Sunday, September 30, 2012

There are problems that the government can fix, but the problem of people not liking to be in the bottom of the distribution is not among them

From What Does it Mean to Be Poor? by Megan McArdle.
Ever since that report, it's been conservatives on one side, pointing to the consumption data, while liberals retort that there is more to life than flat screen televisions. And I'd say that both sides have a point. When you look at what people are consuming, you don't see the gross material deprivation that really used to characterize being poor, like lack of hot water, regularly having no food in the house, shivering yourself to sleep in the cold, or wearing patched (or worse, unpatched) clothes. Younger poor people quite frequently have things that older non-poor people consider nonessential luxuries, like cable or satellite television, expensive sneakers, and high-end cellular phones. On the other hand, it's still really terrible to be poor, and there are quite clearly rather a lot of people suffering this terribleness.

So how do we reconcile these two observations? There's what I'd call the implicit conservative view, which is that poor people are not so much lacking in money, as lacking in the self-discipline to spend their money wisely. This view is reinforced by the fact that a lot of immigrants do arrive here with even less than the native poor, often don't qualify for supplemental benefits that cushion the deprivation of the native poor, and nonetheless after a generation or two end up quite prosperous. This Bryan Caplan post is a fairly strong version of that argument.

I think it's hard to disagree that the poor could stop being poor--at least as the US currently defines poverty--if they behaved differently; it's basically numerically impossible to fall under the poverty line if you finish high school, wait to have children until you get married, and both work full time. On the other hand, as I wrote a while back, I think this ignores the evidence that when you are poor--"which is to say", noted George Orwell of unemployed coal miners, "when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable"--it is actually much harder to make those choices than Bryan seems to imagine. Which is why the poor of Orwell's England also struggled with things like obesity and dental decay from consuming too much sugar and not enough vegetables; it is hard to get interested in dieting if a sugar high is the nicest thing that ever happens to you.

There's also what I'd call the implicit left view, which is that, as Jesus said, "The poor, you will always have with you." This Noah Smith post on poverty in Japan seems to encapsulate it pretty well. In response to Caplan, Smith argues out that about 16% of the Japanese seem to be poor, even though they are notoriously crime free, averse to single parenthood, and not big drinkers or drug users. These are people who work, but need to scrimp on things like food, and eschew vacations, in order to afford even more necessary items such as medical care and school uniforms. “Poverty in a prosperous society usually does not mean living in rags on a dirt floor,” Tokyo social welfare professor Masami Iwata told the New York Times. “These are people with cellphones and cars, but they are cut off from the rest of society.”

I take the point. The minimum decent living standard--aka the poverty line--does rise along with national wealth. In 1900, many middle class families may have lacked a telephone. But by 1980, not having a telephone indeed meant that you were "cut off from the rest of society". It's hard to even look for a job if you cannot put a phone number on a resume. Similarly, now that we do not have an elaborate infrastructure for feeding and sheltering horses, or a place that they may be easily and safely driven to town, some sort of car is a minimum requirement for living in many places.

And yet, this sort of observation often comes dangerously close to the trivially true point that there is a bottom of the income distribution. If you simply define the bottom 15% or so of society as poor, you will have gained definitional clarity, but at the expense of moral clarity on the required response. There's a bottom 15% of the income distribution at Davos every year, yet I would not contribute to a charity which promised to help those unfortunates. There are problems that the government can fix, but the problem of people not liking to be in the bottom of the distribution is not among them. At least, not short of a sort of radical communism that not even the radical communists managed to actually implement.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

They come in, clobber you over the head, and then go away

From Once Upon a Time: The lure of the fairy tale by Joan Acocella, a rambling essay with some interesting publishing history and recounting the changing critical assessment over time of the Grimm's Fairy Tales.

A quite interesting story about academia's fraught relationship with children's literature in general and fairy tales in particular. Acocella does not really address the perennial allure of fairy tales. Her article might be better subtitled: Once Upon a Time: The lure of the fairy tale to the febrile imagination of academics.
In sum, the Grimm tales contain almost no psychology—a fact underlined by their brevity. However much detail Wilhelm added, the stories are still extremely short. Jack Zipes’s translation of “Rapunzel” is three pages long, “The Twelve Brothers” five, “Little Red Riding Hood” less than four. They come in, clobber you over the head, and then go away. As with sections of the Bible, the conciseness makes them seem more profound.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The stiffer the social or legal punishment, the steeper the burden of proof that accusers must climb

From The Cost of Costly Punishment by Megan McArdle. An excellent article articulating how trade-offs are at the heart of the most interesting and challenging decisions. We don't like the choices and yet a choice has to be made.

Separate from the point of the article is the juxtaposition of two different writers discussing the same topic from entirely different vantages. I enjoy Malcolm Gladwell but as I indicated some time ago, you can't trust his writing. He is compelling and writes about interesting issues in a persuasive fashion. But if you step away from the emotional narrative and look at his arguments from a logical perspective and you examine his evidence with a modicum of skepticism, you discover that his gift for writing well is the key variable in his articles; not his actual arguments.

I would view Gladwell as making arguments by infusing selective data and research into a literary narrative. Gladwell sees a putative pattern in the environment and then communicates it artistically.

McArdle on the other hand, also looks for patterns in the data but rather than using pathos, she uses logos to explore the validity and implications of that pattern. She comes up with equally compelling narrative, but for my money, hers, while perhaps less literary, are the more interesting. Particularly because, following the logos, she often arrives at the unpleasant trade-off decisions we seek to avoid and which often get hidden in the weeds of a literary narrative.
Something that law-and-order hawks frequently underestimate is that when you make punishments harsher, they tend to be applied less frequently. Take probation revocation. In theory, once a pattern of probation violations is established, a judge brings the hammer down and sends the offender to jail. In practice, probation violations only get written up when there's quite a pattern of offending--5, 10, even 20 or more violations. Eventually, the probationer commits one violation too many, and their frustrated probation officer requests a revocation.

The problem is that even if there's a pattern, the actual violation that sends them to court is usually fairly trivial: they missed a probation appointment, tested dirty on a drug test, or perhaps got caught drinking a beer. You're asking a judge to send someone to prison for years over . . . what? Time management problems? A fondness for Coors Light? (Cue obvious jokes about American beer.)

In practice, the judge often declines to do so; they send the probationer back to try again. Eventually, that person is probably going to end up in jail--the failure rate of probation is disappointingly high--but it takes a long time. The result is what Mark Kleiman calls "randomized draconianism". Most of the time, when you violate, nothing happens. Only occasionally do we send you to jail. And that's inherent in the system: who imposes a five year prison term for smoking a single joint?
But the very seriousness of the crime, and the harshness of the consequences means that society is also going to want to be very, very sure that the people it punishes have actually molested children. Nor is it clear to me that this is the wrong instinct; it is worth recalling that we systematically and thoroughly ruined the lives of the Amiraults forever, based on clearly confabulated stories from children who were inadvertently coached by irresponsible therapists to accuse the Amiraults of, as the Board of Parole put it in a skeptical review of the case, "extraordinary if not bizarre allegations."

I don't really see any way around this. Some crimes should be viewed as so morally horrific that they cut one off from decent society. But society also needs to be careful about who it cuts off. It is very terrible to let a child molester keep working on new victims. But it is also very terrible to destroy the life of an innocent adult--to brand him with a label that will probably keep him from ever associating with decent people again.
In the cases of child molesting and racism, I think we've chosen the right tradeoff. (In the case of probation, I think we haven't, as I'll outline in my book). But we should understand that it's a tradeoff: the stiffer the social or legal punishment, the steeper the burden of proof that accusers must climb.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

But the intergenerational transfer of cultural capital doesn’t just happen automatically

From Selfishness as Virtue by Benjamin E. Schwartz
That is a problem, but not one that bothers Klinenberg. In the cacophony of appeals to save the planet, create jobs, reduce the national debt, and end world poverty, it’s rare to hear anyone champion the value of social reproduction. But the intergenerational transfer of cultural capital doesn’t just happen automatically. It requires time, money, space and lots of institutional support. It also requires prioritization and encouragement. While America’s columnists, talking heads and progressive intellectuals are consumed with economic growth, technological development, individual opportunity and social safety nets, few question how well America is developing the character of the next generation.

It’s no accident that so many Americans have embraced expressive individualism or that American commentators avoid discussing how well we are transferring values from one generation to the next. After all, America is the land of the free, and that freedom grew in part out of a protest against that which came before (the medieval Catholic Church, the British Crown, the ways of the “old world”). The very act of journeying from somewhere else to the New World or from established colonies to the American frontier was an act of departure even if that journey allowed for continuity in a different place. A country born of immigrants is cautious in how forcefully it speaks of the present generation’s debt to the past or its responsibility to the future. But the Founders also greatly valued organic community, understanding that the chief distinguishing feature of a free society is that it maintains order through the self-regulation of citizens living together rather than by dint of the authorities of state, the internalization of civic values being the central bulwark against the deformation of liberty into license and chaos.

Nonetheless, American individualism seems to have been fed a rich diet in recent decades. That diet has consisted of both the general infusion of market-fundamentalist metaphors in our social and intellectual life and by a range of technological innovations. Both phenomena threaten to deplete stock of social capital.2 Individualism has come to mean no limits on our freedom of maneuver, no obligations arising from a shared history, community and culture. As a matter of objective and, yes, quantitatively measurable reality, we are indeed “going solo”, and most Americans seem to be fine with that—as the generally positive reception of Klinenberg’s book seems to reflect.

The recognition that we are who we are because of our elders raises uncomfortable questions about our responsibility to future generations. If someone in my past forsook instant gratification to allow me to become who I am, does this obligate me to do the same? Am I responsible for ensuring that certain values outlast and outlive me? America’s strength is a function of many factors, but certainly one of them is that for generations citizens answered these questions affirmatively. The popularity of “going solo”, which Klinenberg’s data strongly affirms, doesn’t necessarily mean that Americans are answering “no” to these questions. It’s worse than that: As more of us spend more of our lives alone, we’re less likely to even confront them. By default, we are now allowed the novel conceit that selfishness is a virtue.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Pescriptive rules are conventions

From False Fronts in the Language Wars by Steven Pinker. A very good discussion on the tendency of people to argue strawmen and false dichotomies, in this instance with respect to language.
Nature or nurture. Love it or leave it. If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.

If you didn’t already know that euphonious dichotomies are usually phony dichotomies, you need only check out the latest round in the supposed clash between “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist” theories of language. This pseudo-controversy, a staple of literary magazines for decades, was ginned up again this month by The New Yorker, which has something of a history with the bogus battle.
The thoughtful, nondichotomous position on language depends on a simple insight: Rules of proper usage are tacit conventions. Conventions are unstated agreements within a community to abide by a single way of doing things—not because there is any inherent advantage to the choice, but because there is an advantage to everyone making the same choice. Standardized weights and measures, electrical voltages and cables, computer file formats, the Gregorian calendar, and paper currency are familiar examples.

The conventions of written prose represent a similar kind of standardization. Countless idioms, word senses, and grammatical constructions have been coined and circulated by the universe of English speakers, and linguists capture their regularities in the “descriptive rules”—that is, rules that describe how people speak and understand. A subset of these conventions has become accepted by a virtual community of literate speakers for use in nationwide forums such as government, journalism, literature, business, and academia. These are “prescriptive rules”—rules that prescribe how one ought to speak and write in these forums. Examples include the rules that govern agreement and punctuation as well as fine semantic distinctions between such word pairs as militate and mitigate or credible and credulous. Having such rules is desirable—indeed, indispensable—in many arenas of writing. They lubricate comprehension, reduce misunderstanding, provide a stable platform for the development of style and grace, and credibly signal that a writer has exercised care in crafting a passage.

Once you understand that prescriptive rules are conventions, most of the iptivist controversies evaporate.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Idiotic when viewed from any other perspectives

It is delightful that Megan McArdle is back writing after a fallow period as she transitioned from The Atlantic to Newsweek. I have missed her clear writing, rational thinking, and common sense. She is much like Thomas Sowell in that respect. From Philadelphia Wants its Eyesore Back by Megan McArdle.
It also harkens back to an old policy problem: excessively rule-bound government frequently does stuff that makes perfect sense within the rules, but is also perfectly idiotic when viewed from any other perspectives. The more we expand liability, and the tighter we wind the red tape, the more foolish outcomes like this we will see.
Every system has a tendency to accumulate unproductive elements over time. So long as there is not much external change or any external shocks, things may approach the level of unsustainability but don't usually crash over.

Government systems tend to be especially prone to this simply because it is usually shielded from agency, consequences, and to some degree resource constraints. But it is true in the competitive sector as well. Innumerable times in my consulting career I have asked why something was done a particular way (a way which seemed inefficient or ineffective) and gotten an answer along the lines of - It's always been done that way; Mr. Smith (who retired 25 years ago) set it up that way; It seemed too much trouble to change, etc. We get accustomed to the status quo and set great store on its preservation rather than figuring out how to improve it. Much success depends on fixing something and then leaving well enough alone. Except when the whole system becomes marred by just-good-enough. By the time you notice, it is often nearly too late.

Courage and fresh perspecitves are critical to every system.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The shock felt around the world

From The Next Panic: Europe’s crisis will be followed by a more devastating one, likely beginning in Japan by Peter Boone and Simon Johnson. It is all about productivity. Continued growth can only occur, all other things being equal, with increasing productivity. The importance of productivity increases if other factors such as aging of population or actual decline of population are occurring.

Debt is a useful tool for easing transitions and facilitating investments but is only viable if it leads to greater productivity. Debt taken on in order to enable current consumption is a slippery slope towards ruin. And that is what has happened in the modern developing world. Britain, if I recall correctly, pioneered government borrowing in order to fund the Napoleonic wars. Despite horrendous levels of debt incurred defeating Napoleon, the near century of peace following 1815 allowed productivity to boom and for all that debt to be managed down. That debt bought the circumstances that enabled dramatic increases in productivity.

Japan and most of Europe are now well down the financial path of ruin. Aging and soon declining populations with increasing levels of already high indebtedness married to structural deficits to fund various social programs (transfers and consumption) means that, as the article indicates, that there are dark days ahead for our fellow OECD members. China is in much the same situation with their population graying rapidly, though not yet declining.

Despite a few reprehensible outliers (California, Rhode Island, Illinois, etc.) who are in nearly as bad condition as Greece, the US is not quite at the precipice yet. The economic trauma of our allies will hurt the US economy to some degree. Backing away from structurally unsustainable obligations will hurt even more but it is not as if there is a choice. Math is a harsh mistress.
Japan’s demographic decline will be hard to reverse—and even in the best-case scenario, the positive effects of a reversal would not be felt for decades. The economy, roughly speaking, is as healthy as it is likely to become. Yet the government seems incapable of steering away from the cliff, a characteristic that should strike no one as uniquely Japanese—just look at how the Euro­pean leadership has behaved over the past half decade, or how you can polarize American politicians with the phrase debt ceiling.

A crisis in Japan would most likely manifest as a collapse of confidence in the yen: At some point, Japanese citizens will decide that saving in any yen-­denominated asset is not worth the risk. Then interest rates will rise; the capital position of banks, insurance companies, and pension funds will worsen (because they all hold long-maturing bonds, which fall in value when rates rise); and fears of insolvency will surface.
The shock felt around the world will result not just from the realization that Japan is unable to meet its pension and other social obligations. Investors will also be horrified to see the disappearance of the private savings previously used to buy government debt, whether through debt defaults and bank failures or through high inflation. For ordinary Japanese, public promises about retirement benefits and price stability will be broken just as their private savings for retirement collapse.

No one can predict the timing, but without radical political change that creates a more responsible fiscal trajectory, this will happen.

The most worrisome implication of Japan’s increasingly precarious position, particularly in the wake of the 2008 crash and Europe’s ongoing crisis, is that our financial systems appear to be returning to their inherently unstable nature, which plagued the 19th and early 20th centuries. Financial institutions back then were not too big to fail—they were too big to save. Their balance sheets dwarfed most governments’ ability and willingness to provide support.
I think Boone and Johnson paint perhaps too dark a picture but there are certainly grounds for concerns about these sort of fundamental questions. You have to produce more than you consume. If you borrow to consume, the bill will come due and you had better have the cultural and governance structures in place to make the hard decisions that come with such market adjustments to economic fundamentals.

Which brings us back to reading, storytelling, and the transference of the values, knowledge and skills that have served us well in the past and which, after a decades-long assault, will see us through to a better more productive future. Reading and books are a critical element in the revitalization, resurrection and transference of that culture. Read a book today.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Stop striving for a goal of universal eradication of the fringe that is frankly impossible

From Separating the Pseudo From Science by Michael D. Gordin. An essay exploring the intersection between argument, scientific method, knowledge, truth and the importance of variety/variation.
I have come to think of pseudoscience as science's shadow. A shadow is cast by something; it has no substance of its own. The same is true for these doctrines on the fringe. If scientists use some criterion such as peer review to demarcate, so will the fringe (creationists have peer-reviewed journals, as did Velikovskians). The brighter the light of science—that is, the greater its cultural prestige and authority—the sharper the shadow, and the more the fringe flourishes.

Fringe theories proliferate because the status of science is high and science is seen as something worth emulating. Since World War II, science has been consistently prestigious, and heterodox doctrines have proliferated, but the pattern holds in the past as well. Late Enlightenment France and Victorian Britain were high points of scientists' status, and clusters of such movements (mesmerism, spiritualism, phrenology) cropped up at these moments as well. Paradoxically, pseudoscience is a sign of health, not disease.

Shadows are also an inevitable consequence of light. Carl Sagan and other anti-Velikovskians believed that greater scientific literacy could "cure" the ill of pseudoscience. Don't get me wrong—scientific literacy is a wonderful thing, and I am committed to expanding it. But it won't eradicate the fringe, and it won't prevent the proliferation of doctrines the scientific community decries as pseudoscience.

Nevertheless, something needs to be done. Demarcation may be an activity without rules, a historically fluctuating marker of the worries of the scientific community, but it is also absolutely vital. Not everything can or should be taught in science courses in school. Not every research proposal can or should receive funds. When individuals spread falsehood and misinformation, they must be exposed.

We can sensibly build science policy only upon the consensus of the scientific community. This is not a bright line, but it is the only line we have. As a result, we need to be careful about demarcation, to notice how we do it and why we do it, and stop striving for a goal of universal eradication of the fringe that is frankly impossible. We need to learn what we are talking about when we talk about pseudoscience.

It's just a measure of the fact that you can find a lot of people who are willing to do that job

From The Merits of Merit Pay by Megan McArdle. She is addressing a common argument that confuses the perceived moral value of a job versus the market value of a job. It is economics 101 but not commonly understood and she puts it well.
We do, in fact, pay teachers pretty well relative to their level of education and hours worked. But that's a side point. The real point I wanted to make is that you hear this sort of thing all the time, and it misses a fundamental point about markets: it treats them as if the demand-side were all that mattered. In this mental model, the supply of workers is fixed, so the only thing that matters is how much we want them; the more we want them, the higher we bid their wages.

But of course, there is another side to the market: supply. And the reason that teachers are not paid as well, as, say, chartered financial analysts is that it is considerably easier to meet the requirements for being a teacher than to pass the CFA exam. It's no accident that the professions which require a lot of math pay more than the professions that are based more around reading and writing. Nor that math and science are the hardest positions to staff at most high schools.

But the majority of positions in high schools, or primary schools, are not staffed by math and science majors. They're staffed by humanities or education majors, who are relatively plentiful, and also, in less demand elsewhere in the market. With a glut of candidates, schools don't have to pay that well, and they don't.

This is not a measure of their value as people, nor of their value to society, nor even of whether society recognizes that value. It's just a measure of the fact that you can find a lot of people who are willing to do that job.

Cannot imagine the harsh and silent world I'm describing

From Don't Pick Up: Why kids need to separate from their parents by Terry Castle. Interesting. Supports the idea of the importance of boredom as a source of variation in epistemological terms.
Finally, one student—a delightful young woman whom I know to be smart and levelheaded—confesses that she talks to her mother on the cellphone at least five, maybe six, even seven times a day: We're like best friends, so I call her whenever I get out of class. She wants to know about my professors, what was the exam, so I tell her what's going on and give her, you know, updates. Sometimes my grandmother's there, and I talk to her too.

I'm stunned; I'm aghast; I'm going gaga. I must look fairly stricken too—Elektra keening over the corpse of Agamemnon—because now the whole class starts laughing at me, their strange unfathomable lady-professor, the one who doesn't own a television and obviously doesn't have any kids of her own. What a freak. "But when I was in school," I manage finally to gasp, "All we wanted to do was get away from our parents!" "We never called our parents!" "We despised our parents!" "In fact," I splutter—and this is the showstopper—"we only had one telephone in our whole dorm—in the hallway—for 50 people! If your parents called, you'd yell from your room, Tell them I'm not here!"

After this last outburst, the students too look aghast. Not to mention morally discomfited. No; these happy, busy, optimistic Stanford undergrads, so beautiful and good in their unisex T-shirts, hoodies, and J.Crew shorts; so smart, scrupulous, forward-looking, well-meaning, well-behaved, and utterly presentable—just the best and the nicest, really—simply cannot imagine the harsh and silent world I'm describing.

The idea of constant engagement is intriguing but are people simply finding an alternate way of dealing with Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus. We have a couple of thousand hours a year beyond that time necessary for work, and purposeful activities such as eating, commuting, etc. For the past few decades much of that cognitive surplus has been invested by most people in dis-engagment activities - principally TV. Neil Postman was raising the alarms on this back in 1985 in his classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

With always connected/always on devices, is some of that cognitive surplus being redirected towards virtual social engagement? Staying in touch with friends and family instead of watching TV?

Shirky characterizes pervasive societal non-productive habits as coping mechanisms. The mass movement of people from the countryside to the burgeoning but unhealthy city of London in the eighteenth century boosted national and individual productivity but was also hugely stressful. With access to cheap gin, he describes a city on a permanent bender as people escaped into a gin fog as a means of handling the stress of unfamiliar city living. In the 20th century, many would ascribe a similar mass escape into the flickering world of TV as a similar coping mechanism.

Perhaps there is a cycle here. Posit that there is always a cognitive surplus of a couple of thousand hours. Ideally people use that cognitive surplus for productive purposes. Realistically most people use it for coping purposes. What we might be seeing is a slow reduction in the destructiveness of coping mechanisms. From violence to alcoholic indulgence to drug indulgence to TV to mindless chattering. If true, that is actually beneficial.

But it doesn't address the real conundrum. Why don't people use their full capacity to improve their lives and the lives of others. Why drink, do drugs, lose one self in vacuous shows and constantly check one's friend's status? Maybe coping is just a permanent condition in an evolving environment and such activities are necessary just as is sleep after a rigorous day.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Today, Mexico exports more manufactured products than the rest of Latin America put together

I find it refreshing to come across information that tells us the world is different than we assumed. From Mexico fact(s) of the day by Tyler Cowen.
Today, Mexico exports more manufactured products than the rest of Latin America put together.
It is a little like reading as a child again when every page was an answer to an unasked question.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

We pay lots of attention to things that are almost assuredly not true

From The state of science writing, circa 2012: The summer of our discontent, made glorious by the possibilities of our time by Seth Mnookin.
After examining every newspaper report about the ten most covered research papers on ADHD from the 1990s, the authors were able to provide empirical evidence for a troubling phenomenon that seems to be all but baked in to the way our scientific culture operates: We pay lots of attention to things that are almost assuredly not true.

That might sound crazy, but consider: Because it’s sexier to discover something than to show there’s nothing to be discovered, high-impact journals show a marked preference for “initial studies” as opposed to disconfirmations. Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever worked in a research lab knows, initial observations are almost inevitably refuted or heavily attenuated by future studies — and that data tends to get printed in less prestigious journals. Newspapers, meanwhile, give lots of attention to those first, eye-catching results while spilling very little (if any) ink on the ongoing research that shows why people shouldn’t have gotten all hot and bothered in the first place.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

You need the contrast

From The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indridason, page 81. The protagonist Elendur Sveinsson is in conversation with a detective colleague who has lived a successful life and prospered but is regarded as lazy and unimaginative by his colleagues.
Erlendur looked at him, his tasteful clothes and his manicured nails, and wondered whether a happy life made people even more boring than they were to start with.
Somehow this seems to resonate with this recent article by David Owen, Scars: A Life in Injuries, well worth a read.

Owen makes the point, that the body is a canvas with the daubs and smears of its own history. Here is the scar on my cheek from the time I ran through a glass door in Nigeria; here is the scar on my forehead, a consequence of a fall from a steamroller when I was four years old in Venezuela; this almost invisible scar above my right eyebrow? Walking into the edge of a closing door while rushing between classes in grad school; all these scars on the knuckles? Enthusiastic but barely competent fencing in high school. The list goes on; a whole catalogue of stories, some remembered sharply, others a vague recollection.
Over the years, your body becomes a kind of historical document, in which certain dramatic moments are memorialized in scar tissue. There’s a blemish on my left arm that was caused by a dollop of molten G.I. Joe—the artifact of experiments that my friends and I conducted, in grade school, on the melting points of our possessions. On my right arm, I have two similar marks, made by metal pins that a surgeon inserted on either side of a broken wrist, when I was in college. (After the pins were out and the cast was off, I showed the surgeon that I couldn’t bend my right wrist as much as my left. He tapped the right wrist and said, “This is normal. The other one bends too much.”)
The connection between these two texts is the observation that the body and the mind are always a testament to some past, some parts seen in the form of scars, other parts perhaps not seen but discerned in patterns of behavior. The person with an easy and untroubled history, if there is such a person, is likely to have fewer scars, seen or unseen, and is therefore perhaps, as Indridason indicates, more boring. I am not sure but it does seem to me that much of what is interesting about others is something beyond their successes. Success without at least some scars, seen or unseen, perhaps is too bland - you need the contrast.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A loud voice and speaking persuasively

From Mortimer J. Adler, How to Speak How to Listen, page 8.
On the surface, it would appear that speaking and listening perfectly parallel writing and reading. Both pairs involve uses of language whereby one mind reaches out to another and that other responds. If one can do this well by means of the written word, why should there be any more difficulty in doing it well by means of the spoken word? If one can respond well to the written word, why cannot one respond as well to the spoken word?

The fluidity and fluency of oral discourse is the reason why that is not so. One is always able to go back over what one has read, read it again, and make a better job of it. One can improve one's reading endlessly, by reading something over and over again. I have done this in my own reading of the great books.

In writing, one is always able to revise and improve what one has written. No writer need pass on a piece of writing to someone else until he or she is satisfied that it is written as well as possible. That, too, has been part of my own experience in writing books or anything else.

In the case of both reading and writing, the essential element in the requisite skill consists in knowing how to improve one's reading or writing. That essential element plays no part in the skill to be attained in speaking and listening, because speaking and listening are transient and fleeting like performing arts, as writing and reading are not. The latter are more like painting and sculpture, the products of which have permanence.

Consider such performing arts as acting, ballet dancing, playing a musical instrument, or conducting an orchestra. In all of these, a given performance, once it is given, cannot be improved. The artist may be able to improve on it in a later performance, but during the time he or she is on stage, that one performance, that one performance should be as good as it can be made. When the curtain goes down it is finished - unamendable.

The situation is exactly the same in speaking and listening. One cannot go back over what one is saying orally and improve it, as one can go back over what one has written and improve it. Unlike writing, ongoing speech is generally unamendable. Any effort to take back what one has said while one is speaking often turns out to be more confusing than letting the deficiencies stand.

A prepared speech is, of course, amendable before being delivered, as a piece of writing is. An impromptu or improvised speech is not.

One may be able to do a better job of speaking at come later time, but on a particular occasion, whatever excellence one is able to achieve must be achieved right then and there. Similarly, there is no way of improving one's listening on a given occasion. It has to be as good as it can be right there and then.

A writer can at least hope that readers will take as much time as may be necessary to understand the written message, but the speaker cannot cherish any such hope. He or she must contrive what is to be said in such a way that it is as understandable as possible the first time around. The time span of speaking and listening and coincide. Both begin and end together. Not so the time spans of writing and reading.
All true. I have just started John R. Hale's Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. Here is his description of the Assembly of Athens, the public meeting called to decide how to distribute the windfall of new silver flooding from public mines as a result of a new vein. Themistocles had a proposal to make to his fellow citizens that would turn the course of history; that rather than rewarding themselves with a public disbursement of the silver, that Athens should instead build a fleet. There were no policy papers or reports or studies. You presented ideas to the assembly of your fellow citizens and you either persuaded them or you did not.
In response to the herald's cry, Themistocles came forward and mounted the speaker's platform or bema. He was a robust man of forty, with a wide challenging gaze and a neck like a bull. His hair was cropped short in the style of a workingman, not a noble. Along with an infallible memory for names and faces, he possessed one other prerequisite for a political career in Athens: a loud voice.

No one read from notes while addressing the Assembly: speeches were either memorized or extemporized. Themistocles had to keep in mind a number of rules while speaking. He must not wander from his point or address more than one topic. He was not permitted to slander a fellow citizen, step off the bema while speaking, or assault the president. Most important, he could not speak twice on the same proposal unless ordered by the Assembly to do so. Before stepping down from the platform Themistocles would have to provide every detail of his plan, explain all its benefits, and rebut in advance every argument against it. It was most unwise to incur the Assembly's impatience, usually expressed with hooting, booing and other verbal abuse. But so long as a speaker broke no rules, he could not be interrupted.
While I have always admired the traditional excellence of top US universities in general, I have long noted that the graduates of top European universities have seemed to me to have a better command of both listening and speaking. As I once read someone describe it, you can hear them speaking in paragraphs. There is a structure and goal to their speaking which lends itself to clear argument and persuasion. Obviously there are exceptions. That said, I have known graduates of Oxford and Cambridge in many walks of life and while they come in different stripes of politics, economic achievement, etc. they seem to almost all be exceptionally articulate in a fashion that I do not associate with the graduates of any US university. I have attributed that to the tutor system at both those universities but perhaps there is another explanation. Whatever the explanation, the capacity to respectfully listen and then to speak persuasively (as distinct from mellifluously) is a tremendous asset and one I believe to be terrifically undervalued.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Rossi's metallic rules

Quoted from Rossi’s Rules by David Roodman who is in turn quotign from the original article: Peter H. Rossi, The Iron Law of Evaluation and Other Metallic Rules. Research in Social Problems and Public Policy 4 (1987): 3–20.

A dramatic but slightly overdrawn view of two decades of evaluation efforts can be stated as a set of “laws,” each summarizing some strong tendency that can be discerned in that body of materials. Following a 19th Century practice that has fallen into disuse in social science, these laws are named after substances of varying durability, roughly indexing each law’s robustness.

The Iron Law of Evaluation: The expected value of any net impact assessment of any large scale social program is zero.
The Iron Law arises from the experience that few impact assessments of large scale social programs have found that the programs in question had any net impact. The law also means that, based on the evaluation efforts of the last twenty years, the best a priori estimate of the net impact assessment of any program is zero, i.e., that the program will have no effect.

The Stainless Steel Law of Evaluation: The better designed the impact assessment of a social program, the more likely is the resulting estimate of net impact to be zero.
This law means that the more technically rigorous the net impact assessment, the more likely are its results to be zero—or no effect. Specifically, this law implies that estimating net impacts through randomized controlled experiments, the avowedly best approach to estimating net impacts, is more likely to show zero effects than other less rigorous approaches.

The Brass Law of Evaluation: The more social programs are designed to change individuals, the more likely the net impact of the program will be zero.
This law means that social programs designed to rehabilitate individuals by changing them in some way or another are more likely to fail. The Brass Law may appear to be redundant since all programs, including those designed to deal with individuals, are covered by the Iron Law. This redundancy is intended to emphasize the especially difficult task faced in designing and implementing effective programs that are designed to rehabilitate individuals.

The Zinc Law of Evaluation: Only those programs that are likely to fail are evaluated.
Of the several metallic laws of evaluation, the zinc law has the most optimistic slant since it implies that there are effective programs but that such effective programs are never evaluated. It also implies that if a social program is effective, that characteristic is obvious enough and hence policy makers and others who sponsor and fund evaluations decide against evaluation.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Subject to well-designed large-scale replications, those promising signs attenuate and often evaporate altogether

From Response: Weighing the Evidence by Charles Murray.

Murray hones in on the overwhelming tendency to focus on whether a study produces the result that one is interested in rather than focusing on what ought to the first order of business - to what degree does the study follow rigorous rules of design, execution and evaluation which would make the outcomes reliable rather than simply indicative. Too many studies are mere whimsies that are essentially cognitive vaporware - sturm and drang but no reliable substance.
Toward the end of his career, sociologist Peter Rossi, a dedicated progressive and the nation’s leading expert on social program evaluation from the 1960s through the 1980s, summarized his encyclopedic knowledge of the evaluation literature with his “metallic laws.” Rossi’s iron law was that “the expected value of any net impact assessment of any large scale social program is zero.” His stainless steel law was that “the better designed the impact assessment of a social program, the more likely is the resulting estimate of net impact to be zero.” To me, the experience of early childhood intervention programs follows the familiar, discouraging pattern that led him to formulate his laws: small-scale experimental efforts staffed by highly motivated people show effects. When they are subject to well-designed large-scale replications, those promising signs attenuate and often evaporate altogether.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Using book translations as a measure of the flow of ideas across countries

As not infrequently happens, I serendipitously came across two entirely different articles in close temporal proximity. Book translations as information flows: How detrimental was Communism to the flow of ideas? by Ran Abramitzky and Isabelle Sin looks at the measurement of number of books translated into and out of a language as a proxy for intellectual engagement and openness in a society.
Using book translations as a measure of the flow of ideas across countries, we test the effect of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe on the international transmission of ideas. We find that translations of Western European titles into former Communist countries increased by a factor of five with the fall of Communism, while translations between Communist countries decreased by a factor of three. The increased inflow of translations from Western European languages was especially pronounced in the more Western oriented non-Soviet countries of the
Eastern Bloc, where translations reached levels comparable to those in Western European
countries. In contrast, Western European patterns of translation over this period exhibit little change. The fall of Communism encouraged the translation of titles in more subjective fields such as religion and philosophy, but had limited effect on the translation of scientific titles. Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that Communism discouraged the flow of ideas, especially those that were perceived to be more threatening or less useful for the regime. The patterns we find are also consistent with cultural convergence of Eastern and Western Europe. We also discuss the advantages and disadvantages of translations as a measure of idea flow, and present the effect of Communism on alternative measures of ideas.
First Freedoms: A review of Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide, by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea and reviewed by Claire Berlinski is a review of the impact of a cultural commitment to the concepts of apostasy and blasphemy as barriers to idea transmission. The article is more of a polemic and is not measurement-based as is the work of Abramitzky and Sin but the concepts are related.

My synthesis would be that productivity is a key measure, if not the key measure, of a successful life and culture, and that productivity is materially influenced by the degree of connectedness and idea exchange with the community and the world. Countries, communities, or individuals with low engagement with the development and exchange of ideas are likely to achieve only low levels of productivity. Ideologies, religions, or other belief systems may have attributes which are detrimental to the exchange of ideas and therefore are detrimental to productivity.

Friday, September 14, 2012

These cues were not predictive by themselves; they predicted untrustworthiness only in combination

From Who’s Trustworthy? A Robot Can Help Teach Us by Tara Parker-Pope. With all these psychology/sociology experiments, you have to take the results with a major dose of salt. Small sample size, unrepresentative sample, etc. Setting aside the caveats though (because it is fun to speculate based on only a hint of evidence), this is interesting.

One of the stronger correlations in economic development is that between national productivity and the cultural degree of trust. Countries where the culture encourages higher levels of trust when dealing with strangers have higher overall productivity. Even in countries, such as the US, which have unusually high predispositions to trust strangers, the distribution of trust is constrained.
Then the students were asked to play a game in which all the players got four tokens and the chance to win money. A token was worth $1 if a player kept it for himself or $2 when he gave it to his partner. Players could win $4 each if both partners kept their tokens, but if they worked together and traded all four tokens, then each partner could win $8. But the biggest gain — $12 — came from cheating a partner out of his tokens and not giving any in return.

Over all, only about 1 in 5 people (22 percent) were completely trustworthy and cooperative, giving away all their tokens so that each partner could win $8. Thirteen percent were untrustworthy, keeping all or most of their tokens. The remaining 65 percent were somewhat cooperative, giving away two or three tokens but also holding one or two back for security.
What the experimenters found was that there were visual cues that people picked up on.
To find out what cues the players were responding to, the researchers filmed the students’ five-minute conversations before the game started. They discovered that four specific gestures predicted when a person was less trustworthy: leaning away from someone; crossing arms in a blocking fashion; touching, rubbing or grasping hands together; and touching oneself on the face, abdomen or elsewhere. These cues were not predictive by themselves; they predicted untrustworthiness only in combination.

And individuals intuitively picked up on the cues. “The more you saw someone do this, the more intuition you had that they would be less trustworthy,” Dr. DeSteno said.
My emphasis added. I think much is lost in our national dialogues as well as in our experiments by failing to recognize that with complex systems, it is often the case that there is a high degree of contingency and additiveness. Individual variables on their own may have low predictability of an outcome but when combined together they do have predictive capability as indicated here. And sometimes there is, I suspect, an even greater level of complexity because of sequence, timing and frequency. So in this example, you have to have all four variables for mistrust to emerge but might it not also be affected by how early in the conversation these elements become apparent, in what order and with what frequency? I'll bet the answer is that yes, it does make a difference.

The reason this grabbed my attention is that it parallels my thinking regarding individual productivity. Productivity is, I believe, primarily a function of the interaction of seven different variables - Basic capacity (physical and cognitive), Store of Knowledge, Values/Behaviors, Experience, Decision-Making Skills, Effort, and Imagination. Each of these has some marginal predictive capability but combined together they are very predictive.

My interest is from the perspective of reading. How can you use books and storytelling to accelerate development of these seven variables, does it matter in which order, and is the timing important (for example focusing on the development of values and behaviors in the early years and then developing a portfolio of knowledge when the child is older or vice-versa?)

I also wonder, given that this is an intra-cultural study, whether the results are different between cultures. This is especially pertinent in mixed-culture teams, environments of minority/majority, etc. If people are unconsciously signalling mistrust because of different cultural cues, you are inherently going to have reduced productivity. Given the strong impact of trust on productivity, miscuing because of cultural misinterpretation might go a long way towards explaining disparate impacts that are so often seen.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Learning by noticing

From Discussion of Lucas, “Human Capital and Growth” by Sendhil Mullainathan and Learning by Noticing: Theory and Experimental Evidence in Farming by Sendhil Mullainathan et al.

Survival, prosperity, and reproduction are dependent upon productivity achieved in an environment characterized by heterogeneous rates of change, fluctuating variation and random exogenous shocks compounded by internally generated shocks (unintended consequences). There is no one-size-fits-all in terms of knowledge, behaviors and values that provides an optimal answer to all problems at all times. The habits of decision-making is the key variable for recombining knowledge, behaviors and values in different recipes to meet unexpected circumstances. A key attribute in decision-making is the need to recognize new or changed patterns of information or data.
Imagine going to a friend’s house for lunch. You watch him prepare crepes, which turn out to be delicious. The ingredients are easy to get. The steps make sense. It doesn’t take a long time. You decide to go home and try it. Our basic models of technology usage and adoption can be captured in the context of this simple example. One view of technology adoption emphasizes uncertainty over the benefits of a technology (Besley and Case 1993, 1994). If you’ve never had a crepe, you don’t know whether it is worth the trouble to try or make. Another emphasizes learning by doing (Jovanovic and Nyarko 1996; Foster and Rosenzweig 1995; Conley and Udry 2010). If you don’t know the steps of making a crepe, there’s a lot of trial, error and practice in making one. Under both of these views, this missing knowledge can be filled by watching others (as in watching your friend cook the crepe and tasting it) or by experimentation on your own.

These models miss a potentially important feature of knowledge. After seeing your friend make the crepe, you go home and repeat the steps exactly as you saw them. The result is a gooey mess. No matter how many times you follow the steps (you even wrote them down), it is far from tasty and usually inedible. The problem? What you “saw” your friend do was limited by your knowledge of cooking. You only noticed the features that you thought could matter for the end result. Yet if you know little about cooking (or about cooking crepes), you may miss essential steps. In fact, if your friend watched you attempt the recipe, he would point out errors you are making, even when you thought you were doing exactly what he did.1 What you learn about a technology depends on what you notice; we call this learning by noticing.
The implications are teased out in a slide presentation, the first document linked above. Key slides:
Learning by noticing
• Simple theory:
– Many (many) pieces of data to attend to
– Selective attention
– Beliefs drive what is attended to
• Two forms of Learning
– Learning within a mental model
– Changing the mental model
Rethinking Human Capital
• What is human capital?
– What you know
– What model you believe in
• Better (not more) human capital speeds up learning even on one’s own.
– It allow for better “conversations” with nature itself
• Human capital, like some physical capital, has lock in effects. Can be a strength and weakness
– ideas legislate their own borders
This line of thinking seems consistent with the observation that different value systems, different cultures (behaviors) and different portfolios of knowledge will likely have a material affect on the capacity to recognize new patterns and to learn by noticing.

I suspect that the habit of enthusiastic voluntary reading ties in here as well. That the values and behaviors which foster enthusiastic reading (curiosity, empathy, etc.) leads one to voluminous knowledge acquisition (direct and indirect) as well as encourages certain useful patterns of searching for and being attuned to nuanced patterns - hence to increased productivity. It is placing a heavy tank on a weak bridge but I see elements of support for the conclusion that enthusiastic reading improves one's capacity to both improve learning within a mental model as well as improving the capacity to step outside the model - enhancing productivity both incrementally and in a punctuated fashion.

In fact, I would go further and postulate that language, culture, and portfolio of stories would have a substantial impact on the capacity of individuals to notice, learn, and improve. This ties to Stuart Kauffman's Adjacent Possible idea - incremental advances in productivity or knowledge are contingent on the existing foundation of knowledge. You can't go straight from the concept of a wheel to a Ferrari; you necessarily have to go through several intermediate stages first.

This would explain why there is such a huge variance in child preparedness when they first show up to school at age five (a variance of some three years). Children from privileged backgrounds with significant interaction with both parents and a rich environment in both speech and reading have already acquired a much larger vocabulary (adjacent possible), priming their pump for much greater knowledge acquisition. They have likely also acquired habits of pattern recognition and noticing which serve as force multipliers for both knowledge acquisition as well as knowledge creation. Extensive reading has also likely enfused them with habits of imagination which yet further enhance their capacity for productivity (via stepping outside the model).

That's a huge layer cake of speculation but it provides a framework for finding evidence.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

I would not have suspected that the professional economist gender gap is that HUGE on so many issues

Well this is just plain startling. From Huge Economist Gender Gap on Policy Issues from Mark J. Perry. As Mark Perry says:
Wow, I would not have suspected that the professional economist gender gap is that HUGE on so many issues.
My training was in economic development and I cannot say I would have ever guessed there to be such a material gender gap. I am sure that with some examination there will be an explanation here or there but still, these are wide gaps. Again, Perry:
"Despite having similar training and adherence to core economic principles and methodology," female and male economists come to completely different policy conclusions on many issues. Given the statistically significant gender differences in the way male and female economists think about the world, why would we ever expect perfect statistical gender parity in anything: career choices, academic choices, average hours worked, engineering degrees, economic degrees, computer science degrees, communication degrees, education degrees, STEM degrees and careers, scores on the math SAT, scores on the critical reading SAT, etc.?
I am struggling to both comprehend the results of this study, to interpret it and to suss out its implications.

I wonder if this isn't just a variation on the conundrum of gender differentials in income. While it remains a heavily and enthusiastically wielded cudgel, the charge of systemic salary discrimination by gender has been robustly refuted throughout the OECD. There tends to be, in any given OECD country an average gap of 20-40% between the average of all men's income and the average of all women's income. However, when you compare like-to-like, similar education, full-time work, same profession, marital status, etc. usually all the differentials shrink away completely or are at most about 5% on either side (either male or females higher paid). The difference in aggregate averages is a function of different choices - full-time vs. part-time employment, private sector vs. government, secure vs. risky, flexible vs. rigid work requirements, etc.

Look at some of the key findings and in particular look at the percentage point spreads in policy opinion between the genders.
1. By 20 percentage points, women economists are more likely to disagree that either the United States or the European Union has excessive government regulations.

2. Female economists are 24 percentage points more likely to believe the size of the U.S. government is either "too small" or "much too small."

3. Women are 41 percentage points more likely than men to favor a more progressive tax structure.

4. Female economists are 32 percentage points more likely to agree with making the U.S. income distribution more equal.
20-40% differences in policy opinions. Is it a coincidence that across OECD countries the gender income differential is 20-40% and that that difference is entirely due to work, life, and education choices - i.e. decisions made on opinions?

Monday, September 10, 2012

90% of all humans who have ever lived were hunter gatherers

From Humankind by Peter Farb, page 89.
Perhaps a total of 100 billion humans have walked the planet since the appearance of the earliest hominids. Of these, about six per cent have been agriculturalists, fewer than four per cent have lived in industrialized societies, and all the rest - approximately ninety per cent - have lived as hunters and gatherers. Only during the past 12,000 years in a few places, and for less than 5000 years in most of the world, have humans domesticated plants and animals, lived in settled villages, developed complex societies, and harnessed other sources of energy besides human muscle. The 12,000 years since the earliest agriculture represent only about 500 human generations, surely too few to allow for overwhelming genetic changes. Therefore the origins of the intellect, physique, emotions, and social life that are universal to human beings must be traced to preagricultural times. Humans are the evolutionary product of the success of the hunting adaptation, even though almost all of Homo sapiens alive today have abandoned that way of life. The traits acquired over millions of years of following this adaptation continue to provide the basis for human adjustment to the modern world. Still influencing us today is the fact that hunting and gathering is more than simply a particular means of subsistence. It is a complete way of life: biologically, psychologically, technologically, and socially.
Farb published this in 1978 and in the intervening 34 years, our knowledge has advanced. We now know that evolutionary adaptations can pop up in short time frames. The mutation for blue eyes is believed to have occurred in the region of the Black Sea 6-10,000 years ago and has now spread to some 50% of all Europeans and their descendants (though no one knows why it has spread so quickly, it is unclear whether or what survival benefit it yields). Similarly, lactose tolerance emerged in northwestern Europe only some 7,000 years ago and has proved a very successful adaptation. So we now know that advantageous mutations can and do spread very quickly.

All that said, Farb's key point remains valid. The bulk of our adaptive responses are buried in the 90% of our history as hunter gatherers.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A rightful heritage

From Books in Search of Children by Louise Seaman Bechtel, page 21. The following text is from a speech she gave in 1953.
The words of this title are a ringing challenge to all of us gathered here. We come to celebrate the famous book week which draws together readers young and old. We would like to do at least two things in our brief time together - remember and revive and decide to reread some very enjoyable books; and also bite into the edges of the questions raised by the title, such as what books live on and why, and what is a children's classic.


. . . A heritage of culture is a complicated matter. The reading child brings to his books a personality of today. Naturally he turns most easily and quickly to things of today and to what his present world has shaped for an atmosphere of interest. His is not yet a world influenced by books and a sense of history: it is molded by today's papers, movies, TV, comics (ninety million comics sold in one month); and, of course, by the school where so much of his waking life centers.

But even when he is very small, in picture books, music, pictures on the wall, songs sung to him and with him, other atmospheres, other aspects of the world can surround him, comfort him, amuse him. Lovely words, words seldom used by journalists or comic writers or writers of informational books, can enchant him. And he can find out very early in life that the world of the inner mind is a far bigger world than the tangible world about him, and that each interprets the other.

The sense of miracle, the moments of revelation, seldom are put into words by a child. Nor can he ask for the book that gives it - he must depend on a variety of books being available. He must wait for some moment in a storytelling at a library, in a parent's reading aloud, or until he is roaming among books not carefully "graded," to find his key to larger worlds. Of course, his sense of miracle may come from facts. What is more wondrous than the blade of grass? As Francis Thompson said,
O little blade, clay caught,
A wind, a flame, a thought -
Inestimably naught -
Or the atom - which has greatly held our modern children's imaginings and fears? It is, however, necessary that children know the world whole, not just today with its atoms, not just the miracles of facts, but parts of the long procession of history and literature - the thoughts of men of the past and their best words, as well as deeds. A rightful heritage is an odd mingling of fact, romance, ideas, things, legends, heroes.
It is ironic to see these so well expressed sentiments and to know that within a decade the mutations of the sixties would infect academia, media and schools and when much of the rightful heritage of "the long procession of history and literature - the thoughts of men of the past and their best words, as well as deeds" would be substantially jettisoned, baby-with-the-bathwater style, in pursuit of greater inclusion and the myth of the equivalence of all cultures. Noble goals, inclusion and respect, but at too high a cost perhaps. We are now seeing the first generation to have come through their education cycle from kindergarten to college anywhere and everywhere materially divorced from their rightful heritage and it is not a pretty picture. The damage is reversible but it is there and it needs tending to.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

What do you call an alligator wearing a vest?

So my daughter darts in just as I am about to settle into some work. Second son is a boy scout - a species notorious for their bad jokes. He has corrupted my daughter's humor.
Daddy, what do you call an alligator wearing a vest?

Alright. What do you call an alligator wearing a vest?

An investigator!
Oh dear. Shrieks of laughter as she retreats to some conversation with friends which I suspect will throw up yet further monstrosities.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The people at the end of the chain were far more knowledgeable than those at the start

From Stereotypes 'evolve like language', say researchers by Jonathan Ball.

I have long considered the stereotype of stereotypes to be sloppy thinking and a desire to ignore reality in pursuit of idealism. The stereotype of stereotypes is that they are ignorant, sloppy, inaccurate and generally reprehensible. My view is that stereotypes are simply one among many usually useful heuristic devices for dealing with a complex and rapidly changing world. We have limited time and bandwidth for absorbing new information. We need ways of communicating complex situations without boring people to death or exhausting their patience. Very often, the recourse is to stereotyping - rendering an aggregation of individual variances into a synthesized average which is often true in general but may be wrong in particulars.

That is not to say that there aren't negative stereotypes (which may still be usefully accurate) or wrong stereotypes. It is simply to observe that stereotyping fulfills a useful function as long as we maintain some awareness of its potential shortcomings. Emphasis added:
The team then asked a volunteer to learn the characteristics assigned to each one. The information retained by the volunteer was then fed down a communication chain.

What started out as jumbled and complex individual characteristics and traits ended up encompassed in sets of stereotypes.

Character traits became inextricably linked with form and colour - for example, blue aliens might be perceived as arrogant, pushy and untrusting.

As Dr Martin explained: "Information becomes simpler, more structured and more learnable over time" - so much so that the people at the end of the chain were far more knowledgeable than those at the start.

"It's essentially what stereotypes are - massively over-simplified but easily learnable associations between social groups and bits of information," Dr Martin told BBC News.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The more likely it is to be wrong

From Polls Tightening by Walter Russell Mead.
The more complex and multifaceted a model is, the more likely it is to be wrong in ways that the model crafter doesn’t understand.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The ability to fall apart a little bit at a time

From Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky, page 1.
In the 1720's, London was busy getting drunk. Really drunk. The city was in the grips of a gin-drinking binge, largely driven by new arrivals from the countryside in search of work. The characteristics of gin were attractive: fermented with grain that could be bought locally, packing a kick greater than that of beer, and considerably less expensive than imported wine, gin became a kind of anesthetic for the burgeoning population enduring profound new stresses of urban life. These stresses generated new behaviors, including what came to be called the Gin Craze.

Gin pushcarts plied the streets of London; if you couldn't afford a whole glass, you could buy a gin-soaked rag, and flophouses did brisk business renting straw pallets by the hour if you needed to sleep off the effects. It was a kind of social lubricant for people suddenly tipped into an unfamiliar and often unforgiving life, keeping them from falling apart. Gin offered its consumer the ability to fall apart a little bit at a time. It was a collective bender, at civic scale.
I want to join that observation with two others. The first, also via Clay Shirky; a quotation attributed to Yitzhak Rabin "If you have the same problem for a long time, maybe it’s not a problem. Maybe it is a fact."

The third observation arose from a conversation I was having with my neighbor Jeff. We were talking about examples where incremental adjustments are necessary and are desirable versus periodic disruptive adjustments. Specifically we discussed the terrible forest fires occurring this summer, a product of a decades long policy of constant fire suppression. The consequence of that fire suppression policy has been that there is now an atypical accumulation of biofuel which makes each new fire a potential firestorm. Other examples that came up in the conversation were earthquakes; would you prefer thousands of microquakes each with just a little bit of damage or would you prefer (supposing you had the choice) a single massive earthquake where all the consequences of plate slippage are concentrated at once? Another example that came up was Gould and Elderedge's theory of punctuated equlibrium in evolution.

It is similar in business. If you pursue a strategy of six sigma in manufacturing and production, driving out all variance and ensuring uniformity, you achieve high consistency for some period of time. However, variance and inconsistencies, while reducing your short term efficiency, are often the source of new changes and innovation that facilitate long term effectiveness.

Mixing these observations together I might propose: Change (biological, economic, technological, etc.) is not a problem but an unavoidable fact. Change can sometimes be accomodated in increments but inevitably, over a long enough time frame, it is massively disruptive. Usually there is a continuum where all variables can be controlled for a short period of time when planned outcomes can be efficiently optimized. If fortunate, eventually change will have to be accomodated at least in increments. Over long time periods, change will always lead to massive disruption.

The measure of the success of any system then is threefold: 1) The capacity to manage processes in the short term with accuracy and predictability in order to achieve higher levels of productivity; 2) The capacity to tolerate and indeed foster variance at least in the medium term in order to allow the system to adjust to accumulating stress; and 3) the cohesiveness and resilience of a system to sustain and recover from massive disruption.

Consequently, any social system can be assessed based on its capacity to simultaneously optimize short term productivity, plan and implement incremental change and finally its capacity to endure massive physical disruption and yet return to a new level of productivity. That is a pretty high performance bar. It puts a premium on a a range of attributes or consequences of the Enlightenment - agency, individualism, checks and balances, pluralism, tolerance, trust, connectedness, knowledge distribution and transfer, etc.

Most political/cultural systems can achieve one of these three attributes for at least some period of time but there are very few that can and have achieved all three.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Maybe it is a fact

Attributed to Yitzhak Rabin by Clay Shirky.
If you have the same problem for a long time, maybe it’s not a problem. Maybe it is a fact.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Breeding Leonardo

From Peter Farb's Humankind. I love unexpected historical surprises. Who would have guessed that this ever occurred.
Shortly after Leonardo da Vinci died in 1519 at the age of 67, his younger half-brother Bartolommeo set out to reproduce a living duplicate of the great painter, sculptor, engineer, and author. Since he and Leonardo were related, the father that Bartolommeo chose was himself. He chose as his wife a woman whose background was similar to that of Leonardo's mother; She was young and came of peasant stock, and had also grown up in the village of Vinci. The couple produced a son, Piero, who was then carefully reared in the same region of the Tuscan countryside, between Florence and Pisa, that had nurtured Leonardo. Little Piero soon displayed an artistic talent, and at the age of twelve he was taken to Florence, where he served as an apprentice to several leading artists, at least one of whom had worked with Leonardo. According to Giorgio Vasari, the leading art historian of the period, young Piero "made everyone marvel . . . and had made in five years of study that proficiency in art which others do not achieve save after length of life and great experience of many things." In fact, Piero was often referred to as the second Leonardo.

At the age of 23, however, Piero died of a fever and so it is impossible to predict with certainty what he might have gone on to achieve - though there is some indication in that Piero's works have often been attributed to the great Michelangelo. Nor is it possible to say positively how much of Piero's genius was due to heredity and how much to environment. Full brothers share, on average, fifty per cent of their genes, but Bartelemmeo and Leonardo were half-brothers and so would have had only about a quarter of their genes in common. Piero's mother and Leonardo's mother do not appear to have been related, but in the closely knit peasant village of Vinci it is quite possible that they had ancestors in common and thus shared genes. On the other hand, a strong environmental influence cannot be ruled out. The young Piero was undoubtedly aware of his acclaimed uncle; and certainly his father, Bartolommeo, provided every opportunity that money could buy for the boy to emulate him. But Bartolommeo's efforts to give the world a second Leonardo by providing a particular heredity and environment might, after all, have had little influence. Piero possibly was just another of the numerous talented Florentines of his time.
Lots of thoughts. How early people thought of themselves as breeding stock. Whether sheer expectation might have played a role. How amazing it is that we know this story half a millennium later. What the nature of the courtship might have been. How do you even open that conversation - "I want to marry you to breed a second Leonardo"? Finally - today's helicopter parents don't hold a candle to those of yore.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The spandrel exists because other circumstances brought it into existence

Came across the term spandrel which I have seen used in the past. It is not something frequent enough to retain in working memory so I head to look it up. The definitions offered are all architecturally related:
A spandrel, less often spandril or splaundrel, is the space between two arches or between an arch and a rectangular enclosure.

This, and the last couple of times I have seen it referenced, however, in each instance they were referring to a spandrel metaphorically - a thing created as an entirely unintended outcome of other actions. In architectural terms, the goal is to create the strength achieved by use of an arch. The fact that using an arch creates a spandrel is entirely unintended.

It may be used for decorative purposes but the spandrel exists because other circumstances brought it into existence, not because it was inherently desired for itself. I wonder how often the inadvertent creation of an unitended spandrel, then leads, through Kauffman's adjacent possible, to the creation of something entirly new without original intention. An example of unconscious creativity.