Friday, December 30, 2011

The ease with which people can possess astonishingly contradictory qualities is one of the mysteries of human nature

Be a Jerk: The Worst Business Lesson From the Steve Jobs Biography by Tom McNichol.
The ease with which people can possess astonishingly contradictory qualities is one of the mysteries of human nature; indeed, it's one of the things that separates humans from, say, an Apple computer. Every one of the components that makes up an iPad is essential to the work it produces. Remove one part and the machine no longer performs its job, and not even the Genius Bar can fix it. But humans are full of qualities that are in no way integral to their functioning in the world. Some aspects of personality have little or no bearing on whether a person performs well, and not a few people succeed in spite of their darker qualities. You can be a genius and an asshole, but the two aren't necessarily causally linked.

You turn the page, and forget what you know

Michael Crichton in Why Speculate.
Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Global data grows approximately 40 percent every year

Interesting estimate, though unsourced. From Data Journalism: Facts Are Sacred by Pablo Mancini
It is estimated that the volume of global data grows approximately 40 percent every year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Social Justice

Heh. Thomas Sowell in Random Thoughts on the Passing Scene.
What do you call it when someone steals someone else's money secretly? Theft. What do you call it when someone takes someone else's money openly by force? Robbery. What do you call it when a politician takes someone else's money in taxes and gives it to someone who is more likely to vote for him? Social Justice.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A festival of British modernist architectural incompetence and brutalism

A Case in Point by Theodore Dalrymple. The concentration of ugly modern architecture in the UK is so startling, cheek-by-jowel as it so often is with the sublime from older times when it took too long to build something ugly so they built beautiful things instead.
Having arrived in the city a couple of hours early, I had time to look around a little — as I have done before. Peterborough is essentially a sublime cathedral surrounded by a festival of British modernist architectural incompetence and brutalism, sponsored by a council planning committee that was both without taste and — let us at least hope, for it is the only charitable interpretation of what the committee has wrought — corrupt.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Bending to a common purpose is more important than arising from a common place

From How Do You Prove You’re an Indian? by David Teuer.
Bending to a common purpose is more important than arising from a common place.
Perhaps it is that your people are those with whom you work.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Establishments die when they refuse to make changes; insurgencies die when they fail to discover that protest and governing are not the same things.

From The Tea Party train wreck that never happened by Noemie Emery.
Establishments die when they refuse to make changes; insurgencies die when they fail to discover that protest and governing are not the same things.
Apropos a recent discussion, perhaps a version related to languages and how they change would be
Languages die when they fail to change at all; linguistic variants die when they fail to make a difference.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Academic inequality is socially acceptable

The Inequality Map by David Brooks. The many forms of pluralism in the USA. Heh.
I will provide you with a guide to the American inequality map to help you avoid embarrassment.

Academic inequality is socially acceptable. It is perfectly fine to demonstrate that you are in the academic top 1 percent by wearing a Princeton, Harvard or Stanford sweatshirt.

Ancestor inequality is not socially acceptable. It is not permissible to go around bragging that your family came over on the Mayflower and that you are descended from generations of Throgmorton-Winthrops who bequeathed a legacy of good breeding and fine manners.

Fitness inequality is acceptable. It is perfectly fine to wear tight workout sweats to show the world that pilates have given you buns of steel. These sorts of displays are welcomed as evidence of your commendable self-discipline and reproductive merit.

Friday, December 16, 2011

And that evening his father came back to life

Act Three: The midlife monologue of John Lithgow book review by Victoria Ordin.
Drama begins with Lithgow’s recollection of the summer of 2002, when he moved back east for a month to care for his hitherto youthful, healthy, and genial 86-year-old father after a risky and painful operation. The surgery claimed his father’s spirit, and the loving son’s attempts to restore his father’s will to live seemed to have failed. One evening, however, it occurred to Lithgow to read aloud to his father, as his father had read to him and his siblings during “story hour [which had] all the gravity of a sacred rite.” So he picked a family favorite—P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By”—and that evening his father came back to life. Lithgow calls the succeeding 18 months before his father’s death one of the most significant periods of his life.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

He dedicated the book to a real car

Kate Grimond in The tale of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, reviews the history and context of Ian Fleming (of James Bond fame) writing the children's story, Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang.
There is more of the Bond oeuvre rooted in reality than is generally realised. And so it was with Chitty. He dedicated the book to a real car: ‘To the memory of the original Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, built in 1920 by Count Zborowksi on his estate near Canterbury.’

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.

Being Poor by John Scalzi. A pretty brutal list of what it means to be poor. A list that ought to be reviewed whenever one is tempted to pontificate about what to do about poverty.
Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

That judgment looks pretty stupid today

In children's literature there is always the cry among some that books for children should be relevant, should reflect the lives children lead. This desire for relvance is always in harness to some social theory or policy solution, most often one which has little substance, factual basis, or popular support. While there is some tenuous intellectual appeal to the idea that children ought to be able to see something of themselves in books, it not a position with which I have great sympathy. At what time have children's books ever reflected reality? I suspect the value of books is more in expanding their knowledge of what is different and their concept of what is possible than it is in validating what they currently think they are experiencing. In a post that is about changing American social and sexual mores, Walter Russell Mead observes, apropos relevance:
. . . in my youth divorced people could not remarry in an Episcopal church. It is hard to think of anything you can’t do in an Episcopal church these days and other denominations seem to be drifting down the same gentle slope. (It is, one must note, odd that the fewer moral demands a church places on its members, the fewer people bother to come. Many of the relaxations in moral discipline were intended to make the church more ‘relevant’: that judgment looks pretty stupid today.)

Friday, December 9, 2011

As soon as their reason has become ripe for speculation

Immanuel Kant.
In all men, as soon as their reason has become ripe for speculation, there has always existed and will always continue to exist some kind of metaphysics.

How do you balance rewards between current productivity and anticipated future productivity?

An interesting book review, That Eternal Question of Fairness by Nancy F. Koehn. The book being reviewed is The Ajax Dilemma by Paul Woodruff.
The Ajax quandary arises after Achilles is slain in battle, and his armor is to be given to the army’s most valuable soldier. Ajax and Odysseus compete for it.

Ajax, a courageous, loyal and hard-working warrior, demands the armor on the grounds that he has saved the lives of many comrades on the battlefield. Odysseus is innovative and articulate but not completely trustworthy; his values seem to fluctuate to suit his interests. He claims the prize as a strategist who can outthink the enemy.

The men square off in a speaking contest in front of King Agamemnon and a panel of army jurors. It is, Mr. Woodruff writes, a conflict we all recognize — that of “loyalty and brawn versus brains and trickery.” Ajax loses and his anger explodes, damaging his position in the army and destroying his life, family and reputation.

The author argues that this myth revolves around the issue of rewards, which “mark the difference between winners and losers.” He adds: “Rewards are public recognition for contributions made. They express the values of a community.” But which, he asks, do we value more: “Cleverness or hard work? Strength or intelligence? Loyalty or inventiveness?”
Interesting argument but I don't think that it is the whole story because it only focuses on the reward for past contributions. This is actually an argument about how to reward productivity (past and anticipated future) - how does our system of governance and values allow rewards of community productivity to be distributed to members of the community, not all of whom contributed to the generation of the increased productivity? Everyone contributes at least something to the context of communal productivity but not everyone contributes equally nor is everyone's contribution equally indispensable.

When put in terms of productivity, contra the review, you have to also look at anticipated productivity as well. There are tactical actions to achieve present productivity - the actions that we take today to meet our needs and purposes today. Then there are strategic actions to achieve future productivity. Strategic actions require trade-offs (I eat less seed corn today so I have a larger crop tomorrow) and risks (if the rains are gentle and the sun shines lightly) which are hard to evaluate compared to tactical actions.

The reason the distribution of rewards is so critical is that it is an acknowledgement of past contributions but also a collective bet on future probabilities. Who is most likely to contribute most critically to future increases in productivity? Those are the ones you want to reward. To increase anything, you have to reward it more (resources, status, mates, etc.), make it easier (reduce barriers) or make it cheaper (bring down the relative cost). If you want less of something, make it harder to do, make it more expensive, or punish it.

Ignoring the rules for a minute ("justice is much broader than a legal function and much messier than a set of rules or large principles"), there are different activities going on when we make these two different assessments.

When we try and determine the relative contribution (degree of participation, indispensability of participation, and non-fungability of participation) to past productivity, we have to agree on rules and measurements and definitions. As hard as that is to do, once we have reached agreement, then the actual calculation is relatively straightforward. We may disagree with the values reflected in the process of measuring, but it is usually relatively easy to do (as long as we have appropriate data).

In contrast, judging what someone's relative contribution to future productivity will be is a minefield not only of data but estimations of risk and probability and causation. Is this person, looking like they will be holed up in their room for the next ten years, a genius in the process of producing the next silicon chip or Moby Dick, or are they a misanthropic sociopath. Even if we are confident they are a genius, how likely is it that they will actually deliver the kind of innovation and value of which we think they are capable and how do we measure that value? Value, estimation, and risk all call heavily upon shared culture, worldview and values. Hard as this is to do (estimate future value), it is moderately achievable in an environment of shared values. Where values are not shared, it becomes extraordinarily hard to arrive at a consensus as to probable future value. If we cannot reach agreement on future productivity, we cannot then agree on how to reward those actions now necessary for future value. If we don't agree, then it is likely we won't reward present actions for future productivity. And if we don't reward it, then we are most likely locking ourselves into a future without increases in productivity.

This is probably the greatest risk in a country that is governed by a creed (as reflected in the constitutional structure of governance) which allows for and encourages pluralism (diversity).

In a reasonably transparent, data rich environment, we can probably get to some first order approximation of historical contribution of productivity for an individual regardless of how much or little we like the outcome. Some groups, as defined by any of the common divisions - gender, orientation, race, class, religion, etc., will benefit to a greater degree than others by having a better mix of epistemological preparedness and value alignment with the nature of decisions that have to be made. With that knowledge of actual contribution, we can make some rough distribution of rewards that corresponds with those past contributions to productivity.

But that is only half the equation. We aren't interested only in the past, we are interested in the future. Those that contributed the most in the past may not be those most likely to contribute to increased productivity in the future. If we all believe in hard work, saving, moderate risk taking, rewarding agency (eg. those willing to take extreme risks for extreme rewards), then there is a framework for balancing the distribution of rewards. For example, we extend loans (a form of reward) to those that seem most likely to succeed with a risky venture that will yield high productivity the future. So a person can have a low contribution to productivity in the past (and be commensurately rewarded) but may also be highly rewarded for their anticipated prospects in the future. But only if we share common cultural values.

However, if a significant part of the community does not believe in agency, or the connection between risk and reward, are fatalistic (outcomes are random and not associated with effort), etc. then there is no capacity to reach consensus on probable future outcomes. Without agreement, the element of rewarding future productivity disappears, destroying or substantially reducing the incentives for growth.

If we reward only the past, we subvert future productivity growth and are unfair to those that are low productivity but high potential. If we reward only future productivity growth (which opens up the issue of corruption and coercion), we punish those that got us to where we are.

The line between these estimable goals (reward the past contributions to productivity and rewarding probable future contributions to productivity) is a fine one, a dynamic one, and a zero-sum one. You can only distribute those rewards that you currently have. What you give to those that produced the current productivity, you are not giving to those focused on the future - and vice-versa.

In times of stability you weight the rewards to the future. In times of crisis, you focus on the here-and-now. The hungrier you are for increased productivity the more you focus on rewarding future efforts towards productivity. The more complacent you are about future productivity, the more likely you are to over-weight rewards to past contributions.

I think this is a pretty interesting way of looking at many of the issues with which we are struggling at the moment, and particularly the recurring of what is just(complies with the rules) and what is Just (some cosmic assessment of what is right). Everything can be just (compliance with rules) and highly productive but there will be individuals that are poorly rewarded because they have contributed little to current productivity and they have low probability of contributing to future productivity. Even if everyone shares the same values, those individuals will be on the low end of the rewards curve but everyone will see it as both just and Just.

However, in a heterogeneous population (in terms of culture and values), even though the distribution of rewards will be seen as just (in compliance with the rules) it will also be seen, by some, as not Just.

Pictorially, I think this model would look like this.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A self-conceit so intensely intellectual and calm that at first one hesitates to call it by its right name

A line in Hershel Parker's Herman Melville: 1851-1891, page 502. Melville on Emerson:
His gross and astonishing errors & illusions spring from a self-conceit so intensely intellectual and calm that at first one hesitates to call it by its right name.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The future has an ancient heart

Carlo Levi, title of one of his books, Il Futuro ha un Cuore Antico
The future has an ancient heart.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

No comparable European democracy has seen the conservative party unfailingly win the Archies and Ediths for more than three decades.

An interesting observation by David Paul Kuhn in Democrats Dare Not "Abandon" the White Working Class.
Clinton won the largest share of blue-collar whites in the past quarter-century. And yet he still only won 44 percent that year, 1996. That statistic is especially striking if you step outside the United States. America is the only Western nation where the liberal party consistently loses the workingman (and woman). No comparable European democracy has seen the conservative party unfailingly win the Archies and Ediths for more than three decades. Now Democrats seem to be on the verge of resigning themselves to this trend.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Life lessons learned

The Life Reports II by David Brooks. The lessons learned he gleans from the thousands of biographical essays submitted to him by his readers.
Divide your life into chapters.
Beware rumination.
You can’t control other people.
Lean toward risk.
Measure people by their growth rate, not by their talents.
Be aware of the generational bias.
Work within institutions or crafts, not outside them.
People get better at the art of living.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

We Fear Snakes, Not Cars

From 10 Ways We Get the Odds Wrong by Maia Szalavitz
I. We Fear Snakes, Not Cars -
Risk and emotion are inseparable.
II. We Fear Spectacular, Unlikely Events - Fear skews risk analysis in predictable ways.
III. We Fear Cancer But Not Heart Disease - We underestimate threats that creep up on us.
IV. No Pesticide in My Backyard—Unless I Put it There - We prefer that which (we think) we can control.
V. We Speed Up When We Put Our Seat belts On - We substitute one risk for another.
VI. Teens May Think Too Much About Risk—And Not Feel Enough - Why using your cortex isn't always smart.
VII. Why Young Men Will Never Get Good Rates on Car Insurance - The "risk thermostat" varies widely.
VIII. We Worry About Teen Marijuana Use, But Not About Teen Sports - Risk arguments cannot be divorced from values.
IX. We Love Sunlight But Fear Nuclear Power - Why "natural" risks are easier to accept.
X. We Should Fear Fear Itself - Why worrying about risk is itself risky.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

If we're going to be talking statistics

From the Vol 68, Issue 29 of child_lit listerv.
If we're going to be talking statistics . . . I did some research last year on diversity in children's publishing, and it turned up these numbers:

>From the U.S. Census Bureau, Census figures by race/ethnicity for U.S.
population, 2008 (these obviously need to be updated):
Hispanic: 15 percent
Black, non-Hispanic: 13 percent
Asian: 5 percent
White, non-Hispanic: 68 percent

Figures from the Cooperative Children's Book Center in Madison on the content of 3000 trade children's books published in 2009, with themes and topics focusing on or protagonists of the following races:
Hispanic: 61 books, or 2 percent
Black: 157 books, or 5.2 percent
Asian-American: 80 books, or 2.6 percent
American Indians: 33 books, or 1.1 percent.

White: 2,669 books, or 89 percent

Figures from the same source regarding the races of children's book

Hispanic: 2 percent
Black: 2.7 percent
Asian-American: 2.2 percent
American Indians: .1 percent
White: 93 percent

Finally, from the SIMBA Children's Publishing Market Forecast 2011, each group's percentage of the children's book buying market (should be read as ""X percent of children's book buyers are _____," not "X percent of ______ are children's book buyers"). Also note that there was an asterisk on the chart saying "Data may be unreliable due to small sample size," and SIMBA did not provide much info on its methodology.

Hispanic, 13 percent
Black: 8.2 percent
Asian: 3.2 percent
White: 74 percent

Friday, December 2, 2011

Teaching reasoned decision-making to teens backfires

From 10 Ways We Get the Odds Wrong by Maia Szalavitz
Teens may not be irrational about risk but too rational, argues Valerie Reyna, a psychologist at Cornell University. Adults asked to consider absurd propositions like "Is it a good idea to drink Drano?" immediately and intuitively say no. Adolescents, however, take more than twice as long to think about it. Brain-scan research shows that when teens contemplate things like playing Russian roulette or drinking and driving, they primarily use rational regions of the brain—certain regions of cortex—while adults use emotional regions like the insula.

When risky decisions are weighed in a rational calculus, benefits like fitting in and feeling good now can outweigh real risks. As a result, teaching reasoned decision-making to teens backfires, argues Reyna. Instead, she says, we should teach kids to rule out risks based on emotional responses—for example, by considering the worst-case scenario, as adults do. But research suggests there may be no way to speed up the development of mature decision-making. Repetition and practice are critical to emotional judgment—which means that it takes time to learn this skill.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Children growing up in homes with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes

From Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations by M.D.R. Evans et al.
ABSTRACT: Children growing up in homes with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents’ education, occupation, and class. This is as great an advantage as having university educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father. It holds equally in rich nations and in poor; in the past and in the present; under Communism, capitalism, and Apartheid; and most strongly in China. Data are from representative national samples in 27 nations, with over 70,000 cases, analyzed using multi-level linear and probit models with multiple imputation of missing data.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The social divide is even starker than the income divide

From an article by David Brooks, The Wrong Inequality. He discusses Red and Blue inequality. Red Inequality is that between the educated and the uneducated. Blue Inequality is that between the richest and poorest. An interesting distinction. Red Inequality is about an aggregate life outcome inequality, encompassing as it does, the accumulation of multitudinous decisions. Blue Inequality is about a statistical snapshot in time. Most people that manage to make a million dollars in a year will do so only once in their life. Red and Blue do overlap (the high functioning individuals that translate that high functioning into high productivity that is also highly compensated productivity).

His description of the consequences of Red Inequality:
Then there is what you might call Red Inequality. This is the kind experienced in Scranton, Des Moines, Naperville, Macon, Fresno, and almost everywhere else. In these places, the crucial inequality is not between the top 1 percent and the bottom 99 percent. It’s between those with a college degree and those without. Over the past several decades, the economic benefits of education have steadily risen. In 1979, the average college graduate made 38 percent more than the average high school graduate, according to the Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke. Now the average college graduate makes more than 75 percent more.

Moreover, college graduates have become good at passing down advantages to their children. If you are born with parents who are college graduates, your odds of getting through college are excellent. If you are born to high school grads, your odds are terrible.

In fact, the income differentials understate the chasm between college and high school grads. In the 1970s, high school and college grads had very similar family structures. Today, college grads are much more likely to get married, they are much less likely to get divorced and they are much, much less likely to have a child out of wedlock.

Today, college grads are much less likely to smoke than high school grads, they are less likely to be obese, they are more likely to be active in their communities, they have much more social trust, they speak many more words to their children at home.

Some research suggests that college grads have much bigger friendship networks than high school grads. The social divide is even starker than the income divide.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Paradox of Chesterton's Fence

The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic by G.K. Chesterton, Chapter 4.
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A lot of bad habits have gotten hardwired into Chinese life

From IMF: China Isn’t Ten Feet Tall by Walter Russell Mead. He is highlighting that with which I have been concerned for the past ten years. The development of China has been a blessing in the past thirty years, one of, if not the greatest, improvements in human well-being ever. And yet it is not sustainable. All countries go through cycles of political and economic development - if we are lucky they are in synch and reinforcing. Mead highlights four key transitions. Number three in particular has a resonance in the US.
First, as the IMF report suggests, China faces a dynamic of inexorably mounting complexity: as the Chinese economy grows, the economy and Chinese society become more complicated and harder to manage. There are more domestic interests that need to be consulted, more economic issues to manage, more complicated interactions between financial markets and the real economy to watch, to regulate and to manage. Even in the absence of formal democratic structures, the Chinese government is accountable to powerful domestic interest groups and public opinion. As society grows more complex and new actors become more empowered, it is harder and harder for the government to deliver “pure” technocratic solutions.


Second, China’s development model will not work forever. Every other country that has developed on the basis of an export-oriented manufacturing strategy did spectacularly well for a long time before hitting a wall when lower, slower growth became inevitable. Look at Japan.


Third, over a long period of nearly unbroken prosperity, a lot of bad habits have gotten hardwired into Chinese life. Banks have made speculative loans to party officials, shady developers and to their own brothers-in-law and over time, with ten percent growth, most of these loans have worked out pretty well. Prudence and transparency have long been hooted out of town: there has been no interest in being careful for a very long time. When the music stops, a lot of loans are going, very suddenly, to look terrible.


Fourth, there is the global situation. China can’t control the global economy and can’t even influence it very much. But the mess in Europe, the slow growth in the US and problems like the impact of a US-Iran crisis on world oil prices can all serve as the matches that could ignite a conflagration in China.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking

Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus
We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking. In that race which daily hastens us towards death, the body maintains its irreparable lead.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities

From Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will? by Eddy Nahmias. I like his definition of free will: "a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires."
These discoveries about how our brains work can also explain how free will works rather than explaining it away. But first, we need to define free will in a more reasonable and useful way. Many philosophers, including me, understand free will as a set of capacities for imagining future courses of action, deliberating about one’s reasons for choosing them, planning one’s actions in light of this deliberation and controlling actions in the face of competing desires. We act of our own free will to the extent that we have the opportunity to exercise these capacities, without unreasonable external or internal pressure. We are responsible for our actions roughly to the extent that we possess these capacities and we have opportunities to exercise them.

These capacities for conscious deliberation, rational thinking and self-control are not magical abilities. They need not belong to immaterial souls outside the realm of scientific understanding (indeed, since we don’t know how souls are supposed to work, souls would not help to explain these capacities). Rather, these are the sorts of cognitive capacities that psychologists and neuroscientists are well positioned to study.

Friday, November 25, 2011

What we may become

William Shakespeare
We know what we are, but we know not what we may become.

It still sported the bullet hole

True Achievers by Jeremy Lott is a book review of Daniel J. Flynn's Blue Collar Intellectuals. It contains this eye-catching pebble.
That chapter, "Poet of the Pulps," is a short biography of Ray Bradbury. In it, we learn that Bradbury was born poorer than dirt. How dirt poor? "In 1938, Ray graduated from high school wearing his only suit, which his uncle had been wearing when murdered by a stick-up man six years earlier. It still sported the bullet hole."

Thursday, November 24, 2011

For people always applaud the most for the song that is newest

From Homer, Odyssey I.351-352
For people always applaud the most for the song that is newest to circulate among the listeners.
Is there anything those ancient Greeks didn't get to first?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Real expertise predicated on predictability: no predictability, no expertise

In that article, Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence by Daniel Kahneman, Kahneman is making the suggestion that in systems that are complex, chaotic, and loosely coupled (ex. stock markets), there is little comprehension about the linkage between cause and effect, so participants are not able to extract useful information and therefore their performance is going to be random. In systems that are simple, stable, and have good feedback systems, practitioners have the capacity to develop and demonstrate expertise and accuracy of forecasts, i.e. their performance will be predictable.

The corollary insight, such as it is, is that where you do not have predictable performance, you are likely dealing with a complex, chaotic, loosely coupled system.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Open societies have unequal outcomes, societies that pursue equal outcomes sacrifice openness

From The Paradox of the New Elite by Alexander Stille one might conclude that inclusive societies (ease of immigrant absorption) tend to yield unequal market outcomes (growing income disparity). This describes the US. Conversely, the data suggests that societies that pursue an equalization of outcomes are more likely to reject non-members. This describes OECD Europe.

This set of observations seems to relate to the observation by Milton Friedman IIRC, that you can have a generous welfare system or an open immigration policy but you can't have both.

This is an interesting insight by Stille.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Decision-Making, Limits and Pitfalls

Following on from The illusion of validity.

Kahneman's discussion leads to the modification of this decision-making graphic that I created identifying the four different modes of decision-making based on their present:futurity, tactical:strategic, incremental:consequential and reversible:irreversible orientations. All decisions are made in a context of more or less time available and we tend to default to that mode of decisioning which is most relevant to the time constraint rather than the mode of decision making relevant to the nature and impact of the decision as we ought to do.
This new version incorporates the delimiters associated with each mode of decision-making. Experiential, for example, depends on creating useful narrative stereotypes but there is a boundary of stereotypes beyond which we will not accept for any of a variety of reasons - lack of utility, conflict with values, incongruence with assumptions, etc. The other modification is at the center of the graphic. Once we have digested inchoate data and made sense of it, i.e. arrived at a decision using the four modes of decision-making, we then undertake action based on that decision. There is the direct set of actions necessary for the here and now, and then there are the more policy related actions relevant to the strategic, future state.
A final iteration prompted by Kahneman's comments. Each mode of decision making (heuristic, experiential, analytic and profound) is subject to biases and effects pertinent to that particular mode. In Kahneman's article he is focusing on the tendency to lock on to narrative coherence. We like stories that make sense and hang together and we are biased towards those coherent stories regardless of what else we might know about the utility of those narratives (stereotypes). So what are some of the common biases and effects?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The illusion of validity

From Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence by Daniel Kahneman.

Quite intriguing.
The statistical evidence of our failure should have shaken our confidence in our judgments of particular candidates, but it did not. It should also have caused us to moderate our predictions, but it did not. We knew as a general fact that our predictions were little better than random guesses, but we continued to feel and act as if each particular prediction was valid. I was reminded of visual illusions, which remain compelling even when you know that what you see is false. I was so struck by the analogy that I coined a term for our experience: the illusion of validity.

I had discovered my first cognitive fallacy.


The confidence we experience as we make a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that it is right. Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable. The bias toward coherence favors overconfidence. An individual who expresses high confidence probably has a good story, which may or may not be true.


I coined the term “illusion of validity” because the confidence we had in judgments about individual soldiers was not affected by a statistical fact we knew to be true — that our predictions were unrelated to the truth. This is not an isolated observation. When a compelling impression of a particular event clashes with general knowledge, the impression commonly prevails.


Although professionals are able to extract a considerable amount of wealth from amateurs, few stock pickers, if any, have the skill needed to beat the market consistently, year after year. The diagnostic for the existence of any skill is the consistency of individual differences in achievement. The logic is simple: if individual differences in any one year are due entirely to luck, the ranking of investors and funds will vary erratically and the year-to-year correlation will be zero. Where there is skill, however, the rankings will be more stable. The persistence of individual differences is the measure by which we confirm the existence of skill among golfers, orthodontists or speedy toll collectors on the turnpike.


More important, the year-to-year correlation among the outcomes of mutual funds is very small, barely different from zero. The funds that were successful in any given year were mostly lucky; they had a good roll of the dice. There is general agreement among researchers that this is true for nearly all stock pickers, whether they know it or not — and most do not. The subjective experience of traders is that they are making sensible, educated guesses in a situation of great uncertainty. In highly efficient markets, however, educated guesses are not more accurate than blind guesses.


The illusion of skill is not only an individual aberration; it is deeply ingrained in the culture of the industry. Facts that challenge such basic assumptions — and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem — are simply not absorbed. The mind does not digest them. This is particularly true of statistical studies of performance, which provide general facts that people will ignore if they conflict with their personal experience.
Kahneman then concludes:
To know whether you can trust a particular intuitive judgment, there are two questions you should ask: Is the environment in which the judgment is made sufficiently regular to enable predictions from the available evidence? The answer is yes for diagnosticians, no for stock pickers. Do the professionals have an adequate opportunity to learn the cues and the regularities? The answer here depends on the professionals’ experience and on the quality and speed with which they discover their mistakes. Anesthesiologists have a better chance to develop intuitions than radiologists do.
This doesn't seem quite right to me. "Is the environment in which the judgment is made sufficiently regular to enable predictions from the available evidence?" It seems to me as if this is incomplete and that the question should actually be "Is the relationship between cause and effect well understood and stable?

Also, "Do the professionals have an adequate opportunity to learn the cues and the regularities?" seems too unspecific. I would think that it ought to be something more like "Is there consequential feedback that is timely, accurate, relevant, and contextual?"

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Other nations seem to face the same challenge: either inclusive, or economically just.

From The Paradox of the New Elite by Alexander Stille. Some very interesting observations and questions.
It’s a puzzle: one dispossessed group after another — blacks, women, Hispanics and gays — has been gradually accepted in the United States, granted equal rights and brought into the mainstream.

At the same time, in economic terms, the United States has gone from being a comparatively egalitarian society to one of the most unequal democracies in the world.

The two shifts are each huge and hugely important: one shows a steady march toward democratic inclusion, the other toward a tolerance of economic stratification that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

The United States prides itself on the belief that “anyone can be president,” and what better example than Barack Obama, son of a black Kenyan immigrant and a white American mother — neither of them rich.


It’s a surprising contradiction. Is the confluence of these two movements a mere historical accident? Or are the two trends related?

Other nations seem to face the same challenge: either inclusive, or economically just. Europe has maintained much more economic equality but is struggling greatly with inclusiveness and discrimination, and is far less open to minorities than is the United States.

European countries have done a better job of protecting workers’ salaries and rights but have been reluctant to extend the benefits of their generous welfare state to new immigrants who look and act differently from them. Could America’s lost enthusiasm for income redistribution and progressive taxation be in part a reaction to sharing resources with traditionally excluded groups?


Inequality and inclusion are both as American as apple pie, says Jerome Karabel, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “The Chosen,” about the history of admission to Harvard, Yale and Princeton. “I don’t think any advanced democracy is as obsessed with equality of opportunity or as relatively unconcerned with equality of condition,” he says. “As long as everyone has a chance to compete, we shouldn’t worry about equality. Equality of condition is seen as undesirable, even un-American.”


“After the immigration reform of 1965, this country went from being the United States of Europe to being the United States of the World. All with virtually no violence and comparatively little trauma,” Professor Karabel said. This is no small thing, particularly when you compare it to the trauma experienced by many European societies in absorbing much lower percentages of foreign-born citizens, few of whom have penetrated their countries’ elites.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Usually speaking in riddles or gibberish

Heh. An extended allegory of Alice in Wonderland and American politics in American Wonderland by Morton Keller.
What do we find in the fantastical worlds of Wonderland and the mirror-image Looking-Glass House through which Alice passes? They are populated with bizarre collections of sorts-of-people and not-quite-right animals, usually speaking in riddles or gibberish. They engage in endless, often nonsensical disputations, mutual threats, and generally antisocial behavior: a not inapt metaphor for our political culture. “It’s really dreadful the way all the creatures argue. It’s enough to drive one crazy!” says Alice, as if she had just emerged from a bout of listening to a panel “discussion” on cable television, or reading what passes for “comments” on the internet.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and blind us to the truth

From an essay post, The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight by David McRaney.
As psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, our minds “unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and blind us to the truth.”

Depending whom you ask, you’ll hear that the problem is too little money. Or it’s too . . .

Andrew J. Rotherham Forget Wall Street. Go Occupy Your Local School District has a convenient listing of root causes of school education failures:
Depending whom you ask, you’ll hear that the problem is too little money. Or it’s too much money and too little performance. Or poverty. Or lack of standards. Or lousy curriculum. Or teacher effectiveness. Or archaic rules and regulations. Or lack of innovation. Or lack of choice. Or too much power in the hands of the teachers unions. Or too little power in the hands of teachers.
To which I would add some other commonly ascribed root causes such as poor facilities, administration bloat, too much testing, unaligned culture, family environment, too little time in school, too long a summer break, family demographics (single parent), poor role models, etc.

All of these are potential root cuases, and all will prove to be actual root causes in some instances. But not all of them are equally contributive to poor results all the time, everywhere. And some of them are masks for the real underlying issues. Poverty is not itself the cause of poor results but some of the burdens of poverty are - the trick is to identify those specific burdens and address them rather than the nebulous concept of poverty. A rigorous root cause analysis of systemic poor results will force some unpleasant truths to be faced but we cannot move forward until we quit chasing generic chimera and start tackling concrete problems.

The first lesson of economics is scarcity

From Thomas Sowell.
The first lesson of economics is scarcity. There is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ascribing actions to "pressure" is as much a fraud as the original crime

I wonder if it is simply a randomness in statistical sampling but it seems as if more and more, people are ascribing bad behavior to the simple existance of "pressure". Four or five months ago, there was a big scandal when it was revealed that a significant percentage of Atlanta Public School teachers and administrators were involved in or aware of systemic cheating, including test fixing parties. One of the excuses commonly advanced in that incident, and in similar incidents that have emerged since then in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and other major cities was that the teachers did it because they were under such pressure to get good results.

Before that, there was the global climate data set fraud that emerged from East Anglia University in the UK which set back the environmental agenda by a decade. In that particular instance, it may not have been direct fraud so much as simply sloppy science (they adjusted their data but kept no record of how and why it was adjusted). Again, the excuse was that they were under pressure to demonstrate results.

And it isn't a recent phenomenon. This article from back in 1997 chronicles the many instances "When good guys lie" in order to advance a particular agenda. Again, pressure to get people to believe.

Today, there is Christopher Shea's article Fraud Scandal Fuels Debate Over Practices of Social Psychology which quotes one psychology professor, "If high-impact journals want this kind of surprising finding, then there is pressure on researchers to come up with this stuff"

This seems an entirely unforgiveable and slishod transferance of agency from individuals to the system or to others or just elsewhere so that nobody is to blame. The data falsifying psychology researcher in the article, Diederik A. Stapel, didn't falsify his data because he was under pressure, he falsified it because he wanted the rewards that came from novel psychological findings. Teachers didn't cheat because they were under pressure, they cheated because they wanted to demonstrate the results and reap the rewards for outcomes they hadn't achieved. The climate researchers didn't present undocumented data because they were under pressure, they did so to advance a particular agenda (which included more grant money).

We are all under pressure all the time and forced against our wills to make trade-off decisions we don't like. We all want our cake and to eat it as well. To ascribe these bad actions to pressure is to completely ignore that we are all under pressure and only some of us betray our fellow man by cheating, engaging in fraud, and perpetrating deceptions. Ascribing actions to "pressure" is as much a fraud as the original crime.

Nobody ever said anything about immature

From Argentina: Tick, Tick, Tick by Walter Russell Mead.
“You can’t stay young forever,” says writer John Helyar, “but nobody ever said anything about immature.” Argentina seems to bent on proving his point; the most cosmopolitan and in some ways most European of Latin American countries is getting older, but its commitment to underdevelopment and economic failure appears undiminished with time.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Like a painter whose portraits bear no resemblance to his models

Plato on children's stories in The Republic, Book 2.
“Don't you understand,” I said, “that we begin by telling children fables, and the fable is, taken as a whole, false, but there is truth in it also? And we make use of fable with children before gymnastics.” “That is so.” “That, then, is what I meant by saying that we must take up music before gymnastics.” “You were right,” he said. “Do you not know, then, that the beginning in every task is the chief thing,1 especially for any creature that is young and tender? For it is then that it is best molded and takes the impression that one wishes to stamp upon it.” “Quite so.” “Shall we, then, thus lightly suffer our children to listen to any chance stories fashioned by any chance teachers and so to take into their minds opinions for the most part contrary to those that we shall think it desirable for them to hold when they are grown up?” “By no manner of means will we allow it.” “We must begin, then, it seems, by a censorship over our storymakers, and what they do well we must pass and what not, reject. And the stories on the accepted list we will induce nurses and mothers to tell to the children and so shape their souls by these stories far rather than their bodies by their hands. But most of the stories they now tell we must reject.” “What sort of stories?” he said. “The example of the greater stories,” I said, “will show us the lesser also. For surely the pattern must be the same and the greater and the less must have a like tendency. Don't you think so?” “I do,” he said; “but I don't apprehend which you mean by the greater, either.” “Those,” I said, “that Hesiod and Homer and the other poets related. These, methinks, composed false stories which they told and still tell to mankind.” “Of what sort?” he said; “and what in them do you find fault?” “With that,” I said, “which one ought first and chiefly to blame, especially if the lie is not a pretty one.” “What is that?” “When anyone images badly in his speech the true nature of gods and heroes, like a painter whose portraits bear no resemblance to his models.”

Country to town, agriculture to services

A couple of thoughts.

There are two momentous trends occurring globally which match what is happening (or has happened in the US) – 1) Movement from country to town and 2) redeployment of people from agriculture and manufacturing into the services/knowledge sector. These trends have a couple of common elements which change the dynamics of success from that which existed in the past.

Relocating from thinly populated countryside to the much denser environment of the city requires a dramatic increase in communication skills and behavior management capabilities. The new arrival has many more people to deal with who operate from many and much more varied cultural assumptions. The communication skills and behavior management competencies necessary for dealing with an environment where you might interact with 100 people in a day are dramatically higher than those where you might interact with 100 people in a year.

Similarly, the migration from labor intensive agriculture and manufacturing environments where there is some level of standardization and predictability (which is not to say that bad things don’t happen but bad weather for a farmer is a predictable event) to the services or knowledge economy, characterized by rapid change, constant churn, high levels of ambiguity and uncertainty, also call for certain skills to be practiced at much higher levels. Skills and attributes such as communication, behavior management, empathy, networking and creativity are much more highly required and rewarded in the services/knowledge economy than in agriculture and manufacturing.

As a single example of some of the implications: An employer might have relatively little concern about hiring a young person with a spotty arrest record to work in a field, pick apples, or function on an assembly line. They are going to have very significant concerns about doing so in a comparable role (where it exists) in a services environment where that individual will have to function and communicate with many colleagues.

With both these two trends of urbanization and knowledge economy concentration, there is an increasing premium on empathy, communication, self-control/behavior management, etc. (in addition to the traditional idea of education). It is not so much that most of the traditional values (patience, temperance, diligence, humility, perseverance, tolerance, etc.) that have been selected for in the past five hundred years in those countries earliest in the urbanization cycle are no longer relevant, but rather that the cost on non-adherence has risen dramatically. The 20 year-old with a demonstrated work ethic (summer and part time jobs), confident and clear communication capabilities (reading and conversation), self-control, empathy (volunteer activities), etc. has ever more opportunities open to them with increasing probabilities of success. For those that have not acquired these traits or who have blotted their copy-book in some fashion, the chances for recovery and success are dramatically lessened. A twenty year-old unable to communicate in the language of the land (both linguistically as well from a cultural literacy perspective), or with a youthful criminal record for a relatively minor offense, no track record of accomplishment or application, no activity of giving back to the community, etc. has incredibly bleak prospects in the urban, knowledge-based, economy.

It doesn’t help that many of our national policies have been disproportionately focused on interpreting everything through the lens of race (here in the US) or class (in Europe). Instead of seeking to identify what values and attributes are more likely to make a person successful, we have instead been eagerly seeking to identify those barriers which prevent them from being successful. It is not the same thing and the probability of success is much less with the latter approach than the former. We broadly know what those attributes of success are (see above, work ethic, diligence, patience, careful risk-taking, generosity, kindness, trust, temperance, etc.) but are strangely reluctant to grasp the nettle and proclaim them. By focusing on race and class and the removal of barriers we have had only very selective successes (either here in the US or in Europe) and have been distracted from the main arena. Race and class matter but not nearly as much as values and character attributes.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Surrounded by an amorphous boundary of uncertainties

From Why Scientific Progress Sometimes Goes Boink by Adam Mann.
Science certainly is not the static statement of universal laws we all hear about in elementary school. Nor is it a set of arbitrary rules. Science is an evolving body of knowledge. Many of the ideas we are currently investigating will prove to be wrong or incomplete. Scientific descriptions certainly change as we cross the boundaries that circumscribe what we know and venture into more remote territory where we can glimpse hints of the deeper truths beyond.

The paradox scientists have to contend with is that while aiming for permanence, we often investigate ideas that experimental data or better understanding will force us to modify or discard. The sound core of knowledge that has been tested and relied on is always surrounded by an amorphous boundary of uncertainties that are the domain of current research. The ideas and suggestions that excite us today will soon be forgotten if they are invalidated by more persuasive or comprehensive experimental work tomorrow.


Nonetheless, even when improved technology makes a broader range of observations possible, we don’t necessarily just abandon the theories that made successful predictions for the distances and energies, or speeds and densities, that were accessible in the past. Scientific theories grow and expand to absorb increased knowledge, while retaining the reliable parts of ideas that came before. Science thereby incorporates old established knowledge into the more comprehensive picture that emerges from a broader range of experimental and theoretical observations.

Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will? by Eddy Nahmias

Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will? by Eddy Nahmias

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The merely wrong, and the valuable wrong

From Is Philosophy the Most Practical Major? by Edward Tenner.
From such experiences I learned the difference between the merely wrong, and the valuable wrong.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Unencumbered by truth

Thomas Carew, quoted in Decoding the Brain's Cacaphony.
One of the toughest things in any science, but especially in neuroscience, is to weed out the ideas that are really pleasing but unencumbered by truth

Friday, November 11, 2011

The per capita GDPs of the low income economies have jumped by an average of more than 40 percent

From Seven Billion Reasons to Celebrate by Nicholas Eberstadt. That is a phenomenal number, the poorest member states of the world have improved their productivity by 40% in only 12 years. Unprecedented.
And incidentally: what of this veil of tears into which Baby Seven Billion is being born? Baby Six Billion is now about 12 years old (having been born in 1999)—and Baby Five Billion has recently marked his or her 24th birthday (he or she was born in early 1987). The world has changed over these years—and not for the worse, if material living standards are our benchmark.

The child will most likely be born in what the UN calls the 'less developed regions.'

Since 1987, according to the World Bank, life expectancy for the planet as a whole has risen by 4 years, to 69, adult literacy rates have increased by over 8 points, to 84 percent, and per capita income (in real 2005 PPP-adjusted dollars) has risen by over 50 percent, the ongoing global economic crisis notwithstanding.

These gains, to be sure, were unevenly distributed. Even so, since 1999, according to the World Bank’s numbers, the per capita GDPs of the low income economies have jumped by an average of more than 40 percent and the percentage of children completing primary school has risen by 16 points, to 65 percent. Over those same dozen years, the risk of infant mortality in these low income economies has dropped by about 1 percent per annum.

The plain fact is that Baby Seven Billion will have a greater chance to live to adulthood and receive an education—and a lower chance of suffering extreme material poverty—than a child at any previous juncture in history. This prospect, in and of itself, should be a cause for celebration.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Nobody can do for the Europeans what they cannot do for themselves

From Quit Asking, I'm Still Not Your Daddy by Walter Russell Mead. While written in the context of the EU seeking loans from China, these comments are broadly applicable to any party that has behaviors and values poorly aligned with the goal of increasing productivity.
China’s response, however, is equally predictable. As Via Media has pointed out before, if helping Europe means lending money at market rates on good security and buying valuable properties at attractive prices, you can count China in. But they operate as a wealth fund, not a charity. A healthy Europe is in export-pushing, US-balancing China’s best interest, but China isn’t ready to be Europe’s organ donor, sharing one of its two kidneys out of solidarity and love.

It’s simple, really. China is like a bank. If you don’t need money, the bank stands ready and willing to lend. If you are in trouble, you are on your own.

Let Europe put together a reasonable and practical plan, and the whole world will join in to be part of the solution. Nobody wants Europe to fail. But nobody can do for the Europeans what they cannot do for themselves.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Economic forecasts are not very good. In fact, they are completely terrible.

From Is Obama Toast? Handicapping the 2012 Election by Nate Silver
There is, however, another problem: economic forecasts are not very good. In fact, they are completely terrible. In November 1995, economists expected the economy to grow at 2.6 percent the next year; it actually zoomed upward by 4.4 percent. In November 2007, they expected it to grow at 2.5 percent, but it shrank by 3.3 percent, as the effects of the global financial crisis became manifest. Frighteningly enough, the margin of error on an economic forecast made a year in advance is about plus or minus 4 percent of G.D.P.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

39,000 economic indicators

From Is Obama Toast? Handicapping the 2012 Election by Nate Silver
The government tracks literally 39,000 economic indicators each year. Although many (say, privately owned housing starts in Alabama) are obscure or redundant, perhaps two or three dozen of them are looked at regularly by economists.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sunday, November 6, 2011

So far like the present period

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities. Page 1, the opening paragraph. I read some abridged version of A Tale of Two Cities when I was quite young, perhaps ten or twelve, making me think now that it must have been very abridged. However that may be, it began with the full original paragraph which siezed my imagination. There was something not only of the image conjured but also the very cadence of the words, their resonance. Rereading them now there is also a remarkable viability to them - as true a sentiment now as then.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Reality is tireless

Megan McArdle in Could Smarter Rules Have Protected MF Global's Clients?
Reality is tireless, and eventually she almost always catches up with her quarry. But she is not necessarily speedy, and the denouement may be a long time coming.

Cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life

Edward Tenner in What the iPhone 4S Says about Inequality. We live in interesting times and our latent concern about unbridled technophilia and its possible impact on the quality and value of life has much fuel. Yet there are strange things going on. When the bottom 20% in income in the US have an asset profile (home ownership, cars, computers, TVs, etc.) equivalent to that of middle income Europeans, our sense of who is poor and what constitutes poverty becomes unmoored. The disruption to established work forces arising from new technology is well established. That said, for all the decades of anguish about change, people are ever better off in terms of measurable things.

Our conundrum is that people, by and large, have what they need and much of what they want. What is poverty then?

It is interesting to see that this discussion is age old.
Or perhaps the times are actually driving technophilia. That's what George Orwell argued about England in the Great Depression, in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937):
And then there is the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon people with empty bellies. ... Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life.

Friday, November 4, 2011

We have no compass to govern us

Edmund Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution.
When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment, we have no compass to govern us, nor can we know distinctly to what port to steer.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe

From commenter Andrei Radulescu-Banu recounting the origin of a somewhat famous quote.
The fascism quote is from Tom Wolfe, recounting an episode at a Princeton conference with Günther Grass, the scion of post-war German literature:
“The next thing I knew, the discussion was onto the subject of fascism in America. Everybody was talking about police repression and the anxiety and paranoia as good folks waited for the knock on the door and the descent of the knout on the nape of the neck. I couldn’t make any sense out of it. I had just made a tour of the country to write a series called “The New Life Out There” for New York magazine. This was the mid-1960’s. The post-World War II boom had by now pumped money into every level of the population on a scale unparalleled in any nation in history.


“Suddenly I heard myself blurting out over my microphone: “My God, what are you talking about? We’re in the middle of a … Happiness Explosion!”

“That merely sounded idiotic. The kid up in the balcony did the crying baby. The kid down below did the raccoon … Krakatoa, East of Java … I disappeared in a tidal wave of rude sounds … Back to the goon squads, search-and-seize and roust-a-daddy …

“Support came from a quarter I hadn’t counted on. It was Grass, speaking in English.

“For the past hour I have my eyes fixed on the doors here,” he said. “You talk about fascism and police repression. In Germany when I was a student, they come through those doors long ago. Here they must be very slow.”

“Grass was enjoying himself for the first time all evening. He was not simply saying, “You really don’t have so much to worry about.” He was indulging his sense of the absurd. He was saying: “You American intellectuals—you want so desperately to feel besieged and persecuted!”

“He sounded like Jean-François Revel, a French socialist writer who talks about one of the great unexplained phenomena of modern astronomy: namely, that the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe.”

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A pile of stones is not a house

Jules Henri Poincaré
Science is facts; just as houses are made of stone, so is science made of facts. But a pile of stones is not a house, and a collection of facts is not necessarily science.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Their thoughts and behavior are responsible for much of their fortune

From The Luck Factor by Richard Wiseman.
Over the years I have interviewed these volunteers, asked them to complete diaries, personality questionnaires, and intelligence tests, and invited them to my laboratory to participate in experiments. The findings have revealed that luck is not a magical ability or the result of random chance. Nor are people born lucky or unlucky. Instead, although lucky and unlucky people have almost no insight into the real causes of their good and bad luck, their thoughts and behavior are responsible for much of their fortune.

My research revealed that lucky people generate their own good fortune via four basic principles. They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.
Echoes of Hamlet, "For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

Monday, October 31, 2011

Vivid thoughts about the future

From Time on the Brain: How You Are Always Living In the Past, and Other Quirks of Perception by George Musser.

The world as we perceive it is constructed and that construction depends both on reliable recollection and imagination.
The bottom line is that memory is essential to constructing scenarios for ourselves in the future. Anecdotal evidence backs this up. Our ability to project forward and to recollect the past both develop around age 5, and people who are good at remembering also report having vivid thoughts about the future.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

An influx of skilled, ambitious people

It's all about productivity. The Vanishing Middle Class by Reuven Brenner. Perhaps a source of woes is that we are losing our comparative advantage in freedom. If so, uh-oh.
For background: After World War II and well until the 1990s, the United States enjoyed an influx of skilled, ambitious people who were escaping a world largely ruled by dictatorial and unstable regimes. Hundreds of millions of others, those with skills, drive and intelligence equal to those lucky enough to be born in the West, were trapped behind iron and other curtains. As long as the US enjoyed monopoly powers on the leveraging of talent and capital, it could impose high taxes, with large segments of the population benefiting from high wages and transfer payments. Political barriers gave these groups of employees in the US the negotiating powers to extract those benefits.

The fall of communism and the political stabilization of what we now call "emerging countries" eroded the US's advantages, thus weakening these negotiating powers. Talented, entrepreneurial people and capital can and still do move to the United States, but capital and industrious individuals can also now exit it in favor of newly decentralizing parts of the world, where hundreds of millions of individuals are eager to work hard and catch up.

Practice and language shape habits of mind

From Unsettled civilizations: How the US can handle Iraq by Reuven Brenner.

On some of the critical distinctions between mobile (Enlightenment Age cultures) and immobile (those based on natural resources and agriculture) cultures. In this case he is discussing risk and probability.
Practice and language shape habits of mind. The greater the role of business and the more transactions, the more complex calculations of probability become, and the notion of probabilities change, imperceptibly, perhaps, all facets of life. To describe transactions is far from a trivial exercise, as even a casual look at any investment prospectus illustrates. Prices, which are present values of goods and services to be delivered in the future, are approximations, reflecting expectations and probabilities. Because of difficulties in fulfillment when pricing uncertain quantities, price becomes just one feature of a complex contractual agreement. It is not surprising, that in mobile societies, with developing capital markets, discussions about probability, risk and uncertainty are linked to both legal reasoning and the institutions needed to back contractual agreements.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The fruit of chance and necessity

Everything in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity
Makes sense when you think of chance as being random variation and necessity being the pursuit of survival and continuity.

Added: In researching this quote, it appears that it was misremembered by an author, Jacques Monod, who used part of the quote as a title for one of his books. From there, it has been frequently requoted, still incorrectly. Background from Antoine Danchin in The Atomists: Logos and Necessity.

Clayton Cramer highlights a similar experience where a quote gets attributed, in this case to Cotton Mather, and then enters circulation without ever being corrected. Did Cotton Mather Really Say This?

Friday, October 28, 2011

What are you rewarding, and what are you punishing?

From Black and right by Ray Sawhill.

Thomas Sowell:
Over the years, I’ve reached the point where I can hardly bear to read the preamble of proposed legislation. I don’t care what you think this thing is going to do. What I care about is: What are you rewarding, and what are you punishing? Because you’re going to get more of what you’re rewarding and less of what you’re punishing.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

If fewer than seven men attack private property, they are thieves

From Unsettled civilizations: How the US can handle Iraq by Reuven Brenner.
There is an old clause in the law codes that King Ine of Wessex established in the 8th century. If fewer than seven men attack private property, they are thieves; if between seven and 35 attack, they are a gang, and if more than 35, they are a military expedition.

Four traps

From Popular Development Economics—An Anthropologist among the Mandarins by Mike McGovern. It is interesting that what has happened in the US is mirrored at the global level: The bottom quintile have stagnated in terms of their productivity at the same time that the top quintile have blossomed.
Collier’s argument starts from the finding that the bottom billion have stagnated over the past forty to fifty years while the other four billion people living in the “developing world” have not only achieved economic development but, in most cases, a greater degree of political stability. He identifies four “traps” that reinforce economic stasis, political instability, and each other. They are conflict, reliance on natural resources, being landlocked with bad neighbors, and bad governance.Having laid out these structural challenges, Collier uses the second half of The Bottom Billion to outline some possible solutions, including judicious use of development aid, postconflict international peacekeeping missions, revised international laws that would diminish the complicity of richer governments and their businesses in bad governance and conflict, and revising trade policy in a way that actively favors the poorest countries.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Less than 1 percent of the American population is in the bottom income quintile for that duration (15 years)

From Black and right by Ray Sawhill.

We tend to think of poverty as a static condition whereas, in the US, it is highly dynamic. People move up and down over the course of a lifetime. Poor students become rich doctors. To understand poverty we have to understand durations and behaviors. What mires people in poverty and for how long. These are much more troublesome issues. As Sowell indicates, we are blessed with the fact that few are truly fated to live in poverty for lengthy durations.

And while we should rejoice in that figure of 1%, I don't think it lets us off the hook completely and for two reasons. Most people that manage to avoid poverty are highly dependent on various transfer programs that take money from one group and give to another. A safety net, and one that is necessary. However, the real goal is to be sufficiently productive that you are not in poverty. If you are not in poverty because of the generosity of others, you have mitigated a problem, not solved it.

The other issue is that you can avoid being in poverty and still be leading a frustratingly meager existance. Someone who is able to hold a job for a year or two may not be in the bottom quintile but if they are constantly gaining and losing employment, oscillating between quintile four and quintile five, they are still both unproductive and in sad material circumstances. No, they don't live continuously in quintile five but they are a frequent inhabitant.

I suspect that our problem is sourced in a much larger population than 1%. Those who are ill equipped in terms of knowledge, will, decision-making and values to sustain themselves in a productive fashion and who spend a life time floating between quintiles four and five and with no real prospects of either freeing themselves from dependency on others or of achieving sustained productivity.
You write in the new book that only 3 percent of Americans spend as long as eight years in the bottom-fifth income bracket.

That study has now been extended to 15 years. And when you stretch it out to 15 years, you find that less than 1 percent of the American population is in the bottom income quintile for that duration. Add to that the fact that most of our millionaires have made their money themselves, and you realize that it’s a tremendously fluid system.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Achievement gap is attributable to out-of-school factors

From Group Urges More Money to Aid Poor in School by Winnie Hu. A classic example of difficult decision-making, trade-offs, noble goals and hard-headed reality. What do you do in terms of fairness to enable children to more effectively participate in the productivity and bounty of this country when they are disadvantaged by the decisions made by their own parents.

As troubling, how do you pay for it. Increased spending on those in need is one solution (though problematic from an effectiveness perspective) but where do you raise that money from? Ideally, from a pure productivity perspective, you would issue a bond to be recouped by the improved productivity of the affected children in the future. That's just not practical, independent of some of the ethical issues.

The most straightforward mechanism is to raise the money from existing households that are already productive. But that, in economic terms, is simply raising the cost of being effective, and whenever you raise the cost of something, you get less of it. In order to prospectively raise the productivity of some, you are reducing the productivity of others. In that sort of trade-off, your risk and cost-benefit numbers have to be rock-solid in order to make an effective decision; yet those number are usually not much more than hopes and wishes - they aren't real numbers.
“Expanding comprehensive educational services for poor children is an essential investment even in these tough budgetary times, given how much of the achievement gap is attributable to out-of-school factors like poverty,” Ms. Weingarten said. “Economic opportunity and educational opportunity are inextricably linked, and we have no choice but to invest in our kids’ and nation’s future.”
We do have choices but they are neither obvious or pleasant.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Most of the 106 billion people who’ve ever lived are dead—around 94 percent of them

From The Geniuses We'll Never Know by Niall Ferguson. Numbers and context - always a winning proposition.
This essay is not about Steve Jobs. It is about the countless individuals with roughly the same combination of talents of whom we’ve never heard and never will.

Most of the 106 billion people who’ve ever lived are dead—around 94 percent of them. And most of those dead people were Asian—probably more than 60 percent. And most of those dead Asians were dirt poor. Born into illiterate peasant families enslaved by subsistence agriculture under some or other form of hierarchical government, the Steves of the past never stood a chance.

Chances are, those other Steves didn’t make it into their 30s, never mind their mid-50s. An appalling number died in childhood, killed off by afflictions far easier to treat than pancreatic cancer. The ones who made it to adulthood didn’t have the option to drop out of college because they never went to college. Even the tiny number of Steves who had the good fortune to rise to the top of premodern societies wasted their entire lives doing calligraphy (which he briefly dabbled in at Reed College). Those who sought to innovate were more likely to be punished than rewarded.

Today, according to estimates by Credit Suisse, there is approximately $195 trillion of wealth in the world. Most of it was made quite recently, in the wake of those great political and economic revolutions of the late 18th century, which, for the first time in human history, put a real premium on innovation. And most of it is owned by Westerners—Europeans and inhabitants of the New World and Antipodes inhabited by their descendants. We may account for less than a fifth of humanity, but we Westerners still own two thirds of global wealth.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

She has practiced, with tongue-peeking determination

From Making Room for Readers by Steve Himmer.
When we’d found enough books, my daughter strutted up to the circulation desk, stood on her tiptoes, and announced to the librarian, “I need a library card!”

The librarian, who must have been through this before, sighed and her face took on the look of someone who knows she’s about to disappoint a young patron. “Well,” she said, “here’s the rule. If a child is under five — and I know it seems kind of backwards — if a child is under five, she needs to be able to print her first and last name on this form.” She slid a small blue card in front of my daughter, and pointed to a narrow space for her name.

“She can write her name,” I said, “but maybe not small enough for that line.”

“I can do it,” my daughter said, so I got her a pencil and she did a great job writing her first name, Gretchen, but unfortunately those letters took up the whole space. We should have chosen a shorter name, I thought, as she got frustrated — understandably — and tried to print her last name, which she hasn’t practiced as much, in the margins of the card and ended up with a mess. “I can’t do it,” she said, her face melting.

“We’ll practice at home and try again soon,” I told her, while sliding my own library card onto the desk. The librarian gave us a couple of blank cards to practice with, and I drove home with a crestfallen face in the rearview. And she has practiced, with tongue-peeking determination, but she still can’t quite fit her name in that space so she still can’t quite get a library card.
It’s a mistake to rarify reading and put books out of reach. It’s a mistake to assume, as Alan Jacobs did recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education (in a passage later quoted by Shelf Awareness), that readers are, “mostly born and only a little made.” Because those discoveries in libraries and bookstores — and, yes, on my parents’ shelves, too — are what made me a reader, not some mysterious, bibliogenic accident of birth. That kind of thinking not only makes fewer readers, but might unmake the ones already forming. In an era of reduced library budgets and hours, closing bookstores, declining sales, and lost readers, discouraging anyone, of any age, from picking up a book they’re interested in seems like the last thing we should be doing.

I would there were no age between sixteen and three-and-twenty

From William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale in which the Shepherd describes the teenage years. Some things don't change over the centuries.

I would there were no age between sixteen and
three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the
rest; for there is nothing in the between but
getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry,
stealing, fighting

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Put coercion and mistake on the table, and the ability to get mutual gains is over

From Markets and Morals by Richard Epstein.
A more technical version of the same point is that we hope for all market transactions to generate Pareto improvements, by which we mean that at least one person is better off after it is completed, and no one is worse off. In a competitive market we can achieve that objective if the rules of the game are fully observed. The transaction between two (or more) immediate parties will generate gains for both that exceed their combined transaction costs, so long as the usual rules for voluntary transactions are observed, with the strict prohibitions against force and fraud for inducing agreements. These could be regarded as moral side constraints, but they flow directly from these definitions. Put coercion and mistake on the table, and the ability to get mutual gains is over. It is for that reason that every defender of laissez-faire has stressed these side constraints.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Growth is a cultural production, a society wide embrace of “bourgeois virtues.”

From Why Economics MUST Explain the Modern World by Gregory Clark
But having over many years considered the general problem of economic growth, and the specific puzzle of the timing and location of the Industrial Revolution, McCloskey has come to a stunning epiphany. This is that incentives explain very little of the huge gaps in wealth across the world. Growth is a cultural production, a society wide embrace of “bourgeois virtues.” Specifically, she claims, growth came because the activities of marketing, profiting, and innovating have become in our society uniquely respected, admired and praised.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Pleasures of the imagination that those who do not browse forgo

Of Bibliophilia and Biblioclasm by Theodore Dalyrmple.
According to the owner of a bookshop that I have now been patronising for forty years (and who seemed to me to be of the older generation when I first met him, but now seems, mysteriously, to be precisely the same age as I), browsing in the fashion and for the purpose that I have just described is a thing of the past. Young people do not do it any more, as they still did when he started his life in the trade. Instead, they have a purely instrumental or utilitarian attitude to bookshops: they come in, ask whether he has such and such a title, and if he does not they leave at once, usually with visible disgruntlement: for what is the point of a bookshop that does not have the very title that they want here and now?

There are other pleasures of the imagination that those who do not browse forgo. When first I bought books from second-hand bookshops I eschewed those with inscriptions, and to this day there are buyers who regard any mark on a book as a defect. (Orwell tells us that working in a bookshop taught him how few really bookish people there were, and how ‘first edition snobs’ are much more common than lovers of literature. I suppose that first edition snobs are to literature what hi-fi addicts are to music.) But I have changed my mind over the years, and now even prefer books to be inscribed in some way.

Only 4 individuals (0.1%) appeared on the list every year, 17 out of 17

Interesting statistics from a comment in response to an original blog post, 5 reasons why income inequality is a myth — and Occupy Wall Street is wrong by James Pethokoukis. The original post is provocative and I think probably has some marginal merit but is also fairly anemic in terms of its proof. The statistics in the comment ring true from both a logic perspective as well as in terms of anecdotal evidence. Too bad they didn't link to the study.

This would also seem consistent with the statistic cited by Thomas Sowell that only some 1% of people in poverty remain in poverty over any lengthy period of time, I think it was 15 or 17 years.

So is the real issue income inequality as I tend to think about it or is it really income volatility (income uncertainty). Even if you can anticipate moving on average from the bottom quintile (as a poor college student) to the top quintile (as a seasoned business person, entrepreneur or professional), would you still have a concern about income inequality because you could anticipate your income quintile potentially shifting one or two tranches in any given year? If things are steady and predictable, perhaps we are less concerned about lower productivity.
“Many of the top 1% this year are not in the top 1% next year.”

Correct. IRS statistics for the 17 year period 1992-2008 for the “400 Individual Tax Returns Reporting the Highest Adjusted Gross Incomes” show that a total of 3672 different individuals made the IRS list one or more times over that time period. Of that total, 2676 of them, roughly 73% of the 3672 different tax filers, appeared on this list just once, probably for the reasons you mentioned. Another 440 individuals (12% of the 3672) appeared on the list twice, while 5% appeared on it 3 times. Only 4 individuals (0.1%) appeared on the list every year, 17 out of 17.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

I proved, to my astonishment, to be as American as any Texas G.I.

From “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American” by James Baldwin.
In my necessity to find the terms on which my experience could be related to that of others, Negroes and whites, writers and non-writers, I proved, to my astonishment, to be as American as any Texas G.I. And I found my experience was shared by every American writer I knew in Paris. Like me, they had been divorced from their origins and it turned out to make very little difference that the origins of white Americans were European and mine were African — they were no more at home in Europe than I was.

The fact that I was the son of a slave and they were the sons of free men meant less, by the time we confronted each other on European soil, than the fact we were both searching for our separate identities. When we had found these, we seemed to be saying, why, then, we would no longer need to cling to the shame and bitterness which had divided us so long.

It became terribly clear in Europe, as it never had been here, that we knew more about each other than any European ever could. And it also became clear that, no matter where our fathers had been born, or what they had endured, the fact of Europe had formed us both was part of our identity and part of our inheritance.