Saturday, July 31, 2010

It is a man's duty to have books.

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe:
Books are the windows through which the soul looks out. A home without books is like a room without windows. No man has the right to bring up children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them. It is a wrong to his family. He cheats them! Children learn to read by being in the presence of books. The love of knowledge comes with reading and grows upon it. And the love of knowledge, in a young mind, is almost a warrant against inferior excitement of passions and vices. Let us pity these poor rich men who live barrenly in great bookless houses! Let us congratulate the poor that, in our day, books are so cheap that a man may every year add a hundred volumes to his library for the price which his tobacco and his beer would cost him. Among the earliest ambitions to be excited in clerks, workmen, journeymen, and, indeed, among all that are struggling up in life from nothing to something, is that of forming and continually adding to a library of good books. A little library, growing larger every year, is an honourable part of a man's history. It is a man's duty to have books. A library is not a luxury, but is one of the necessities of life.

Friday, July 30, 2010

A certain freshness of spirit

Umberto Eco from his How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays.
I'm not saying people are banal. Taking as divine inspiration, as a flash of originiality, something that is obvious reveals a certain freshness of spirit, an enthusiasm for life and its unpredictability, a love of ideas - small as they may be. I will always remember my first meeting with that great man Erving Hoffman, whom I admired and loved for the genius and penetration with which he could identify infinitesimal aspects of behavior that had previously eluded everyone else. We were sitting at an outdoor cafe when, looking at the street after a while, he said, "You know something? I believe there are too many automobiles in circulation in our cities." Maybe he had never thought this before because he had had far more important things to think about; he had just had a sudden epiphany and still had the mental freshness to express it. I, a little snob infected by the Unzeitgemasse Betrachtungen of Nietsche, would have hesitated to say it, even if I thought it.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The contents of someone's bookcase . . .

Anatole Broyard:
The contents of someone's bookcase are part of his history, like an ancestral portrait.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Let every man, if possible, gather some good books under his roof

Self Culture, a speech given by William Ellery Channing in Boston in September 1838. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Similar wise advice still waiting for ears that will turn it into action. Among his comments on books are these passages, though the whole speech is worth reading.
I come now to another important measure of self-culture, and this is, intercourse with superior minds. I have insisted on our own activity as essential to our progress; but we were not made to live or advance alone. Society is as needful to us as air or food. A child doomed to utter loneliness, growing up without sight or sound of human beings, would not put forth equal power with many brutes; and a man, never brought into contact with minds superior to his own, will probably run one and the same dull round of thought and action to the end of llfe.

It is chiefly through books that we enjoy intercourse with superior minds, and these invaluable means of communication are in the reach of all. In the best books great men talk to us, give us their most precious thoughts, and pour their souls into ours. God be thanked for books. They are the voices of the distant and the dead, and make us heirs of the spiritual life of past ages. Books are the true levelers. They give to all who will faithfully use them the society, the spiritual presence, of the best and greatest of our race. No matter how poor I am. No matter though the prosperous of my own time will not enter my obscure dwelling. If the Sacred Writers will enter and take up their abode under my roof; if Milton will cross my threshold to sing to me of Paradise, and Shakspeare to open to me the workings of imagination and the workings of the human heart, and Franklin to enrich me with his practical wisdom, I shall not pine for want of intellectual companionship, and I may become a cultivated man though excluded from what is called the best society in the place where I live.

To make this means of culture effectual, a man must select good books, such as have been written by right-minded and strong-minded men, real thinkers, who, instead of diluting by repetition what others say, have something to say for themselves, and write to give relief to full, earnest souls; and these works must not be skimmed over for amusement, but read with fixed attention and a reverential love of truth. In selecting books, we may be aided much by those who have studied more than ourselves. But, after all, it is best to be determined in this particular a good deal by our own tastes. The best books for a man are not always those which the wise recommend, but oftener those which meet the peculiar wants, the natural thirst of his mind, and therefore awaken interest and rivet thought. And here it may be well to observe, not only in regard to books but in other respects, that self-culture must vary with the individual. All means do not equally suit us all. A man must unfold himself freely, and should respect the peculiar gifts or biases by which nature has distinguished him from others. Self-culture does not demand the sacrifice of individuality. It does not regularly apply an established machinery, for the sake of torturing every man into one rigid shape, called perfection. As the human countenance, with the same features in us all, is diversified without end in the race, and is never the same in any two individuals, so the human soul, with the same grand powers and laws, expands into an infinite variety of forms, and would be wofully stinted by modes of culture requiring all men to learn the same lesson or to bend to the same rules.

I know how hard it is to some men, especially to those who spend much time in manual labor, to fix attention on books. Let them strive to overcome the difficulty by choosing subjects of deep interest, or by reading in company with those whom they love. Nothing can supply the place of books. They are cheering or soothing companions in solitude, illness, affliction. The wealth of both continents would not compensate for the good they impart. Let every man, if possible, gather some good books under his roof, and obtain access for himself and family to some social library. Almost any luxury should be sacrificed to this.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I quite forgot what Bismarck said

At A Reading
by Thomas Bailey Aldrich

The spare Professor, grave and bald,
Began his paper. It was called,
I think, "A Brief Historic Glance
At Russia, Germany, and France."
A glance, but to my best belief
'Twas almost anything but brief -
A wide survey, in which the earth
Was seen before mankind had birth;
Strange monsters basked them in the sun,
Behemoth, armored glyptodon,
And in the dawn's unpractised ray
The transient dodo winged its way;
Then, by degrees, through silt and slough,
We reached Berlin - I don't know how.
The good Professor's monotone
Had turned me into senseless stone
Instanter, but that near me sat
Hypatia in her new spring hat,
Blue-eyed, intent, with lips whose bloom
Lighted the heavy-curtained room.
Hypatia - ah, what lovely things
Are fashioned out of eighteen springs!
At first, in sums of this amount,
The eighteen winters do not count.
Just as my eyes were growing dim
With heaviness, I saw that slim,
Erect, elastic figure there,
Like a pond-lily taking air.
She looked so fresh, so wise, so neat,
So altogether crisp and sweet,
I quite forgot what Bismarck said,
And why the Emperor shook his head,
And how it was Von Moltke's frown
Cost France another frontier town.
The only facts I took away
From the Professor's theme that day
Were these: a forehead broad and low,
Such as the antique sculptures show;
A chin to Greek perfection true;
Eyes of Astarte's tender blue;
A high complexion without fleck
Or flaw, and curls about her neck.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pippa's Song

Pippa's Song
by Robert Browning

The year's at the spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew-pearl'd;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in His heaven -
All's right with the world!

This was a favorite stanza for P.G. Wodehouse and shows up in several places among his more than ninety books and stories. For instance in Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse.
I marmaladed a slice of toast with something of a flourish, and I don't suppose I have ever come much closer to saying "Tra-la-la" as I did the lathering, for I was feeling in mid-season form this morning. God, as I once heard Jeeves put it, was in His heaven and all right with the world. (He added, I remember, some guff about larks and snails, but that is a side issue and need not detain us.)

Or in Extricating Young Gussie:
The odd part of it was that after the first shock of seeing all this frightful energy the thing didn't seem so strange. I've spoken to fellows since who have been to New York, and they tell me they found it just the same. Apparently there's something in the air, either the ozone or the phosphates or something, which makes you sit up and take notice. A kind of zip, as it were. A sort of bally freedom, if you know what I mean, that gets into your blood and bucks you up, and makes you feel that--

God's in His Heaven:
All's right with the world,

and you don't care if you've got odd socks on. I can't express it better than by saying that the thought uppermost in my mind, as I walked about the place they call Times Square, was that there were three thousand miles of deep water between me and my Aunt Agatha.

500 million books can't all be wrong

Enid Blyton's Famous Five get 21st-century makeover by Alison Flood in The Guardian, July 23rd, 2010. Enid Blyton was a wonderful British author writing from the 1930's onwards. Hugely prolific she has always been very popular with children and more than a few habitual and enthusiastic readers were most likely led down the reading path by Blyton. For all that, from the 1960s onwards there have been literary, academic and political critics complaining that her language was too dated, racist, classist, etc. For all the proto-controversies, expungement from school and public libraries and other rediculous manifestations of faux indignation, children have continued to love and read her books. There is nothing to put small minds in their place like persistent success.
Although Blyton died in 1968, she remains one of the most popular children's authors. Hodder sells more than half a million copies of the Famous Five books a year, while Blyton has sold more than 500m books and still features in the top 10 of most borrowed children's authors from public libraries.

Usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes & dislikes

There is a review by Warren Clements of a facsimile version H.W. Fowler's classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage first published in 1926 in The Globe and Mail. Language enthusiasts can get kind of boring sometimes in their myopic enthusiasms but I have always enjoyed Fowler whether I agreed with him or not on particualr points. He has a distinctive voice and is clever in his comments in a way that is quite refreshing even though times and usages have moved on.

Crystal acknowledges the long polarization between descriptivists, who observe the way language usage is changing, and prescriptivists, who often lament those changes and insist on rules that buck current trends. Fowler was largely a prescriptivist. Crystal, like Burchfield, is more of a descriptivist, but where Burchfield was unkind to Fowler, Crystal is of two minds: "Although the book is full of his personal likes and dislikes, his prescriptivism - unlike that practised by many of his disciples - is usually intelligent and reasoned."

Fowler was aware of the tension. "What grammarians say should be," he writes, "has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes & dislikes. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible." Crystal comments: "I sense a linguist inside him crying to get out, but being held back by a prescriptive conscience."

Fowler has a large following and he is an instance of that circumstance that raises the question - why is a book popular and how can we tell that it will be popular? I did a study a while ago of the comparison of books that receive awards and their longevity in terms of remaining in print as well as compared to other books that did not receive awards. The conclusion was that our capacity to accurately predict the enduring popularity of a book is vestigial. Only one book out of six awarded a prestigious prize seventy-five years ago remained in print. At the same time, even with a very cursory search, I was able to identify more than a dozen books published the same year and which did not receive prizes but remain strong sellers today. What makes the difference? Charm of the author, distinctiveness of style, enduring relevance of issues/emotions, communicated passion or sincerity or motivation all might be candidates but none lend themselves to being measured and so far there is no good way to tell.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

It is by the imagination only

From Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. In the first chapter of his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith lays out his rational for what would later be developed by psychologists into what is known as the Theory of Mind, i.e. the capacity of humans to reflect on the condition of others by mirroring their circumstances to our own imagination. A neurological base for supporting this theory was eventually established back in the early 1990's by researcher Giacomo Rizzolati.

What caught my eye was this passage by Smith in Chapter II where he is giving a series of examples of our ability to sympathetically experience that which is occurring to others. Here he points out that sympathetic experience is very powerful, allowing us to experience through another that which is worn out for us. The example which he uses is that of reading.
When we have read a book or poem so often that we can no longer find any amusement in reading it by ourselves, we can still take pleasure in reading it to a companion. To him it has all the graces of novelty; we enter into the surprise and admiration which it naturally excites in him, but which it is no longer capable of exciting in us; we consider all the ideas which it presents rather in the light in which they appear to him, than in that in which they appear to ourselves, and we are amused by sympathy with his amusement which thus enlivens our own. On the contrary, we should be vexed if he did not seem to be entertained with it, and we could no longer take any pleasure in reading it to him.

This is a situation perfectly familiar to any parent reading to a child. We know precisely what Smith is talking about. The Little Engine That Could may have long ago left the station as a mainstay of our reading or even our particular interest in the narrative twists of the tale but we look forward to experiencing again that love of the book through our child and are vexed if our gift of a much loved story does not strike a similar note with our child.

Part of that vexation is of course disappointment that they won't love what you loved, part of that vexation is that we ourselves cannot re-experience the engagement with the story through our child. And finally, part of the vexation is that this is the first intimation that our child is not us. They do have their own interests, foibles, and enthusiasms and while they may be more or less in alignment with our own characteristics, they are not perfectly aligned. The child we seek to raise by our best lights will follow their own path causing great pain and great joy along the way. What we see in them at six months will be different from what we see at six years, much less sixteen years or twenty-six.

Smith identifies imagination as being the principle engine for our capacity to empathize with the conditions of others.
As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy.

Here he makes indirectly the case for enthusiastic reading. Our capacity to function well is contingent upon our sympathy for others. That sympathy is generated by our imagination. There are other ways to cultivate imagination but certainly one of the easiest and most easily accessible is by reading. By voluminous reading we expand our horizons and are called upon and assisted by gifted authors to imagine ourselves into other lives and circumstances. The more practice we have of this through reading, the better able we are to empathize with others in real life.

My library was dukedom large enough

William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Scene II, Prospero:
My library was dukedom large enough . .

Truth and politicians

Wendell Phillips -
You can always get the truth from an American statesman after he has turned seventy, or given up all hope for the Presidency.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Dr. Johnson on reading

Dr. Samuel Johnson
The way reading is taught in school slowly and steadily destroys their desire to read.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Excellence and ennui

From Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment. A very intriguing and rigorous discussion of what constitutes accomplishment, how do we measure it, and how do we explain it.

The willingness to engage in such monomaniacal levels of effort in the sciences and creative arts is related to a sense of vocation. By vocation, I have in mind the dictionary definition of "a function or station in life to which one is called by God." I hedge on the necessity of God as the source. Many scientists see themselves as having a vocation in the service of Truth. Many other achievers see themselves as having a vocation without thinking about where it came from. My point is that a person with a strong sense of this is what I have been put on earth to do is more likely to accomplish great things than someone who doesn't. Ennui, anomie, alienation, and other forms of belief that life is futile and purposeless are at odds with the zest and life-affirming energy needed to produce great art or great science. Cultures vary in the degree to which they promote or discourage these alternative ways of looking at the world.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Leak in the Dike

The Leak in the Dike
by Phoebe Cary (1824-1871)

The good dame looked from her cottage
At the close of the pleasant day,
And cheerily called to her little son
Outside the door at play:

"Come, Peter, come! I want you to go,
While there is light to see,
To the hut of the blind old man who lives
Across the dike, for me;
And take these cakes I made for him--
They are hot and smoking yet;
You have time enough to go and come
Before the sun is set."

Then the good wife turned to her labor,
Humming a simple song,
And thought of her husband, working hard
At the sluices all day long;
And set the turf a-blazing,
And brought the coarse, black bread,
That he might find a fire at night,
And see the table spread.

And Peter left the brother
With whom all day he had played,
And the sister who had watched their sports
In the willow's tender shade;
And told them they'd see him back before
They saw a star in sight --
Though he wouldn't be afraid to go
In the very darkest night!
For he was a brave, bright fellow,
With eye and conscience clear;
He could do whatever a boy might do,
And he had not learned to fear.

Why, he wouldn't have robbed a bird's nest,
Nor brought a stork to harm,
Though never a law in Holland
Had stood to stay his arm!

And now, with his face all glowing,
And eyes as bright as the day
With the thoughts of his pleasant errand,
He trudged along the way;
And soon his joyous prattle
Made glad a lonesome place--
Alas! if only the blind old man
Could have seen that happy face!
Yet he somehow caught the brightness
Which his voice and presence lent;
And he felt the sunshine come and go
As Peter came and went.

And now, as the day was singing,
And the winds began to rise,
The mother looked from her door again,
Shading her anxious eyes,
And saw the shadows deepen,
And birds to their homes come back,
But never a sign of Peter
Along the level track.
But she said, "He will come at morning,
So I need not fret or grieve--
Though it isn't like my boy at all
To stay without my leave."

But where was the child delaying?
On the homeward way was he,
And across the dike while the sun was up
An hour above the sea.
He was stooping now to gather flowers;
Now listening to the sound,
As the angry waters dashed themselves
Against their narrow bound.

"Ah! well for us," said Peter,
"That the gates are good and strong,
And my father tends them carefully,
Or they would not hold you long!
You're a wicked sea," said Peter;
"I know why you fret and chafe;
You would like to spoil our lands and homes;
But our sluices keep you safe!"

But hark! through the noise of waters
Comes a low, clear, trickling sound;
And the child's face pales with terror,
As his blossoms drop to the ground.
He is up the bank in a moment,
And, stealing through the sand,
He sees a stream not yet so large
As his slender, childish hand.
'Tis a leak in the dike! He is but a boy,
Unused to fearful scenes;
But, young as he is, he has learned to know
The dreadful thing that means.
A leak in the dike! The stoutest heart
Grows faint that cry to hear,
And the bravest man in all the land
Turns white with mortal fear.
For he knows the smallest leak may grow
To a flood in a single night;
And he knows the strength of the cruel sea
When loosed in its angry might.

And the boy! He has seen the danger,
And, shouting a wild alarm,
He forces back the weight of the sea
With the strength of a single arm!
He listens for the joyful sound
Of a footstep passing nigh;
And lays his ear to the ground, to catch
The answer to his cry,--
And he hears the rough winds blowing,
And the waters rise and fall,
But never an answer comes to him
Save the echo of his call.

He sees no hope, no succor,
His feeble voice is lost;
Yet what shall he do but watch and wait,
Though he perish at his post!
So, faintly calling and crying
Till the sun is under the sea;
Crying and moaning till the stars
Come out for company;
He thinks of his brother and sister,
Asleep in their safe warm bed;
He thinks of his dear father and mother;
Of himself as dying, and dead;
And of how, when the night is over,
They must come and find him at last;
But he never thinks he can leave the place
Where duty holds him fast.

The good dame in the cottage
Is up and astir with the light,
For the thought of her little Peter
Has been with her all the night.
And now she watches the pathway,
As yester-eve she had done;
But what does she see so strange and black
Against the rising sun?
Her neighbors are bearing between them
Something straight to her door;
Her child is coming home, but not
As he ever came before!

"He is dead!" she cries; "my darling!"
And the startled father hears,
And comes and looks the way she looks,
And fears the thing she fears;
Till a glad shout from the bearers
Thrills the stricken man and wife--
"Give thanks, for your son has saved our land,
And God has saved his life!"
So, there in the morning sunshine
They knelt about the boy;
And every head was bared and bent
In tearful, reverent joy.

'Tis many a year since then; but still,
When the sea roars like a flood,
Their boys are taught what a boy can do
Who is brave and true and good.
For every man in that country
Takes his dear son by the hand,
And tells him of little Peter,
Whose courage saved the land.

They have many a valiant hero,
Remembered through the years;
But never one whose name so oft
Is named with loving tears.
And his deed shall be sung by the cradle,
And told to the child on the knee,
So long as the dikes of Holland
Divide the land from the sea!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Any movement that deprecates facts . . .

From E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy.
Any educational movement that avoids coming to terms with the specific contents of literate education or evades the responsibility of conveying them to all citizens is committing a fundamental error. However noble its aims, any movement that deprecates facts as antiquated or irrelevant injures the cause of higher national literacy. The old prejudice that facts deaden the minds of children has a long history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and includes not just the disciples of Rousseau and Dewey but also Charles Dickens who, in the figure of Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times, satirized the teaching of mere facts. But it isn't facts that deaden the minds of young children, who are storing facts in their minds every day with astonishing voracity. It is incoherence - our failure to ensure that a pattern of shared, vividly taught, and socially enabling knowledge will emerge from our instruction.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


From Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment. A very intriguing and rigorous discussion of what constitutes accomplishment, how do we measure it, and how do we explain it.
One of the most overlooked aspects of excellence is how much work it takes. Fame can come easily and overnight, but excellence is almost always accompanied by a crushing workload, pursued with single-minded intensity. Strenuous effort over long periods of time is a repetitive theme in the biographies of the giants, sometimes taking on mythic proportions (Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel). Even the most famous supposed exception, Mozart, illustrates the rule. He was one of the lighter spirits among the giants, but his reputation for composing effortlessly was overstated - Mozart himself complained on more than one occasion that it wasn't as easy as it looked - and his devotion to his work was as single-minded as Beethoven's, who struggled with his compositions more visibly. Consider the summer of 1788. Mozart was living in a city that experienced bread riots that summer and in a country that was mobilizing for war. He was financially desperate, forced to pawn his belongings to move to cheaper rooms. He even tried to sell the pawnbroker's tickets to get more loans. Most devastating of all, his beloved six-month old daughter died in June. And yet in June, July, and August, he completed two piano trios, a piano sonata, a violin sonata, and three symphonies, two of them among his most famous. It could not have been done except by someone who, as Mozart himself once put it, is "soaked in music, . . . immersed in it all day long."

Psychologists have put specific dimensions to this aspect of accomplishment. One thread of this literature, inaugurated in the early 1970s by Herbert Simon, argues that expertise in a subject requires a person to assimilate about 50,000 "chunks" of information about the subject over 10 years of experience - simple expertise, not the mastery that is associated with great accomplishment. Once expertise is achieved, it is followed by thousands of hours of practice, study, labor. Nor is all of this work productive. What we see of significant figures' work is typically shadowed by an immense amount of wasted effort - most successful creators produce clunkers, sometimes far more clunkers than gems.

As one reviewer of the literature on creative people concluded, "Not only every sample, but every individual within each sample appears to be characterized by persistent dedication to work." The accounts that he surveyed reveal not a few hours a week beyond 40, or a somewhat more focused attitude at work than the average, but levels of effort and focus that are standard deviations above the mean. Whether Edison's estimate of the ratio of perspiration to inspiration (99:1) is correct is open to argument, but his words echo the anonymous poet from ancient Greece who wrote that "before the gates of excellence the high gods have placed sweat."
This correlation between work and achievement reminds me of some old adage that went something like "it's funny how all the good luck happens to the people that work the hardest." Actually there are several permutations out there:
The harder I work, the luckier I get. Sam Goldwyn

I'm a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it. Thomas Jefferson

Luck is a dividend of sweat. The more you sweat, the luckier you get. Ray A. Kroc
This passage is also consistent with the observation that most fields of expertise require some 5-10,000 hours of practice and reinforces the inequalities that are faced even at the earliest ages. If a child has been read to for an hour or so a day all their life, by the time they start kindergarten, they are already nearly 2,000 hours into their 5,000 hour apprenticeship of reading. Poor kid who starts from scratch in kindergarten.

Policy-based evidence-making

A novel and creative phrasing in the comments to a blog post from Megan McArdle regarding the controversy over the serial inaccuracies and fabrications attendant to the writings of Michael Bellesiles:
policy-based evidence-making has replaced evidence-based policymaking.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The final and great remaining question

From Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment. A very intriguing and rigorous discussion of what constitutes accomplishment, how do we measure it, and how do we explain it.

For West and non-West alike, there remains the final and great remaining question: Why do streams of accomplishment begin and end? So far, the variable we have examined that has the most explanatory power is the number of significant figures in the preceding generation. The relationship is important in itself. It bears directly on the question that puzzled Velleius from his vantage point two thousand years ago, that Alfred Kroeber tried to attack with the limited tools available to him the 1930s, and that Dean Simonton subsequently answered for both Western civilizations and for China. The processes that lead to human accomplishment in the arts and sciences are self-reinforcing, involving the emulation of models and the availability of a growing creative edifice that the new generation can build upon.

But valuable as it is, this finding does not tell us what generates a major stream of accomplishments in the first place. We face a more pedestrian version of the problem that faces cosmologists trying to understand the history of the universe. They know a great deal about what happened nanseconds after the Big Bang began. They just don't know how it got started. The variables in the last two chapters tell us much about the dynamics governing streams of accomplishmment once they are underway. They don't tell us what ignites the blaze or why it dies out.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Spain was flooded with gold

From Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment. A very intriguing and rigorous discussion of what constitutes accomplishment, how do we measure it, and how do we explain it.

I was familiar with the economic history of Spain and the ravages wreaked upon its economy by the discovery and exploitation of the wealth of the New World. Murray fills out the picture by identifying how the economic decline was mirrored by a decline in cultural productivity as well.
Spain supplies the most intriguing connection between economics and accomplishment in the arts. In the decades after Columbus discovered the New World, Cortez conquered the Aztecs, and Pizarro conquered the Incas, Spain was flooded with gold and silver - on the order of 200 tons of gold and 18,000 tons of silver from 1500-1650. It was a fortune of spectacular proportions, and it probably destroyed Spain as a major European power. It needn't have - the windfall could have been used for capital investment in agriculture and industry. But instead it was frittered away on war and luxury. Worse than merely wasted, Spain's temporary riches also inculcated in her people a reluctance to work that spread from the rich through the formerly industrious working class. "The love of luxury and comforts of civilization have overcome them," wrote a Moroccan ambassador to Madrid in 1690-1691, long after the Spanish should have realized it was time to get back to work,

. . . and you will rarely find one of this nation who engages in trade or travels abroad for commerce as do the other Christian nations . . . Similarly the handicrafts practiced by the lower classes and common people are despised by the nation, which regards itself as superior to the other Christian nations. Most of those who practice these crafts in Spain are Frenchmen [who] flock to Spain to look for work . . .[and] in a short time make great fortunes.

Spain used its treasure to invigorate the other European nations while losing its own momentum. By the mid-1600s, Spain had sunk into an economic torpor from which it would not fully recover through the middle of 20C.

Spain's record of significant figures in the arts and sciences parallels its economic roller coaster. Beginning a half century after the discovery of the New World came the artists: painters Zurbaran, Velzquez, and El Greco (an immigrant from Crete); writers Cervantes, Gongora y Argote, Lope de Vega, Quevedo y Vallegas, and Calderon de la Barca; and composer Cabezon. All of these men were major figures, accompanied by another 27 significant figures in the arts inventories. Then, just as abruptly as Spain had begun producing signficant figures, it stopped. Between 1650 and 1850 - during the same two centuries when Britain, France, and Germany were producing hundreds of significant figures and even Italy in its decline produced several dozen - Spain produced a single major figure (Goya) and 11 significant figures.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Just because the world accumulated enough people

From Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment. A very intriguing and rigorous discussion of what constitutes accomplishment, how do we measure it, and how do we explain it.

For any moment in history, knowing how large the populations are within given geographic areas tells you little about whether you will find important work going on in the arts and sciences. Great human accomplishment has not come about just because the world accumulated enough people.

The loss of serendipity

This is a post by Ann Althouse and more of a political comment than not but the issue is relevant to children's choices in reading. In fact it is especially pertinent. It is critical to make sure children have plenty of access to a range of choices (reading level, topics, etc.) as they are developing the skill and capacity to read (see Growing a Reading Culture). But it has to be a range of choices that are relevant to the child and are of a manageable volume.

Althouse is actually linking to another article by Colin Robinson, The Trouble with Amazon. The issue is not confined to Amazon. Our on-line experiences of any sort tend to be self-directed and the opportunity for serendipitous discovery more constrained. Or, as Robinson puts it:
The loss of serendipity that comes with not knowing exactly what one is looking for is lamented by ex-Amazon editor James Marcus: "Personalization strikes me as a mixed blessing. While it gives people what they want - or what they think they want - it also engineers spontaneity out of the picture. The happy accident, the freakish discovery, ceases to exist. And that's a problem."

There are many problems in the book industry. The cost of a title versus the cost of actually producing it (books are cheap to print and expensive to market and distribute). The volume of titles produced per year versus the number of readers. There are a million new titles produced in a year to a national marketplace of 300 million, only 30 million of whom are enthusiastic readers (and are responsible for 80% of all books purchased or checked out from a library), and only an additional 120 million that occasionally read. Given the variance of reading preferences as well as the variance of writing quality, it is amazing that readers find the books they hope to engage with at all. To make it happen easily and well for a child just starting out as a reader is harder still.

Serendipity is one of the magical components of the reading experience - discovering an author, a character, a topic, that you never knew before, falling into fascination with something discovered by accident. That will always be part of what keeps enthusiastic readers reading

Friday, July 16, 2010

Any individual mind is the product of a community of brains

From a review essay by A.C. Grayling of Stephen S. Hall's Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience.
The meat of the essay is summed up in the final paragraph:
But the complexity of the task does not entail that it is permanently unresolvable; rather, it forces us to think afresh about what questions we are asking and what phenomena we are investigating. If I were to say (as I am inclined to) that the wisdom of an individual consists in maturity, intelligence ("there is no method but to be intelligent," said T. S. Eliot; Hall reports studies distinguishing intelligence from wisdom), and self-possession (understood as resistance to blandishments from without and overweening appetites within), this would seem to indicate that wisdom relates to character and behaviour in a social setting, and that we are therefore more likely to learn about it from literature, history, and philosophy than from other sources. This is not to downplay the importance of the new neurologically-informed social sciences, which are fascinating and promising in equal measure; but it is to insist that all our studies need to connect with all our other studies, and that some of them might merit still taking the lead even though others now have superb new machines to aid them. I suspect that Hall shares this view; which is the most interesting implication of his book.

However, I especially liked the line:
any individual mind is the product of a community of brains.

The knowledge must be of value to others

via "Reading: An essay" by W.H. Auden
A scholar is not merely someone whose knowledge is extensive; the knowledge must be of value to others.

A Paralyzing Fear

One of my good fortunes in life has been to have parents that were wonderful story tellers. My mother had a veritable treasury of stories from her childhood, growing up in Depression era Tulsa, Oklahoma which I always found fascinating. While it was never a story in itself, over the years I picked up on the fact that, for all the fun that came with summer, there was always a fear as well. The fear of polio.

I heard these stories as I grew up in the seventies and to me at that time, they were stories from ancient history. The mysteries of polio were unlocked by Salk and Sabin in the early fifties. In only twenty years, polio had become ancient history despite having marked several generations.

In The Haunting of Summers Past, Meredith Hindley reviews a documentary, A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio in America, that tells the story of the impact of polio on the nation, the race to treat the disease and the ultimate success in banishing polio from day-to-day thought.

It's harder to be kind than clever

Commencement speeches can be pretty anodyne but every now and then there are gems that actually say something or make you think. In both the following examples, there are simple stories at the heart of their speeches which create a resonating impact. Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon) delivered a commencement speech this year to the graduating class of his alma mater, Princeton University.
As a kid, I spent my summers with my grandparents on their ranch in Texas. I helped fix windmills, vaccinate cattle, and do other chores. We also watched soap operas every afternoon, especially "Days of our Lives." My grandparents belonged to a Caravan Club, a group of Airstream trailer owners who travel together around the U.S. and Canada. And every few summers, we'd join the caravan. We'd hitch up the Airstream trailer to my grandfather's car, and off we'd go, in a line with 300 other Airstream adventurers. I loved and worshipped my grandparents and I really looked forward to these trips. On one particular trip, I was about 10 years old. I was rolling around in the big bench seat in the back of the car. My grandfather was driving. And my grandmother had the passenger seat. She smoked throughout these trips, and I hated the smell.

At that age, I'd take any excuse to make estimates and do minor arithmetic. I'd calculate our gas mileage -- figure out useless statistics on things like grocery spending. I'd been hearing an ad campaign about smoking. I can't remember the details, but basically the ad said, every puff of a cigarette takes some number of minutes off of your life: I think it might have been two minutes per puff. At any rate, I decided to do the math for my grandmother. I estimated the number of cigarettes per days, estimated the number of puffs per cigarette and so on. When I was satisfied that I'd come up with a reasonable number, I poked my head into the front of the car, tapped my grandmother on the shoulder, and proudly proclaimed, "At two minutes per puff, you've taken nine years off your life!"

I have a vivid memory of what happened, and it was not what I expected. I expected to be applauded for my cleverness and arithmetic skills. "Jeff, you're so smart. You had to have made some tricky estimates, figure out the number of minutes in a year and do some division." That's not what happened. Instead, my grandmother burst into tears. I sat in the backseat and did not know what to do. While my grandmother sat crying, my grandfather, who had been driving in silence, pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway. He got out of the car and came around and opened my door and waited for me to follow. Was I in trouble? My grandfather was a highly intelligent, quiet man. He had never said a harsh word to me, and maybe this was to be the first time? Or maybe he would ask that I get back in the car and apologize to my grandmother. I had no experience in this realm with my grandparents and no way to gauge what the consequences might be. We stopped beside the trailer. My grandfather looked at me, and after a bit of silence, he gently and calmly said, "Jeff, one day you'll understand that it's harder to be kind than clever."
Steve Jobs (founder of Apple) delivered a commencement speech to the graduating class of Stanford in 2005.
I dropped out of Reed College after the first six months but then stayed around as a drop-in for another eighteen months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out? It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife, except that when I popped out, they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking, "We've got an unexpected baby boy. Do you want him?" They said, "Of course." My biological mother found out later that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would go to college.

This was the start in my life. And seventeen years later, I did go to college, but I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents' savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn't see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and no idea of how college was going to help me figure it out, and here I was, spending all the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back, it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out, I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me and begin dropping in on the ones that looked far more interesting.

It wasn't all romantic. I didn't have a dorm room, so I slept on the floor in friends' rooms. I returned Coke bottles for the five-cent deposits to buy food with, and I would walk the seven miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it. And much of what I stumbled into by following my curiosity and intuition turned out to be priceless later on.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

How language affects self-regulation

From eScienceNews, May 28, 2010, Will We Succeed? The Science of Self-Motivation.
From children's books like "The Little Engine That Could," in which the title character says, "I think I can," to Holden Caulfield's misanthropic musings in "A Catcher in the Rye," internal dialogue often influences the way people motivate and shape their own behavior.

But was "The Little Engine" using the best motivational tool, or does "Bob the Builder" have the right idea when he asks, "Can we fix it?"

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Girls too can read . . .

From Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment. A very intriguing and rigorous discussion of what constitutes accomplishment, how do we measure it, and how do we explain it.

In passing, Murray quotes a senior official from Russian-controlled Poland in 1818 commenting on the importance placed by Ashkenazi Jews upon education. It struck me as parallel to a recent reinterpretation I was reading of Max Weber's famous essay, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The reinterpretation argued that Weber was close to right but not quite; that it was not the religion per se that was important but rather certain cultural values which it reinforced. In particular, the author argued, it was not so much the theology of Protestantism but rather the critical role placed on a direct connection to God via reading the Bible, i.e. all members (including women) needed to be able to read. It was reading that was the dramatic differentiator - or so the author was arguing. Anyway, here is the Russian official:
Almost every one of their families hires a tutor to teach its children . . . We [Gentiles] do not have more than 868 schools in towns and villages and 27,985 pupils in all. They probably have the same number of pupils because their entire population studies. Girls too can read, even the girls of the poorest families. Every family, be it in the most modest circumstances, buys books, because there will be at least ten books in every household. Most of those inhabiting the huts in [Gentile] villages have only recently heard of an alphabet book. . . .

And now that I think about it, it also echoes de Tocqueville's amazement at the reading he found out on the frontier of early America: de Tocqueville and Reading in America, and To Diffuse Books.

In terms of how far we have progressed (or not), this Russian official in 1818 is estimating that the average Jewish home had at least 10 books. In comparison, nearly two hundred years later, inconceivably more free, and probably a 1,000 times more prosperous, the average American home has 112 books today (see blog post At Last . . . ).

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Eighteen were for burglary and eighteen for forgery

I am currently reading a book by P.D. James (the mystery writer) and T.A. Critchley, The Maul and the Pear Tree, written in 1971 and recounting and reconstructing a brutal set of murders, the Radcliffe Highway murders which occurred in 1811 in dockside London.

James and Critchley paint the picture of the slowly emerging conditions of law enforcement in this period in Britain when virtually all policing occurred at the parish level with only a couple of formalized police forces (all in London) with any sort of routine patrolling responsibilities. They also mention the slowly emerging effort to begin tracking crime.
The people of East London were poor, uneducated and often violent, yet atrocious murder was comparatively uncommon and England had an enviable reputation in Europe for the lowness of its murder rate. In 1810, for example, the first year for which returns were made to the Home Office, broken down by offenses, there were sixty-seven executions, but only nine of these were for murder. Eighteen were for burglary and eighteen for forgery. The figures reflect the low rate of murder detection, but the ratio is significant. Offenses against property were far more common and were as ruthlessly punished as offenses against the person.
Eighteen people executed for forgery? Almost inconceivable. Having lived in Australia for a number of years and with the importance of transport and egregious punishment of property crimes so much a part of their history, I was familiar with this almost incomprehensible aspect of British history. One of the interesting things that James and Critchley do well in The Maul and the Pear Tree is to paint a picture of the day-to-day lives of the people of London in 1811. What is perfectly clear is that virtually everyone, even the moderately prosperous merchants, lived close to starvation and catastrophe. Existence was hand-to-mouth in a fashion which we can theoretically conceptualize but find it hard to really comprehend. When the theft of your loaf of bread meant going hungry for a day or when the making off with your tool box might mean the loss of your livelihood, shelter and food for your family, things begin to come into focus. When 80% lived at the edge of starvation, and most the rest lived within a couple of weeks of disaster, then the reasons for the apparent barbarism of the age begin to become clearer. Property crimes had the capacity to incapacitate or extinguish life to almost the same degree as a physical assault - it begins to make a kind of sense why the two actions - so distinct to us - were treated so similarly in that age.

With as much reading of history as I do, I have never seen this point made and in this instance it is really only an oblique aside to the main story line.

UPDATE: Hans Rosling is a Swedish statistician that does some great work with historical data. Here is a video that captures some aspect of the world's then poverty in comparison to today: 200 years that changed the world with Hans Rosling.

To the extent of ultimate boredom

Sometime in the past year I read an account by Churchill of his early days as a reporter of the Boer War. In it he recounted how he sailed from Britain to South Africa with the general appointed to lead the campaign. What was striking was that the journey took some weeks and that for much of the time, this being pre-radio, they were completely isolated from any information regarding how the campaign might be developing in their absence. Once or twice they spoke some other steamer and obtained abbreviated news, flashed by signal lamp in passing. Reading this account in an age of constant contact, it reinforced some of those critical differences that we can overlook when considering the past.

I recently came across a book, Minorities: Good Poems by Small Poets and Small Poems by Good Poets, collected by T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia. It is interesting to see the nature of poems to which he was attracted. A footnote caught my eye though and reminded me of Churchill's experience.

The poem from which he is quoting is a chorus by A.C. Swinburne in Atalanta in Calydon, a text of several hundred lines which reads in part:
Who hath given man speech? or who hath set therein
A thorn for peril and a snare for sin?
For in the word his life is and his breath,
And in the word his death . . . .

In the footnote:
On the voyage to Syria from England in 1913 'I came to know the early work of Swinburne better than before. He is quite good after all, though alas, like Browning long-winded to the extent of ultimate boredom. On the steamer however, where all passengers yawn their way along the decks between meals, he was very well.'

While enjoying various bodies of poetry, I generally share Lawrence's judgment regarding 'long-winded to the extent of ultimate boredom.' Even the extended odes of a poet that I really enjoy such as Longfellow for example, quickly lose me. Undoubtedly that is a personal fault but I wonder to what extent there are forms of writing (poetry or otherwise) which lent themselves to a time, age, and technology, when audiences could be anticipated to be held captive and effectively, for want of other entertainment, had little alternative to trudging through the extended works.

This wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Famously, Churchill was never a particularly bright academic star. In another autobiographical work of Churchill's, My Early Life, he identifies his real education as occurring during his time stationed in India early in his career, when heat and the traditions of the officer ranks meant that he had long periods of enforced idleness to read and began to read widely and voluminously.

Modern English is the Wal-Mart of languages

Mark Abley, Canadian journalist, Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, 2003.
Modern English is the Wal-Mart of languages: convenient, huge, hard to avoid, superficially friendly, and devouring all rivals in its eagerness to expand.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What's that? Distinguo?

Distinguo was the response in classic times when one orator mixed and collated unmatched things in an argument to which his opponent would call out, "Distinguo", i.e. "I distinguish these things."

Sunday, July 11, 2010

An archaeologist is the best husband any woman can have

Not yet much of a fan of her mysteries but this is a great line from Agatha Christie, March 9th, 1954.
An archaeologist is the best husband any woman can have: The older she gets, the more interested he is in her.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Ten sentences

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
The aphorism, the apophthegm, in which I am the first master among Germans, are the forms of "eternity"; my ambition is to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book - what everyone else does not say in a book.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Autism In The Family

Charlotte Moore, George And Sam: Autism In The Family.
George also had his Thomas the Tank Engine phase. An admiration for the works of Rev W Awdry is almost a diagnostic requirement of autism. It's easy to see why the engines appeal to a systemising brain. They each have a name, a number, a colour (though sometimes, alarmingly, they go for a respray), a similar-but-different shape, a designated function. Their faces are broad and clear, their range of expressions limited and well defined. It's easier for the autistic child to see that Gordon is cross or Percy is mischievous than it is for him to judge the moods of his own mother.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

We are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?

There is nothing new under the sun said the Teacher and so it would seem. I came across this passage in Thomas Macaulay's Critical and Historical Essays, Volume 2, in the essay, Southey's Colloquey's. Macaulay is tearing into a gentleman by the name of Robert Southey, Poet Laureate, biographer, linguist, scholar and essayist. Southey was also the first author of record to tell the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Undoubtedly Southey was a man of talent. In his youth he was known as a radical, what we might refer to as a progressive today, who evolved into a Tory supporting conservative as he aged. He attracted popular attention for his authorial output and scornful criticism for the quality of his philosophical positions. Macaulay wrote what is nominally a review of Southey's biography, Sir Thomas More; or colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society, published in 1830.

Yikes! They didn't pull any punches in those days. Here is the first paragraph of the review:
It would be scarcely possible for a man of Mr. Southey's talents and acquirements to write two volumes so large as those before us, which should be wholly destitute of information and amusement. Yet we do not remember to have read with so little satisfaction any equal quantity of matter, written by any man of real abilities. We have, for some time past, observed with great regret the strange infatuation which leads the Poet Laureate to abandon those departments of literature in which he might excel, and to lecture the public on sciences of which he has still the very alphabet to learn. He has now, we think, done his worst. The subject which he has at last undertaken to treat, is one which demands all the highest intellectual and moral qualities of a philosophical statesman, an understanding at once comprehensive and acute, a heart at once upright and charitable. Mr. Southey brings to the task two faculties which were never, we believe, vouchsafed in measure so copious to any human being, the faculty of believing without a reason, and the faculty of hating without a provocation.

Macaulay proceeds with a constantly witty but brutal assault. His next paragraph lays the groundwork for what begins to sound a strangely contemporary criticism.
It is, indeed, most extraordinary, that a mind like Mr. Southey's, a mind richly endowed in many respects by nature, and highly cultivated by study, a mind which has exercised considerable influence on the most enlightened generation of the most enlightened people that ever existed, should be utterly destitute of the power of discerning truth from falsehood. Yet such is the fact. Government is to Mr. Southey one of the fine arts. He judges of a theory, of a public measure, of a religion or a political party, of a peace or a war, as men judge of a picture or a statue, by the effect produced on his imagination. A chain of associations is to him what a chain of reasoning is to other men; and what he calls his opinions are in fact merely his tastes.

Looking at the storm of opinion in the editorials of our major newspapers and among the increasingly influential blogs and this criticism of Macaulay's is as relevant today for most discourse as it was when he levelled it at Southey 180 years ago. We have made so much progress in some arena's and none at all in others.
Now in the mind of Mr. Southey reason has no place at all, as either leader or follower, as either sovereign or slave. He does not seem to know what an argument is. He never uses argument himself. He never troubles himself to answer the arguments of his opponents. It has never occurred to him, that a man ought to be able to give some better account of the way in which he has arrived at his opinions than merely that it is his will and pleasure to hold them. It has never occurred to him that there is a difference between assertion and demonstration, that a rumour does not always prove a fact, that a single fact, when proved, is hardly foundation enough for a theory, that two contradictory propositions cannot be undeniable truths, that to beg the question is not the way to settle it, or that when an objection is raised, it ought to be met with something more convincing than "scoundrel" and "blockhead."

Then things begin to get ever more contemporary. The facts and the details are 1830, the structure of the argument could be any critic today responding to a New York Times columnist.
We have already adverted to Mr. Southey's amusing doctrine about national wealth. A state, says he, cannot be too rich; but a people may be too rich. His reason for thinking this is extremely curious.

"A people may be too rich, because it is the tendency of the commercial, and more especially of the manufacturing system, to collect wealth rather than to diffuse it. Where wealth is necessarily employed in any of the speculations of trade, its increase is in proportion to its amount. Great capitalists become like pikes in a fish-pond who devour the weaker fish; and it is but too certain, that the poverty of one part of the people seems to increase in the same ratio as the riches of another. There are examples of this in history. In Portugal, when the high tide of wealth flowed in from the conquests in Africa and the East, the effect of that great influx was not more visible in the augmented splendour of the court, and the luxury of the higher ranks, than in the distress of the people."

Mr. Southey's instance is not a very fortunate one. The wealth which did so little for the Portuguese was not the fruit either of manufactures or of commerce carried on by private individuals. It was the wealth, not of the people, but of the Government and its creatures, of those who, as Mr. Southey thinks, can never be too rich. The fact is, that Mr. Southey's proposition is opposed to all history, and to the phaenomena which surround us on every side. England is the richest country in Europe, the most commercial country, and the country in which manufactures flourish most. Russia and Poland are the poorest countries in Europe. They have scarcely any trade, and none but the rudest manufactures. Is wealth more diffused in Russia and Poland than in England? There are individuals in Russia and Poland whose incomes are probably equal to those of our richest countrymen. It may be doubted whether there are not, in those countries, as many fortunes of eighty thousand a year as here. But are there as many fortunes of two thousand a year, or of one thousand a year? There are parishes in England which contain more people of between three hundred and three thousand pounds a year than could be found in all the dominions of the Emperor Nicholas. The neat and commodious houses which have been built in London and its vicinity, for people of this class, within the last thirty years, would of themselves form a city larger than the capitals of some European kingdoms. And this is the state of society in which the great proprietors have devoured a smaller!

The cure which Mr. Southey thinks that he has discovered is worthy of the sagacity which he has shown in detecting the evil. The calamities arising from the collection of wealth in the hands of a few capitalists are to be remedied by collecting it in the hands of one great capitalist, who has no conceivable motive to use it better than other capitalists, the all-devouring State.

Then it almost becomes eerie.
The present moment is one of great distress. But how small will that distress appear when we think over the history of the last forty years; a war, compared with which all other wars sink into insignificance; taxation, such as the most heavily taxed people of former times could not have conceived; a debt larger than all the public debts that ever existed in the world added together; the food of the people studiously rendered dear; the currency imprudently debased, and imprudently restored. Yet is the country poorer than in 1790? We firmly believe that, in spite of all the misgovernment of her rulers, she has been almost constantly becoming richer and richer. Now and then there has been a stoppage, now and then a short retrogression; but as to the general tendency there can be no doubt. A single breaker may recede; but the tide is evidently coming in.

If we were to prophesy that in the year 1930 a population of fifty millions, better fed, clad, and lodged than the English of our time, will cover these islands, that Sussex and Huntingdonshire will be wealthier than the wealthiest parts of the West Riding of Yorkshire now are, that cultivation, rich as that of a flower-garden, will be carried up to the very tops of Ben Nevis and Helvellyn, that machines constructed on principles yet undiscovered will be in every house, that there will be no highways but railroads, no travelling but by steam, that our debt, vast as it seems to us, will appear to our great-grandchildren a trifling encumbrance, which might easily be paid off in a year or two, many people would think us insane. We prophesy nothing; but this we say: If any person had told the Parliament which met in perplexity and terror after the crash in 1720 that in 1830 the wealth of England would surpass all their wildest dreams, that the annual revenue would equal the principal of that debt which they considered as an intolerable burden, that for one man of ten thousand pounds then living there would be five men of fifty thousand pounds, that London would be twice as large and twice as populous, and that nevertheless the rate of mortality would have diminished to one-half of what it then was, that the post-office would bring more into the exchequer than the excise and customs had brought in together under Charles the Second, that stage coaches would run from London to York in twenty-four hours, that men would be in the habit of sailing without wind, and would be beginning to ride without horses, our ancestors would have given as much credit to the prediction as they gave to Gulliver's Travels. Yet the prediction would have been true; and they would have perceived that it was not altogether absurd, if they had considered that the country was then raising every year a sum which would have purchased the fee-simple of the revenue of the Plantagenets, ten times what supported the Government of Elizabeth, three times what, in the time of Cromwell, had been thought intolerably oppressive. To almost all men the state of things under which they have been used to live seems to be the necessary state of things. We have heard it said that five per cent. is the natural interest of money, that twelve is the natural number of a jury, that forty shillings is the natural qualification of a county voter. Hence it is that, though in every age everybody knows that up to his own time progressive improvement has been taking place, nobody seems to reckon on any improvement during the next generation. We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us, and with just as much apparent reason.

That passage echoes the famous bet between the 1960's gloom monger Paul Ehrlich and the optimistic economist Julian Simon - the optimist's vision serially proving more accurate than the pessimist's.

Macaulay finishes off his criticque with a judgment, which, though not universal today, is very well subscribed to and probably shows up in one editorial or another in some major newspaper or another on an almost weekly basis. Surveys would seem to indicate that 70% of the US populace would subscribe to Mr. Macaulay's view. We are having the same conversation today that our great-great-great-great-great grandfathers did in 1830.
It is not by the intermeddling of Mr. Southey's idol, the omniscient and omnipotent State, but by the prudence and energy of the people, that England has hitherto been carried forward in civilisation; and it is to the same prudence and the same energy that we now look with comfort and good hope. Our rulers will best promote the improvement of the nation by strictly confining themselves to their own legitimate duties, by leaving capital to find its most lucrative course, commodities their fair price, industry and intelligence their natural reward, idleness and folly their natural punishment, by maintaining peace, by defending property, by diminishing the price of law, and by observing strict economy in every department of the State. Let the Government do this: the People will assuredly do the rest.

Whoosing noise

Douglas Adams
I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A clamorous, perpetual-forward-motion machine

Oh, dear. A couple of rather lengthy articles read in close conjunction that have sparked several thoughts that are hard to disentangle and articulate. First there is The Spirit of Independence: The Social Psychology of Freedom, July 2, 2010 by Lee Harris in The American magazine and then there is All Joy and No Fun in New York magazine, July 4, 2010 by Jennifer Senior. I found both articles interesting to a degree, each with a strong point of view with which I might agree up to a point. Harris emphasizes the importance of the "internals" in a population, those people for whom a defining aspect of their self-concept is that they are responsible for themselves, that the locus of control is within themselves. Harris has several pithy comments.
"Intellectuals routinely give undue weight to people's ideas. They tend to believe that ideas cause attitudes, though it is far more often the other way around."

"They rebel because they instinctively understand the high cost of not rebelling."

"A kinder, gentler serfdom."

Senior's piece is a little more meandering, with most of the meat in the final paragraphs, but what she is attempting to explicate is the difference between happiness and satisfaction. The nexus of her discussion is around parenthood where most studies over multiple years seem to consistently indicate that children are detrimental to adult happiness. Senior's first question is why this can be given the biological imperative to reproduce but she uses that question as a platform to dive in and begin exploring ever yet more subtle questions - what is happiness, how do we measure it, what is it that parents clearly love about being a parent that offsets the negative measures of happiness that are being captured?

Senior teases out some very interesting conclusions from what at first seems indisputable data pointing in a direction different from that where she arrives.
Seven years ago, the sociologists Kei Nomaguchi and Melissa A. Milkie did a study in which they followed couples for five to seven years, some of whom had children and some of whom did not. And what they found was that, yes, those couples who became parents did more housework and felt less in control and quarreled more (actually, only the women thought they quarreled more, but anyway). On the other hand, the married women were less depressed after they'd had kids than their childless peers. And perhaps this is because the study sought to understand not just the moment-to-moment moods of its participants, but more existential matters, like how connected they felt, and how motivated, and how much despair they were in (as opposed to how much stress they were under): Do you not feel like eating? Do you feel like you can't shake the blues? Do you feel lonely? Like you can't get going? Parents, who live in a clamorous, perpetual-forward-motion machine almost all of the time, seemed to have different answers than their childless cohorts.

The authors also found that the most depressed people were single fathers, and Milkie speculates that perhaps it's because they wanted to be involved in their children's lives but weren't. Robin Simon finds something similar: The least depressed parents are those whose underage children are in the house, and the most are those whose aren't.

This finding seems significant. Technically, if parenting makes you unhappy, you should feel better if you're spared the task of doing it. But if happiness is measured by our own sense of agency and meaning, then noncustodial parents lose. They're robbed of something that gives purpose and reward.

But for many of us, purpose is happiness - particularly those of us who find moment-to-moment happiness a bit elusive to begin with. Martin Seligman, the positive-psychology pioneer who is, famously, not a natural optimist, has always taken the view that happiness is best defined in the ancient Greek sense: leading a productive, purposeful life. And the way we take stock of that life, in the end, isn't by how much fun we had, but what we did with it. (Seligman has seven children.)

About twenty years ago, Tom Gilovich, a psychologist at Cornell, made a striking contribution to the field of psychology, showing that people are far more apt to regret things they haven't done than things they have. In one instance, he followed up on the men and women from the Terman study, the famous collection of high-IQ students from California who were singled out in 1921 for a life of greatness. Not one told him of regretting having children, but ten told him they regretted not having a family.

Where these two articles would seem to intersect are the ideas of valuing future or strategic goals at the expense of current tactical discomfort, the frequent conflicts between agency and circumstances, and the relative value Happiness - Pleasure versus Happiness - Enjoyment.

When I highlight the conflicts between agency and circumstances, I am reflecting on the conundrum of free will. Both articles touch on how individuals are caught in circumstances over which they may or may not have control and which may or may not be enjoyable but that in both cases, those individuals exercise agency - they decide how to respond to those circumstances.

In refining the simplistic concept of Happiness, Senior gets into some interesting territory. I was recently reading an article in which the author made the distinction between pleasure and enjoyment. Pleasure, in the context of his discussion, related to physical response to stimuli - does it feel good, does it taste good, does it sound good? Enjoyment was a conceptual response, an aesthetic response to an abstract situation. Enjoyment would be the satisfaction we derive from completing a difficult and challenging task. In Senior's article she throws into relief the simplistic studies which are measuring the tactical pleasure of parenting (and the degredation of happiness in that context), versus the much more difficult to measure concept of enjoyment - a life of purpose and fulfillment.

All having remains no less a preparation for loss

A very contemplative essay on reading, books, libraries and new technologies in Open Letters Monthly magazine, In Defense of the Memory Theater by Nathaniel Schneider.
As the business of reading technology continues along its trajectory, whether apocalyptic or utopian or both, perhaps those of us who continue to fancy ourselves concerned readers - however much we give in to the new and shiny - might turn our attention anew to what one might call "inner work." In the part of ourselves which is not technological, we could rediscover the tautology that what makes knowledge so precious is its precariousness, not the surety of our control over it. We'll need to cultivate the arts of memory and forgetting alluded to in these lines by William Blake, which came to me in a letter from a friend, a librarian who, for years now, has been slowly dying in a monastery:
He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy.
He who kisses the joy as it flies,
Lives in eternity's sunrise.

Even among these wonders now available to us and still to come, all having remains no less a preparation for loss.

At the very least you need a beer

There's a definition you probably won't find in the Foreign Affairs journal.

Frank Zappa
You can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline - it helps if you have some kind of football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Walt again

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself 51
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Aristotelian Principle Revisited

In a blog post, Reading, Flow, and the Aristotelian Principle, I discussed the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and how it related to reading. Csikszentmihalyi has a concept of Flow, that involvement in a task and that balancing of challenge with skills when one becomes completely absorbed in the task to the exclusion of everything else. I add an addendum based on the essay The Art of Failure by Malcom Gladwell in his book, What the Dog Saw.
Human beings sometimes falter under pressure. Pilots crash and divers drown. Under the glare of competition, basketball players cannot find the basket and golfers cannot find the pin. When that happens, we say variously that people have panicked or, to use the sports colloquialism, choked. But what do those words mean? Both are pejoratives. To choke or panic is considered to be as bad as to quit. But are all forms of failure equal? And what do the forms in which we fail say about who we are and how we think? We live in an age obsessed with success, with documenting the myriad ways by which talented people overcome challenges and obstacles. There is as much to be learned, though, from documenting the myriad ways in which talented people sometimes fail.

Choking sounds like a vague and all-encompassing term, yet it describes a very specific kind of failure. For example, psychologists often use a primitive video game to test motor skills. They'll sit you in front of a computer with a screen that shows four boxes in a row, and a keyboard that has four corresponding buttons in a row. One at a time, x's start to appear in the boxes on the screen, and you are told that every time this happens you are to push the key corresponding to the box. According to Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, if you're told ahead of time about the pattern in which those x's will appear, your reaction time in hitting the right key will improve dramatically. You'll play the game very carefully for a few rounds, until you've learned the sequence, and then you'll get faster and faster. Willingham calls this explicit learning. But suppose you're not told that the x's appear in a regular sequence, and even after playing the game for a while, you're not aware that there is a pattern. You'll still get faster: you'll learn the sequence unconsciously. Willingham calls that implicit learning - learning that takes place outside of awareness. These two learning systems are quite separate, based in different parts of the brain. Willingham says that when you are first taught something - say, how to hit a backhand or an overhead forehand - you think it through in a very deliberate, mechanical manner. But as you get better, the implicit system takes over: you start to hit a backhand fluidly, without thinking. The basal ganglia, where implicit learning partially resides, are concerned with force and timing, and when that system kicks in, you begin to develop touch and accuracy, the ability to hit a drop shot or place a serve at a hundred miles per hour. "This is something that is going to happen gradually," Willingham says. "You hit several thousand forehands, after a while you may still be attending to it. But not very much. In the end, you don't really notice what your hand is doing at all."

Under conditions of stress, however, the explicit system sometimes takes over. That what it means to choke. When Jana Novotna faltered at Wimbledon, it was because she began thinking about her shots again. She lost her fluidity, her touch. She double-faulted on her serves and mis-hit her overheads, the shots that demand the greatest sensitivity in force and timing. She seemed like a different person - playing with the slow, cautious deliberation of a beginner - because, in a sense, she was a beginner again: she was relying on a learning system that she hadn't used to hit serves and overhead forehands and volleys since she was first taught tennis, as a child.


Panic is something else altogether. . . . Panic in this sense is the opposite of choking. Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reverting to instinct. They may look the same but they are worlds apart.

A not dissimilar thing can happen with emerging readers. If all goes well, there is an appropriate balance between their emerging skills and the level of textual challenge. As they become more practised at reading, acquire new words, understand the traditions of narrative flow, etc., they become more and more able to gulp down great masses of text in a state of Flow. Sometimes, through tiredness, stress, illness, or any of a number of other conditions, they lose that habit of flow temporarily: they choke. They focus on decoding, on the work of reading. Easing back to more familiar texts helps to reestablish the equilibrium that allows them to regain the momentum towards the condition of flow. If they choke too often, have little access to more comfortable books, are pressed to move forward at levels of challenge with which they are uncomfortable, a child becomes at risk of avoiding reading at all.

Building on Csikszentmihalyi's original graph, the chart, incorporating Willingham's observations, might now look something like this.


Got that right

Sir Barnett Cocks (1907 - 1989), Clerk of the House of Commons
A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A minimal level of information is possessed by any normal person

From E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy.
To be sure, a minimal level of information is possessed by any normal person who lives in the United States and speaks elementary English. Almost everybody knows what it is meant by dollar and that cars must travel on the right-hand side of the road. But this elementary level of information is not sufficient for a modern democracy. It isn't sufficient to allow us to read newspapers (a sin against Jeffersonian democracy), and it isn't sufficient to achieve economic fairness and high productivity. Cultural literacy lies above the everyday levels of knowledge that everyone possesses and below the expert level only known to specialists. It is that middle ground of cultural knowledge possessed by the "common reader." It includes information that we have traditionally expected our children to receive in school, but which they no longer do.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Exchange is to cultural evolution as sex is to biological evolution

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley on progress through connectivity.
If culture consisted simply of learning habits from others, it would soon stagnate. For culture to turn cumulative, ideas need to meet and mate. The 'cross-fertilization of ideas' is a cliche, but one with unintentional fecundity. 'To create is to recombine' said the molecular biologist Francois Jacob. Imagine if the man who invented the railway and the man who invented the locomotive could never meet or speak to each other, even through third parties. Paper and the printing press, copper and tin, the wheel and steel, software and hardware. I shall argue that there was a point in human prehistory when big-brained, cultural, learning people for the first time began to exchange things with each other, and that once they started doing so, culture sudddenly became cumulative, and the great headlong experiment of human economic 'progress' began. Exchange is to cultural evolution as sex is to biological evolution.

Selection among ideas

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley on extrasomatic evolution.
To argue that human nature has not changed, but human culture has, does not mean rejecting evolution - quite the reverse. Humanity is experiencing an extraordinary burst of evolutionary change, driven by good old-fashioned Darwinian natural selection. But it is selection among ideas, not among genes. The habitat in which these ideas reside consists of human brains. This notion has been trying to surface in the social sciences for a long time. The French sociologist Gabriel Tarde wrote in 1888: 'We may call it social evolution when an invention quietly spreads through imitation.' The Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek wrote in the 1960s that in social evolution the decisive factor is 'selection by imitation of successful institutions and habits'. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 coined the term 'meme' for a unit of cultural imitation. The economist Richard Nelson in the 1980s proposed that whole economies evolve by natural selection.

At some point, human intelligence became collective and cumulative

I have just started a whole shelf of new books, all vying for attention and all seeming equally interesting. One in particular, The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley would seem to have the potential for many striking anecdotes and quotations. Here is the first of what I anticipate to be many passages.
Clearly, big brains and language may be necessary for human beings to cope with a life of technological modernity. Clearly, human beings are very good at social learning, indeed compared with even chimpanzees humans are almost obsessively interested in faithful imitation. But big brains and imitation and language are not themselves the explanation of prosperity and progress and poverty. They do not themselves deliver a changing standard of living. Neanderthals had all of these: huge brains, probably complex languages, lots of technology. But they never burst out of their niche. It is my contention that in looking inside our heads, we would be looking in the wrong place to explain this extraordinary capacity for change in the species. It was not something that happened within a brain. It was something that happened between brains. It was a collective phenomenon.

Look again at the hand axe and the mouse. They are both 'man-made', but one was made by a single person, the other by hundreds of people, maybe even millions. That is what I mean by collective intelligence. No single person knows how to make a computer mouse. The person who assempled it in the factory did not know how to drill the oil well from which the plastic came, or vice versa. At some point, human intelligence became collective and cumulative in a way that happened to no other animal.

To add to Ridley's observation, I believe it notable that whereas Homo Sapiens Sapiens have demonstrated a consistent proclivity to trade from the earliest days of the species with shells, rocks and other materials showing up in human sites far distant from where those products were originally produced, there is no such evidence of trade at Neanderthal sites. Our near cousins produced what they could with what they had. Man expanded his horizons and opportunity for material development by going beyond the immediate constraints of what was available and traded with the neighbors. The earliest evidence for the extraordinarly powerful engine for intellectual and material expansion which Hayek later characterized as the knowledge problem (The Use of Knowledge in Society). Even today and even amongst our most senior academics and policy setters, the power of trade and connectivity through prices is poorly comprehended. After language and spoken communication, trade and pricing mechanisms were the first mechanisms for connecting humanity to one another where the whole was much more productive than the parts. An early precursor of the internet if you will.

In fact, the story of humanity's survival and expansion might be told as the progression through increasingly complex means of connecting ourselves to one another: language, story-telling, writing, trade, transportation, pricing mechanisms, and the internet. Almost everything we are proud of, everything we would wish to put on humanity's resume, to use Charles Murray's metaphor, is directly tied to these force multipliers.

Interestingly, and challengelingly, almost every new connection and every new means of connection, expands freedom but also expands uncertainty. The more connectivity we have with one another, the greater the uncertainty and potential risk, but also, usually, the greater the unanticipatable progress.

The latent concern about books and the internet which many parents evince are a quotidian example of the risks and rewards that arise from greater productivity as minds meet minds.

like trying to write Paradise Lost in haiku

Peter Dickinson, In Defence of Rubbish.
Nobody who has not written comic strips can really understand the phrase, economy of words. It's like trying to write Paradise Lost in haiku.

There is always a moment in childhood . . .

There is a pleasant column in today's July 3, 2010 New York Times, Such, Such Are His Joys by David Brooks. The column is about the essayist/columnist Christopher Hitchens who has recently announced that he has esophagal cancer. It covers some of Hitchens' background and his enthralment with literature and how that love of words and writing has shaped his perspective and his views. I particularly liked this quote from Graham Greene:
There is always a moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.

It of course is more generally true but I think it is especially pertinent vis-a-vis children reading - the light comes on and there is a whole world of futures in front of them.

Friday, July 2, 2010

You can't write it out, can you?

From The Murder Room by P.D. James.
She went on, "Neville thought we were too obsessed with the past - history, tradition, the things we collect. He said we clutter ourselves with dead lives, dead ideas, instead of coping with the problems of the present. But he was obsessed with his own past. You can't write it out, can you? It's over but it's still with us. It's the same whether it's a country or a person. It happened. It made us what we are, we have to understand it."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

In Defence of Rubbish

In Defence of Rubbish by Peter Dickinson (author of A Bone from a Dry Sea and others). I share his sentiments.

Precarious Existence

From Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment. A very intriguing and rigorous discussion of what constitutes accomplishment, how do we measure it, and how do we explain it.
Familial constraints on personal autonomy have been the norm in human history, and for understandable reasons. The more precarious the existence of a community, the more important it is that a culture socialize children to care for their parents and siblings.