Thursday, November 30, 2017

Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology

From The Social Conquest of Earth by Edward O. Wilson.
Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.

Governors arrived, became embroiled in petty local politics, typically were recalled, killed, died of disease

From Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson. Page 201.
The conquistador in the New World in the century after Columbus’s discovery was a law unto himself; there was little imperial oversight in the underpopulated and vast American domains. Foreigners were excluded from Central and South America — the French and English especially were not welcome. Governors arrived, became embroiled in petty local politics, typically were recalled, killed, died of disease — or looted the province under their care. The Spanish monarchy was nearly a five-week voyage away, and its bureaucracy transient, hard to locate, and notorious for inaction. One such audit looking into the retirement of the viceroy of Peru took thirteen years and 50,000 sheets of paper and even then did not conclude until 1603, long after the ex-viceroy had passed away.

There was a known propensity for the government to grant post facto sanction to any audacious explorers who might find new land and bullion for the crown. The way to beat a residencia, or royal inquiry into a provincial governor’s malfeasance, was to draw it out, to lead an expedition, colonize new territory for the crown, claim widespread baptism of the natives, and then send back the king’s fifth of all gold, silver, and jewels that could be looted from the Indians. Gold might trump insubordination; gold might mitigate the priests’ worries about decimating rather than converting the Indians of the Americas; gold might make a Castilian renegade or an Andalusian thug the equal of a viceroy in the eyes of the king’s ministers — earning him an imperial pension or at least a coat of arms in his old age. With the opening of the New World, Spanish society began to evolve more from a landed aristocracy to a plutocracy, allowing an entire sort of previously poor and middling adventurers to advance through the acquisition of a fortune in the Americas.

Social grazing syndrome

From The New Yorker.

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Now it is, and now it is not

From 'Swa leaf on treowum' by Clerk of Oxford.

A fourteenth century poem in today's English. Very topical for the season.

Winter awakens all my sorrow,
Now the leaves grow bare.
Often I sigh and mourn sorely
When it comes into my thoughts
Of this world's joy, how it all goes to nothing.

Now it is, and now it is not,
As if it had never been, truly.
What many people say, it is the truth:
All passes but God's will.
We all shall die, though it please us ill.

All the grass which grows up green,
Now it fades all together.
Jesu, help this to be understood,
And shield us from hell!
For I do not know where I shall go, nor how long I shall dwell here.

Democracy is a political system for people who are not sure that they are right

From Two Hundred Million Americans in Search of a Government by E.E. Schattschneider
Democracy has no place for the kind of justice implied in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Democracy is a system for the resolution of conflict, not for vengeance. Simple black-white notions of right and wrong do not fit into democratic politics. Political controversies result from the fact that the issues are complex, and men may properly have differences of opinion about them. The most terrible of all over-simplifications is the notion that politics is a contest between good people and bad people. Democracy is based on a profound insight into human nature, the realization that all men are sinful, all are imperfect, all are prejudiced, and none knows the whole truth. That is why we need liberty and why we have an obligation to hear all men. Liberty gives us a chance to learn from other people, to become aware of our own limitations, and to correct our bias. Even when we disagree with other people we like to think that they speak from good motives, and while we realize that all men are limited, we do not let ourselves imagine that any man is bad. Democracy is a political system for people who are not sure that they are right.
Right vs. wrong, truth vs. falsehood, beauty vs. ugliness, intelligence vs. stupidity. All totalitarian systems rest on the conviction that there is a knowable right, truth, beauty, intelligence which can deterministically be known by the right people and which can be coercively imposed by the enlightened.

The children of freedom know that there are a few dichotomies but more consequentially that we are surrounded by complexity. Exogenous complexity and indigenous complexity. And it is not static complexity, it is dynamic, always evolving and shape-shifting. The self (and its goals and priorities) which we think we know at one moment is subject to change by circumstance and changed awareness and knowledge. That is the tragedy, our convictions are soft clay resting on quicksand.

Democracy, to work well, needs citizens motivated by conviction but constrained by humility in the awareness of their own profound ignorance and fallibility.

Mental models

This is quite useful from Mental Models: The Best Way to Make Intelligent Decisions (113 Models Explained) from Farnam Street. I use many/most of these mental models with great frequency and think that using them in conjunction almost always warrants the time and effort involved.

Read the original article for the many details but the following list provides a flavor of the breadth of mental models being discussed.
1. Inversion

2. Falsification / Confirmation Bias

3. Circle of Competence

4. The Principle of Parsimony (Occam’s Razor)

5. Hanlon's Razor

6. Second-Order Thinking

7. The Map Is Not the Territory

8. Thought Experiments

9. Mr. Market

10. Probabilistic Thinking (See also: Numeracy/Bayesian Updating)

11. Default Status

12. Permutations and Combinations

13. Algebraic Equivalence

14. Randomness

15. Stochastic Processes (Poisson, Markov, Random Walk)

16. Compounding

17. Multiplying by Zero

18. Churn

19. Law of Large Numbers

20. Bell Curve/Normal Distribution

21. Power Laws

22. Fat-Tailed Processes (Extremistan)

23. Bayesian Updating

24. Regression to the Mean

25. Order of Magnitude

26. Scale

27. Law of Diminishing Returns

28. Pareto Principle

29. Feedback Loops (and Homeostasis)

30. Chaos Dynamics (Sensitivity to Initial Conditions)

31. Preferential Attachment (Cumulative Advantage)

32. Emergence

33. Irreducibility

34. Tragedy of the Commons

35. Gresham’s Law

36. Algorithms

37. Fragility – Robustness – Antifragility

38. Backup Systems/Redundancy

39. Margin of Safety

40. Criticality

41. Network Effects

42. Black Swan

43. Via Negativa – Omission/Removal/Avoidance of Harm

44. The Lindy Effect

45. Renormalization Group

46. Spring-loading

47. Complex Adaptive Systems

48. Laws of Thermodynamics

49. Reciprocity

50. Velocity

51. Relativity

52. Activation Energy

53. Catalysts

54. Leverage

55. Inertia

56. Alloying

57. Incentives

58. Cooperation (Including Symbiosis)

59. Tendency to Minimize Energy Output (Mental & Physical)

60. Adaptation

61. Evolution by Natural Selection

62. The Red Queen Effect (Co-evolutionary Arms Race)

63. Replication

64. Hierarchical and Other Organizing Instincts

65. Self-Preservation Instincts

66. Simple Physiological Reward-Seeking

67. Exaptation

68. Extinction

69. Ecosystems

70. Niches

71. Dunbar’s Number

72. Trust

73. Bias from Incentives

74. Pavlovian Mere Association

75. Tendency to Feel Envy & Jealousy

76. Tendency to Distort Due to Liking/Loving or Disliking/Hating

77. Denial

78. Availability Heuristic

79. Representativeness Heuristic

80. Failure to Account for Base Rates

81. Tendency to Stereotype

82. Failure to See False Conjunctions

83. Social Proof (Safety in Numbers)

84. Narrative Instinct

85. Curiosity Instinct

86. Language Instinct

87. First-Conclusion Bias

88. Tendency to Overgeneralize from Small Samples

89. Relative Satisfaction/Misery Tendencies

90. Commitment & Consistency Bias

91. Hindsight Bias

92. Sensitivity to Fairness

93. Tendency to Overestimate Consistency of Behavior (Fundamental Attribution Error)

94. Influence of Authority

95. Influence of Stress (Including Breaking Points)

96. Survivorship Bias

97. Tendency to Want to Do Something (Fight/Flight, Intervention, Demonstration of Value, etc.)

98. Opportunity Costs

99. Creative Destruction

100. Comparative Advantage

101. Specialization (Pin Factory)

102. Seizing the Middle

103. Trademarks, Patents, and Copyrights

104. Double-Entry Bookkeeping

105. Utility (Marginal, Diminishing, Increasing)

106. Bottlenecks

107. Prisoner’s Dilemma

108. Bribery

109. Arbitrage

110. Supply and Demand

111. Scarcity

112. Seeing the Front

113. Asymmetric Warfare

114. Two-Front War

115. Counterinsurgency

116. Mutually Assured Destruction

Hummingbirds are the bane of easy answers

From Hummingbirds Are Where Intuition Goes to Die by Ed Yong regarding new discoveries about the means by which hummingbirds eat. Interesting in itself but I liked these lines.
Almost everything about these animals is counterintuitive. Hummingbirds are the bane of easy answers. They’re where intuition goes to die.

The Pearl Mosque at Agra by Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin

The Pearl Mosque at Agra by Vasily Vasilyevich Vereshchagin.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

But, above all, gold beckoned

From Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson. Page 201.
What drove on Cortés and his men were the quest for status back in Spain and the hope of material betterment in the New World: free land and vast estates in Mexico, of course, and, for the more idealistic, the spiritual rewards of converting millions to Christianity. But, above all, gold beckoned. Gold was the first topic of interrogation with the natives. Worthless trinkets, iron knives, and glass were traded for gold. Only gold, not the precious feathers, intricate cotton clothes, or even the elaborate silver plate of the Mexicas, satisfied the Castilians. Gold might make a man a noble in Spain; gold might ensure the bankrupt Spanish crown that it could keep up with the more efficient economies in England and Holland, and so maintain the Hapsburg empire in Europe. Eventually, a quarter of all imperial Spanish revenues would be bullion from Mexico and Peru: 180 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver were to reach Spanish shores from the New World between 1500 and 1650.

Mexica and Peruvian gold might fuel the galleys to keep the Turk at bay and pay the armies in Holland. Gold in the hand meant not beauty, but power, money, status — and so intricate Mexica golden lizards, ducks, and fishes, the products of hundreds of hours of careful New World craftsmanship, were melted down into portable golden bars that represented the purchasing power of both goods and services. To the Spaniard the shiny metal was an abstract and distant rather than an immediate and concrete pleasure; hours of native dexterity were of no value when compared to the goods, status, and security that such metal might buy. When Cortés saw the intricate goldwork of his hosts, his first thoughts were not merely of his own personal wealth to come, or even tribute to the Spanish crown, but of the stored capital to purchase more horses, gunpowder, harquebuses, cannon, and crossbows from ships arriving from Cuba and Spain. So bewildered were they by the conquistadors’ incessant demands for gold that the Indians of Mexico at first believed the Castilians’ ruse that they needed the metal as medicine for “their hearts”; some more thoughtful Aztecs believed that the Spanish even ate the silly gold dust!
As a young boy with a growing interest in archaeology, it broke my heart to comprehend the lost arts of the Aztecs and Incas; such fine pieces viewed solely for their gold content. It still breaks my heart to contemplate what was lost.

But Hanson's point is well taken. Everybody has goals - whether it is artwork or horses.

Real concerns

From The New Yorker.

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They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness

From The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
Tom and Daisy are the political establishment and their enablers who are being voted against by the electorates around the world. Good intentions and pathological altruism are no substitute for competence and respect for the needs and values of the great middle.

Higher education reduces ethnic prejudice while increasing ideological prejudice. But it is still prejudice.

From Education is Related to Greater Ideological Prejudice by P J Henry and Jaime L Napier. From the abstract:
Decades of research have shown that education reduces individuals’ prejudices toward people who belong to different groups, but this research has focused predominantly on prejudice toward ethnic/racial groups, immigrant groups, and general nonconformists. However, it is not clear whether education reduces other prejudices against groups along different dimensions, including ideological identification. An analysis of American National Election Studies data from 1964 to 2012 shows that education is related to decreases in interethnic/interracial prejudice, but also to increases in ideological (liberal vs. conservative) prejudice. This finding could not be explained simply by the greater polarization of the American electorate in the past twenty years. The results require rethinking how and why education is associated with reduced prejudice for certain groups but not others.
Can't get to the underlying paper, methodology and data but it should be reasonably robust if they are using the AMNES for forty-eight years.

Let's stipulate that the methodology is robust for the time being. My first question is about the effect size and whether the percent increases in ideological prejudice is equivalent to the percent decrease in interethnic/interracial prejudice. Another question is with regard to consequence. If the decrease in racial prejudice is 10% and that affects a population of 45 million and the increase in ideological prejudice affects a population of 100 million with strong ideological positions, then, even though the size of change is the same, the practical consequence is that prejudicial behavior has become much worse.

Those questions can't be answered at the moment without the underlying data but it is still an interesting finding that higher education does not reduce prejudice, it just retargets that prejudice. That perhaps sheds some light on disenchantment of the voting public with the clerisy. The clerisy view themselves as morally enlightened because, with their education, their demonstrate lower racial prejudice. The general populace, with lower levels of education attainment, might be seeing moral authority of the clerisy as, instead, simply hypocritical sanctimony because the clerisy are as prejudiced (hateful) as everyone else, they just target their prejudice elsewhere.

Pure speculation without the data.

Endowed with all the benefits, loaded with all the duties of their situation

From Further Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke.
Dark and inscrutable are the ways by which we come into the world. The instincts which give rise to this mysterious process of nature are not of our making. But out of physical causes, unknown to us, perhaps unknowable, arise moral duties, which, as we are able perfectly to comprehend, we are bound indispensably to perform. Parents may not be consenting to their moral relation; but consenting or not, they are bound to a long train of burthensome duties towards those with whom they have never made a convention of any sort. Children are not consenting to their relation, but their relation, without their actual consent, binds them to its duties; or rather it implies their consent because the presumed consent of every rational creature is in unison with the predisposed order of things. Men come in that manner into a community with the social state of their parents, endowed with all the benefits, loaded with all the duties of their situation. If the social ties and ligaments, spun out of those physical relations which are the elements of the commonwealth, in most cases begin, and always continue, independently of our will, so without any stipulation, on our part, are we bound by that relation called our country, which comprehends (as it has been well said) "all the charities of all." Nor are we left without powerful instincts to make this duty as dear and grateful to us, as it is awful and coercive.

Ploughing the Downs by James Bateman

Ploughing the Downs by James Bateman.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Spain increasingly felt itself besieged on all sides

From Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson. Page 199.
Christian fanaticism and strict Catholicism were the bedrock defenses of southern Mediterranean cultures besieged by Islamic enemies to the south and east, and the newer Protestant adversaries of northern Europe. Protestant Europeans were far from the front lines of Islamic attack; and, without the strong traditions of adherence to a centralized autocrat in Rome, they might find religious reform an indulgence that beleaguered Italians, Spaniards, and Greeks could not afford. In the era of the conquest of Mexico, Spain increasingly felt itself besieged on all sides. Powerful Jews, through economic might and commercial influence, might exploit and dominate the Catholic peasantry; Protestant fanatics might scour the Spanish countryside, undermining local churches and papal estates; Moors and Ottomans might conspire to return Spain to the Islamic world and thereby overturn the new national creation of Ferdinand and Isabella. In the paranoid Spanish mind the Inquisition and the Reconquista alone had saved Spain, yet the new nation’s continued survival depended on a class of knights who might spread Catholicism to the New World before it, too, was colonized by northern Europeans and its treasures used to further religious strife in the Old World.
Hard, sometimes, to recollect the context behind behaviors that to the modern mind seem so barbaric and pointless.

Proper concerns

From Punch Magazine.

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Judging someone as irrational is usually a good indication that you don't understand their world

From a book review of Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott. The book review is Statist Just-So Stories by Jacob Levy.
In Seeing Like a State (1998) and The Art of Not Being Governed (2009), Scott shifted his attention to political institutions. States seek to make their populations "legible," he argued: countable, mappable, surveyable, and thus easily taxable and conscriptable. People seek to protect themselves from all that, sometimes by escaping into anarchic regions where the projection of state power is impractical.

In his emphasis on institutional surveillance, Scott overlapped with the French social theorist Michel Foucault. But in his insistence that states' efforts could never entirely succeed because too much social knowledge is local and tacit, he shared more with F.A. Hayek and Michael Oakeshott. And with his attention to the resistance of governed populations, he stood out from any of those. As he puts it in his newest book, "the first and most prudent assumption about historical actors is that, given their resources and what they know, they are acting reasonably to secure their immediate interests." While Foucault sometimes seems to see no human agency anywhere, Scott sees it everywhere.
I want to focus on that statement:
the first and most prudent assumption about historical actors is that, given their resources and what they know, they are acting reasonably to secure their immediate interests.
I agree but I would extend it just a bit further to something like:
the first and most prudent assumption about historical actors is that, given their resources, what they know, their understanding of and sensitivity to risk, and their time discounting, they are acting reasonably to secure their immediate interests.
We have a tendency to treat those with different values and priorities than ourselves as ignorant and possibly malicious instead of acknowledging that we all operate within constraints which heavily influence our decisions.

If you have a fat bank account, it allows you greater latitude to take greater risks. If you are living hand-to-mouth, your actions might seem self-defeating to the person with greater risk tolerance.

Likewise, someone in a high trust environment that is highly stable and predictable can make long term decisions inconceivable in an environment that is unstable and unpredictable. A person in one environment looking at someone in the other environment without taking into account the differences can condemn the other's decisions as foolish.

Making the judgment that someone is acting irrationaly or against their own self-interests usually indicates that the person judging does not understand the circumstance of the person being judged. Just because their actions do not accord with yours does not mean that their actions don't make sense to them given their resources, their knowledge, their risk sensitivity and their time discounting.

Our world has become more sober and less exuberant

From Birth of the cool: a two-centuries decline in emotional expression in Anglophone fiction by Olivier Morin and Alberto Acerbi.

Morin and Acerbi are using the big data of Google Books to identify patterns in written communication. In this iteration, they address a number of critiques of earlier work, primarily in order to validate the utility of the Google Books corpus. From the abstract:
The presence of emotional words and content in stories has been shown to enhance a story’s memorability, and its cultural success. Yet, recent cultural trends run in the opposite direction. Using the Google Books corpus, coupled with two metadata-rich corpora of Anglophone fiction books, we show a decrease in emotionality in English-speaking literature starting plausibly in the nineteenth century. We show that this decrease cannot be explained by changes unrelated to emotionality (such as demographic dynamics concerning age or gender balance, changes in vocabulary richness, or changes in the prevalence of literary genres), and that, in our three corpora, the decrease is driven almost entirely by a decline in the proportion of positive emotion-related words, while the frequency of negative emotion-related words shows little if any decline. Consistently with previous studies, we also find a link between ageing and negative emotionality at the individual level.
They elaborate on their findings.
We report four main findings. (i) Our data confirm that the decrease in emotionality in English-speaking literature is no artefact of the Google Books corpus, and that it pre-dates the twentieth century, plausibly beginning in the early nineteenth century; (ii) this general decline cannot be explained by changes unrelated to emotionality (such as demographic dynamics concerning age or gender balance, changes in vocabulary richness, or changes in the prevalence of literary genres); (iii) in our three corpora, this decrease in the proportion of emotion-related words in literary texts is driven almost entirely by a decline in the proportion of positive emotion-related words, while the frequency of negative emotion-related words shows little decline (if any), and (iv) author’s age, consistently with previous studies (Pennebaker & Stone, 2003 Pennebaker), covaries with negative emotionality, with older authors using proportionally fewer negative emotion-related words.

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The authors rule out changes in genre as cause of the decline in positivity. They also rule out possible issues to do with whether the Google Books corpus is randomly representative. They also rule out the author's age as a possible cause. They note:
The fall of positive emotionality is all the more puzzling since life does not seem to have gotten worse, in English-speaking countries, in the last two centuries. The opposite would seem more likely: material conditions of life got better by an order of magnitude (Clark, 2009 Clark, G. (2009). A farewell to alms: A brief economic history of the world. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press). Subjective well-being is notoriously difficult to measure, but the little data we have shows no decrease in self-reported happiness and life satisfaction, whenever it has been measured: in the USA between 1946 and 2004, or in Western Europe between 1973 and 2004 (Veenhoven & Hagerty, 2006 Veenhoven, R., & Hagerty, M. (2006). Rising happiness in nations 1946–2004: A reply to Easterlin). We also note that the decline of positive emotionality is not matched by a comparable rise of negative emotional expression in any of our corpora. While an analysis similar to the one we presented here could detect the presence of distinct periods of positive and negative “mood” in published literature, correlated with socio-economic events (Bentley, Acerbi, Ormerod, & Lampos, 2014), the extent to which positive emotionality correlates with subjective well-being is still a moot issue (Tov et al., 2013). The general trend that appears clearly is that the tone of fiction literature became less cheerful over time (emotionality as measured by the LIWC reliably tracks the tone and mood of textual material – Kahn et al., 2007 Kahn, J. H.).
It is interesting work raising more questions while providing some useful data.

I have three top of mind candidates for why positivity might have declined in a period of rising Anglo and global well-being. Entirely speculative and more for the fun of it than with much energy invested in any of the three.

Perhaps the decline in positivity is linked to a decline in the role of Christianity in modern life and the decline in New Testament Christianity in particular (the New Testament being a much more positive perspective than the Old). Think of Matthew Arnold's lament in Dover Beach. Excerpt:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Another possible cause might be the rise in totalitarianism and ideological determinism. Marxism, fascism and their various totalitarian ideological off-spring such as postmodernism present a deterministic concept of the world where everything can be engineered towards Utopia. The energy behind Marxism and fascism tend, however, to be much more about hatred, envy, control, and anti-humanism than love and joy of a better future.

Finally, perhaps the loss of positivity might be linked to a rise in uncertainty. The period being covered falls entirely into the age of modernity driven by industrialization, scaling of the state, and an increase in complexity. The argument would be that the rise in productivity (and therefore well-being) is parallel with a rise in complexity (global trade over local, mass issues, technology development and refinement, etc.). While complexity helps deliver a better material life, it also increases uncertainty and uncertainty can drive anxiety.

All three are possible but this is mostly entertaining speculation rather than real knowledge generation. What can we do about our loss of positivity? Perhaps a little Bob Marley is needed.

Double click to enlarge.

Celebrating the birth, 1664 by Jan Steen

Celebrating the birth, 1664 by Jan Steen.

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Monday, November 27, 2017

Self-anointed nepotists

From The Jobs You're Most Likely to Inherit From Your Mother and Father by Quoctrung Bui and Claire Cain Miller.

We know people in the media are little trusted and often considered to be an incompetent self-anointed elite. Now it appears that they are a little trusted, incompetent, self-anointed, hereditary elite.

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Journalists handing down their roles to their off-spring at 94 times the rate to be expected. No wonder they are so upset at being spurned by the public. It's not just their jobs which are disappearing but it is a family matter as well.

A series of supernatural beings hovered in protection over their heads

From Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson. Page 199.
To protect the tiny forces of Christendom from the contamination of these purported legions of darkness, mass, confession, and absolution were prerequisites of the Spanish before battle. Throughout the vicious two-year campaigning the conquistadors were convinced that a series of supernatural beings hovered in protection over their heads. Shrines soon dotted the Mexican landscape to thank the Virgin and various saints for victories and salvation from Aztec infidels. The conquest was as much to convert souls as to gain gold and ground, the church’s de facto attitude often being that the conquistadors’ killing was wrong and counterproductive, but that Mexicas were better off dead than as live practicing agents of the devil.

End state of feminist puritanism

From Punch Magazine.

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Being of an age to comprehend events and giving my attention to them in order to know the exact truth about them

From The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer, published fifteen years after the close of World War II, in 1960. From the Forward.

Clear, lucid, humble, cultured - I wish we had more cultured journalists like this today.
In the case of the Third Reich, and it is a unique case, almost all of the documentary material became available at its fall, and it has been enriched by the testimony of all the surviving leaders, military and civilian, in some instances before their death by execution. With such incomparable sources so soon available and with the memory of life in Nazi Germany and of the appearance and behavior and nature of the men who ruled it, Adolf Hitler above all, still fresh in my mind and bones, I decided, at any rate, to make an attempt to set down the history of the rise and fall of the Third Reich.

”I lived through the whole war,” Thucydides remarks in his History of the Peloponnesian War, one of the greatest works of history ever written, ”being of an age to comprehend events and giving my attention to them in order to know the exact truth about them.”

I found it extremely difficult and not always possible to learn the exact truth about Hitler’s Germany. The avalanche of documentary material helped one further along the road to truth than would have seemed possible twenty years ago, but its very vastness could often be confusing. And in all human records and testimony there are bound to be baffling contradictions.

No doubt my own prejudices, which inevitably spring from my experience and make-up, creep through the pages of this book from time to time. I detest totalitarian dictatorships in principle and came to loathe this one the more I lived through it and watched its ugly assault upon the human spirit. Nevertheless, in this book I have tried to be severely objective, letting the facts speak for themselves and noting the source for each. No incidents, scenes or quotations stem from the imagination; all are based on documents, the testimony of eyewitnesses or my own personal observation. In the half-dozen or so occasions in which there is some speculation, where the facts are missing, this is plainly labeled as such.

My interpretations, I have no doubt, will be disputed by many. That is inevitable, since no man’s opinions are infallible. Those that I have ventured here in order to add clarity and depth to this narrative are merely the best I could come by from the evidence and from what knowledge and experience I have had.

Mama always warned me about fast women. She never mentioned easy correlations.

Heh. A commenter on some research:

dearieme November 25, 2017 at 7:20 am
Life is one damn correlation after another.
Ain't that the truth.

Mama always warned me about fast women. She never mentioned easy correlations.

Interesting questions but the findings lack rigor

From Predicting Personality from Book Preferences with User-Generated Content Labels by Ng Annalyn, Maarten W. Bos, Leonid Sigal, and Boyang Li.

I am a big reader and collector of books and am fascinated by the possible implications between reading volumes, reading choices, and personal life outcomes. Fascinated, but also skeptical. I suspect that there is a link but I also suspect it is a very complicated link. Moreover, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes are always convinced that freedom of speech (and reading) is a threat to their legitimacy and seek to control what is allowed to be read. Trying to link what is read in a causative fashion to subsequent behaviors and values is therefore a popular predicate for control among authoritarian and totalitarian ideologies. Makes me nervous.

Postmodernists are very keen to make a link between what a child reads and later life outcomes. I see virtually no evidence to support that position.

From the abstract:
—Psychological studies have shown that personality traits are associated with book preferences. However, past findings are based on questionnaires focusing on conventional book genres and are unrepresentative of niche content. For a more comprehensive measure of book content, this study harnesses a massive archive of content labels, also known as ‘tags’,
created by users of an online book catalogue, Combined with data on preferences and personality scores collected from Facebook users, the tag labels achieve high accuracy in personality prediction by psychological standards. We
also group tags into broader genres, to check their validity against past findings. Our results are robust across both tag and genre levels of analyses, and consistent with existing literature. Moreover, user-generated tag labels reveal unexpected
insights, such as cultural differences, book reading behaviors, and other non-content factors affecting preferences. To our
knowledge, this is currently the largest study that explores the relationship between personality and book content preferences.
It is not encouraging that their first paragraph cites a 2009 study purporting to demonstrate a linkage between fiction reading and increased empathy. That study had a terribly flawed design structure. The design was critiqued at the time of publication and it is surprising these researchers seem unaware of the problems.
Francis Bacon may have been the first to suggest a correlation–perhaps even a causal relation–between book
preferences and the personality of readers. Indeed, research has found that reading fiction leads to changes in personality [1] and increased empathy [2].
The discussion is interesting about both their methods and their findings. None-the-less, I view this research as simply among the first forays into a field of research and that the findings lack rigor.

Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful

Oh, dear. For years now I have had this quote parked in my mind as being from Oscar Wilde. I stand corrected. It is actually from William Morris in "The Beauty of Life," a lecture before the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design (19 February 1880).
If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

Universities changed their business model without changing their HR strategies - Leads to fanatical ideologues

An interesting suggestion from How nutty adjuncts are slipping into local colleges by Melissa Klein. It is well established that academia is overwhelmingly left-leaning to the point of extinguishing free speech and normal views.

But the academy has always been left leaning. Why are there actions more extreme today than, say, forty years ago? As with student protests, I think professors are being tarred by a small minority of fanatic extremists. Yes, extreme things are being advocated but my suspicion is that it is a small minority of professors who are driving the perception. I suspect it is as low as 1 or 5% but perhaps it is 10-20%. Either way, a small subset.

The fact that universities can be a safe haven for radicals is, I think, what is new. Professors assaulting students, calling for the extinction of whites, leading physical charges against speakers to whom they object, advocating violence against students and administrators, vocal anti-semitism, and sustained and violent efforts to impose speech controls would, in the past, have led to a quiet separation from the institution. Now-a-days, nothing is done and violence breeds violence, and knowledge is suppressed. This is an administrator's issue as much as it is an issue of the professoriate. As far as I can tell.

Klein adds an additional hypothesis which I had not considered. Universities over the past thirty years have become huge commercial enterprises rather than institutes of knowledge transmission. There are the rain-maker researchers (grant applicants), there are the huge departments focused on driving continuing alumni donations, there is the assiduous effort to manage brand, and of course the whole commercial and lucrative enterprise of collegiate sports.

Klein notes that part of this commercialization of higher education has entailed a change in the business model in terms of the professoriate. In the past, teachers are universities were either full-time professors or lecturers on their way toward becoming tenured professors.
The CUNY system has for years relied on an army of lower-cost adjuncts — currently 12,500 out of an overall teaching staff of about 20,000 — who are paid far less than permanent faculty and don’t have the same benefits. The adjuncts get about $3,500 per four-month course.

Adjunct lecturers need no more than a bachelor’s degree, but anyone with the title of adjunct professor is required to have a Ph.D.

By comparison, a full professor is someone with a permanent, full-time appointment, a Ph.D. and an annual salary up to $129,000. The university system, which enrolls 272,000 students, has just 7,500 full-time faculty members.
This is not unique to CUNY. Universities across the country are increasingly dependent on part-time, non-tenure track, contract lecturers.

According to the Association of Governing Boards, in 1969, 78% of university teaching positions were tenured or tenure track. In 2009, the corresponding figure is 34%. The great majority of professors today, 67% are non-tenure track, part-time professors. This changed business model makes sense from a cost perspective; contract lecturers are factors cheaper than full-time professors.

In terms of workforce management, it is common for HR departments to overwhelmingly focus on full-time employees. That is where you focus on performance management, retention efforts, selection criteria, etc. In a winner-take-all system, it is natural to focus on the winners, the rain-makers, the long-term employees who will be around to build the culture of the organization, etc. Managing contractors is an entirely different process, with much less investment, especially if contractors are only a small portion of the labor force. When you have at-will contracting and can fire anyone under any pretext, you don't invest as much due diligence and don't demand as high standards.

The implication of Klein's observation is that universities have changed their labor force business model from a full-time employee base to one which is dominated by contract laborers but that they haven't changed their labor force management processes accordingly.
When in need of an adjunct to teach a course, “You’ll look in your pile of résumés that you have in your desk or you’ll call some friends,” said a Brooklyn College professor, describing the offhand process.

He added, “I assume that there’s something that happens in HR to make sure that they have to fill out a W2 and they have to probably give a diploma and a résumé.”

A retired John Jay professor said a department head would have the most influence in hiring an ­adjunct like Isaacson.

“If anyone’s to blame for hiring this guy, it’s the chair who really didn’t vet the guy thoroughly enough,” the source said.


“CUNY is so underfunded that it uses underpaid, temporary workers to teach more than half of its courses,” said a source. “Almost all of CUNY’s teaching adjuncts are hired anew each semester.

That means that every six months, CUNY is hiring or rehiring [thousands of] instructors with little hiring infrastructure. Department chairs, on whom most of the work falls, receive zero support from the administration for the hiring process.”

A Brooklyn College professor lamented that when it comes to hiring full-time professors, the ability to weed out oddballs has become more difficult with a process that is guided by bureaucrats and ­diversity mandates.

He said all job candidates must be asked the same set of questions and that all reference checks must be done by the Human Resources Department.

“In the past, we were able to make calls to references,” he said. “I used to call and ask, ‘Is the guy normal?’ If they hesitated and said ‘What do you mean by normal?’ I knew the answer.”

All hiring is overseen by a college’s diversity officer, who monitors whether job candidates reflect the enrollment at the campus, the professor added.

“You’re being watched at every step,” he said. “Mostly they’re looking at diversity. That’s what they’re really looking for.”
Of course what is true for CUNY may not be true elsewhere.

What is true is that virtually all universities used to have an employee base that was primarily full-time long-term employees and now virtually all of them are in the business of managing a high-churn temporary, part-time workforce. It would make sense that many universities might be failing to adjust their HR processes accordingly and that therefore, perhaps, most of the 1-5% of fanatical ideologues who tarnish university brands are primarily related to failing to take into account the changes necessary to HR compliance and workforce management strategies attendant to a change in the business model.

Sleeping Boy in the Hay by Albert Anker

Sleeping Boy in the Hay by Albert Anker.

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Sunday, November 26, 2017

Unawares attack, 1871 by Vasily Vereshchagin

Unawares attack, 1871 by Vasily Vereshchagin.

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They drink to excess

From Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson. Page 198.
Cortés and his followers, when surrounded by an enemy of some 200,000 Mexicas in the middle of Tenochtitlán, insanely demanded of Montezuma that he cast down Aztec idols so that his subjects might convert en masse to Christianity.
Catholic priests were ubiquitous in the New World; various Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jeronymite friars were given imperial powers of audit to ensure that the Indians were converted to Christianity, rather than gratuitously slaughtered. What they saw — the tearing out of beating hearts from sacrificial victims, rooms smeared with human blood, racks of skulls, priests with flayed human skins on their backs — terrified the Spanish priests. They were convinced that the Aztecs and their neighbors were satanic, their rites of human sacrifice and cannibalism the work of the Antichrist. An anonymous conquistador summed up the Spanish revulsion:
All the people of this province of New Spain, and even those of the neighboring provinces, eat human flesh and value it more highly than any other food in the world; so much so, that they often go off to war and risk their lives just to kill people to eat. The majority of them, as I have said, are sodomites and they drink to excess. (P. de Fuentes, The Conquistadors, 181)
I like that final rounding out of the indictment - they drink to excess.

No judging

From Punch Magazine.

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Things are never as they seem

One of my favorite Victorian poets is Henry Newbolt. He is much out of fashion but I enjoy him none-the-less.

From Robert Fulford's column about Henry Newbolt
What makes Henry Newbolt (1862-1938) especially notable in this context is that he was famously, gloriously, even flagrantly Victorian--more Victorian, certainly, than the queen. A totally respectable figure, Newbolt was a lawyer, a novelist, a playwright, and a magazine editor. Above all, he was a poet who sang the virtues of chivalry and sportsmanship combined in the service of the British Empire.

In 1897 his reputation took form around a poem about a schoolboy cricketer who grows up to fight in Africa. There, in the panic of battle ("The Gatling's jammed and the Colonel dead"), he's stirred to heroic action by a school days memory: "his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote - / Play up! play up! and play the game!" Those last eight words became famous as the expression of Newbolt's belief that war should be fought in the spirit taught by games masters in good English schools. One critic said Newbolt could lift hearts like Tennyson. Another called his work "eminently virile" (which, at the time, was praise).


As a 25-year-old lawyer, Henry fell in love with Margaret Duckworth, a woman of great charm who had many qualities associated with young men. She rode to hounds at a furious clip (much faster than Henry) and she was as interested in science as in music; she defied her hyper-religious mother by studying Darwinian biology. Henry liked her mannish side (and would begin letters to her with "Dear Lad") but when he started to court her an impediment emerged. Margaret was already in love with someone else, her cousin, a beautiful young woman named Ella Coltman. They were both members of the Grecians, a club of women who studied Greek poetry, disdained the company of men, and privately gave each other male names drawn from the classics. Margaret announced she would marry Henry only if Ella became part of their intimate life together, and Henry agreed.

For years, Henry went to the law courts every day while Margaret went over to visit Ella at her family's mansion. All three spent evenings together, and Newbolt's friends understood that when they invited Henry and Margaret for the weekend, they invited Ella as well. Even so, Ella began complaining to Henry that she felt left out, an unwanted third party.

Chitty explains that Newbolt solved that problem by making Ella his mistress. Margaret understood. The women were not precisely equal (Margaret had the children, Ella played aunt), but they appear not to have been jealous of each other. Newbolt scrupulously divided his sexual attention. He left among his papers a ledger page showing columns of figures which, Chitty tells us, "represent the number of times he slept with each of his women each month between 1904 and 1917, averaging as much as 12 per head per month."

In middle age they reached a new arrangement, with Ella in a London house (now marked with a plaque in Newbolt's honour) and Margaret in the country. But there were complications. Henry fell in love with a third woman whom neither Margaret nor Ella liked; since she complained a lot, they named her Lydia Languish. And Margaret found another man, the sculptor Henry Furse, in whose house Margaret and Newbolt lived for a time. So Newbolt at that point had two wives and a girlfriend, Margaret two husbands. Nevertheless, the original triangle was still in place at Newbolt's death.

What are the mechanisms and why might they be important?

This paper is based on 3,600 college students over six years at a Dutch University. The question they are seeking to answer is whether there is an effect based on gender of randomly assigned student mentor. Entering students are randomly assigned to peer groups. Does gender balance of the assigned peer group make any difference on the major field of study the new student ends up choosing?

From The Effect of Peer Gender on Major Choice by Ulf Zölitz and Jan Feld. Abstract:
This paper investigates how the peer gender composition in university affects students' major choices and labor market outcomes. Women who are randomly assigned to more female peers become less likely to choose male-dominated majors, they end up in jobs where they work fewer hours and their wage grows at a slower rate. Men become more likely to choose male-dominated majors after having had more female peers, although their labor market outcomes are not affected. Our results suggest that the increasing female university enrollment over recent decades has paradoxically contributed to the occupational segregation among university graduates that persists in today’s labor market.
So yes, women assigned to peer groups with a disproportionate number of women are more less likely to end up pursuing STEM careers. Notably, men assigned to peer groups which are disproportionately female are more likely to pursue STEM careers. That is an intriguing asymmetry.

An interesting finding with an inordinate number of possible root causes. Why would women-dominated peer groups drive women towards more male-dominated degrees whereas the men in those groups respond by increasing their interest in STEM fields? And why don't male-dominated peer groups skew the decision-making process? The effect size is by no means determinative. Women in female dominated groups end up choosing female dominated majors at an only 8% increased rate; not determinative but still material.

The authors of the research are coming from a Social Justice perspective and so they are worried that more women in universities will drive women into female careers which, while more flexible and accommodating, are also less remunerative and powerful.

I am not particularly concerned about the consequences. Just interested as to what are the mechanisms and why might they be important?

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Beware of Luxury, 1663 by Jan Steen

Beware of Luxury, 1663 by Jan Steen.

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Cuauhtémoc, the Aztec Odysseus

From Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson. Page 190. Institutions and technology are important in warfare but there is always a place for ingenuity and insight. From Cortez's battles with the Aztecs.
If the Spanish proceeded too far inside Tenochtitlán proper—where they could be ambushed and swarmed, while their levees of retreat were breached—they faced annihilation. But if the brigantines kept the causeways passable, then each day the attackers could cross into the city, destroy another block or two, kill hundreds more Aztecs, and then retreat during the night to their fortified compounds. Usually, foot soldiers advanced, supported by the fire of cannon, harquebuses, and crossbows, slashing away at the unarmored Aztecs with their Toledo blades. At key moments, dozens of mounted mailed lancers would charge concentrations of the enemy or ambush the Mexicas when at dusk they rashly pursued the retreating foot soldiers. By late June the emperor, Cuauhtémoc, had seen the futility of Aztec tactics and radically revised his defenses by removing most of the surviving population of Tenochtitlán proper — warriors, civilians, and even the idols and effigies of the gods from the Great Temple — to the adjoining northern island suburb of Tlatelolco. This was a wise move: the change of defense drew in the Spaniards, who wrongly believed the Aztecs were defeated and fleeing. In addition, the Castilians were unaware that Tlatelolco was a far more crowded precinct, far more suitable for urban warfare than the broad avenues of the mostly destroyed Tenochtitlán.

The key to the entire struggle was to deny the Spaniards room for their horses to charge, space for their infantry to form into ranks, and clear lines of vision for their artillery and firearms. Now as the battle shifted to Tlatelolco, the Tlatelolcons joined the Aztecs in swarming the Castilians in the winding and narrow streets and cutting the causeways to the mainland. Cortés himself was unhorsed and for the third time nearly dragged off; Cristóbal de Olea and an unnamed Tlaxcalan hacked away at the enraged Mexicas, severing their hands and thus saving their caudillo. In the initial ambush at Tlatelolco, more than fifty Spaniards were bound and dragged off and twenty more killed, as thousands of Tlaxcalans paid for the Castilians’ impetuosity by being killed or captured. One brigantine was sunk and another precious cannon lost.

And they're both up to no good.

From Punch Magazine.

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The burden of debt

The prosaic, seemingly almost boring, operation of bond markets is permanently underrated in the general public. One could make an argument that the modern world only really emerged when national governments first began to be able to issue public debt, pioneered by the British and Dutch in the 1600s.

Bill Clinton's adviser, James Carville, was astonished at the role bond markets played over governments, commenting in 1993 to the Wall Street Journal (February 25, 1993, p. A1),
I used to think if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the pope or a .400 baseball hitter. But now I want to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody.
A bond artifact of that era is in the news. A living artifact from the Dutch Golden Age: Yale’s 367-year-old water bond still pays interest by Mike Cummings.
A 1648 Dutch water bond housed at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library is unique among the tens of thousands of manuscripts that reside there. While most of the Beinecke’s archival holdings are by their nature dead — their original purpose being fulfilled — the water bond lives on. It still pays annual interest more than 367 years after it was issued.

Timothy Young, the library’s curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts, has travelled to Amsterdam this week to visit Stichtse Rijnlanden, a Dutch water authority, and collect 12 years of interest on the bond. Collecting the back interest maintains the bond’s status as a functioning artifact from the Golden Age of Dutch finance. The water authority paid Young 136.20 euros in interest, the equivalent of $153.

“This is a teaching moment because the financial industry changes so rapidly but here we have something very old and constant,” says Young, who curates the Beinecke’s Collection of Financial History in partnership with the International Center for Finance at the Yale School of Management.

According the water authority, Yale’s bond is one of five known to exist. The bonds were issued by the Hoogheemraadschap Lekdijk Bovendams, a water board composed of landowners and leading citizens that managed dikes, canals, and a 20-mile stretch of the lower Rhine in Holland called the Lek. (Stichtse Rijnlanden is a successor organization to Lekdijk Bovendams.)

Yale’s bond, written on goatskin, was issued on May 15, 1648 to Mr. Niclaes de Meijer for the “sum of 1,000 Carolus Guilders of 20 Stuivers a piece.” According to its original terms, the bond would pay 5% interest in perpetuity. (The interest rate was reduced to 3.5% and then 2.5% during the 17th century.)

The interest payments were recorded directly on the bond. The water board used the money raised to pay workers at a recently constructed cribbinge, a series of piers near a bend in the river that regulated its flow and prevented erosion.

Friday, November 24, 2017

These hearts were woven of human joys and cares

IV. The Dead
by Rupert Brooke

These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
These had seen movement, and heard music; known
Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched flowers and furs and cheeks. All this is ended.
There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter
And lit by the rich skies, all day. And after,
Frost, with a gesture, stays the waves that dance
And wandering loveliness. He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.

A cunning fellow is man

A cunning fellow is man. His tools make him master of beasts of the field and those that move in the mountains . . .
He has a way against everything, and he faces nothing that is to come without contrivance . . .
With some sort of cunning, inventive
Beyond all expectation
He reaches sometimes evil,
And, sometimes good.

—Sophocles, Antigone (347–67)
Echoes from Matthew 25:1-13 in which we are admonished to maintain situational awareness, plan and always be prepared (a loose translation into the vernacular.)
25 Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.
2 And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.
3 They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:
4 But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.
5 While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.
6 And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.
7 Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps.
8 And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.
9 But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.
10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.
11 Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.
12 But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.
13 Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.

Social contract

From Punch Magazine.

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Socioeconomic status makes no difference to your academic performance.

From Socioeconomic status and genetic influences on cognitive development by David N. Figlioa, Jeremy Freeseb, Krzysztof Karbownikc, and Jeffrey Roth. Abstract:
Accurate understanding of environmental moderation of genetic influences is vital to advancing the science of cognitive development as well as for designing interventions. One widely reported idea is increasing genetic influence on cognition for children raised in higher socioeconomic status (SES) families, including recent proposals that the pattern is a particularly US phenomenon. We used matched birth and school records from Florida siblings and twins born in 1994–2002 to provide the largest, most population diverse consideration of this hypothesis to date. We found no evidence of SES moderation of genetic influence on test scores, suggesting that articulating gene-environment interactions for cognition is more complex and elusive than previously supposed.
I believe that a vernacular translation of this cautious statement would be:
It is widely believed that students of higher socioeconomic families do better in school owing to the privileges of wealth, i.e. tutors, enriching experiences, more parental attention and assistance with homework, etc. We looked at the data for 24,640 twins from birth through school. Academic performance was predicted by inherited IQ. Socioeconomic status did not affect academic outcomes.
If that reading is correct, I can see why they wanted to be careful with their language. There are a lot of financial, ideological, and social interests in believing that outcomes are due to systemic oppression rather than inherited IQ.

Cultural McCarthyism

Interesting observations from Tim Ferriss on his decision to relocate to Austen, Texas from San Francisco. My experience with San Francisco is broadly concordant with his. I had a similar feeling when I spent four years in Washington, D.C. at Georgetown University. Enjoyed my time there and enjoyed all the pleasures and resources of our capital city. At the end of four years, though, I was delighted to move on. The obsessive insularity, monoculture, and self-regard of the city was a damp, moldy blanket on a full life.
3) Silicon Valley is often a culture of cortisol, of rushing, and of fear of missing out (FOMO). There is also a mono-conversation of tech that is near impossible to avoid (much like entertainment is some parts of LA), where every dinner has some discussion of rounds of funding, investing, and who is doing what with Uber, Amazon, or someone else. This can be dodged, but it takes very real and consistent effort. I don't want to spend 20-30% of my daily mental calories on avoiding the mono-conversation.

4) Even though Silicon Valley has the highest concentration of brilliant people I've found anywhere in the world, it also has the highest concentration of people who think they're brilliant. The former are often awesome, keenly self-aware, and even self-deprecating (let's call that 15% of the population), but the latter are often smug, self-satisfied, arrogant, and intolerable (let's call that 60% of the population). That ratio just no longer works for me. It's too much. This asshole inflation usually corresponds to bubbles (I've seen it before), when fair-weather entrepreneurs and investors flood the scene.

5) Silicon Valley also has an insidious infection that is spreading -- a peculiar form of McCarthyism ( masquerading as liberal open-mindedness. I'm as socially liberal as you get, and I find it nauseating how many topics or dissenting opinions are simply out-of-bounds in Silicon Valley. These days, people with real jobs (unlike me) are risking their careers to even challenge collective delusions in SF. Isn't this supposed to be where people change the world by challenging the consensus reality? By seeing the hidden realities behind the facades? That's the whole reason I traveled west and started over in the Bay Area. Now, more and more, I feel like it's a Russian nesting doll of facades -- Washington DC with fewer neck ties, where people openly lie to one another out of fear of losing their jobs or being publicly crucified. It's weird, unsettling, and, frankly, really dangerous. There's way too much power here for politeness to be sustainable. If no one feels they can say "Hey, I know it makes everyone uncomfortable, but I think there's a leak in the fuel rods in this nuclear submarine..." we're headed for big trouble.

Nothing Venture, Nothing Gain, 1847 by James Bateman

Nothing Venture, Nothing Gain, 1847 by James Bateman (1814-1849).

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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Kleinkinderschule auf der Kirchenfeldbrücke by Albert Anker

Kleinkinderschule auf der Kirchenfeldbrücke by Albert Anker.

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Executive correspondence

From Punch Magazine.

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The main components of the Western military tradition - freedom, decisive battle, civic militarism, rationalism, vibrant markets, discipline, dissent, and free critique

From Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson. Page 168.
By 1096 a fragmented western Europe was strong enough to send thousands of soldiers across the sea to the Middle East. In a series of three great Crusades between 1096 and 1189, Europeans occupied Jerusalem and carved out Western enclaves in the heart of Islam. Throughout the Middle Ages it was Europe, not the Middle East, that was more secure from foreign assault. It was impossible for any Muslim army, unlike the Crusaders, to transport large armies by sea to storm the heartland of Europe. Arab armadas had long ago learned in the seventh and eighth centuries at the height of Islamic power that it was unfeasible to take nearby Constantinople.

Such European resiliency offers the proper explanation for the great advance of Western power in the New World, Asia, and Africa after 1500. Europe’s renewed strength against the Other in the age of gunpowder was facilitated by the gold of the New World, the mass employment of firearms, and new designs of military architecture. Yet the proper task of the historian is not simply to chart the course for this amazing upsurge in European influence, but to ask why the “Military Revolution” took place in Europe and not elsewhere. The answer is that throughout the Dark and Middle Ages, European military traditions founded in classical antiquity were kept alive and improved upon in a variety of bloody wars against Islamic armies, Viking raiders, Mongols, and northern barbarian tribes. The main components of the Western military tradition of freedom, decisive battle, civic militarism, rationalism, vibrant markets, discipline, dissent, and free critique were not wiped out by the fall of Rome. Instead, they formed the basis of a succession of Merovingian, Carolingian, French, Italian, Dutch, Swiss, German, English, and Spanish militaries that continued the military tradition of classical antiquity.

Key to this indefatigability was the ancient and medieval emphasis on foot soldiers, and especially the idea of free property owners, rather than slaves or serfs, serving as heavily armed infantrymen. Once firearms came on the scene, Europe far more easily than other cultures was able to convert ranks of spearmen and pikemen to harquebusiers, who fired as they had stabbed — in unison, on command, shoulder-to-shoulder, and in rank. Cortés in Mexico City and the Christians at Lepanto were successful largely because they were not the products of a nomadic horse people, tribal society, or even theocratic autocracy, but drew their heritage from tough foot soldiers of settled small valleys and rural communities — the type of men who formed a veritable wall of ice at Poitiers and so beat Abd ar-Rahman back.

Don’t Immanentize the Eschaton

I see the phrase only occasionally, "Don’t Immanentize the Eschaton", but it is something of a redline between the idealism of totalitarian system thinking and the tragic view of classical liberals. From Wikipedia:
In political theory and theology, to immanentize the eschaton means trying to bring about the eschaton (the final, heaven-like stage of history) in the immanent world. It has been used by conservative critics as a pejorative reference to certain projects such as Nazism, socialism, communism, anti-racism and transhumanism. In all these contexts it means "trying to make that which belongs to the afterlife happen here and now (on Earth)". Theologically the belief is akin to Postmillennialism as reflected in the Social Gospel of the 1880-1930 era, as well as Protestant reform movements during the Second Great Awakening in the 1830s and 1840s such as abolitionism.
It is a tricky balance. I do reject the immanetization of the eschaton but the tragic view at the heart of classical liberalism cannot be accepted as a reason not to pursue the amelioration of tragedy. The pursuit of improvement without the fanaticism of the totalitarian is the mark to be aimed for.

Thinking about immanetization of the eschaton makes me wonder when I first came across the phrase. It appears to have been popularized by William F. Buckley in the 1960's but I don't think I became aware of it till sometime in the past ten or fifteen years. The injunction is closely related to a slightly different consideration from the Bible, under what circumstances can man return to Eden?

In junior or senior year of high school, the Debate Club had a debate on whether man could return to the Garden of Eden through his own efforts. The crux of the issue was Genesis 3:23-24:
23 Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

24 So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
If, all these decades later, I recall the debate correctly, the crux was whether man could "earn" his way back to Eden or whether access to Eden was entirely at the discretion of God. While I forget the words, I do recall one of our more gifted debaters, thunderously declaring, in old Tent Revival style, that man could not re-enter Eden through his own efforts. Perhaps he waved a Bible in his right hand but that might be a trick of the memory, garnishing the argument.

I just recall the effectiveness of the performance over the words. He was heavy set, dark complexioned, from the South and delivered his speech with a marked accent. It was very Inherit the Wind. The net effect was very old prophet and was one of my earliest clear recognitions of the difference between the antiseptic logic and reason of an argument versus the rhetorical delivery of an argument.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Hey diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle

From Punch Magazine.

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Intensively worked farmland resulted in an abundance of hoplite infantry

From Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson. Page 161.
Once citizenship was extended to middling farmers in Greece of the eighth through sixth centuries B.C., the defense of the community rested in the hands of property owners, who voted when and where to fight — usually brief, decisive battles of colliding heavy infantrymen to ensure clear results and allow the farmer combatants to return home quickly to their harvests. Among yeomen hoplites, horsemanship brought no prestige, but rather suspicion of political intrigue by wealthy rightists who might overthrow popular government. Men with horses were felt to have somehow diverted resources from the community for their own indulgence. Militarily, the spears of the serried ranks of the phalanxes made the charges of horsemen—without stirrups and on small ponies—impotent. Just as it was cheaper to “grow” a family rather than a horse on a small plot of ground, so it was more economical for a state to train a farmer with a spear to stay in rank than a mounted grandee to remain on his horse while fighting.

The result was that until Alexander the Great, four centuries of Hellenic culture pilloried cavalrymen. At Sparta Xenophon claimed that only the “weakest in strength and the least eager for glory” mounted horses (Hellenica 6.4.11). That dismissive view of cavalry was commonplace throughout classical Greece; the orator Lysias, for example, bragged to the assembly that his client, the wealthy aristocratic Mantitheos, at a battle at the Haliartos River (395 B.C.) chose to face danger as a hoplite, rather than serve “in safety” as a horseman (16.13). Alexander realized that this landed monopoly of the Greek city-states made no military sense when war evolved beyond the small valleys of the mainland and involved a variety of Asian enemies — archers, light-armed troops, and variously armed horsemen — in the large plains and hill country of the East. He also had antipathy, not allegiance, to agrarianism. His aristocratic Macedonian Companions, like the Thessalian light cavalrymen who accompanied him, were horse lords, living on vast estates on the expansive plains of northern Greece. All were the products of monarchy, not consensual government.

There is an entire corpus of passages in ancient literature that reflects this ideal that small farms grew good infantrymen, while vast estates produced only a few elite horsemen: the proper role of farmland is to nurture families of infantry, not to lie idle or to rear horses. Aristotle lamented that by his own time in the latter fourth century B.C., the territory around Sparta was no longer inhabited by male Spartiate hoplite households — although, he says, that country might have supported “thirty thousand hoplites” (Politics 2.1270a31). In his own era at the end of the first century A.D., the biographer Plutarch deplored the wide-scale depopulation of the Greek countryside, noting that the entire country could scarcely field “three thousand hoplites,” roughly the size of the contingent Megara alone fielded at the battle of Plataea (Moralia 414A). Similarly, the historian Theopompus, in commenting on the elite nature of a squadron of Philip’s Companion Cavalry, remarked that although only eight hundred in number, they possessed the equivalent income of “not less than ten-thousand Greek owners of the best and most productive land” (Fragments of Greek History 115, 225). Theopompus’s point is that intensively worked farmland resulted in an abundance of hoplite infantry, and that this was a political, cultural, and military ideal — in contrast to vast estates to the north that supported horsemen, not yeomen soldiers, and so nurtured autocracy.

Don't just write words. Write music.

From 100 Ways To Improve Your Writing: Proven Professional Techniques for Writing With Style and Power by Gary Provost.
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It's like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals--sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader's ear. Don't just write words. Write music.
There is an interesting connection between storytelling, writing and music which I have never seen explored, though I suspect there is some good material out there. Good storytelling is not just about the arc of the narrative or the vocabulary used, there is something about the modulated ebb and flow of the story, carrying it forward by keeping the mind engaged.

At the Fortress Walls: Let Them In!, 1871 by Vasily Vereshchagin

At the Fortress Walls: Let Them In!, 1871 by Vasily Vereshchagin

Click to enlarge.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Ice breaking

From Punch Magazine.

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A dearth of free citizens who were willing to fight for their own freedom and the values of their civilization

From Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson. Page 156.
Franks, Lombards, Goths, and Vandals may have been tribal, and their armies were poorly organized; yet such “barbarians” nevertheless shared a general idea that as freemen of their community they were obligated to fight — and free to profit from the booty of their enemies. In that sense of civic militarism, they were more reminiscent of the old classical armies of a republican past than had been the hired imperial legionaries on Rome’s defensive frontier:
The massive reliance on citizen-soldiers in the West lowered the demands on the central government for expenditures to support the military. . . . Indeed, the flexibility of the West in building on developments that took place during the later Roman Empire resulted in immense military strengths, which, for example, proved their worth in the success for two centuries of the crusader states against overwhelming odds. (B. Bachrach, “Early Medieval Europe,” in K. Raaflaub and N. Rosenstein, eds., War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds, 294)
The legions had crumbled not because of organizational weaknesses, technological backwardness, or even problems of command and discipline, but because of the dearth of free citizens who were willing to fight for their own freedom and the values of their civilization. Such spirited warriors the barbarians had, and when they absorbed the blueprint of Roman militarism, a number of effective local Western armies arose—as the Muslims learned at Poitiers.

Short term predictions are always optimistic and long term predictions are always pessimistic

From Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn by By Richard R. Hamming.
In any case I will often use history as a background for the extrapolations I make. I believe the best predictions are based on understanding the fundamental forces involved, and this is what I depend on mainly. Often it is not physical limitations which control but rather it is human made laws, habits, and organizational rules, regulations, personal egos, and inertia, which dominate the evolution to the future. You have not been trained along these lines as much as I believe you should have been, and hence I must be careful to include them whenever the topics arise.

There is a saying,"Short term predictions are always optimistic and long term predictions are always pessimistic". The reason, so it is claimed, the second part is true is for most people the geometric growth due to the compounding of knowledge is hard to grasp. For example for money a mere 6% annual growth doubles the money in about 12 years! In 48 years the growth is a factor of 16. An example of the truth of this claim that most long-term predictions are low is the growth of the computer field in speed, in density of components, in drop in price, etc. as well as the spread of computers into the many corners of life. But the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) provides a very good counter example. Almost all the leaders in the field made long-term predictions which have almost never come true, and are not likely to do so within your lifetime, though many will in the fullness of time.