Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The accidents are characteristic of the system itself

Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival. Page 102.
Perrow's Normal Accidents, first published in 1984, is a work of seminal importance because of its unusual thesis: That in certain kinds of systems, large accidents, though rare, are both inevitable and normal. The accidents are characteristic of the system itself, he says. His book was even more controversial because he found that efforts to make those systems safer, especially by technological means, made the system more complex and therefore more prone to accidents.

In system accidents, unexpected interactions of forces and components arise naturally out of the complexity of the system. Such accidents are made up of conditions, judgments and acts or events that would be inconsequential by themselves. Unless they are coupled in just the right way and with just the right timing, they pass unnoticed. . . . Perrow's point is that, most of the time, nothing serious happens, which makes it more difficult for the operators of the system (climbers, in this case). They begin to believe that the orderly behavior they see is the only possible state of the system. Then at the critical boundaries in time and space, the components and forces interact in unexpected ways, with catastrophic results.

They have no criteria

Ezra Pund:
There is no use talking to the ignorant about lies, for they have no criteria.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

You can slide through time to a world which does not yet exist

Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival. Page 80.
Sometimes an idea can drive action as powerfully as an emotion. Plans are an integral part of survival. Plans are generated as one of the many outputs of the brain as it goes about its business of mapping the body and the environment, along with the events taking place in both, resulting in adaptation. Planning is a deep instinct. Animals plan, and a bird that hides seeds has a larger hippocampus than others, suggesting a larger capacity for spatial memory. But planning - predicting the future - may be even more fundamental than animal abilities suggest. In his book Complexity, M. Mitchell Waldrop points out that "All complex adaptive systems anticipate the future. . . . Every living creature has an implicit prediction encoded in its genes . . . every complex adaptive system is constantly making predictions based on its various internal models of the world. . . . In fact, you can think of internal models as the building blocks of behavior. And like any other building blocks, they can be tested, refined, and rearranged as the system gains experience."

The human brain is particularly well suited to making complex plans that have an emotional component to drive motivation and behavior. Plans are stored in memory just as past events are. To the brain, the future is as real as the past. The difficulty begins when reality doesn't match the plan.

Memories are not emotion, and emotion is not memory, but the two work together. Mental models, which are stored in memory, are not emotions either. But they can be engaged with emotion, motivation, cognition, and memory. And since memories can exist in either the past or the future, to the brain it's the same thing. You bookmark the future in order to get there. It's a magic trick: You can slide through time to a world which does not yet exist.

Monday, August 29, 2011

His concern seems well-grounded

As sometimes occurs, there is a fun dispute going on in one of the children's literature list-servs to which I belong. The catalyst is an essay/review by Joseph Epstein in the Wall Street Journal, What Killed American Lit. by Joseph Epstein.

It is interesting to look at the responses to this reasonably straightforward essay as some sort of Rorschach test. People seem to see in it what they wish to see (a pretty common response). But what I find most interesting is the lack of real argumentation. Most of the response falls into various logical fallacies – ad hominem attacks, guilt by association, misattribution, argument by assertion, misdirection, false strawmen, argument by disparagement, and red herrings. There appears to be little engagement with his actual argument.

Epstein's central argument – English Departments at American Universities are doing a disservice to literature by focusing on obscure, ideological or faddish issues (exemplified by the common prism of race, class and gender) at the expense of teaching a love of reading and a common grounding in literature. The evidence to support this is the declining undergraduate interest and increasing irrelevance of English Department luminaries in the wider culture. He ascribes this decline to a loss of standards (his terms are high and low culture) and the former practice of distinguishing between them.

Epstein’s essay would seem to be part of a larger lament of the passing of the Classical Liberalism of the Enlightenment era augmented by the empiricism of later practitioners. Basically the economic, political and cultural world created by Newton, Smith, Locke, Jefferson, Madison, and Darwin. It seems indisputable that these Classical Liberals find little shelter in many English Departments today – as little shelter as there is comprehension of their works and the context of their times. Hirsch, Postman, et al. have made similar arguments.

Epstein has written what is nominally a book review but used that as a platform to make a larger argument. That isn’t an uncommon approach. Does his essay fall short in terms of a book review? Probably. He advances enough information to give you a sense of the book but not enough to make independent judgments. However, given its form, one has to judge the essay as an argument rather than as a review. So what is his argument? It seems that he is arguing that the intrusion of ideology, history and other issues into the study of Literature along with the abandonment of some means of distinguishing “good” books from “less good” books has led to a disengagement on the part of university students from the study of Literature and a consequent failure to cultivate a love of Literature. He advances the information that undergraduates taking a degree in English has shrunk from 7.6% of the student body to 3.9%.

There are five pertinent questions – 1) Is it real?, 2) Do we understand the causes?, 3) Can we change it?, 4) Is it important?, 5) Is it worth it?

Is the decline real? – Probably worth checking the numbers but his numbers are consistent with others I have seen.

Do we understand the causes for the decline? – Here is where things come off the rails. He proposes that the cause is a change in focus of Literature teaching away from standards to an increased focus on ideological and historical issues (race, class, gender). He makes a logical argument with some indicative but not by any means conclusive observations. There are certainly alternate propositions (which might include - increasing focus in the culture on training rather than education, cost of university versus the anticipated remuneration of a Literature major, shortened student attention spans, etc.)

Can we change the decline? – Possibly but depends on what the true nature of the decline might be – what are the root causes? If it is ideological infusion, then we can change it. If it is increased focus on monetizing education, then that might be more problematic.

Is it important to halt the decline? – Important to whom and for what reasons? To professors? Sure it is important. To students? Maybe, maybe not. To the continuity of our culture? I would argue yes.

Is it worth it? – The existential question.

I would argue that Epstein has a legitimate issue (decline of Literature education), has a rational but incomplete proposition for cause, and that he has not made the case for whether the decline can be or should be halted.

What I find interesting is that no one contests Epstein’s observation (declining English majors), no one offers an alternate explanation for why the decline is happening (other than that he is incorrect about the cause), no one argues that the decline can be halted and no one makes the case for why it ought to be halted.

Following are some of the criticisms advanced against Epstein's essay which seem to me to be irrelevant, and yet which seem to the primary counter-arguments.
Criticisms – “Can’t do maths” In maths we speak of decline in relative or absolute terms. In the context of Epstein’s essay, it is clear that he is speaking of relative decline, a declining percentage of students are committing themselves to the pursuit of an English major. Only about half as many students graduating university with a degree are pursuing English as a degree (from 7.6% to 3.9%). That is a clear signal, however you wish to interpret it. The assertion that he “can’t do maths” is simply wrong.

Guilt by association – His essay and argument can be dismissed because of his associations; i.e. a recommendation from Buckley, and publication in what are apparently deemed the wrong magazines, The Weekly Standard, The New Criterion, and Commentary.

False attribution – One critic attributes a view to Epstein, that the “decline in English majors is due to the fact that we now teach classes about science fiction, fantasy, children's literature, pop culture, women's fiction, Af-Am fiction, etc.” What he actually said was “at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture).” He ascribes the decline to loss of focus on great books. The proliferation of classes in other topics is a symptom of that loss of focus, not an independent cause.

Mischaracterization - “The automatic leftism behind this picture is also part of the reigning ethos of the current-day English Department.” It seems to me that Epstein is advancing this as evidence that the current curricula is an incomplete and misrepresentative presentation of history. Not that “Leftists ruined everything” but rather that the overrepresentation of the Leftist (on the US spectrum) weltanschauung distorts the choices about how to present English literature. He doesn’t mention the supporting evidence but it is certainly available in both studies and in the obvious disconnect between humanities academia and the public at large.

Argument by assertion – “this is why students don't want to be English majors any more. That assertion indicates such an ignorance of how the social sciences work that it takes the breath away from my inner undergraduate, who was a sociology major. His argument for the cause of the decline is “There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.”

Why is that ignorant? I might agree or disagree but just asserting that it is ignorant doesn’t make it so. There is nothing inherently illogical about his correlation: Loss of focus and intrusion of ideology into English Departments leads to a decline in the percentage interested in majoring in English. Is there data to support it – don’t know but it isn’t on the face of it illogical and therefore ought not to be dismissed by simple assertion. Especially when no alternative explanation is offered.

Argument by disparagement - “officious piece of nonsense”, “cantankerous ideological cant”

Misdirection – “The issue, of course, is that he blames leftists for all that is "wrong" with literature academia today.” But of course he doesn’t blame Leftists. He blames “The automatic leftism behind this picture is also part of the reigning ethos of the current-day English Department.” As mentioned earlier, there are plenty of surveys that document the wide mismatch between the political orientations within academia (and the humanities in particular), and the citizenry of the nation. Epstein is making the argument that that left-oriented world-view within academia has led to a means of teaching English which is of less and less interest to undergraduates.

Misdirection – “As to the experiences of those not of Western Europe in the US...I'd say "exploitation, racism, and prejudice" is a fairly accurate description.” He is not arguing whether history is informed by exploitation, racism, and prejudice. I think he is arguing that an over-focus on those issues (which might be better characterized as History, or Politics, or Philosophy rather than Literature) contributes to a decline in focus on Literature. Just as an historian turns to the literature of the day to inform their understanding of the history, so a person focusing on Literature legitimately turns to the history to inform their judgments of the literature. I think Epstein is pointing out that the one is not the other and that an overemphasis on the non-Literature issues undermines the cultivation of a love of literature. And then there are the occasions when both angles meet in the middle such as Louise MacNeice’s The Gloomy Academic. Whether the worldview that believes that the West is to blame for any or all of the world’s current problems is accurate or not is an entirely different issue from that which Epstein addresses – decline in the study of Literature.

False Strawman – “Ah, yes, the good old days, when old white men ruled the world (and ruled literature, history, and anthropology departments, too, of course), and all the gender bias, colonialism, and racism was simply taken for granted as the way things were and had to be.” I think it is a reach to assume that that is what Epstein is nostalgic for and a slander to ascribe that to him. He seems fairly explicit that his regret is that departments “have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.” I’ll grant you that what constitutes “good books” is a truck-sized gateway for discussion about various biases and prejudices but he seems to be interested in exactly that – what constitutes great literature rather than what are the histories and ideologies attendant to literature?

False strawman – “it seems to mean that multicultural literature--by which, I assume, he means texts by people of colour?--is all inherently and inevitably part of what he calls low culture” imputes to Epstein what is in the mind of his critic. Epstein is explicit that the problem is not “works of all cultures” but that the problem is ascribing an “equivalence of value to the works of all cultures”. If there is no set of standards or means of differentiation then Literature is really just a subset of the other disciplines (History, Philosophy, Politics). Epstein would appear to believe that there is a means for ranking some sort of aesthetic value to different works and that study of aesthetic values in the written word is what constitutes Literature. If he is correct then his concern seems well-grounded. If he is not correct then it would seem to call into question the study of Literature outside the other disciplines.

Surprising lapses in the way we process the world

Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival. Page 71.
One of the reasons magic tricks work can be explained through a brain system called working memory. It is a general purpose workspace, and most of us experience it as attention or conscious thought. In addition, there are specialized systems for verbal and nonverbal information, and they have a type of short-term memory that allows perceptions to be compared with one another over the span of a few seconds. The general purpose area can take in information from the specialized systems (sight, smell, sound, and so on) and can integrate and process that information through what LeDoux calls "an executive function." That area of the brain, located mostly in the frontal lobes, is responsible for making decisions and voluntary movements, as well as directing what sensory input we're paying attention to. It's why we can still carry on a conversation in a room where many people are talking and music is playing. It's why we can choose between getting up and putting on a sweater or turning the thermostat up.

As LeDoux and others have explained, working memory can hold only a few things at once, perhaps half a dozen or so, and when something new commands attention, those things are forgotten. Working memory can also retrieve information from long-term memory. The fact that you can read this long sentence is the result of your working memory's ability to hold the beginning, the middle and end all at once and to retrieve definitions and associations from long-term memory and use them to make sense of the words. It is also the result of the fact that you have created mental models of the words. You don't read each letter to decode the word, as a child who is learning to read must. But if you come across words that are too similar, such as psychology and physiology, you may have to pause.

The fact that new information, especially emotionally charged information, forces things out of working memory means that we can't pay active attention to too many things at once. Unless something is successfully transferred from working memory into long-term memory, it is lost. We all have this experience when we try to memorize something that has no emotional content, such as an address or driving directions. In most people, the executive function can do one task at a time, and attempting to perform simultaneous tasks that involve a conflict begins to break it down. For example, if you flash the word "blue" printed in green ink on a screen for a second and then ask someone to say the word or the color, he'll have to stop and think before he answers.

The limited nature of working memory (attention) and the executive function, along with the shorthand work of mental models, can cause surprising lapses in the way we process the world and make conscious or unconscious decisions. That is why even experts can miss things that are right under their noses.

We often turn out to be wrong, even with giant, classic papers

Studies of studies show that we get things wrong by Ben Goldacre.
In 2005, John Ioannidis gathered together all the major clinical research papers published in three prominent medical journals between 1990 and 2003: specifically, he took the "citation classics", the 49 studies that were cited more than 1,000 times by subsequent academic papers.

Then he checked to see whether their findings had stood the test of time, by conducting a systematic search in the literature, to make sure he was consistent in finding subsequent data. From his 49 citation classics, 45 found that an intervention was effective, but in the time that had passed, only half of these findings had been positively replicated. Seven studies, 16%, were flatly contradicted by subsequent research, and for a further seven studies, follow-up research had found that the benefits originally identified were present, but more modest than first thought.

This looks like a reasonably healthy state of affairs: there probably are true tales of dodgy peer reviewers delaying publication of findings they don't like, but overall, things are routinely proven to be wrong in academic journals. Equally, the other side of this coin is not to be neglected: we often turn out to be wrong, even with giant, classic papers. So it pays to be cautious with dramatic new findings; if you blink you might miss a refutation, and there's never an excuse to stop monitoring outcomes.

As societies modernize, they become less dependent on local agricultural output

The Climate Wars Myth by Dr. Bruno Tertrais.
Since the dawn of civilization, warmer eras have meant fewer wars. The reason is simple: all things being equal, a colder climate meant reduced crops, more famine and instability.4 Research by climate historians shows a clear correlation between increased warfare and cold periods.5 They are particularly clear in Asia and Europe, as well as in Africa.6 Interestingly, the correlation has been diminishing since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution: as societies modernize, they become less dependent on local agricultural output.7

Sunday, August 28, 2011

You see what you expect to see

Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival. Page 69.
As complex as the brain is, the world is more so. The brain cannot process and organize all the data that arrive. It cannot come up with a reasonable course of action if everything is given equal weight and perceived at equal intensity. That is the difficulty with logic: It's step-by-step, linear. The world is not.

Perceptions come at you like the six million hits you get when you do an internet search. Without a powerful search engine, you're paralyzed. One search engine involves emotional bookmarks, in which feelings help direct logic and reason to a place where they can do useful work. A second strategy the brain uses for handling complicated problems is to create mental models, stripped-down schematics of the world. A mental model may tell you the rules by which an environment behaves or the color and shape of a familiar object.

Suppose you're searching the house for your copy of Moby-Dick, and you remember it being a red paperback but you don't know where you left it. When you search, you don't examine every item in the house to see if it's Moby-Dick. That would be logical, a strict use of the faculty of reason. But it would also be tedious and would take too long. That's how a computer would do it. The fact that you have a mental model of the red paperback copy of Moby-Dick, allows you to screen out nearly everything you see until, at last, a red book blossoms in your field of vision. But if you're wrong and it's a blue hardback edition of Moby-Dick, chances are that you won't find it even if the title comes into view.

Everyone is familiar with finding something "right under my nose." A faulty mental model is part of the explanation. It's the reason you can get off an elevator on the wrong floor. It's the reason that many card tricks and magic acts work: You see what you expect to see. You see what makes sense, and what makes sense is what matches the mental model. If you do suucceed in finding your copy of Moby-Dick, your pupils will dilate at the moment you recognize what you're looking for, as they do when you reach the solution to a mathematical problem or see something you like.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

No bears in this house

Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival discusses adaptation. Page 63.
Only in recent years has neuroscience begun to understand the detailed physiology of emotional states such as fear. The neocortex is responsible for your IQ, your conscious decisions, your analytical abilities. But the amygdala stands as a sort of watchdog for the organism. Amelia, who is the younger of my two daughters, has a chocolate Lab, Lucy. Lucy sometimes reminds me of the amygdala: When anyone comes to the door, she barks before I even hear it.

Perceptions from the world around us (sight, for example) reach the the thalamus first. In the case of vision, axons from the retina go to the visual thalamus (there are two, one in each side of the brain, receiving information from each side of the body). From there, the sight signals travel by way of axons from the visual thalamus to the middle layer of the neocortex and from there are sent out to the other five layers for processing. What emerges is a perception of sight. But before all that can be completed, a rough form of the same sensory information reaches the amygdala by a faster pathway. The amygdala screens that information for signs of danger. Like Lucy, the amygdala isn't very bright, but it detects a hazard, or anything remotely resembling one, before you're even conscious of the stimulus, it initiates a series of emergency reactions. The approach is: Better safe than sorry. (Unlike Lucy, the amygdala also is capable of ignoring a a lot of information as irrelevant.) It is a primitive but effective survival system that causes the rabbit that visits our backyard every morning to freeze and then run when she sees Amelia let Lucy out. Like Lucy, the amygdala is wrong a lot of the time: There is no danger. But in the long course of evolution, it has been a successful strategy.

So information from the senses takes a neural route that splits, one part reaching the amygdala first, the other arriving at the neocortex milliseconds later. Rational (or conscious) thought always lags behind the emotional reaction. Anyone can demonstrate this at home: Everyone has been startled by someone. It's a powerful response, marked by the familiar rocket rush of adrenaline (actually catecholamines), increased heart rate, flushing and panting. Then, as soon as you realize the person is someone you know, the response deescalates. But it takes a while to metabolize all those chemicals. It's a powerful emergency reaction and completely illogical, because you know the person and are not in any danger. But the reason you can't think of that logically before reacting is because visual signals reach the amygdala first. It's a big shadowy form: It could be a spouse, it could be a bear - you don't know. Only later (in milliseconds) does the visual cortex piece together an accurate picture that let's you in on who it is. Only later can you reason: No bears in this house.

Friday, August 26, 2011

We think we believe what we know, but we only truly believe what we feel

Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival discusses adaptation. Page 63 on risk perceptions and trade-off decision-making in the context of an avalanche rescue.
There was another fundamental difficulty that the snowmobilers faced. Our sense of a mountain, the earth, is a sense of something solid, and our experience confirms that. Nothing in our learning tells us that a mountain is going to come apart before our eyes. It makes no sense. It hasn't happened, therefore it cannot happen. The mountain certainly didn't look fragile. The snowmobilers literally couldn't believe it. We think we believe what we know, but we only truly believe what we feel.

Surprised by the dynamics of the emerging new system

Walter Russell Mead in This Economic Storm Is Something New

I think one of our challenges is the failure to recognize the system dynamics of these different models: mercantilist, consumerist, steered economy and social market. They have their own internal dynamics that are problematic and then on top of that they are complex, non-linear, chaotic and tightly coupled with one another. Ugh!
At the same time, the dynamics of the global economy are different from those of relatively closed national economies or of the old Atlantic world. The interplay between mercantilist Asia, spendthrift America, shell shocked Japan and social market Europe — to say nothing of the rest of the world — is different from anything we have experienced before and economists, investors and policy makers are frequently surprised by the dynamics of the emerging new system.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future

Commencement address delivered by Steve Jobs at Stanford University, 2005
You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.

It contained the three words “but if not … ”

From When the King Saved God by Christopher Hitchens.

I like finding these examples of the value of a common culture in terms of efficient communication.
Though I am sometimes reluctant to admit it, there really is something “timeless” in the Tyndale/King James synthesis. For generations, it provided a common stock of references and allusions, rivaled only by Shakespeare in this respect. It resounded in the minds and memories of literate people, as well as of those who acquired it only by listening. From the stricken beach of Dunkirk in 1940, faced with a devil’s choice between annihilation and surrender, a British officer sent a cable back home. It contained the three words “but if not … ” All of those who received it were at once aware of what it signified. In the Book of Daniel, the Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar tells the three Jewish heretics Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego that if they refuse to bow to his sacred idol they will be flung into a “burning fiery furnace.” They made him an answer: “If it be so, our god whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thy hand, o King. / But if not, be it known unto thee, o king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

The gradual eclipse of a single structure has led, not to a new clarity, but to a new Babel

From When the King Saved God by Christopher Hitchens.

On the proliferation of translations of the Bible.
Not to over-prize consensus, it does possess certain advantages over randomness and chaos. Since the appearance of the so-called “Good News Bible,” there have been no fewer than 48 English translations published in the United States. And the rate shows no sign of slackening. Indeed, the trend today is toward what the trade calls “niche Bibles.” These include the “Couples Bible,” “One Year New Testament for Busy Moms,” “Extreme Teen Study Bible,” “Policeman’s Bible,” and—somehow unavoidably—the “Celebrate Recovery Bible.” (Give them credit for one thing: the biblical sales force knows how to “be fruitful and multiply.”) In this cut-price spiritual cafeteria, interest groups and even individuals can have their own customized version of God’s word. But there will no longer be a culture of the kind which instantly recognized what Lincoln meant when he spoke of “a house divided.” The gradual eclipse of a single structure has led, not to a new clarity, but to a new Babel.

If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for the children of Texas

From When the King Saved God by Christopher Hitchens.

Storytelling is a wonderful mechanism for transmission of ideas and values but is also reasonably fallible as illustrated by Hitchens' opening paragraph.
After she was elected the first female governor of Texas, in 1924, and got herself promptly embroiled in an argument about whether Spanish should be used in Lone Star schools, it is possible that Miriam A. “Ma” Ferguson did not say, “If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for the children of Texas.” I still rather hope that she did. But then, verification of quotations and sources is a tricky and sensitive thing. Abraham Lincoln lay dying in a room full of educated and literate men, in the age of the wireless telegraph, and not far from the offices of several newspapers, and we still do not know for sure, at the moment when his great pulse ceased to beat, whether his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, said, “Now he belongs to the ages” or “Now he belongs to the angels.”

Children constantly test and sample their environment

Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival discusses adaptation. Page 60.
Once infants begin moving about in the world, they engage in a process of trial and error, by which they find out how much risk they can take to reap a given amount of reward. Every experience adds to the body of knowledge and shapes future behavior. Children constantly test and sample their environment and themselves, taking risks that give big rewards without too much exposure. It's a delicate, and often beautiful, balancing act.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

People don’t come preassembled, but are glued together by life

Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival discusses adaptation. Page 59.
In that and other ways, the immune system continuously rearranges the organism’s relationship to its environment. That’s called adaptation. A lifetime of experience builds the system, but a subtle change in the environment can mean that the system no longer has the correct response.
The emotions are another mechanism for defining self (actually creating the self) during the process of protecting what is within from what is without, both by avoiding or fighting what is bad and by seeking out what is good. As Joseph LeDoux put it, “People don’t come preassembled, but are glued together by life.” Like the immune system, the emotional system evolves continuously, taking experiences and situations and attaching emotional value to them in subtle gradations of risk and reward.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

We are domestic pets of a human zoo we call civilization

Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. Page 127 on adjusting perspective and reducing self-delusion.
The environment we're used to is designed to sustain us. We live like fish in an aquarium. Food comes mysteriously down, oxygen bubbles up. We are domestic pets of a human zoo we call civilization. Then we go into nature, where we are least among equals with all other creatures. There we are put to the test. Most of us sleep through the test. We get in and out and never know what might have been demanded. Such an experience can make us even more vulnerable, for we come away with the illusion of growing hard, salty, knowledgeable: Been there, done that.

They establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices

Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue? by John Tierney.

Interesting. Proposes that frequent decision-making is exhausting and leads to a degradation of the quality of decisions. Also proposes that a metabolic top-up with sugar helps improve decision-making after exhaustion.
Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain.
They break decision-making into three inelegant phases - predecisional phase, action taking, postdecisioonal phase.
The whole process could deplete anyone’s willpower, but which phase of the decision-making process was most fatiguing? To find out, Kathleen Vohs, a former colleague of Baumeister’s now at the University of Minnesota, performed an experiment using the self-service Web site of Dell Computers. One group in the experiment carefully studied the advantages and disadvantages of various features available for a computer — the type of screen, the size of the hard drive, etc. — without actually making a final decision on which ones to choose. A second group was given a list of predetermined specifications and told to configure a computer by going through the laborious, step-by-step process of locating the specified features among the arrays of options and then clicking on the right ones. The purpose of this was to duplicate everything that happens in the postdecisional phase, when the choice is implemented. The third group had to figure out for themselves which features they wanted on their computers and go through the process of choosing them; they didn’t simply ponder options (like the first group) or implement others’ choices (like the second group). They had to cast the die, and that turned out to be the most fatiguing task of all. When self-control was measured, they were the one who were most depleted, by far.

The experiment showed that crossing the Rubicon is more tiring than anything that happens on either bank — more mentally fatiguing than sitting on the Gaul side contemplating your options or marching on Rome once you’ve crossed.
Another itneresting observation:
Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making. In the rest of the animal kingdom, there aren’t a lot of protracted negotiations between predators and prey. To compromise is a complex human ability and therefore one of the first to decline when willpower is depleted. You become what researchers call a cognitive miser, hoarding your energy.
Accepting their premises, there is an especially interesting implication for those in poverty.
Spears and other researchers argue that this sort of decision fatigue is a major — and hitherto ignored — factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class. It’s hard to know exactly how important this factor is, but there’s no doubt that willpower is a special problem for poor people. Study after study has shown that low self-control correlates with low income as well as with a host of other problems, including poor achievement in school, divorce, crime, alcoholism and poor health. Lapses in self-control have led to the notion of the “undeserving poor” — epitomized by the image of the welfare mom using food stamps to buy junk food — but Spears urges sympathy for someone who makes decisions all day on a tight budget.
A recommendation follows from these hypotheses. I like the idea of habituation as a coping mechanism for the increased burden of decision-making:
“Good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there,” Baumeister says. “It’s a state that fluctuates.” His studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Under any orders we know how to give

Via The Constitution of Liberty by Friederich Hayek, Page 10.
Throughout history orators and poets have extolled liberty, but no one has told us why liberty is so important. Our attitude towards such matters should depend on whether we consider civilization as fixed or as advancing . . . In an advancing society, any restriction on liberty reduces the number of things tried and so reduces the rate of progress. In such a society, freedom of action is granted to the individual, not because it gives him greater satisfaction but because if allowed to go his own way, he will on the average serve the rest of us better than under any orders we know how to give. - H.B. Phillips

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Risk homeostasis

Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival. Page 112.
He's talking about a theory called "risk homeostasis." The theory says that people accept a given level of risk. While it is different for each person, you tend to keep the risk you're willing to take at about the same level. If you perceive conditions as less risky, you'll take more risk. If conditions seem more risky, you'll take less risk. The theory has been demonstrated again and again. When antilock brakes were introduced, authorities expected the accident rate to go down, but it went up. People perceived that driving was safer with antilock brakes, so they drove more aggressively. With the introduction of radar in commercial shipping, it was expected that ships would collide less frequently. The opposite proved to be true. Radar simply allowed the owners to require the captains to drive the ships harder. Technological advances intended to improve safety may have the opposite effect.

A 'mental model', of an expected universe

Laurence Gonzales in Deep Survival. Page 79 on the tendency to impose expected outcomes on to, and overriding actual data.
"In the face of uncertainty," Charles Perrow writes, "we must, of course, make a judgement, even if only a tentative and temporary one. Making a judgment means we create a 'mental model', of an expected universe. . . . You are actually creating a world that is congruent with your interpretation, even though it may be the wrong world."

What was the road by which we reached our position

Via The Constitution of Liberty by Friederich Hayek, Introduction. Pericles' speculation on that age old question of the successful, "What was the road by which we reached our position?"
What was the road by which we reached our position, what the form of government under which our greatness grew, what the national habits out of which it sprang? . . . If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; . . . The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. . . . But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace. - Pericles

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Aristotle on Education

The fate of empires depends on the education of youth. - Aristotle from On Education
Whereas the rattle is a suitable occupation for infant children, education serves as a rattle for young people when older - Aristotle in Politics

Friday, August 19, 2011

A series of footnotes to Plato

Alfred North Whitehead in Process and Reality:
The safest general charaterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.

People achieve an average of 54% correct lie-truth judgments

From Accuracy of Deception Judgments by Charles F. Bond Jr. and Bella M. DePaulo. So in the most basic situation of trying to discern the truth about our environment (the world outside of our individual selves), in a social circumstance where we are trying to discern truth from falsehood, we only get it right about 50% of the time. Yikes! That is a distressingly high noise to signal ratio.
We analyze the accuracy of deception judgments, synthesizing research results from 206 documents and 24,483 judges. In relevant studies, people attempt to discriminate lies from truths in real time with no special aids or training. In these circumstances, people achieve an average of 54% correct lie-truth judgments, correctly classifying 47% of lies as deceptive and 61% of truths as nondeceptive.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Begin at the beginning, and do not allow yourself to gratify a mere idle curiosity by dipping into the book

Symbolic Logic by Lewis Carroll. From the Introduction:
(1) Begin at the beginning, and do not allow yourself to gratify a mere idle curiosity by dipping into the book, here and there. This would very likely lead to your throwing it aside, with the remark “This is much too hard for me!”, and thus losing the chance of adding a very large item to your stock of mental delights. This Rule (of not dipping) is very desirable with other kinds of books —— such as novels, for instance, where you may easily spoil much of the enjoyment you would otherwise get from the story, by dipping into it further on, so that what the author meant to be a pleasant surprise comes to you as a matter of course. Some people, I know, make a practice of looking into Vol. III first, just to see how the story ends: and perhaps it is as well just to know that all ends happily —— that the much-persecuted lovers do marry after all, that he is proved to be quite innocent of the murder, that the wicked cousin is completely foiled in his plot and gets the punishment he deserves, and that the rich uncle in India (Qu. Why in India? Ans. Because, somehow, uncles never can get rich anywhere else) dies at exactly the right moment —— before taking the trouble to read Vol. I. This, I say, is just permissible with a novel, where Vol. III has a meaning, even for those who have not read the earlier part of the story; but, with a scientific book, it is sheer insanity: you will find the latter part hopelessly unintelligible, if you read it before reaching it in regular course.

A complex, coupled, self-organizing, chaotic system

I have finished Laurence Gonzales' Deep Survival:Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. A terrific exercise in story-telling and chock-a-block full of interesting insights and useful information. Gonzales becomes almost mystical in a couple of areas but it is rather the nature of the beast when trying to find some sort of rational, empirical explanation for outcomes that seem to be inherently "lucky".

The subject is rather the inverse of the work on which I have been focusing lately. Where Gonzales is addressing the outcomes of situations that have gone bad, I have been trying to identify what are the characteristics of superior outcomes. They are somewhat the mirror image of one another and viewing from the opposite angle is informative.

While he does not pull it together in a single description, Gonzales alludes in different places to the heart of the issue. Our difficulty in forecasting anything human is that we are stuck in the rut of thinking linearly (input is directly proportional to output) and mechanistically (cause leads directly to effect). We view the world through Newtonian lenses where consequences can obviously be linked to causes and where inputs are linearly related to outputs.

The challenge is that that model of the world holds true for only a limited portion of the world as we experience it. We are ignoring the nature of the human system - we are a social animal in a complex environment with many extraneous shocks (economy, war, disease, etc.) to our well-being and a huge number of moderating factors (childhood experience, familial structure, religious beliefs, national culture, etc.) and high variance among individuals (knowledge, skills, experience, decision-making capacity, values, motivation, etc.). To put it more formally we live in, and reading takes place in the context of, a coupled (multiple systems with few variables in common, mutually influential), complex (heterogeneous components that interact non-linearly), self-organizing (unpredictable self-adjustments), chaotic system (sensitive to initial conditions). In such an environment, most simple measures have little predictive power and it is often the case that it is difficult to track an outcome back to its causes.

We will continue to struggle badly as long as the model with which we are working is inadequate in its description. The outcomes we want will not emerge well if we are using a linear, mechanistic model to shape our actions when in fact the world is complex, coupled, self-organizing, and chaotic.

The belief that a good part of predicting the future is the maintenance of a mental model of what is happening now

From Everyday Clairvoyance: How your brain makes near-future predictions by Tony Fitzpatrick and which in turn maps to Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales.
Zacks and his colleagues are building a theory of how predictive perception works. At the core of the theory is the belief that a good part of predicting the future is the maintenance of a mental model of what is happening now. Now and then, this model needs updating, especially when the environment changes unpredictably.

“When we watch everyday activity unfold around us, we make predictions about what will happen a few seconds out,” Zacks says. “Most of the time, our predictions are right.

“Successfull predictions are associated with the subjective experience of a smooth stream of consciousness. But a few times a minute, our predictions come out wrong and then we perceive a break in the stream of consciousness, accompanied by an uptick in activity of primitive parts of the brain involved with the MDS that regulate attention and adaptation to unpredicted changes.”

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Exercising his independent judgment

h/t Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy by John R. Hale. Page 280.
When mariners are swept along by rushing winds, in the matter of steering, two points of view, or a whole body of experts, are no match for one man of average ability exercising his independent judgment.
- Euripedes

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

For who so firm that cannot be seduced?

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, Act 1, Scene 2.
Therefore it is meet
That noble minds keep ever with their likes;
For who so firm that cannot be seduced?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Freedom from coercion versus freedom through coercion

From James Taranto's WSJ column. A pithy but distinctly pointed definition:
The Bogus Idea of Freedom

The delightfully named Carl Bogus, who describes himself as "a dyed-in-the-wool liberal" who is nonetheless "reasonably intelligent and open-minded," has "spent much of the past four years reading many of the great conservative books." National Review recently published an interview with Bogus. The interviewer is also the delightfully named Carl Bogus. This Q&A got our attention:

Bogus: After having completed an extensive program of reading great conservative works, how can you still be a liberal?

Bogus: As Isaiah Berlin pointed out, what separates us at the most fundamental level may be our different conceptions of liberty. Conservatives value above all else what Berlin called the negative vision of liberty, namely, freedom from coercion. Liberals are more willing to balance that against the positive vision of liberty--that is, having a reasonable opportunity to realize one's potential. The negative vision focuses conservatives on restricting the government's ability to interfere in people's lives. The positive vision leads liberals to believe that government has a role in guaranteeing baseline minimums in education, medical care, and healthy communities.

To sum it up a bit more pithily, whereas conservatives want freedom from coercion, liberals want freedom through coercion

No longer convey the same conviction

Via The Constitution of Liberty by Friederich Hayek, Page 1.

I have been working on some material related to how education is in part a means of cultural replication and this opening sentence of Hayek's leaped out at me.
If old truths are to retain their hold on men's minds, they must be restated in the language and concepts of successive generations. What at one time are their most effective expressions gradually become so worn with use that they cease to carry a definite meaning. The underlying ideas may be as valid as ever, but the words, even when they refer to problems that are still with us, no longer convey the same conviction; the arguments do not move in a context familiar to us; and they rarely give us direct answers to the questions we are asking.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Any argument requires premises that it assumes and does not prove

Are Your Political Opponents Crazy? by Gary Gutting
People are, of course, frequently irrational; they ignore obvious facts or make silly mistakes in reasoning. But the mere failure to support some of your basic claims with good logical arguments does not show that you are irrational. Any argument requires premises that it assumes and does not prove. We may construct a further argument for an unproven premise, but that argument will itself have unproven premises. That’s why even mathematics, the most thoroughly rational enterprise we have, begins with unproven axioms.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Persusasive Arguments vs. Good Arguments

Yet another example of the contest between tactical pressures and strategic needs. From Jaltcoh, Is it effective to argue that homosexuality "isn't a choice"? Basically, what is the trade-off between an efficient argument (one that gets agreement the fastest) and an effective argument (one that will stand the test of time).
But at the least, I think it’s important to recognize that there is often a tradeoff between a good argument and a persuasive one, and to ask ourselves what our goal really is: improving people’s beliefs, or improving the processes of reasoning that they use to arrive at their beliefs?

Mirrored values

h/t Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy by John R. Hale. Page 154.
"But tactical science is only one part of generalship," said Socrates. "A general must be capable of equipping his forces and providing for his men. He must also be inventive, hardworking, and watchful - bullheaded and brilliant, friendly and fierce, straightforward and subtle."
- Xenophon

Friday, August 12, 2011

To see all others faults, and feel our own

James Geary's The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism. All sorts of little insights pop up as I read along.

I knew the phrase "The moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on" but did not realize it came from Edward Fitzgerald's translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
Likewise, as a teenager, I was particularly taken with Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception. If I ever knew it, I had forgotten that the title came from William Blake (of course):
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
Then there is Alexander Pope's profoundly humble and humane:
In Parts superior what advantage lies?
Tell (for You can) what is it to be wise?
'Tis but to know how little can be known;
To see all others faults, and feel our own.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Rich countries are largely rich because of the skills of their populations and the quality of the institutions supporting economic activity

Fascinating report from The World Bank, Where is the Wealth of Nations? In some ways, quite surprising to find this acknowledgement from this particular source. It is all about institutional and human capital quality.
The wealth estimates suggest that the preponderant form of wealth worldwide is intangible capital—human capital and the quality of formal and informal institutions. Moreover, the share of produced assets in total wealth is virtually constant across income groups, with a moderate increase in produced capital intensiveness in middle-income countries. The share of natural capital in total wealth tends to fall with income, while the share of intangible capital rises. The latter point makes perfect sense—rich countries are largely rich because of the skills of their populations and the quality of the institutions supporting economic activity.

A certain quantity of labour stocked and stored up

Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, defining capital:
It is, as it were, a certain quantity of labour stocked and stored up, to be employed, if necessary, upon some other occasion.

We can pay our debts to the past

John Buchan
We can pay our debts to the past by putting the future in debt to ourselves.

The one prudence in life is concentration; the one evil is dissipation

Amen. From Ralph Waldo Emerson in his The Conduct of Life.
“Enlarge not thy destiny,” said the oracle: “endeavor not to do more than is given thee in charge.” The one prudence in life is concentration; the one evil is dissipation: and it makes no difference whether our dissipations are coarse or fine; property and its cares, friends, and a social habit, or politics, or music, or feasting. Everything is good which takes away one plaything and delusion more, and drives us home to add one stroke of faithful work. Friends, books, pictures, lower duties, talents, flatteries, hopes, — all are distractions which cause oscillations in our giddy balloon, and make a good poise and a straight course impossible. You must elect your work; you shall take what your brain can, and drop all the rest. Only so, can that amount of vital force accumulate, which can make the step from knowing to doing. No matter how much faculty of idle seeing a man has, the step from knowing to doing is rarely taken. ‘Tis a step out of a chalk circle of imbecility into fruitfulness. Many an artist lacking this, lacks all: he sees the masculine Angelo or Cellini with despair. He, too, is up to Nature and the First Cause in his thought. But the spasm to collect and swing his whole being into one act, he has not. The poet Campbell said, that “a man accustomed to work was equal to any achievement he resolved on, and, that, for himself, necessity not inspiration was the prompter of his muse.”

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Everyone is equal before the law

h/t Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy by John R. Hale. Page 75.
Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability that a man possesses.
- Pericles to the Athenians

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Once invented, it cannot be improved

This is Not the End of the Book by Philip Marchand.

A discussion on the nature and future of the book with Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carriere. Eco on the future of the book in an electronic age:
“One of two things will happen,” Eco continues in his march of logic. “Either the book will continue to be the medium for reading, or its replacement will resemble what the book has always been, even before the invention of the printing press. Alterations to the book-as-object have modified neither its function nor its grammar for more than 500 years. The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.”

Monday, August 8, 2011

By wise counsels and daring deeds

h/t Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy by John R. Hale. Page 1.
The greatest glory is won from the greatest dangers. When our fathers faced the Persians their resources could not compare to ours. In fact, they gave up even what they had. Then by wise counsels and daring deeds, not fortune and material advantages, they drove out the invaders and made our city what it is now.
- Pericles to the Athenians

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A little learning is a dangerous thing

James Geary's The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism.

I have long enjoyed Alexander Pope though for some reason he seems to be held in low regard in academia. Only from Geary's book have I discovered that he, like the King James Bible or Shakespeare writ small, made a number of enduring contributions to our language and culture. He it was, apparently, who originated:
A little learning is a dangerous thing.

To err is human, to forgive divine.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

The art of being a slave is to rule one's master

I have just finished James Geary's The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism. Well worth a read and might be of particular interest to a reflective high schooler.

Geary has some good discussion of what constitutes an aphorism - there are very blurred lines between proverbs, fables, aphorisms, epigraphs, etc. I think of aphorisms as pithy statements that are a catalyst for contemplation. You might agree with their gist or not but they force you to think. Collections of aphorisms abound. What Geary has done is to provide some context and history. He has many thumbnail sketches of the more insightful or prolific aphorists. Far fewer aphorisms but a more informative structure.

He identifies five attributes which he believes an aphorism must have.
1. It must be brief.
2. It must be definitive.
3. It must be personal.
4. It must have a twist.
5. It must be philosophical.
Well, maybe. It is useful to have some defined boundaries though.

A sampling of his selections:
As long as the heart preserves desire, the mind preserves illusion. - Chateaubriand

Ruling a large kingdom is like cooking a small fish; the less handled the better. - Lao-Tzu

We are what we think. - Buddha

One cannot step twice into the same river. - Heracleitus

The art of being a slave is to rule one's master. - Diogenes

There is nothing the wise man does reluctantly. He escapes necessity because he wills what necessity is going to force on him. - Seneca

First be master of yourself if you would be master over others. - Gracian

Old people are fond of giving good advice; it consoles them for no longer being capable of setting a bad example. - La Rochefoucauld
And many, many others.

Economics and labor

Some interesting historical speculation by Charles C. Mann in The Real Story of Globalization.
Initially, American planters preferred to pay to import European laborers—they spoke the same language and knew European farming methods. They also cost less than slaves bought from Africa, but they were far less hardy and thus a riskier investment. In purely economic terms, the historian Philip Curtin has calculated, the diseases of the Columbian Exchange made the enslaved worker "preferable at anything up to three times the price of the European."

Did the Columbian Exchange cause chattel slavery in the Americas? No. People are moral agents who weigh many considerations. But anyone who knows how markets work will understand the pull exerted by slavery's superior profitability.

Only 5% of students believe teachers know what books students like

How Classics Create an Aliterate Society by Donald R. Gallo.
On the role of teachers helping (or not) cultivate the habit of reading. The referenced sample is small but possibly indicative. Doing the calculation implied at the end of the quote, only 5% of students believe teachers know what books students like.
In fact, 35 percent of the seventh grade students in a survey that one of my former students conducted said that they couldn't recall a single teacher ever recommending a book of any kind to them, and 60 percent recalled only one teacher who had ever done so (Cararini). And if their teachers did recommend books, it was usually classics that the teachers had read in college, books that were written for well-educated, leisured adults and that don't have a single teenage character in them. In that same survey of kids in a medium size city middle school, only three out of fifty-seven eight graders surveyed checked the statement, "Teachers know what books students like."

Something of the bloody determination that made great victories possible

Stephen Taylor's Storm and Conquest. Excellent. Page 325.

On the courage, motivated by sense of duty, which could tragically veer into rashness. The whole speaks to the importance of culture in an organization or country. Great things can be accomplished with single minded motivation but only if it is applied in the right circumstances.
A comparison with his foes is instructive. In reflecting on the recklessness of men such as Willoughby and Corbet, the contemporary historian William James declared: 'Ten frigates, lost like Africaine, weigh less, as a national misfortune, than one frigate given up without any, or even with an inadequate, resistance.

It seems an absurd statement, a bombastic expression of nationalism typical of its author. As a sentiment, it also reflected a dangerous notion of invincibility that had infiltrated the Navy since Trafalgar, which had been at the root of the madness at Grand Port and would continue to affect its officers. And yet it captures something of the bloody determination that made great victories possible. The sacrifices of Nereide and Africaine had not been entirely pointless, for they had taken three of Hamelin's frigates out of action. More importantly, they had unnerved the French.

The earliest signs of literacy

What Happened to Obama? by Drew Westen:
Our species existed for more than 100,000 years before the earliest signs of literacy, and another 5,000 years would pass before the majority of humans would know how to read and write.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Incorrigble sottishness

Heh. From Stephen Taylor's Storm and Conquest. An excellent read. On the head office's view of distant behavior on the part of their minions in India. Page 26. Speaking about Lady Barlow, wife of the Governor of Madras, the East India Company's southern presidency:
Her midday tiffin parties were 'a table of gaiety in which she was fond of indulging'. It was widely said that she took too much wine at such times, but then drinking in India attracted little attention other than from the Directors, who sometimes admonished their distant servants for 'incorrigble sottishness'.

Friday, August 5, 2011

If the seventy books of Democritus had survived . . .

From Charles Van Doren's A History of Knowledge. Page 41.

He asks that long standing question - Why do some books survive and circulate and others, seemingly of equal merit or even better, do not.
If the seventy books of Democritus had survived, would their author be as famous as Aristotle? Would Democritus's dialogues now be preferred to those of Plato, who got his wish? It is interesting to speculate about this. Why did the books of Democritus perish? Was it because they were wrong or uninteresting? Why did those of Plato and Aristotle survive? Was it because they were better and more true? Or was there something about what Democritus believed that was so offensive and perhaps even dangerous that his reputation had to be destroyed, with a consequent destruction of his books?
I am inclined to believe that there is a Darwinian process at work. Time and chance happen to all, but those books most beloved and most useful to the broadest number of people are most likely to survive. Other wonderful books will disappear into the well of history only because of some quirk of fate - they never caught the attention of those that might have saved them.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

How to live together in peace and freedom

From A History of Knowledge by Charles Van Doren. Page 75.
Cicero lived in one of the most glorious, and dangerous, periods in history. Throughout the Roman world men struggled with the greatest of all political problems, namely, how to live together in peace and freedom. It seemed to most Romans during the climatic half century before the fall of the republic and the triumph of Augustus that a choice had to be made between those two ultimate political goods.

You could have freedom, but then you would have to forsake peace. Conflicts would necessarily arise, it seemed, among men who are free to seek their different goals. Or you could have peace, but at the cost of freedom, for how could peace endure if it were not imposed from above by a supreme power which alone would remain free, while all others bore the yoke of tyranny?

The Greek example was no help. Anyone could see that the Greeks, for the most part, had chosen freedom, but at the high cost of nearly constant conflict. Romans in the early days had also chosen freedom. Their wars of conquest had permitted them to avoid internal conflict. Because they were always fighting others, they did not have to fight among themselves.
Some challenges are always with us, see-sawing back and forth.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Excited at the moment . . . my warmest admiration

Stephen Taylor's Storm and Conquest. Excellent. Page 310.

The practiced restraint of the age (1810) stands in such contrast to our contemporary exaggeration of every least little accomplishment as "awesome" or "fantastic".

Master Mate Jenkin Jones, surviving senior officer of Africaine, reports on the closing moments of a losing naval duel with the French frigate Astree.
I manned, remanned, and manned again the only two guns which would bear on the Astree until my heart sickened at ordering men to the slaughter - everyone having been killed or wounded. The cheerful alacrity with which at my order they quitted the comparatively safe guns to serve where death seemed almost inevitable, excited at the moment (and the impression made under such circumstances on a young mind is indelible) my warmest admiration. Had I felt it to be my duty to order for a fourth time the guns to be manned I have no doubt the order would have been properly obeyed; but to have given such an order in that stage of the conflict would have been an unjustifiable expenditure of the lives of brave men.

Liberalism and science are methods, not ideologies

Democracy’s Laboratory by Michael Shermer.
But, I protest, aren’t all political claims types of beliefs? No, Ferris responded: “Liberalism and science are methods, not ideologies. Both incorporate feedback loops through which actions (e.g., laws) can be evaluated to see whether they continue to meet with general approval. Neither science nor liberalism makes any doctrinaire claims beyond the efficacy of its respective methods — that is, that science obtains knowledge and that liberalism produces social orders generally acceptable to free peoples.”

Empathy is instead a delicate cocktail

'Why Should We Care?'—What to Do About Declining Student Empathy by Paul Anderson and Sara Konrath.
In fact, empathy is not a fixed trait like having brown eyes or long fingers. Empathy is instead a delicate cocktail blending assorted elements of inborn aptitude, social conditioning, personal history, and practice and motivation.

The cost of early selfishness is greater than the cost of trust

It seems that density and trade are likely progenitors of Trust.

From The evolution of generosity in The Economist:
Studying human evolution directly is obviously impossible. The generation times are far too long. But it is possible to isolate features of interest and examine how they evolve in computer simulations. To this end Dr Delton and Dr Krasnow designed software agents that were able to meet up and interact in a computer’s processor.

The agents’ interactions mimicked those of economic games in the real world, though the currency was arbitrary “fitness units” rather than dollars. This meant that agents which successfully collaborated built up fitness over the period of their collaboration. Those that cheated on the first encounter got a one-off allocation of fitness, but would never be trusted in the future. Each agent had an inbuilt and heritable level of trustworthiness (ie, the likelihood that it would cheat at the first opportunity) and, in each encounter it had, it was assigned a level of likelihood (detectable by the other agent) that it would be back for further interactions.

After a certain amount of time the agents reproduced in proportion to their accumulated fitness; the old generation died, and the young took over. The process was then repeated for 10,000 generations (equivalent to about 200,000 years of human history, or the entire period for which Homo sapiens has existed), to see what level of collaboration would emerge.

The upshot was that, as the researchers predicted, generosity pays—or, rather, the cost of early selfishness is greater than the cost of trust. This is because the likelihood that an encounter will be one-off, and thus worth cheating on, is just that: a likelihood, rather than a certainty. This fact was reflected in the way the likelihood values were created in the model. They were drawn from a probability distribution, so the actual future encounter rate was only indicated, not precisely determined by them.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Visualizing Proverbs

Courtesy of The Phrase Finder, a site devoted to English language proverbs. A wonderful place to brouse around. "The graphic . . . shows the words that are used in English proverbs, with the size of each word indicating how often it occurs."

These are the right questions to ask

h/t Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy by John R. Hale. Page 29.
These are the right questions to ask, in winter around the fire,
As we sit at ease over our wine: Who are you friend? What is your land?
And how old were you when the Persians came?
- Xenophanes