have already dropped out by age 15? Does it include all boys and all girls? How confident are we that the same test in different languages constitutes the same test? Etc. The issues will vary enormously by country.

My supposition has been that in addition to the known issues surrounding data normalization, there is also likely an aspect of the Wisconsin-Texas paradox as well ( see post, The Texas-Wisconsin Paradox and intergenerational income mobility). The US is unusual in many regards, particularly in that it is large, highly heterogeneous (by ethnicity, by culture, by religion, etc.), and very productive/innovative and has been so for long stretches of time. There is complexity that comes with these attributes and there are no real counterparts against which to compare it.

The OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has gained traction in the past couple of decades as an effort to compare international performance in education. There are three areas of performance measure, literacy, maths and science. The most recent reading assessment was performed in 2009 and the detailed results were released in Highlights From PISA 2009: Performance of U.S. 15-Year-Old Students in Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy in an International Context.

While I think the PISA effort is estimable, I believe we are still a few more cycles away from it being robustly reliable. I suspect that there are particular issues of Like-to-Like comparisons. For example, the most recent results show Shanghai leading the globe with an average reading score of 556 (reading scores are normed at 500). While Shanghai is an up and coming and wealthy city, I find this result implausible. It is a city of some 25 million with an inordinate percentage of the residents being emigrants from the countryside in the past twenty years, i.e. farmers drawn to the allure of manufacturing in the city. Everywhere in the world there is always a couple of generation lag in assimilation and education attainment in the migration from country to city. The PISA report would have us believe that uniquely Shanghai has broken this worldwide phenomenon. Perhaps, but more likely they have simply sampled only their best schools in the city.

Flawed as it might be, PISA will continue to be refined and the data will become more reliable over time. It has the advantage that it is now being administered to ever larger numbers of countries (sixty in this most recent survey) and is no longer restricted to the OECD.

So with all those caveats, what can the PISA scores tell us about US educational performance. I think, lurking in the data, there is a confirmation that the US does a far more effective job of educating its population than virtually anyone else in the world, despite the heterogeneity of its population and despite the very large percentage of its population that is first generation emigrant (approximately 12% now). Efficiency is a different, and no less important, an issue. However, I think perhaps one half of the accusation of ineffective and inefficient can be taken off the table.

There is an argument that when you have a heterogeneous population, that like has to be matched to like for comparison purposes. Ideally, as the primary vector for difference, one would look at self-identified cultural heritage (or religion as a proxy) as the source of differences in performance. Since that data is not easily or reliably available, an alternative is to use race as a proxy. Compare US non-Hispanic whites to western Europeans (as the primary cultural stock), Hispanic Americans to Latin American countries, Asian Americans to eastern Asia countries and Black Americans to African countries. Lest there be confusion, this is not an assertion that there is biological determinism at work. I believe that that view is well dispatched in such accessible accounts as Steve Olson’s Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins. Rather it is a recognition that an individual’s cultural framework has an inordinate influence on personal choices and actions and that culture, while mutable, can be extraordinarily long lived. While all assimilated Americans will have greater behavioral affiliation with one another than with virtually any other country, each sub-group within the US has strong traceable influences from their ancestral cultural origins.

So how do US students compare against their respective cultural cohorts across the globe? Contrary to most characterizations, pretty well.

Click on the above chart to enlarge and then click a second time to enlarge once more. There is a lot of information crammed into a small space. East Asian countries are light green. European countries (along with Australia, New Zealand and Canada), dark blue. Islamic countries, dark green. Latin American countries are light blue. Israel is mauve. Trinidad and Tobago is orange. T&T’s population is one third sub-continental Indian and one third of African ancestry with the balance of mixed ancestry. There are no African countries that participated in PISA 2009 and so T&T is used as the closest proxy. The solid red bar is the average American performance, 500, on reading. Right at average. The green bar with a heavy red border is the breakout for Asian Americans (541). The dark blue bar with heavy red border is non-Hispanic white Americans (535). Light blue with heavy red border is Hispanic American (466) and orange with heavy red border is USA Black (441). There are no available comparisons for Native Americans.

Our policies are punishing the prudent in favor of rescuing the irresponsible

From Jim Rogers: We're Wiping Out The Savings Class Globally, To Terrible Consequence by Tyler Durden.
For the first time in recorded history, we have nearly every central bank printing money and trying to debase their currency. This has never happened before. How it’s going to work out, I don't know. It just depends on which one goes down the most and first, and they take turns. When one says a currency is going down, the question is against what? because they are all trying to debase themselves. It’s a peculiar time in world history.
To Rogers, the bigger danger that concerns him is the hollowing out of the 'saving class' resulting from this situation. Central planners' policies are punishing the prudent in favor of rescuing the irresponsible. This has happened before in world history, and the aftermath has always had grievous economic, social -- and often human -- costs:
Throughout our history – any country’s history – the people who save their money and invest for their future are the ones that you build an economy, a society, and a nation on.

In America, many people saved their money, put it aside, and didn’t buy four or five houses with no job and no money down. They did what most people would consider the right thing, and what historically has been the right thing. But now, unfortunately, those people are being wiped out, because they are getting 0% return, or virtually no return, on their savings and their investments. We’re wiping them out at the expense of people who went deeply into debt, people who did what most people would consider the wrong thing at the expense of people who did the right thing. This, long-term, has terrible consequences for any nation, any society, any economy.
The expert forecasts are virtually always wrong. But there are always a few of them that are right.

It is not true that the function of law is to regulate our consciences, our ideas, our wills, our education, our opinions, our work, our trade, our talents, or our pleasures

I never heard of him at all during my years of institutional education, or at least do not recollect so, but the French philosopher Frederick Bastiat seems to keep popping up. Somehow, in pondering the implications of the national seizure of private assets by the government of Cyprus (and with the endorsement of the EU), I came across this remarkably succinct and pertinent passage by Bastiat (from his pamphlet, The Law). I have marked in bold two particularly relevant passages that seem necessarily true and so at odds with the tenor of our political class.
It is not true that the legislator has absolute power over our persons and property. The existence of persons and property preceded the existence of the legislator, and his function is only to guarantee their safety.

It is not true that the function of law is to regulate our consciences, our ideas, our wills, our education, our opinions, our work, our trade, our talents, or our pleasures. The function of law is to protect the free exercise of these rights, and to prevent any person from interfering with the free exercise of these same rights by any other person.

Since law necessarily requires the support of force, its lawful domain is only in the areas where the use of force is necessary. This is justice.

Every individual has the right to use force for lawful self-defense. It is for this reason that the collective force — which is only the organized combination of the individual forces — may lawfully be used for the same purpose; and it cannot be used legitimately for any other purpose.

Law is solely the organization of the individual right of self-defense which existed before law was formalized. Law is justice.

The mission of the law is not to oppress persons and plunder them of their property, even though the law may be acting in a philanthropic spirit. Its mission is to protect persons and property.

Furthermore, it must not be said that the law may be philanthropic if, in the process, it refrains from oppressing persons and plundering them of their property; this would be a contradiction. The law cannot avoid having an effect upon persons and property; and if the law acts in any manner except to protect them, its actions then necessarily violate the liberty of persons and their right to own property.

The law is justice — simple and clear, precise and bounded. Every eye can see it, and every mind can grasp it; for justice is measurable, immutable, and unchangeable. Justice is neither more than this nor less than this. If you exceed this proper limit — if you attempt to make the law religious, fraternal, equalizing, philanthropic, industrial, literary, or artistic — you will then be lost in an uncharted territory, in vagueness and uncertainty, in a forced utopia or, even worse, in a multitude of utopias, each striving to seize the law and impose it upon you. This is true because fraternity and philanthropy, unlike justice, do not have precise limits. Once started, where will you stop? And where will the law stop itself?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Transaction costs and marriage roles

From One Reason Women Stay Home: Because It's Easier on Everyone by Megan McArdle. I like McArdle because she always has interesting insights. In this case, by applying economic theory to the source of role differences within a marriage.
Economist Ronald Coase won the Nobel Prize for developing a theory of the firm: an explanation for why we have companies with employees at all, rather than simply having an owner contract for services on an ad-hoc basis. They formed companies, Coase theorized, because it allowed them to reduce the transactions costs of doing business: it's time consuming and costly to figure out how much you want to pay someone to serve as an occasional CFO. Easier to put them on staff and pay them a flat rate for doing all the CFO stuff.

Miller is suggesting that the traditionally gendered marriage also reduced transaction costs. Gay couples I know who've adopted children generally report that one parent ends up as "Dad" and one parent as "Mom". One person ends up in charge of the doctors appointments, the playdates and the ballet recitals; the other may help, but only one is the executive. And I gather that it's not just because we have some sort of social expectation that someone will be "Mom"; it's because the costs of sharing the duties outweigh the benefits. If two people are in charge of scheduling playdates and planning birthday parties, then you have to spend an enormous amount of time sharing information about these things. Moreover, you need to spend more time developing a joint policy on playdates and birthday parties: what sort of kids? How many? Who gets struck off the permitted list, and for what offenses? This is not only time consuming, but also, creates opportunities for spousal arguments.

This is what Miller is describing among the two career couples: constant negotiation over who will do what. This may contribute to the decreased satisfaction with their marriages and their lives that people report after they have children.

If the division of labor is a more efficient, less bothersome, way to handle the duties of childrearing, then it may be that gendering that division also has benefits. Leave aside arguments about whether women have innate tendencies in one direction or another; even a 100% culturally conditioned gender division might have benefits that lead to its adoption. Assigning the home tasks to one gender means that you don't need to negotiate who will stay home, reducing marital conflict. It also eases any regret that the stay-at-home partner might feel over their decision.

On all three (literacy) scales, only Sweden had higher percentages of their adults at these levels

From International Adult Literacy Survey from Institute of Education Sciences.

* Results from the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), which measured proficienty on 3 scales (prose literacy, document literacy, and quantitiative literacy), showed:
Between 19 and 23 percent U.S. adults performed at levels 4 and 5, the highest levels, in the three literacy scales. On all three scales, only Sweden had higher percentages of their adults at these levels.


* Between 21 and 24 percent of U.S. adults performed at Level 1, the lowest level, the three literacy scales.
So our best are right at the top, our worst are right at the bottom.

Laws upon which forecasts can be based

Moore's law (the number of transistors per circuit doubles every two years) is well known but why it is true remains something of a mystery. In the absence of a better explanation, there are those that propose that it is true because we expect it to be true and it becomes a self-fulfilling reality.

I am intrigued by unknown or not commonly recognized laws that govern outcomes. Moore’s law is not just for computers by Philip Ball reports on the research results from a team from MIT and the Santa Fe Institute.
In a study published in PLoS ONE, they compared several mathematical laws that purport to describe how the costs of technologies evolve, and found that the most accurate was one proposed as early as 1936.

That proposal was made by aeronautical engineer Theodore Wright, who pointed out that the cost of aeroplanes fell as the number of planes manufactured rose. Specifically, he said that the cost was proportional to the inverse of the number of planes manufactured raised to some power. This theory has since been put forward as a more general law that governs the costs of technological products, and is often explained on the basis that, the more we make, the better and more efficient we get at making.

But much more famous than Wright’s law is a relationship proposed in 1965 by Gordon Moore, co-founder of the microelectronics company Intel. He observed that computer power per dollar was increasing exponentially over time — which means, in effect, that the cost per transistor was falling exponentially.

Several other relationships between scale and cost of production have been suggested: for example, that costs fall purely because of economies of scale. All these ‘laws’ predict that costs will fall over time, but each suggests a slightly different rate.

“These hypotheses haven’t really been tested against data before,” says MIT's Jessika Trancik. She and her collaborators collected data for 62 technologies, ranging from chemicals production to energy devices (such as photovoltaic cells) and information technologies, spanning periods of between 10 and 39 years. “Assembling a large enough data set was a big challenge,” says Trancik.

The researchers evaluated the performance of each six such ‘laws’ using hindcasts — use of earlier data to predict later costs — and then looked at how these compared with the actual figures.

In fact, the laws didn't differ much at all. The most accurate was Wright’s law, but Moore’s law was close behind, at least for a relatively modest time horizon of a few decades. The predictions were so similar for these two laws, in fact, that the researchers suspected they might be related.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

I can calculate the movement of the stars but not the madness of men

From Future Babble by Dan Gardner.
This put an interesting gloss on an argument made by the philosopher Karl Popper decades before the development of chaos and complexity theory. "The course of human history is strongly influenced by the growth of human knowledge," Popper wrote. But it's impossible to "predict, by rational or scientific methods, the future growth of our scientific knowledge: because doing so would require us to know that future knowledge, and, if we did, it would be present knowledge, not future knowledge." Popper's case was strong when he first made it in the 1930s, and the decades since have produced an abundance of failed predictions to bolster it. And now that we know that the individual human brain is nonlinear and literally unpredictable, Popper is looking better than ever. This may seem a terribly abstract and theoretical point, but it's not. It has big, practical implications. Consider the case of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. All but forgotten today, Anaconda was once one of the largest companies in the world thanks to its dominance of the expanding market for copper telephone wires. "This company will still be going strong one hundred or even five hundred years from now," boasted Anaconda's president in 1968. There was likely a touch of fear in his bravado. Three years earlier, the brains of two British scientists had figured out how fiber optics could theoretically be a medium of communication. And two years after his boast, three scientists were able to make fiber optics a practical technology vastly superior to copper wires. The price of copper plummeted. Facing liquidation, anaconda sold itself in 1977.

It's hard to imagine a better demonstration of Popper's argument and the critical role played by the unpredictable brain. As Sir Isaac Newton himself observed - after losing a bundle in one of history's first stock bubbles - "I can calculate the movement of the stars but not the madness of men." Centuries later, that is still true.

The way to obtain a clear explanation is to listen with kindness

From the Precepts of Ptah-Hotep.

Carl Sagan once described books as breaking the shackles of time.
A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called "leaves") imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.”
As Lord Chesterfield wrote his letters to his son and George Washington his Rules of Civility and Benjamin Franklin to all of us via Poor Richard, era to era, we try and instruct those who will come after with the sweat and blood-stained wisdom accumulated from that which went before.

Among these 4,200 year old admonishments to his son, Ptah-Hotep advises:
Be not arrogant because of that which you know; deal with the ignorant as with the learned; for the barriers of art are not closed, no artist being in possession of the perfection to which he should aspire.

If you find a disputant while he is hot, do not despise him because you are not of the same opinion. Be not angry against him when he is wrong; away with such a thing. He fights against himself; require him not further to flatter your feelings. Do not amuse yourself with the spectacle which you have before you; it is odious, it is mean, it is the part of a despicable soul so to do. As soon as you let yourself be moved by your feelings, combat this desire as a thing that is reproved by the great.

Speak not to the great man more than he requires, for one knows not what may be displeasing to him. Speak when he invites you and your worth will be pleasing.

Do not lose the daily opportunity of increasing that which your house possesses. Activity produces riches, and riches do not endure when it slackens.

The way to obtain a clear explanation is to listen with kindness.

When a man has established his just equilibrium and walks in this path, there where he makes his dwelling, there is no room for bad humor.

If you have become great after having been little, if you have become rich after having been poor, when you are at the head of the city, know how not to take advantage of the fact that you have reached the first rank, harden not your heart because of your elevation; you are become only the administrator, the prefect, of the provisions which belong to Ptah. Put not behind you the neighbor who is like you; be unto him as a companion.
And on. It is comfortable and easy to track trend-lines of thought back to the Greeks and Romans. Strange as they can sometimes seem, they are clearly cultural predecessors. The Ancient Egyptians, for some reason, not so much. And yet there they are, so accessible in their words, speaking to our common human experience.

Clarity, transparency, consequences

rom Embrace Crunchiness by Nico Colchester.
Crunchiness brings wealth. Wealth leads to sogginess. Sogginess brings poverty. Poverty creates crunchiness. From this immutable cycle we know that to hang on to wealth, you must keep things crunchy.

Crunchy systems are those in which small changes have big effects leaving those affected by them in no doubt whether they are up or down, rich or broke, winning or losing, dead or alive.
In Colchester's model, crunchiness is clarity, transparency, consequences. You might also characterize it as the necessary circulatory system of a productive system. The less CTC, the soggier you get and then into poverty. Contemporary examples abound, in fact they are in superabundance - Healthcare, finance industry, insurance industry, federal entitlement programs, pensions, internet bubbles, housing debacle, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, France, etc. Everyone hiding from the consequences which will come right on anyway. Kipling and his The Gods of the Copybook Headings.

Reality and storytelling

Two articles in the NYT today making broadly the same point but from entirely different starting positions.

The Psychologist as (Wary) Parent by Lisa Damour has this great line, simple and true and so often obfuscated.
Life requires that we deal with not getting our way, work with people we don’t enjoy and attend to tasks we dislike. Good parenting requires that we help children cope with these realities.
And how can we help them cope with those realities?

The Stories That Bind Us by Bruce Feiler recommends that we tell them the stories of our collective lives - give them a context.
Around that time, Dr. Duke’s wife, Sara, a psychologist who works with children with learning disabilities, noticed something about her students.

“The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges,” she said.

Her husband was intrigued, and along with a colleague, Robyn Fivush, set out to test her hypothesis. They developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions.

Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

“We were blown away,” Dr. Duke said.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Some things are predictable, but many are not and never will be

From Dan Gardner's Future Babble. Page 41.
These insights have fundamentally changed how science views reality. "The old certainties of the Newtonian world machine, with its impressive capability of predicting and retrodicting the motions of sun, moon, planets, and even comets, unexpectedly dissolved into an evolving, historical, and occasionally chaotic universe," wrote historian WIlliam H. McNeill. In this new universe, some things are predictable, but many are not and never will be. Uncertainty is an ineradicable fact of existence.


With natural science increasingly aware of the limits of prediction, and with prediction even more difficult when people are involved, it would seem obvious that social science - the study of people - would follow the lead of natural science and accept that much of what we would like to predict will forever be unpredictable. But that hasn't happened, at least not to the extent it should. In fact, as the Yale University historian John Lewis Gaddis describes in The Landscape of History, "social scientists during the twentieth century embraced a Newtonian vision of linear and therefore predictable phenomena even as the natural sciences were abandoning it." Hence, economists issue wonky forecast, criminologists predict crime trends that don't materialize, and political scientists foresee events that don't happen. And they keep doing it no matter how often they fail. Or how spectacularly.

As long as I don't get too close

I have never heard of this gentleman, a comedian, Dick Gregory. However, he has a great aphorism. Dick Gregory is African-American:
Down South they don't care how close I am as long as I don't get too big, and up North they don't care how big I am as long as I don't get too close.
Like all good aphorisms, it isn't so much whether you agree as that the word play causes you to think and in thinking perhaps coming to some new insight. Sometimes, you can spin the phrase around many times, ending up with different conclusions each time.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Experts were surprised

From Dan Gardner's Future Babble. Page 34. Speaking of the dreadful history of experts forecasting oil prices.
This simple truth was brutally underscored during the Carter years, when all the smart people agreed with New York Times columnist Tom Wicker that the energy crisis was "real, growing, and a grave threat to modern civilization." Ordinary Americans didn't buy it. Poll after poll showed most Americans thought rising prices at the pumps were nothing more than a scam of the oil companies. There was no real shortage. Wait a little while, the whole thing will blow over, they thought, and oil will be as cheap as ever. This attitude drove the smart people crazy. "There should be no such thing as optimism about energy for the foreseeable future," The New York Times lectured in 1980, when prices were at their peak. "What is certain is that the price will go up and up, at home as well as abroad." Americans, who thought otherwise simply didn't know the facts, the smart people believed. And for good reason. A New York Times/CBS poll taken in 1977 found that more than half of college-educated Americans believed there was an oil shortage, but only one-quarter of those with a high school education or less agreed. "Moreover," The New York Times reported, Americans "were surprisingly ignorant of some basic energy facts. Despite all the publicity over the past four years about rising oil imports, which currently account for almost half the country's total needs . . . only 48 percent knew the United States must import oil." For Jimmy Carter, it was all too frustrating. "The American people have absolutely refused to accept a simple fact. We have an energy crisis. We have shortages of oil. The shortages are going to get worse in future," the president complained in 1979.

Six years later, the world was awash in cheap oil. Experts were surprised. The ignorant masses were not. It's a funny old world.


The dating of language evolution and divergence. One of the early practitioners, Morris Swadesh, created a list of 100 core words that were meant to be universal, culturally independent words likely to be found in all languages. Here is the final version of the Swadesh List.
1.I (Pers.Pron.1.Sg.)
2.You (! 1952 thou & ye)
3.we (1955: inclusive)
6.who? (“?” not 1971)
7.what? (“?” not 1971)
9.all (of a number)
14.long (not 'wide')
16.woman (adult male human)
18.person (individual human) (noun)
23.tree (not log)
24.seed (noun!)
25.leaf (botanics)
26.root (botanics)
27.bark (of tree) (1952: person’s)
29.flesh (1952 meat, flesh)
32.grease (1952: fat, organic substance)
34.horn (of bull etc., not 1952)*7
36.feather (large, not down) (on head of humans)
38.head (anatomic)
43.tooth (front, rather than molar)
44.tongue (anatomical)
45.claw (not in 1952)*6
46.foot (not leg)
47.knee (not 1952)*5
49.belly (lower part of body, abdomen)
50.neck (not nape!)
51.breasts (female; 1955 still breast)*8
54.drink (verb) (verb)
56.bite (verb)
57.see (verb)
58.hear (verb)
59.know (facts)
60.sleep (verb)
61.die (verb)
62.kill (verb)
63.swim (verb) (verb)
65.walk (verb)
66.come (verb)
67.lie (on side, recline)
68.sit (verb)
69.stand (verb)
70.give (verb)
71.say (verb)*1
73.moon (not 1952)*2
75.water (noun)
76.rain (noun, 1952 verb)
78.sand (opposite to following) (=soil) (not fog)
81.smoke (noun, of fire)
84.burn (verb intr.!)
85.path (1952 road, trail; not street)
86.mountain (not hill) (colour) (colour)
89.yellow (colour)
90.white (colour) (colour)
92.night (adjective; 1952 warm, of weather)
94.cold (of weather)
95.full *4
98.round (not 1952)*3
99.dry (substance!)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

In fact, it's pretty awful. But the others are worse.

From Dan Gardner's Future Babble. An excellent read, chock-a-block full of new and interesting information despite the odd choice of title. Gardner's thesis is that experts by and large are fooled by their own expertise and their forecasts generally are worse than chance and worse than that of an informed non-expert. On top of the examples he has unearthed to support his thesis, he also is master of simple storytelling. From page 34.
"Oil experts, economists, and government officials who have attempted in recent years to predict the future demand and prices of oil have had only marginally better success than those who foretell the advent of earthquakes or the second coming of the Messiah," wrote James Akins, a U.S. foreign service officer. Akins penned that acid assessment in 1973, but it could as easily be written today. In fact, simply by removing the phrase in recent years, it could be chiseled on the tombstone of almost every oil analyst since oil became an industrial commodity in the nineteenth century. In 2007, economists Ron Alquist and Lutz Kilian published a paper in which they examined all the sophisticated methods one could use to determine the price of oil one month, one quarter, or one year in the future. They looked at fancy econometric models. They looked at oil prices in futures and spot markets. They looked at the consensus opinion of oil analysts. And they found that anyone could do better than all the crystal balls, sometimes far better, by applying a mindless rule: Always predict that the price in the future will be whatever the price is now. True, this technique is far from accurate. In fact, it's pretty awful. But the others are worse.

The taste for the superfluous holds sway

An observation by the Frenchman Marquis de Cutines regarding the newly constructed Russian city St. Petersburg.
The taste for the superfluous holds sway over a people who are still unacquainted with the necessary.

Reading and Spoken Volumes

From Generation M2; Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Olds from The Kaiser Foundation.

Interesting reading stats.

Particularly intriguing that there is such a sharp association with completed college education. James Heckman found that there was no material earnings difference between high school drop outs and those who later earned a GED. His conclusion was that the earnings barrier was not the knowledge acquisition represented by the dropout versus the GED earner. Rather, the association ran between income and behavior; not between income and knowledge. If you had the self-control to complete high school on time, that behavior of self-control would later also serve you well in work.

There is a similar such break in this data. If your parents are high school graduates or attended college and did not complete it, then you are likely to have the same level of book reading (22 and 21 minutes respectively). The big jump, a jump of 50% from 21 minutes to 31 minutes of reading is between those home environments in which parents completed college versus anything less. I am guessing that the causative flow is one of values and behaviors. Parents that had the self-discipline to complete college also likely value reading and have the self-discipline to create an environment in which reading is encouraged and rewarded.

Also interesting is the disparity between reading volumes between the races. 28 minutes a day spent reading books by whites, 18 minutes by African-Americans, and 20 minutes by Hispanics. So whites are reading about 50% more than blacks. Now certainly that is a function of history, economics, and culture. This parallels, though somewhat less dramatically, the findings of Hart & Ridley where the cumulative volume of direct verbal communication before kindergarten was about 15 million words for the lowest income participants (primarily African American), 30 million words for middle class, and 40 million for wealthy families.

Combining these two studies together suggests that perhaps a significant causation of variance in communication capability and scores is probably solely related to practice. If whites are reading 50% more books and hearing 100-200% more words, you have to expect that they would have higher reading and verbal scores (and the attendant correlations that go with communication fluency) simply as a matter of exposure and practice. The factual and experiential content that go with that volume can't be ignored either.

There is a third study, Summer Reading: Predicting Adolescent Word Learning from Aptitude, time spent reading, and text type by Joshua Fahey Lawrence, that bares consideration. In this study, Lawrence found that the nature of the text is relevant in terms of forecasted vocabulary scores. The most popular forms of summertime reading, from websites and e-mail had no predictive power regarding improved fall vocabulary scores. Reading comics, musical lyrics, and magazines had predictive power, but negatives. The more comics and magazines, the lower the vocabulary results in the fall. Reading fiction and non-fiction had predictive strength for fall vocabulary scores.

That doesn't sound so startling but there are advocates within academia who wish to redefine reading as encompassing all forms of reading and accord each type equal importance. What this study does is support the traditional view that it does matter what you read and that serious reading (literary fiction and non-fiction) is good for you and better than the alternative forms of reading.

All this suggests that if we want greater volumes of critical readers, we have to focus on the values and behaviors of the reading population and not simply the infrastructure of reading (more books, more libraries, etc.) The latter are necessary but, absent the values and behavior component, likely insufficient.

If you want your child better prepared for school and life, give them easy access to great books and discuss those books with them. All the other issues fall by the wayside in the face of those two critical activities.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Laws over justice

From the comments thread of Great Moments in Contemporary Publishing
Ordinationes et procedendi rationibus ante populus et informationem.
(Policies and procedures before people and information.)
Leges supra iustitiam.
Laws over justice

Monday, March 11, 2013

Ephemeral fame

MT Kahn at Kahn's Corner has undertaken to read and review the 94 bestellers of the past 100 years based on Publisher's Weekly bestseller list.

Interesting exercise. As I have frequently commented, durability of books is not a function (only) of being popular. There are many passing fads and most bestsellers end up long forgotten in relatively short spans of time. This list is a reminder of that truism. My nomination for the three requirements of a novel to have any likely durability are 1) good in literary terms), 2) pertinent, and 3) popular.

Here's the list, make of it what you will.
1913: The Inside of the Cup by Winston Churchill (not the Churchill you are thinking of)
1914: The Eyes of the World by Harold Bell Wright
1915: The Turmoil by Booth Tarkington
1916: Seventeen by Booth Tarkington
1917: Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells
1918: The U. P. Trail by Zane Grey
1919: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez
1920: The Man of the Forest by Zane Grey
1921: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
1922: If Winter Comes by A.S.M. Hutchinson
1923: Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton
1924: So Big by Edna Ferber
1925: Soundings by A. Hamilton Gibbs
1926: The Private Life of Helen of Troy by John Erskine
1927: Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
1928: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
1929: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
1930: Cimarron by Edna Ferber
1931: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
1932: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck *
1933: Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen
1934: Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen*
1935: Green Light by Lloyd C. Douglas
1936: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
1937: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell*
1938: The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
1939: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
1940: How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn
1941: The Keys of the Kingdom by A. J. Cronin
1942: The Song of Bernadette by Franz Werfel
1943: The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas
1944: Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith
1945: Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor
1946: The King's General by Daphne du Maurier
1947: The Miracle of the Bells by Russell Janney
1948: The Big Fisherman by Lloyd C. Douglas
1949: The Egyptian by Mika Waltari
1950: The Cardinal by Henry Morton Robinson
1951: From Here to Eternity by James Jones
1952: The Silver Chalice by Thomas B. Costain
1953: The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas*
1954: Not as a Stranger by Morton Thompson
1955: Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk
1956: Don't Go Near the Water by William Brinkley
1957: By Love Possessed by James Gould Cozzens
1958: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
1959: Exodus by Leon Uris
1960: Advise and Consent by Allen Drury
1961: The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone
1962: Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter
1963: The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris L. West
1964: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré
1965: The Source by James A. Michener
1966: Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
1967: The Arrangement by Elia Kazan
1968: Airport by Arthur Hailey
1969: Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth
1970: Love Story by Erich Segal
1971: Wheels by Arthur Hailey
1972: Johnathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
1973: Johnathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach*
1974: Centennial by James A. Michener
1975: Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow
1976: Trinity by Leon Uris
1977: The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien
1978: Chesapeake by James A. Michener
1979: The Matarese Circle by Robert Ludlum
1980: The Covenant by James A. Michener
1981: Noble House by James Clavell
1982: E.T., The Extraterrestrial by William Kotzwinkle
1983: Return of the Jedi by James Kahn
1984: The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub
1985: The Mammoth Hunters by Jean M. Auel
1986: It by Stephen King
1987: The Tommyknockers by Stephen King
1988: The Cardinal of the Kremlin by Tom Clancy
1989: Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy
1990: The Plains of Passage by Jean M. Auel
1991: Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley
1992: Dolores Clairborne by Stephen King
1993: The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller
1994: The Chamber by John Grisham
1995: The Rainmaker by John Grisham
1996: The Runaway Jury by John Grisham
1997: The Partner by John Grisham
1998: The Street Lawyer by John Grisham
1999: The Testament by John Grisham
2000: The Brethren by John Grisham
2001: Desecration by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye
2002: The Summons by John Grisham
2003: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown**
2004: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown*
2005: The Broker by John Grisham
2006: For One More Day by Mitch Albom
2007: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini**
2008: The Appeal by John Grisham
2009: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
2010: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest by Stieg Larsson
2011: The Litigators by John Grisham
2012: Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Reading, publishing and ethnicity

This essay is a response to an argument made on a children's literature forum. The argument originally advanced was that 1) there is a disproportionate scarcity of children’s books by and about children from the major minority ethnic groups in the US, 2) that this scarcity has a measurable negative impact on their longitudinal life outcomes, and 3) that the scarcity of such representation in children’s books can be attributed to conscious or unconscious bias and prejudice within the publishing industry.

The discussion of this argument added a further wrinkle: Do we know by which attributes children elect to self-identify and are those the same attributes which serve as the focus among adults? More critically, at what ages do children become aware of gender, race, class, etc. and are those ever the attributes by which they electively identify themselves (and the characters about whom they read)?

The answers provided so far are:
1) No, there is no study which has sought to quantify the nature and degree of possible over and underrepresentation of different groups in children’s literature. We do not know which, if any, groups are over or underrepresented, nor do we know by what degree.

2) No, there is no empirical evidence that over or underrepresentation in terms of traditional attributes of race, class, culture, gender or orientation have any measurable impact on life outcomes.

3) No, there is no empirical research that identifies the literary characters with whom children identify nor is there any research that identifies which of those character’s key attributes are the cause of children identifying with them.

4) No, there is no evidence that the publishing industry (agents, editors, etc.) are actively discriminating against any class of author or type of book for any reasons other than assessed commercial viability.
Despite the absence of any empirical evidence supporting the initial argument, there are logical and anecdotal reasons to accept or reject each of the four elements of the argument.
1. Over and underrepresentation – Likely true. There is representational variation in all other fields of endeavor with certain fields dominated by one gender or the other, members of one ethnic group or another, class, etc. Applying Ockham’s Razor, it is logical and reasonable to assume that there is also disparate representation in the field of children’s literature. By which groups and to what degree remains unknown.

2. Life Outcomes – Likely false. The assumption that representation in children’s literature is a necessary element to good life outcomes is refuted by the positive sociological metrics of various recent emigrant groups (Nigerians, Koreans, Haitians, Dominicans, sub-continental Indians, etc.) who, by their recentness of arrival, are completely or substantially underrepresented and yet still achieve positive to greater than average outcomes. The research of Anda, Felitti, et al also provides a sense of proportionality. Their research indicates that major childhood traumas (parental divorce, sexual abuse, battered parent, etc.) does have a reliably predicative element of future negative life outcomes (job problems, financial problems, absenteeism, etc.). However, the overall effect is often much less than one might anticipate. For example, children who have suffered sexual abuse as a child do have a 40% greater probability of having job problems as an adult. However, in absolute terms the overall incident rate of job problems for all adults is only 11.4%. Of adults who did not suffer childhood sexual abuse, 10.6% end up having job problems anyway, versus 14.4% of those who did suffer sexual abuse. This is not to discount the gravity of the original tragedy but to put it into numerical perspective. If such grave adverse childhood experiences as abuse, battery, divorce, etc. have a real and measurable impact but at a rate much lower than expected, is it likely that the issue of representation in books does have any predictive negative impact? Possible but not particularly likely.

3. Traditional attributes as identities by which children define themselves and identify with protagonists – Likely false but debatable. Attributes of self-identity is highly variable between cultures, among individuals, and over time. In addition, there is evidence that children’s capacity to distinguish by key demographical attributes is not inherent but an emergent skill. Some capabilities to distinguish attributes appear to emerge relatively late in childhood development. Additionally, while there is little empirical evidence that children reliably identify with protagonists by such traditional attributes (race, class, culture, gender, etc.), there is a fair amount of evidence that the identification/affiliation children do form is situational in nature rather than demographical. In other words, a shared situational issue such as first day at school, bullying, isolation, moral quandary, etc. trumps demographic attributes such as race or gender in terms of a child’s affiliation with the protagonist or character.

4. Publishing industry bias – Likely false. While it is accepted and is likely true that middle class, white, females are disproportionately overrepresented in the book publishing industry, it is also true that occasional surveys of media also indicate an overwhelming self-identification as liberal or registered Democrat, groupings usually associated with an explicit rejection of discriminatory practices and affirmative sympathy for underprivileged and underrepresented groups. This cannot be a refutation of the argument for unconscious bias but it makes it less likely to be accurate.
This essay is an attempt to produce a provisional answer for only the first and fourth items – Are different racial/ethnic groups over and underrepresented in children’s literature and can that be attributed to flaws in the nature of the publishing industry.

The answer, as always in sociological issues, is nuanced.