Friday, November 30, 2012

Work that struggles to be regarded as “real work”

From Fetish for making things ignores real work by John Kay. Kay is arguing that we let our nostalgia for manufacturing, (evoked by the art of photographers such as Lewis W. Hine), cloud our thinking. Labor in services is no more or less inherently noble and worthwhile than in manufacturing or in agriculture. As we move from one economic system to the next (from hunter gatherer to agriculture to artisan manufacturing to industrial manufacturing to services to knowledge) we almost compulsively look back and romanticize elements of the earlier systems and blanket the misery with amnesia.

by Lewis W. Hine

Kay argues from basic economic principles but he adds an observation rarely made that is worth pondering.
Most unskilled jobs in developed countries are necessarily in personal services. Workers in China can assemble your iPhone but they cannot serve you lunch, collect your refuse or bathe your grandmother. Anyone who thinks these are not “real jobs” does not understand the labour they involve. There is a subtle gender issue here: work that has historically mostly been undertaken by women at home – like care and cooking – struggles to be regarded as “real work”.
Most discussions of gender issues is so much tosh but I think Kay is right, that historical assumptions and stereotypes might cloud clear economic thinking when it comes to the services economy.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Not only nonsense, but thoroughly debunked nonsense

From Like Water for Climate by Bjørn Lomborg.
“Everyone knows” that you should drink eight glasses of water a day. After all, this is the advice of a multitude of health writers, not to mention authorities like Britain’s National Health Service. Healthy living now means carrying water bottles with us, sipping at all times, trying to drink our daily quota to ensure that we stay hydrated and healthy.

Indeed, often we drink without being thirsty, but that is how it should be: as the beverage maker Gatorade reminds us, “your brain may know a lot, but it doesn’t know when your body is thirsty.” Sure, drinking this much does not feel comfortable, but Powerade offers this sage counsel: “you may be able to train your gut to tolerate more fluid if you build your fluid intake gradually.”

Now the British Medical Journal reports that these claims are “not only nonsense, but thoroughly debunked nonsense.” This has been common knowledge in the medical profession at least since 2002, when Heinz Valtin, a professor of physiology and neurobiology at Dartmouth Medical School, published the first critical review of the evidence for drinking lots of water. He concluded that “not only is there no scientific evidence that we need to drink that much, but the recommendation could be harmful, both in precipitating potentially dangerous hyponatremia and exposure to pollutants and also in making many people feel guilty for not drinking enough.”
Echoes many of the themes in Samuel Arbesman's The Half-Life of Facts which chronicles many instances of things that everybody knows that just aren't so. It also calls to mind the quotation attributed to Mark Twain, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

This is one of those minor life mysteries which I suspect all of us carry around with us but never quite get around to resolving. In this instance and in my case, I have for a number of years wondered about this insistent advice to drink plenty of liquids. On a boy scout hike, sure. During sports, absolutely. But just walking around? I grew up in the tropics and in deserts and we never made a point of drinking eight glasses a day. You drank when you were thirsty and carried water with you only when you were going someplace where you knew there wouldn't be water. From my office window I see a dozen people a day strolling around the neighborhood clutching bottles of water.

Each time I think, "Why?" But life's too short and I haven't been that curious so I never had an answer. But if you wait long enough, sooner or later an answer sometimes comes your way, even about some of the less consequential questions.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The candle flame gutters.

The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan, pp. 26-27.
I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us - then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Scaring the public into a predetermined solution often backfires

Scary Pictures by Bjørn Lomborg
Campaigners on important but complex issues, annoyed by the length of time required for public deliberations, often react by exaggerating their claims, hoping to force a single solution to the forefront of public debate. But, however well intentioned, scaring the public into a predetermined solution often backfires: when people eventually realize that they have been misled, they lose confidence and interest.

This comports with the central message of It Ain't Necessarily So by David Murray et al which I am currently reading. It is fascinating to read again and again how major stories have been materially and inaccurately reported. Murray et al point to the same cause as does Lomborg. It is so hard to convince people with empirically supported logical arguments (which are often very nuanced) and therefore eager advocates will default to argument ad baculum (using fear as the basis for argument rather than making the argument itself).

In an environment of competing factions and groups, this seems all we have these days - competing arguments ad baculum and very little actual discussion and formal argument making. Every interest group is desparately seeking to justify their position based on the bad things that might happen if they don't get their way. Highly corrupting of hygienic thinking.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Pilfered by aberrants

It is a truism that how you present yourself is important – that consciously or unconsciously you telegraph messages to others in the manner that you dress, the way you speak, how you carry yourself, etc. I believe that how you present yourself is a dramatically underrated aspect of success. It is too common that in our desire to demonstrate that we are open-minded, we refrain from correcting others. We accept deviation from the norm in order to demonstrate that we are tolerant. It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan who coined the term “defining deviancy down” and he was one of the earliest to point out the high personal cost to individuals when they believe that because they can deviate, they for some reason ought to.

Which is all well and good except that there are consequences always nipping at our heels. We can pretend that manners and speech and behavior and variance from the norm are all perfectly OK (and they are at a theoretical level) but reality will always exact her dues. If you don’t know how to speak well, carry yourself, present yourself, behave, etc. you will always suffer costs and lost opportunities. All of this will usually be attributed to bad luck. Sometimes by being tactically accepting and tolerant, we are setting others up for strategic failure over the long term.

There was an interesting article on NPR this morning documenting this, Reading 'Maxim' Can Make You A Theft Target by Shankar Vedantam.
"The experimental condition created the perception that the driver of this particular vehicle was perhaps a deviant," he said. "And what we did in order to trigger that perception was place a men's magazine on the front seat to suggest some sort of interest in sexuality and a couple crushed beer cans underneath the seat to suggest that the person probably had been drinking and driving."

Kinkade found that the cash was twice as likely to be stolen from when the magazine and beer cans were present. He also found that larger amounts of money were taken from the car, compared with when the magazine and beer cans were absent
The upshot is that the more you signal that you are different from the expected norm, the more likely you are to suffer negative consequences. In this case, the more aberrant you seem, the more likely other aberrants are to rob you.

Food for thought. Dress well and behave.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

There’s nothing but the Bible for sheer storytelling

From an interview with Herman Wouk, (At 97, He Has a Book (or 2) Left by Brooks Barnes), I came across this.
Old enough to remember Simon and Schuster as actual people (“they were as different as chalk and cheese”), Mr. Wouk has written a novel that is startling in its modernity, at least in terms of format. “The Lawgiver,” which arrives on Tuesday, weaves a comedic yarn using letters, text messages, memos, Variety articles, e-mails and Skype transcripts. An epistolary novel, he decided, was the only way to tackle a subject he had spent decades trying to crack: Moses.

“In terms of narrative, my boy, there’s nothing but the Bible for sheer storytelling,” Mr. Wouk (pronounced woke) said. “How do you get at something that has already been done so perfectly? I suppose that explains part of my ‘fixation,’ as you put it.”
Almost immediately following that observation, I then came across this article, The Bathsheba Syndrome: The Ethical Failure of Successful Leaders by Dean C. Ludwig and Clinton O. Longenecker.
This paper suggests that many ethical violations by upper managers are the by-product of success — not of competitive pressures. Our research suggests that many managers are poorly prepared to deal with success. First, success often allows managers to become complacent and to lose focus, diverting attention to things other than the management of their business. Second, success, whether personal or organizational, often leads to privileged access to information, people or objects. Third, with success usually comes increasingly unrestrained control of organizational resources. And fourth, success can inflate a manager's belief in his or her personal ability to manipulate outcomes. Even individuals with a highly developed moral sense can be challenged (tempted?) by the opportunities resulting from the convergence of these dynamics. We label the inability to cope with and respond to the by-products of success the Bathsheba Syndrome, based on the account of the good King David (a story familiar in a variety of traditions). Recognition of this phenomenon implies that we change or broaden our approach to the teaching of business ethics. It also implies that organizations must re-evaluate and change structures, procedures, and practices which enhance the likelihood of managers falling victim to the Bathsheba Syndrome.
The paper is not especially well written or backed up with the type of data I would like to see which is disappointing. Particularly because I believe they are on the right trail. They have stated what I believe is a true and correct conclusion without providing the necessary underpinning to support it.

I love that they have linked their insightful conclusion to the story of David and Bathsheba. It supports Wouk's observation that there is nothing but the Bible for sheer storytelling. I also think many of the ethical problems, personal behaviors and general degradation of discourse we experience today is a consequence of a loss of the values inculcated by the Bible in general and the King James Version in particular. We would have a more aesthetic and valuable civic discourse if more people were better grounded in the sophistication and storytelling of the Bible.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

He will kiss the hand that had no food to offer

Speeches That Changed the World by Cathy Lowne is an odd little collection of "Over 100 of the most influential speeches ever made". Well, not quite. The choices are highly eclectic and because of that the book is more intriguing than it would otherwise have been had it hewed more strictly to its claim. One speech is that by George Graham Vest in his closing argument in the suit his client brought against a neighbor for killing his dog, Old Drum.
Gentlemen of the jury, the best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter whom he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us—those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name—may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. The one absolute, unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world—the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous—is his dog.

Gentlemen of the jury, a man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he can be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that had no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounter with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens. If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace, and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even to death.

The Gods of Wisdom and Virtue

Among my favorite poems is Rudyard Kipling's Gods of the Copybook Headings. Here is a rendition by Bill Whittle where he takes license to change a couple of archaic phrases in the poem in order to make it more accessible to the modern audience. In this instance, I think it works.

The Gods of Wisdom and Virtue by Bill Whittle

Friday, November 23, 2012

But our preferences do not determine what's true

Carl Sagan in Wonder and Skepticism.
The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Then who is the skepticism going to be mainly applied to?

I recently posted in Critical Thinking - Much talk and little action, that there was a gap between how widely we praise critical thinking and how little we do as a society to cultivate and encourage critical thinking.

Carl Sagan in Wonder and Skepticism has an explanation.
If skeptical habits of thought are widely distributed and prized, then who is the skepticism going to be mainly applied to? To those in power. Those in power, therefore, do not have a vested interest in everybody being able to ask searching questions.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

People are happier when they perform the virtues, in fact the very seven virtues of the Western tradition

From Happyism: The creepy new economics of pleasure by Deirdre N. McCloskey.
As a result, real income per head commenced rising after 1800, from the hopeless $3 a day that humanity had endured since the caves to the $125 a day that increasing portions of the world now enjoy—and anyway to the $30 a day that the average human now consumes, including Chadians and Bangladeshis in the average with the Japanese and Americans. It’s ten times more stuff, more access to clean water, a higher life expectancy, and even, for the middling, more dishes of ice cream and more pastrami on rye. And, for the swiftly rising percentage of $125-a-day folk, it means more Mozart and more college degrees.
In 2004, there appeared a gratifyingly sensible compendium of positive psychology, closely edited by two leaders in the field, Seligman and Christopher Peterson, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. In 664 large pages, 40 scientists from clinical and social psychology and related fields present a “manual of the sanities.” The conclusion? The same as Groundhog Day: People are happier when they perform the virtues, in fact the very seven virtues of the Western tradition (found also in the literature and philosophy of the East and South and no doubt the North): prudence (the virtue beloved of economists), justice, temperance, courage, faith (as identity), hope (as purpose), and love.
Ominously, however, happiness studies have been diverted into an applied science. The happiness measurers very much want to direct us and are itching to engineer a happy society. They do not know what they are talking about, but are very willing to put “policies” about it into practice anyway. In a finely argued but erroneous book of philosophy, for example, Daniel Haybron a few years ago made a case partly on the basis of the new science of happiness against what he calls “liberal optimism,” or the belief since the eudaemonic movement and the bourgeois revaluations of the eighteenth century that “people tend to fare best—and pretty well at that—when empowered to shape their [own] lives.” He doubts it. But on what basis, since psychology is singularly ill-equipped to yield such doubt? As Haybron himself points out, tests on college kids do not range across enough experience. History is more to the point. Of course people make mistakes about their lives, and sometimes spend their lives badly. But as even Haybron acknowledges, the liberal experiment since 1700 has yielded gigantically better lives in every sense for a constantly increasing number of us. Haybron, and many of the elite critics of how other people spend their time on Earth, is an admitted pastoralist and disdains the sick hurry of modern life. Yet is he himself not living a happy life, which his ancestor around 1800—who in any case died in childhood and childbirth—did not?
Read the whole thing, it is far too dense to adequately summarize in a few selected paragraphs.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Proof that humans can work magic

Carl Sagan in Cosmos p. 281
A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called "leaves") imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Critical thinking - much talk and little action

From Critical Thinking to Argument by Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau. Just picked it up and have not read the book yet, other than to dip into it here and there. Looks promising.

From the preface:
Probably most students and instructors would agree that, as critical readers, students should be able to
* Summarize accurately an argument they have read:
* Locate the thesis (the claim) of an argument:
* Locate the assumptions, stated and unstated:
* Analyze and evaluate the strength of the evidence and the soundness of the reasoning offered in support of the thesis; and
* Analyze, evaluate, and account for discrepancies among various readings on a topic (for example, explain why certain facts are used, why probable consequences of a proposed action are examined, and why others are ignored, or why two sources might interpret the same facts differently).
A noble goal but I wonder what percentage of people, whether graduating high school students, college students, adults or teachers would actually be able to successfully fulfill these basic actions. I suspect it is a very small number. And if they are not able to do so, can we then say they are not critical thinkers? And that, if not critical thinkers, they are therefore unable to make effective decisions?

I fully advocate that we ought to be explicitly teaching children to think critically, read critically and write (communicate) critically. It appears to me that many people talk about the importance of critical thinking but few if anyone is actually teaching what it means to be a critical thinker and certainly are not modelling it. In addition, as valuable as critical thinking is in a modern, complex and sophisticated civilization, I think we omit a major truth when we ignore that most people survive quite well with little or no training in critical thinking. Traditional values married with common heuristics seem sufficient for most circumstances.

Politics, the art of evading trade-offs, is a mother lode of non-critical thinking. One of the shibboleths making the rounds (and an age old one at that) is that we ought to close the deficit by taxing the wealthy just a little bit more. Forgetting all the other elements of this problematic argument, it is a simple exercise to demonstrate that a 100% tax rate on the entire income of all those in the top 1% would be insufficient to close the deficit. I believe I have seen the data that even confiscating the entire income of the top 10% is insufficient. Regardless of what we think a fair tax rate might be for the wealthy, we ought to be perfectly clear that whatever that rate is won't close the deficit. And yet, clear and as easily discernable as that false argument is, it is accepted uncritically by vast swaths of well educated people. And that is just a randomly selected example. Politics is an exceptional field for the need for but absence of critical thinking.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The best we can do is a system that fails a little bit better

As usual, a thoroughly insightful article by Megan McArdle, Chasing the Tails.
Over the last few years, I have been having a lot of earnest conversations with people in the financial industry, and people who cover it, about the extent to which the crisis was produced, and/or worsened, by the attempt to quantify, or at least numerify, the exact amount of risk in the system so that it could be hedged and regulated away. "Value at risk" and its near kin produced the illusion of safety, as Taleb (to whom Davies is responding) has been screaming for years. Worse, it produced a systematically biased illusion of safety; everyone was making pretty much the same mistake. That mistake was to take the sort of risk that is safe 99.995% of the time--but catastrophic when everyone's bets went south at once. We may have minimized the number of bank failures in normal times only by increasing the risk of a single, catastrophic event that took the whole system down.
I agree. As we extract risk and error from any system, we increase short term tactical efficiency at the expense of long term adaptability. We typically reduce the the large number of minor tremors and instead store up geological energy for a few large earthquakes. The aggregate volume of adjustment is all the same, the only difference is whether we take it in small increments or in large lumps. And sometimes of course, we don't get to choose.

This paragraph also taps into one of my other bugbears; our tendency to mistake precision for accuracy (a good discussion of the distinction can be found in Samuel Arbesman's The Half-Life of Facts in Chapter 8. 99.995% is a reasonably precise measure of risk, but as experience has demonstrated, based on faulty knowledge and models as it was, it was highly inaccurate.

McArdle's comment
As one fixed-income manager mordantly noted, "The most dangerous thing in the world is a nominally risk free asset."
calls to mind that quote from Douglas Adams in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at and repair.
This conclusion is, I think, correct but one that everyone wishes to avoid.
And yet it seems that we could move more in that direction. Reduce the leverage in the system, and hope that means fewer events like 2008.

Notice I said "fewer", not "none". Neither markets nor government are perfectible; the best we're going to get is ones that work pretty well most of the time. In 2005, everyone--homebuyers, bankers, regulators, legislators--was making essentially the same mistake. And while it's more comfortable to believe that this was malevolent, the more prosaic truth is probably that sometimes large groups of people get stuff badly wrong. We can't plan our way to a risk free system. The best we can do is a system that fails a little bit better.
Our core portfolio of knowledge is reasonably good in the near term. In order to maximize productivity (get richer), we are always seeking to drive out variation and error. However, the more efficient we become at producing income (through productivity) in the short term, the more at risk we put our accumulated wealth in the long term. In the far future and in the outer boundaries of our knowledge there is far greater uncertainty and variability and we have to be much more adaptable to surprises and exogenous shocks. Near term tactical efficiency demands stasis, predictability, and stability which is counter to what we need in the strategic long term.

Unconsciously, we are always stumbling around trying to find some sort of optimum balance between the stability that cultivates short term efficiency and the adaptability that prepares us for long term effectiveness. These two goals are rarely clearly perceived and the mechanisms that mediate them are at best poorly comprehended.

There is another lesson in the recent financial crisis. We explain short term failures in a narrative fashion, hewing closely to acceptable archetypes - "The financial crisis was caused by greedy and morally corrupt bankers whose actions were exacerbated by lethargic and ignorant regulators" or some such.

This is different from the truth of the future. We approach the veil of our ignorance through data and measurements and we learn new things in increments. We don't comprehend the truth. The Human System is multivariate, complex, chaotic, non-linear, homeostatic, self-correcting, contextually sensitive, dynamic and heterogeneous and ridden with tipping points and hidden feedback loops. It is natural that the more distant future should be less clear than the stark present. There is simply too much going on. Make an accurate prediction and you make out like a bandit. Very few people usefully predict something very far in the future.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

What goes right is more important than what goes wrong

From The Heart Grows Smarter by David Brooks.

Longitudinal studies are great but you have to be careful about how they evolve over time. Especially when you start to look for things much later in the study different from what you were looking for when you began.
It’s not that the men who flourished had perfect childhoods. Rather, as Vaillant puts it, “What goes right is more important than what goes wrong.” The positive effect of one loving relative, mentor or friend can overwhelm the negative effects of the bad things that happen.

In case after case, the magic formula is capacity for intimacy combined with persistence, discipline, order and dependability. The men who could be affectionate about people and organized about things had very enjoyable lives.

But a childhood does not totally determine a life. The beauty of the Grant Study is that, as Vaillant emphasizes, it has followed its subjects for nine decades. The big finding is that you can teach an old dog new tricks. The men kept changing all the way through, even in their 80s and 90s.
I think Vaillant is very much on the mark: “What goes right is more important than what goes wrong.” So much of our sociological and policy research is focused on trying find what goes wrong in childhood and fixing that rather than trying to understand what are the magical elements of what has to go right. Humans, and especially children, are immensely resilient. We can overcome many reversals. But there are a few things that critically need to go right in order to improve the odds that a life will play out in a positive fashion.

Our research into reading suggests that a handful of actions in the first four or five years have an exceptional impact on school readiness, grades, reading capability, etc. These actions are: having plenty of books around, routinely reading to a child, letting them choose stories, lots of conversation, and being seen to read oneself. All cheap and easy.

As Brooks observes, "The positive effect of one loving relative" can make all the difference. It is similar with children reading. Every habitual reader can tell you two or three books from their childhood that were a catalyst to their love of reading. The right book at the right time in the right place. Impossible to identify in advance or to specify. All you can do is create the right circumstances where it is likely that a child will engage with that particular catalytic book.

On a somewhat separate note, this comment "The big finding is that you can teach an old dog new tricks. The men kept changing all the way through, even in their 80s and 90s" reminded me of Aeschylus' line in Agamemnon (line 928)
Only when man's life comes to its end in prosperity can one call that man happy.
I prefer the more succinct rendering "Call no man happy till he is dead."

Friday, November 16, 2012

We have to distinguish the core of science from the frontier

The Half-life of Facts by Samuel Arbesman. Page 163.
Science is not always cumulative, as the philosopher of science Thomas Kune has noted. There are setbacks, mistakes, and wrong turns. Nonetheless, we have to distinguish the core of science from the frontier, terms used by SUNY Stony Brook's Stephen Cole. The core is the relatively stable portion of what we know in a certain field, the facts we don't expect to change. While it's no doubt true that we will learn new things about how DNA works and how our genes are turned on and off, it's unlikely that the basic mechanism of encoding genes in DNA is some sort of mesofact. While this rule of how DNA contains the information for proteins - known as the central dogma of biology - has become more complex over time, its basic principles are part of the core of our knowledge. This is what is generally considered true by consensus within the field, and often makes its way into textbooks.

On the other hand, the frontier is where most of the upheaval of facts occur, from the daily churn in what the newspapers tell us is healthy and unhealthy, to the constant journal retractions, clarifications, and replications. That's where scientists live, and in truth, that's where the most exciting stuff happens. The frontier is often where most scientists lack a clear idea of what will become settled truth.

As John Ziman, a theoretical physicist who thought deeply about the social aspects of science, noted:
The scientific literature is strewn with half-finished work, more or less correct but not completed with such care and generality as to settle the matter once and for all. The tidy comprehensiveness of undergraduate Science, marshalled by the brisk pens of the latest complacent generation of textbook writers, gives way to a nondescript land, of bits and pieces and yawning gaps, vast fruitless edifices and tiny elegant masterpieces, through which the graduate student is expected to find his way with only a muddled review article as a guide.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

When you were a tadpole and I was a fish

by Langdon Smith

When you were a tadpole and I was a fish
In the Paleozoic time,
And side by side on the ebbing tide
We sprawled through the ooze and slime,
Or skittered with many a caudal flip
Through the depths of the Cambrian fen
My heart was rife with the joy of life,
For I loved you even then.

Mindless we lived and mindless we loved
And mindless at last we died;
And deep in the rift of the Caradoc drift
We slumbered side by side.
The world turned on in the lathe of time,
The hot lands heaved amain,
Till we caught our breath from the womb of death
And crept into life again.

We were amphibians, scaled and tailed,
And drab as a dead man's hand;
We coiled at ease 'neath the dripping trees
Or trailed through the mud and sand.
Croaking and blind, with our three-clawed feet
Writing a language dumb,
With never a spark in the empty dark
To hint at a life to come.

Yet happy we lived and happy we loved,
And happy we died once more;
Our forms were rolled in the clinging mold
Of a Neocomian shore.
The eons came and the eons fled
And the sleep that wrapped us fast
Was riven away in a newer day
And the night of death was past.

Then light and swift through the jungle trees
We swung in our airy flights,
Or breathed in the balms of the fronded palms
In the hush of the moonless nights;
And oh! what beautiful years were these
When our hearts clung each to each;
When life was filled and our senses thrilled
In the first faint dawn of speech.

Thus life by life and love by love
We passed through the cycles strange,
And breath by breath and death by death
We followed the chain of change.
Till there came a time in the law of life
When over the nursing sod
The shadows broke and the soul awoke
In a strange, dim dream of God.

I was thewed like an Auroch bull
And tusked like the great Cave Bear;
And you, my sweet, from head to feet
Were gowned in your glorious hair.
Deep in the gloom of a fireless cave,
When the night fell o'er the plain
And the moon hung red o'er the river bed
We mumbled the bones of the slain.

I flaked a flint to a cutting edge
And shaped it with brutish craft;
I broke a shank from the woodland dank
And fitted it, head to haft;
Then I hid me close to the reedy tarn,
Where the mammoth came to drink;
Through brawn and bone I drave the stone
And slew him upon the brink.

Loud I howled through the moonlit wastes,
Loud answered our kith and kin;
From west to east to the crimson feast
The clan came trooping in.
O'er joint and gristle and padded hoof
We fought and clawed and tore,
And cheek by jowl with many a growl
We talked the marvel o'er.

I carved that fight on a reindeer bone
With rude and hairy hand;
I pictured his fall on the cavern wall
That men might understand.
For we lived by blood and the right of might
Ere human laws were drawn,
And the age of sin did not begin
Til our brutal tusks were gone.

And that was a million years ago
In a time that no man knows;
Yet here tonight in the mellow light
We sit at Delmonico's.
Your eyes are deep as the Devon springs,
Your hair is dark as jet,
Your years are few, your life is new,
Your soul untried, and yet —

Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay
And the scarp of the Purbeck flags;
We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones
And deep in the Coralline crags;
Our love is old, our lives are old,
And death shall come amain;
Should it come today, what man may say
We shall not live again?

God wrought our souls from the Tremadoc beds
And furnish’d them wings to fly;

He sowed our spawn in the world's dim dawn,
And I know that it shall not die,
Though cities have sprung above the graves
Where the crook-boned men made war
And the ox-wain creaks o'er the buried caves
Where the mummied mammoths are.

For we know the clod, by the grace of God
Will quicken with voice and breath;
And we know that Love, with gentle hand
Will beckon from death to death.
And so, as we linger at luncheon here
O'er many a dainty dish,
Let us drink anew to the time when you
Were a Tadpole and I was a Fish.

And afterwards decide whether to ride it, paint a picture of it, worship it, or eat it

In my blog post Recognizing objects in difficult situations means generalizing , I quoted Nate Silver in The Noise and the Signal.
Human beings do not have very many natural defenses. We are not all that fast, and we are not all that strong. We do not have claws or fangs or body armor. We cannot spit venom. We cannot camouflage ourselves. And we cannot fly. Instead, we have to survive by means of our wits. Our minds are quick. We are wired to detect patterns and respond to opportunities and threats without much hesitation.
Peter Farb in Humankind has a more generous assessment of our physical capabilities. He starts by observing that
Perhaps a total of 100 billion humans have walked the planet since the appearance of the earliest hominids. Of these, about six percent have been agriculturalists, fewer than four percent have lived in industrialized societies, and all the rest - approximately ninety per cent - have lived as hunters and gatherers.
He then elaborates what this heritage has meant for us.
Humans have evolved physically as organisms adapted to hunting wild game and gathering wild plants - an existence that demands versatility, endurance, and strength. Of all living things, only a human is capable of swimming a mile, then walking twenty miles more - scampering over boulders along the way - and finally climbing a tree. Humans about equal chimpanzees in the capacity to pull loads, and pound for pound they are superior to the donkey in toting heavy weights on their backs (as witness the Sherpas of the Himalayas). Many mammals can run faster than humans, but they lack the humans' great endurance. Probably no other mammal can equal the stamina and the sustained speed of the marathon runner, who averages about twelve miles per hour over a course of 26 miles. Nor does any other species equal the human ability to adapt physiologically to the stresses of diverse environments: very high and very low altitudes, extremely hot and extremely cold climates, the virtually sunless floor of tropical forests and the sun-baked desert. Each of these environments yields strikingly different plant and animal foods, yet the human digestive system has no difficulty in coping with any or all of them. And added to this remarkable physical flexibility is a quickness to learn, a superior memory, and the gift for creative thought. A human is thus the only animal that can run down a horse or an antelope simply by tiring it over a period of days - and afterwards decide whether to ride it, paint a picture of it, worship it, or eat it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

They throw it by with the greater indignation and contempt

It is nearly impossible to dip into Chesterfield's Letters to his son without finding interesting or pertinent commentary. In this April 3rd, 1747 letter to his son travelling in Italy and being tutored by Mr. Hart, Chesterfield has this extended metaphor. I tell my son to focus on first things first and to work hard but this is much more artful.
DEAR BOY: If I am rightly informed, I am now writing to a fine gentleman, in a scarlet coat laced with gold, a brocade waistcoat, and all other suitable ornaments. The natural partiality of every author for his own works makes me very glad to hear that Mr. Harte has thought this last edition of mine worth so fine a binding; and, as he has bound it in red, and gilt it upon the back, I hope he will take care that it shall be LETTERED too. A showish binding attracts the eyes, and engages the attention of everybody; but with this difference, that women, and men who are like women, mind the binding more than the book; whereas men of sense and learning immediately examine the inside; and if they find that it does not answer the finery on the outside, they throw it by with the greater indignation and contempt. I hope that, when this edition of my works shall be opened and read, the best judges will find connection, consistency, solidity, and spirit in it. Mr. Harte may 'recensere' and 'emendare,' as much as he pleases; but it will be to little purpose, if you do not cooperate with him. The work will be imperfect.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Two complimentary views of advice

Sometimes glib aphorisms are contradictory but on other occasions they are comfortably complimentary as in this case.
Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn't - Erica Jong in How to Save Your Own Life

Advice is seldom welcome; and those who want it the most always like it the least - Lord Philip Dormer Stanhope Chesterfield letter to his son 29th January 1748

Monday, November 12, 2012

One is convinced that one is speaking the truth because one says what one thinks

From Toutes reflexions faites by Sacha Guitry, 1947
What probably distorts everything in life is that one is convinced that one is speaking the truth because one says what one thinks.

The insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were

Carl Sagan in The Demon Haunted World, page 357.
Books, purchasable at low cost, permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate--with the best teachers--the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses. Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Only five women have won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Award for Humor

An odd and amusing juxtaposition of articles today. From the New York Times there is Literary Consolation Prizes by Grant Snider.

And then there is Does the literary world need a women-only prize? by Husna Haq in the Christian Science Monitor. A perennially favorite topic among the whinging class. The article earnestly attempts to muster some facts to support the argument that there is some form of under-representation of women as recipients of various prizes but in doing so seems blithely blind to its own self-mockery.
– Only five women have won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Award for Humor since it was established 65 years ago.

Academics are sitting on a big pile of knowledge that usually doesn’t get used

From The Art of Storytelling by Martin Eiermann, an interview with Carlo Rotella.
A lot of the craft is having one foot in the academy, and one foot outside in reporting. I write a column for the “Boston Globe” because I’ve always wanted to try my hand at being a columnist, and also because it is a way of writing your way into where you live. It tends to pull you into going out and meeting people. Academics are sitting on a big pile of knowledge that usually doesn’t get used. You don’t want to maximize the return on everything you are doing, but writing is a way to balance out the patience and long-wave interests of academia.
In our modern world of informational effluent, it is perpetually astounding to me, just how much is known of which we are completely ignorant or of which we only have a fleeting glimpse. There is indeed a big pile of useful knowledge out there if you only know where to look or even that you ought to be looking.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The purpose is not to substantiate but to enchant.

From Proust Wasn’t a Neuroscientist. Neither was Jonah Lehrer. by Boris Kachka. A useful summary of some of the issues arising from journalists having an arms length relationship with truth. An interesting and nuanced article. I liked this description of these science writers who sit astride the bridge between entertainment and the hard ground of argument and evidence.
The purpose is not to substantiate but to enchant.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity

From Thomas Jefferson's First Inaugural Address, Washington, D.C. March 4, 1801.

I think many forget just how anomalous was the great American experiment in federal republican representative government and how low were the received expectations of its success. Yet here we are more than two hundred years later, still going strong, the second oldest written constitution in the world and the oldest of any major country. It is valuable sometimes to recollect where we have been as we assess where we are and where we are going. Past is not prologue but it does provide an indicative context.
A rising nation, spread over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich productions of their industry, engaged in commerce with nations who feel power and forget right, advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye—when I contemplate these transcendent objects, and see the honor, the happiness, and the hopes of this beloved country committed to the issue, and the auspices of this day, I shrink from the contemplation, and humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking. Utterly, indeed, should I despair did not the presence of many whom I here see remind me that in the other high authorities provided by our Constitution I shall find resources of wisdom, of virtue, and of zeal on which to rely under all difficulties. To you, then, gentlemen, who are charged with the sovereign functions of legislation, and to those associated with you, I look with encouragement for that guidance and support which may enable us to steer with safety the vessel in which we are all embarked amidst the conflicting elements of a troubled world.
I find this passage particularly inspirational. As we proceed ever further in refinement of policy, tackling ever more complicated problems, it is worth recalling the basics.
During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it. I know, indeed, that some honest men fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear that this Government, the world's best hope, may by possibility want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the contrary, the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern. Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.
There was beauty and wisdom in words then that we seldom find today -
Relying, then, on the patronage of your good will, I advance with obedience to the work, ready to retire from it whenever you become sensible how much better choice it is in your power to make. And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.

In a nutshell

Glenn Reynolds, An End to European Bailouts.
Sooner or later, you run out of other people’s money. Something that can’t go on forever, won’t. Debt that can’t be repaid, won’t be. Promises that can’t be kept, won’t be.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Rats smarter than Yale undergrads

From Everybody’s An Expert by Louis Menand. The article is a book review of Philip Tetlock's Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? The basic point of the book and the article is that experts and pundits are no better than a well informed public in terms of forecasting outcomes of different real-world scenarios. A couple of snippets.
Tetlock also found that specialists are not significantly more reliable than non-specialists in guessing what is going to happen in the region they study. Knowing a little might make someone a more reliable forecaster, but Tetlock found that knowing a lot can actually make a person less reliable. “We reach the point of diminishing marginal predictive returns for knowledge disconcertingly quickly,” he reports. “In this age of academic hyperspecialization, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals—distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on—are any better than journalists or attentive readers of the New York Times in ‘reading’ emerging situations.” And the more famous the forecaster the more overblown the forecasts. “Experts in demand,” Tetlock says, “were more overconfident than their colleagues who eked out existences far from the limelight.”
The experts’ trouble in Tetlock’s study is exactly the trouble that all human beings have: we fall in love with our hunches, and we really, really hate to be wrong. Tetlock describes an experiment that he witnessed thirty years ago in a Yale classroom. A rat was put in a T-shaped maze. Food was placed in either the right or the left transept of the T in a random sequence such that, over the long run, the food was on the left sixty per cent of the time and on the right forty per cent. Neither the students nor (needless to say) the rat was told these frequencies. The students were asked to predict on which side of the T the food would appear each time. The rat eventually figured out that the food was on the left side more often than the right, and it therefore nearly always went to the left, scoring roughly sixty per cent—D, but a passing grade. The students looked for patterns of left-right placement, and ended up scoring only fifty-two per cent, an F. The rat, having no reputation to begin with, was not embarrassed about being wrong two out of every five tries. But Yale students, who do have reputations, searched for a hidden order in the sequence. They couldn’t deal with forty-per-cent error, so they ended up with almost fifty-per-cent error.
Tetlock’s experts were also no different from the rest of us when it came to learning from their mistakes. Most people tend to dismiss new information that doesn’t fit with what they already believe. Tetlock found that his experts used a double standard: they were much tougher in assessing the validity of information that undercut their theory than they were in crediting information that supported it. The same deficiency leads liberals to read only The Nation and conservatives to read only National Review. We are not natural falsificationists: we would rather find more reasons for believing what we already believe than look for reasons that we might be wrong. In the terms of Karl Popper’s famous example, to verify our intuition that all swans are white we look for lots more white swans, when what we should really be looking for is one black swan.

Also, people tend to see the future as indeterminate and the past as inevitable. If you look backward, the dots that lead up to Hitler or the fall of the Soviet Union or the attacks on September 11th all connect. If you look forward, it’s just a random scatter of dots, many potential chains of causation leading to many possible outcomes. We have no idea today how tomorrow’s invasion of a foreign land is going to go; after the invasion, we can actually persuade ourselves that we knew all along. The result seems inevitable, and therefore predictable. Tetlock found that, consistent with this asymmetry, experts routinely misremembered the degree of probability they had assigned to an event after it came to pass. They claimed to have predicted what happened with a higher degree of certainty than, according to the record, they really did. When this was pointed out to them, by Tetlock’s researchers, they sometimes became defensive.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A prosperous fool is a grievous burden.

From Aeschylus, Fragment 383, reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).
A prosperous fool is a grievous burden.

Cell-phone chatter, which is one-sided, disengaged, truncated, and begs for context to make any sense

From How the 'Having It All' Debate Has Changed Over the Last 30 Years by Deborah Fallows.

As a grandmother caring for her grandchild, she has a pleasant commentary on changes in parenting over the past three decades. This nugget caught my eye. I agree with her caution not to make too much out of what may be an inconsequential change. On the other hand, one of things we have learned in the past six decades of research is that small repetitive things at the beginning have potentially immense consequences much later on.
One of the things I love about my academic training in linguistics is that knowing about language often pops up as something useful or revealing. Here's what took me by surprise in this case as I strolled around our neighborhood: Moms and babysitters and nannies, who used to push strollers in pairs and chat between themselves, now push strollers alone and talk into mid-air. Cell phone conversations are prevalent in the stroller-pushing set, and they change the nature of the language and linguistic interaction that babies hear and experience. Just listen to normal "parentese" and you hear slow talk, long drawn-out vowels, repetition, high pitch, simple grammar, and lots of inflection. Many of these elements help babies learn language. This is not cell-phone chatter, which is one-sided, disengaged, truncated, and begs for context to make any sense. That doesn't help babies much. Even two-way conversations between adults, while different from one-on-one talk with small children, offer a relative wealth of information about body language, style, engagement, reinforcement, etc. that are missing in one-sided cell-phone talk.

I don't want to make too much of this; after all, how much of babies' or small children's time is spent in the company of an adult who is in phantom conversation? Nonetheless, it is something to notice. One way of taking a walk with a baby is akin to turning on the TV or background music—it provides relief for the caretaker and some form of distraction or engagement for the child. Another way of taking a walk is to talk to her about the world around her—the planes flying overhead; the raindrops shaking loose from the trees; the bumpy ride along the sidewalk; the shadows from the clouds; the trucks, dogs, other strollers, joggers, workmen, bikes, and on and on.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

We approach it in increments but can rarely be certain that we have arrived

I am reading Half-Life of Facts by Samuel Arbesman and he has me thinking about the nature of truth (how we approach it in increments but can rarely be certain that we have arrived) and of useful information (how some information does not become untrue, it just becomes less useful by being subsumed in the progression of knowledge).

From there, my thoughts moved onto the phenomenon of latter-day relevance - knowledge or ideas which are developed and then languish (and are sometimes mostly forgotten) for years or decades until they suddenly become pertinent either again or for the first time. Gregor Mendel's work on genes is an example of latter-day relevance.

In the midst of this speculation, I came across this song by Arlo Guthrie, Presidential Rag. I enjoy Guthrie's work and have a number of his albums but was unfamiliar with this song. Apparently he wrote it in 1974 in the context of Nixon and Watergate.

This also seems an example of latter-day relevance - a song written in one era and without great circulation or profile all-of-a-sudden seeming relevant a third of a century later.
Presidential Rag
by Arlo Guthrie

You said you didn't know,
that the cats with the bugs were there,
and you never go along with that kind of stuff no where,
but that just isn't the point man,
that's the wrong wrong way to go,
if you didn't know about that one, well then what else don't you know,
You said that you were lied to,
well that ain't hard to see,
but you must have been fooled again by your friends across the sea,
and maybe you were fooled again by your people here at home,
because nobody could talk like you,
and know what's going on,
Nobody elected your family,
and we didn't elect your friends,
no one voted for your advisers,
and nobody wants amends,
You're the one we voted for, so you must take the blame,
For handing out authority to men who were insane,
You say its all fixed up now, you've got new guys on the line,
but you had better remember this while you still got the time,
Mothers still are weeping for their boys that went to war,
father still are asking what the whole damn thing was for,
and People still are hungry and people still are poor,
And an honest week of work these days don't feed the kids no more,
Schools are still like prisons,
cuz we don't learn how to live,
and everybody wants to take, nobody wants to give,
Yes you will be remembered, be remembered very well,
and if I live a long life, all the stories I could tell,
Of many who are in in poverty of sickness and of grief,
hell yes,
you will be remembered, be remembered very well,
You said you didn't know,
that the that the cats with the bugs were there,
You'd never go along with that kind of stuff no where
But that just isn't the point man,
That's the wrong ,wrong way to go,
You didn't know about that one,
well then what else don't you know.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Ancient literacy and contemporary high achievement

From Who's who in science by Steve Sailer. Fascinating. The post is about the research of Nathaniel Weyl on surnames.

The echoes of history are often lost in noisy tumult but the echoes remain.
Of course, Weyl's choice of surnames to focus upon could bias the national indices to some extent. One of Weyl's most amazing findings is that people with old English clerical names (Clark, Clarke, and Palmer) that indicate their direct male line ancestors were literate around the time surnames were adopted (about 1300) are 50% more likely to show up on lists of high achievement than people with other English names.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Course credit wise, financially foolish

Here is an interesting study, Highly Educated Have Biggest Debt Problems by Dan Kadlec.

Overall, the percentage of Americans who were paying more than 40 percent of their income for debts like mortgages and credit card bills increased from about 17 percent in 1992 to 27 percent in 2008.

But college-educated people were more likely than those with high school or less education to be above this 40 percent threshold - considered to be a risky amount of debt for most households.

The association between more education and higher debt was true even after taking into account the fact that people with more education tend to have higher incomes.

In addition, people who reported being more optimistic about the future of the economy for the next five years were more likely to have a heavy debt burden, the study found.
The alternative, and equally valid headline might be, "The more educated you are, the more likely you are to make bad financial decisions". Ouch! Perhaps we ought to pepurpose the old "penny wise, pound foolish" into something clunkier but more contemporary: "course credit wise, financially foolish".

It would be interesting to know whether there is more to this statistical relationship. By education level, is there a straight line relationship between education attainment and debt burden? If there were, it would go a long ways to explaining the poor financial condition of most countries in the OECD right now - the people making public financial dicisions are those most likely to be incapable of sound stewardhship (according to this study). Gives you pause for reflection.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Greed and fear

From The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver. Page 38.
Usually, in Summers's view, negative feedbacks predominate in the American economy, behaving as a sort of thermostat that prevents it from going into recession or becoming overheated. Summers thinks one of the most important feedbacks is between what he calls fear and greed. Some investors have little appetite for risk and some have plenty, but their preferences balance out: if the price of a stock goes down because a company's financial position deteriorates, the fearful investor sells his shares to a greedy one who is hoping to bottom-feed.

Greed and fear are volatile quantities, however, and the balance can get out of whack. When there is excess greed in the system, there is a bubble. When there is an excess of fear, there is a panic.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Asymetries of information

From The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver. Page 35.
Akerlof wrote a famous paper on this subject called "The Market for Lemons" - it won him a Nobel Prize. In the paper, he demonstrated that in a market plagued by asymmetries of information, the quality of goods will decrease and the market will come to be dominated by crooked sellers and gullible or desperate buyers.
That would seem to imply a necessary focus on transparency, accountability, and consequences. It would also explain why high trust societies are so productive. Where there is trust in information provided by others (and that trust is borne out), there is far less effort (lost productivity) invested in verification.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The world as we would like it to be, not how it really is

From The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver. Page 20.
I am convinced, however, that the best way to view the financial crisis is as a failure of judgment - a catastrophic failure of prediction. The predictive failures were widespread, occurring at virtually every stage during, before, and after the crisis and involving everyone from the mortgage brokers to the White House.

The most calamitous failures of prediction usually have a lot in common. We focus on those signals that tell a story about the world as we would like it to be, not how it really is. We ignore the risks that are hardest to measure, even when they pose the greatest threats to our well-being. We make approximations and assumptions about the world that are much cruder than we realize. We abhor uncertainty, even when it is an irreducible part of the problem we are trying to solve.