Saturday, March 31, 2012

Do's and Don'ts in public questioning

From How to Ask a Question by Peter Wood, a good essay on what to consider when asking a public question. The main point, though he doesn't put it this way, is that a dialogue is a form of conversation and therefore one's primary consideration ought to be how to keep the conversation constructive and flowing. I think Wood is right that far too often the mindset of the questioners is instead focused on how to extract something from the opposition or how to make oneself look better. Here is my list of pointers based on Wood's essay.
Be succinct
Be civil
Be interesting
Help the person being questioned to clarify their point
Build on the existing dialogue
Serve as a catalyst for the responder to offer insight
Stick to a single point
Maintain contextual pertinence
Lead with Who, Where, What, Why, When or How
Go straight to the question

Use the question as a platform to demonstrate your own superiority
Pursue tangents, minutiae or the irrelevant
Focus on yourself or your point
Make a speech
Seek clarification of or offer additional factual details
Seek to nail down an evasive answer
Don't repeat a question already answered
Lead with your biography
Offer yourself as a representative of some group

Friday, March 30, 2012

A process of relentless honing and winnowing

I like this from Seer Blest by Sam Sacks quoting Frank Kermode:
“The history of interpretation, the skills by which we keep alive in our minds the light and dark of past literature and past humanity,” he once wrote for the only sermon he ever delivered, “is to an incalculable extent a history of error.”
In this rendition, scholars become the genes replicating intellectual memes down through time, a constant source of variation because they are subject to error. Ideas become refined over time by their survival through faulty replication. A process of relentless honing and winnowing.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The top 50 best-selling classics in France

From Le Figaro, The top 50 best-selling classics by Mohammed Aissaoui. 24% are British or American. Another 16% or so are from countries in Continental Europe. Among the thirty French authors, fifteen are likely to be recognized by your average American high school student (Guy de Maupassant, Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas) or you average college graduate (Sartre, Camus, Hugo). Interesting to see just how universal the Western canon is. The list is based on the number of copies sold between 2004 and 2012.

1 Guy de Maupassant: 3,790,000 copies
2 Molière: 3,400,000 copies
3 Emile Zola: 2,900,000 copies
4 Albert Camus: 2,810,000 copies
5 Victor Hugo: 2,710,000 copies
6 Agatha Christie: 2,650,000 copies
7 Stefan Zweig: 2,510,000 copies
8 Antoine de Saint-Exupery: 2,310,000 copies
9 Voltaire: 2,200,000 copies
10 Honore de Balzac: 2,020,000 copies
11 William Shakespeare: 1,510,000 copies
12 George Orwell: 1,350,000 copies
13 Jules Verne: 1,330,000 copies
14 Jean-Paul Sartre: 1,320,000 copies
15 Charles Baudelaire: 1,280,000 copies
16 Jean Anouilh: 1,240,000 copies
17 Boris Vian: 1,230,000 copies
17 Eugene Ionesco: 1,230,000 copies
19 JR Tolkien: 1,200,000 copies
20 Gustave Flaubert: 1,190,000 copies
21 Robert Louis Stevenson: 1,180,000 copies
22 Romain Gary: 1,140,000 copies
23 Albert Cohen: 1,120,000 copies
24 Pierre de Marivaux: 1,090,000 copies
25 Jean Racine: 1,000,000 copies
26 Georges Simenon: 990,000 copies
27 Alexandre Dumas: 980,000 copies
27 Franz Kafka: 980,000 copies
29 Jean Giono: 940,000 copies
30 Primo Levi: 930,000 copies
30 Prosper Merimee: 930,000 copies
32 Jack London 910,000 copies
33 John Steinbeck: 870,000 copies
33 Rene Barjavel: 870,000 copies
33 Isaac Asimov: 870,000 copies
36 Marguerite Duras: 850,000 copies
37 Jane Austen: 840,000 copies
38 Marcel Proust: 790,000 copies
38 Sagan: 790,000 copies
40 La Fontaine: 780,000 copies
41 Pierre Corneille: 760,000 copies
41 Denis Diderot: 760,000 copies
43 Celine: 750,000 copies
44 Alfred de Musset: 710,000 copies
45 Arthur Conan Doyle: 700,000 copies
46 Marcel Pagnol: 680,000 copies
47 Dostoevsky: 670,000 copies
48 Oscar Wilde: 630,000 copies
49 Beaumarchais: 620,000 copies
50 Stendhal: 610,000 copies

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Perils which muster in force about you

From Henry James in The Problem, a story in (Henry James: Complete Stories 1864-1874.
. . . he was unable to forget that life is full of bitter inhuman necessities and perils which muster in force about you when you stand idle.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

But they shall not be very bad.

I had a post a couple of days ago about Nietzsche's emphasis on the importance in a great artist in knowing what to reject; Indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.

Here is a corollary sentiment from Henry James via Library of America (Henry James: Complete Stories 1864-1874.
While writing and publishing his early stories (many of which he never republished), James was the first to acknowledge that they were apprentice work, created to satisfy popular taste. The year “A Problem” was published, he wrote, “I write little and only tales, which I think it likely I shall continue to manufacture in a hackish manner, for that which is bread. They cannot of necessity be very good; but they shall not be very bad.” Still, even when the young James was slumming it, his tales have an atypically breezy appeal and are of interest to anyone intrigued by the development of one of America’s greatest authors.

Monday, March 26, 2012

It seems as if our schools were doomed to be the sport of change.

Charles Dickens in the Penguin Classics Selected Short Fiction. Included are some travel sketches of his return to scenes of his youth. Here he has returned to his childhood school. Page 152. It captures the the contemporary sense of helplessness in the face of implacable progress and shows that that sense was extant a century and a half ago.
We went to look at it, only this last Midsummer, and found that the Railway had cut it up root and branch. A great trunk-line had swallowed the playground, sliced away the schoolroom, and pared off the corner of the house: which, thus curtailed of its proportions, presented itself, in a green stage of stucco, profilewise towards the road, like a forlorn flat-iron without a handle, standing on end.

It seems as if our schools were doomed to be the sport of change. We have faint recollections of a Prepatory Day-School, which we have sought in vain, and which must have been pulled down to make a new street, ages ago.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The understanding of anthropologists

Women of the Raj by Margaret MacMillan. I found this in a used bookstore with the price tag in British Pounds and a receipt inside indicating that it was purchased June 18, 1994 at Blackwell's on Broad Street in Oxford, UK. I am fascinated by bookish ephemera and the most often hidden genealogy of used books.

The book looks to be a fascinating history of a world that existed up to 75 years ago and yet now is so completely vanished as to seem to have existed centuries past. From the Introduction:
Sometimes they were magnificent. Sometimes, on the other hand, they were awful, as only people who are frightened can be. When a conviction of superiority goes with the fear, then the arrogance is heightened and sharpened. The memsahibs (roughly translated 'the masters' women') - even those who know nothing of the history of the British in India have heard of them. They stride through that history in their voluminous clothes which denied the Indian climate, their only concession to the heat the graceless solar helmet, the topi, which protected their rose-petal cheeks from the alien sun.
British women in India certainly behaved badly; they also behaved well. They were brave in ways that are difficult to comprehend today. They might say dreadful things but their actions were often quite different from their words. They did not, it is true, conduct themselves in India with the patience of saints, the understanding of anthropologists. They were merely, most of them, ordinary middle-class women put into an extraordinary situation.
Extraordinary, indeed. The various accounts of the Great Mutiny I have read highlight just how extraordinary. I am looking forward to reading Women of the Raj.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A fairly standard shift

From Europe’s Real Crisis by Megan McArdle.
Since the invention of birth control and antibiotics, country after country has gone through a fairly standard shift. First, the mortality rate drops, especially among the young and the aging, and that quickly translates into a bigger workforce. Then, birthrates drop, as families realize that they no longer need to birth a basketball team to ensure that a couple members will survive to adulthood. A falling birthrate means that parents can invest more in each child; with fewer mouths to feed, more and better food can nourish each of them, and children can spend more years in school, causing worker productivity to rise from one generation to the next. As the burden of bearing and rearing children lightens, mothers can do more work outside the home, boosting both household resources and the national economy.
It is somewhat ironic that the first serious strains caused by Europe’s changing demographics are showing up in the Continent’s welfare budgets, because the pension systems themselves may well have shaped, and limited, Europe’s growth. The 20th century saw international adoption of social-security systems that promised defined benefits paid out of future tax revenue—known to pension experts as “paygo” systems, and to critics as Ponzi schemes. These systems have greatly eased fears of a destitute old age, but multiple studies show that as social-security systems become more generous (and old age more secure), people have fewer children. By one estimate, 50 to 60 percent of the difference between America’s (above-replacement) birthrate and Europe’s can be explained by the latter’s more generous systems. In other words, Europe’s pension system may have set in motion the very demographic decline that helped make that system—and some European governments—insolvent.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Limited warnings

From Warn people about two things by Tyler Cowen, a variant of Hayek's problem of knowledge. Tyler gives an example of a range of possible warnings, which two do you choose?
Driving is dangerous
Fight nuclear proliferation.
Don’t let your kid near a bucket.
Politics isn’t about policy.
Beware the Ides of March!
Some people out there suck!
Not sure about these as specific examples but as a father of three teens where I am constantly finding circumstances where I wish to offer a warning but also being cognizant that too many warnings become background noise, I am very sympathetic to the conundrum of warning under conditions of limitation. If you could give only two warnings or admonishments, which would they be? I might go with:
Pay attention
Think it through
But I sure would like to add a frequent one from our home, "Just because you can do it, doesn't mean you should do it."

Thursday, March 22, 2012

How are we supposed to decide which books to regard as classics?

From Seer Blest by Sam Sacks
Kermode’s justifications for his borrowing from Judaism’s ancient critical method appears in the lectures compiled for his 1975 book The Classic. Here he asks how, in the secular era, we are supposed to decide which books to regard as classics.

The question is knotty, Kermode writes, because traditionally such literature was known by its revealed grace. Virgil was a classic because, in one of his eclogues, he foreshadowed the birth of Christ. But Virgil also wrote the founding epic of the divinely appointed Roman Empire—and he was preceded by Homer and followed by numerous other poets, from Dante to Milton, whose greatness rested on their prophetic vision of “certain, unchanging truths.”

T.S. Eliot, in a similar set of lectures twenty years earlier, had done his best to uphold this standard for classics, but Kermode recognized that it had lost currency in modern times, in which engraved verities have faded and “truth in art … will have the hesitancy, the instability, of the attitude struck by the New World, provincial and unstable itself, towards the corrupt maturity of the metropolis.” By compelling the classic to adapt with the shifting times, Kermode was inverting its very function. In the past, it was a repository for ultimate answers; now it is determined based on its ability to field the most questions, to enrich the most diverse forms of inquiry.

In essence (though Kermode was suspicious of essences), this is an argument for plurality, for an idea of a classic that does not require any special dispensation in order to understand it. Kermode passionately advocated for the deathless relevance of traditional masterpieces while opposing the tyranny of elect knowledge. It was this combination of conservatism and progressiveness that made him such a unique defender of structuralism, poststructuralism, and the other New Wave schools of literary theory that were cropping up more and more as his career continued.
So a classic in the past was a "repository for ultimate answers; now it is determined based on its ability to field the most questions, to enrich the most diverse forms of inquiry." Whether right or wrong it is at least a proposition.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

You have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong

This, Reading Frederick Douglass in Rochester by Kevin D. Williamson, is outrageous on the face of it but it also illustrates the persistent relevance of texts from decades and centuries ago. I find Frederick Douglass' story fascinating, his writing gripping, and some of his insights perennial.
Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.
That is so cruelly and dangerously true. And still pertinent as illustrated by the opinion in the New York Times, Go to Trial: Crash the Justice System by Michelle Alexander.
People should understand that simply exercising their rights would shake the foundations of our justice system which works only so long as we accept its terms.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Imprisoned within a destiny in which he himself has little hand

From Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Page 1244. Captures a certain deterministic view of man and his world with which I have little affinity. It seems pointlessly circumscribing.
[W]hen I think of the individual, I am always inclined to see him imprisoned within a destiny in which he himself has little hand, fixed in a landscape in which the infinite perspectives of the long term stretch into the distance both behind him and before.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Second Coming

The Second Coming
by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Never lose a holy curiosity

Albert Einstein
The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering

Human, All Too Human by Nietzsche
Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration … shining down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects…. All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The higher the level of cooperation, the higher the level of intelligence

From The Intelligence Paradox by Steve Davis. The substance of Davis's argument is:
The great Russian geographer Peter Kropotkin made the important point in Mutual Aid – A Factor in Evolution, that as a general rule the most social animals are the most intelligent animals. An observed increase in sociality generally goes hand in hand with an observable increase in intelligence. What is sociality but cooperation? The higher the level of cooperation, the higher the level of intelligence.

But differing levels of cooperation/intelligence are not just seen between species. Cooperation becomes more complex and advanced as we move from cell to organism to community, and intelligence follows exactly the same pattern on that pathway also.

The correlation between cooperation and intelligence is so close and so consistent, that for all practical purposes we can assume that they are the same concept. Intelligence is cooperation.
I'll have to mull on that a bit. Seems like there might be a couple of weak links in the logic. However, accepting the argument on the face of it, it would explain the Flynn effect. Society has been becoming socially, technologically, and systemically much more complex, particularly in the OECD, for the past hundred years, and probably at an accelerating rate. This increasing complexity requires increasing cooperation and if cooperation is intelligence, one would expect to see increasing IQs, exactly what Flynn has documented. The corollary would be that one would expect that those involved in the most complex and dynamic environments requiring the greatest degree of cooperation would show both the highest IQ as well as the greatest increases. Interesting to consider.

So I am guessing that one would expect to see material increases in generational IQs in families that have continued to sustain a presence in the top quintile of earned income, making the assumption that the level of required cooperation increase has been the greatest at the most innovative, dynamic and remunerative end of the economy. I.e. Lawyers, doctors, accountants, academics, scientists in 1900 were at the top of their income pyramid as they are at the top of the income pyramid today but that owing to increasing complexity in all these fields, the degree of cooperation required to stay at the top is much greater today than it might have been in 1900 and therefore, accepting the premise that intelligence is cooperation, the IQ of top legal (accounting, medical, etc.) practitioners today would be materially greater than that of those in 1900.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bring me men to match my mountains

The Coming American
by Sam Walter Foss

Bring me men to match my mountains,
Bring me men to match my plains,
Men with empires in their purpose,
And new eras in their brains.
Bring me men to match my prairies,
Men to match my inland seas,
Men whose thoughts shall pave a highway
Up to ampler destinies,
Pioneers to cleanse thought’s marshlands,
And to cleanse old error’s fen;
Bring me men to match my mountains –
Bring me men!

Bring me men to match my forests,
Strong to fight the storm and beast,
Branching toward the skyey future,
Rooted on the futile past.
Bring me men to match my valleys,
Tolerant of rain and snow,
Men within whose fruitful purpose
Time’s consummate blooms shall grow,
Men to tame the tigerish instincts
Of the lair and cave and den,
Cleanse the dragon slime of nature –
Bring me men!

Bring me men to match my rivers,
Continent cleansers, flowing free,
Drawn by eternal madness,
To be mingled with the sea –
Men of oceanic impulse,
Men whose moral currents sweep
Toward the wide, unfolding ocean
Of an undiscovered deep –
Men who feel the strong pulsation
Of the central sea, and then
Time their currents by its earth throbs –
Bring me Men.

IQ + Effort + Achieved Desirable Outcome = Merit

From Top of the Class a review by Austin Bramwell of Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School, Shamus Khan.

An essay which highlight's one of my convictions; that we have too long focused on the wrong issue regarding social and monetary inequality. It is not now race (though it once was), it is now class (as it has ever been in most parts of the world). And by being blind to the root cause, we exacerbate the issue.
Status has always been hereditary. A warlord establishes a dynasty; a merchant buys a title; a politician gets his son elected to office. The desire to pass power, rank, and wealth down to one’s descendants is a universal that human institutions have always flexed to accommodate. Even communist dictators have consolidated rule within their families.
The central vehicle for cementing upper-class loyalty was the English-style boarding school. Founded (or revitalized) in the mid to late 19th century, schools such as Groton, Lawrenceville, Hotchkiss, and St. Paul’s ostensibly sought to rescue boys from the corruptions of the city. The habits and attitudes formed there became indelible. At school boys learned how to dress, what to say, which interests to pursue. Only at boarding school could one pick up what Tom Wolfe called the “Northeast Socially Acceptable Honk,” or, more vulgarly, “Locust Valley Lockjaw.” A man’s school made his class background as unmistakable as his gait or the sound of his voice.

Today, the Ivy League no longer recruit exclusively from prep schools. At least since the SAT was introduced in the 1920s, they have instead claimed to admit the most promising candidates regardless of background. After short-lived reaction, when admissions offices, fearing that their campuses were becoming “too Jewish,” emphasized “character” as well as aptitude, the meritocratic ideal triumphed. Any youth today who combines extraordinary talent and extraordinary effort can in theory get into Harvard and ascend from there to the pinnacles of government, business, and academia.

Boarding schools and private academies, meanwhile, have not only survived but flourished. Recent graduates of my own alma mater, St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, are more likely to attend Harvard than any other college. Eighty percent matriculate at one of the top 30 colleges in the nation (according to U.S. News & World Report’s famous rankings). That is a falling off from my father’s day, whose entire St. Paul’s class, apart from a handful of “thickies,” went on to Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. Still, St. Paul’s admissions rates at the top colleges have remained remarkably high. Parents no longer send their children to St. Paul’s School so that they can affect the proper sense of entitlement. Instead, they send their children to St. Paul’s because it’s a great place to get ahead.
The book and the review focus on private education as a means of sustaining and privileging class but does so in a fairly sophisticated way. Most people naively and ignorantly think it is all about old-boy networks and secret compacts. It is nothing of the sort. The essay does a good job of demonstrating how it is a fairly straightforward process of the most productive people making the best opportunities available to their children by sending them to the best private school institutions which in turn do their best to select the most prepared and seek to smooth the way for the children's next hierarchical step up. Nothing nefarious or secret, just poorly understood. For example:
At the same time, Khan, who graduated from St. Paul’s the same year I did, takes a jaundiced view of its claims to promote meritocracy. Merit, he argues, is manufactured, if not simply bought and paid for. Start with the “effort” side of the meritocratic equation (“IQ + effort = merit”). To get into Yale today, mere brilliance is not enough. You also need some distinctive achievement. One undergraduate I met recently had directed and produced an award-winning documentary. Another had founded a fashionable nonprofit.

These students’ successes are genuine but also artificial. Only rich kids, after all, have the resources even to think about directing documentaries. Their parents and teachers urge them relentlessly to develop their passions, preferably ones that can set them apart from all the other applicants with perfect SAT scores. (Once admitted, students often abandon the very pursuits that helped get them in.) The rich, in other words, can afford both to create more dimensions in which their children can excel and to place them in an environment where such excellence is rewarded.
I take issue with defining Merit as IQ + Effort. I suspect it is more accurately "IQ + Effort + Achieved Desirable Outcome = Merit". Still, the observation remains true: "The rich, in other words, can afford both to create more dimensions in which their children can excel and to place them in an environment where such excellence is rewarded."

The saving grace is that random genetic variation, circumstantial change and natural selection tend to ensure, regardless of any one person's desires, that inheriting status, money and power has a short half-life. The average family fortune exhausts after three generations (clogs to clogs in three generations). There are few families, fortunes, companies, etc. that are comparably positioned in 2012 as they were in 1912. Beneficially privileged to some degree perhaps but not comparable. In fact, forget few, there are hardly any.

That said, in a perfect meritocracy, you wouldn't theoretically have any non-meritocratic privileges. Every person would justify their position on an earn-as-you-go basis. We are not there but we are reasonably close. The question becomes, at what cost do you close the gap even further between theory and practice? How confident are we in the theory in the first place? Isn't part of achievement usually sourced in the motivation to provide and protect those whom we hold dear? Remove the capacity to deliver on that motivation and do you lose some or much of the resulting productivity which is the basis for so much progress?

It is interesting to juxtapose this book (Privilege) with Charles Murray's recently published Coming Apart which focuses on the unexplored behavorial attributes which characterize the top 20%. Khan is focused on how educational institutions facilitate the process of meritocratic selection and sorting and Murray is concerned about the consequence of merit driven assortative sociological processes. Murray's specific concern is that the elite are drifting away from and becoming isolated from their fellow citizen. Those who, by generally meritocratic means, end up at the top marry others in their class and have children whom they seek to advantage in the very ways that Khan identifies. Murray's concern is what happens to a democracy when the meritocratic elite do not comprehend their fellow citizen?

A focus on meritocracy which rewards desired outcomes will inherently create a divide between the most and the least productive and to the extent that that productivity differential is large, then so will be the divide. If the equation for success is IQ + Effort + Achieved Desirable Outcome (IQ + EF + ADO) then there are some constraints and some opportunities. We can influence IQ marginally with good diet, prenatal care and good parenting practices. Effort can be influenced by focusing on the sources of an individual's value system (what motivates them to accomplish what outcomes?) Finally, we can have greater clarity about the Achieved Desired Outcomes, establish better incentives aligned with the desired outcome and communicate more effectively what behaviors and attributes are likely to lead to the ADOs.

Focusing on relative tax burdens is fairly sterile after a while. We know taxes have a negative impact on productivity; we know that we can't spend more than our productivity allows over the long term; we know that the burden for whatever level of expenditure is deemed necessary has to be carried by the bulk of the populace; Now how do we square those constraints?

What are the actions we can take to mitigate the short term impact of natural efforts to propogate advantage? Focus on productivity would be my answer. It is an uncomfortable one because a large source of individual and group productivity resides with certain value systems and therefore, for some to improve their productivity, requires them to change their values, behaviors and culture.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

This great, liberal, unapologetically forward-looking nation

From The Once and Future Liberalism by Walter Russell Mead.
For those blue Democrats clinging to liberalism 4.1, this is a time of doom and gloom. For those red Republicans longing for a return to liberalism 3.0, it is a time of angry nostalgia: Ron Paul making a stump speech. This should be a time of adventure, innovation and creativity in the building of liberalism 5.0. America is ready for an upgrade to a new and higher level; indeed, we are overdue for a project that can capture the best energies of our rising generations, those who will lead the United States and the world to new and richer ways of living that will make the “advanced” societies of the 20th century look primitive, backward and unfulfilled.

We’ve wasted too many years arguing over how to retrieve the irretrievable; can we please now get on with the actual business of this great, liberal, unapologetically forward-looking nation?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Wars against arithmetic don’t end well

From NY Suicide Caucus Votes Down Cuomo Pension Reformby Walter Russell Mead. Heh.
Wars against arithmetic don’t end well.

I believe that this view is both wrong and dangerously misleading

David Landes in Dynasties, page xi.
. . . today's prevalent economic thinking has chosen to ignore the family firm as a subject of serious study and has all but written it off as obsolete and inconsequential. I believe that this view is both wrong and dangerously misleading.

Wrong because statistics show us that the great majority of the world's enterprises today are family firms. In the European Union, family firms make up 60-90 percent of businesses, depending on the country, and they account for two thirds of GNP and jobs. In the United States in the mid-1990s, more than 90 percent of firms were family units, accounting for more than half the country's goods and services; further, one third of the Fortune 500 (the country's five hundred largest firms) were said to be family controlled or to have founding families involved in management. What's more, these family firms tended to be the best performers, far outpacing on average their managerial (non-family) competitors.

They show us eternity, but only for a moment

From Seer Blest by Sam Sacks
And so it is, Kermode writes, with fictions. We know that stories are invented, their connections manufactured and their meanings contrived, yet we read them with “conditional assent.” They provide the glancing instants when sluggishly corporeal humans commune with something outside of time—what St. Augustine called the periods of the soul’s attentiveness. They show us eternity, but only for a moment.

Anglosphere differences

From The 40-Year Rise of the Female Worker in 1 Chart by Derek Thompson.

Take a look at his chart on female employment by major OECD country. Interesting that the Anglosphere (plus Sweden) are clustered around 60% whereas continental Europe (and Japan) are clustered around 50%.

Will the reader turn the page?

From A Heroine of Popular History by Bruce Cole. An article reviewing the writings of historian Barbara Tuchman.
The essays about writing in "Practicing History" are an invaluable and charming tutorial for those interested in learning the historian's craft. History students, especially those entering graduate study, would be well advised to steep themselves in her advice. For Tuchman, "being in love with your subject is indispensable for writing good history—or good anything for that matter." Transmitting the author's fascination with a subject, "the magic," is essential to captivating the reader. She quotes the sign that the popular historian Catherine Drinker Bowen had pinned over her desk: "Will the reader turn the page?"
I love that as a measure of authorial success: will the reader turn the page?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Filters, we need some filters

An interesting juxtaposition of papers this morning. First there was Walking Fast and Slow by Alex Tabarrok reporting on experimental results that call into question the assumption of subconscious priming, an important principle in psychology, and particularly relevant to Implicit Association Test.

Tarrok links to other research that highlights some of the structural and procedural reasons why so much published research is incorrect; in some fields, the majority of findings being non-replicable, Why Most Published Research Findings are False by Alex Tabarrok. Helpfully, Tarrok has a summary of heuristics for assessing the possible validity of any published research.
1) In evaluating any study try to take into account the amount of background noise. That is, remember that the more hypotheses which are tested and the less selection which goes into choosing hypotheses the more likely it is that you are looking at noise.
2) Bigger samples are better. (But note that even big samples won't help to solve the problems of observational studies which is a whole other problem).
3) Small effects are to be distrusted.
4) Multiple sources and types of evidence are desirable.
5) Evaluate literatures not individual papers.
6) Trust empirical papers which test other people's theories more than empirical papers which test the author's theory.
7) As an editor or referee, don't reject papers that fail to reject the null.
Then there is this piece from Real Clear Science about why certain myths and fallacies are widely believed (because they are repeated). Repetition: The Key to Spreading Lies by Ross Pomeroy.

This is followed by an article in the Daily Telegraph, Blood pressure drug 'reduces in-built racism' by Stephen Adams, on some newly reported results that highlight the issues in the three articles above.
1) Background noise (the more hypotheses which are tested and the less selection which goes into choosing hypotheses the more likely it is that you are looking at noise) - The social sciences are notorious for background noise. Everyone in academia is always looking for racism in virtually any context, i.e. there are a lot of hypotheses and little selectivity.
2) Bigger samples are better - A sample size of 36 is almost laughable.
3) Small effects are to be distrusted - Can't tell how large or small the effects are because they aren't reported. They describe the effects as causing the recipents to score significantly lower in the Implicit Association Test but they don't actually say how much. One would expect that if the effect were truly significant that they would actually provide the measure of significance. The absence of such measure calls the characterization into doubt.
4) Multiple sources and types of evidence are desirable - One report from one group.
5) Evaluate literatures not individual papers - One paper only.
6) Trust empirical papers which test other people's theories more than empirical papers which test the author's theory - This appears to be a paper by researchers seeking information on their own theory.
7) As an editor or referee, don't reject papers that fail to reject the null - NA.

Further, there is no discussion at all about the very questionable foundations of what Implicit Association Test is actually measuring and whether it is real and useful. It is not that the test is debunked, only that it is controversial with much debate still extant about both the reality of the phenomenon as well as its pertinence.

So you have an unmeasured effect from a tiny sample using disputed measurement tools applied to a recent and debated field in a study conducted by researchers with a stake in the outcome. More red flags than a Maoist parade. And this was reported in some three hundred articles within a couple of days of the news release (see Repetition: The Key to Spreading Lies by Ross Pomeroy above). Could the cognitive waters get more muddied?

And prints the chaff

Adlai Stevenson:
An editor is one who separates the wheat from the chaff and prints the chaff.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The more routine I can make the basic practical aspects of my life, the more I am able to be energetic

From Stephen Wolfram in The Personal Analytics of My Life in which he reviews data he has collected about his personal activities and where his time is spent. The story behind the graphs is one of enormous and sustained productivity and connectivity with peers and the information ecosystem.
The overall pattern is fairly clear. It’s meetings and collaborative work during the day, a dinner-time break, more meetings and collaborative work, and then in the later evening more work on my own. I have to say that looking at all this data I am struck by how shockingly regular many aspects of it are. But in general I am happy to see it. For my consistent experience has been that the more routine I can make the basic practical aspects of my life, the more I am able to be energetic—and spontaneous—about intellectual and other things.
An interesting article. For many years now I have been struck by the huge variability in productivity between individuals owing not to differences in capabilities per se but to differences in habit and behavior. Even when they are on the surface nominally comparable there can be material differences in how effectively they use their time. Many years ago I had to prepare a couple of managers in a strategy firm to conduct a time and motion study. These two managers were both from top tier business schools and both had about the same number of years of work experience in high growth/high performance firms. After introducing the concept and how to conduct a time and motion study, we did a dry run with them monitoring their activities in the space of a week.

The results were striking. One individual was managing his affairs (sleeping, eating, commuting, etc.) in such a fashion that he was getting about 1 1/2 hours more productive work done in a day. Given that the standard was about 10 hours of productive work a day, this fellow was getting in an extra 15% of productivity over his peer.

And it wasn't particularly dramatic the things he did to get that extra time. Most of it was about making the non-routine into a routine and about being disciplined. He was very disciplined about working on trains and planes. He kept showers to less than 10 minutes. He used the radio in his commute to get most of the news for the day. His meetings started on time and finished on time. On and on. Shaving five minutes off this task and ten minutes off that added up.

We can talk about the philosophical basis for how people ought or ought not be compensated but regardless of those principles, there is a simple reality that there is a huge huge gulf between the most productive and the average and below productive.

And it is more than 15% a day. It is the sustained time on weekends. It is the effect of compound interest. It is the greater openness to the potential benefits of Black Swans (low probability, high consequence, inexplicable events) as described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Black Swan:
Black Swans are unpredictable, we need to adjust to their existence (rather than naively try to predict them). There are so many things we can do if we focus on antiknowledge, or what we do not know. Among many other benefits, you can set yourself up to collect serendipitous Black Swans (of the positive kind) by maximizing your exposure to them. Indeed, in some domains - such as scientific discovery and venture capital investments - there is a disproportionate payoff from the unknown, since you typically have little to lose and plenty to gain from a rare event. We will see that, contrary to social-science wisdom, almost no discovery, no technologies of note, came from design and planning - they were just Black Swans. The strategy for discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top-down planning and focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves.
So much of what is ascribed to luck is actually attributable to preparedness - the capacity to recognize an opportunity when it presents itself and the ability to act on that opportunity. Join this with the habit of making the non-routine into a routine, and increasing personal productivity on a sustained basis and you have the root of the huge disparities of individual outcomes despite surface similarities. For 99 out of 100 "success" stories, what you are likely to find is not blind luck and privileges but rather sustained hard work, efficiency, effective decision-making, ability to recognize unusual patterns in the data environment and the capacity and willingness to take a chance.

The general order of things that takes care of fleas and moles, also takes care of men

From Montaigne's Essays, Chapter 37 Of the Resemblance of Children to Their Fathers.
Let it alone a little; the general order of things that takes care of fleas and moles, also takes care of men, if they will have the same patience that fleas and moles have, to leave it to itself. 'Tis to much purpose we cry out "Bihore,"—[A term used by the Languedoc waggoners to hasten their horses]—'tis a way to make us hoarse, but not to hasten the matter. 'Tis a proud and uncompassionate order: our fears, our despair displease and stop it from, instead of inviting it to, our relief; it owes its course to the disease, as well as to health; and will not suffer itself to be corrupted in favour of the one to the prejudice of the other's right, for it would then fall into disorder. Let us, in God's name, follow it; it leads those that follow, and those who will not follow, it drags along, both their fury and physic together. Order a purge for your brain, it will there be much better employed than upon your stomach.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

All yellowed with the shaded sun

From Peacock Pie by Walter de la Mare
The Window
by Walter de la Mare

Behind the blinds I sit and watch
The people passing - passing by;
And not a single one can see
My tiny watching eye.

They cannot see my little room,
All yellowed with the shaded sun,
They do not even know I'm here;
Nor'll guess when I am gone.

The levels of trust and openness that are necessary for teaching are diminished every time someone opens fire in a classroom

Sometimes a sentence just leaps out at you. It isn't that it is wrong, or insulting, or intemperate. It's just - incongruous. In a sincere essay about violence and its affect on the learning environment, Alexandra J. Ravenelle in Each Teacher Wonders, Is This the One? makes the statement:
The levels of trust and openness that are necessary for teaching are diminished every time someone opens fire in a classroom.
Well, gotta agree with that.

Friday, March 9, 2012

We lack the requisite community of readers

An interesting insight from The Great American Novel: Will there ever be another? by Roger Kimball.
My point is that even if a new Melville or Twain, Faulkner or Fitzgerald were to appear in our midst, his work would fail to achieve the critical traction and existential weight of those earlier masters. We lack the requisite community of readers, and the ambient shared cultural assumptions, to provide what we might call the responsorial friction that underwrites the traction of publicly acknowledged significance. The novel in its highest forms requires a certain level of cultural definiteness and identity against which it can perform its magic. The diffusion or dispersion of culture brings with it a diffusion of manners and erosion of shared moral assumptions. Whatever we think of that process—love it as a sign of social liberation or loathe it as a token of cultural breakdown—it has robbed the novel, and the novel’s audience, of a primary resource: an authoritative tradition to react against. Affirm it; subvert it; praise it; criticize it: The chief virtue of a well-defined cultural tradition for a novelist (for any artist) is not that it be beneficent but that it be widely acknowledged and authoritative.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England

John Thurber in Barbara Tuchman's opening lines. He pays tribute to her perhaps best received book, The Guns of August. For my money, much as I enjoyed The Guns of August, I found A Distant Mirror even more fascinating. From the first paragraph of The Guns of August.
So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens--four dowager and three regnant--and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history's clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

Some paradox of our natures

Lionel Trilling in Manners, Morals, and the Novel.
Some paradox of our natures leads us, when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on and make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion. It is to prevent this corruption, the most ironic and tragic that man knows, that we stand in need of the moral realism which is the product of the free play of the moral imagination.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Declining violence

From The Decline of Violence by Ronald Bailey. An interview discussing Pinker's new book The Better Angels of Our Nature. It is interesting that Pinker's book is garnering such interest and comment now when Steven Le Blanc's Constant Battles: Why We Fight, made the same argument seven years ago. One difference is that Pinker has invested much more effort in analytical rigor. Perhaps another is just the respective popularity and status of the individuals and institutions. Pinker has written a series of well received books and is a member of the Harvard faculty. Or, as is often the case with ideas and the books that convey them, perhaps it is simple serendipity.

This interview pulls out some of the key ideas which match much of the work I have been doing, trying to pair the trends that have been happening at an historical and national level in terms of success and corresponding behaviors and tropes at the individual and family level. While I cannot yet allocate a relative weighting to the following concepts, it does appear to me that, at both the national and individual level, much of the remarkable achievements of the past five hundred years (all fueled by increased productivity) are attributable to core elements of classical liberalism/The Enlightenment, many of which in the past twenty or thrity years, our academics and chattering classes have turned their backs on, to the detriment of society at large.

The elements that I suspect are inseparably part of classical liberalism/Enlightenment (and the consequent increase in productivity, longevity, health, etc.) would include:
Natural Rights
Rule of Law
Consent of the Governed
Property Rights
Scientific Method
Checks and Balances
Some excerpts from the interview.
reason: Why has violence declined? I think most people would be astonished to hear that.

Steven Pinker: First of all, I have to convince people that there’s a fact that needs to be explained—namely, that violence has declined. And it has, as I demonstrate with 100 graphs and data sets. The reasons, I think, are multiple. One of them is the spread of government, the outsourcing of revenge to a more or less disinterested third party. That tends to ramp down your rates of vendetta and blood feud for all the reasons that we’re familiar with from The Sopranos and The Godfather. If you’ve got a disinterested third party, they’re more likely to nip that cycle in the bud. Not necessarily because they have any benevolent interest in the welfare of their subject peoples, especially in the early governments. Their motive was closer to the motive of a farmer who doesn’t want his livestock killing each other. Namely, it’s a deadweight loss to him.

But even without this benevolent interest, you find that with the first states in the transition from hunting and gathering to settled ways of life, violence goes down, and in the consolidation of kingdoms during the transition from medieval times to modernity, rates of homicide go way down.

reason: What else?

Pinker: A second one is the growth of commerce; opportunities for positive-sum exchange, as opposed to zero-sum plunder. When it’s cheaper to buy something than to steal it, that changes the incentives, and you get each side valuing the other more alive than dead—the theory of gentle commerce [that comes] from the Enlightenment.
Pinker: The first states seemed to have in their wake a massive reduction of death in tribal raiding and feuding, basically because it’s a nuisance to the overlords. So you have things like the Pax Romana, the Pax Islamica, the Pax Sinica, in China, where the emperors would much rather have the peasants alive to stock their tax rolls and armies, and be slaves or serfs. So they had a selfish interest in preventing too much internecine feuding among their subject peoples and basically kept them from each other’s throats. Not that it was a life that we would consider particularly pleasant. You’re substituting a lot of violence among tribes and villages and clans for a lesser amount—but still a brutal form of violence—from the state against its citizens.

The next transition, after you have the government preventing people from committing violence against each other, you now have the problem of preventing the government from committing violence against its own peoples. And that was, basically, the advent of democracy and the various reforms of the Enlightenment.

reason: The next reduction in violence occurred as a result of what you call the civilizing process.

Pinker: It’s a term that I borrowed from the German sociologist Norbert Elias, in his book by that name, where he figured out—even in the absence of quantitative data —that Europe had become a less violent place in the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. We now know that he was right, now that historical criminologists have gathered the quantitative data. But he had noticed it just from narrative accounts of what daily life was like. Just people cutting off each other’s noses, stabbing each other over the dinner table in response to an insult—there seems to be less now than there was then. He had an immediate explanation and an ultimate explanation. The immediate explanation was a psychological change. Namely that people exercise more self-control and more empathy. They counted to 10 and swallowed their pride rather than lashing out with a dagger when they’d been insulted. They tried to get inside the heads of other people in general, to figure out what they wanted.
The intermediate link was that in order to get ahead during this transition, you no longer had to be the baddest knight in the land. You had to basically take a trip to the king’s court and kiss up to his various minions and bureaucrats. That required inhibiting various impulses—not blowing your nose into your hand and then shaking someone else’s hand, or not gnawing on a bone and putting it back into the serving dish—that weren’t appropriate to the king’s court. So there was a whole set of manners involving self-control that we call courtesy, from the word for court. According to Elias, this habit of self-control—and also empathy, because in an economy based on commerce, you’ve got to keep the customer satisfied, you’ve got to anticipate demand of your clients and customers—[meant that] people exercised what psychologists call today “theory of mind,” an ability to get into other people’s heads. The whole causal chain is government and commerce, [which lead] to self-control and empathy, [which lead] to less impulsive violence.
reason: What accounts for what you call the “humanitarian revolution” in the 17th and 18th centuries?

Pinker: My best guess was that it was because of literacy. The first industry to show advances in productivity prior to the Industrial Revolution was bookmaking. Paper got cheaper. Printing is cheaper than handwriting, both because it’s faster and because you can squeeze more text on a given amount of paper. Bookbinding, distribution, all of that increased in the 17th century. There were also ships that could move people around as well as ideas. The first post office.

So you have the republic of letters. You have pamphlets going viral. You have many more books being published. You have higher literacy, so more people can read them. Once you don’t live in a pokey little village, where all of your ideas come from the priest or from the elders, you’re exposed to a whole world of ideas. And you’re allowed to talk about them; you’re not burned at the stake for talking about them. You can get together in pubs and coffeehouses and salons, and hash things out. The discussion’s going to go in some directions rather than others. It’s unlikely that everyone’s going to be persuaded, “Hey, the kings rule by divine right. Isn’t that obviously true?” It’s more likely that a bunch of minds exchanging ideas will maybe see a wee problem in that doctrine.
I argue that both the technologies of exchange of ideas and the political infrastructure, namely the freedom of speech—not getting burned or broken or disemboweled if you come up with a heretical idea—will, just in the nature of social relations, push in certain directions, and they’re going to be humanitarian directions. Because humanitarian treatment is just a better way for people to live together than constant war or exploitation.

reason: Moving to this century, you claim we are now in the midst of the Long Peace and the New Peace. What is the Long Peace, and what is the New Peace?

Pinker: Long Peace is a term that I took from the historian John Gaddis, referring narrowly to the absence of war, direct war, between the U.S. and the USSR, confounding all predictions in the late ’80s when he coined the phrase. He and a number of military historians, even in the ’80s, said, “Hey, something very weird is going on. The U.S. and the USSR aren’t going to war. Everyone said they would. How come they haven’t?” And more generally, people noticed, “Hey, what about Western Europe, France and Germany? They’ve gone an awful long time without fighting a war. This is kind of historically unusual.”

There were predictions even then in the late ’80s that something had changed historically, that the use of war, as Clausewitz put it, as continuation of policy by other means, had really changed. War had been taken off the table as a live option. The absence of war involving developed countries, say the 40 or 45 richest countries, and between the great powers, was unusual even in the ’80s. And here we are 25 years after that, and our luck has held out.

The New Peace is another phenomenon that very few people are aware of. Namely, there are war nerds who meticulously tabulate the number of battle deaths year by year in each of a number of categories of armed conflict: civil wars, interstate wars, colonial wars, and so on. They have been stunned, in plotting their data, to notice there’s been a big decline in wars in the rest of the world, starting around the end of the Cold War. All of those nasty little civil wars in Africa, South Asia, and Central and Latin America kind of fizzled out, and no one’s even noticed. More important, the number of people killed has plunged. This past decade, even with all of the wars that we read about, has had the lowest rate of battle deaths of any decade since they started keeping score in 1946. That’s the phenomenon I call the New Peace—that the Long Peace is starting to spread to the rest of the world.

What’s also [interesting is] a finding that I came across after the book had come out, by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan—nonviolent vs. violent resistance movements. If you want to topple your government, what works better: mass protests in the street or arming guerrillas? The answer is you can’t tell if you just think of anecdotes, because there are some on each side that work and don’t work. So they tabulated numbers, and they found that about 75 percent of nonviolent resistance movements work, and about 25 percent of violent resistance movements work. Unless you do the counting, you’d never know that there was this massive difference.
Pinker: This is a heretical idea coming out of, of all places, Scandinavia. There are war nerds who run regressions trying to predict what leads to escalation, military tensions, or de-escalation. There was a lot of statistical support for an idea called the Democratic Peace. The extreme form is that no two democracies have ever waged war on one another. There’s a new movement to try to argue it’s actually the capitalism, more than the democracy, that’s doing the work in this correlation. And there seem to be data that capitalist countries are less likely to go to war with each other. They’re less likely to go to war, period, including against noncapitalist countries, [and are] less likely to have civil wars, and less likely to have genocides.

reason: In other words, “Make money, not war.”

There are many roads to truth, but cultish intolerance is not one of them

From The God wars by Bryan Appleyard
Religion is not going to go away. It is a natural and legitimate response to the human condition, to human consciousness and to human ignorance. One of the most striking things revealed by the progress of science has been the revelation of how little we know and how easily what we do know can be overthrown. Furthermore, as Hitchens in effect acknowledged and as the neo-atheists demonstrate by their ideological rigidity and savagery, absence of religion does not guarantee that the demonic side of our natures will be eliminated. People should have learned this from the catastrophic failed atheist project of communism, but too many didn't.

Happily, the backlash against neo-atheism has begun, inspired by the cult's own intolerance. In the Christmas issue of this magazine, Dawkins interviewed Hitchens. Halfway through, Dawkins asked: "Do you ever worry that if we win and, so to speak, destroy Christianity, that vacuum would be filled by Islam?" At dinner at the restaurant in Bayswater we all laughed at this, but our laughter was uneasy. The history of attempts to destroy religion is littered with the corpses of believers and unbelievers alike. There are many roads to truth, but cultish intolerance is not one of them.
I especially like "One of the most striking things revealed by the progress of science has been the revelation of how little we know and how easily what we do know can be overthrown." From sociology to climatology to psychology, there are fields of science and interest where the intellectual landscape is littered with crashed theories and ashen propositions once hotly argued. All is contingent and uncertain and we inch slowly to comprehension, misstepping and backsliding at each step. A measure of generosity of spirit and tolerance for others in this perilously uncertain pursuit might make the journey easier. But often it feels as William Butler Yeats said, that there is a surfeit of passionate intensity:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

We had the experience but we missed the meaning

From The Great American Novel: Will there ever be another? by Roger Kimball
I have said that in the contemporary world literature suffered because so many things competed for our attention. That competition proceeds on two fronts. On the one hand, it offers a panoply of superficially attractive objects for our consumption and delectation: It is a world of apparently instant gratification except that the gratification is so ephemeral that it is conspicuously unsatisfying, more nominal than real. On the other hand, the competition for our attention also proceeds by attacking the very capacity for attention. Often, it seems to operate not by offering new objects for our attention, but by offering us a substitute for attention itself: a sort of passive receptivity that registers sensations without rising to meet them with the alertness of critical attention. We had the experience, wrote Eliot in The Four Quartets, but we missed the meaning. In this situation, the novel—which requires time, not instantaneousness, which requires careful attention, not its passive substitute—is going to have a hard time making itself heard.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Between 1837 and 1901 some 7,000 authors published more than 60,000 novels in England

From The Great American Novel: Will there ever be another? by Roger Kimball
It might even be argued (I merely raise this as a possibility) that there are as many good novels being written today as in the past. It is sobering to reflect that between 1837—when Victoria ascended the throne and Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was published—and 1901—the year of Victoria’s death—some 7,000 authors published more than 60,000 novels in England. How much of that vast literary cataract has stood the test of time? How can we hope that our perfervid literary output will escape the exigent discriminations visited upon all prior periods? Jonathan Franzen. Bret Easton Ellis. Jay McInerney. Dave Eggers. Toni Morrison. Feel free to extend the list: Criticism is not prophecy, nevertheless I predict those and many other glittering darlings of the moment will be forgotten as surely as those 59,967 novels from the Victorian period whose names, for us, are writ in water.

Monday, March 5, 2012

A wall of books is a wall of windows

Leon Wieseltier has a paean to the effect and reality of books in this month’s New Republic ( The sentiments are true for children’s books as well.
Nothing elevates a room more than the presence within it of objects whose significance is in no way derived from oneself. These things are not mine; I am theirs.


This is the other variety of significance that attaches to books, the subjective sort, which transforms them into talismans. Many books are read but some books are lived, so that words and ideas lose their ethereality and become experiences, turning points in an insufficiently clarified existence, and thereby acquire the almost mystical (but also fallible) intimacy of memory. In this sense one’s books are one’s biography. This subjective urgency bears no relation to the quality of the book: lives have been changed by kitsch, too. What matters is that one’s pores be opened, and that the opening be true.


. . . what I see most plainly about the books is that they are beautiful. They take up room? Of course they do: they are an environment; atoms, not bits. My books are not dead weight, they are live weight—matter infused by spirit, every one of them, even the silliest. They do not block the horizon; they draw it. They free me from the prison of contemporaneity: one should not live only in one’s own time. A wall of books is a wall of windows. And a book is more than a text: even if every book in my library is on Google Books, my library is not on Google Books. A library has a personality, a temperament. (Sometimes a dull one.) Its books show the scars of use and the wear of need. They are defaced—no, ornamented—by markings and notes and private symbols of assent and dissent, and these vandalisms are traces of the excitations of thought and feeling, which is why they are delightful to discover in old books: they introduce a person.

But the copy of a book that is on my shelf is my copy. It is unlike any other copy, it has been individuated; and even those books that I have not yet opened—unread books are an essential element of a library—were acquired for the further cultivation of a particular admixture of interests and beliefs, and every one of them will have its hour. The knowledge that qualifies one to be one’s own librarian is partly self-knowledge. The richness, or the incoherence, of a library is the richness, or the incoherence, of the self.
Which prompts the thought about the energy we expend on lists - Our lists are declarations of ourselves. I kind of like the idea of a list of pore opening books.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding

Thomas Sowell in The Legacy of Eric Hoffer
Among Hoffer's insights about mass movements was that they are an outlet for people whose individual significance is meager in the eyes of the world and -- more important -- in their own eyes. He pointed out that the leaders of the Nazi movement were men whose artistic and intellectual aspirations were wholly frustrated.

Hoffer said: "The less justified a man is in claiming excellence for his own self, the more ready he is to claim all excellence for his nation, his religion, his race or his holy cause."

People who are fulfilled in their own lives and careers are not the ones attracted to mass movements: "A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding," Hoffer said. "When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business."

Tumid apathy with no concentration

From T. S. Eliot’s” Four Quartets,” Burnt Norton.
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before time and after.

There have been always two different schemes or systems of morality current at the same time

From the evergreen writing of Adam Smith; The Wealth of Nations Book V, chapter I:
In every civilised society, in every society where the distinction of ranks has once been completely established, there have been always two different schemes or systems of morality current at the same time; of which the one may be called the strict or austere; the other the liberal, or, if you will, the loose system. The former is generally admired and revered by the common people: the latter is commonly more esteemed and adopted by what are called people of fashion. The degree of disapprobation with which we ought to mark the vices of levity, the vices which are apt to arise from great prosperity, and from the excess of gaiety and good humour, seems to constitute the principal distinction between those two opposite schemes or systems. In the liberal or loose system, luxury, wanton and even disorderly mirth, the pursuit of pleasure to some degree of intemperance, the breach of chastity, at least in one of the two sexes, etc., provided they are not accompanied with gross indecency, and do not lead to falsehood or injustice, are generally treated with a good deal of indulgence, and are easily either excused or pardoned altogether. In the austere system, on the contrary, those excesses are regarded with the utmost abhorrence and detestation. The vices of levity are always ruinous to the common people, and a single week’s thoughtlessness and dissipation is often sufficient to undo a poor workman for ever, and to drive him through despair upon committing the most enormous crimes. The wiser and better sort of the common people, therefore, have always the utmost abhorrence and detestation of such excesses, which their experience tells them are so immediately fatal to people of their condition. The disorder and extravagance of several years, on the contrary, will not always ruin a man of fashion, and people of that rank are very apt to consider the power of indulging in some degree of excess as one of the advantages of their fortune, and the liberty of doing so without censure or reproach as one of the privileges which belong to their station. In people of their own station, therefore, they regard such excesses with but a small degree of disapprobation, and censure them either very slightly or not at all.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

And what’s the other word? False.

From Errol Morris: The Thinking Man's Detective by Ron Rosenbaum.
“The Ashtray,” Morris’ five-part, 20,000-word account of that episode and their philosophical clash over the nature of truth, is a good introduction to the unique kind of writing he’s doing now. (Don’t miss the section on the obscure Greek philosopher of irrationalism, Hippasus of Metapontum, a digression worthy of Jorge Luis Borges.)

After the ashtray incident, Morris eventually did two stints as a private eye. If there is one subtext to all of Morris’ subsequent films and writings, it is the private eye’s creed, the anti-postmodernist belief that “the truth is out there.” Truth may be elusive, it may even be unknowable, but that doesn’t mean, as postmodernists aver, that reality is just a matter of subjective perspectives, that one way of seeing things is just as good as another.

“I’m amazed,” Morris said when we spoke recently, “that you still see this nonsense all over the place, that truth is relative, that truth is subjective. People still cling to it.” He calls these ideas “repulsive, repugnant. And what’s the other word? False.”

Friday, March 2, 2012

Hide their scriptures somewhere in the hot sand

The language is all wrong but the observation is interesting. The Big Reveal by Adam Gopnik.
You can’t help feeling, along with Pagels, a pang that the Gnostic poems, so much more affecting in their mystical, pantheistic rapture, got interred while Revelation lives on. But you also have to wonder if there ever was a likely alternative. Don’t squishy doctrines of transformation through personal illumination always get marginalized in mass movements? As Stephen Batchelor has recently shown, the open-minded, non-authoritarian side of Buddhism, too, quickly succumbed to its theocratic side, gasping under the weight of those heavy statues. The histories of faiths are all essentially the same: a vague and ambiguous millennial doctrine preached by a charismatic founder, Marx or Jesus; mystical variants held by the first generations of followers; and a militant consensus put firmly in place by the power-achieving generation. Bakunin, like the Essenes, never really had a chance. The truth is that punitive, hysterical religions thrive, while soft, mystical ones must hide their scriptures somewhere in the hot sand.

Accounting for all the data

Via Jerry Pournelle's Chaos Manor, a quotation of Henry Vanderbilt:
The difference between science and the fuzzy subjects is that science requires accounting for all the data
I have just finished reading C.P. Snow's famous The Two Cultures and I think Vanderbilt has the better continuum - it isn't the contrast between arts and sciences but between emotionalism and empiricism.

The amoral dynamism that fuels ships and soldiers

Why the Muslims Misjudged Us by Victor Davis Hanson. VDH is an interesting man. I have several of his books and frequently read his articles. I am in deep sympathy with his perspective and admire his insight and erudition. That said, I find myself surprised at how often I disagree or take exception to some element of his arguments. It is always a refreshing challenge. But he does have a way with words and summarizing complex historical issues with keen insight.
Few in the Middle East have a clue about the nature, origins or history of democracy, a word that, along with its family (constitution, freedom and citizen), has no history in the Arab vocabulary, or indeed any philological pedigree in any language other than Greek and Latin and their modern European offspring. Consensual government is not the norm of human politics but a rare and precious idea, not imposed or bequeathed but usually purchased with the blood of heroes and patriots, whether in classical Athens, revolutionary America or more recently Eastern Europe. Democracy's lifeblood is secularism and religious tolerance, coupled with free speech and economic liberty.
The fact is that democracy does not spring fully formed from the head of Zeus but rather is an epiphenomenon--the formal icing on a pre-existing cake of egalitarianism, economic opportunity, religious tolerance and constant self-criticism. The former cannot appear in the Muslim world until gallant men and women insist upon the latter--and therein demolish the antidemocratic and medieval forces of tribalism, authoritarian traditionalism and Islamic fundamentalism.
. . . we should remember that the lethal, 2,500-year Western way of war is the reflection of very different ideas about personal freedom, civic militarism, individuality on the battlefield, military technology, logistics, decisive battle, group discipline, civilian audit and the dissemination and proliferation of knowledge.

Values and traditions--not guns, germs and steel--explain why a tiny Greece of 50,000 square miles crushed a Persia 20 times larger; why Rome, not Carthage, created world government; why Cortés was in Tenochtitlàn, and Montezuma not in Barcelona; why gunpowder in its home in China was a pastime for the elite while, when stolen and brought to Europe, it became a deadly and ever evolving weapon of the masses. Even at the nadir of Western power in the medieval ages, a Europe divided by religion and fragmented into feudal states could still send thousands of thugs into the Holy Land, while a supposedly ascendant Islam had neither the ships nor the skill nor the logistics to wage jihad in Scotland or Brittany.

Much is made of 500 years of Ottoman dominance over a feuding Orthodox, Christian and Protestant West; but the sultans were powerful largely to the degree that they crafted alliances with a distrustful France and the warring Italian city-states, copied the Arsenal at Venice, turned out replicas of Italian and German canon, and moved their capital to European Constantinople. Moreover, their "dominance" amounted only to a rough naval parity with the West on the old Roman Mediterranean; they never came close to the conquest of the heart of Western Europe.

Europeans, not Ottomans, colonized central and southern Africa, Asia and the Pacific and the Americas--and not merely because of their Atlantic ports or ocean ships but rather because of their longstanding attitudes and traditions about scientific inquiry, secular thought, free markets and individual ingenuity and spontaneity. To be sure, military power is not a referendum on morality--Pizarro's record in Peru makes as grim reading as the Germans' in central Africa; it is, rather, a reflection of the amoral dynamism that fuels ships and soldiers.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Productivity and the good life

U.S. Manufacturing Is Open for Business and Doing Well; Despite, Not Because of, Government Policy by Mark J. Perry. All good things; health, education, security, etc. are predicated on productivity. The greater one's productivity, the more likely one is to enjoy the range of good things in life.

In that context, this graphic is stunning. 60 years, two generations and a more than quadrupling in productivity. Life is good.

Notice the the inflection point circa 2000 as productivity from ERP systems and the internet begin to kick in. We are just at the beginning edge of that productivity cycle, i.e. I think we are just beginning to exploit the productivity gains made feasible by the web and by standard and pervasive ERP systems. Despite all the best efforts of advocacy groups and politicians to derail things, we have great prospects ahead of us. I hope.