Monday, February 29, 2016

All professions are conspiracies against the common folk

From Informing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.
The great English playwright and social philosopher George Bernard Shaw once remarked that all professions are conspiracies against the common folk. He meant that those who belong to elite trades - physicians, lawyers, teachers, and scientists - protect their special status by creating vocabularies that are incomprehensible to the general public. This process prevents outsiders from understanding what the profession is doing and why - and protects the insiders from close examination and criticism. Professions, in other words, build forbidding walls of technical gobbledegook over which the prying and alien eye cannot see.

Big data of yore

Everyone is 30% poorer than they were

An interesting example of burying the lead from Black Wealth Barely Exists, In One Terrible Chart by Richard V. Reeves and Edward Rodrigue.

The chart they want to focus on is this.
Race gaps in wealth – already wide – widened further during the Great Recession. The median wealth of white households is now 13 times greater than for black households – the largest gap in a quarter century, according to analysis by the Pew Research Center. Black median wealth almost halved during the recession, falling from $19,200 in 2007 to $11,000 in 2013:

Click to enlarge.

Throughout their article, Reeves and Rodrigue orient around race as the salient point. But it is only salient if there is evidence of discrimination. Since there is no such evidenced advanced, the implication is that race is not salient and that the divergences are attributable to other, more mundane causes such as cultural differences in savings rates, hours worked, risk taking, etc. By failing to identify actual causative factors, Reeves and Rodrigue do the disservice of misdirection.

By focusing on race only, they also seem to completely miss the elephant in the chart. Reeves and Rodrigue focus on the fact that six years earlier whites were ten times wealthier than blacks and now (2013) they are thirteen times wealthier. We know why that happened and it wasn't racism. Government policy deliberately made it easier for minorities to obtain mortgages by waiving earlier requirements in terms of income levels, down payments, etc. When the recession came, minorities were, as a results of these policies, far more exposed to the collapse of the real estate market because 1) a higher percentage of their wealth was tied up in real estate, 2) they had lower financial capacity to deal with market variations, and 3) the real estate they had acquired was of the type and in the locations most vulnerable to devaluation.

Reeves and Rodrigue want to make this wealth disparity about race when it is about personal choices influenced by government policy. Or, more specifically, bad financial decisions made as a result of bad government policy (even if well intended policy).

The big issue revealed in the chart is not an increasing disparity in wealth between race classifications. The unmentioned elephant is that both groups have seen a fall in their wealth of between 26-42%. Basically, everyone is about 30% poorer than they were six years ago. That's the critical thing.

Race obsession has many negative consequences. An inability to see the big picture is one of them.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

. . . but Gay is not above belaboring the point

From a review of three books, As a God Might Be: Three Visions of Technological Progress by Meghan O’Gieblyn. O’Gieblyn has this passing aside.
No exception is Malcolm Gay’s The Brain Electric: The Dramatic High-Tech Race to Merge Man and Machine, which traces the development of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), electrodes surgically implanted in the brain. In an early chapter, Gay looks to history to assure us that BCIs are merely the latest instance of a very old trend: “In some essential sense, we’ve been enmeshing our lives with tools ever since Homo sapiens emerged from the hominid line some 200,000 years ago.”

Gay recalls the development of eyeglasses, pens, the spear, and the wheel—technologies all, lest we forget—noting that humanity resisted each of them. Writing was once feared as the scourge of civilization; the printing press was met with great hue and cry. The moral of the story is self-evident, but Gay is not above belaboring the point.

An amazing amount of assortative mating within psychiatric disorders

A suggestive piece from Assortative Mating—A Missing Piece in the Jigsaw of Psychiatric Genetics by Robert Plomin, Eva Krapohl, and Paul F. O’Reilly. Can only be taken as indicative at this point without further and more robust testing.
The topic of assortative (nonrandom) mating might seem esoteric or even salacious. For example, in lectures you have to point out to students that random mating is not about promiscuity. In this issue of JAMA Psychiatry, Nordsletten and colleagues1 report the first general population study to date of assortative mating for psychiatric disorders, which may help to solve 3 puzzles in psychiatric genetics: Why are psychiatric disorders so highly heritable when they are associated with reduced fecundity? Why are some psychiatric disorders so much more highly heritable than others? Why is there so much genetic comorbidity across psychiatric disorders?
Those are three interesting questions. They map to three general puzzles as well: Why are there always dysfunctional poor regardless of societal averages, why is there higher fecundity among the poor, and why do familial dysfunctions propagate across generations?

Addressing their posed questions:
The research capitalizes on the powerful population registers in Sweden, which contain diagnostic information, including psychiatric diagnoses, on all individuals admitted to Swedish hospitals since 1973. The registers yield huge samples of cases (eg, more than 70 000 individuals diagnosed as having schizophrenia). Using other registers to track couples via their children, the investigators were able to measure assortative mating levels within and between 11 psychiatric disorders.

Although you can see assortative mating for physical traits, like height and weight, with your own eyes, the correlation between spouses is only approximately 0.20 for these traits. For personality, assortative mating is even lower at approximately 0.10. In contrast, Nordsletten and colleagues find an amazing amount of assortative mating within psychiatric disorders. Spouse tetrachoric correlations are greater than 0.40 for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and schizophrenia. The next highest spouse correlation emerged for substance abuse (range, 0.36-0.39). Assortative mating was significant but far less substantial for other disorders, such as affective disorders (range, 0.14-0.19).
The article then goes on to explore the implications of these findings.

Helping the poor usually entails some complex variety of solutions to address a large portfolio of dysfunctions and incapabilities (behavioral and otherwise). That is why it is so hard to address. If the answer was a simple as transferring resources for a given time, we'd be in good shape. Instead, many solutions have to work together to tackle the entirety of the pathologies that cause the poverty in the first place. A challenge reflected in the final observation from the paper.
Beyond genetics and genomics, assortative mating matters because it means that the person closest to an individual with a psychiatric disorder is also likely to have psychiatric problems, which could exacerbate problems for both spouses and their offspring.
Not just the spouse and off-spring. If you are trying to assist an individual in addressing their multitude of issues, if those in their relational networking are similarly afflicted, then it is yet harder to create the conditions to make the necessary changes likely to help them break free from the behaviors and capabilities causing their problems.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Rat cyborgs - I fear research may have just taken a wrong turn

Alternatively, the future isn't turning out how I hoped. From Intelligence-Augmented Rat Cyborgs in Maze Solving by Yipeng Yu, et al.
Cyborg intelligence is an emerging kind of intelligence paradigm. It aims to deeply integrate machine intelligence with biological intelligence by connecting machines and living beings via neural interfaces, enhancing strength by combining the biological cognition capability with the machine computational capability. Cyborg intelligence is considered to be a new way to augment living beings with machine intelligence. In this paper, we build rat cyborgs to demonstrate how they can expedite the maze escape task with integration of machine intelligence. We compare the performance of maze solving by computer, by individual rats, and by computer-aided rats (i.e. rat cyborgs). They were asked to find their way from a constant entrance to a constant exit in fourteen diverse mazes. Performance of maze solving was measured by steps, coverage rates, and time spent. The experimental results with six rats and their intelligence-augmented rat cyborgs show that rat cyborgs have the best performance in escaping from mazes. These results provide a proof-of-principle demonstration for cyborg intelligence. In addition, our novel cyborg intelligent system (rat cyborg) has great potential in various applications, such as search and rescue in complex terrains.
The critical question is whether the control rats were just ordinary rats or New York City subway rats.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Pop culture, Aurelius, and Socrates - What do these have in common?

From Marcus Aurelius's Meditations Book VIII, 11 we have:
This thing, what is it in itself, in its own constitution? What is its substance and material? And what its causal nature (or form)? And what is it doing in the world? And how long does it subsist?
This entered the, somewhat, popular vernacular as
Of each particular thing, ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature?
through Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Lecter's rendition is more obviously expansive than George Long's original translation but is not obviously a wrong translation.

Long's translation point us to the substance, material and cause. Lecter's rendition points us up one level of abstraction to "What is it in itself?"

I have no idea which translation comes closest to Aurelius's original intent but it is interesting to me on two counts. There is only a slight difference in wording but it points in substantially different directions. Secondly, I wonder if it makes much difference? Lecter is more forceful in driving to the abstract but Aurelius's does not preclude reaching the abstract. In that regard, Long's version is more expansive. A person can answer in the more concrete way or the more abstract way.

Indeed, in the movie, this is how it plays out. Lecter wants to get Starling to the more abstract level of answer but her first inclination is towards the more concrete.
Hannibal Lecter: I've read the case files. Have you? Everything you need to find him is right there in those pages.
Clarice Starling: Then tell me how.

Hannibal Lecter: First principles, Clarice: simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius, "Of each particular thing, ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature?" What does he do, this man you seek?

Clarice Starling: He kills women.

Hannibal Lecter: No, that is incidental. What is the first and principal thing he does, what needs does he serve by killing?

Clarice Starling: Anger, social acceptance, and, uh, sexual frustration …

Hannibal Lecter: No, he covets. That's his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? Make an effort to answer, now.

Clarice Starling: No. We just …

Hannibal Lecter: No. We begin by coveting what we see every day.
I enjoyed Silence of the Lambs but purely as raw entertainment. I did not recognize at the time just how classical it was. We have Lecter quoting a Roman philosopher and questioning Starling in a Socratic fashion.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Bosch in Port Royal

From Empire of Blue Water by Stephan Talty. On June 7, 1692, the pirate lair of Port Royal is hit by a massive earthquake and sunk beneath the waves. In fact, I first read of Henry Morgan and the privateers in an account by Jacques Cousteau who did some underwater archaeology there sometime in the 1960's I believe.

Heath is a priest who has left a detailed account of the earthquake and the corresponding tsunami.
Heath ran toward Morgan's Fort, and the scenes that greeted him along the way were a combination of Jules Verne and Hieronymus Bosch. The tremors had literally liquified the earthen streets on which the townspeople were fleeing for their lives; with its surface gleaming as water saturated the sandy soil, earth became water, and the streets rose and fell in nauseating ripples. People were swept along like corks tossed on a wave, and some clutched at the gables of buildings that went past like boats; one doctor snatched at a passing chimney with his two children around his neck and miraculously survived. But most did not. "while they fled from the Sea, the Earth devoured them in her gaping Jaws," said Heath. "Or they were knockt on the head with their houses falling on them . . . or the Sea met them and swept them away." Men and women were pulled down into the sand and then cemented there, as the quake caused all the water that had surged up into the now-briny earth to be sucked away just as quickly. Some stood trapped in the earth up to their necks, crying for help. One observer reported:
That watery haitus closed again the next moment, catching hold of some people by a Leg, of other by the middle of the Body, and of others some by the Arm, etc., detaining them in dismal torture, by immovably fixed in the ground, till they, with almost the whole Town besides, sunk under Water.
The hardening sand squeezed the captives until they suffocated or until wild dogs swarmed on them and ate their heads. A drawing of the calamity shows women's heads sticking out of the earth like cauliflowers, with dogs poised nearby, as well as a woman and her daughters who were "beat to pieces" by smashing into each other during the quake. "Others went down," Sloane wrote, "and were never more seen."


All around the circle of men and women, oddities of nature that would rarely be seen again were unfolding. Geysers erupted from the ground and arched towering plumes of water into the summer sky; some opened beneath men's feet and shot them a hundred feet in the air until gravity caught up with them and they began to fall on the descending pillar of water, down to the ground and then into it, as they disappeared into the holes that had caught them unawares. Thousands of the "sand volcanoes" were reported throughout the island. "In Clarendon Precinct, the Earth gaped and spouted up with a prodigious Force great Quantities of Water into the Air, about Twelve Miles from the Sea." The vicar of Withywood reported that "dire chasms spew'd out Water to a considerable heighth above the ground." People running for their homes dropped away into "the Pit," tumbling into an infernal washing machine filled with sand, water, and flotsam; a lucky few hit subterranean rivers that had been born just minutes ago and were carried horizontally under the earth at great speed, whipping beneath the feet of their fellow residents, only to crash into another geyser moving upward and so shoot back to the surface a half mile from where they first went down into the earth, drenched but unhurt. One woman ran out of her house into the street and saw the sand before her "rising up,"; she clutched at her black servant, and they dropped together into the earth, "at the same instant the Water coming in, row'd them over and over," until in this sunken world they saw a beam from a house passing and grabbed on to it and were saved. A merchant named Lloyd gave his story: He'd been in his shop when the "earth opened and let me in. He was carried along in an underground channel until he wash pushed up through a wooden floor and found himself lying with other victims, many of them critically wounded. He himself was nearly unhurt, but his house had disappeared completely into the muck that had swallowed him up. One French refugee, Lewis Gauldy, was sucked down and released not once but twice, popping up at various points in the landscape like a target at a shooting gallery. The next day he announced that he'd found God.
I should think so.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Cluetrain Manifesto Theses

From The Cluetrain Manifesto by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, and David Weinberger. The Wikipedia discussion is here.

The ninety-five theses are:
1. Markets are conversations.
2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
4. Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.
5. People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.
6. The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.
7. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.
8. In both internetworked markets and among intranetworked employees, people are speaking to each other in a powerful new way.
9. These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.
10. As a result, markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally.
11. People in networked markets have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from vendors. So much for corporate rhetoric about adding value to commoditized products.
12. There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone.
13. What's happening to markets is also happening among employees. A metaphysical construct called "The Company" is the only thing standing between the two.
14. Corporations do not speak in the same voice as these new networked conversations. To their intended online audiences, companies sound hollow, flat, literally inhuman.
15. In just a few more years, the current homogenized "voice" of business—the sound of mission statements and brochures—will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.
16. Already, companies that speak in the language of the pitch, the dog-and-pony show, are no longer speaking to anyone.
17. Companies that assume online markets are the same markets that used to watch their ads on television are kidding themselves.
18. Companies that don't realize their markets are now networked person-to-person, getting smarter as a result and deeply joined in conversation are missing their best opportunity.
19. Companies can now communicate with their markets directly. If they blow it, it could be their last chance.
20. Companies need to realize their markets are often laughing. At them.
21. Companies need to lighten up and take themselves less seriously. They need to get a sense of humor.
22. Getting a sense of humor does not mean putting some jokes on the corporate web site. Rather, it requires big values, a little humility, straight talk, and a genuine point of view.
23. Companies attempting to "position" themselves need to take a position. Optimally, it should relate to something their market actually cares about.
24. Bombastic boasts—"We are positioned to become the preeminent provider of XYZ"—do not constitute a position.
25. Companies need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships.
26. Public Relations does not relate to the public. Companies are deeply afraid of their markets.
27. By speaking in language that is distant, uninviting, arrogant, they build walls to keep markets at bay.
28. Most marketing programs are based on the fear that the market might see what's really going on inside the company.
29. Elvis said it best: "We can't go on together with suspicious minds."
30. Brand loyalty is the corporate version of going steady, but the breakup is inevitable—and coming fast. Because they are networked, smart markets are able to renegotiate relationships with blinding speed.
31. Networked markets can change suppliers overnight. Networked knowledge workers can change employers over lunch. Your own "downsizing initiatives" taught us to ask the question: "Loyalty? What's that?"
32. Smart markets will find suppliers who speak their own language.
33. Learning to speak with a human voice is not a parlor trick. It can't be "picked up" at some tony conference.
34. To speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of their communities.
35. But first, they must belong to a community.
36. Companies must ask themselves where their corporate cultures end.
37. If their cultures end before the community begins, they will have no market.
38. Human communities are based on discourse—on human speech about human concerns.
39. The community of discourse is the market.
40. Companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will die.
41. Companies make a religion of security, but this is largely a red herring. Most are protecting less against competitors than against their own market and workforce.
42. As with networked markets, people are also talking to each other directlyinside the company—and not just about rules and regulations, boardroom directives, bottom lines.
43. Such conversations are taking place today on corporate intranets. But only when the conditions are right.
44. Companies typically install intranets top-down to distribute HR policies and other corporate information that workers are doing their best to ignore.
45. Intranets naturally tend to route around boredom. The best are built bottom-up by engaged individuals cooperating to construct something far more valuable: an intranetworked corporate conversation.
46. A healthy intranet organizes workers in many meanings of the word. Its effect is more radical than the agenda of any union.
47. While this scares companies witless, they also depend heavily on open intranets to generate and share critical knowledge. They need to resist the urge to "improve" or control these networked conversations.
48. When corporate intranets are not constrained by fear and legalistic rules, the type of conversation they encourage sounds remarkably like the conversation of the networked marketplace.
49. Org charts worked in an older economy where plans could be fully understood from atop steep management pyramids and detailed work orders could be handed down from on high.
50. Today, the org chart is hyperlinked, not hierarchical. Respect for hands-on knowledge wins over respect for abstract authority.
51. Command-and-control management styles both derive from and reinforce bureaucracy, power tripping and an overall culture of paranoia.
52. Paranoia kills conversation. That's its point. But lack of open conversation kills companies.
53. There are two conversations going on. One inside the company. One with the market.
54. In most cases, neither conversation is going very well. Almost invariably, the cause of failure can be traced to obsolete notions of command and control.
55. As policy, these notions are poisonous. As tools, they are broken. Command and control are met with hostility by intranetworked knowledge workers and generate distrust in internetworked markets.
56. These two conversations want to talk to each other. They are speaking the same language. They recognize each other's voices.
57. Smart companies will get out of the way and help the inevitable to happen sooner.
58. If willingness to get out of the way is taken as a measure of IQ, then very few companies have yet wised up.
59. However subliminally at the moment, millions of people now online perceive companies as little more than quaint legal fictions that are actively preventing these conversations from intersecting.
60. This is suicidal. Markets want to talk to companies.
61. Sadly, the part of the company a networked market wants to talk to is usually hidden behind a smokescreen of hucksterism, of language that rings false—and often is.
62. Markets do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the corporate firewall.
63. De-cloaking, getting personal: We are those markets. We want to talk toyou.
64. We want access to your corporate information, to your plans and strategies, your best thinking, your genuine knowledge. We will not settle for the 4-color brochure, for web sites chock-a-block with eye candy but lacking any substance.
65. We're also the workers who make your companies go. We want to talk to customers directly in our own voices, not in platitudes written into a script.
66. As markets, as workers, both of us are sick to death of getting our information by remote control. Why do we need faceless annual reports and third-hand market research studies to introduce us to each other?
67. As markets, as workers, we wonder why you're not listening. You seem to be speaking a different language.
68. The inflated self-important jargon you sling around—in the press, at your conferences—what's that got to do with us?
69. Maybe you're impressing your investors. Maybe you're impressing Wall Street. You're not impressing us.
70. If you don't impress us, your investors are going to take a bath. Don't they understand this? If they did, they wouldn't let you talk that way.
71. Your tired notions of "the market" make our eyes glaze over. We don't recognize ourselves in your projections—perhaps because we know we're already elsewhere.
72. We like this new marketplace much better. In fact, we are creating it.
73. You're invited, but it's our world. Take your shoes off at the door. If you want to barter with us, get down off that camel!
74. We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.
75. If you want us to talk to you, tell us something. Make it something interesting for a change.
76. We've got some ideas for you too: some new tools we need, some better service. Stuff we'd be willing to pay for. Got a minute?
77. You're too busy "doing business" to answer our email? Oh gosh, sorry, gee, we'll come back later. Maybe.
78. You want us to pay? We want you to pay attention.
79. We want you to drop your trip, come out of your neurotic self-involvement, join the party.
80. Don't worry, you can still make money. That is, as long as it's not the only thing on your mind.
81. Have you noticed that, in itself, money is kind of one-dimensional and boring? What else can we talk about?
82. Your product broke. Why? We'd like to ask the guy who made it. Your corporate strategy makes no sense. We'd like to have a chat with your CEO. What do you mean she's not in?
83. We want you to take 50 million of us as seriously as you take one reporter from The Wall Street Journal.
84. We know some people from your company. They're pretty cool online. Do you have any more like that you're hiding? Can they come out and play?
85. When we have questions we turn to each other for answers. If you didn't have such a tight rein on "your people" maybe they'd be among the people we'd turn to.
86. When we're not busy being your "target market," many of us are your people. We'd rather be talking to friends online than watching the clock. That would get your name around better than your entire million dollar web site. But you tell us speaking to the market is Marketing's job.
87. We'd like it if you got what's going on here. That'd be real nice. But it would be a big mistake to think we're holding our breath.
88. We have better things to do than worry about whether you'll change in time to get our business. Business is only a part of our lives. It seems to be all of yours. Think about it: who needs whom?
89. We have real power and we know it. If you don't quite see the light, some other outfit will come along that's more attentive, more interesting, more fun to play with.
90. Even at its worst, our newfound conversation is more interesting than most trade shows, more entertaining than any TV sitcom, and certainly more true-to-life than the corporate web sites we've been seeing.
91. Our allegiance is to ourselves—our friends, our new allies and acquaintances, even our sparring partners. Companies that have no part in this world, also have no future.
92. Companies are spending billions of dollars on Y2K. Why can't they hear this market timebomb ticking? The stakes are even higher.
93. We're both inside companies and outside them. The boundaries that separate our conversations look like the Berlin Wall today, but they're really just an annoyance. We know they're coming down. We're going to work from both sides to take them down.
94. To traditional corporations, networked conversations may appear confused, may sound confusing. But we are organizing faster than they are. We have better tools, more new ideas, no rules to slow us down.
95. We are waking up and linking to each other. We are watching. But we are not waiting.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Pirates recapitulating the Iliad

Hubris runs through human affairs. From Empire of Blue Water by Stephan Talty. Privateer Henry Morgan has been trapped in Lake Maracaibo by Don Alonzo. Morgan launches a surprise fireship attack on the blockading Spanish warships and is able to make his escape with all his treasure intact.
What Morgan did not realize until days later was that Don Alonzo had been warned about the fireship. Although the pirates kept a strict guard on all their prisoners, a "certain negro" had made it to the Magdalena days before the attack and told the Admiral, "Sir, be pleased to have great care of yourself, for the English have prepared a fireship with desire to burn your fleet." The Spanish noble had scoffed at the idea. "How can that be?" he thundered at the spy. "Have they, peradventure, wit enough to build a fireship? Or what instruments have they to do it withal?" Do Alonzo was a Spaniard to the bone: He simply could not imagine that he could be out-thought by scum like the Brethren. But the collective wisdom of the pirates had defeated the noble.
It reminds me of the scene in The Iliad when the Trojans are warned by Trojan priest Laocoön about the possibility that the wooden horse left by the Greeks might be a trick and should not be brought into the city (famously rendered by Virgil as "I fear Greeks, even those bearing gifts.")

Hubris runs through history. Our downfall is surprisingly often, not the result of a deficit of knowledge, but a deficit of humility.

Attention span

Reading Neil Postman at the moment, Conscientious Objections and Amusing Ourselves to Death. In both, his central thesis is a variation of Marshall McLuhan's "The medium is the message." Postman's concern was that the medium of television was morphing American entertainment, American storytelling, American communication, American culture based on the nature of its small box, short duration structure.

I came across this illustration which seems to capture some of the spirit of Postman's concerns.

Click to enlarge.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Personal dignity is always, still, an option, a choice that is open to you

From The Time of Our Lives by Peggy Noonan. from her obituary for Jaqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.
She was a last link to a certain kind of past, and that is part, but only a part, of why we mourn so. Jackie Kennedy symbolized - she was a connection to a time, to an old America that was more dignified, more private, an America in which standards were higher and clearer and elegance meant something, a time when elegance was a kind of statement, a way of dressing up the world, and so a generous act. She had manners, the kind that remind us that manners spring from a certain moral view - that you do tribute to the world and the people in it by being kind and showing respect, by sending the note and the flowers, by being loyal and cheering a friend. She was a living reminder in the age of Oprah that personal dignity is always, still, an option, a choice that is open to you. She was, really, the last aristocrat. Few people get to symbolize a world, but she did, and that world is receding, and we know it and mourn that, too.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Huallpa - world maker

From Empire of Blue Water by Stephan Talty.
Portobello was the result, in many ways, of one man and one day in the summer of 1544. A young Inca name Diego Huallpa had spent a long morning tracking an elusive deer on the mountain called Potosi in the kingdom of Peru (now Bolivia). The lining of his throat began to parch as he ascended beyond the thirteen-thousand-foot mark, high even for an Inca who spent his life in thin air. But fresh meat was precious, and Huallpa pressed on, determined to claim his prey. As he reached for a shrub to steady himself on the slopes, the plant tore away, and in its thick, dangling roots was entwined something that flashed in the sun, distracting Huallpa. He brushed away the clots of dirt; the metal gleamed under his thumb. Silver; unmistakeably.

The Spanish were soon knocking on his door, threatening Huallpa with the rack, one of their earliest imports to the Americas. He pointed them to the mountain. Even when their Indian workers began to dig out piles of silver from the spot where Huallpa led them to, the colonial administrators could not conceive of what they had found. In the next two centuries, Potosi would yield almost 2 billion ounces of high-grade silver ore, at a a time when the metal was just as valuable as gold. The entire European economy, tamped down for decades because of a lack of precious metals to serve as currency, took on a new life when the first ships began arriving in Spain groaning under the weight of the mine's silver bars. The famed city of El Dorado, the City of the Golden Man, drove the conquistadors mad with its tales of unfathomable riches, but it was a myth. Potosi was real. To this day, when a Spaniard wishes to talk of any crazily wealthy thing, he simply says, "It's a Potosi."
The global economy now runs on fiat currency and credit but our understanding of those instruments only arose as a consequence of trade that had been enabled through Potosi silver. What would have been the path of history had there never been that silver infused first flood of trade?

Should Huallpa be acknowledged as the inadvertent author of the modern world?

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Their crossing was rough

From The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin. Only a quarter of the way into it but enjoying the story. I had realized that the Scandinavian immigrants of the late nineteenth century had, like many immigrants, hard circumstances that, being good Scandinavians, they tended to downplay. Lasking makes those hard conditions dreadfully clear.
The Tislands, also from the Telemark region, were not as fortunate as the Rollags. Of the nine children born to Ole and Karen Tisland, five had died of diptheria and were buried in Norway. Though their son Andreas survived the disease, he was left deaf and weakened. Andreas was six and a half when Ole and Karen emigrated to America with their three other children. Their crossing was rough. In the course of the voyage, twenty-two children and one adult died. Ole and Karen watched helplessly as Andreas shivered with fever in the unheated steerage quarters. When he died his body was sewn into a canvas shroud with weights attached to either end. The ship's captain read the last rites, and then the bundle was tipped off the side of the ship and into the sea. Some mothers on board immigrant ships kept the deaths of their children secret so they could bury them properly on land. Even burying a child in the strange land of a country they had never seen was better than losing a child's body to the ocean. About one in ten steerage passengers died on board immigrant ships.

The Norwegians journeyed to America on the strength of rumors, railroad company propaganda, hearsay, and letters from friends and relatives, "the America letters," singing the praises of the New World.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Gender Bias In Open Source - Not

It is always a relief when I find I was justified in ignoring some "scientific" article from sociology or psychology "proving" some type of discrimination against some group or another. When I come across such items, I always have a residual concern that this time they might actually have a valid finding. The track record, however, of failed protocols is so extensive that it is hard to resist the heuristic - If Social Justice related finding then save time by not reading as it will be proven unfounded.

I came across an article reviewing a recent research project, Gender Bias In Open Source: Pull Request Acceptance Of Women Vs. Men by Josh Terrell, et al. I have a lot experience in the tech industry. As is the case everywhere there are obnoxious people, there are rude people, and very occasionally there are discriminatory people. However, they tend to be 1) rare, and 2) their primary targets of discrimination tend to be towards unprotected groups such as fools, unintelligent people, unambitious people, non-perfectionists, etc.

The big companies in particular are extraordinarily attuned to avoiding the circumstances where there might be a sex (or any other) discrimination suit.

So I am not disposed to believe that for which there is so little real-world evidence (at least in my experience). Fortunately, in the particular article where I came across the study, in the first paragraph, there was the appropriate disclaimer that the research was not peer-reviewed. I quit reading then. Almost guaranteed to be either wrong, or not right.

Later I saw reference that they had not released the raw data for their conclusions substantially reducing any of the sliver of possible credibility that had remained in my mind.

Scott Alexander, with his usual diligence, does the work to remove any last vestige of doubt that this is cognitive pollution.
So, let’s review. A non-peer-reviewed paper shows that women get more requests accepted than men. In one subgroup, unblinding gender gives women a bigger advantage; in another subgroup, unblinding gender gives men a bigger advantage. When gender is unblinded, both men and women do worse; it’s unclear if there are statistically significant differences in this regard. Only one of the study’s subgroups showed lower acceptance for women than men, and the size of the difference was 63% vs. 64%, which may or may not be statistically significant. This may or may not be related to the fact, demonstrated in the study, that women propose bigger and less-immediately-useful changes on average; no attempt was made to control for this. This tiny amount of discrimination against women seems to be mostly from other women, not from men.

The media uses this to conclude that “a vile male hive mind is running an assault mission against women in tech.”

Every time I say I’m nervous about the institutionalized social justice movement, people tell me that I’m crazy, that I’m just sexist and privileged, and that feminism is merely the belief that women are people so any discomfort with it is totally beyond the pale. I would nevertheless like to re-emphasize my concerns at this point.
Its almost as if the social justice movement was simply a fig leaf for grabbing coercive power over others by whatever means required including ignoring basic science protocols.

Now we saw nothing but sky and water and realized the omnipotence of God, into which we commended ourselves

From Empire of Blue Water by Stephan Talty.

The origin of the term dead reckoning.
There were no charts to guide Morgan, no way of measuring longitude. Navigation in the New World was an art that drew on ships' logs, lead lines (for measuring the ocean's depth), collective memory, and gossip. Dead reckoning was also a primary tool; sailing due east or west from a "deduced" position (or "d'ed" in the log, thus the term "dead reckoning") was a reliable method: Sail due east from the Canary Islands and you would arrive at Africa's west coast; sail west and you would find yourself in the Bahamas. But this kind of knowledge built up over decades; the West Indies had few such routes available to the captain. IN the Gulf of Honduras, ships that had become hopelessly lost in the foul weather were reduced to listening into the night for the splash of migrating tortoises, the only thing that could lead them to land. Ships' pilots prayed fervently to the Holy Virgin for guidance through a nest of reefs. Most pirates could attest to the truth of what a French soldier bound for the New World wrote in his journal, "Now we saw nothing but sky and water and realized the omnipotence of God, into which we commended ourselves."

A pretty rarified accomplishment

Harper Lee pass away today. She was famed for her authorship of To Kill a Mockingbird, her sole book till the publication of an early version of TKAM in the last couple of years.

The book is wonderful storytelling of a complicated and fraught period of American history and it is a wonderful book which is enjoyed by adults, children and people from all walks of life. It is commonly assigned in school as either required or recommended reading.

It is hard to measure the quality and popularity of books. According to Pantheon database of globally consequential people, Harper Lee is 144 in the list of all American authors. Hers is the 38th most commonly assigned text among college students.

According to the New York Times, there have been more than 40 million copies sold of To Kill a Mockingbird.

It is rare that even 10% of children in an age cohort will have read a common book by a particular point in time. The most commonly read book of which I am aware is the picture book Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. First published in 1947 it has never been out of print and still is one of the highest selling books in any given year, selling some 750,000 copies each year. Given that there are roughly 4,000,000 in each annual age cohort, the implication is that roughly 19% of each age cohort has been read Goodnight Moon. That probably understates her influence. A family might buy only a single copy and yet have more than a single child.

What about To Kill a Mockingbird? The New York Times indicates that 40,000,000 copies have been sold since it was first published in 1960. That's 56 years which yields a total age cohort of (56 X 4,000,000) 224 million. 40/224 is 18%. Not bad staying power and penetration. That's pretty rarified.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The life of our time

Reading Peggy Noonan's collection of essays, The Time of Our Lives. She introduces her essays with a quote from Laurens van der Post. An interesting idea.
We live not only our own lives but, whether we know it or not, also the life of our time.
It echoes an often unexpressed sentiment I feel when I am talking with older people Their sense that they are the last of their ilk, of their era, of their generation, of their time. There is no-one else left who carries the same shared body of knowledge and habits of mind as they do. They may be happy and surrounded by children and grandchildren who love them but they cannot help but feel as a person now separated from the flow of time.

Different ways of regarding a book

From Punctuation in Novels by Adam J. Calhoun.
When we think of novels, of newspapers and blogs, we think of words. We easily forget the little suggestions pushed in between: the punctuation. But how can we be so cruel to such a fundamental part of writing?

Inspired by a series of posters, I wondered what did my favorite books look like without words. Can you tell them apart or are they all a-mush? In fact, they can be quite distinct. Take my all-time favorite book, Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. It is dense prose stuffed with parentheticals. When placed next to a novel with more simplified prose — Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy — it is a stark difference.
Calhoun illustrates the difference graphically. And it is striking.

Punctuation in Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (left) and in Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (right).

Click to enlarge.

Calhoun then compares a range of books.
Blood Meridian is short sentences. A question or two? Maybe, but then more sentences. And yet Absalom, Absalom! is wild; moreover, one might say, it is statements, within statements, within statements: who doesn’t love that?

Here is a comparison of some other books — notice how large a break A Farewell To Arms was from the past. There almost no commas, just sentences, dialogue. How refreshing and wild that must have been! Look at how spartan Blood Meridian is compared to everything. Pay attention to the semicolons which seem to have disappeared from writing.

Click to enlarge.

There are many ways to look at, evaluate and measure literature. This is a different one. Useful? Not immediately obviously so but certainly intriguing.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

American gold and silver as the catalyst to the first wave of globalization

From Empire of Blue Water by Stephan Talty.
The voyages of Columbus were the expression of an ambitious and forward-thinking monarchy, the conquistadors embodied a warrior spirit that reveled in adventure and accepted hardship as a test, but the empire was the result of gold and silver. Without the ore that poured forth from the mines of Mexico and Peru, Spain would have remained a modest European power and not the world-altering behemoth it became. The discovery of the Americas' wealth transformed the world economy and Spain's place in it. The amounts are staggering: between 1500 and 1650, approximately 180 tons of gold flowed through the official port of Seville, so much that the entranceway that connected it to the royal palace where Philip IV impatiently awaited the arrival of his treasure was known as "the Golden Doorway." Gold animate the dreams of the explorers, conquistadors, merchants, and pirates, but it was the 16,000 tons of silver (worth at least $3.7 billion in today's dollars) that Spain extracted from American mines that allowed for uniform coins to be made and distributed throughout the world, revolutionizing (in fact, one might say, create) the global economy. In 1535, Spain decreed that mint be established in Mexico City, and a year later the production of rough silver cobs began, using crude dies and a sledgehammer and then, in 1732, a minting machine. During its useful life, the mint produced 2.68 billion silver coins; merchants and common people were soon using them for buying everything from a bushel of corn to a shipload of Chinese ceramics. Even in the American colonies, the Spanish piece of eight was more popular and plentiful than were English notes; the currency issued by the Continental Congress were denominated in "Spanish Milled Dollars." Fueled by a universal currency, worldwide trade exploded, and the gold and silver streaks arced across the oceans like sparks from a Roman candle. Ships from the Atlantic seaboard to Shanghai and everywhere in between traded on the new commercial sea routes, exchanging pieces of eight or silver ingots for Colombian emeralds, French muskets, and indigo from the ancient woods of the Caribbean. "The king of China could build a palace with the silver bars from Peru which have been carried to his country," wrote an official in the Philippines.


A common bias I have seen often but for which I did not know there was a name. From Wikipedia, Pareidolia:
A psychological phenomenon involving a stimulus (an image or a sound) wherein the mind perceives a familiar pattern of something where none actually exists.

Common examples are perceived images of animals, faces, or objects in cloud formations, the "man in the moon", the "moon rabbit", and hidden messages within recorded music played in reverse or at higher- or lower-than-normal speeds.

She had an idea that the Victrola might blow up

From The Big Switch by Nicholas Carr.
All historical models and analogies have their limits, of course, and information technology differs from electricity in many important ways. But beneath the technical differences, electricity and computing share deep similarities - similarities that are easy for us to overlook today. We see electricity as a "simple" utility, a standardized and unremarkable current that comes safely and predictably through outlets in our walls. The innumerable applications of electric power, from televisions and washing machines to machine tools and assembly lines, have become so commonplace that we no longer consider them to be elements of the underlying technology - they've take on separate, familiar lives of their own.

It wasn't always so. When electrification began, it was an untamed and unpredictable force that changed everything it touched. Its applications were as much a part of the technology as the dynamos, the power lines, and the current itself. As with today's computer systems, all companies had to figure out how to apply electricity to their own businesses, often making sweeping changes to their organizations and their processes. As the technology advanced, they had to struggle with old and often incompatible equipment - the "legacy systems," to use a modern computer term, that can lock businesses into the past and impede progress - and they had to adapt to customers' changing needs and expectations. Electrification, just like computerization, led to complex, far-reaching, and often bewildering changes for individual companies and entire industries - and, as households began to connect to the grid, for all of society.
I recall James Thurber having a humorous short story of the antics of his mother and grandmother (the story occurring in the early part of the 20th century) with a mortal fear of electricity leaking from empty light sockets and the hazard it posed to the occupants of the home. In fact it is from My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber. I heartily recommend the book. The passage is from the end of Chapter Three. I see that the fear extended beyond electricity and reflects the massive changes occurring in the technological environment of the time.
My mother, for instance, thought--or, rather, knew--that it was dangerous to drive an automobile without gasoline: it fried the valves, or something. "Now don't you dare drive all over town without gasoline!" she would say to us when we started off. Gasoline, oil, and water were much the same to her, a fact that made her life both confusing and perilous. Her greatest dread, however, was the Victrola--we had a very early one, back in the "Come Josephine in My Flying Machine" days. She had an idea that the Victrola might blow up. It alarmed her, rather than reassured her, to explain that the phonograph was run neither by gasoline nor by electricity. She could only suppose that it was propelled by some newfangled and untested apparatus which was likely to let go at any minute, making us all the victims and martyrs of the wild-eyed Edison's dangerous experiments. The telephone she was comparatively at peace with, except, of course, during storms, when for some reason or other she always took the receiver off the hook and let it hang. She came naturally by her confused and groundless fears, for her own mother lived the latter years of her life in the horrible suspicion that electricity was dripping invisibly all over the house. It leaked, she contended, out of empty sockets if the wall switch had been left on. She would go around screwing in bulbs, and if they lighted up she would hastily and fearfully turn off the wall switch and go back to her Pearson's or Everybody's, happy in the satisfaction that she had stopped not only a costly but a dangerous leakage. Nothing could ever clear this up for her.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The single greatest opportunity to improve health and reduce premature deaths lies in personal behavior

I have argued on many occasions that capabilities, values and behaviors are often more determinative of outcomes than are mere circumstances. Not always, but often. Here is further evidence supporting that position. Health advocates have long argued that access to universal healthcare is the predicate to improved health outcomes. That was an underpinning argument for Obamacare.

The supposition was always suspect and further undermined by the outcomes of the Oregon Healthcare Insurance Experiment which indicated that increased health insurance access had no measurable impact on health outcomes. That was from 2012.

Apparently there was even earlier evidence from 2007. From Disparity in Life Spans of the Rich and the Poor Is Growing by Sabrina Tavernise.
Limited access to health care accounts for surprisingly few premature deaths in America, researchers have found. So it is an open question whether President Obama’s health care law — which has sharply reduced the number of Americans without health insurance since 2014 — will help ease the disparity.
That article references We Can Do Better — Improving the Health of the American People by Steven A. Schroeder
Health is influenced by factors in five domains — genetics, social circumstances, environmental exposures, behavioral patterns, and health care (Figure 1). When it comes to reducing early deaths, medical care has a relatively minor role. Even if the entire U.S. population had access to excellent medical care — which it does not — only a small fraction of these deaths could be prevented. The single greatest opportunity to improve health and reduce premature deaths lies in personal behavior. In fact, behavioral causes account for nearly 40% of all deaths in the United States.
The single greatest opportunity to improve health and reduce premature deaths lies in personal behavior - You wouldn't know that based on the policy solutions which politicians focus on.

Restructuring the health insurance market from top o bottom? Plenty of crony capitalist opportunities in that policy choice. Getting people to change their behaviors? Not so much opportunity there. So which branch in that particular decision tree did politicians take? It wasn't the one that lead to better health outcomes for citizens.

Generalizable lessons

From The White House’s Seven Deadly Errors by Mark Moyar. This has a feel of being more political that it need be. I suspect the insight is not so much about the White House as it is about conducting protracted, costly operations, particularly military operations, in a participative democracy. It is an irony that participatory democracies are both prone to maintaining societally non-beneficial programs for decades past their ostensible need and at the same time frequently unable to sustain focus on societally beneficial (if tactically costly) initiatives.

Milton Friedman said in Tyranny of the Status Quo that "There is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program." An example would have to include the National Helium Reserve, created in 1925 to ensure that we had access to helium for militarily critical lighter-than-air dirigibles. Congress got around to passing legislation to discontinue the Reserve in 1996. Despite the efforts towards good government, in 2013 Congress voted to extend the Reserve indefinitely. The centennial for the Reserve is just nine years away. As of today it is 66 years since the last flight of a US military dirigible.

Moyar is using the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the basis for identifying shortfalls in behavior that undermine achievement of strategic objectives. At a surface reading, the lessons bear many resemblances to those of Vietnam. I am not especially well read in the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) but from what I know, Moyar's analysis seems reasonably pertinent to that conflict as well.

Moyar's Seven Errors are:
1. Excessive Confidence in Democratization

2. Poor Selection of Local Allies

3. Haste in Counterinsurgency

4. Over-reliance on Surgical Strikes

5. Refusal to Commit a Military Footprint

6. Refusal to Maintain a Military Footprint

7. Signaling of Retrenchment
These seem to be truisms across multiple conflicts. It's not just the White House and it's not just Afghanistan/Iraq. Is it extendable to non-military conflict? I suspect so. I would render the corresponding lessons as:
1. Excessive Confidence in Teamwork

2. Poor Selection of Partnerships

3. Mistaking Appearances for Reality

4. Over-reliance on Silver Bullet Solutions

5. Avoiding Trade-Off Decisions

6. Refusal to Follow Through on Commitments

7. Signaling of Equivocation

Monday, February 15, 2016

Characteristics of Wicked Problems

Horst Rittel was one of the first to put some parameters around Wicked Problems. From Wikipedia:
Rittel and Webber's 1973 formulation of wicked problems in social policy planning specified ten characteristics:
There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.

Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good or bad.

There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.

Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.

Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.

Every wicked problem is essentially unique.

Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.

The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution.

The social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e., planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).
Conklin later generalized the concept of problem wickedness to areas other than planning and policy.

The defining characteristics are:
The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.

Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.

Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.

Every solution to a wicked problem is a 'one shot operation.'

Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

Visiting with one's ancestors

Just finished Empire of Blue Water by Stephan Talty. From the blurb:
The passion and violence of the age of exploration and empire come to vivid life in this story of the legendary pirate who took on the greatest military power on earth with a ragtag bunch of renegades. Awash with bloody battles, political intrigues, natural disaster, and a cast of characters more compelling, bizarre, and memorable than any found in a Hollywood swashbuckler, Empire of Blue Water brilliantly re-creates the life and times of Henry Morgan and the real pirates of the Caribbean.
Well, yes, on balance.

I first came across Henry Morgan among my first ventures into reading and he has been around in various accounts of history and maritime books I have read over the years. This is the first book I have read which substantially focused on Morgan.

Several glitches: a handful of recognizable errors, several instances of awkward wording, occasional deviations into non-pertinent material. Could have done with a good editor.

That said, lot's of interesting information that was new to me, lots of connections to global events, and a high energy narrative style that keeps you eagerly reading. Glad to have read it and I will keep my eyes open for his other works. Lot's of interesting passages.

The social habits of Spanish royalty.
On the hot days of that spring and summer, as the news of Jamaica's fall made its way to his court, Philip could be found at the Escorial, the palace built by his grandfather on the slopes of the Sierra de Guadarrama outside of Madrid. Constructed in gratitude for the victory over the French at Saint-Quentin in 1557, it contained art galleries, a library, a college, and a monastery. But Philip was not studying the masterpieces that were hung on the gallery walls, though they were magnificent and featured the faces he knew so well, those of his own family of Hapsburg kings; instead he could be found in the mausoleum, where he'd recently had the bodies of his ancestors brought together and placed in the marble pantheon. Courtiers gossiped about the long hours Philip spent there; he emerged, they reported, with eyes red from weeping. But for Philip, the hours spent alone in the dark, cool tomb were his new pleasure. "I saw the corpse of the Emperor, whose body, although he had been dead ninety-six years, is still perfect," he wrote to a friend, "and by this it may be seen how richly the Lord has repaid him for his efforts in favour of his faith whilst he lived." Still, the bodies of his illustrious dead comforted him less than one empty space; he spent hour after solitary hour kneeling on the stone floors, staring into the slot where his own body would lie. "It helped me much," he admitted. How he envied the dead, who could not be humiliated by events and whose bodies had ceased to rebel against them. How, in his quiet moments, he wished to join them.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Instead of being able to confess their allegorical nature, they have to conceal it.

A couple of quotes from Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer lived 1788-1860 so the intellectual ossification he was struggling against was the Church. Today the intellectual ossification against which we struggle is failed totalitarian ideologies desperately trying to bring utopia to earth through coercive means. Currently most manifested in the social justice movement.
When the Church says that, in the dogmas of religion, reason is totally incompetent and blind, and its use to be reprehended, this really attests the fact that these dogmas are allegorical in their nature, and are not to be judged by the standard which reason, taking all things sensu proprio, can alone apply. Now the absurdities of a dogma are just the mark and sign of what is allegorical and mythical in it.
Most participants in the social justice movement are well intended but their intention is primarily an emotional energy. They feel that something should be different. This emotion gives tremendous energy to their efforts. However, noble though their goals might be, their means are almost always woefully uninformed, misguided, and destructive. Which brings me to a second Schopenhauer quote.
The bad thing about all religions is that, instead of being able to confess their allegorical nature, they have to conceal it.
Think of "Hide the decline" from the global warming debate, the repeated failures of Head Start to demonstrate lasting beneficial impact, the jargon of multiple professions intended to fog issues with magisterial command.

Dunbar number and socializing in a technical environment

Dunbar's number is a quite interesting idea that has some appeal to logic and experience but which is still being fleshed out by research. Per Wikipedia:
Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. This number was first proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can only comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships. Proponents assert that numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group. It has been proposed to lie between 100 and 250, with a commonly used value of 150. Dunbar's number states the number of people one knows and keeps social contact with, and it does not include the number of people known personally with a ceased social relationship, nor people just generally known with a lack of persistent social relationship, a number which might be much higher and likely depends on long-term memory size.

Dunbar theorized that "this limit is a direct function of relative neocortex size, and that this in turn limits group size ... the limit imposed by neocortical processing capacity is simply on the number of individuals with whom a stable inter-personal relationship can be maintained."
There is an interesting article in The New Yorker, The Limits of Friendship by Maria Konnikova which explores the implication of the Dunbar Number in the world of hyperconnectedness and social media.
There’s no question, Dunbar agrees, that networks like Facebook are changing the nature of human interaction. “What Facebook does and why it’s been so successful in so many ways is it allows you to keep track of people who would otherwise effectively disappear,” he said. But one of the things that keeps face-to-face friendships strong is the nature of shared experience: you laugh together; you dance together; you gape at the hot-dog eaters on Coney Island together. We do have a social-media equivalent—sharing, liking, knowing that all of your friends have looked at the same cat video on YouTube as you did—but it lacks the synchronicity of shared experience. It’s like a comedy that you watch by yourself: you won’t laugh as loudly or as often, even if you’re fully aware that all your friends think it’s hysterical. We’ve seen the same movie, but we can’t bond over it in the same way.
As always, there are constraints and tradeoffs.
With social media, we can easily keep up with the lives and interests of far more than a hundred and fifty people. But without investing the face-to-face time, we lack deeper connections to them, and the time we invest in superficial relationships comes at the expense of more profound ones. We may widen our network to two, three, or four hundred people that we see as friends, not just acquaintances, but keeping up an actual friendship requires resources. “The amount of social capital you have is pretty fixed,” Dunbar said. “It involves time investment. If you garner connections with more people, you end up distributing your fixed amount of social capital more thinly so the average capital per person is lower.” If we’re busy putting in the effort, however minimal, to “like” and comment and interact with an ever-widening network, we have less time and capacity left for our closer groups. Traditionally, it’s a sixty-forty split of attention: we spend sixty per cent of our time with our core groups of fifty, fifteen, and five, and forty with the larger spheres. Social networks may be growing our base, and, in the process, reversing that balance.
There is interesting speculation about an aspect of socialization which puts a constrant on effective social media:
On an even deeper level, there may be a physiological aspect of friendship that virtual connections can never replace. This wouldn’t surprise Dunbar, who discovered his number when he was studying the social bonding that occurs among primates through grooming. Over the past few years, Dunbar and his colleagues have been looking at the importance of touch in sparking the sort of neurological and physiological responses that, in turn, lead to bonding and friendship. “We underestimate how important touch is in the social world,” he said. With a light brush on the shoulder, a pat, or a squeeze of the arm or hand, we can communicate a deeper bond than through speaking alone. “Words are easy. But the way someone touches you, even casually, tells you more about what they’re thinking of you.”
An interestingly speculative piece with many implications.

I wonder if this latter point regarding tactile sensations and the social dimension might not be in some way connected with reading. E-books have entered our cognitive environment and they are useful in their context, which tends to vary by person. They have not displaced physical books and physical books appear to be the first order of choice for most readers. I wonder if there are not perhaps two mechanisms related to that. 1) The sensory recollection of the physicality of reading with a loved parent, and 2) the tactile sense of paper, covers, the smell, etc. that is in some way reinforcing.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

STEM, STEAM, et al

Mulling recently about the focus in education on STEM. That then led to a train of thought about those who keep insisting that Arts should be included in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths. I understand not wanting to be left out but the effort to advance STEAM has always struck me as chimerical. Arts are undoubtedly important but they are not of a like nature with STEM.

But why that instinctive response?

That led to this consideration as each of these categories relate to education.
STEM - The transfer of a body of knowledge.

Humanities - The transfer of a body of interpretations.

Arts - The transfer of a body of techniques.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Motivations count

I am glad people are beginning to focus on the size of the prison population as something that needs to be addressed. While I wish that there were low hanging fruit to get the numbers down, I suspect it is going to be much harder than is envisioned. In many states, it is very hard, with plea agreements, and non-incarceration punishments, to actually get into prison in the first place. Those who do get there tend to be the most persistent of recidivists.

The root of my concern is that reformers treat this as an issue of numbers rather than of human behavior. These people aren't in prison by accident. They did many dreadful things to get there. The root issue is their capabilities, values and behaviors. Without fixing those issues, simply releasing them back into the general population will likely have little positive effect and quite likely some "unexpected" negative outcomes.

Nor is everyone approaching prison population reduction with the cleanest of motives either.

From When will mass incarceration end?, America fact of the day by Tyler Cowen.
Three states stand out for making significant cuts in their prison populations in the past decade: New York (19 percent), California (17 percent), and New Jersey (17 percent). The reductions in New York and New Jersey have been in part a function of reduced crime levels, but also changes in policy and practice designed to reduce the number of lower-level drug offenders and parole violators in prison. But the pace of reductions in most other states has been quite modest. Moreover, 22 states still subscribed to an outdated model of prisoner expansion in 2012.
I don't think you have to be unduly cynical to note that the three states with the largest prison population reductions are also three of the states with the most parlous state finances.

In the worst case scenario, felons are pawns in a financial budget balancing game. Pawns who will be sacrificed to political expediency. Politicians and bureaucrats release the felons in order to balance the budget. Felons, with no expensive support or other militating strategies to change their capabilities, values and behaviors, repeat their prior patterns of behavior and end up back in prison. The budget remains unbalanced, citizens will have been victims of crime that could and should have been prevented. Felons will become ever more mired in their dysfunctional state of low capabilities, poor values and bad behaviors. The citizenry's perspective that politicians and government cannot be trusted will be further reinforced.

None of this is good.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Hard to accept that these imbeciles represent the people in our government.

One of the ancient concerns about democracy is the capacity for majoritarian emotionality to get carried away leading to expropriations, human rights abuses, and atrocities. Our Founding Fathers sought to contain the monster of majoritarian emotionality by seeking to constrain government while leaving it the capacity to act in slow, measured fashion. By dividing power between three branches (executive, legislative, and judicial) and by instituting three layers of sovereign government (local, state and federal) they sought to constrain then current and future, unanticipated BIGS. Big government, big business, big labor, big religion, big mob, etc.

Human nature being what it is, even the best designed systems are prey to persistent attacks. My concern in recent years has been the increasing emotionalism of debate and the totalitarian desire to impose outcomes rather than obey the law.

This has taken many forms. There is the simple partisan abuse of power as demonstrated by the District Attorney in Madison, Wisconsin in the still unfolding John Doe scandal where the DA used the coercive power of the state to go on an unfounded fishing expedition against political opponents and attempted to cover it up by again using the coercive power of government through a gag order to prevent the victims from speaking to the press of the crime being committed against them by the DA.

There was the Duke University Scandal where the local District Attorney, seeking to curry favor with the local electorate, went after the Lacrosse team with virtually no evidence that a crime had been committed and then, as time passed, increasing evidence that in fact all charges had been false. The DA dug himself into a deeper hole by obstructing justice by hiding the refuting evidence. The debacle was exacerbated by the Gender and Ethnic studies professors at Duke wanting to punish white athletes simply for being white athletes rather than for actually having committed a crime.

This was followed by the George Zimmerman trial where all the evidence was supportive of Zimmerman's account and the DA was unable to even construct a coherent alternative account.

In all these cases, the media, select politicians, and certain segments of the academy have sought to circumvent the law in order to exact punishment on the innocent.

The more egregious example, to me, has been Harry Reed, former Senate Leader, who seems to have taken a manic interest in the Koch brothers that seems to extend beyond even ideology. They are libertarians and support all sorts of issues consonant with Reed's beliefs such as gay marriage. None-the-less, Reed has taken to using his platform as a US Senator to conduct a campaign of harassment against them by spreading lies and rumors. A US Senator using his position of governmental coercive power to campaign against private citizens who have committed no crime other than to incur his dislike. That is not how our democracy is supposed to work.

For those of us who believe all citizens should be impartially subject to the same law, these mob like show trials are concerning, particularly when, as is often the case, no law has been broken or simply some regulatory fig leaf to shield the coercion that is actually being exercised.

I have paid little attention to the most recent media storm regarding some pharmaceutical CEO who incurred social media and mainstream media aprobrium by making an unpopular, but legal, decision to substantially raise prices on a drug. I am still not paying attention other than to note this useful observation from Everyone Hates Martin Shkreli. Everyone Is Missing the Point by Kelefa Sanneh. Shkreli is the targeted CEO and being interrogated by a Senate committee. Brafman is his lawyer counselling him assert his right to not respond.
The questioning continued this way, with Shkreli sometimes fidgeting, sometimes smiling, and sometimes furrowing his eyebrows, as if he couldn’t believe he had to sit through something so ridiculous. Brafman later explained that his client was suffering from a surfeit of “nervous energy,” but Shkreli himself provided a different account of his state of mind, via Twitter: “Hard to accept that these imbeciles represent the people in our government.”

No one, least of all Shkreli, should be surprised that Thursday’s performance inspired a new round of Shkreli-bashing. Perhaps the most eager participant was Jake Tapper, of CNN, who criticized Shkreli’s “smirky smugness” and added some startlingly violent commentary: “I’m sure there are many ailing individuals out there who might like to remove Shkreli’s smile with the business end of a shovel.”

But was Shkreli’s performance actually more objectionable than that of the legislators who were performing alongside him? Elijah Cummings, of Maryland, is the ranking Democrat on the committee, and he used his allotted time to deliver a scolding. “Somebody’s paying for these drugs, and it’s the taxpayers that end up paying for some of them,” he said. “Those are our constituents.” In fact, it’s hard to figure out exactly who is paying what for Daraprim. Shkreli and Turing have claimed that hospitals and insurance companies will pay, while patients who can’t afford it will get a discount, or get it for free. And Nancy Retzlaff, Turing’s chief commercial officer, told the committee about her company’s efforts to get the drug to people who can’t afford it. The arrangement she described sounded like a hodge-podge, an ungainly combination of dizzyingly high prices, mysterious corporate bargaining, and occasional charitable acts—which is to say, it sounded not so much different from the rest of our medical system.

Even so, Cummings acted as if Shkreli were the only thing preventing a broken system from being fixed. “I know you’re smiling, but I’m very serious, sir,” he said. “The way I see it, you can go down in history as the poster boy for greedy drug-company executives, or you can change the system—yeah, you.” Cummings has been in Congress since 1996, and he is a firm believer in the power of government to improve industry through regulation. And yet now he was begging the former C.E.O. of a relatively minor pharmaceutical company to “change the system”? It seemed like an act of abdication.

The Republican-led committee was no more impressive. As if to establish that Turing was unnecessarily profitable, the committee released documents showing that the company had thrown a lavish party—fireworks included—and given some executives six-figure raises. (If this now counts as corporate behavior worthy of oversight and reform, the committee may soon find its schedule overbooked.) And then there was John Mica, a Republican from Florida, who has vowed to “keep the government out of patients’ sick beds.” Notwithstanding his skepticism of government intervention, he expressed alarm that some drug prices have “skyrocketed.” Even more than his colleagues, he seemed taken aback by the star witness’s recalcitrance, as if he couldn’t fathom why a private citizen wouldn’t be more deferential to his government—at one point, he threatened to move to hold Shkreli in contempt.

The Daraprim saga has as much to do with the Food and Drug Administration as with Shkreli: although the drug’s patent expired in the nineteen-fifties, the F.D.A. certification process for generic drugs is gruelling enough that, for the moment, whoever owns Daraprim has a virtual monopoly in America. (Overseas, it is much cheaper.) One of the witnesses on Thursday was Janet Woodcock, an F.D.A. official in charge of drug evaluation. Mica asked her about reports that a number of drugs had doubled or quadrupled in price in recent years. Woodcock said, “Congress has not really vested any authority for the F.D.A. over pricing, so we do not follow that.” If Mica wants to lower drug prices by encouraging competition, then he should concentrate on changing the regulatory process. And he should be aware that his plan will require more medical entrepreneurs, not fewer.

One of the strangest things about the anti-Shkreli argument is that it asks us to be shocked that a medical executive is motivated by profit. And one of the strangest things about Shkreli himself is that he doesn’t seem to be motivated by profit—at least, not entirely. Last fall, Derek Lowe, a chemist and blogger affiliated with Science, criticized Shkreli’s plan to raise prices as a “terrible idea,” not least because such an ostentatious plan posed “a serious risk of bringing the entire pricing structure of the industry under much heavier scrutiny and regulation.” He called on the pharmaceutical industry to denounce Shkreli as a means of protecting its own business model; from an economic point of view, Shkreli’s strategy seemed self-defeating. At least one person close to Shkreli seems to have agreed. One of the most revealing documents uncovered by the committee showed an unnamed executive imploring him not to raise the price of Daraprim again, saying that the risk of another media firestorm outweighed the benefit. “Investors just don’t like this stuff,” the e-mail said. Shkreli’s response was coolly noncommittal: “We can wait a few months for sure.”

A truly greedy executive would keep a much lower profile than Shkreli: there would be no headline-grabbing exponential price hikes, just boring but reliable ticks upward; no interviews, no tweeting, and absolutely no hip-hop feuds. A truly greedy executive would stay more or less anonymous. (How many other pharmaceutical C.E.O.s can you name?) But Shkreli seems intent on proving a point about money and medicine, and you don’t have to agree with his assessment in order to appreciate the service he has done us all. By showing what is legal, he has helped us to think about what we might want to change, and what we might need to learn to live with.

Most of our Presidential candidates claim to disdain Washington politicians, but, on Thursday, Shkreli put that disdain into practice—and helped illustrate, to anyone paying attention, why it is so richly deserved. He is candid even when candor doesn’t pay. (Can there be any doubt that Hillary Clinton, after her own recent appearance before Gowdy and some of his colleagues, would have loved to send a tweet like Shkreli’s?) Last fall, Trump said that Shkreli “looks like a spoiled brat”; in fact, he is the son of a doorman, born to parents who emigrated from Albania. Look at him now! True, he has those indictments to worry about. But he is also a self-made celebrity, thanks to a business plan that makes it harder for us to ignore the incoherence and inefficiency of our medical industry. He rolls his eyes at members of Congress, he carries on thoughtful conversations with random Internet commenters, and, unlike most of our public figures, he may never learn the arts of pandering and grovelling. He is the American Dream, a rude reminder of the spirit that makes this country great, or at any rate exceptional. Shkreli for President! If voters in New Hampshire are truly intent on sending a message to the Washington establishment they claim to hate, they could—and probably will—do a lot worse.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

It is what matters most to to most people for most of the time

From Near A Thousand Tables: A History of Food by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto.
The great press baron Lord Northcliffe used to tell his journalists that four subjects could be relied on for abiding public interest: crime, love, money, and food. Only the last of these is fundamental and universal. Crime is a minority interest, even in the worst-regulated societies. It is possible to imagine an economy without money and reproduction without love but not life without food. Food, moreover, has a good claim to be considered the world's most important subject. It is what matters most to to most people for most of the time.
All true. And an extreme example of the Paradox of Value or, more strikingly, the Diamond-Water paradox.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell.

From Karl Popper, Vol. 2, Ch. 24 "Oracular Philosophy and the Revolt against Reason"
The attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell. It leads to intolerance. It leads to religious wars, and to the saving of souls through the inquisition. And it is, I believe, based on a complete misunderstanding of our moral duties. It is our duty to help those who need help; but it cannot be our duty to make others happy, since this does not depend on us, and since it would only too often mean intruding on the privacy of those towards whom we have such amiable intentions.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.

From the comments section of Unemployment: The All-but-Certain Fate of Too Many Poor Black Boys by Gillian B. White.

Regrettably the article itself is anodyne post-modernist social justice virtue signalling clap-trap. The author starts by asserting the well refuted Marxian deterministic liturgy that individuals' futures are predetermined by their poverty, race, etc. rather than by the much more demonstrable causal explanation of capabilities, values and behaviors.
Study after study has proven that when children are sequestered in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, their educational and economic opportunities are stunted, creating enduring cycles of poverty.

But a new paper, written by a team of researchers led by the Stanford economist Raj Chetty, indicates that these findings have yet another critical element: Concentrated poverty can be significantly more detrimental to young boys than to young girls.

In America it’s generally been true that men are more likely to be employed than women. According to the most current data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, even as women have entered the workforce in greater numbers, men’s labor-force participation rate is around 69 percent, while women’s is around 57 percent. This division in the labor force holds among middle- and upper-income families, but Chetty and his fellow researchers find that when poor kids become adults, a reverse gender-employment gap appears, with poor boys more likely than poor girls to become unemployed adults.
The fact of the gender reversal is well known already but it is useful to have it quantified.

The intellectual crime committed by these ideology motivated research papers is that they take us down the wrong policy roads. In this case, the researchers are pre-committed (as evidenced in their past research) to believe that segregation is the root cause of all these poor life outcomes when in fact the causal mechanisms are abilities, values and behaviors.
And for another, it’s a paper that, like a lot of Chetty’s previous research, strongly suggests that as long as residential segregation continues, poor black children have little hope of having a life better than their parents.
The solution for the postmodernist totalitarians is to strip away rights of association from the population and impose choices made by the unelected enlightened. It is a pathway to misery trodden many times in many countries and has never, not once, led to the imagined desirable outcomes that the intellectual totalitarians imagine. Human nature and reality always get in the way.

But I have gotten distracted by the nonsense. What interested me was a quotation from Arthur Schopenhauer in the comments that I found interesting.
Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.

UPDATE: I blog primarily to keep track of items that I find interesting, to think through issues out loud (as it were), and to make connections between ideas I might not have seen as connected. In doing so, I have found over the years that it has been a good mechanism for also seeing patterns of communication in my own expression.

This is one of those instances. This post is too harsh. It isn't wrong. Totalitarian utopianism and neo-marxian determinism are some of the most insidious habits of mind among some of our contemporary journalists. Though perhaps well intended, their sloppy thinking, both in terms of failing to use logic and in terms of failing to research that about which they are opining, can lead to disastrously bad policy recommendations. As bad, it delays focusing on actual real causes of undesirable conditions. White fully deserves castigation for propagating a naive and long discredited idea (taking people out of poor neighborhoods will make them no longer poor). Frustration, though, is no justification for harshness.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

YA Classics using objective data

Some time ago, someone posted on one of the book forums to which I belong, a request for a list of classic teen literature. This got me to mulling, particularly as I was aware of a couple of interesting new data sets that might be helpful.

While the request seems simple, it needs to be disambiguated and made objective. What do we mean by "classic," what do we mean by "young adult," and what does it mean to "read" a book. How can we measure this? We can't go by publisher hype. Teachers tend to be biased towards texts geared towards the college bound. Copies sold and copies checked out of a library do not necessarily reflect copies read.

I would argue that what we should be interested in are the books young adults are actually reading and which they deem to be meaningful and influential to them over reaches of time. So let's start putting some parameters around that concept.

First, what do we mean by Young Adult (YA)? YA is a genre in publishing. That seems straight-forward enough. The problem is that most publisher research indicates that 60-80% of the readership are in fact adult women. So let's throw that out. Some people use bounds more associated with school grades such as fifth, seventh or ninth grade as beginning points and others prefer to limit to high school completion or the rounded number of age 20. I propose that YA is the age category covering the decade between 12-21 years old. I.e just as most approach all the physical and cognitive changes associated with maturity (12) and then the closing point when individuals are accorded all the benefits and responsibilities of full adulthood (21) and when virtually all the physical and neurological changes associated with maturity are substantially complete.

These are the most tumultuous years, with greatest variability and span of change in reading ability, physical maturity, mental maturity, degree of socialization and acculturalization, academic achievement, etc. No other decade of life is quite like it, thank goodness. Young adults at the lower bounds will still reach back into the ease and simplicity of picture books and chapter books. Young adults at the upper bound will stretch into harder core texts in sciences, philosophy, and fields beyond the entertainment of storytelling in written form. All in that decade between 12 and 12.

So that's the age group. What do we mean by someone having read something? Books, obviously. What about plays and poems? What about short stories?What about nonfiction? Even with books, do we mean being aware of the book, having read at least a chapter, having read excerpts, having had it assigned in class? Do we only count those books which have been read cover-to-cover? A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking is notorious as a book that everyone bought but virtually no one read. A seventeen year old who is intensely interested in biology reads three or four chapters of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. Has she "read" The Origin of Species? Does it make a difference to what is being counted if we focus only on what is assigned versus what is electively read?

All these are fair and knotty issues. I am going to go with any book which a child between 12-21 has some form of meaningful engagement (usually revealed in conversation or recollection when older), principally through having read the book or portions of the book. I am not excluding books that might have been skimmed and which might have been supplemented via movies, stage productions, graphical renditions, and abridged editions.

Finally - what do we mean by classic? There are several issues tied up in this bundle. You might argue it is the book that is most read by the most members in a particular cohort. For example, each year there are some 4 million youth who turn 21. We might say that a classic is a book read by X% of that cohort. The challenge here is that many children are literate and don't elect to read at all or read very little. In addition, a large percentage of reading time, particularly as they get older, are books outside the traditional canon, primarily nonfiction. For example, With the Old Breed is a classic war book and it is read by a material number of YA youth, primarily boys. Is that therefore a YA classic? I would argue no because it is not read by a large enough population and too narrowly in terms of demographics.

It is hard to get a read on what represents the penetration ceiling for a book within an age cohort. From a variety of sources and studies, I suspect that it is very rare for any book to have been read by more than 10% of an age cohort by the time they turn 21. The numbers suggest that there is much greater penetration for picture books. Something like 50-75% will have had Dr. Seuss or Margaret Wise Brown read to them as a child, but at most 10% of them will have actually read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird even though it is a widely assigned classic.

There is also a very real class issue in designating classic. Classic for whom? The 30% that go on to college or for the 100% of the age cohort? For example, there is a reasonable chance that a good portion of those destined for college will have read some of Dante's Inferno but I suspect that a very low percentage of the other 70% would even have much awareness of it.

There are other issues. For example, Toni Morrison's Beloved is regarded as a classic in African-American literature and it is frequently assigned in high school. But how many actually read it and are engaged by it. It does not show up in many surveys of books that were important to people.

I am going with four approaches as to what constitutes a classic - 1) It is widely acknowledged as a classic, 2) It is widely read within age cohorts across time, 3) It is of merit and interest beyond the US, and 4) It is widely recognized even if only a small percentage may have actually read it in its entirety. An example of the latter might be Philip K. Dick's Total Recall - a classic of science fiction literature. It might have only been read by 5% of 21 year olds (basically anyone interested in science fiction) but it is also rendered in two block buster movies over the past twenty years making it widely recognized.

If these are the parameters, how do we construct such a list. No one measures which books YA actually read. I have drawn on multiple sources. The two primary sources are the Pantheon 1.0 database and The Open Syllabus Project. Pantheon gives you all authors who have Wikipedia entries in at least 25 languages (thus indicating that the authors are of interest to a wide range of people/cultures). Pantheon also gives you a measure of intensity of interest over time (page views within a time period).

Open Syllabus lets you know which books are most assigned for reading to the 30% of YA who go on to college.

Supplementary sources include a database I have built compiling library recommendations as well as public surveys of books people mention as favorites from their youth, Renaissance Learning's annual report of the top twenty most popular books read in each grade (their program being in some 25% of schools), Goodreads, and Library Thing. Renaissance Learning is interesting because it gives insight to differences in reading preferences between the genders. It also, to some small degree, corrects for the overwhelming class bias towards those who are college bound.

Pantheon only gives you authors so you have to make an educated guess as to which of the authors' works are most read by YA. In most instances this is pretty clear but there are a few judgment calls. I have checked these calls against popularity rankings in Good Reads and Librarything.

I have taken the HPI measure (a measure of balanced interest over time) from Pantheon and sorted from high to low and given the titles their ordinal rankings. Similarly, I sorted the Open Syllabus candidates from high to low, based on the number of syllabi in which they are assigned. For example, in college, Mary Shelley is the most frequently assigned author, cited in 2,710 syllabi, followed by Machiavelli, Shakespeare and Homer. Their ordinal rankings are, respectively, 1,2,3,and 4.

Pantheon and Open Syllabus diverge significantly from one another in ordinal ranking. Interestingly, if you average the two ordinal ranks, you end up with a list that likely comes closer to representing a whole population list (as opposed to only that which is of interest in college.)

Some caveats. I included several authors about whom I am dubious as to really how widely they are read by YA, even if they are well regarded among adults. Examples include Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Toni Morrison, and others. Another caveat is that, despite my best efforts, this list still appears to me to be strongly biased towards the reading interests of the 30% who go on to college. Finally, the 25 languages bar filters out a lot of writers who are definitely in the American YA canon of classics such as Laura Ingalls, Wilder, Mary Norton, Katherine Paterson, E.B. White, Lois Lowry, Louis Sachar, Richard and Florence Atwater, Robert C. O’Brien, Jean Craighead George, Norton Juster, Mildred D. Taylor, Christopher Paul Curtis, Madeleine L’Engle. I was quite surprised by the number of American classics which apparently are not as well engaged with in other places as I would have thought.

Details: In Pantheon 1.0 there are 954 authors overall from some 50 or so countries and right back to Homer and that era. While many of these might be globally consequential, many of them are unknown in the US or known only to specialists, or did not write books likely to be read by YA. Examples: Francois Rabelais, Juvenal, Milan Kundera, Lope de Vega, etc.

There are 166 from the Pantheon list who have written books that are read or assigned with some frequency in the US. Of those, 17% are female authors, right in the range of representation normally seen (15-30%). 58% are foreign born. 27% were by authors born after 1900 (very roughly, "modern"). 8% are People of Color.

The final caveat. These are all proxies for the reality that we do not know which books YA actually read and value. This list is arrived at more rigorously and with better objective data than most but it is still just a proxy. And, as noted earlier, it omits many authors apparently less well known outside the US.

Apologies for the display. Beyond my HTML skills under time constraints. The listing is: Author, Title, HPI Ordinal Rank (from Pantheon), College Syllabus Ordinal Rank, and Overall Ordinal Rank.
William Shakespeare Romeo & Juliet 2 3 1
Homer Odyssey 1 4 2
Mark Twain Tom Sawyer 15 11 3
Oscar Wilde Picture of Dorian Gray 6 27 4
Franz Kafka The Metamorphosis 22 17 5
Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice 30 13 6
Geoffrey Chaucer The Canterbury Tales 39 6 7
Daniel Defoe Robinson Crusoe 19 30 8
Jonathan Swift Gulliver's Travels 29 21 9
Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness 46 5 10
Simone de Beauvoir The Second Sex 26 25 11
Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities 32 20 12
George Orwell 1984 13 39 13
Edgar Allan Poe Tell Tale Heart 10 43 14
Ernest Hemingway The Old Man and the Sea 16 42 15
Henry David Thoreau Walden Pond 55 8 16
Aldous Huxley Brave New World 50 14 17
William Faulkner The Sound and The Fury 41 28 18
Arthur Conan Doyle The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes 23 47 19
Dante Alighieri Inferno 3 68 20
T. S. Eliot The Waste Land 56 16 21
Mary Shelley Frankenstein 73 1 22
Leo Tolstoy Anna Karenina 9 65 23
Erich Maria Remarque All Quiet on the Western Front 44 32 24
Aesop Fables 4 72 25
Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass 51 26 26
Albert Camus The Stranger 37 40 27
John Steinbeck The Pearl 49 29 28
J. R. R. Tolkien Lord of the Rings 31 48 29
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov Lolita 47 46 30
F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby 85 9 31
Henry James The Turn of the Screw 63 34 32
Lewis Carroll Alice in Wonderland 36 61 33
Jack Kerouac On The Road 62 36 34
Arthur Miller The Crucible 77 23 35
Fyodor Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment 8 94 36
Jack London The Call of the Wild 28 75 37
Thomas Paine Common Sense 89 15 38
Umberto Eco The Name of the Rose 27 78 39
Isaac Asimov Foundation 21 86 40
Victor Hugo Les Miserables 5 102 41
Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales 17 92 42
Charlotte Bronte Jane Eyre 59 52 43
Emily Bronte Wuthering Heights 45 66 44
Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter 94 18 45
Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire 78 35 46
William Golding Lord of the Flies 67 49 47
Alexandre Dumas The Count of Monte Cristo 58 59 48
Toni Morrison Beloved 109 10 49
Bram Stoker Dracula 97 22 50
Robert Louis Stevenson Treasure Island 88 37 51
Samuel Taylor Coleridge The Rime of the Ancient Mariner 82 44 52
Stephen King Carrie 20 108 53
Philip K. Dick Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 72 58 54
Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games 24 110 55
Herman Melville Moby-Dick 118 19 56
H. G. Wells The Time Machine 90 50 57
Elie Wiesel Night 117 24 58
Raymond Chandler The Big Sleep 70 71 59
Saul Bellow The Adventures of Augie March 79 63 60
C. S. Lewis The Chronicles of Narnia 69 73 61
Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixotes 11 131 62
Rudyard Kipling The Jungle Book 38 105 63
J. D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye 113 31 64
Italo Calvino If On A Winter's Night a Traveller 76 69 65
E.T.A. Hoffmann The Nutcracker 52 96 66
Gabriel García Márquez One Hundred Years of Solitude 18 130 67
Agatha Christie And Then There Were None 25 124 68
Alexandre Dumas The Count of Monte Cristo 91 60 69
Jules Verne Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea 35 117 70
Guy de Maupassant Collected Stories 43 111 71
Thomas Pynchon Gravity's Rainbow 114 41 72
Philip Roth Portnoy's Complaint 98 57 73
Walter Scott Ivanhoe 40 115 74
Charles Perrault Mother Goose 33 122 75
Paulo Coelho The Alchemist 48 109 76
Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart 152 7 77
Boris Pasternak Doctor Zhivago 54 106 78
James Fenimore Cooper Last of the Mohicans 101 62 79
Louisa May Alcott Little Women 111 54 80
Frank Herbert Dune 81 84 81
Thomas Mann Death in Venice 14 152 82
E. M. Forster A Room With A View 122 45 83
Washington Irving The Legend of Sleepy Hollow 116 51 84
Niccolò Machiavelli The Prince 166 2 85
Ralph Ellison The Invisible Man 156 12 86
Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451 115 56 87
Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange 108 64 88
Thomas Hardy Tess of the D'Urbervilles  105 67 89
D. H. Lawrence Lady Chatterley's Lover 96 77 90
Nostradamus Prophresies 7 166 91
Dale Carnegie How to Win Friends and Influence People 87 87 92
Ambrose Bierce An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge 95 82 93
Khalil Gibran The Prophet 57 120 94
Hermann Hesse Siddhartha 12 165 95
Alice Walker The Color Purple 148 33 96
Pearl S. Buck The Good Earth 74 107 97
Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird 144 38 98
Anne Rice Interview With The Vampire 64 118 99
Mario Puzo The Godfather 68 116 100
Haruki Murakami Kafka on the Shore 65 119 10
Antoine de Saint-Exupery The Little Prince 42 142 102
Ayn Rand Atlas Shrugged 106 80 103
Georges Simenon Maigret 61 127 104
Roald Dahl Best Of Roald Dahl 60 129 105
Dashiell Hammett The Maltese Falcon 107 83 106
William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch 104 88 107
Allen Ginsberg Howl and other Poems 83 112 108
Astrid Lindgren Pippi Longstocking 34 161 109
Truman Capote In Cold Blood 53 146 110
Lucy Maud Montgomery Anne of Green Gables 102 99 111
Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse-Five 75 126 112
Frances Hodgson Burnett A Little Princess 124 79 113
Stephen Crane The Red Badge of Courage 151 53 114
Dan Brown The Da Vinci Code 132 74 115
Thomas Malory King Arthur 125 81 116
Margaret Mitchell Gone With the Wind 119 90 117
Maya Angelou I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings 155 55 118
Ursula K. Le Guin A Wizard of Earthsea 112 100 119
Carlos Castaneda The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge 71 141 120
L. Frank Baum The Wonderful Wizard of Oz 147 70 121
J. M. Barrie Peter Pan 134 85 122
Cormac McCarthy The Road 127 93 123
Robert A. Heinlein Stranger in a Strange Land 100 121 124
Arthur C. Clarke 2001: A Space Odyssey 99 123 125
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich  66 157 126
Johanna Spyri Heidi 92 132 127
O. Henry The Gift of the Magi 93 133 128
Daphne du Maurier Rebecca 129 98 129
Margaret Atwood The Handmaid's Tale 133 95 130
Thornton Wilder The Bridge of San Luis Rey 143 91 131
Philip Pullman The Golden Compass 137 97 132
Khaled Hosseini The Kite Runner 159 76 133
Chuck Palahniuk Invisible Monsters 150 89 134
Terry Pratchett The Color of Magic 86 153 135
Graham Greene The Quiet American 80 162 136
Ian Fleming Casino Royale 103 143 137
Karen Blixen Out of Africa 84 163 138
Evelyn Waugh Brideshead Revisited 145 103 139
Jacob Grimm Fairy Tales 110 140 140
Richard Bach Jonathan Livingston Seagull 123 128 141
Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan 141 114 142
Harriet Beecher Stowe Uncle Tom's Cabin 121 137 143
Neil Gaiman American Gods 160 101 144
Bill Bryson A Short History of Nearly Everything 157 104 145
J. K. Rowling Harry Potter 138 125 146
Patricia Highsmith Strangers on a Train 131 134 147
Michael Crichton Jurassic Park 136 136 148
Robert Ludlum The Bourne Identity 120 154 149
Hunter S. Thompson Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas 130 145 150
Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games 164 113 151
Joseph Heller Catch-22 135 144 152
Dean Koontz Odd Thomas 126 155 153
J. G. Ballard ConcretE Island 146 138 154
Wilhelm Grimm Fairy Tales 128 160 155
George R. R. Martin A Song of Fire and Ice 138 151 156
Ken Kesey One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest  140 150 157
Eoin Colfer Artemis Fowl 162 135 158
Douglas Adams Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy 149 148 159
H. Rider Haggard King Solomon's Mines 142 156 160
Stephenie Meyer Twilight 154 149 161
Christopher Paolini Eragon 165 139 162
Orson Scott Card Ender's Game 161 147 163
Alex Haley Roots 153 159 164
Cornelia Funke Inkheart 158 158 165
Rick Riordan The Lightning Thief 163 164 166