Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The fiction and reality of heroism

From The Burma Road by Donovan Webster. From page 113 on the building of the bridge on the River Kwai.
These days, what most people know of Burma-Siam Railway, and its famous span across the Kwai Yai has one foot firmly planted in the manipulations of fiction. In 1952, Pierre Boulleel, a French-born engineer, author, and British Special Forces resistance fighter in China, Burma, and Indochina in World War II, published his second novel. Titled The Bridge on the River Kwai, it was based loosely on events at one Allied POW Camp near Kanchanaburi during the war.

In the course of the novel, British prisoners are forced by a brutal Japanese commander to build a wooden rail bridge across the river, only to watch it be blown by their own countrymen upon completion. In a novelist's trick, however, the pitiable conditions and backbreaking work done by the POW's become vehicles for the prisoners to rediscover their self-respect in the face of Japanese humiliations. In real life, of course, as men died and others sweated and struggled to live another day - while working at the slowest pace possible under the Japanese - the broad strokes of heroism Bouelle described were far less showy and far more lethal. According to historians, when the railroad was completed seventeen months later, in October 1943, more than sixteen thousand Allied prisoners - a city's worth of men - would perish, as would as many as 150,000 Thai, Burmese, Indonesian, and Malaysian conscript laborers, people barely mentioned in Bouelle's book.
When we lived in Australia, I had a couple friends whose families had been shadowed by the brutality of the building of the bridge.

I never ceased to be struck by the asymmetry of reporting on events. From Webster's numbers, one has to guess that the local people had ten times as many citizens affected by the Japanese cruelty and yet virtually everything we know is based on the experience of the Western allies. It is to some degree a function of universal literacy in the West and productive publishing companies but that's not the complete answer. Virtually everything that is in print about the Six Day War, for example, is from the perspective of western observers or the Israeli's and yet the Arab belligerent forces were 2.5 times the number of the Israelis.

I suspect that, in combination with universal literacy and well-developed publishing sectors, that simply the culture of reading (and therefor demand for reading materials) and the concomitant cultural openness, has a far greater cumulative impact than we recognize.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

AVG pilots might be seen riding domesticated water buffalo down the streets of Rangoon shouting "Ya-hoo!"

From The Burma Road by Donovan Webster. From page 64, describing the deployment of the American Volunteer Group (the famous "Flying Tigers").
Initially deployed in three squadrons - with bases in in Kunming, Taungoo in central Burma, and Rangoon, the Flying Tigers were as formidable on the ground as in the air. Equal parts relentless pursuit pilots and rakish, comic-book heroes, the men of the AVG exuded two-fisted energy - and a formidable lack of discipline. As mercenaries outside the restrictions of the army, they flew in cowboy boots and rumpled, oil-stained khakis, dressing in full uniform only for funerals. At night in Rangoon, they scandalized British officers by wearing loud Hawaiian-print shirts and drinking hard with local girls at the tony Silver Lake Grill. Other times, after a few dozen drinks, AVG pilots might be seen riding domesticated water buffalo down the streets of Rangoon shouting "Ya-hoo!" In Kunming and Taungoo, they killed time drinking bootleg whiskey and Carew's Gin and, if no worthy opponents could be found, playing baseball, basketball, and fistfighting among themselves.

One booze-soaked evening in Rangoon, several AVG pilots convinced the captain of an American C-47 cargo plane to make an unscheduled bombing run on Hanoi. Loading the ungainly aircraft with discarded French, Russian, and Chinese ordinance (and plenty of liquor), they proceeded over their target in darkness, kicking bombs from the plane's passenger door between swigs of drink.

After Rangoon fell and all three squadrons of the AVG became based in Kunming, they kept up their unruly ways with their commander's tacit approval. They'd affectionately taken to calling Chennault "Old Leatherface," and the AVG's afternoon baseball scrimmages and nightly poker games (which Chennault often won) were Kunming's social hot spot.

Meanwhile, in the air, the Tigers remained even scrappier and more resourceful than on the ground. Because they didn't have spare aircraft, Flying Tiger planes were soon heaps of scavenged parts, their pilots sometimes filling Japanese bullet holes with wads of chewing gum and adhesive tape. To deceive the enemy into thinking the AVG had countless aircraft, the Americans repainted their propellers new colors every week. And since the P-40s possessed no bomb racks, pilots crafted incendiary "gifts" for the Japanese of gasoline-filled whisky bottles that they'd ignite and toss from their cockpits. Other times, they'd drop homemade pipe bombs onto Japanese encampments.

Before long, Radio Tokyo was calling the American pilots "unprincipled bandits," and demanding that, unless these tactics were halted, the Americans would be "treated as guerrillas" — implying execution if captured. By early 1942, the Japanese vowed to destroy "all two hundred planes" possessed by the Flying Tigers, despite the AVG having only twenty-nine aircraft in commission at the time.

But journalistic groupthink is a symptom, not a cause.

From The Media Bubble Is Worse Than You Think by Jack Shafer and Tucker Doherty

This article provides some empirical underpinnings of my thesis that the mainstream media is so biased to the left because the media is located in large urban locations where the dominant ethos is left. I discuss the idea and some of its broader implications in The effect size from their perspective is that much smaller than from yours.

Shafer and Doherty:
The answer to the press’ myopia lies elsewhere, and nobody has produced a better argument for how the national media missed the Trump story than FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, who pointed out that the ideological clustering in top newsrooms led to groupthink. “As of 2013, only 7 percent of [journalists] identified as Republicans,” Silver wrote in March, chiding the press for its political homogeneity. Just after the election, presidential strategist Steve Bannon savaged the press on the same point but with a heartier vocabulary. “The media bubble is the ultimate symbol of what’s wrong with this country,” Bannon said. “It’s just a circle of people talking to themselves who have no fucking idea what’s going on.”

The map at the top of this piece shows how concentrated media jobs have become in the nation’s most Democratic-leaning counties. Counties that voted for Donald Trump in 2016 are in red, and Hillary Clinton counties are in blue, with darker colors signifying higher vote margins. The bubbles represent the 150 counties with the most newspaper and internet publishing jobs. Not only do most of the bubbles fall in blue counties, chiefly on the coasts, but an outright majority of the jobs are in the deepest-blue counties, where Clinton won by 30 points or more.

But journalistic groupthink is a symptom, not a cause. And when it comes to the cause, there’s another, blunter way to think about the question than screaming “bias” and “conspiracy,” or counting D’s and R’s. That’s to ask a simple question about the map. Where do journalists work, and how much has that changed in recent years? To determine this, my colleague Tucker Doherty excavated labor statistics and cross-referenced them against voting patterns and Census data to figure out just what the American media landscape looks like, and how much it has changed.

The results read like a revelation. The national media really does work in a bubble, something that wasn’t true as recently as 2008. And the bubble is growing more extreme. Concentrated heavily along the coasts, the bubble is both geographic and political. If you’re a working journalist, odds aren’t just that you work in a pro-Clinton county—odds are that you reside in one of the nation’s most pro-Clinton counties. And you’ve got company: If you’re a typical reader of Politico, chances are you’re a citizen of bubbleville, too.


The result? If you look at the maps on the next page, you don’t need to be a Republican campaign strategist to grasp just how far the “media bubble” has drifted from the average American experience. Newspaper jobs are far more evenly scattered across the country, including the deep red parts. But as those vanish, it’s internet jobs that are driving whatever growth there is in media—and those fall almost entirely in places that are dense, blue and right in the bubble.


In a sense, the media bubble reflects an established truth about America: The places with money get served better than the places without. People in big media cities aren’t just more liberal, they’re also richer: Half of all newspaper and internet publishing employees work in counties where the median household income is greater than $61,000—$7,000 more than the national median. Commercial media tend to cluster where most of the GDP is created, and that’s the coasts. Perhaps this is what Bannon is hollering about when he denounces the “corporatist, global media,” as he did in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference. If current trends continue—and it’s safe to predict they will—national media will continue to expand and concentrate on the coasts, while local and regional media contract.
The maps are striking, especially the one for internet media:

Click to enlarge.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Referring to their invasion as an "incident"

From The Burma Road by Donovan Webster. From page 23.

In America, when we think about World War II and our engagement with Japan, we think of a three-and-a-half year war, from December 7, 1941 to August 15, 1945. And that is indeed correct from the American vantage point. What we often overlook is that Japan was continuously at war from the time of their invasion of Manchuria on September 18, 1931. From their perspective, their war lasted 14 years.

Most of that time their focus was centered on lands in China. I knew that the tracts of conquered territory were vast and that the great bulk of their Army and Air Force were anchored in that quagmire but I had never appreciated how many Japanese civilians were involved as well. Nearly 1.5% of Japan's civilian population were relocated to China.
Still, China and its largest trade partner, the United States, weren't having it. When both nations (along with Britain) complained about the Manchurian occupation to the League of Nations, Japan responded by withdrawing from the League. Adding a semantic twist to the discussion, the Japanese continued to deny they were making war on the Chinese, referring to their invasion as an "incident" instead of an official act of war. The League did little to object.

Over the next six years — and employing similarly flimsy rationales — Japan gobbled up many of China's major cities and seaports, moving one million Japanese citizens and three hundred thousand soldiers into Japanese-occupied China. By 1937, Peking, Tientsin, and the seaports of Tsingtao, Amoy, and Swatow were under Japanese control, as was much of central China's "Iron Ricebowl," as its fertile Yellow River Valley is known.

101 Things All Young Adults Should Know

There is a new book out which I have not read and it is in a genre - self-help - which I don't usually read. But as the parent of three young adults, it has at least some marginal salience: 101 Things All Young Adults Should Know by John Hawkins.

Enough salience that I searched out the list of 101 things. I don't see anything particularly objectionable and it is broadly all good advice. Like many such lists, much rides on interpretation. I must admit, though, I especially enjoyed the contemporaneousness of "23. Don’t take naked pictures of yourself." I am a big fan of traditional wisdom via the classics, but that is not an admonition likely to show up in writings of Cicero, Aurelius, Thucydides, Herodotus or among any other classical writers with whom I am familiar, no matter how vernacular the translation. But it is good advice none-the-less.
Chapter 1 Friendship

1. Be the one who moves first in social situations.
2. Set hard boundaries in your personal life.
3. You will become like the people you spend the most time with.
4. Don’t loan money to your friends.
5. “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” Use that to your advantage when you can.
6. Think twice before telling anyone to end a relationship.

Chapter 2 Love

7. There’s a right time, a right place, and a right person to have sex with.
8. Make yourself happy first.
9. Women and men are looking for different reactions when they tell you their problems.
10. People are what they are and are probably not going to change much once they’ve reached adulthood.
11. Here’s how to tell if someone is flirting with you.
12. Take enough time to get to know a person before committing to them.
13. Men should embrace their masculinity, and women should embrace their femininity.
14. Learn to say, “I love you,” “I was wrong,” and “I apologize.”
15. The mother test.

Chapter 3 Social Situations

16. Be nice until it’s time to not be nice.
17. If you want to know what a person really believes, look to their actions.
18. Learning to really listen to people will change your relationships for the better.
19. If you have trouble telling people “no,” the broken record technique comes in handy.
20. This is how to deal with the police.
21. Right or wrong, good or bad, the more you achieve, the more criticism you’ll receive.
22. You must learn the art of ignoring.

Chapter 4 No Regrets

23. Don’t take naked pictures of yourself.
24. Don’t put anything on social media that you would be uncomfortable with the whole world seeing.
25. It’s best to avoid temptation.
26. There are some things you shouldn’t do because you might enjoy them too much.
27. Avoid the big mistake!
28. Don’t stay in a bad situation because you are afraid of change.
29. Avoid writing emails, letters, blog posts, or even having conversations with someone if you are upset with them.
30. Be cautious about putting anything in an email that you wouldn’t want to become public.
31. Focus on the positive.
32. Don’t ever forget you’re going to die someday.

Chapter 5 Money Matters

33. The keys to long-term finances are your house and your car.
34. How do you decide whether to spend money?
35. If you can, bargain.
36. In a business deal, make sure you have an ironclad contract.
37. Compound interest is your friend.
38. For something you will use for a long time, spend a little more money and get something that is high quality.
39. Protect your downside.
40. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Chapter 6 Adulting

41. Chart it.
42. Keep a clean house.
43. When you move, sell, throw away, and give away as much as possible.
44. Dogs are fantastic animals, but they are much more expensive and time consuming than you’d think.
45. Lefty is loosey. Righty is tighty.
46. It’s worth your time to take a typing class.
47. Don’t underestimate the impact of sleep on the quality of your life.
48. Cars do require maintenance to function properly.
49. If you are cutting something, make sure you are cutting away from your body, not toward it.
50. Here’s how and when to tip.
51. Prepare in case it all goes wrong.

Chapter 7 Health

52. Take care of your body for the first forty years of your life, and it’ll take care of you for the next forty years.
53. If you think a doctor is wrong, don’t hesitate to ask for a second opinion.
54. Take care of your physical frame.
55. Test yourself.
56. Pornography is physiologically bad for you.

Chapter 8 Career

57. There’s no shame in taking an honest job.
58. Getting fired or laid off isn’t the end of the world; sometimes it’s a blessing.
59. Start looking for a new job before you quit your old job.
60. Look for something you love doing so much that you’d do it for free, and find a way to make it into a career.
61. Don’t take any job that only pays commission unless you’re an expert salesman.
62. Most businesses will see you as disposable.
63. If you don’t feel like you’re being treated fairly as a consumer, don’t hesitate to ask for a manager.

Chapter 9 Success

64. You beat 50% of the people by just showing up, another
40% by working hard, and the last 10% is a dogfight.
65. You’re going to have to prove yourself.
66. Most happy and successful people persistently and consistently work hard, work smart, and do the right thing.
67. Ironically, successful people tend to fail a lot more and ask more questions than unsuccessful people.
68. Pick the brains of people who know more than you do.
69. If you want something, ask for it.
70. When it comes to life, your attitude should be, “If I didn’t earn it, I don’t deserve it.”
71. Here’s how to become a success at anything.
72. First impressions are much more important than most people realize.
73. Make your habits, and your habits will make you.
74. Know when to hire outside help.
75. Learn to love problems.
76. Almost everything is going to be harder than you think.
77. Losers make excuses for why they failed. Winners find ways to get the job done.

Chapter 10 Be Responsible

78. Nobody owes you a living.
79. If you can’t support yourself, you shouldn’t have a child or get married.
80. Don’t risk killing yourself by driving when you’re so tired you can barely hold your eyes open; take a cat nap.
81. If you buy a gun, learn to use it.
82. Prepare a will, a medical directive, and a listing of what sort of arrangements you want made if you die.
83. At a minimum, keep a basic to-do list.
84. There is safety in numbers.

Chapter 11 Self-Awareness

85. You are not a victim.
86. Ask yourself if it’s the right thing to do.
87. Here’s how to make a decision.
88. Trust your instincts.
89. You will likely find that your parents are right about a lot more than you think.
90. Push yourself harder than anyone else does, but also forgive yourself.
91. Few things in life have any intrinsic meaning.

Chapter 12 Live Life to the Fullest

92. Get out there and live!
93. When in doubt, act!
94. Keep balance in these six key areas of your life: health, career, romantic, social, money, and religion.
95. Don’t major in minor things.
96. The quality of your life can be greatly increased by cutting things away from it.
97. If you’re not going to remember it in five years, it doesn’t matter.
98. Continue learning.
99. Fame, money, and being remembered are less important than people.
100. You’re better off spending your money on experiences than things.
101. Enjoy the moment, because nothing in life is permanent.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Vote - Other

The French round-one election results are coming in and The Atlantic Magazine has an article sub-titled - For the first time in modern French history, neither candidate is from a major party.

At the same time, the Tory British Prime Minister, Theresa May, has called a new election which is highlighting the fading relevance of the British Labour Party. Labour, after a successful run in the 90s under Blair and a less successful run in the aughts under Brown has essentially imploded as they advance old style soviet Marxism spiced with anti-semitism. The British Labour Party is vestigial and fighting a brutal ideological civil war within itself.

The Democrats in the US are still shellshocked from their recent presidential loss and wondering how to address a decade long run of losses at the Federal, state and local levels of government and with essentially no non-antiquarian leaders. Establishment Democrats sotto voce want to move to the center, the ideological base wants to move to the postmodernist, deconstuctionist, critical theory left, and the only crowd puller is a septuagenarian who isn't even a member of the party but a self-proclaimed Socialist.

Scandinavia countries moved to the right some years ago (owing to budget realities), and are no longer the socialist paradise of yore, but much more an example of a market-based communalism.

Everywhere the old left, whether Labour, Socialist, Social Democrat, or Democrat, all seem in retreat.

So is the developed world jettisoning the failures of socialism? Or is it that socialists/left leaning parties were in power so long that this is really simply a revolt against the establishment and it just happens that the establishment was socialist? I think there is plenty of evidence for both propositions and also some significant confounds for each proposition.

But the statist spirit that animated the socialists of my youth - Olof Palme, Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill, François Mitterrand, Gamal Nasser, Ralph Nader - not just those individuals but those strident statist voices, all seem to have been sidelined and silenced. You only hear such voices on university campuses anymore.

I'm not complaining. Static statism is one of the worst conditions afflicting humanity. Still, it is striking how the terms of the public debate have changed and changed so dramatically.

The Earl and the Duck Hunter

From The Burma Road by Donovan Webster. From page 287. Describing the interactions between the Allied leaders, front and rear-echelons. Joseph Stilwell was the American commander of the Burmese theater, tasked with managing the Alliance with both Imperial Britain and China, and with carrying the war to the Japanese with the barest of resources.
Stilwell, however, had grown tired of Mountbatten's show. (Though, in truth, Stilwell the Yankee blueblood also took great pains in managing his image as a straight-talking, rough-and-ready ground soldier.) When Stilwell arrived by air transport at Kandy, he was not wearing the formal and pressed uniform of the SEAC deputy, but his own unadorned battle fatigues. As usual, Stilwell's clothes were devoid of all general's stars, insignias, medals, and ribbons, which often left Vinegar Joe, in William Slim's assessment, looking "like a duck hunter." After being met at the "Kandy Kids" airfield by Mountbatten's black Cadillac - which was festooned with official pennants - Stilwell took one look at the car, shook his head, and said: "Get me a jeep." Then he stowed his bags in the Cadillac and drove himself up the mountain toward Kandy and headquarters, his left leg hanging out of the jeep as it followed the state car to Mountbatten's residence at the king's pavilion.

For a week, Stilwell sat in on SEAC meetings and took meals at Mountbatten's table. ("I've got to quit eating with Louis," he wrote. "I actually like those rum cocktails.") More often at Kandy, Stilwell made a point of being bored by the crisp and on-date international newspapers flown in from around the world, the leather club chairs, the platoons of barefoot servants, the grand library, and the constant motion of a staff of three thousand, which — much to Stilwell's displeasure —included numerous British female officers. (The women's staff at Kandy actually included a young American OSS worker named Julia McWilliams, who would later marry and become famous as television's "The French Chef," Julia Child.)

Stilwell, though, never was comfortable at SEAC HQ: "Something wrong with Headquarters at Kandy ..." he later wrote in his diary. "I al-ways felt half asleep."

While visiting Ceylon, Stilwell made no secret of his indifference at every afternoon's full-dress meeting, where long-range staff planning and the tiresome bookkeeping of rear-echelon logistics left him blank. To spice up the days, as he was effectively the military governor of Burma, Stilwell took devilish pleasure in loudly contemplating orders designed to upset the country's former colonizers, such as "freeing the Kachins, etc."

High in Erin sang the sword

From Njal's Saga, one of the greatest sagas of Iceland, usually dealing with epic feuds across the vast tracts of Nordic North Atlantic expansion including Ireland, Scotland, Shetland and lands west.
I have been where warriors wrestled,
High in Erin sang the sword,
Boss to boss met many bucklers.
Steel rung sharp on rattling helm;
I can tell of all their struggle;
Sigurd fell in flight of spears;
Brian fell, but kept his kingdom
Ere he lost one drop of blood.

In the levity of his tongue and the foolishness of his heart

From English history, from 1235 to 1273 by Matthew Paris. Summary - an Englishman in the 1250s or so gets in trouble in England and is banished. He flees to the Middle East where he loses all his money gambling. Being able to write and fluent in several languages, the Tatars make him a proposition he cannot refuse. A happy-go-lucky English ne'er-do-well who ends up in service to the Tatar as a translator and emissary.

An amazing tale, fortuitously related by Paris.
The prince of Dalmatia took prisoners eight of the fugitives, one of whom was known by the duke of Austria to be an Englishman, who, for certain crimes, had been banished for ever from the kingdom of England. This man had twice come as an envoy and interpreter from the king of the Tattars to the king of Hungary, and plainly threatened and warned them of the evils which afterwards happened, unless he should give up himself and his kingdom to be subject to the Tattars. The princes persuaded him to speak the truth about the Tattars, and he, without hesitation, under every form of oath, made his statements so strongly that the devil himself might have been believed. First, he told about himself, that immediately after his banishment, that is, before he was thirty years old, he lost all he had at gambling, in the city of Acre; and in the winter-time had nothing but a shirt of sackcloth, shoes of ox's skin, and a cape made of horsehair. In this shameful state of want, and in an enfeebled state of body, with his hair cropped as if he were a buffoon, and uttering inarticulate cries like a dumb man, he passed over many countries, and met with great kindness from his entertainers, wearing out his life somehow or other, though he daily, in the levity of his tongue and the foolishness of his heart, had wished himself at the devil. At length, from excessive toil, and continual change of air and diet, he was seized with a severe illness, among the Chaldees, and became weary of his life. Not able to go farther, or to come back, he stopped where he was, breathing with difficulty, and, being somewhat acquainted with letters, he began to put down in writing the words which were there spoken, and afterwards pronounced them so correctly that he was taken for a native, and he learnt several languages with the same facility. The Tattars heard of him through their spies, and drew him over to their interests: when they had got an answer about their claim of subjugating the whole world, they bound him to be loyal in their service, by bestowing on him many gifts; for they were in much need of persons to be their interpreters.

Gambling ain't what it used to be

From Las Vegas average is over no arbitrage condition by Tyler Cowen.
Casinos on the Strip now derive a smaller share of revenue from gambling. In 1996, more than half of annual casino revenue on the Strip came from gambling. Last year, the share was down to about a third, according to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. More of the revenue comes from hotels, restaurants and bars.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Deep peace of the gentle night to you.

From A Gaelic Blessing.
Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the gentle night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
Deep peace of Christ,
of Christ the light of the world to you.
Deep peace of Christ to you.

We are choosing not to discuss some of the most important issues

From IQ and The Job Market by Jordan Peterson. I knew all the elements of what he is presenting in this video but had not considered it from the perspective he is advancing. It crystalizes several problems and represents a dramatic challenge to our complacencies.

The aspect I want to call out is his matching of complexity, IQ, and jobs. He presents data on the levels of IQ representative of each profession. From the job types, this is clearly Canadian data, and perhaps dated but it broadly aligns with similar data sets I have seen in the past based on more contemporary US job categories.
People in these professions are in the 85th - 96th percentile of cognitive ability (IQ of 116-130):
Attorney, Research analyst
Editor, Advertising
Chemist, Engineer, Executive
Manager, Trainee
Systems Analyst, Auditor
People in the following jobs are in the 73rd - 85th percentile of cognitive ability (IQ of 110-115)
Copywriter, Accountant
Manager, Supervisor
Sales Manager
Sales, Programmer
Teacher, Analyst, Adjuster
General Manager
Purchasing Agent
Registered Nurse
Sales Account Executive
People in the following jobs are in the 60th - 70th percentile of cognitive ability (IQ of 103-108)
Administrative Assistant
Store Manager, Bookkeeper
Credit Clerk, Drafter, Designer
Lab Tester/Tech, Assistant Manager
General Sales, Telephone Sales
Secretary, Accounting Clerk
Medical Debt Collection
Computer Operator
Customer Service Representative
Technician, Automotive Salesman
Clerk, Typist
People in the following jobs are in the 50th - 55th percentile of cognitive ability (IQ of 100-102)
Dispatcher, General Office
Police Patrol Officer,
Receptionist, Cashier
General Clerical
Inside sales Clerk, Meter Reader
Printer, Teller, Data Entry
Electrical Helper
People in the following jobs are in the 42nd - 45th percentile of cognitive ability (IQ of 95-98)
Machinist, Food Department Manager
Quality Control Checker
Claims Clerk, Driver, Deliveryman
Security Guard, Unskilled Labor
Maintenance, Machine Operator
Arc Welder, Die Setter, Mechanic
Medical/Dental Assistant
People in the following jobs are in the 21st - 37th percentile of cognitive ability (IQ of 87-93)
Messenger, Factory Production
Assembly, Food Service Worker
Nurse's Aid, Warehouseman
Material Handler
Peterson makes the claim that jobs for people with an IQ of less than 85 are very, very rare. I do not know about the validity of that but of course there is some point on the continuum it must be true. But Peterson makes the equally critical point that 15% of the population has an IQ of less than 85. Basically, there will always be people whose capabilities are less than the minimum required for functioning in a modern economy. What do we do about that?

We have not had good answers to that unasked question to date, a fact that is exacerbated by past policies of open-borders (increasing the competition for those at the lowest end of the capability pyramid), then exacerbated by global trade, and now exacerbated by automation. Especially automation.

As I said, I knew all these constituent facts but Peterson forces a stark question which makes much clearer how important is the issue. It also highlights just how inconsequential are most of our political discussions (and really, almost more importantly, our non-discussions) around these topics.

Here is the lecture:

Double click to enlarge.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Identity paradox

From Neural Correlates of Political Attitudes: Emotion and Ideology in the Brain by Dane Gorman Wendell.

It is a modern curiosity that there is an ideological belief that holds there are no differences between men and women or between people of different ethnic heritages, that all apparent differences are a result of social construction. It is a magical belief that flies in the face of all accepted evidence. The differences are real, replicable and consequential. The fact that there are real and replicated measures of difference does not in any fashion challenge the core and critical belief that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

Equal rights has nothing to do with the unique physical and cultural endowments of each person.

But those who are ideologically happy to ignore attribute variance among individuals hold out for one critical exception. They wish to believe that there are mental, physical and psychological differences between "conservatives" and "liberals." Given the epistemological slipperiness of both terms and their constant evolution over time, it would seem nonsensical on its face to hold that there are fundamental and permanent differences. But the belief is deep rooted and over the years there has been a steady flow of research papers of varying (but usually low) quality purporting to show that conservatives have lower IQs, are more inclined to magical thinking, have more limited domains of knowledge, or have a different neurological and psychological make-up than liberals. Or vice-versa.

I usually ignore these findings after confirming what is almost always the case: poor study protocols, small sample sizes, non-randomization of subject population, low effect sizes, etc. Each study makes a splash, excites the bigots and then disappears owing to non-replication.

Wendell looks at three claims and finds that there are no material objective differences between humans regardless of their belief systems. From the abstract:
Do conservatives and liberals have differing sensitivities to avoidance, inhibition, and negative emotion? Do psychological factors beneath our conscious awareness underlie the political ideologies we embrace? Political science researchers have broken new ground over the past ten years in our understanding of the psychology and physiology of political ideology. However, large questions remain about how political ideology may be related to avoidance motivations and negative emotion. This work expands our current knowledge in this area by presenting three studies with multiple methodologies: original survey data, electroencephalographic measurements, and behavioral experiments in a lab setting. Working in the tradition of J.A. Gray’s dual systems of behavioral motivation, I explore how political ideology is related to several related dispositional measures of behavioral avoidance, behavioral inhibition, and negative affectivity. Overall, and in contrast to literature expectations, my evidence suggests that liberals and conservatives do not have persistent differences in avoidance sensitivity or negativity bias. While strong evidence remains demonstrating important dispositional differences between liberals and conservatives, additional research will be required before researchers can conclude that conservatives are uniquely motivated by psychological avoidance or negative affect.
UPDATE: I corrected my final sentence to include the typographically omitted, but strategic, "no"

The moment one definitely commits oneself, the providence moves too.

In searching a misattributed (and mistranslated) quotation, I instead came across two items of note.

The first is from W. H. Murray in The Scottish Himalaya Expedition (1951):
'But when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money--booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, the providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets:
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!'
I like that parallel with the observer effect in physics, that just as observing changes the observed, Committing changes the context of the commitment.

There is a more raucous translation of what Goethe actually said. From Goethe. The Collected Works. Vol. 2: Faust I & II. Ed. and trans. Stuart Atkins, 1994.
This altercation's gone on long enough,
it's time I saw some action too!
While you are polishing fine phrases
something useful could be going on.
What's the point of harping on the proper mood?
It never comes to him who shilly-shallies.
Since you pretend to be a poet,
make poetry obey your will.
You know that what we need
is a strong drink to gulp down fast,
so set to work and brew it!
What's left undone today, is still not done tomorrow;
to every day there is a use and purpose;
let Resoluteness promptly seize
the forelock of the Possible,
and then, reluctant to let go again,
she's forced to carry on and be productive.
This passage was very loosely translated in 1835 by John Anster as:
Then indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost lamenting over lost days.
Are you in earnest? Seize this very minute;
What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
This is where Murray got his version of the couplet.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Narrower, Deeper, More Experienced - Giga speculation on a byte of evidence

An interesting observation from Arnold Kling in Narrower, Deeper, Older.
My central claim here is that the nature of engagement has changed over the past fifty years, in these three ways:
1. Narrower. There are fewer people casually engaged.

2. Deeper. Those who are engaged are more committed and have deeper knowledge.

3. Older. For any interest that has been around for a long time, the demographics of those interested now skews older.
For example, consider the game of bridge. A social bridge game is four friends getting together in someone’s house to play. A bridge tournament is many strangers competing against one another in a large room. In high school and college, I played a lot of social bridge. In college, I also played some tournament bridge. I then stopped playing for decades.

Fifty years ago, I believe that there were more social bridge players than tournament players. Today, it is closer to the reverse.

When I tried to get back into tournament bridge a few years ago, I found that the “barrier to entry” had gotten much higher. Players expect you to know a plethora of new tactics, which in bridge are known as “conventions.”

The other point to notice was that the median age of players at the tournament seemed to be about 70. Not many young people are willing to get past the barrier to entry.
I want to mull on that but it is an intriguing observation and instinctively feels right.

Some random considerations in response to Kling's hypothesis.
When I was young, it seems to me that children had many passing recreational hobbies. Stamp collecting, baseball card collecting, various local/neighborhood/communal sports such as pick-up basketball or baseball, star-gazing, etc. You got a lot of shallow knowledge about many things but usually delved deeply into one or two domains. Seeing my kids grow up there seems much less of this highly individualized, localized, informal activity. Schools in particular, but with parental support as well, seem to be driving kids to concentrate in a few narrow areas where they can stand-out. This is great for college applications but ruinous for general knowledge.

If you change the terminology just a bit to Narrower, Deeper, More Experienced this maps to Productivity Through Specialization. Is our pursuit of excellence and productivity shaping our behaviors in such a fashion that we forego amateurism for excellence and by so doing self-select ourselves into narrower, deeper, more experienced?

Does the feeling of increasing societal fragmentation and isolation perhaps arise from the fact that narrower, deeper, more experienced effectively, as Kling observes, creates barriers to entry? Is the range of things you can't participate in increasing because of increasing professionalism even of hobbies?

Is the apparent growing divide between the entitled cognitive elite and everyone else perhaps in some small part attributable to the fact that high barriers to entry are more detrimental to those of lower capabilities than those more gifted? If you have higher social, cultural, cognitive capability, perhaps the increasing exclusion of people is not visible. Even with the higher barriers to entry, you are able to indulge in as many activities as you have time for without realizing that others, less able, don't have the choice to participate because they can't pass the higher barrier?

If we are indeed passing from an environment of enthusiastic amateurs to dedicated experts, does this have a detrimental effect on the antifragility of society (Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb)? If there are higher barriers to entry which reduce the number of participants (in any given field and participants across many fields), one outcome is that the quality of performance likely goes up and perhaps the cost comes down (specialization). At the same time, if the higher barriers are restricting participation to a smaller and smaller segment of the population, then likely you have fewer points of commonality among the general populace (shared experiences being beneficial to interaction and mutual respect) and the populace as a whole becomes less capable. As an example, has there been a decline in the number of people sufficiently experienced in swimming to perform a basic rescue because, perhaps, fewer people are spending time doing casual swimming? Casual carpentry, casual electrical work, casual observational science, etc. - all of them create basic competencies that are collectively beneficial if many people have them, even if those competencies aren't elite.
The disappearance of broad but shallow capabilities might make society much more fragile.
That's a lot of speculation off of an anecdotal observation but I suspect Kling is on to something. I am up for a return to causal amateurism and even the old Lyceum Movement.

From its beginning America was as dominated by the printed word and an oratory based on the printed word as any society we know of.

From Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. Page 39.
In addition, they were astounded by the near universality of lecture halls in which stylized oral performance provided a continuous reinforcement of the print tradition. Many of these lecture halls originated as a result of the Lyceum Movement, a form of adult education. Usually associated with the efforts of Josiah Holbrook, a New England farmer, the Lyceum Move- ment had as its purpose the diffusion of knowledge, the promotion of common schools, the creation of libraries and, especially, the establishment of lecture halls. By 1835, there were more than three thousand Lyceums in fifteen states. Most of these were located east of the Alleghenies, but by 1840, they were to be found at the edges of the frontier, as far west as Iowa and Minnesota. Alfred Bunn, an Englishman on an extensive tour through America, reported in 1853 that "practically every village had its lecture hall." He added: "It is a matter of wonderment . . . to witness the youthful workmen, the over- tired artisan, the worn-out factory girl . . . rushing . . . after the toil of the day is over, into the hot atmosphere of a crowded lecture room." Bunn's countryman J. F. W. Johnston at- tended lectures at this time at the Smithsonian Institution and "found the lecture halls jammed with capacity audiences of 1200 and 1500 people." Among the lecturers these audiences could hear were the leading intellectuals, writers and humorists (who were also writers) of their time, including Henry Ward Beecher, Horace Greeley, Louis Agassiz and Ralph Waldo Emerson (whose fee for a lecture was fifty dollars). In his auto- biography, Mark Twain devotes two chapters to his experiences as a lecturer on the Lyceum circuit. "I began as a lecturer in 1866 in California and Nevada," he wrote. "[I] lectured in New York once and in the Mississippi Valley a few times; in 1868 [I] made the whole Western circuit; and in the two or three following seasons added the Eastern circuit to my route." Apparently, Emerson was underpaid since Twain remarks that some lecturers charged as much as $250 when they spoke in towns and $400 when they spoke in cities (which is almost as much, in today's terms, as the going price for a lecture by a retired television newscaster).

The point all this is leading to is that from its beginning until well into the nineteenth century, America was as dominated by the printed word and an oratory based on the printed word as any society we know of. This situation was only in part a legacy of the Protestant tradition. As Richard Hofstadter reminds us, America was founded by intellectuals, a rare occurrence in the history of modern nations. "The Founding Fathers," he writes, "were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics, and law to solve the exigent problems of their time." A society shaped by such men does not easily move in contrary directions. We might even say that America was founded by intellectuals, from which it has taken us two centuries and a communications revolution to recover. Hofstadter has written convincingly of our efforts to "recover," that is to say, of the anti-intellectual strain in American public life, but he concedes that his focus distorts the general picture. It is akin to writing a history of American business by concentrating on the history of bankruptcies.

Fine dining for me but not for thee

From Gentry Liberalism in San Francisco by Walter Russell Mead.
Local minimum wage hikes cause restaurants to leave or shut down and deter new ones from entering, according to a new Harvard Business School study of the San Francisco Bay Area restaurant industry that contradicts the orthodox liberal view that steeply raising the cost of unskilled labor will not affect jobs or hiring.

More interesting, though, are the study’s findings about which restaurants are forced to leave by the higher wage floors. The authors compared rates of departure of restaurants across different Yelp ratings, and found that the policy hit low and mid-quality restaurants much harder than top-tier restaurants. “Our point estimates suggest that a $1 increase in the minimum wage leads to an approximate 14 percent increase in the likelihood of exit for the median 3.5-star restaurant but the impact falls to zero for five-star restaurants.”

While a restaurant’s Yelp rating doesn’t correlate directly with its price range, this differential effect suggests that it’s easier for rich people to ignore the deleterious effects of minimum wage hikes. Virtually all of the most expensive restaurants in San Francisco have four or more stars; the city’s business and professional elite are unlikely to see many of their favorite high-end destinations pushed out of the city. Poor or middle-income workers are less likely to have the luxury of only frequenting top-rated establishments, not to mention that they are more likely to work at the restaurants that the hikes put out of business.

News you can use (and which isn't fake)

Somebody must have a book out or perhaps there was a well placed article but in the past few days I have seen several mentions of Carl Sagan's Baloney Detection Kit from his The Demon-Haunted World.

I have a summary from years ago for those who want to cut to the chase. The post is Baloney Detection Kit.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Between 1836 and 1890, 107 million copies of the McGuffey Reader were distributed to the schools.

From Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. Page 38.
At the time Tocqueville was making his observations of America, printing had already spread to all the regions of the country. The South had lagged behind the North not only in the formation of schools (almost all of which were private rather than public) but in its uses of the printing press. Virginia, for example, did not get its first regularly published newspaper, the Virginia Gazette, until 1736. But toward the end of the eighteenth century, the movement of ideas via the printed word was relatively rapid, and something approximating a national conversation emerged. For example, the Federalist Papers, an outpouring of eighty-five essays written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (all under the name of Publius) originally appeared in a New York newspaper during 1787 and 1788 but were read almost as widely in the South as the North.

As America moved into the nineteenth century, it did so as a fully print-based culture in all of its regions. Between 1825 and 1850, the number of subscription libraries trebled. What were called "mechanics' and apprentices' libraries" — that is, libraries intended for the working class — also emerged as a force for literacy. In 1829, the New York Apprentices' Library housed ten thousand volumes, of which 1,600 apprentices drew books. By 1857, the same library served three-quarters of a million people. Aided by Congress' lowering of the postal rates in 1851, the penny newspaper, the periodical, the Sunday school tract, and the cheaply bound book were abundantly available. Between 1836 and 1890, 107 million copies of the McGuffey Reader were distributed to the schools. And although the reading of novels was not considered an altogether reputable use of time, Americans devoured them. Of Walter Scott's novels, published between 1814 and 1832, Samuel Goodrich wrote: "The appearance of a new novel from his pen caused a greater sensation in the United States than did some of the battles of Napoleon. . . . Everybody read these works; everybody — the refined and the simple." Publishers were so anxious to make prospective best sellers available, they would sometimes dispatch messengers to incoming packet boats and "within a single day set up, printed and bound in paper covers the most recent novel of Bulwer or Dickens." There being no international copyright laws, "pirated" editions abounded, with no complaint from the public, or much from authors, who were lionized. When Charles Dickens visited America in 1842, his reception equaled the adulation we offer today to television stars, quarterbacks, and Michael Jackson. "I can give you no conception of my welcome," Dickens wrote to a friend. "There never was a King or Emperor upon earth so cheered and followed by the crowds, and entertained at splendid balls and dinners and waited upon by public bodies of all kinds. . . . If I go out in a carriage, the crowd surrounds it and escorts me home; if I go to the theater, the whole house . . . rises as one man and the timbers ring again." A native daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was not offered the same kind of adoring attention — and, of course, in the South, had her carriage been surrounded, it would not have been for the purpose of escorting her home — but her Uncle Tom's Cabin sold 305,000 copies in its first year, the equivalent of four million in today's America.

Alexis de Tocqueville was not the only foreign visitor to be impressed by the Americans' immersion in printed matter. During the nineteenth century, scores of Englishmen came to America to see for themselves what had become of the Colonies. All were impressed with the high level of literacy and in particular its extension to all classes.

The magic of movies in a long ago, dank cinema

We lived in Woking, Surrey, UK in the mid-1960s.

One of the special treats was to be allowed to go to the Odeon Cinema on a Saturday. It was THE weekend event for the 5-10 year-old set. Several hundred kids crowded into an old converted theater. I see from some searches that it held 852 and I recall it as always being full.

The pungent mix of smells of old cloth seats, sweets, unwashed kids, and drying wool clothes. Six pence to get in after standing in line in the wet and the cold with all your friends. Another threepence for sweets.

Finding seats with your friends in the stampede in. The noise of excited voices. The falling of the lights and opening of the curtain. There were a number of shorts, usually cartoons but sometimes brief films (news?) Definitely Flash Gordon shorts from the 1930s. And then the main attraction. I remember westerns but there were likely Disney movies as well.

Afterwards, and only occasionally, we would repair to the fish and chip shop just a few shops down from the cinema. Deep fried fish and chips, served in conically rolled newspaper.

I don't know why all that was brought to mind this morning but it prompted me to go searching to see if I could find a picture of the old Odeon, long since demolished to make way for office buildings. I recall the Odeon being on High Street but in fishing up Google maps, I see that, in typical British fashion, that stretch of road switches from High Street to The Broadway to Maybury Road. The cinema would have been at the corner of The Broadway and Duke Street.

I think this was it. Kind of pedestrian looking for what in my memory was a magical movie palace. The first view is the front on Duke Street. This is where we stood in line waiting to pay our admission.

And this is the side on The Broadway.

Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled

On this day, April 19th, in 1775, the first shots of the American Revolution were fired in the Battles of Concord and Lexington. A monument was raised in July 4, 1837 to commemorate the battles and Emerson crafted this dedication.
Concord Hymn
by Ralph Waldo Emerson

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

You sure you guys are smart?

A very interesting juxtaposition of articles. In January, there was Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60 by Upshot.

In March there was Illiberal arts colleges: Pay more, get less (free speech) by Richard V. Reeves and Dimitrios Halikias

And now in April, combining the two ideas, there is Colleges with rich students see more protests against speakers from The Economist.
YALE UNIVERSITY is perhaps the epicentre of the campus activism so voguish today. Two professors stepped down from pastoral roles last year after a controversy about whether students should police their own offensive Halloween costumes, rather than letting the university do it for them, provoking protests from hundreds of students. Yale is currently debating whether to discontinue using the word “freshman” in favour of the more gender-neutral term “first-year”.

That Yale is also one of America’s most prestigious universities is not coincidental. Across the country, colleges with richer, high-achieving students are likelier to see protests calling for controversial speakers to be disinvited (see chart). Recent flare-ups at Middlebury College, which tried to prevent Charles Murray, a conservative writer, from speaking and left the professor interviewing him with a concussion, and at the University of California, Berkeley which had to cancel a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, an over-exposed provocateur, are but the tip of a larger pile.

Following the work of Richard Reeves and Dimitrios Halikias of the Brookings Institution, The Economist analysed data on student attempts to disinvite speakers since 2013 collected by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an advocacy group. Matching those numbers with information on SAT scores and wealth, measured as the fraction of students with one-percenter parents, shows statistically significant correlations. Even among selective universities, those with better-credentialed and wealthier students were likelier to mount protests. They were also likelier to mount successful attempts to block speakers.

The Economist posits that perhaps rich universities invite more controversial speakers. Reeves, in his article above, advances a different thesis.
The upper middle class is separating dangerously from the rest of society. This is driven in part by unfair “opportunity hoarding” mechanisms, including regressive tax expenditures, corrupt internships, and unfair zoning laws. But perhaps the greatest symbol of upper middle class separation is the elite university itself. Colleges like Middlebury—buoyed by such practices as legacy preferences in admissions—not only reflect but reinforce the continued growth of inequality.

The quintessentially liberal commitment to free and open dialogue is indispensable for building mutual understanding and respect in a diverse society. Cultural separation fueled by economic inequality, however, undermines that dialogue and respect. The spectacle of rich, “progressive” protestors refusing to hear a lecture on the roots of their own privilege; well, it tells you how much work there is to do. The class gap in American today is economic, educational and residential. Perhaps most dangerous of all, it is cultural, too. Mutual distrust across class lines is one of the causes of our current toxic politics. Greater understanding, shared learning and self-reflection are all needed now more than ever. And you don’t learn anything by shouting others down.
Elsewhere Reeves goes further, observing that at these disinviting universities “certain left-of-centre tenets, largely around identity politics, take on the weight of an orthodoxy.”

I'd go somewhat further, still. Even at the disinviting universities it is almost always a tiny minority of students who are acting out their outrage. I have seen the number 5% bandied about but do not know whether there is any empirical backing to it. Very small though. There is other evidence suggesting that most these outrage protesters are from a handful of programs such as ethnic studies, gender studies, anthropology, sociology and the like.

I suspect the dynamic is that these wealthy prestigious universities are admitting some small portion of identity-politics practicing students, usually with relaxed standards, who then congregate in these reinforcing Gramscian programs of grievance and then use their privileged platform to draw attention to themselves and their self-perceived victimhood.

Which is all well and fine if these 5 percent grievance mongers (who are also 1 percenters in income) weren't, by their actions, harming and bringing down the other 95% of students. See University of Missouri with their continuing declines in enrollment since their campus protests to silence speakers in 2015.

As Jonathan Haidt has argued (my paraphrase), these universities have to decide whether they are on the side of the 95% who are seeking to acquire/spread knowledge and understanding or whether they are going to be theological schools for the 5% who want ideological purity above knowledge.

It would seem a straightforward choice but apparently many are struggling with it. Reminds me of a scene from The Big Bang, The Fermentation Bifurcation.
Howard: You could put it in a satellite or a rocket, and it'll run forever.
Zack: Cool. Could it be used for missiles and war stuff?
Howard: Yeah, but we didn't create it for weapons.
Leonard: And I doubt the military would be interested in our little guidance system.
Zack: Is it better than the one they use now?
Howard: A lot.
Leonard: Way better.
Zack: Huh. You sure you guys are smart?

Click to enlarge

The post brought knowledge alike to the door of the cottage and to the gate of the palace

From Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. Page 37.
Harris' abortive effort inspired other attempts at newspaper publication: for example, the Boston News-Letter, published in 1704, generally regarded as the first continuously published American newspaper. This was followed by the Boston Gazette (in 1719) and the New-England Courant (in 1721), whose editor, James Franklin, was the older brother of Benjamin. By 1730, there were seven newspapers published regularly in four colonies, and by 1800 there were more than 180. In 1770, the New York Gazette congratulated itself and other papers by writing (in part):
'Tis truth (with deference to the college)
Newspapers are the spring of Knowledge,
The general source throughout the nation,
Of every modern conversation.
At the end of the eighteenth century, the Reverend Samuel Miller boasted that the United States had more than two-thirds the number of newspapers available in England, and yet had only half the population of England.

In 1786, Benjamin Franklin observed that Americans were so busy reading newspapers and pamphlets that they scarcely had time for books. (One book they apparently always had time for was Noah Webster's American Spelling Book, for it sold more than 24 million copies between 1783 and 1843.) Franklin's reference to pamphlets ought not to go unnoticed. The proliferation of newspapers in all the Colonies was accompanied by the rapid diffusion of pamphlets and broadsides. Alexis de Tocqueville took note of this fact in his Democracy in America, published in 1835: "In America," he wrote, "parties do not write books to combat each other's opinions, but pamphlets, which are circulated for a day with incredible rapidity and then expire." And he referred to both newspapers and pamphlets when he observed, "the invention of firearms equalized the vassal and the noble on the field of battle; the art of printing opened the same resources to the minds of all classes; the post brought knowledge alike to the door of the cottage and to the gate of the palace."

Ideological blinders

Fascinating. From How School Choice Turns Education Into a Commodity by Jason Blakeley. Discussions about education can be exasperating because there is such a multiplicity of goals, assumptions and variability of knowledge.

Those who are engaged with the issue (i.e. those with children whose education they care about) can be passionate in their arguments regardless of how well founded the argument might be. Likewise, those who are at a distance (without children or post-education children) can be equally passionate though often in quite a different fashion - passionate from an ideological angle or passionate out of self-interest (being part of the education process themselves). Regardless, passion is not often a condition which facilitates polite exchanges or dispassionate consideration of issues.

All these problems (disagreement about goals, differing assumptions, low or uneven domain knowledge) are on display in Blakeley's article. He has an unacknowledged ideological argument to make and that ideology (and its associated portfolio of unexamined assumptions) informs the entire article to the exclusion of counterpoints. Blakeley is arguing against parental freedom and school choice. He wishes for all students to be compelled to attend the public schools of their area regardless of the performance of those schools.

Which is unfortunate because it comes across as strident, doctrinaire and ill-informed about an issue that is of great interest and concern and deserves to be argued better.

It is a meager article but these two passages were the one's that leapt out to me. They serve as a demonstration of just how radically people can differ on the most basic of things.
The first point to consider when weighing whether or not to marketize the public school system is that markets always have winners and losers. In the private sector, the role of competition is often positive. For example, Friendster, the early reigning king of social networks, failed to create a format that people found as useful and attractive as Facebook. The result was that it eventually vanished.

When businesses like Friendster fail, no significant public damage is done. Indeed, it is arguably a salutary form of what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” which is a feature of market innovation. But should all goods in a society be subjected to the forces of creative destruction? What happens to a community when its public schools are defunded or closed because they could not “compete” in a marketized environment?
There is so much on display here in these 137 words.

Let us, as a courtesy, ignore that the opposite of public schools is not necessarily private schools. There is, of course, an infinite continuum of alternatives: religious schools, home schooling, autonomous public schools, non-profit charter schools, etc. Blakeley is undermining the integrity of his argument by casting it as a straw man argument of public school versus commercial private schools.

Blakeley's first argument against this straw man is the complaint that markets "always have winners and losers". That sounds straight-forward but what is he actually claiming? There is a fallacy of equivocation. Is he arguing that not all institutions are permanent or is he arguing that market enabled education is zero-sum?

The first interpretation seems a non sequitur. Of course market-based schools are not permanent. Neither are public schools. Populations increase and decrease; densities shift from one part of the city to another; even cities can come close to disappearing (East St. Louis, IL, Trenton, NJ, Gary, IN, etc.). Chicago Public Schools has closed hundreds of schools. The fact that market-based companies come and then go seems irrelevant if public schools also come and go.

This irrelevance would seem to force us to conclude that Blakeley's objection is that market-based solutions are zero-sum. This is certainly one way of viewing the function of a market; a statist way. Free marketers would make a diametrically opposite claim: Market-based solutions are additive and productive - no-one loses. I think the issue here is that Blakeley (with his statist mindset) and free-marketers (with their unstated assumptions) are not communicating.

Free marketers take it for granted that there has to be competition and freedom to contract and enforcement of the law (including contract law). In this scenario, any agreement reached between customer and supplier has to axiomatically be net beneficial, otherwise they would not enter the agreement. The contract itself is a testament to mutuality.

To the statist mind, the concern is that the customer might not get everything they might want and that is viewed as a market failure. Of course, in a world of limited resources, that is nonsense. Neither the customer or the supplier gets everything they want, they only get as much as is acceptable to them. The statist mind is also concerned that there might not be real competition and that is a legitimate concern. In the medium term, all competitive systems tend to coalesce around an oligopolistic or monopolistic structure. In the long term, competition will always lead to displacement of formerly dominant companies (Western Electric, Bell Telephone, General Motors, Standard Oil Company, etc.).

Blakeley's first objection, that there are winners and losers, is moot whichever interpretation you accept. Schools open and close under both private or public structures. Competitive markets are the very opposite of zero-sum - competitive markets ensure that everyone gains.

Blakeley's next objection is equally mystifying: "When businesses like Friendster fail, no significant public damage is done." When businesses fail, people lose their jobs, capital is destroyed, savings are wiped out, pensions are lost, tax bases are eroded. The list of public damage when companies fail is extensive. Ask Detroit whether there is no public damage when companies fail.

The final mystifying position that Blakeley takes is "But should all goods in a society be subjected to the forces of creative destruction? What happens to a community when its public schools are defunded or closed because they could not “compete” in a marketized environment?"

It seems as if Blakeley has argued himself into the position that schools should not improve. Blakeley is presenting the argument that schools will not close if they are public schools but that they might close if they are market-based schools.

The first assumption is clearly wrong. Public schools close all the time in vast numbers for tangled reasons of poor performance, population shifts, public expectations or decline in number of school children.

Blakeley also seems to be taking the position that it is bad if a market-based school closes because it is unable to meet the expectations of their customers.

The charitable interpretation would be that Blakeley wants schools to improve but not because of competition for parental choices but through centrally directed edicts and regulations. That is at least a logically consistent interpretation. But still a failing one. There are some truly stellar public schools around the nation, exemplified by Boston Latin School in Boston and Stuyvesant HS and Bronx HS of Science in New York and many prosperous suburban school systems produce outstanding results. Public schools can be excellent. But they are almost always excellent because they are meeting the demands and expectations of their most engaged and committed parents.

At the same time, there are innumerable examples of failing public school systems that fail precisely because they are driven by sheltered administrators who are not responsive to public demands.

This entire exercise of untangling the unstated assumptions reveals just how much conclusions are driven by ideology. Blakeley appears to have an underlying belief that market-based competition is inherently bad, even if it leads to school improvement, and that public administration of schools is inherently good, even if it leads to bad schools.

If the goal is to have improving schools which meet the needs and expectations of parents, does it matter whether that improvement comes through market-based competition or through regulatory means and public governance? I think that is a perfectly fair argument based on the agreed goal and there are pros and cons on both sides.

But to simply assume out of existence the viability of market solutions (despite the evidence that they can work) and to assume that there is no evidence that public schools do fail is an insult to the audience.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Americans were too busy doing other things

From Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. Page 34.
It is worth pausing here for a moment to say something of Thomas Paine, for in an important way he is a measure of the high and wide level of literacy that existed in his time. In particular, I want to note that in spite of his lowly origins, no question has ever been raised, as it has with Shakespeare, about whether or not Paine was, in fact, the author of the works attributed to him. It is true that we know more of Paine's life than Shakespeare's (although not more of Paine's early periods), but it is also true that Paine had less formal schooling than Shakespeare, and came from the lowest laboring class before he arrived in America. In spite of these disadvantages, Paine wrote political philosophy and polemics the equal in lucidity and vitality (although not quantity) of Voltaire's, Rousseau's, and contemporary English philosophers', including Edmund Burke. Yet no one asked the question, How could an unschooled stay-maker from England's impoverished class produce such stunning prose? From time to time Paine's lack of education was pointed out by his enemies (and he, himself, felt inferior because of this deficiency), but it was never doubted that such powers of written expression could originate from a common man.

It is also worth mentioning that the full title of Paine's most widely read book is Common Sense, Written by an Englishman. The tagline is important here because, as noted earlier, Americans did not write many books in the Colonial period, which Benjamin Franklin tried to explain by claiming that Americans were too busy doing other things. Perhaps so. But Americans were not too busy to make use of the printing press, even if not for books they themselves had written. The first printing press in America was established in 1638 as an adjunct of Harvard University, which was two years old at the time. Presses were established shortly thereafter in Boston and Philadelphia without resistance by the Crown, a curious fact since at this time presses were not permitted in Liverpool and Birmingham, among other English cities. The earliest use of the press was for the printing of newsletters, mostly done on cheap paper. It may well be that the development of an American literature was retarded not by the industry of the people or the availability of English literature but by the scarcity of quality paper. As late as Revolutionary days, George Washington was forced to write to his generals on unsightly scraps of paper, and his dispatches were not enclosed in envelopes, paper being too scarce for such use.

The men who make Utopias proceed upon a radically false assumption as to what constitutes a good life.

H/T Marginal Revolution.

From Principles of Social Reconstruction, 1916 by Bertrand Russell.
A great many of the impulses which now lead nations to go to war are in themselves essential to any vigorous or progressive life. Without imagination and love of adventure a society soon becomes stagnant and begins to decay. Conflict, provided it is not destructive and brutal, is necessary in order to stimulate men’s activities, and to secure the victory of what is living over what is dead or merely traditional. The wish for the triumph of one’s cause, the sense of solidarity with large bodies of men, are not things which a wise man will wish to destroy. It is only the outcome in death and destruction and hatred that is evil. The problem is, to keep these impulses, without making war the outlet for them.

All Utopias that have hitherto been constructed are intolerably dull. Any man with any force in him would rather live in this world, with all its ghastly horrors, than in Plato's Republic or among Swift's Houyhnhnms. The men who make Utopias proceed upon a radically false assumption as to what constitutes a good life. They conceive that it is possible to imagine a certain state of society and a certain way of life which should be once for all recognized as good, and should then continue for ever and ever. They do not realize that much the greater part of a man’s happiness depends upon activity, and only a very small remnant consists in passive enjoyment. Even the pleasures which do consist in enjoyment are only satisfactory, to most men, when they come in the intervals of activity. Social reformers, like inventors of Utopias, are apt to forget this very obvious fact of human nature. They aim rather at securing more leisure, and more opportunity for enjoying it, than at making work itself more satisfactory, more consonant with impulse, and a better outlet for creativeness and the desire to employ one’s faculties.
The sentence I have bolded is, I think, the crux. Totalitarian statists are also stasists - nothing changes.

In reality, not only does the definition of utopia differ between individuals but it also differs for an individual over time. Utopia for a fifteen year old boy looks dramatically different than utopia for that same person as a fifty year old man. If you acknowledge that every person defines utopia differently from one another and differently over time, then the coercive totalitarian project disappears. It is simply not achievable.

With that disappearance you can begin to focus on the real challenge, creating participatory systems which have the greatest probability of allowing the most number of people to achieve their transitory goals most frequently, over the longest durations of time. Much, much harder but also much more noble.

Russell's passage sheds light on the mind of the tragedy and disaster of the pathologically altruistic. The pathologically altruistic are those individuals who are uncomfortable letting others live their lives as they see fit but who wish to impose the donor's view of what the "beneficiary" should want onto the beneficiary. An imposition that usually fails to account for the beneficiaries's actual definition of utopia and which ignore the details of the circumstances constraining the beneficiary. It is why so many of these pathologically altruistic endeavors so often go astray. The pathologically altruistic are so often also both statists and stasists.

27-year-old know nothings

Getting kind of tired of all the political snark but this is at least marginally clever.

It would seem to bear out Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Ben Rhodes, who described his manipulation of the main stream media. His explanation for why that was so easy?
The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.
It is even worse than Rhodes indicated. 27-year olds only experienced in very recent political campaigns.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

No literary aristocracy emerged in Colonial America

From Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. Page 34.
One significant implication of this situation is that no literary aristocracy emerged in Colonial America. Reading was not regarded as an elitist activity, and printed matter was spread evenly among all kinds of people. A thriving, classless reading culture developed because, as Daniel Boorstin writes, "It was diffuse. Its center was everywhere because it was nowhere. Every man was close to what [printed matter] talked about. Everyone could speak the same language. It was the product of a busy, mobile, public society." By 1772, Jacob Duché could write: "The poorest labourer upon the shore of the Delaware thinks himself entitled to deliver his sentiment in matters of religion or politics with as much freedom as the gentleman or scholar. . . . Such is the prevailing taste for books of every kind, that almost every man is a reader."

Where such a keen taste for books prevailed among the general population, we need not be surprised that Thomas Paine's Common Sense, published on January 10, 1776, sold more than 100,000 copies by March of the same year. In 1985, a book would have to sell eight million copies (in two months) to match the proportion of the population Paine's book attracted. If we go beyond March, 1776, a more awesome set of figures is given by Howard Fast: "No one knows just how many copies were actually printed. The most conservative sources place the figure at something over 300,000 copies. Others place it just under half a million. Taking a figure of 400,000 in a population of 3,000,000, a book published today would have to sell 24,000,000 copies to do as well." The only communication event that could produce such collective attention in today's America is the Superbowl.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The printed book released people from the domination of the immediate and the local

From Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. Page 32.
Aside from the fact that the religion of these Calvinist Puritans demanded that they be literate, three other factors account for the colonists' preoccupation with the printed word. Since the male literacy rate in seventeenth-century England did not exceed 40 percent, we may assume, first of all, that the migrants to New England came from more literate areas of England or from more literate segments of the population, or both. In other words, they came here as readers and were certain to believe that reading was as important in the New World as it was in the Old. Second, from 1650 onward almost all New England towns passed laws requiring the maintenance of a "reading and writing" school, the large communities being required to maintain a grammar school, as well. In all such laws, reference is made to Satan, whose evil designs, it was supposed, could be thwarted at every turn by education. But there were other reasons why education was required, as suggested by the following ditty, popular in the seventeenth century:
From public schools shall general knowledge flow,
For 'tis the people's sacred right to know.
These people, in other words, had more than the subjection of Satan on their minds. Beginning in the sixteenth century, a great epistemological shift had taken place in which knowledge of every kind was transferred to, and made manifest through, the printed page. "More than any other device," Lewis Mumford wrote of this shift, "the printed book released people from the domination of the immediate and the local; . . . print made a greater impression than actual events. . . . To exist was to exist in print: the rest of the world tended gradually to become more shadowy. Learning became book-learning." In light of this, we may assume that the schooling of the young was understood by the colonists not only as a moral duty but as an intellectual imperative. (The England from which they came was an island of schools. By 1660, for example, there were 444 schools in England, one school approximately every twelve miles.) And it is clear that growth in literacy was closely connected to schooling. Where schooling was not required (as in Rhode Island) or weak school laws prevailed (as in New Hampshire), literacy rates increased more slowly than elsewhere.

Finally, these displaced Englishmen did not need to print their own books or even nurture their own writers. They imported, whole, a sophisticated literary tradition from their Motherland. In 1736, booksellers advertised the availability of the Spectator, the Tatler, and Steele's Guardian. In 1738, advertisements appeared for Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Pope's Homer, Swift's A Tale of a Tub and Dryden's Fables. Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University, described the American situation succinctly:
Books of almost every kind, on almost every subject, are already written to our hands. Our situation in this respect is singular. As we speak the same language with the people of Great Britain, and have usually been at peace with that country; our commerce with it brings to us, regularly, not a small part of the books with which it is deluged. In every art, science, and path of literature, we obtain those, which to a great extent supply our wants.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Flawed Index

Richard Florida is something of the Paul Ehrlich of urban planning. He has interesting ideas but few of them show well under the cold light of reality. Fun to talk about but not especially useful.

He has come out with a new Urban Crisis Index which has the feel, once again, of using ideas and numbers to pursue a predetermined agenda rather than an actual useful measure of how to improve things. The article is Mapping the New Urban Crisis by Richard Florida.
America today is beset by a New Urban Crisis. If the old urban crisis was defined by the flight of business, jobs, and the middle class to the suburbs, the New Urban Crisis is defined by the back-to-the-city movement of the affluent and the educated—accompanied by rising inequality, deepening economic segregation, and increasingly unaffordable housing.

This crisis looks different across the country. The map below charts how America’s 350-plus metros stack up on my New Urban Crisis index—a composite metric my team and I developed. It accounts for measures of wage inequality and income inequality; overall economic segregation along income, educational, and occupational lines; and the unaffordability of housing. The index combines these factors on a scale of zero to one, where a higher coefficient indicates more inequality, segregation, and lack of affordability. Dark purple indicates metros where the New Urban Crisis is most severe, while light blue indicates where its impact is less harsh.
The three metrics betray the weak underpinning for this new "crisis". Only one of the three seems actually pertinent while two of the three are simply aspirational goals by central planners willing to overlook the interests and needs of citizens.

Wage inequality is real and is especially stark in cities, but does it have any real implication? Most of the research says no. Inequality is not in itself a problem. The real driver is lack of job opportunities that drives immiseration and poverty. Wage inequality can correlate with lack of job growth but that is incidental. Lack of jobs is the problem, not inequality per se.

Similarly with segregation. Florida is not talking about government enforced segregation, he is talking about elective segregation. Give people the freedom to choose where they wish to live and they will usually choose to live in configurations that meet a multitude of personal objectives (security, education, appreciation opportunity, convenience of transportation, like-educated people, like-class people, etc.) Everywhere, when given the freedom to choose, people cluster and many of those clusters are age, race, religion, class-based. Presumably because of its prior association with government enforced segregation, elective-clustering is despised by utopian determinists but it is not clear at all that there are any negative consequences to letting people choose where they wish to live.

The only one of the three metics which has some basis in reality, some causative negative consequence, is unaffordability of housing. Even here, the issue is simply one of time. There are consequences to rapid escalations in housing unaffordability but these are often functions of bubbles - they resolve themselves in the longer run. But indisputably, in the short run, rapidly rising housing unaffordability does exact negative consequences on some portion of the population.

Coincidentally, this is also the issue easiest to tackle. Unaffordability is simply a function of stringent zoning requirements which restrict what types of housing can be built and where. Such zoning is usually very rewarding to incumbent residents (it drives up the value of their properties) but punishing to new comers (by pricing them out of otherwise preferred locations.) We know what causes unaffordable housing costs (zoning restrictions) and we know what the solution is; remove such restrictions and increase the supply of housing. While this is the easiest problem to understand and solve, it is also usually, one of the most difficult to effect. Rich people like their zoning as it makes them richer and therefore fight tooth and nail to maintain it.

Back to Florida's Urban Crisis Index - two fake issues and one short term issue are the constituents of this new measure revealing a New Urban Crisis. I am skeptical.

It is interesting what is not on the list. Where is crime? Where is affordability (beyond just housing)? Where is mortality and morbidity? Where is longterm sustainability (financial fragility)? These are all real-life issues and hard metrics are available for all of them. I suspect that these actually represent a stronger base for any argument about a new urban crisis but they are missing. Why?

But all that is by-the-by. My following observation is inescapably going to come across as partisan and it is not quite intended to be that.

What struck me in Florida's article was that there was nary a mention of the fact that his Urban Crisis Index is highly correlated with governance. The great majority of the top 20 worst cities have not had competitive elections for fifty years and more. And this is the inescapably partisan-appearing element. Most of these cities have not had a Republican mayor in generations. New York is certainly an exception (and likely an exception that proves the rule). By-and-large, all these cities which are, according to Florida, most in crisis, are routinely and reliably Democrat.

There are a slew of policies associated with Democrats when it comes to cities, and most these cities have experimented or lived many or most these policies. Democrats tend to be supportive of high minimum wages, tight zoning control, extensive regulation, high taxes, hostile to many aspects of police law enforcement, supportive of generous public assistance programs, raced-based and gender-based affirmative action programs, controlled growth, anti-car, anti-school choice, pro-union, pro-government programs, etc.

Nowhere in the article is there either an acknowledgement that the cities in greatest urban crisis are cities with the deepest association with the Democratic Party or, put differently, that cities in the greatest urban crisis are those who have pursued most vigorously the policies most associated with the Democratic Party. That seems an incredible omission because it obscures an interesting question.

What is the direction of causal flow? Are cities in distress and they need these policies to alleviate that distress? OR Are cities in distress because they pursue these types of policies? I am strongly inclined towards the latter.

If you want to increase affordable housing, reduce regulation and zoning and the supply of housing will increase.

If you want to decrease inequality, foster a business environment that encourages job growth, principally by reducing regulations and tax burdens.

If you want to decrease people's clustering - well, there isn't much you can do there without subverting people's freedoms. Increasing school vouchers and transportable living vouchers (instead of public housing) are a couple of ways you can nudge that needle a little bit.

As a minor escape from the cloud of the charge of partisanship, I will say that I think the problem is not quite so much to do with partisan policies as it is to do with the absence of competition. I don't think the problem is primarily an absence of Republicans in city government (a contributor perhaps but not necessarily a primary driver.) All cities tend to end up with a primary party representing the status quo of vested interests and it doesn't really matter the name of the party.

The real issue, I suspect, is the absence of real political competition. If it is a single party, even with a portfolio of tried and failed policies, then the electorate can't really effect change. There have to be two parties competing with one another and with both having some real prospect of success. Without that threat of competition, there is very little accountability or evolution towards effectiveness.

Florida is pushing his new book and this article is just part of the publicity campaign. I think the Index is fatally flawed and designed to push a faux crisis. But there is a real issue out there in terms of the governance of our cities and even this flawed Index could have been the genesis for an interesting discussion and insight. Instead it comes across as the same old ideological mantra.