Friday, August 31, 2012

Your values become your destiny

Cam across this quotation. It is attributed to Mahatma Gandhi but I have not been able to find the actual source.
Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The game changes as you play it

From The Emerging Revolution in Game Theory from The Physics arXiv Blog.

While the news is interesting and important, if somewhat esoteric, there is a post in the comments which I think is a really striking observation. The author of the article is taken to task in the comments for describing the new discovery as revolutionary. There is a lot of posturing back-and-forth of the nature of "my differential philosophical paradigm is more complex than your differential philosophical paradigm." The comment I liked though was this simple:
This is not a "revolution." You've simply hit upon a fundamental philosophical truth: The game changes as you play it.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Not by what they explain, but by what they fail to explain

From Unintended Consequences by Edward Conard.
Science judges hypotheses, not by what they explain, but by what they fail to explain. When anomalies pile up, experts reject the hypothesis that engender them.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Tuchman's Law

From A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Tuchman, Barbara, Page xviii. Keeping perspective:
Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening--on a lucky day--without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena. This has led me to formulate Tuchman's Law, as follows: "The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold" (or any figure the reader would care to supply).[

Monday, August 27, 2012

Ngrams and books

Here's a neat concept out of the fincial services industry that might have application in culture and reading. From Too Central to Fail by Alex Tabarrok. What they are dealing with in the original paper is whether we ought to be concerned only with the size of a bank (in terms of systemic risk of failure) or whether we ought to also take into account the centrality of the bank within the system. A big bank that has a low level of interconnectedness with other banks may pose less risk than a smaller bank that is much more interconnected. Their research indicates that we indeed should be looking at centrality as well as size when we seek to manage systemic risk.

Here is a graphic that illustrates their point.

Looking at this made me wonder whether there might be a way to take the same concept and apply it to books in order to determine the extent to which particular books influence our overall culture. Some books are read by many people over many years. Some books are a flash in the pan with huge sales in a given short period of time and then they disappear from the cultural radar screen. It is instructive to look at best seller lists of fifty years ago and realize just how many of the names of those authors are completely unknown today.

What might a comparable graphic look like for books. Which books are most central and how would we measure that? Citations perhaps. Or perhaps, Google Ngram, a version of citations. Here is the Ngram for five books that are viewed as classics and/or are considered controversial; To Kill a Mockingbird, The Little Engine That Could, Lord of the Flies, Go Ask Alice, And Tango Makes Three.

My interpretation of this chart (mentions in books between 1960 - 2008) would be that The Little Engine That Could has grown over time as a children's classic and is now mentioned two or three times as often as in the seventies or eighties. Go Ask Alice climbed with the drug scene but is less than half as relevant as even ten years ago. Lord of the Flies continues with a very strong showing but down 30% perhaps from its peak in the mid-sixties. To Kill a Mockingbird goes from strength to strength. And Tango Makes Three drove a lot of controversy when it came out 2005. Despite all the talk and the book challenges at libraries and the extensive discussions in the ephemera press - there was not even a blip in the more permanent record of books.

People are often concerned about the erosion of morals and values and in general a darkening of modern children's literature. There is concern just how much modern children's literature might be eroding our culture. I created an Ngram to look at how much the Bible, Homer and Shakespeare are being discussed in the past five decades versus such classics or best sellers as Harper Lee, Rowling, and the Twilight series.

As you can see in the following Ngram, Twilight, To Kill a Mockingbird and Harry Potter, as much as they are significant part of the childhood reading pantheon today, are swamped by the avid conversation that continues around the Bible, Homer and Shakespeare.

Finally, I look at Harper Lee, Rowling, Stephenie Meyer versus Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Tolkien, and Peter Pan, more classic children's authors/books. Only Rowling gives the old masters a run for their money.

The burden of choosing good books for our children remains a significant and consequential one but the gloom and doom concern about just how corrosive contemporary children's literature might be is, if not misplaced, perhaps at least less consequential than we might have considered.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Challenged books

From the American Library Association, the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books 2000-2009.

You can see all the issues here: questions of age-appropriateness, good taste, atheism, moral ambiguity, ideological concerns, etc.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Technology or relevance

I ran a Google Ngram on four of the major US children's books awards, the grandaddies, Newberry and Caldecott as well as newer awards, Coretta Scott King and the Printz award.

My interpretation is that the awards had their heyday 1975-1995 with a measurable dip in the late 1980's. However, since circa 1995, all the awards have been in decline with Caldecott and Newberry suffering the steapest declines, down some 60% since their peak. Is it the internet (mass adoption beginning circa 1995) which perhaps has generated alternate means for assessing value of books via a plethora of children's books website, social media, and blogs dedicated to children's reading? Perhaps circa 1995 there was some change in the awards where the tastes of judges has diverged from those of the reading public, condemning them to decreasing relevance.

Friday, August 24, 2012

We need efficient feedback and we need the capacity to be exposed to consequences

This article, Teachers on the Defensive by Frank Bruni, prompted a train of thought regarding the importance of feedback.

While the history of man is one of slowly improving productivity and life success (an accelerating trend in the past fifty years), the means by which that occurs have long been the source of speculation. I believe there are many critical components whose interactions are complex - so complex that it is difficult to make accurate forecasts. One element of the puzzle, in fact the inverse of increasing productivity (which is a well established trend line), is our incapacity to explain why certain countries, cultures or regions first expand and then collapse - the rise and fall of empires if you will. There always thousands of proximate causes but none of them on their own are sufficiently reliable to be useful predictors of future collapse.

Take post World War II Japan for example. From 1945 to circa 1995 they were an accelerating juggernaut of productivity, putting fear into every trading partner. In books, movies and the popular culture, as well as among the chattering classes, there was grave concern. A concern that persisted right up to the point when their growth suddenly collapsed. They have been in a seemingly permanent state of stasis or contraction for some twenty years. And no one (well some individuals but not the consensus view) saw it coming.

In this article regarding the paradoxical position of teachers unions, there may be a hint of an answer. The paradox is that the teacher's unions have never been so successful in serving the interests of their members in terms of protection from termination, in terms of compensation, in terms of working conditions and yet at this very moment they face existential threats.

I wonder if the core issue is not perhaps the absence of effective feedback mechanisms.
“We bear a lot of responsibility for this,” Weingarten [president of the American Federation of Teachers] told me in a phone interview on Friday. “We were focused — as unions are — on fairness and not as much on quality.” And they’ve sometimes shown a spectacular blindness to public sensitivities in their apparent protection of certain embattled teachers in given instances.
In biology, nature is a cruel taskmaster of survival. Only those organisms that survive and reproduce are permitted a continued existence. How they survive is not preset, the survival mechanisms are miraculously manifold. Feedback on fitness for purpose is prompt, as represented by death or survival. Fairness does not enter into the equation, only quality.

In free markets, the freer the market, the more similar it is to a biological Darwinian process. Commercial success, absent regulation, is entirely contingent upon being able to respond quickly to changing exogenous circumstances. Again, there is no fairness in the equation. You either survive commercially or you do not and that survival depends on the quality of various, and often unpredictable, aspects of your business.

Both biology and commerce are distinguished by exceptionally clear feedback mechanisms married to a ruthless execution of consequences. There is no margin for error.

It is interesting that those regions that are most prosperous today are those that first took up the widespread dissemination of books, printing and reading - all being forms of cognitive feedback. Those countries which are the closest adherents to the principles of the Enlightenment (pluralism, tolerance, natural rights, freedom of press, religion, agency, rule of law, etc.), which principles greatly facilitate feedback and consequences, are also those that are the most prosperous today. Again, there is little focus on fairness in the consequences of Enlightenment, simply a statement of bedrock principles which will inherently have consequences, not all those consequences at any point in time being particularly desirable.

So the first thing I took from the article was the consideration that the problem is not so much with unions per se but the simple fact that based on government structure and past prosperity, that unions have been able to insulate themselves from both feedback and consequences. That would appear to be what we are struggling with now. As Weingarten indicates, the focus has been on fairness and not on effectiveness (or quality as she puts it). With no feedback mechanisms, the focus on fairness has undermined effectiveness and there is now a thirty or fifty year feedback deficit to be made up. It is not unlike plate tectonics. The longer there is no slippage (adjustment) the greater the magnitude will be the earthquake when it comes. Just one of those unavoidable facts of life. You can take a thousand small quakes or one massive one but it is inexorable that there shall be an adjustment. Just like biology, just like commerce.

Teacher effectiveness is an inherently complex thing. Can it be done in an administrative fashion with rules and measures and tests? Sure, to a degree, but is it optimal? Don't know. Is local control of and discretionary management of education likely to be unfair in some way? Sure, but ultimately that isn't the point. Does it work is the point. And we are uncertain about what has worked, what needs to work and what ought to work in the future. What we do know is that despite massive increases in resources devoted to education in the past fifty years, it is unclear that people are better educated or more productive or social outcomes more fair.

Statists seek to impose fixed solutions on complex issues which they hope will be secure over time. Libertarians trust in disaggregated unplanned actions. Both are rational responses to existing circumstances. The question is, over time and subject to repeated, unexpected exogenous shocks, which approach stands up better. I would argue that the pursuit of fairness, while understandable and to some degree noble, is a chimera.

Earthquakes are neither fair or unfair; they just are. Whether you accommodate plate slippage via ten thousand micro-quakes, always having small damages to clean up and pay for, or whether you take it altogether, once every long while with a single massive earthquake is the choice. When you close off feedback and close off the capacity to endure consequences, then you have, from a systems perspective, chosen to take a single massive earthquake.

We can choose, in human systems, when subject to constantly changing circumstances and unexpected exogenous shocks, to take on constant micro-quake adjustments or we can postpone adjustment for as long as possible and then take a body blow. What we can't do is choose not to adjust. It has nothing to do with fairness but with life - we always have to adjust one way or the other, much or as little as we like the consequences of having to adjust. We need efficient feedback and we need the capacity to be exposed to consequences.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What both common sense and expert consensus assure us to be true very often isn’t

From The Coming Oil Boom by Chrystia Freeland. She discusses the emerging realization that there will be a sea change in the global energy market in the coming decade. This realization has been emerging over the past twelve months (from what I have been reading), but still hasn't reached the mainstream as far as I can tell. Ms. Freeland's closing paragraph is a reminder of an enduring truth independent of the details of her report.
A final conclusion to draw from the next oil revolution is a little more existential. This is yet another reminder that what both common sense and expert consensus assure us to be true very often isn’t. It was obvious that efficient markets worked and financial deregulation would stimulate economic growth, until the financial crisis and the subsequent international economic recession. It was equally apparent that we were running out of oil — until we weren’t.
The only exception that I would take is that, as with almost all major issues, there were in fact those that have been preaching in the wilderness for years and decades that those ancient task masters Supply and Demand would, left to their own devices, solve the energy problem - maybe not in a way that we liked or in a way that we expected, but solved it would be. Just because they weren't listened to doesn't mean that they weren't prophesying the reality that is now upon us.

Common sense and experts have value in the right context but we have to understand the context. If we don't have that context, then their value often is negligible. The science is never settled and no one ever has all the answers. Comprehending the trade-offs between short term tactical efficiency and long term effectiveness is endlessly complicated and frustrating. Perhaps our best approach is to be wise, be modest, be prepared.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Behaviors and well-being

From Class Origin and Elite Position of Men in Business Firms in Sweden, 1993–2007: The Importance of Education, Cognitive Ability, and Personality by Erik Bihagen1, Magnus Nermo1 and Charlotta Stern, evidence supporting my contention that the bulk of success differentials resides within behaviors and values rather than, as was the case in the past, systemic discrimination. I have not read the report in full yet but the summary seems to bear this out. Sweden has the advantage of being historically pretty homogenous, thus stripping out most issues of differences in race and religion, leaving substantially discrimination based on class (and closely correlated, education).
The aim of the article was to study class origin effects on belonging to the organizational elite in large private Swedish companies between 1993 and 2007. We find a clear working class disadvantage. Decomposition analyses indicate that the social class gap in arriving at elite destinations between those of Service I and working class origins is due chiefly to differences in educational attainment, and only to a very small extent to which school one attends and which field one studies. Cognitive capacity is of rather minor importance net of schooling, but the importance of personality traits is of greater importance and increases over time. One striking result is that the importance of educational attainment for explaining the social class origin gap decreases markedly between 1993 and 2007. It was hypothesized that the ongoing expansion of the educational system would increase the importance of having a degree from more elite schools, but our findings do not support such a hypothesis. Instead, our analyses point to the increasing importance of personality traits over time. The results suggest that there is a change in the value of education and personality in the labour market, but as men of working class origins have disadvantages in both domains, the relative disadvantage of originating from the working class is rather stable. One interpretation of the apparently growing importance of personality traits could be that educational expansion inflates and undermines educational distinctions. Another interpretation would be that corporations in a post-industrial society increasingly demand members of the elite with a greater variation in skills such as extraversion.

An interesting finding is the way in which a ‘winning’ personality is associated with elite positions: even with all controls included, we find a clear personality gradient and a bonus for scoring high on most of the specified traits. This stands in contrast to cognitive ability, where higher levels are of importance to educational attainment, but where there is no net bonus of high values after controlling for achieved education. It seems that when it comes to elite recruitment, assuming that one has a university degree, it is better to be socially winning, including extraversion, than to be very smart. Elite positions, as we define them, often mean having a leading position, suggesting that leadership talents may be more closely associated with social skills than with cognitive skills. Also, it is plausible that personality is less easily measured than cognitive ability (Grönqvist, Öckert and Vlachos, 2010), which may mean that the importance of personality is even greater than what our analyses indicate.
If this proposition, that values and behaviors are the differentiator in achieved success (holding all other variables fixed), is born out, it forces to the forefront the challenging and prickly topic which I think is at the heart of future productivity - how do we recognize and measure the contribution of behaviors towards productivity, and how do parents transmit those values and behaviors.

I believe that books (and other narrative based instruments such as songs and ballads, poetry, hymns, social story-telling etc.) are a key element in that transmission. If this supposition is true, it calls into play to a much greater extent the issue of "quality" children's literature. It is not simply a matter of whether the books are well written but also the extent to which they assist in fostering and transmitting those values and behaviors conducive to future productivity, success and well-being.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Evolution is more of a tinkerer and less of an engineer

Why do organisms build tissues they seemingly never use? by e! Science News.
Why, after millions of years of evolution, do organisms build structures that seemingly serve no purpose? A study conducted at Michigan State University and published in the current issue of The American Naturalist investigates the evolutionary reasons why organisms go through developmental stages that appear unnecessary.

"Many animals build tissues and structures they don't appear to use, and then they disappear," said Jeff Clune, lead author and former doctoral student at MSU's BEACON Center of Evolution in Action. "It's comparable to building a roller coaster, razing it and building a skyscraper on the same ground. Why not just skip ahead to building the skyscraper?"

Why humans and other organisms retain seemingly unnecessary stages in their development has been debated between biologists since 1866. This study explains that organisms jump through these extra hoops to avoid disrupting a developmental process that works. Clune's team called this concept the "developmental disruption force." But Clune says it also could be described as "if the shoe fits, don't change a thing."


"An engineer would simply skip the roller coaster step, but evolution is more of a tinkerer and less of an engineer," Clune said. "It uses whatever parts that are lying around, even if the process that generates those parts is inefficient."

More examples related to Stuart Kauffman's concept of the adjacent possible.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Logic, facts and context

A good example paying attention to the framing of an argument, a matter that is critical to effective communication and yet rarely performed well.

In this case, two excellent economists (dismal science, the study of scarcity), advance an argument in the WSJ that the federal government ought to subsidize economics research in the same fashion as it does scientific research. They make their case broadly in terms of logic and empirical evidence that research in economics has a positive return.

Tyler Cowen in Does the dismal science deserve federal funding? backs up the argument to the real question. Given limited federal spending, which of the many productive ways of spending those scarce resources will have the greatest return? It is not enough that economics research have a positive return, it has to have a positive return greater than all the other competing ways of spending those limited resources. That is the first order question that rarely gets asked.

But there is a second level of sophistication where the decision-making gets even more tangled, sophisticated and interesting. This has to do with what I call the shopping mall paradox. If you own a shopping mall with 100 retail stores and you want to maximize your profit, you would look at the collection of 100 stores and calculate which stores have the highest profit per square foot. I do not have real world experience of this but from what I have read, the answer is that shoe stores have the highest profit square foot.

So if your goal is to achieve maximum profit, then the logical thing to do is to convert all 100 stores into shoe stores.

The paradox is that, absent some particularly unique circumstances or marketing capability, a mall entirely devoted solely to shoe stores will actually have less profit than a mixed-use mall. Even though shoe stores have a very high profit per square foot of space, there is rarely community demand for a mall entirely dedicated to shoes.

The real challenge for a mall operator is to optimize profit for the overall organic whole by striking the right balance of parts. There are an inordinate number of factors and considerations to take into account in guessing how to optimize profit. If people go to a mall primarily because it is more efficient to do most their shopping in a single location, then you have to have a portfolio of stores that meet most their needs, even though those different types of stores will have widely varying profits. A general department store or a grocery store may have a lower profit per square foot than a shoe store but you need those anchor stores to draw the shopper volumes necessary to support the shoe store.

Now multiply these trade-off decisions across a mix of 100 stores and trying to find the optimum mix between meeting basic consumer needs and maximizing profit and you can see how challenging that task is.

Clarity of goal (maximize profit), logic (identify the highest profit stores and maximize) are both necessary to a good argument but are not sufficient. You have to have context which is what Cowen is pointing out in his post. Yes, economic research likely pays dividends. That is insufficient knowledge though. We have to know that it pays greater dividends than alternative uses. But that also is insufficient knowledge. It comes down to the portfolio - what is the optimum mix of investments in order to achieve some mix of overarching goals. Even if economics research had a higher return than, say defense spending, you wouldn't want to invest everything in economic research and nothing in defense. Optimisation of a variety of outcomes in a system with multiple independent but contingent subsystems is problematic and depends greatly on contextual knowledge. Contextual circumstances is what so often leads to unintended consequences.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


From 32-Year Study Shows How Geeky Kids Become Happy Adults by Garth Sundem.

In order to not be poor, we know empirically that there are three simple things you need to do: 1) Graduate high school on time, 2) Get married, stay married, 3) Get a job and keep a job (any job). Do these three things and your chances of being in poverty are less than 2%.

In order for a child to likely become an enthusiastic reader we know empirically there are five simple things to do: 1) Talk to them, 2) Read to them, 3) Have easy access to books, 4) Let them choose books, and 5) Be seen reading yourself.

Thanks to Lester Breslow we know that to be healthy, all we need to do is 1) Not smoke, 2) Drink in moderation, 3) Sleep seven to eight hours, 4) Exercise at least moderately, 5) Eat regular meals, 6) Maintain a moderate weight, and 7) Eat breakfast.

Now, courtesy of scholars in New Zealand, there is empirical evidence establishing links between childhood traits and adult well-being (defined as coherence, positive coping, social engagement and pro-social values) based on a longitudinal study of 1,000 people from birth to age 32.
This study defined four possible zones of the social connectedness pants to kick: quality of social attachments, participation in organized clubs and groups, self-perceived competencies or strengths, and life satisfaction.

First, a large part of social attachment is your teenager’s relationship with you, the parent – the better you relate with your teenager, the more likely he or she is to have high well-being as an adult. Nearly as important and equally as difficult to imagine as your teenager liking you, is your teenager liking school.

But social connectedness and liking school in no way implies that a kid has to be popular in order to become a well adult. More important than being the star quarterback is “having someone to talk to if they had a problem or felt upset about something,” the authors write. And participation in clubs and groups in no way implies sports. Band is just as good as football. It’s group membership and not necessarily athletic worship that builds well-being.

Finally and importantly, no matter the objective facts of a teen’s life, how a teen evaluates and values their life predicts well-being as a 32-year-old. Are they optimistic about the future, independent, and generally busy? If so, A) you have a teen that smushes every popular stereotype of Western culture, and B) you have a teen who’s likely to grow into a very well adult.
To be a well-adjusted adult then, you need as a child to 1) Have good social attachments (friendly and engaging), 2) Participate in organized clubs and groups (commitment and engagement), 3) Develop competencies and achievement, and 4) Have a positive attitude. So pedestrian, so achievable and so critical.

I have mentioned before that much of sociological research seems to focus on the obscure and the negative which is perhaps well meaning but odd. While it is useful to know what to do about bullying and social awkwardness and moral ambiguity and abuse and poverty, etc. what we really want to know is: what do we need to do to be healthy, wealthy, and wise.

We now have a check list for life success broadly addressing addressing wealth, education, happiness. That is awfully close to the traditional triumvirate of healthy, wealthy and wise. That seventeen point checklist would now look like:
Undertake physical activity
Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables
Maintain a healthy weight
Moderate alcohol use
Do not smoke
Graduate from high school
Get married and stay married
Get a job, any job
Talk a lot to your child
Read to them
Have plenty of books available
Let them choose what to read
Be seen reading yourself
Cultivate friendships
Participate with others
Develop competencies (or maybe pursue excellence)
Be positive
In a culture of excuse-making, it is easy to obscure that much of the ancient wisdom and many of our cultural traditions are in fact right there at our fingertips, ready to point the way towards happy, healthy, wealthy lives. Our language and the conversation that surrounds us is rife with morals, adages, and sayings which tell us what to do. Common verbal corollaries to the conclusions from empirical research show a nice consistency.
Hard work never did anyone any harm
An apple a day
A drunken fool
Smoking like a chimney
The wisdom of Solomon
Marriages are made in heaven
Early to bed, early to rise . . .
Hit the books
A friend in need is a friend indeed
Don't waste your time wondering, get busy and do it
Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm
There's nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Decision-making in an environment of constraints

Fascinating. How We Make Sense Of Sentences from FuturePundit.

Many of our decisions and decision-making processes in life are predicated on shortages. We don't have enough time for serious analysis, we don't have enough information, we don't have enough short term memory, etc.

To make up for this lack of time, resources, processing capacity, etc., we have devised all sorts of work-arounds - heuristics, adages, habits, in-filling (providing what seems to be missing, i.e. understanding that a misspelling such as hpe probably means hope), prejudices, and biases. This article highlights a particular example of such cognitive shortcuts which are otherwise so beneficial when making decisions in an environment of constraints.

From the original article.
After a plane crash, where should the survivors be buried?

If you are considering where the most appropriate burial place should be, you are not alone. Scientists have found that around half the people asked this question, answer it as if they were being asked about the victims not the survivors.

Similarly, when asked "Can a man marry his widow's sister?" most people answer "yes" - effectively answering that it would indeed be possible for a dead man to marry his bereaved wife’s sister.

It is too much work to scan carefully for errors in all the sentences we read and hear all day. Our sentence interpretation circuitry probably does some sort of compare of the sentence against competing meanings and uses some words to influence the meaning assigned to other words. Our minds arrive at interpretations that make definitions assigned to individual words fit into the context of the words around them. So the widow's sister becomes interpreted into something like the dead wife's sister since widow and widower involve someone dying and the man is assumed to be still alive since a question about his intentions is being asked.

EEG scans provide evidence that suggests our brains aren't even slightly noticing errors in sentences.
What makes researchers particularly interested in people’s failure to notice words that actually don’t make sense, so called semantic illusions, is that these illusions challenge traditional models of language processing which assume that we build understanding of a sentence by deeply analysing the meaning of each word in turn.

Instead semantic illusions provide a strong line of evidence that the way we process language is often shallow and incomplete.

Professor Leuthold at University of Glasgow led a study using electroencephalography (EEG) to explore what is happening in our brains when we process sentences containing semantic illusions.

By analysing the patterns of brain activity when volunteers read or listened to sentences containing hard-to-detect semantic anomalies - words that fit the general context even though they do not actually make sense - the researchers found that when a volunteer was tricked by the semantic illusion, their brain had not even noticed the anomalous word.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Cui bono one more time

Yet one more illustration of the limitations of our institutional knowledge frontier as highlighted in this article, Profits on Carbon Credits Drive Output of a Harmful Gas by Elisabeth Rosenthal and Andrew W. Lehren.

If economics is the study of scarcity, then its singular most enduring insight is that if you want more of something, then you have to make it easier, cheaper, or more rewarding and if you want less of something, then you should make it harder, more expensive, and less rewarding. Pretty simple and straightforward. Whenever you make a change, it should always be second nature to ask "What are we rewarding and what are we punishing?" because that tells you what you will get more of or less of.

Real world experience, as illustrated in this article, seems to indicate that policy makers rarely ask this pivotal question. Or if they ask it, they clearly aren't very good at answering it.

This central central question is captured in a different form by that ancient Latin maxim "Cui bono?"

This is one of those ancient pieces of wisdom which has stood the test of some 2,000 years and yet which we are able to attribute to an actual individual. Cicero, in one of his speeches, references:
L. Cassius ille quem populus Romanus verissimum et sapientissimum iudicem putabat identidem in causis quaerere solebat 'cui bono' fuisset.

The famous Lucius Cassius, whom the Roman people used to regard as a very honest and wise judge, was in the habit of asking, time and again, 'To whose benefit?'
As indicated by Cicero, the original maxim really was more focused on the moral issue - you need to understand who benefits from an action in order to assess the morality of their action. But in order to answer cui bono, you have to understand what is being made cheaper, easier, or more rewarding. Before determining the who, you have to answer the how; Quomodo prodesse, how do you benefit? How does your action make it easier, cheaper, more rewarding and who benefits from that change?

This goes to the heart of the radical American experiment in liberty and the Constitution crafted to maximize the dispersal of power. Centralized power and decision-making is strategically inefficient and ineffective as well as corrupting.

Any system that centralizes decision-making meets the very real limits of Hayek's Problem of Knowledge. One manifestation of that limit of knowledge is the incapacity to answer the question "cui bono". It is why significant legislation almost invariably has major, long-lasting and consequential unintended consequences. Sometimes those unintended consequences are good and beneficial and we pretend that the whole effort worked as we intended. This is known as confirmation bias. Oftentimes, the unintended consequences are almost entirely negative, as in this case of gas emission control, and then we act surprised and treat this as an unpredictable aberration.

What is predictable is that the more complex a system, the more likely our actions will have unintended consequences and whether those consequences are beneficial or harmful (and to whom) is essentially random.

What is also predictable is that we will interpret successes as a tribute to good planning and the failures to bad luck.

The only way to address this systemic issue, as perceived by the founding fathers and by Hayek, is to disaggregate decision-making in to as small units as possible. While there will be many bad decisions, with agency, transparency, good data and good feedback mechanisms, the bad decisions will self-correct. When the stakes are made smaller, there is less opportunity for systemic corruption because it isn't worth it.

When power is aggregated centrally with centralized decision-making, there is always the risk of corruption and there is always risk of bad decisions having greater impact because the bad decision is no longer a small decision but a large one affecting multitudes.

In this one article, we have illustrations of multiple issues. There is the question of the wisdom of centralizing decision-making (establishing carbon trading exchanges and a market in gases) versus distributed decision-making. There is the philosophical/governance issue of power aggregators vs. libertarians. There is corruption (see the European carbon exchange history) and hubris (we think we know enough to surgically intervene in complex systems with predictable outcomes). There is the problem of knowledge (a hurdle for the power aggregators) versus the fear of inefficient dispersed decision-making.

How can we be seen to being doing something if all we do is leave it up to individuals? This is the radicalism of the American experiement in liberty - assume individual agency and responsibility, disperse decision-making, build a system of checks-and-balances to forestall power aggregation and ultimately stake one's faith in a government of laws and not of men. It was a blind leap of faith with little precedent and low expectations of success on the part of outside observers.

Ironically though, the more successful it was and is, the greater the temptation there is to go back and make the process just a little more efficient by aggregating just a little more power. Articles like Profits on Carbon Credits Drive Output of a Harmful Gas remind us to be skeptical of the siren call of centralized decision-making and the claims of efficiency and integrity.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life

Heh. Thomas Jefferson, 1818. Here is another recurring issue - fiction versus non-fiction. While Jefferson made an exception for novels with a moral dimension, he otherwise had a poor opinion of fictional writing.
A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels, and the time lost in that reading which should be instructively employed. When this poison infects the mind, it destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading. Reason and fact, plain and unadorned, are rejected. Nothing can engage attention unless dressed in all the figments of fancy, and nothing so bedecked comes amiss. The result is a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The name of the world's most famous poet reposes cunningly in the text of the world's most famous translation

From The Miracle of Language by Richard Lederer, page 97.
The most famous of all biblical translations is the King James Version, the brainchild of James I, who fancied himself a scholar and theologian. The king decided to assure his immortality by sponsoring a new Bible worthy of the splendor of his kingdom. To this end, James appointed a commission of fifty-four learned clerical and lay scholars, divided into three groups in Cambridge, Westminster, and Oxford. Three years of loving labor, 1608-1611, produced what John Livingston Lowes called "the noblest monument of English prose." Few readers would dissent from that verdict.

Among many wonders of the King James Bible is that it stands as one of the few great accomplishments achieved by a committee. At the same time, some commentators have wondered why William Shakespeare was apparently not included among the fifty-four translators chosen. After all, Shakespeare had already written Macbeth in honor of King James (who also fancied himself an expert on witchcraft), and what better committee member could one ask for than the greatest poet of his age to work with the greatest collection of religious literature of all ages?

But an intriguing peculiarity in the King James Bible indicates that Shakespeare was not entirely absent from the monumental project. No one knows who made the astonishing discovery or how on earth he or she did it.

In 1610, the year of the most intensive work on the translation, Shakespeare was forty-six years old. Given this clue, we turn to the forty-sixth psalm as it appears in the King James Bible. Count down to the forty-sixth word from the beginning and then count up to the forty-sixth word from the end, excluding the cadential Selah.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;

Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. Selah.

There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High.

God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early.

The heathen raged, the kingdoms were moved: he uttered his voice, the earth melted.

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.

Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations he hath made in the earth.

He maketh wars to cease unto the end of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in the fire.

Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.

The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah.
If you counted accurately, your finger eventually lit upon the two words, shake and spear. Shakespeare. Whether or not he created the majesty of the forty-sixth psalm, he is in it. Whether the embedded shake spear is a purposeful plant of the product of happy chance, the name of the world's most famous poet reposes cunningly in the text of the world's most famous translation.

The human brain seeks so intently for patterns that it often finds patterns where none exists. The Law of Large Numbers is also clearly at work. But still. Forty-sixth birthday, forty-sixth Psalm, forty sixth word (beginning and end)? Really? Sure makes you want to see significance in something that theoretically ought to be jsut random chance.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Well-meaning but without understanding

From Justice Louis Brandeis dissenting, Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928).
Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.
We suffer a surfeit of zeal and a deficit of real comprehension. Watch out when zeal for action outstrips comprehension.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable

I have just finished reading Diane Ravitch's The Language Police in which she chronicles the pernicious exercise of direct and indirect censorship of texts that are used in the education of our children, the censorship occurring from both social conservatives (trying to maintain traditions and standards) and social progressives (trying to advance new behaviors and habits of thought) and the censorship being exercised directly by text selection committees as well as indirectly by authors and publishers in anticipation of issues. Ravitch's contention, with which I empathize and suspect is correct but for which she does not provide empirical evidence, is that such skewing of text selection, and bowdlerizing of those texts that do get through, leads to exceptionally dull, uninformative, and misleading information. There is a shadow of an argument being made that such pablum as makes it into textbooks is contributative to declining academic scores and achievements.

The central contention, for both the social conservative and the social progressive, is that which was made made by Plato (or perhaps Socrates via Plato) in Book II of The Republic, and that is that for a young child, "anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable." The logical case is made admirably in the dialogue below. The question is, after 2,500 years, do we have any empirical evidence indicating the degree to which a child is indelibly marked by what they read? A better question might be "To what degree is a child's behavior and decision-making influenced, and in what manner, by the things to which they are exposed, in particular stories and books?"

I do believe that particular stories read by a particular child at a particular time under particular circumstances can have an indelible influence on that child and shape their future. But I do not believe we have a model that allows us to predict what will be the likely outcome on a child from reading which stories in what sequence at what age under which circumstances by what type of child.

Without such a predictive model, we are in the cognitive dark ages. How is a well intentioned parent to select what might be beneficial for their child's cognitive, intellectual, moral and behavorial development? Right now it appears to me that we have lots of discussion, opinions, and energy and virtually none of it based on anything even approaching an empirical base.

We are, with respect to reading, in much the same quandry as we are regarding technological progress. We have a strong sense that in the aggregate the scientific method and technological progress have been conducive to the improvement of human life. At the same time, we are extremely leery about the possible consequences of technological progress, regarding it at least as Janus-faced if not further as a two-edged sword. Dynamite has allowed the construction of buildings and railroads and highways which have sheltered and allowed the feeding of masses of people not otherwise easily fed or sheltered. But we also know that the chemistry of explosives has facilitated immense destruction.

So if we are to harvest the best outcomes from the habit of reading, we would be well advised to seek to find ways to empirically understand the mechanisms of the why, what, where, when, when, who and which of reading. Correspondingly, both social conservatives and social progressives ought to heed Seneca's counsel that
Some false things bear the semblance of truth. We should always allow some time to elapse, for time discloses the truth.
We need some good model regarding book and story selection for children and we seem, despite innumerable practitioners and gargantuan budgets, to have scarcely a clue.

The discussion in the Republic sets the precedent for this still unresolved issue. We all agree on the importance of reading but we don't really know how or why. Plato, Book II, The Republic.
You know also that the beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing; for that is the time at which the character is being formed and the desired impression is more readily taken.

Quite true.

And shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they are grown up?

We cannot.

Then the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction, and let the censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad; and we will desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorised ones only. Let them fashion the mind with such tales, even more fondly than they mould the body with their hands; but most of those which are now in use must be discarded.

Of what tales are you speaking? he said.

You may find a model of the lesser in the greater, I said; for they are necessarily of the same type, and there is the same spirit in both of them.

Very likely, he replied; but I do not as yet know what you would term the greater.

Those, I said, which are narrated by Homer and Hesiod, and the rest of the poets, who have ever been the great story-tellers of mankind.

But which stories do you mean, he said; and what fault do you find with them?

A fault which is most serious, I said; the fault of telling a lie, and, what is more, a bad lie.

But when is this fault committed?

Whenever an erroneous representation is made of the nature of gods and heroes,—as when a painter paints a portrait not having the shadow of a likeness to the original.

Yes, he said, that sort of thing is certainly very blameable; but what are the stories which you mean?

First of all, I said, there was that greatest of all lies in high places, which the poet told about Uranus, and which was a bad lie too,—I mean what Hesiod says that Uranus did, and how Cronus retaliated on him. The doings of Cronus, and the sufferings which in turn his son inflicted upon him, even if they were true, ought certainly not to be lightly told to young and thoughtless persons; if possible, they had better be buried in silence. But if there is an absolute necessity for their mention, a chosen few might hear them in a mystery, and they should sacrifice not a common (Eleusinian) pig, but some huge and unprocurable victim; and then the number of the hearers will be very few indeed.

Why, yes, said he, those stories are extremely objectionable.

Yes, Adeimantus, they are stories not to be repeated in our State; the young man should not be told that in committing the worst of crimes he is far from doing anything outrageous; and that even if he chastises his father when he does wrong, in whatever manner, he will only be following the example of the first and greatest among the gods.

I entirely agree with you, he said; in my opinion those stories are quite unfit to be repeated.

Neither, if we mean our future guardians to regard the habit of quarrelling among themselves as of all things the basest, should any word be said to them of the wars in heaven, and of the plots and fightings of the gods against one another, for they are not true. No, we shall never mention the battles of the giants, or let them be embroidered on garments; and we shall be silent about the innumerable other quarrels of gods and heroes with their friends and relatives. If they would only believe us we would tell them that quarrelling is unholy, and that never up to this time has there been any quarrel between citizens; this is what old men and old women should begin by telling children; and when they grow up, the poets also should be told to compose for them in a similar spirit. But the narrative of Hephaestus binding Here his mother, or how on another occasion Zeus sent him flying for taking her part when she was being beaten, and all the battles of the gods in Homer—these tales must not be admitted into our State, whether they are supposed to have an allegorical meaning or not. For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Time discovers truth

Seneca in his work, De Ira (On Anger): Book 2, cap. 22, line 2
Contra primus itaque causas pugnare debemus; causa autem iracundiae opinio iniuriae est, cui non facile credendum est. Ne apertis quidem manifestisque statim accedendum; quaedam enim falsa ueri speciem ferunt. Dandum semper est tempus: ueritatem dies aperit.

The cause of anger is the belief that we are injured; this belief, therefore, should not be lightly entertained. We ought not to fly into a rage even when the injury appears to be open and distinct: for some false things bear the semblance of truth. We should always allow some time to elapse, for time discloses the truth.
A common alternate translation of the final words is: Time discovers truth.

In our instant news cycle, it seems as if this classical warning ought to be hung in every newsroom and over every blogger's keyboard. Too many people seem too quick to seek too great offense over the least little bit of nothing (to use a phrase of my mother's). Manufactured outrage seems so prevalent but it is just another form of cognitive pollution.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Everyone does not know everyone else

From The Origin of Cosnciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, page 149.
Civilization is the art of living in towns of such size that everyone does not know everyone else.

Friday, August 10, 2012

We are currently not monitoring the situation

300 Million Without Electricity In India After Restoration Of Power Grid from The Onion. Reminding us of how powerful satire can be in recalibrating our perspective; particularly when the satire is based on the truth.
NEW DELHI—According to estimates, roughly one-third of a billion Indian citizens were left without power Wednesday after workers successfully repaired the nation's electrical grid and brought all of its systems back online. "Since restoring our infrastructure to 100 percent capacity following Monday and Tuesday's blackouts, vast swaths of India are now completely without access to electricity," said the country's power minister, Veerappa Moily, who confirmed that three out of every four residents lacked access to such basic amenities as lighting, food refrigeration, and the use of simple appliances now that the country's grid had fully recovered. "We are currently not monitoring the situation, as everything appears to be functioning normally again in India." Government officials also stated that the widespread power outage had in no way compromised their ability to provide adequate sanitation to 31 percent of India's citizens

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Shakespeare made up more than 8.5 percent of his written vocabulary

From The Miracle of Language by Richard Lederer, page 93.

It is not enough that something be interesting or beautiful but that I want to find a pattern related to it or to quantify it as well. The aesthetic geek perhaps. Lederer speaks to the aesthetic geek.
An often neglected aspect of William Shakespeare's genius is that his words, as well as his works, were not just of an age, but for all time. He was, quite simply, the greatest wordmaker who ever lived. On-going research demonstrates that there are 20,138 lemmata (dictionary headwords) in Shakespeare's published works. That figure represents approximately forty percent of the total recorded for the English language up to the year 1623 - and Shakespeare could not have owned any dictionary in which he could have looked up these words! For purposes of comparison bear in mind that the written vocabulary of Homer totals approximately nine thousand words, of the King James Bible eight thousand, and of Milton ten thousand.

Of the 20,138 basewords that Shakespeare employs in his plays, sonnets, and other poems, his is the first known use of over 1,700 of them. The most verbally innovative of our authors and our all-time champion neologizer, Shakespeare made up more than 8.5 percent of his written vocabulary. Reading his works is like witnessing the birth of language itself.

This is almost inconceivable. Under what circumstances would anyone today read anyone who made up 9% of their own words? How would such an author even be perceived?

From a different perspective, how many people ever create something that lives on after them (other than in a biological fashion) that both ensure that their name remains in circulation and that continues to be used by millions or hundreds of millions. Shakespeare stands alone in so many ways.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The world we perceive is the world we see through words

From The Miracle of Language by Richard Lederer, page 9.
What do the stories of Helen Keller, Richard Wright, Malcolm X, and Anne Frank say to us? They tell us that the world we perceive is the world we see through words. They tell us, as Wittgenstein once wrote, that "of what we cannot speak, we must be silent." They tell us that human beings grapple with the mystery of life by trying to find words to say what it is. They tell us that we must never take for granted the miracle of language.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Narrative stories versus empirical stories

A riff based on my posts on decision-making (Requires Imagining Various Scenarios) , argument assessment (Identifying Cognitive Pollution, Good Storytelling and Bad Argument, How to Assess a Piece of Writing), and narrative versus empirical arguments (Success and Inevitability).

At the end of July 2012, candidate Romney took a trip overseas which generated heated partisan assessments. One argument was dominant (example - Mitt Romney wraps up tumultuous overseas tour by Dan Balz and Philip Rucker) – he’s not ready for prime time, he’s gaffe ridden, etc. The other argument (Charles Krauthammer, Romney’s Excellent Trip) was only infrequently made at all. In the scheme of things, this is a relatively inconsequential issue. Whether the Romney trip was successful, unsuccessful or irrelevant probably won’t be known for a good while. What caught my eye was that the argument that the trip was a failure was largely narrative driven, the creation of a recognizable story that fits some sort of comprehendible pattern with which people can affiliate. In contrast, the sole account I have seen that took the contra view, that the trip was a success, was an argument more constructed on empiricism and data.

As yet a further diversion, one of the issues generated in the narrative version of the reporting was a comment made by Romney in Jerusalem to the effect that Israel’s success was an example of the difference which culture makes in achievement. Rather an innocuous statement as the role of culture in long term economic or civilizational success is a mainstay in the fields of history and economics. Of course, those to whose achievements Israel’s were being contrasted, the Palestinians, were not unnaturally incensed which in turn made for good narrative copy. Jared Diamond (Mitt Romney 'Misrepresented My Views' by Luke Johnson) and Daron Acemoglu (Uncultured by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson) piled on, arguing for their preferred theories of economic success.

On this particular issue (what are the elements which cause some economies to be hugely productive and others not), what is notable is that there is no consensus regarding what are the critical elements necessary for development, what are the weightings of those elements (which ones are more important than others), and how do they fit together to ensure economic development. Legitimate candidates are Values (McCloskey), Culture (Clark, Huntington and others), Geography (Diamond), Institutions (Anceou), Property Rights (de Soto), etc. The frank truth is that all these elements are probably critical (and perhaps a handful more) but that we really don’t know their relative weightings. This is one of those areas where predictable forecasting does not exist and though everyone has their own opinions, no one can reliably prove the efficacy of their particular viewpoint. We are at a knowledge frontier. To claim that someone, advancing the hypothesis that culture is a dominant if not the predominant factor in societal success, is wrong is simply hubris. They can only be wrong if we know the definitive answer and their explanation is inconsistent with that answer. Everyone has good reasons for their preferred explanation but the argument about economic development is not even close to being settled. No one is wrong, everyone is still searching and arguing.

But back to the main point of the contrasting news reports and their structure. The contrast got me to thinking. I overdramatize the difference between the two responses exemplified by Rucker/Balz and Krauthammer when I characterize the former as primarily a narrative account and the latter as an empirical argument but it is a useful dramatization.

Rucker/Balz and their ilk create a narrative structure. I suggest that in reporting or discussing any phenomenon, there is a hierarchy of questions. These questions can be answered in narrative form or in empirical form.

Ultimately, the narrative answers have to be reconciled with and incorporate the empirical answers so that they complete the discussion pyramid.

For a narrative hierarchy of questions to work and have credibility, there has to be a logical integrity between the layers of the pyramid. What happened has to be logically explained in words by the mechanics of how it happened and why it happened. At the bottom come the contextual questions of who was involved, when did it happen, where did it happen, which thing was chosen. As long as the statements are logically consistent with one another (a constructed narrative), the entire story has credibility. When approaching a story from a narrative perspective, there are powerful constraints and a close-ended goal – there has to be a familiar pattern, a tension and a consistency. Confirmation bias disposes us towards powerful narratives, (see my account regarding Stephen Jay Gould and The Mismeasure of Man), causing us to overlook factual concerns in deferment to narrative consistency. When someone starts with an existing narrative template, they seek 1) to ensure that there is consistency between the different question levels and then 2) that it is bolstered with available empirical facts.

The advantage of the narrative approach is that it appeals to many people and there is a certain efficiency to it. When people are familiar with the narrative templates, they fill in the blanks automatically (ex. Whatever the argument does not supply, the paradigm conveniently fills in). Narratives are very efficient and effective at communicating an idea. Their weakness is that the empirical data may not be there to support the conclusion being sought. Starting with the narrative, one then cherry picks the data to support it. So what you gain in efficiency of communication, you lose in integrity of argument.

In contrast, an empirical hierarchy of questions is really focused on provable statements and measured outcomes. The different levels of questions do not have to be consistent with one another. As long as there are inconsistencies, there are new questions to be asked. What actually happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? There is much more of this in Krauthammer’s article which is why I characterize it as an empirical based article. Empirical stories are open ended. A portfolio of facts exists or are created followed by an attempt to knit them together so that there is some sort of connectivity between them. The strength of the empirical story is that it is bounded by reality but in attempting to connect disparate facts, it requires leaps of imagination and speculative thought. On the other hand, facts absent narrative structure tend not to engage a wide audience. What you gain in utility and creativity, you lose in audience.

Ultimately the narrative and the empirical stories have to come together. Either on their own can be persuasive but both are subject to significant error and tunnel vision. When the empirical story is married to the narrative story, neither survives as cleanly as they appeared when first presented. Which is fit. Life is messy and we never fully understand complex things when we first encounter them. The discipline of holding the narrative to the empirical facts improves the narrative. Establishing speculative links between empirical facts in order to craft a narrative, enriches the empirical questions.

As readers, our constant challenge is three-fold. 1) To discern which stories have their root in a pre-existing narratives, 2) To identify those stories whose roots are in a portfolio of facts cobbled together to create a story and 3) Tying either or both back to the Discussion Pyramid in order to get to answers.

This train of thought calls to mind the old adage about translations – If true, not beautiful, If beautiful not true. In the context of narrative versus empirical reporting it would take a slightly different form. If engaging then not accurate; if accurate then not engaging.

Let’s go back to the provocative observation of the contrast between articles describing Romney’s international travels. Most were pre-established narratives with a smattering of empirical information. At least one was more of an empirical story. Both sets were incomplete in terms of supporting a robust Discussion Pyramid. While I don’t think the actual event warrants the time or effort on the part of a general reader to try and reach some sort of proposition regarding an interpretation of the success or failure of the trip, the contrast of the articles does serve as a call to maintain awareness of the different strengths and weaknesses of narrative stories versus empirical stories.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Discussion Pyramid

Below is a representation of the Discussion Pyramid which I have found to be useful working with groups and teams trying to reach agreement on some issue or proposition. I introduce it here because it is relevant to an upcoming post. It is relevant to children’s reading because much of the information that children imbibe is only beneficial to the degree that it is used and the Discussion Pyramid helps people organize their thoughts, facts and narratives towards some end which can be communicated with others who might not share the same assumptions or goals.

The faster we can determine where two parties disagree, the easier it becomes to determine what can actually be achieved. The Discussion Pyramid serves two functions. As a diagnostic tool, it allows a group to find where it is that they are talking at cross-purposes with one another, thus allowing them to resolve that which is most important. It also helps avoid unintended consequences arising when different parties understand different facts or assumptions differently.

The second function that the Discussion Pyramid can serve is as a prospective tool of determining how to make an argument or proposition. Given audience X, and what I think they know or assume, what are the elements of the story or analytical argument which I need to emphasize or elaborate and which ones can I skate over.

In both instances, the Discussion Pyramid functions to improve communication between heterogeneous individuals or groups towards some productive end.

The pivot point, at the top of the pyramid is some hypothesis, proposition or argument. Simply establishing the terms of the argument can be the bulk of the exercise. Many, many teams spend inordinate amounts of time working at cross purposes because they failed to establish a common and shared understanding of the argument.

At the base of the pyramid is the second most critical set of activities which is to inventory what are the assumptions, definitions, context, constraints, implications, measures, and trade-offs relevant to the argument. An example might be useful. Let’s start with a simple proposition – It is helpful to children to read a lot. Sounds straight-forward and uncontroversial.

But what do we mean by helpful? Fun, useful for something now, useful for later in life, etc.? Helpful to whom? Parent or child? What do we include in reading? Advertisements, comic books, traditional books, e-books? What is a lot of reading? An absolute amount (3 books a month) or a relative amount (more than their classmates)? These may sound pedantic questions but having a clear proposition which everyone understands saves enormous amounts of time. A refined argument might look something like: Habitual and voluminous reading during childhood encourages knowledge acquisition, empathy, and imagination and can foster desirable values and behavior traits which will increase the chances of a child being successful later in life (by such traditional measures as health, education attainment, and income).

So if that is the argument, what are some of the often unstated assumptions, context, definitions, constraints, implications, trade-offs, and measures. Several have already been alluded to. Define book, define reading, define success, etc. How would you measure voluminous reading? Pages per day, words per minute, books per month? Do assigned school books get counted or just books that are read electively. What is the context? Is the child in a reading family or a family of non-readers? Are they near or far from a library? Do they have the financial wherewithal to purchase books or not? Are there siblings? Are there extended family members? Is it assumed that it is an intact family or single parent? Much talking or little? Much schoolwork or little? Much time spent on TV, computer, activities or little? Is there much time that can be spent on reading? If more time is spent reading, what other activity will get less time? Is there a risk that if the child starts reading more enthusiastically that they will be the target of bullying? Etc.

Once the argument is established with clarity and once an inventory of assumptions, definitions, measures, etc. has been taken, then the five critical questions become much easier to answer.
Is it real? – What empirical evidence exists that supports the argument that habitual and voluminous reading . . . increases the chances of a child being successful?

Do we understand the causes? – Is habitual and voluminous reading actually causing success or are there traits associated with reading (focus, diligence, vocabulary, etc.) which are the actual enablers of success? What causes what?

Can we change it? – If a child is not currently an enthusiastic reader, what are the actions we can take which we are confident will successfully make them an enthusiastic reader?

Is it important? - Is enthusiastic reading associated with a 3% increase in future education attainment or income levels, a 30% increase, 300%?

Is it worth it? – Whatever the increase, is that anticipated increase worthwhile given the time, cost and effort that might be required to foster an enthusiasm for reading?
As you can see, most of the cognitive legwork is in clarifying the argument and then defining terms, measures, et al. Once those two major tasks are accomplished, there is still work to be done to gather the necessary information to answer the five questions but answering them is a very focused exercise. It is very common for teams to discover that their shared assumptions about the reality of something or their shared assumptions about causes are entirely misplaced. While that is frustrating, it also materially reduces risk.

The Discussion Pyramid is simply a tool for organizing activities, discussions and thinking in a fashion that will help people move towards clear communication, agreement and effective action faster and easier.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

I like how you punctuate ignorance with certainty

Always a fan of Scott Adams' Dilbert.

I find that kids 12-18 cotton to Adams and I suspect he gives them some level of awareness of the differences between the way the world theoretically ought to work and the way that the world actually does work. Casual Day Has Gone Too Far,Another Day in Cubicle Paradise, and When Did Ignorance Become a Point of View, are all forays into the adult world of office work that are likely to both sustain a reading habit as well as introduce a young adult to experiences and truths that will catch up with them at some point.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

I swear he's like a lamp

From The Miracle of Language by Richard Lederer, page 92.
What do these three sentences have in common?
Has Will a peer, I ask me.
I swear he's like a lamp.
We all make his praise.
Each is an anagram that uses all the letters in the name William Shakespeare, and each captures a luminous truth; Peerless Will Shakespeare shines through the centuries and inspires our praise.
I love word and number games. There is a mystical joy that comes from exercises such as these. How is it possible that eleven letters of an individual's name can be arranged in such a fashion as to craft three reasonably clear sentences that also speak a truth about the individual bearing that name?

I'm shocked, shocked . . .

An interesting take on the recent controversy regarding the journalist Jonah Lehrer (whose book How We Decide, I enjoyed) and the ethical obligations of a journalist when quoting someone. Jonah Lehrer, Bob Dylan, and journalistic unquotations by Mark Liberman.
I was shocked to read that Jonah Lehrer had quit his job at the New Yorker, after admitting that he fabricated some quotations from Bob Dylan in his recent book Imagine: How Creativity Works. I was shocked because what Lehrer did is consistent with the standard behavior of journalists, though perhaps not with the official story of what this behavior is supposed to be like. But the actual practice, in which journalists often put between quotation marks whatever representation of a source's opinions they feel that their narrative needs, was validated by judicial decision in a famous case involving another New Yorker writer 25 years ago — someone who is still on the magazine's staff.
Liberman looks at this as an issue of the severity of consequences (Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker) versus the empirical reality that journalists are known to routinely and consciously misquote subjects. He is surprised that Lehrer is taking a fall when we know and expect that the same sin has been committed by many or most other journalists without consequence to them. That is a fair point. But I think it misses the real point though.

I would argue that the issue is not a tactical one regarding whether journalists get their facts right. We all know that to a greater or lesser degree, most journalists get much of their reporting wrong (see You turn the page, and forget what you know discussing Michael Crichton's Gell-Mann Amnesia effect), including, likely, the quotations.

However, in our modern, volatile, fast-paced and complex environment, we are increasingly dependent on accurate information. We know that much of what we read in the papers (the first draft of history) will be incorrect and we make that allowance. Many of us may be concerned that what we read in the papers is desperately anemic, reflecting a cultural homogeneity of its writers. Much of what is written is dependent on a worldview not shared or validated by the lives of most other people. We make allowances for that as well.

This difference in worldview is frequently cast in left versus right terms but I suspect it is really about the narrowness of the cultural milieu of the writers - they are virtually all from middle-class backgrounds, they are all university educated, they virtually all live in cities, they are all white-collar knowledge workers, and they virtually all earn (the established ones) three or four times more than the average household. They can't help but be rather unrepresentative of the rest of the world as experienced by their readers. They can't help but have assumptions and beliefs not shared by others.

So we make allowances for error and for bias when it comes to individuals responsible for delivering truthful information about complex issues.

What we don't tolerate, and I believe this to be the issue for Lehrer (and Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass, and Michael Bellesiles, etc.) is for the journalist to intentionally mislead us. The noise-to-signal ratio is already too high for most of us. For a journalist to increase it yet further with deliberate inaccuracies or misrepresentations, whether owing to laziness or working in support of some unstated agenda, is a transgression too far.

As we move into this modern connected world of always connected, always on, and an inundation of information, we set greater and greater store upon Trust and Truth. Those whom we trust are expected to tell the truth and those that are found wanting are generally cleansed from the information eco-system. They are no longer trusted to be purveyors of truth.

Friday, August 3, 2012

I must conclude, however unlikely the conclusion seems, that you have a taste for middle-aged moralising.

From The Inner Ring by C. S. Lewis, Memorial Lecture at King’s College, University of London, in 1944.

A very manageable address that I recommend in its entirety.
When you invite a middle-aged moralist to address you, I suppose I must conclude, however unlikely the conclusion seems, that you have a taste for middle-aged moralising. I shall do my best to gratify it. I shall in fact, give you advice about the world in which you are going to live. I do not mean by this that I am going to talk on what are called current affairs. You probably know quite as much about them as I do. I am not going to tell you—except in a form so general that you will hardly recognise it—what part you ought to play in post-war reconstruction.

It is not, in fact, very likely that any of you will be able, in the next ten years, to make any direct contribution to the peace or prosperity of Europe. You will be busy finding jobs, getting married, acquiring facts. I am going to do something more old-fashioned than you perhaps expected. I am going to give advice. I am going to issue warnings. Advice and warnings about things which are so perennial that no one calls them “current affairs.”

And of course everyone knows what a middle-aged moralist of my type warns his juniors against. He warns them against the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. But one of this trio will be enough to deal with today. The Devil, I shall leave strictly alone. The association between him and me in the public mind has already gone quite as deep as I wish: in some quarters it has already reached the level of confusion, if not of identification. I begin to realise the truth of the old proverb that he who sups with that formidable host needs a long spoon. As for the Flesh, you must be very abnormal young people if you do not know quite as much about it as I do. But on the World I think I have something to say.

In the passage I have just read from Tolstoy, the young second lieutenant Boris Dubretskoi discovers that there exist in the army two different systems or hierarchies. The one is printed in some little red book and anyone can easily read it up. It also remains constant. A general is always superior to a colonel, and a colonel to a captain. The other is not printed anywhere. Nor is it even a formally organised secret society with officers and rules which you would be told after you had been admitted. You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it; and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it.

There are what correspond to passwords, but they are too spontaneous and informal. A particular slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation, are the marks. But it is not so constant. It is not easy, even at a given moment, to say who is inside and who is outside. Some people are obviously in and some are obviously out, but there are always several on the borderline. And if you come back to the same Divisional Headquarters, or Brigade Headquarters, or the same regiment or even the same company, after six weeks’ absence, you may find this secondary hierarchy quite altered.

There are no formal admissions or expulsions. People think they are in it after they have in fact been pushed out of it, or before they have been allowed in: this provides great amusement for those who are really inside. It has no fixed name. The only certain rule is that the insiders and outsiders call it by different names. From inside it may be designated, in simple cases, by mere enumeration: it may be called “You and Tony and me.” When it is very secure and comparatively stable in membership it calls itself “we.” When it has to be expanded to meet a particular emergency it calls itself “all the sensible people at this place.” From outside, if you have dispaired of getting into it, you call it “That gang” or “they” or “So-and-so and his set” or “The Caucus” or “The Inner Ring.” If you are a candidate for admission you probably don’t call it anything. To discuss it with the other outsiders would make you feel outside yourself. And to mention talking to the man who is inside, and who may help you if this present conversation goes well, would be madness.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human

You know, I really should carve out some time to read some Robert Heinlein. I keep running across quotes from him that ring true but he just was never a part of my library growing up. Some of the things I come across seem militaristic or over-the-top judgmental but they also are sometimes admirably plain-spoken. For example.
Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe and not make messes in the house.
From Time Enough for Love by Robert Heinlein.

Too strident by far but also scarily true in today's complex global economy. If you don't have a fundamental grasp of mathematics, and particularly statistics, you are almost perforce not part of the conversation.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The English language hasn't got where it is by being pure

From The Miracle of Language by Richard Lederer, page 24. A couple of passages touch on elements pertinent to my suspicion that language is subject to many of the same types of forces such as variation and selection as described by Darwin. In this instance, Lederer first addresses the catholicity of English. On the one hand, there is an immense vocabulary that lends itself to exquisite nuance and precision.
It is often said that what most immediately sets English apart from other languages is the richness of its vocabulary. Webster's Third New International Dictionary lists 450,000 words, and the compendious Oxford English Dictionary lists 615,000, but that is only part of the total. Technical and scientific terms, family words, slang and argot, and spanking-new creations, unenshrined in ordinary dictionaries, would add hundreds of thousands more, bringing the total of entries to as high as two million. In comparison, German, according to traditional estimates, has a vocabulary of about 185,000, Russian 130,000, and French fewer than 100,000.

One reason English has accumulated such a vast word hoard is that it is the most hospitable and democratic language that has ever existed. English has never rejected a word because of its race, creed, or national origin. Having welcomed into its vocabulary words from a multitude of other languages and dialects, ancient and modern, far and near, English is unique in the number and variety of its borrowed words. Fewer than thirty percent of our words spring from the original Anglo-Saxon word stock; the rest are imported. As the poet Carl Sandburg once said, "The English language hasn't got where it is by being pure."
On the other hand, English is also extremely efficient.
The great nineteenth-century linguist Jakob Grimm wrote, "In richness, good sense, and terse convenience, no other living language may be put beside English." By "terse convenience" Grimm meant that ours is a strikingly direct and concise tongue. Translate a document from English into French or Spanish or German or Russian, and the translation, if true to the original, will emerge about twenty-five percent longer. Examine bilingual signs and messages and you will find that the English half is inevitably more compact.


A careful count of the number of syllables needed to translate the Gospel according to Mark into various languages indicates that, compared to other tongues, brevity is the soul of English:
English 29,000
Teutonic languages (average) 32,650
French 36,500
Slavic languages (average) 36,500
Romance languages (average) 40,200
Indo-Iranian languages (average) 43,100
So English is both a language of great precision as well as brevity. It is much easier to communicate an exact message more efficiently. Nearly 30% more efficiently compared to Indo-Iranian languages. Does that make a difference? Could do. Assume that the effort in communicating is directly proportionate to productivity (as a hypothetical). In that case, 30% more efficient communication translates into 30% greater productivity. Is the English language farmer who sets aside 130 baskets of wheat more likely to make it through the winter than the Indo-Iranian farmer with only 100 baskets? Sure.

Now all that is built on a fairly weak foundation of assumptions but the underlying principle that efficiency of communication likely has a material impact on both productivity as well as on survival is, I think, sound. Certainly in manufacturing and business management, when you design processes to optimize efficiency and effectiveness (precision), you usually see a compounding effect. One small improvement here allows a slightly larger improvement over there - pretty soon you see a cascade of productivity improvement. Is language the same? I favor the idea that it is.