Thursday, February 28, 2013

It is passing from infancy to senescence without ever reaching maturity

An interesting argument from David P. Goldman in Fertility, Faith, and the Decline of Islam: Strategic Implications
Like other religions rooted in traditional society, for example the nationalist-Catholic faith that Europeans abandoned after the two world wars, Islam cannot abide the onset of modernity. Some forms of religion can flourish in modernity; Islam is not one of them.

The variable that best predicts fertility across all Muslim countries is education: as soon as women become literate, they stop having children. That is a hallmark of a faith that melts away in the harsh light of modernity.

It is well that David Ignatius has noticed what Phillips, Kaufmann, Eberstadt, and I (not to mention Ahmadinejad and Erdogan) have noticed for years: Muslim civilization is in catastrophic decline. It is passing from infancy to senescence without ever reaching maturity.
The last line has echoes of the sentiment of the French newspaper La Liberté back in 1932 when they commented that
Americans are the only race which passed directly from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilization.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

One Ring to rule them all

Haven't read Tolkien in a good long while but love the richness of his language. Came across this partially remembered passage.

From The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
“Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky,
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in halls of stone,
Nine for Mortal Men, doomed to die,
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.
One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Join up the dots that you didn't even know were there

From Nick Hornby in More Baths, Less Talking. He speaks revealingly to the life and mind of a bibliophile with useful observations along the way.
And so a lot of adult life -- if your hunger and curiosity haven't been squelched by your education -- is learning to join up the dots that you didn't even know were there.
Several months later, and I have finally read one of the three (books), even though I wanted to read all three of them immediately. What happened in between? Other books, is what happened. Other books, other moods, other obligations, other appetites, other reading journeys.

Monday, February 25, 2013

On average every 25 years or so, London saw about a tenth or more of its population simply wiped out

It is odd what elements get thrown together in a wide reading pattern.

Tyler Cowen endorses London: A Social and Cultural History, 1550-1750, by Robert O. Buchholz and Joseph P. Ward in his brief note and mentions that:
…between 1563 and 1665, on average every 25 years or so, London saw about a tenth or more of its population simply wiped out.
A little earlier I was reading the article Why is the IQ of Ashkenazi Jews so High? - 20 Possible Explanations by Hank Pellissier. At least six of the explanations explicitly involve the IQ consequences of population winnowing (Babylonian Eugenics, Mandatory Schools for Males, Clever Clerics Propogate, Breeding for Brains, Squeezed Into Brilliance, and Winnowed by Persecution). For example,
Mandatory Schools For Males - In 64 A.D., the high priest Joshua ben Gamla issued and implemented an ordinance mandating schools for all boys, beginning at age 6. Within 100 years, Jews had established universal male literacy and numeracy, the first ethnicity in history to achieve this.

The progressive, demanding edict created a huge demographic shift. The high, oft-times prohibitive cost of educating children in the subsistence farming economy of the 2nd to 6th centuries prompted numerous Jews to voluntarily convert to Christianity, leading to a decline in Jewish population from 4.5 million to 1.2 million.
I am leary of Just-So explanations but that doesn't mean that some of them might not be right.

Then there is the argument by Gregory Clark in Farewell to Alms, (as summarized by Paul Seabright):
Gregory Clark argues that the Industrial Revolution was the gradual but inevitable result of a kind of natural selection during the harsh struggle for existence in the pre-industrial era, in which economically successful families were also more reproductively successful. They transmitted to their descendants, culturally and perhaps genetically, such productive attitudes as foresight, thrift, and devotion to hard work.
Finally, this sentence in Steve Olson's Mapping Human History (which I am enjoying), leapt out as part of the emerging pattern.
Human evolution has not been a straightforward slog from lower to higher. It's been a maze of dead ends, unexpected detours, and sudden changes of direction. Many of the fossils that we have assumed belong to our ancestors probably represent failed evolutionary experiments, lineages of different kinds of humans that did not survive. In the end, we are the product of a relentless winnowing process, a trial by extinction.
I am skeptical of the exact role that IQ plays in success; probably necessary but not sufficient - sufficiency being some combination of values, behaviors and decision-making.

These disparate articles/books are a good reminder, however, of just how brutal, extensive and frequent exogenous events were in winnowing the half of the bell curve that makes the top half possible. In the 80 generations since the Romans, Britain (as an example) has probably suffered more than a dozen exogenous events (plague, famine, invasion, etc.) resulting each time in a reduction in population of 5-30%. I think in most of those events, the impacts were asymmetric with the wealthy and smart always having a greater probability of surviving. That is a lot of culling of the herd and I have to acknowledge that it probably did have some effect.

You always have the choice of rewriting your own script

From Work and Love a review by Charles Barber of Triumphs of Experience by George E. Vaillant.

The key lessons of the famous Grant Longitudinal study?

1) Its all about positive relationships
2) Resilience is required and rewarded
3) You always have the choice of rewriting your own script
4) Childhood experiences count
The study, a product of the period in which it was conceived, has its limitations. Its only subjects are white, privileged men. Still, many of its findings seem universal. If they could be boiled down to a single revelation, it would be that the secret to a happy life is relationships, relationships, relationships. The best predictors of adult success and well-being are a childhood in which one feels accepted and nurtured; an empathic coping style at ages 20 through 35; and warm adult relationships. Regarding finances, just one of Vaillant’s 10 measures of adult well-being, men who had good sibling relationships when young made an average of $51,000 per year more than those with poor sibling relationships or no siblings at all, and men who had warm mothers earned $87,000 more annually than those who did not (in 2009 dollars). Overall, reflecting their privilege, the Grant Men made a lot of money. The findings go on and on like that, and the message relentlessly emerges: The secret to life is good and enduring intimate relationships and friendships. Mental health, as Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson indicated, is embodied by the capacity to love and to work.

The other overarching message of this book is that resilience counts. Men with the most mature defense mechanisms—defined as altruism, humor, sublimation (finding gratifying alternatives to frustration and anger), anticipation (being realistic about future challenges), and suppression (yes, “keeping a stiff upper lip”)—were three times more likely to flourish in later life. Furthermore, men with good defense mechanisms were able to alter their paths by developing the capacity for emotional warmth and connection to others despite difficult upbringings or individual setbacks.

Vaillant provides compelling evidence that many individuals—by no means all—can write (or rewrite) their own scripts, disproving F. Scott Fitzgerald’s maxim that there are no second acts in American lives. Other studies of quite different populations have arrived at similar conclusions. In Making Good, a 2001 study of hardcore criminal offenders, the criminologist Shadd Maruna documents that those who learned to desist from crime scored vastly higher on measures of self-agency (taking control of your life) and generativity (being able to respond positively to negative events) than those who continued their criminal careers.

Resilience plays out at a physiological level too, of course. Vaillant found that maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, not drinking much, and controlling blood pressure before age 50 made all the difference in the health of the men at 80 and 90. But here, too, relationships seem to lay the groundwork. In 1978, Vaillant reviewed a subset of the men who had been healthy at age 40; they were now about 55 years old. Of those who had had the bleakest childhoods, 35 percent were dead or chronically ill, as compared to only 11 percent of those with the warmest childhoods.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

There's no mission without margin

A great quote from the newly nominated Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, via NPR.
You know, there's no mission without margin. If you can't run a healthy business, you're not sustainable. If you can't do the things that, you know, we aspire to do in a profitable way, you will be out of business
I like this linking of sustainability with margin. I like it because I think in most instances it is true but overlooked or ignored.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Avoid boring people

From Avoid Boring People by James D. Watson. He captures key lessons he learned at the end of each chapter. Some are banal, some are true but not original, some are true but only in particular circumstances, some are contradictory with others, etc. Watson is one of the pivotal scientists of the modern era and regardless of consistency or other critical criteria, it is useful to know what he thinks were the key lessons. From youth to mature age, I have captured all his lessons. Some are self-evident. Others, you need to read Avoid Boring People to see what he is getting at.
Avoid fighting bigger boys or dogs
Put lots of spin on balls
Never accept dares that put your life at risk
Accept only advice that comes from experience as opposed to revelation
Hypocrisy in search of social acceptance erodes your self-respect
Never be flippant with teachers
When intellectually panicking, get help quickly
Find a young hero to emulate
College is for learning how to think
Knowing “why” )an idea) is more important than learning “what” (a fact)
New ideas usually need new facts
Think like your teachers
Pursue courses where you get top grades
Seek out bright as opposed to popular friends
Have teachers who like you intellectually
Narrow down your intellectual (career) objectives while still in college
Choose a young thesis adviser
Expect young hotshots to have arrogant reputations
Extend yourself intellectually through courses that initially frighten you
Humility pays off during oral exams
Avoid advanced courses that waste your time
Don’t choose your initial thesis objective
Keep intellectual curiosity much broader than your thesis objective
Use first names as soon as possible
Banal thoughts necessarily also dominate clever minds
Work on Sundays
Exercise exorcises intellectual blahs
Late summer experiments go against human nature
Have a big objective that makes you feel special
Sit in the front row when a seminar’s title intrigues you
Irreproducible results can be blessings in disguise
Always have an audience for your experiments
Avoid boring people
Science is highly social
Leave a research field before it bores you
Choose an objective apparently ahead of its time
Work on problems only when you feel tangible success may come in several years
Never be the brightest person in the room
Stay in close contact with your intellectual competitors
Work with a teammate who is your intellectual equal
Always have someone to save you
Bring your research into your lectures
Challenge your students’ abilities to move beyond the facts
Have your students master subjects outside your expertise
Never let your students see themselves as research assistants
Hire spunky lab helpers
Academic institutions do not easily change themselves
Teaching can make your mind move on to big problems
Lectures should not be unidimensionally serious
Give your students the straight dope
Encourage undergraduate research experience
Focus departmental seminars on new science
Join the board of a new journal
Immediately write up big discoveries
Travel makes your science stronger
Exaggerations do not void basic truths
The military is interested in what scientists know, not what they think
Don’t back schemes that demand miracles
Controversial recommendations require political backing
Buy, don’t rent, a suit of tails
Don’t sign petitions that want your celebrity
Make the most of the year following announcement of your prize
Don’t anticipate a flirtatious Santa Lucia girl
Expect to put on weight after Stockholm
Avoid gatherings of more than two Nobel Prize winners
Spend your prize money on a home
Success should command a premium
Channel rage through intermediaries
Be prepared to resign over inadequate space
Have friends close to those who rule
Never offer tenure to practitioners of dying disciplines
Become the chairman
Ask the dean only for what he can give
Be the first to tell a good story
A wise editor matters more than a big advance
Find an agent whose advice you will follow
Use snappy sentences to open your chapters
Don’t use autobiography to justify pact actions or motivations
Avoid imprecise modifiers
Always remember your intended reader
Read out loud your written words
Two obsessions are one too many
Don’t take up golf
Races within the same building bring on heartburn
Close competitors should publish simultaneously
Share valuable research tools
Accept leadership challenges before your academic career peaks
Run a benevolent dictatorship
Manage your scientists like a baseball team
Only ask for advice that you will later accept
Use your endowment to support science, not for long-term salary support
Promote key scientists faster than you expect
Schedule as few appointments as possible
Don’t be shy about showing displeasure
Walk the grounds
Avoid boring people
Delegate as much authority as possible
Institutions are either moving forward or they are moving backward
Always buy adjacent property that comes up for sale
Attractive buildings project institutional strength
Have wealthy neighbors
Be a friend to your trustees
All take and no give will disenchant your benefactors
Never appear upset when other people deny you their money
Avoid being photographed
Never dye your hair or use collagen
Make necessary decisions before you have to

Friday, February 22, 2013

Banal thoughts necessarily also dominate clever minds

From Avoid Boring People, the autobiography of James D. Watson. At the end of each chapter he summarizes key lessons he has remembered from that period of his life. Page 70.
2. Banal thoughts necessarily also dominate clever minds.

I used to frequently position myself at meals near Max Delbruck, hoping to profit from sharp dissections of new experiments or criticisms of badly thought out ideas. On some days, conversation sparkled, particularly when a visitor brought new facts or gossip about friends from his European past. More often, however, Max found it more compelling to discuss a student's new girlfriend or who had beaten whom in tennis that afternoon. I was discovering that most high-powered minds do not daily generate new ideas. Their brains mostly lie idle until the input of one or more new facts stimulates their neurons to resolve the conundrums that stump them.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

It now talks mostly to itself, using an obscure dialect

From End of Story by Charles Foran.

In its particulars, Foran is talking about the rise and fall of CanLit, the effort to establish a robust local literature and literary identity within Canada. But this story is pertinent to all groups seeking to push some Identity literature. The habit and art of reading in general and the commercial viability of publishing in particular have been in such flux for so long that the prospects of any targeted and refined literary craft within the stormy ocean of publishing seem grim and limited. Something new will emerge. The hope has always been that there will be a smooth transition from what was to what will be. It often feels like instead that what was has to die first before we will catch a glimpse of what will be. A couple of passages:
The academy in particular, once a powerful force in CanLit, plunged down the theory rabbit hole, rooting too much scholarship in those few texts that confirm pre-existing critical discourses. It now talks mostly to itself, using an obscure dialect.
But the current upheaval disguises something essential, and more hopeful. The problem is not that there are no good stories to tell about CanLit. Rather, there are too many. There is too much literary diversity, too much good writing and publishing being done in too many places by groups with, yes, different and competing tales of their long odds and uphill climbs. In the title of his stellar 2006 walkabout of the literary land, Noah Richler asked, This Is My Country, What’s Yours? He found (no surprise) that geography is destiny in our continent-wide nation, and no singular narrative can, or should, exist in such a setting. Canada may now be poised somewhere between a nation-state and a post-nation configuration with no easy name for it. Publishers, writers, booksellers, and readers should all proceed accordingly.

A true classic

From Life's Too Short: How to Read the Right Books by Cody Adams. Reports on Jeffrey Brenzel, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University and philosopher and his list of what makes for a great work.
To summarize, a true classic:

(1.) Addresses universal and permanent human concerns. A nonfiction book about the rise and fall of 8-track production in Russia probably will not meet this criterion, nor will a novel about the personal rewards of baton twirling.

(2.) Is a game-changer. Sue Grafton’s X is for Xenophobia, for instance, isn’t rocking the boat.

(3.) Influences other great works. The hottest, most acclaimed New York Times Bestseller hasn’t had the time to prove influential on other books, and might lie forgotten in the literary gutter two years down the line.

(4.) Is respected by experts. Tastes change, but over decades and centuries readers and critics tend to refine the canon down to what is truly worthwhile. That’s why we’re still reading Tristram Shandy and have largely forgotten Trinity.

(5.) Challenges as it rewards. The Da Vinci Code is a page-turner, and ice cream is easy to eat. Moby Dick might feel intimidating, but at the end of the day you’ll get something back out of it besides empty literary calories.
Makes sense but I am not sure how one would operationalize it. It is knowledge, probably accurate knowledge but I am not sure that it is useful knowledge.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Not a knowledge issue

From Teacher, leave them kids alone from The Economist. Illuminating the limitations of education even when the topic is pertinent and consequential.
Here is a test. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account that paid an interest rate of 2% a year. If you leave the money in the account, how much would you have accumulated after five years: more than $102, exactly $102, or less than $102?

This test might seem a little simple for readers of The Economist. But a survey found that only half of Americans aged over 50 gave the correct answer. If so many people are mathematically challenged, it is hardly surprising that they struggle to deal with the small print of mortgage and insurance contracts.

The solution seems obvious: provide more financial education. The British government just added financial literacy to the national school curriculum, to general acclaim. But is it possible to teach people to be more financially savvy? A survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland (see sources below) reported that: “Unfortunately, we do not find conclusive evidence that, in general, financial education programmes do lead to greater financial knowledge and ultimately to better financial behaviour.”

This is especially the case when children are taught the subject at school, often well before they have to deal with the issues personally. Surveys by the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, a campaign group, found that American students who had taken courses in personal finance or money management were no more financially literate than those who had not. A detailed survey of students from a Midwestern state found that those who had not taken a financial course were more likely to pay their credit card in full every month (avoiding fees and charges) than those who had actually studied the subject.
So where is the weak link? In bad teaching? In bad knowledge processing and retention? Or is it that the desired outcome is a behavioral/cultural issue and not a knowledge issue?

Our cultural groups draw pretty tight boundaries around themselves and can absorb genetic immigrants without absorbing their cultures

From Genes mix faster than stories: Folk tales' 'DNA' shows that people would sooner have sex with strangers than tell their fables by Philip Ball

An interesting investigation.
This folk tale has hundreds of variants, and it has been passed on across Europe for centuries. But how similar your version is to mine depends not just on how far apart we live but also on how ethnically and linguistically different our cultures are, according to a new study.

If folk tales simply spread by diffusion, like ink blots in paper, one would expect to see smooth gradients in these variations as a function of distance. Instead, researchers found that language differences between cultures create significant barriers to that diffusion.

These barriers are stronger than those for the exchange of genes — a message that might be crudely expressed as: “I’ll sleep with you, but I prefer my stories to yours.”
My initial reaction is that the research is a methodological leap but that the metaphorical insight is likely right.
“This supports the view that our cultures act almost like distinct biological species,” says Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading, UK, who specializes in cultural transmission. “Our cultural groups draw pretty tight boundaries around themselves and can absorb genetic immigrants without absorbing their cultures.”
I suspect that the conclusion is right - we mix genetically much more easily than we do culturally. Put in different terms, this would suggest that the policy preoccupation with the physical aspects of race are a red herring. Yes, it is necessary to prohibit discrimination, segregation, red-lining, etc. But those are the easy things to do. It might take longer, but people end up mixing of their own accord. What is much harder, as this research suggests, is to create the circumstances that facilitate cultural assimilation. There are all sorts of philosophical issues with that as a goal but it seems that that is the really challenging issue.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

When evidence is not evidence

From Baby Boomers Sicker Than Parents’ Generation, Study Finds by Nicole Ostrow.

This study illustrates the temptation to overreach on conclusions and the dangers of not comparing like-to-like.
The study, among the first to compare the generations, shows that baby boomers aren’t as healthy and active as most would believe, said Dana E. King, the lead author. They become sicker earlier in life than the previous generation, are more limited in what they can do at work and are more likely to need the use of a cane or walker, the research found.
But is that really what they found? When comparing two things, you have to normalize the extraneous in order to be able to discern those elements which are pertinently different. So how do you normalize two different generations? Are they really identical?

In this particular case, one can imagine several confounding issues. The life expectancy is dramatically higher for those born after 1946 than those born before, i.e. a greater percentage of each cohort is surviving. That would seem to imply that the average health for the longer lived group will necessarily be worse. To put it differently, if you have health conditions that in earlier times would have carried you off but with modern medicine (both the quality of medicine being exercised as well as the quantity) you survive, it seems reasonable to assume that you will survive in some diminished capacity. You would not have been part of the health average with the earlier cohort but you will be with the second.

The consequence of this difference in longevity/survivability is that if all things else were equal and everyone lived exactly the same lifestyle, you would still expect the later generation to demonstrate worse average health than the earlier generation. I see nowhere in the report where this intergenerational difference in longevity is controlled for.

Without that control/normalizing of populations being compared, what exactly can the study tell us? Not much.

Even more telling are the recommendations of the lead author, a medical doctor and health researcher. Astonishingly the recommendations are 1) "There needs to be a new emphasis and continued attention to programs to improve healthy lifestyles in this age group" and 2) "more studies are needed."

So really, absent any normalizing between the two populations, all we know is what we already know - there is an opportunity for people to improve their health by eating better and exercising more. It does not appear that the study does provide any new evidence at all. All it appears to provide is an opportunity for self-interested advocates to advocate for actions that they already supported. An example of conformation bias, perhaps?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Frontiers of knowledge

From An Amazing Consensus among Economists: Not by Bryan Caplan

Caplan's point is that on numerous policy issues, some having to do directly with economics (such as international trade) and some only tangentially related (abortion), there is little policy consensus among economics experts. Here are the seventeen questions. The economists were asked whether they 1) support strongly, 2) support, not strongly, 3) neutral, 4) oppose, not strongly, and 5) oppose strongly.

Higher minimum wages
Tighter restrictions (e.g., tariffs and quotas) on imported goods
Tighter requirements for the permitting of new pharmaceuticals and medical devices
Tighter restrictions on private parties engaging in discrimination (on the basis of race,
gender, age, ethnicity, religion or sexual-orientation) against other private parties, in
employment or accommodations
Tighter restrictions on the buying and selling of human organs
Tighter workplace safety regulation (e.g., by the Occupational Safety and Health
Administration (OSHA))
Tighter air-quality and water-quality regulation (e.g., by the Env. Protection Ag. (EPA))
Tighter requirements on occupational licensing
Tighter restrictions on prostitution
Tighter restrictions on gambling
Tighter controls on immigration
Tighter restrictions on adult women having an abortion
Tighter restrictions on “hard” drugs such as cocaine and heroin
More redistribution (e.g., transfer and aid programs and tax progressivity)
More funding of the public school system
More benefits and coverage by Medicaid
More American military aid or presence abroad to promote democracy and the rule of
and here are the results.
On two items, trade and abortion, there is substantial agreement. On three more there is general agreement, funding for public schools, EPA and private discrimination. Other than those 5 out of 17, there is substantial disagreement among the experts.

This caught my eye given some of the books I am currently reading including It Ain't Necessarily So, Future Babble, Being Wrong, The Half-Life of Facts, The Signal and the Noise, and Why Most Things Fail. All deal with the issue of the inaccuracy of forecasts, particularly those of experts as well as the balancing act between foxes and hedgehogs.

Virtually all of the seventeen items are issues not resolvable by evidence, i.e. they are faith based judgments dependent on values. The one that comes closest to a evidentiary question is that regarding the benefits if international trade, the one question on which there is also the greatest consensus.

This highlights the challenge of any public decision-making. For complex issues in a dynamic and uncertain environment, we are usually operating beyond the knowledge frontier in the realms of faith and belief where there is not an answer to be had but at best a preponderence of belief.

We are leaving the era of big gate keepers and are entering the era of the herders

From an essay, Was Mancur Olson Wrong? by Jonathan Rauch which is quite packed with insights on both political systems and economic development.

A summary of Olson's view of political sclerosis and its destructive impact on political legitimacy and economic efficiency.
What happens if forces are out of balance, even only a little, over time?

Well, even if narrow interests have only a slight advantage, their advantage will tend to compound, much as an unbalanced pair of oarsmen will steer a canoe off course. Moreover, another important imbalance is at work: hard though it may be to organize interest groups, once established, they are even harder to get rid of. So it is no good to say that diffuse groups can and do overcome their challenges in particular cases; societies will still drift toward an accumulation of groups seeking and defending narrow interests — protective regulations, tax loopholes, subsidies, and so on. The element of time makes Olson’s analysis a theory of social development: other things being equal, societies’ arteries will tend to become clogged with groups in the business of obtaining for themselves whatever it is they want — subsidies to cotton growers, regulatory preferences for solar power, environmental protections for snail darters, you name it. And every group will see its own claims as vital to the national interest, and other groups’ as grubby handouts.
This one is even more interesting.
In 1965, when Olson wrote The Logic of Collective Action, the world was managed by institutions that acted as gatekeepers: big corporations, big unions, big media, and big political parties. Organizing a new interest group in that cartelized era really was hard. You could spend a fortune just on long-distance phone calls. Since then, the cost of organizing has dropped by orders of magnitude. Just think about what a single Facebook page can do. The Tea Party, the archetype of a diffuse-interest group, could never have reached escape velocity without free online conference calling, as its founders have told me.
What is unarticulated but implied is what I find intriguing. Rauch explicitly, and I think accurately, describes the world of the 1950s through to the 197os as one of institutional gatekeepers. We had, in the blink of an historical eye, moved from a fundamentally free and free market environment to an entirely command-and-control national economy predicated on the decisions of the wise few. This was done in order to win World War II. With that transition, remarkable things were accomplished in short periods of time (three and a half years). The army went from 350,000 to 13 million. The Pentagon, the world's largest building was constructed in less than fifteen months. The atomic bomb was designed and built. Ships were built in numbers almost too large to fathom.

So in many respects, mobilizing all the resources of a nation or society to address an existential threat, the command-and-control structure was immensely successful and probably the only means to achieve the desired end. But there are always two critical measures of any process; a snapshot in time, a static picture, and a dynamic picture.

Command-and-control, dictatorial systems can accomplish remarkable things in short periods of time (a snapshot) but usually are unable to do so over longer durations. They become sclerotically clogged as Olson described. Many theoreticians became enamored to what could be achieved by reducing freedom and letting the wise men decide and blinded to the long run costs and risks. In many ways, the 1960s and 1970s can be seen as a period of the US working off its new found addiction to totalitarianism. We have not returned to the chaotic exuberance of unbridled freedom but have been moving that way. Speeded up by the increasing clarity of the complete ineffectiveness of totalitarianism (collapse of Francoism, Soviet Communism, Chinese Market Communism, North Korea, etc.) and slowed down by the rear guard actions of the putative wise men or wanna-be wise men, we have been inching in fits and starts back towards freedom.

It has been a battle between the big gatekeepers (big government, big business, big labor, big religion, etc.) played out around the world and against the interests of the individual. And with the examples of BIG gatekeeping failure and now energized by the distributed aspects of technology (internet, facebook, twitter, etc.), the forces of individualism and inalienable individual rights are gradually making progress. We are in the process, it seems to me, of leaving the era of big gate keepers and are entering the era of the herders. Parties that want to shape the direction of things but can't actually control it tactically. We want to get the herd from the ranch to Cheyenne. The herd makes all the tactical decisions that shape things day-to-day but the cowboys, with little control but a lot of influence, manage the process so that, despite set-backs and diversions and a complete lack of desirable efficiency, the herd does in fact arrive in Cheyenne. Gatekeepers versus herders, engineers versus cowboys.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The radical compression of his attention and sense of himself have allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art

From Why I hate David Foster Wallace and all he stands for by CarlD.

Constraint causation is related to Gladwell's pieces on practice as the determinant of success.
In his piece on Federer DFW says what I wanted to say in my Federer post, only more wittily, elegantly and comprehensively. It’s an exemplary case study of constraint causation, and if I’d known about his piece before I wrote mine I’d be a bad plagiarizer. In his piece on Michael Joyce he oddly enough says more wittily, elegantly and comprehensively what I wanted to say in my Anne-Marie Slaughter post. I’ll pause on this one for a second because DFW does something specifically interesting and encouraging to me here, which is talk about Joyce’s tennis game, and life, using the metaphor of ‘compression’:
Whether or not he ends up in the top ten and a name anybody will know, Michael Joyce will remain a paradox. The restrictions on his life have been, in my opinion, grotesque; and in certain ways Joyce himself is a grotesque. But the radical compression of his attention and sense of himself have allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art — something few of us get to be.
The resonance for me is that this is exactly the metaphor I chose in my dissertation to talk about early 20thC Marxist revolutionary theories. And furthermore, DFW and I seem to be getting at a similar thing, which is that a kind of strategic narrowing focus at all sorts of good things’ expense seems to be necessary to get exceptional things done, whether that be winning tennis shots or smashing the state. Or running America’s foreign affairs, or growing good coffee. Marx’s theory itself is rich with analytical complexity, much too much in fact to get you cleanly to any particular practice – so folks like Lenin figured out soon enough that you had to cut some knots to make a revolution. And to get the theory sharp enough to do that job you had to compress the complexities out and then grind what was left to a hard edge; which of course is where your Stalins and Pol Pots and so on step in – not to say professional athletes are mass murderers, but just that the means of achieving that degree of efficacy seem to be analogous, and the worth-it-ness of it in human terms similarly questionable.
This sentence in particular is the rich and distressing root of so much about which we are consternated.
a kind of strategic narrowing focus at all sorts of good things’ expense seems to be necessary to get exceptional things done, whether that be winning tennis shots or smashing the state.
Excellence and overcoming of obstacles only arises from a narrowing of focus and the outcome is celebrated if the target of achievement is indeed beneficial. The problem is that the narrowing of focus necessary for achievement also precludes adjustment if, in the process of attainment, the target of achievement turns out to have been wrong or ill-shosen.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

That place in the dusty warehouses of my attention economy

From Why I hate David Foster Wallace and all he stands for by CarlD.

Marvellous description of that which is so difficult to describe.
But anyhow, to keep circling around the point without quite getting to it as I gather DFW often did, until recently DFW was in that place in the dusty warehouses of my attention economy occupied by the things people have been a little too insistent I should check out, a place also occupied by Hemingway, Khalil Gibran, “E.T.,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and for reasons that would take a lot of tedious explaining, Cointreau. Things perhaps of substantial intrinsic merit, but already shown by the form of the recommendation, even in their absence, to lend themselves to conversations of awkward and unpleasant intensity, not to mention unearned intimacy.
There is so much interesting out there that has to be prioritized away by the tyranny of not enough time.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Whiling away their leisure hours reading Goethe

I have seen this quote or story referenced a number of times but never tracked it down. It originates from Terry Eagleton, a British Marxist literary critic. I have not been able to track down the original article but have found it referenced here.

Eagleton is addressing the claim that literature is beneficial because hypothetically it boosts empathy and sociological awareness. I don't think his criticism is necessarily convincing but it is persuasive.
One of the traditional rationales for studying literature was, to put it crudely, that it made you a finer sort of person. This case suffered a severe setback when it was discovered that Nazi concentration camp commandants used to while away their leisure hours reading Goethe.

Do knowledge workers disadvantage service workers?

Caught an interesting interview with Richard Florida on NPR this morning. The key message was that in cities that are growing through increasing reliance on knowledge workers, there is also a problem with rising income inequality. The interview then focused on what might be done in order to reduce the inequality arising between knowledge workers and service workers. Florida correctly identifies that it is as an issue of productivity. When the interviewer asked for examples of workable policy solutions, Florida really didn't have anything that hasn't already been tried and found wanting.

The crux for Florida is that
The full effects of talent clustering are even more insidious. Avent points to research by Rebecca Diamond, a graduate student in economics at Harvard, which shows that this sorting process involves migrations away from as well as to knowledge-based metros. As she puts it, "[t]he combination of desirable wage and amenity growth for all workers causes large amounts of in-migration, as college workers are particularly attracted by desirable amenities, while low skill workers are particularly attracted by desirable wages." But this leads directly to higher housing costs, which according to Diamond "disproportionately discourage low skill workers from living in these high wage, high amenity cities." This creates an additional level of inequality — inequality of well-being — where more skilled workers not only take home more money, but benefit from better neighborhoods, superior amenities, and better schools. This well-being inequality, Diamond explains, is an additional 20 percent higher than can be explained by the simple wage gap between college and high school grads.
The whole interview was a great example of the critical meandering that we do - sometimes to a productive end and sometimes not. The researchers are well intentioned and using useful research tools towards important ends, but because they are more hedgehogs (they know one small thing well) than foxes (they know a little about many things), I think they end up in the wrong place.

In this case there is a lot of meat for discussion. The first issue is whether income inequality is actually rising in these cities. Let's accept that it is for argument purposes.

The next issue is whether income inequality is a problem. If we are in a zero-sum situation it certainly could be, but what about the case where all parties are realizing increases in income and well-being, it is just that some are increasing at a faster rate than others? This was the case in the US in the 1990s and early 2000s. The consequence of this scenario is that we have both rising well-being and rising inequality. This might offend our sense of equity but does it have any real-world consequence? I have seen no empirical evidence that it does. And is there anything that can be done about it? That also is not clear. All OECD countries have seen increases in their income inequality distributions in the past three decades. Some have more equal distributions than others but all are becoming more unequal for reasons we do not understand. It almost seems as if rising income inequality is a consequence of income growth.

But let's go back one step further. What is the evidence that there is increasing inequality in cities that are growing by switching to a knowledge worker economy. This finding is discussed in Richard Florida's article More Losers Than Winners in America's New Economic Geography. The first thing to note is that, as is so often the case, the strong conclusions are based on relatively few data points demonstrating rather weak correlations. We want to know answers to our important questions but our data is insufficiently robust to provide reliable answers. So we go with the tentative indications the data does provide and in our conversation we quickly lose all the caveats and hedgings that we start out with and end up treating these weakly indicative results as if they were true results.

That's just the nature of these discussions - something to be guarded against but a frequent problem.

More fundamental is what appears to me to be a problem with temporal misalignment in the researchers study. It appears to me that the researchers are not dealing with apples to apples comparisons. Specifically they are looking at Income levels and Housing costs, failing to take into account that these are driven by quite different variables. It is like treating operating expenses and capital expenses as the same thing because they both are expressed in dollars. You can get away with that for a short while but any business that fails to account for the differences between operating expenses and capital expenses is soon out of business.

The key finding that the researchers arrive at is that in cities with high concentrations of knowledge workers, the price of houses goes up. New knowledge workers coming in can afford the inflated prices of housing. New service workers coming in, who may be paid more than they used to be before the conversion to the knowledge driven economy, will still not be paid enough more to cover the inflation in housing and therefore are worse off. To the researchers, this represents a problem of income inequality. Their proposed solutions are the tired old ones of minimum wage, better education and training, etc.

The first observation I have is that I think they have missed the boat because of temporal misalignment. They are looking at the prospective impact not on the actual impact. In other words, it is true that for new workers coming into the new economy, those that are lower compensated service workers will be less able to afford inflated housing than knowledge workers and will be worse off than the knowledge workers. They may be better off than they were and they may be better off than where they came from but they are comparatively worse off than those in the more remunerative fields. But this seems a little like bemoaning the fact that we can't eliminate the problem that there is always a bottom 20%. If everyone is better off, then what are we worried about?

The related observation is that the temporal misalignment misses out on other beneficiaries. There is one set of issues for newcomers as described above. There is another issue for those already here. Existing low-income homeowners benefit from the inflation of their capital stock. What was once a $50,000 home in a marginal neighborhood is now a $200,000 home in a rising neighborhood. The low-income worker can choose to stay with the rising tide, in which case they are unaffected by the issue that the researchers are concerned about (income adjusted for new housing costs), or they can realize a sizeable capital benefit by selling and moving to another neighborhood that has not experienced the increase.

In a dynamic economy of decision-making agents there are near infinite trade-offs to be made: consume now or save for later; realize capital gains or maintain investment, reduce capital costs by increasing commuting costs, etc. The question is what are the net benefits and costs and who are the winners and are there any losers. Do the costs experienced by new incoming service workers outweigh the benefits to the existing property owning service workers? I don't know the answer but I know that we need to know before we start getting too concerned about the new workers.

There is another temporal issue in the researchers analysis and that is one of time period. They are taking a snapshot in time rather than a long term perspective of before and after. Famously, the Chinese Prime Minister Chou En Lai, when asked what the net effect of the French Revolution had been, is supposed to have answered "It's too soon to tell."

Similarly with a dynamic economic system. Because of stickiness of wages, price of consumer goods, and capital costs there will always be smaller or larger gaps in the market. Housing prices rise and fall, out of synch with wages which rise and fall for given types of work, and which are out of synch with the cost of food and energy rising and falling. Where there is open competition in a free market not sullied by collusion, regulatory capture and rent seeking defects, those market imbalances between supply and demand will clear relatively quickly. It does little good to obsess about the near term imbalances. What is important is what are the long term implications and who are the long term winners and losers. In the scenario the researchers are looking at, they are expressing concern that new service workers coming in are at a disadvantage to new knowledge workers because of their differential in productivity and because of the increased costs of housing. But all that is evidence of is that the market participants are using the pricing mechanism to signal relative degrees of scarcity and abundance. Left to its own, the market will come to some equilibrium over some extent of time. Service workers wages will rise to cover the cost of housing, service work will be replaced by automation, public transportation will improve to allow low income service workers to live elsewhere more cheaply, an excess supply of knowledge workers will lead to a decline in knowledge worker income leading to a reduction in inflationary pressure on housing: there are an infinite number of combinations that are likely to arise.

And that is the beauty of the market - in a system characterized by change, uncertainty, internal feedback mechanisms, etc. it is not possible to accurately forecast long term outcomes. Instead innumerable autonomous decision-making agents individually and unconsciously evolve to a sophisticated answer to the incomprehensible problem.

It would seem to me that the researchers, absent a grounding in market mechanisms and economics, are potentially obsessing about what might be a non-problem.

But while I suspect that their putative concern is misplaced and that their research is flawed, it is still a good catalyst for critical thinking about important issues.

One other thought is prompted by their research and the radio interview. I am confident that Florida is absolutely correct that the crux of the issue is productivity, even if we are not clear or confident about how to create the circumstances for increased productivity.

The paucity and sheer exhaustion of their proposed solutions does usefully prompt the question, what is the essential distinction between the characteristics of a successful service worker (success being predicated and measured in terms of productivity) and a successful knowledge worker? What is involved in raising the productivity of either group? Here is my take on it.

Service workers productivity is much more dependent on non-cognitive skills (behaviors and values) than manufacturing workers and knowledge workers. Manufacturing worker's productivity to a material degree and Knowledge worker's productivity to a very significant degree are much more dependent on cognitive skills (knowledge, skills & experience, decision-making).

The courses of action necessary to improve knowledge, experience and decision-making are quite different than the courses of action necessary to improve values and behaviors. Not only are they different but they are easier to reach consensus on. We are likely to reach agreement on the necessary body of knowledge, the experience and the decision-making components of a manufacturing or knowledge worker job much more readily than we are to agree on the most critical behaviors and values necessary for improved service worker productivity.

My overall concluison is that Florida is propbably wrong, but in attempting to make his argument, he is usefully wrong.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Grant that the knowledge I get may be the knowledge which is worth having

From the preface by Matthew Arnold to The Six Chief Lives from Johnson's "Lives of the Poets".
Da mihi, Domine, scire quod sciendum est — "Grant that the knowledge I get may be the knowledge which is worth having!" — the spirit of that prayer ought to rule our education. How little it does rule it, every discerning man will acknowledge. Life is short, and our faculties of attention and of recollection are limited; in education we proceed as if our life were endless, and our powers of attention and recollection inexhaustible. We have not time or strength to deal with half of the matters which are thrown upon our minds, they prove a useless load to us. When some one talked to Themistocles of an art of memory, he answered: "Teach me rather to forget!" The sarcasm well criticises the fatal want of proportion between what we put into our minds and their real needs and powers.

From the time when first I was led to think about education, this want of proportion is what has most struck me. It is the great obstacle to progress, yet it is by no means remarked and contended against as it should be. It hardly begins to present itself until we pass beyond the strict elements of education, — beyond the acquisition, I mean, of reading, of writing, and of calculating so far as the operations of common life require. But the moment we pass beyond these, it begins to appear. Languages, grammar, literature, history, geography, mathematics, the knowledge of nature, — what of these is to be taught, how much, and how? There is no clear, well-grounded consent. The same with religion. Religion is surely to be taught, but what of it is to be taught, and how? A clear, well-grounded, consent is again wanting. And taught in such fashion as things are now, how often must a candid and sensible man, if he could be offered an art of memory to secure all that he has learned of them, as to a very great deal of it be inclined to say with Themistocles: "Teach me rather to forget!"

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

We should be concerned about the trust limit

From What if Stimulus Works--But Only in Theory? by Megan McArdle.

I think there are good reasons to doubt the Keynesian stimulus model on theoretical grounds. Regardless of the theory, there are even more reasons to doubt it based on empirical grounds. In the past five years virtually all OECD economies have struggled. A small handful such as Ireland and Iceland have taken the real austerity road, actually shrinking government expenditures in real terms. Many, such as Britain, have taken the mock austerity road by continuing to grow government expenditures but just not as fast as they used to do. And then there are plenty of countries who have attempted to restart growth by very high levels of government deficit spending such as US, France, Italy, etc.

Nobody has demonstrated that any one set of policies has been successful. The Germans have probably weathered the storm the best and they are much closer to the austerity model than the stimulus model.

The pro-stimulus, deficit spending team has argued that the stimulus spending has been too small in individual countries (close to a trillion dollars in the US), too prolonged (spread out over too many years to have an effect in one year), of the wrong sort (consumption spending rather than strategic infrastructure spending which might have positive productivity impacts later), or have been hostage to the global macro-economy. Addressing any one of these criticisms takes you into budget amounts of a size to make your eyes water. McArdle concludes:
In short, I'm wondering if rather than being tried and found wanting, Keynesianism hasn't been found impossible and left untried. Whether the amount of stimulus needed to jolt the economy back to trend isn't simply too large to pass political muster. It's hard to see a situation short of total war where that kind of money could be authorized or spent in the requisite period of time.
Perhaps. But I think there is something further to her analysis. A political system is at its most basic, a flawed mechanism for coordinating individual interests into aggregate action. It is marginally effective when it comes to existential threats such as natural catastrophes, war, etc. It is decidedly inadequate for quotidian decisions which are usually better handled via the mechanism of free choices made in the free market.

The political system, it seems to me, is much less well-equipped to deal with chronic problems that are not tactically threatening. We go from year to year making do, but don't face a clear and present tactical threat of a hurricane or an invasion. We have to make some big decisions of a strategic nature that touch on issues such as fairness, intergenerational contracts, incremental health affects, etc.

In a system predicated on free agents making individual choices, there are even greater constraints on the types of actions which an elected government can take. As McArdle says, the issues are "too large to pass political muster." It seems to me that this implies something even more fundamental. We are a nation that is rich in financial and human capital. There is little that, where there is a clear course of action towards a goal with which all agree, we cannot accomplish. But the more heterogeneous we are in terms of our goals, the less likelihood there is that we can agree on a course of action and shared sacrifice.

That is one huge barrier but one which can be theoretically overcome through argument and persuasion. I think the even greater implication is that we have reached a Trust ceiling. Forget the debt limit, we should be concerned about the trust limit.

Whenever a body, whether a charity, or business or one such as Congress, asks for my resources, I have to assess the request in light of whether I trust that body to use that money well and wisely and with little rent seeking, regulatory capture or outright corruption. If the amounts being asked for are small, then I will likely not go through an elaborate review. The more material the amounts asked for, the more I will call those questions in to play. If the requests are of such an amount that they affect not only my financial well-being but that of my children and grandchildren as well, then those questions are paramount.

The amounts being bandied about by the Keynesians are now so large, not just a trillion but many trillions, that the question of trust is the real limiter of action. I think we have hit the trust ceiling. We all may agree that we are in the midst of great change and that there is a role for government in easing the change and that there are good objectives on which most can agree. But we all are likely to have such grave reservations about the intelligence, competency, integrity and effectiveness of our political leaders that regardless of the need and worthiness of goals, we will not extend that level of trust to them. We have hit the trust limit.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Those whose success is the result of steady accretion

From How They Succeeded (1901) by Orison Swett Marden, Ch. 2. Quoting Alxander Graham Bell.
The most successful men in the end are those whose success is the result of steady accretion. That intellectuality is more vigorous that has attained its strength gradually. It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider — and progressively better able to grasp any theme or situation — persevering in what he knows to be practical, and concentrating his thought upon it, who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree.
Interestingly, the sentiment echoes Thomas Sowell's discussion about the success of minority middlemen in his Black Rednecks, White Liberals which I am currently reading and will post on separately. One of several key points Sowell makes is that the pattern of success amongst minority middlemen has been relatively stable across countries, cultures and centuries. They come in with little in terms of either expertise or capital, work much harder than the locals, consume much less, take more risks, accumulate more capital, invest in the future (particularly in next generation education), and rely to a greater extent on intra-group trust. In other words, their strategy is one "whose success is the result of steady accretion."

As a consequence of their success they are frequently scorned, shunned, or persecuted. Because they are so often ethnic or religious minorities, the prejudice against them is usually attributed to ethnic or religious bias but Sowell makes the strong case that ethnicity and religion are simply proxies. The persecution is better understood as envy and prejudice against the behaviors and the role of middlemen.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Individuals work and produce goods and services to earn money for present or future consumption

From Rich States, Poor States by Arthur B. Laffer, Stephen Moore, and Jonathan Williams.

Always a sucker for lists. Ten Golden Rules of Effective Taxation
1 - When you tax something more you get less of it, and when you tax something less you get more of it.

2 - Individuals work and produce goods and services to earn money for present or future consumption.

3 - Taxes create a wedge between the cost of working and the rewards from working.

4 - An increase in tax rates will not lead to a dollar-for-dollar increase in tax revenues, and a reduction in tax rates that encourages production will lead to less than a dollar-for-dollar reduction in tax revenues.

5 - If tax rates become too high, they may lead to a reduction in tax receipts. The relationship between tax rates and tax receipts has been described by the Laffer Curve.

6 - The more mobile the factors being taxed, the larger the response to a change in tax rates. The less mobile the factor, the smaller the change in the tax base for a given change in tax rates.

7 - Raising tax rates on one source of revenue may reduce the tax revenue from other sources, while reducing the tax rate on one activity may raise the taxes raised from other activities.

8 - An economically efficient tax system has a sensible, broad base and a low rate.

9 - Income transfer (welfare) payments also create a de facto tax on work and, thus, have a high impact on the vitality of a state’s economy.

10 - If A and B are two locations, and if taxes are raised in B and lowered in A, producers and manufacturers will have a greater incentive to move from B to A.
I suspect that 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, and 10 are each almost certainly true based on empirical evidence. 4 and 5 are certainly true under defined circumstances. 8 is simply a value judgment based on an unstated goal.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

All models are wrong, but some are useful.

All measurements are a representation of reality, some more accurate and more precise than others. In many instances we become accustomed to acting as if the measures are reality but they are not, as reality periodically reminds us. Likewise with models with allow us to produce forecasts of greater or lesser accuracy and precision. An idea which Box and Draper neatly capture.

From Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces by George E. P. Box and Norman R. Draper, p. 424
All models are wrong, but some are useful.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus

From How They Succeeded (1901) by Orison Swett Marden, Ch. 2. Quoting Alxander Graham Bell.
Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Pareto, taxes and job growth

From a Wall Street Journal editorial this interesting fact.
A new analysis by economist Art Laffer for the American Legislative Exchange Council finds that, from 2002 to 2012, 62% of the three million net new jobs in America were created in the nine states without an income tax, though these states account for only about 20% of the national population. The no-income tax states have had more stable revenue growth, while states like New York, New Jersey and California that depend on the top 1% of earners for nearly half of their income-tax revenue suffer wide and destabilizing swings in their tax collections.
Patterns surround us and often fall into very familiar forms, pareto distribution being one of them. This would appear to be one of those patterns - 20% of the population is generating 60% of the job growth. Sometimes patterns have significance and sometimes they are simply artifacts of randomness. In this case, the WSJ wants to see a pattern between states with no-income tax policies and job growth. Likely there is some sort of causal relationship between the two patterns but also likely it is much more complicated than that. Regardless of the wider implications, I find it interesting.

These English teachers who imagine they are serving up delight are making it hateful

Here is an interesting discussion and set of observations from Ann Althouse. While the specific topic is the writing style of a book popular with a certain cast of mind, Beloved, I think Althouse's key observation is the difference in impact between elective reading and coerced reading. The same book, when read under circumstances of coercion, may be loathed whereas it has a completely different impact when read freely.

The discussion.
The book is a pain to read if you're not into [it]. I would never force anyone to read that book. The writing style is enough to give nightmares.
Robert Cook said:
Oh, rather like THE GREAT GATSBY, eh?
Let me answer that here on the front page, because this is important. Yes. It is like "The Great Gatsby." Neither book should be forced on anyone. It's destructive of the capacity to appreciate exactly what is most notable, the strange locutions. If you are not in the mood to get inside those sentences and luxuriate and ideate, it's a damned pain. If you've been assigned the book and so you feel like powering through it, everything that's good about it will feel like a speed bump. People hate speed bumps. These English teachers who imagine they are serving up delight are making it hateful.

I've said this already, but I don't keep repeating it as I've blogged about isolated sentences from "The Great Gatsby" in my "Gatsby" project. So let me point out one place where I made the point clearly:
My initial motivation was love. I thought of all the high school students — I remember being one — who were assigned this book and made to read the whole thing. That being the task, the really interesting sentences are speed bumps. They're completely annoying. You can't take the time to figure them out. What should be loved is hated. Later in life, I reread the book and enjoyed it, because of the worthiness of individual sentences.
The writing style of "Beloved" is, in my opinion, much, much worse than "The Great Gatsby." Chances are, a high school student will resist the project of reading this material, especially since the teacher might not emphasize the artistry of the style. It may be administered medicinally, by a teacher who wants her presumably bland and cosseted students to vicariously inhabit the condition of slavery. This is a terrible idea. Recommend "Beloved" for optional, outside reading and give the students the 19th century narratives written by Americans who were themselves enslaved. That's real and that's free of the pretensions of poetry.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

There is a wealth of human stories waiting for an audience beyond their original narrow confines.

From For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II by Mike Dash. Fascinating.

I posted on something similar a couple of years ago, A Commanding Sense of Duty.

From the Russian article:
The sight that greeted the geologists as they entered the cabin was like something from the middle ages. Jerry-built from whatever materials came to hand, the dwelling was not much more than a burrow—"a low, soot-blackened log kennel that was as cold as a cellar," with a floor consisting of potato peel and pine-nut shells. Looking around in the dim light, the visitors saw that it consisted of a single room. It was cramped, musty and indescribably filthy, propped up by sagging joists—and, astonishingly, home to a family of five.
One of the wonderful things about the reconnecting of the world as a part of globalization are the gradual unearthing of human stories from the far corners.

I was thinking of this the other day when I finished Eric M. Hammel's Six Days of June: How Israel Won the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. It is a bit logistically detailed but an interesting read none-the-less. The Six Day War proceded in a rolling sequence, roughly two days conquering the Sinai, then two days conquering the West Bank and finally two days conquering the Golan Heights with a little bit of overlap between each theater. Absolutely incredible.

While Hammel's account is rich in military details, it is relatively light on the human stories. One of the striking elements was the series of flash encounters in the Sinai where Israeli and Egyptian forces would suddenly collide, sometimes unexpectedly. In the resulting battle, the Israeli would usually smash through with Egyptian soldiers retreating singly into the Sinai desert.

And my question was: what happened to those retreating soldiers. I am sure that most of the tens of thousands would have given themselves up to the Israelis within a few days. Some most likely would have been lured into the desert wilderness and died. But likely there were some that probably found ways of surviving for days and weeks. Some might have been able to retreat across the desert to rejoin other Egyptian units. And perhaps a very few might have made their way all the way back across the Suez Canal into Egypt.

We have those level of stories from out western wars; Battle of the Bulge, Guadalcanal,Philippines, etc. and even from some more remote battles such as Stalingrad and Leningrad.

But what about those Egyptian stories? Were they told and written about in Egypt but have never made it into the western press? In other words, they exist but just need to be circulated. Or maybe those stories were told but just not in a western fashion to appeal to a broader public. Or were those stories never told and/or never written down?

I don't know but I think there is the prospect, just as in this story out of Russia, that there is a wealth of human stories waiting for an audience beyond their original narrow confines.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Evolution, accumulation, and corruption

Looking at modern society and economics from a systems evolutionary perspective I wonder if the status quo in terms of inequality is not actually beneficial from a systems perspective.

A person uses several critical capacities to ride the storm of exogenous events through life: knowledge, skills and experience, values and behaviors, imagination and decision-making. There will be some component of those achieving life success (healthy, wealthy and wise leading to survival and propagation) who are simply lucky. The greater majority of those achieving success though, owing to the simple volume of exogenous events, will have achieved success via superior knowledge, skills and experience, values and behaviors, imagination and decision-making.

Continued success depends specifically on some form of useful forecasting, i.e. recognizing empirical patterns and cause-and-effect relationships that can be used to accurately forecast future events/scenarios. Successful forecasting permits better preparation and therefore greater probability of continued or increased success. Small capital accumulation permits small, tactical near-term forecasting and risk taking. Large amounts of capital permit larger, strategic, longer-term forecasting (with greater returns if accurate and well prepared for.)

Assuming that life success is not simply random but is purposefully achievable, then you definitely want more capital distributed to those with the greater display of repeated and continuing life success. The challenge of course is that there is a great deal of noise in the system with effective forecasters statistically likely to have bad patches.

What you don't want to have happen is for all capital to be equally divided. Those that have poor knowledge, skills and experience, values and behaviors, imagination and decision-making and/or are unable to make useful forecasts that can be productively acted upon will simply dissipate the scarce capital.

All that seems logical but it then raises the issue of how to ensure that capital accumulation occurs on true merit/effectiveness and not through corruption, collusion, rent-seeking or regulatory capture. An efficient economy (rewards going to those that are effective) has to be corralled by structures that preclude corruption, collusion, rent-seeking or regulatory capture. Ay, there's the rub. Too many people mistakenly wish to reduce the accumulation rather than prevent the corruption.

Muddling through

From Hope or Despair? Roger Kimball and the Future of Culture by Wilfred M. McClay.

I love the description (emphasis added):
As this discussion will suggest, and as his fine book makes clear, Kimball is a conservative in the Burkean mold and an exponent of the great Anglo-American tradition of concrete, anti-ideological, unsystematic, decentralized, and organic forms of organization—the technique of “muddling through,” as it is unglamorously but affectionately known to many of us. He is also clearly an advocate for the idea of the Anglosphere, the notion, popularized by James Bennett but implicit in the writings of Winston Churchill, among others, that the English-speaking peoples have been granted, through the incomparable tools of the English language and culture, a special gift for understanding and upholding “the commitment to individual freedom and local initiative against the meddlesome intrusion of any central authority.”

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

For the next 10 years, she's unparented, she's unschooled

Simply amazing. From Tina Brown's Must-Reads: Hidden Lives by NPR Staff
Brown's first pick is tech entrepreneur Ping Fu's memoir, Bend, Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds, which tells the story of the Chinese native's rise from a Cultural Revolution re-education camp to the forefront of American digital prowess.

"Her telling what she went through as a young girl whose life was utterly blown apart by the Cultural Revolution, and how she winds up getting here and becoming this enormously successful tech entrepreneur, is absolutely compelling," Brown says.

Ping was raised in Shanghai by her adopted parents, but when Mao Zedong's anti-elitist Cultural Revolution swept the country in early 1966, 8-year-old Ping was removed from her parents and sent to live in a prisonlike camp in Nanjing. "Bitter meals" — composed of dung and dirt — and a gang rape ensue, all part of a considered effort to humiliate and dehumanize her, to demonstrate her worthlessness as an individual.

"For the next 10 years, she's unparented, she's unschooled," says Brown. But "at the end of the Cultural Revolution she goes to university; she writes this incredibly brave thesis about infanticide in China."

Because of that thesis, Ping was forced to leave China, ending up in the United States "with just a few dollars in her pocket."

She enrolled in the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, and eventually became a renowned technological entrepreneur — all because of her own skills and brilliance, Brown says.

"Her philosophical thoughts ... her stoic ability to understand the patient lessons that she learned and apply them to her thoughts about survival and love ... it's very, very moving, indeed," Brown says.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Endogenous acquisition of skills

A striking insight from Jeff Ely in his postThe Best At What They Do . He is looking at who are the best athletes independent of the constraints of a particular sport. If you are 7 foot, you make the grade for being a basketball player but you may not be all that great an athlete for a couple of reasons.
When you look at a competition where one of the inputs of the production function is an exogenously distributed characteristic, players with a high endowment on that dimension have a head start. This has two effects on the distribution of the (partially) acquired characteristics that enter the production function. First, there is the pure statistical effect I alluded to above. If success requires some minimum height then the pool of competitors excludes a large component of the population.

There is a second effect on endogenous acquisition of skills. Competition is less intense and they have less incentive to acquire skills in order to be competitive. So even current NBA players are less talented than they would be if competition was less exclusive.
Another way to look at this is who are the best athletes in sports which have the least restrictions based on exogenous factors? The fewer the barriers to entry, the greater the pool of competitors and therefore the greater the degree of competition on those attributes truly critical to success in that field.

Ely makes this seem a little cleaner than it is. Yes, basketball really does require height but just how critical is height and is there a breakpoint. The average NBA basketball player is 6 feet 7 inches but there is likely something of a normal curve around that average. Apparently, most players are at least 6 foot 3 inches. The shortest player was 5 foot 3 inches. So the breakpoint can be taken as either 5' 3" or 6' 3". I suspect that 6' 3" is the more reasonable breakpoint. At 6' 3", that is a breakpoint that does preclude a huge portion of the population.

What I want to do is try and frame Ely's insight into the issue of life success (health, wealth, and wisdom). Are there any biological attributes which materially enhance or degrade the probability of life success and the extent of life success? There are all sorts of interesting associations such as height and success, IQ and success, etc. but none of them have any real preclusionary function. There are large number of successful short people and large numbers of medium IQ at the top of the success curve.

When you think of what are the components of an individual's success it usually comes down to five elements 1) their values (what do they aim for), 2) their behaviors, 3) their skills and experience, 4) their portfolio of knowledge and, 5) their decision-making capacity.

None of these are in any obvious way biologically limited though there is a weak association between IQ and profession (Modern IQ ranges for various occupations) and between profession and income (May 2011 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates)

My inference is that there is close to an open market on life success with the five factors of values, behaviors, knowledge, skills and decision-making being the prime drivers of outcomes.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Hast thou well considered all that Habit does in this life of ours?"

From The End of Premarital Sex by Eve Tushnet.
Freitas found that students at evangelical Christian colleges were often the exception to the inarticulate rule. Freitas criticized many aspects of Christian college culture, but she was impressed by the degree to which these students, almost alone among their peers, were able to think clearly about the intersection of ethics and desire.
I am reading a couple of other books right now, The De-Moralization of Society by Gertrude Himmelfarb which looks at the modern faulty interpretation of Victorian morality. Himmelfarb's basic message is that the shallow modern glib assessment is that Victorians were a bunch of hypocrites because they failed to fully practice the moral goals to which they held others accountable. Himmelfarb's point is that they are not hypocritical when they also hold themselves accountable for their own shortfalls from the moral ideal. Page 26, discussing William Gladstone's diaries.
But the diaries are also (like Carlyle's memoirs, or Mill's autobiography, or Eliot's letters) sobering. For they remind us that the eminent Victorians were not only eminently human, with all the failings and frailties of the species, but also eminently moral. They did not take sin lightly - their own or anyone' else's. If they were censorious of others, they were also guilt-ridden about themselves. They were not hypocrites in the sense of pretending to be more virtuous than they were. On the contrary, they deliberately, even obsessively, confessed their sins. If they did not all punish themselves quite in the manner of Gladstone, they did suffer in private and behave as best they could in public. They affirmed, in effect, the principles of morality even if they could not always act in accordance with those principles.
I am also reading Three Empires on the Nile (the British Empire and Egypt in the Sudan in the late 1800's) by Dominic Green which has this to say about the interesting confluence of commercial opportunity, religious/moral fervor and scientific excitement at the end of the nineteenth century:
The third factor blended economic optimism and the Evangelical urgency with another aspect of the Victorian mentality. Africa was a mystery, and this, the age of Darwin, Sherlock Holmes, and the crossword puzzle, was the great age of problem solving. Even the Africans had no idea how many Great Lakes their continent contained, which mountain was the highest, which river the longest. This blankness was an affront to science. For, apart from being the age of popular religion, this was also an age of popular science.
Add to the mix my thoughts during the sermon in church today which was based on the reading from Corinthians (1 Corinthians 13:1-13). The priest made the point that this is one of the most popular passages in the Bible, particularly for those about to marry and that it is challenging to render the reading fresh because of its popularity.

My train of thought was along the lines of volume. Americans are by far the most religious members of the OECD community. Acknowledging that Americans attend church but not every Sunday, let's assume that most Americans hear 20 sermons a year. By the time they have reached 50, they have heard roughly 1,000 deep meditations on a variety of complex and abstract moral issues. That would be roughly the equivalent of a degree in theology or philosophy. That is a huge amount of cognitive investment which is rewarding, useful, and completely beneath the radar.

To Tushnet's point, one of the consequences of the secularization of society is not just the erosion of common moral principles and values but potentially an encroaching ignorance. If, for whatever reason, you are not thinking about important things, you are unlikely to have reasoned views and opinions. Tushnet again:
The second important point is that although Regnerus and Uecker build a strong case that they have discerned many of the underlying foundations of young adults’ sexual ethics, when the people themselves were asked to explain the beliefs behind their sexual choices they found it extraordinarily difficult. Their sentences became garbled and rambling, full of shamefaced backtracking (“It’s one of those things. It’s not, I’m sure I’m just justifying, but it’s something that I’m really, I don’t know, I can’t say for us. I know I’m speaking a horribly illogical argument”) and acknowledged self-contradictions. Donna Freitas found the same phenomenon among the college students she worked with in her 2008 study, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America’s College Campuses. These bright, articulate young adults turned into Raymond Carver characters when they were asked to describe the beliefs underlying their sexual behavior—especially how those beliefs related to their religious faith.
As Thomas Carlyle said in History of the French Revolution, "Rash enthusiast of change, beware! Hast thou well considered all that Habit does in this life of ours?"

Park the issue of the majority of people not being "able to think clearly about the intersection of ethics and desire." What happens when people are not able to think clearly about ethics or simply choose not to do so.

Assumptions dressed up in a lab coat

An interesting study that highlights the blinders worn by all people including academic researchers. E! Science News reports on research purporting to demonstrate the difficulty of getting people to change their mind. The article is False beliefs persist, even after instant online corrections. I don’t disagree with the conclusion of the researchers:
Garrett said the results of this study cast doubt on the theory that people who believe false rumors need only to be educated about the truth to change their minds.

"Humans aren't vessels into which you can just pour accurate information," he said.

"Correcting misperceptions is really a persuasion task. You have to convince people that, while there are competing claims, one claim is clearly more accurate."
I believe all that to be true but I don’t believe that their experiment actually supports the conclusion.

Here is the description of the experiment:
The experiment was designed to see what would happen when participants read false statements copied from a "political blog" (actually text prepared by the researchers) about the issue of electronic health records.

While some of the information, collected from news stories and government sources, was correct, the researchers also inserted several false statements about who was allowed access to these records. For instance, the message falsely claimed that hospital administrators, health insurance companies and even government officials had unrestricted access to people's electronic health records.
You probably see the problem right away. Take the example of the “false” statement that “health insurance companies and even government officials had unrestricted access to people's electronic health records.” Clearly the academicians interpret that because health insurance companies and government officials aren’t supposed to have access to these records, then they don’t. This is empirically false. There are lots of things that aren’t supposed to happen but do happen with regularity.

So how are the participants in the experiment supposed to be reacting.

This an issue of theory versus experience, of definitions and assumptions. For an academic mind it may be believable that if there is a rule against something then if anyone else, based on their experience, observes that the rules don’t determine reality, then they are wrong.

But who is wrong here? The theorist that believes rules determine reality or the pragmatist who bases their assessment of reality not on the rules but on experience.

So when an academic corrects someone by providing them further affirmation of the theory and the participant doesn’t change their mind because nothing has been done to change their experience, is the academic correct in concluding that participant minds aren’t easily changed? I would say no. I would argue that the academic has utterly failed to understand the nature of the process and they are blinded by their own prejudices and unstated assumptions.

Let’s imagine an alternative example. The IRS has elaborate security precautions in place to protect personal financial data from hackers and from inappropriate use by government employees. There are easily a dozen or more reports a year of instances, where, despite the precautions, personal records are compromised or stolen, sometimes millions of records at a time and are accessed inappropriately by IRS agents, other agencies, and by politicians. It happens all the time even though it should not.

The academic knows that the precautions are in place and that they ought to work. Say someone reads of these multiple instances where the security guidelines are breached. The academic reminds them correctly that there are all these security regulations. If the subject still believes that hackers and government employees can access personal records, would we really judge, as the researchers in this exercise have, that the subject was resistant to being corrected? I wouldn’t come to that conclusion. Reality trumps theory.

We see this all the time in the field of psychology and sociological research. The embedded assumptions of the researchers determine the outcome. So it sounds like science, kind of looks like science, is reported as science but all it is ignorance, prejudice, and assumptions dressed up in a lab coat.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Every one of those common assumptions is simplistic, misguided, or downright wrong

A week or two ago I had a post, The Texas-Wisconsin Paradox talking about how comparisons between systems is very dependent on comparing apples-to-apples.

As if to drive home the point, there is a new study examining the PISA international education results. Despite spending more per student than anybody else, the US usually ends up somewhere in the middle on math and reading scores. In my paradox post I mentioned this in passing and indicated my skepticism that PISA was adequately taking into account the cultural heterogeneity of the US.

As if to validate my point, Derek Thompson summarizes a new study in his post, Why Gloomy Pundits and Politicians Are Wrong About America's Education System .
Here's what everybody knows about education in the United States. It's broken. It's failing our poorest students and codding the richest. Americans are falling desperately behind the rest of the developed world.

But here's what a new study from the Economic Policy Institute tells us about America's education system: Every one of those common assumptions is simplistic, misguided, or downright wrong.

When you break down student performance by social class, a more complicated, yet more hopeful, picture emerges, highlighted by two pieces of good news. First, our most disadvantaged students have improved their math scores faster than most comparable countries. Second, our most advantaged students are world-class readers.

Why break down international test scores by social class? In just about every country, poor students do worse than rich students. America's yawning income inequality means our international test sample has a higher share of low-income students, and their scores depress our national average. An apples-to-apples comparison of Americans students to their international peers requires us to control for social class and compare the performances of kids from similarly advantaged and disadvantaged homes.
It doesn't come out all that clearly in the post but apparently most other countries are oversampling participants in the tests from the higher income/social classes, groups who normally perform better on such tests. So, if I am reading the study correctly, the US had 20% of its test taking participants from the bottom quintile of income; what you would expect. On the other hand, Finland only had 6% of test takers from the bottom quintile. Of course their average is going to be higher.

This reminds me of the first time I encountered this apples-and-oranges issue as it relates to education measurement. I was in college and had only been back in the US three or four years and was still learning much information which my peers took for granted. I was particularly struck by the fact that Iowa had such an outstanding educational system based on a comparison of their SAT results to those achieved by other states. It was a couple of years before I discovered that in addition to SATs there was another standardized test, the ACT. In Iowa, as it turned out, everyone took the ACT but only those going on to college, and in particular those going out of state to university, would take the SAT. The consequence was that Iowa was reporting an SAT average for the top 5% of their students and was comparing it to states where all students took the SAT. One of my early lessons in making sure that apples are being compared to apples.

The report that Thompson discusses doesn't answer all the questions but it at least sheds light on some of the underlying issues of race, emigrant status, class, income, etc. that hinder like-to-like comparisons.

Friday, February 1, 2013

I want to make it better. Not perfect.

Ed Koch, former Mayor of New York City, died today. In the remembrances, I heard this interview played. A marvelously modest but effective goal.
I want to get things done. I want to make it better. Not perfect.
Seems like so many politicians are now trying to make things perfect when they would be better advised simply to try and make them better. Fewer unintended consequences that way and you are likely to make at least some progress.

His curiosity did not get the better of him

Its funny how focus can make such a difference. I read a lot of exploration and maritime literature and have long been aware of the facts outlined in He Could Have Discovered America, but He Wanted to See His Parents by Matt Soniak.

But in all other accounts, the focus was on Leif Ericson and Bjarni Herjólfsson was merely a cameo character. By making him the focus of the article, no new knowledge was created for me by the author but a new perspective was provided.
Unbeknownst to him or to anyone else at the time, those strange lands that Bjarni had refused to stop at were Canadian shores. Historians think that the first hilly, wooded land was Newfoundland, the second flat, wooded land was Labrador, and the third rocky place was Baffin Island.

Not only had Bjarni come within spitting distance of the New World and then turned around without checking it out, he practically handed over his place in the history books to someone else. After his father died, Bjarni resumed voyaging, and made reports of his Greenland trip when he returned to Iceland and Norway. Leif Ericson (son of Eric the Red) got wind of the story and went to Bjarni to learn more. Leif then purchased the ship Bjarni had made the voyage in and set out with 35 men to see the lands that Bjarni had described.

Leif became the first European to land in the mainland Americas and the first to establish a settlement there. Bjarni, meanwhile, got lost in history after selling his ship. Not much is known about him other than the fact that his curiosity did not get the better of him.