Parents Can Help Preemies

April 27th, 2015

A new study is testing the crazy idea that parents might help care for their own babies who are born prematurely:

The idea is to put parents in charge for at least eight hours a day of taking care of their babies in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU. Typically, babies born prematurely, who might weigh little more than a pound, are considered too fragile for anyone but highly trained doctors and nurses to care for.

“Yes, they are fragile. But parents aren’t the source of bad things that can happen, they’re the source of good things that can happen,” says Dr. Douglas McMillan, a neonatologist at IWK Health Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia, one of the study sites.

The study, being conducted at 20 hospitals in Canada and 10 in Australia and New Zealand, follows a pilot program at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital that involved 42 premature newborns. The outcome: Preemies cared for by their parents gained 25% more weight and were nearly twice as likely to be breastfeeding when they went home as those taken care of primarily by nurses. Infections, 11% in the nurse group, fell to zero in the parent group.

The Adventures of Lil Cthulhu

April 26th, 2015

It’s a new day, and the stars are right. Wake up Lil Cthulhu! It’s time to play!

(Hat tip to Borepatch.)

Microbiomes and Temperament

April 26th, 2015

Gut microbiomes help explain temperament in young children:

From 2011 to 2012, researchers at Ohio State University in Columbus recruited 77 pairs of mothers and toddlers, age 18 to 27 months. Mothers rated their children’s temperament on questionnaires and provided information about breast-feeding and timing of solid foods. Gut bacteria were analyzed from stool samples on diapers.

Boys were more active and extroverted, and had less self-control compared with girls. More physical movement and higher sociability were significantly associated with a particular composition of gut bacteria in boys. In girls, higher self-control and fear of potentially unpleasant or threatening situations were associated with specific clusters of gut bacteria.

No association was found between diet, gut bacteria and temperament differences in boys or girls, though consuming less meat and vegetables was linked to a greater need for stimulation in boys. It isn’t clear if the findings reflect the effects of temperament on the gut or the effects of the gut on temperament, or a combination of the two, researchers said.

Marvel’s Farm System

April 25th, 2015

It’s not the actors who make the character, but the character who makes the actor:

Disney-owned Marvel has mastered that approach and made A-listers out of previous unknowns. Chris Pratt, for example, was best known for his supporting role on the sitcom “Parks and Recreation.” Then he landed the starring role in last summer’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” by far the season’s biggest box-office winner, bringing in $774 million. He’s now one of Hollywood’s most sought-after leading men and will star in “Jurassic World” this June.

Mr. Hemsworth was an Australian soap-opera star before Marvel plucked him to play the titular God of Thunder in 2010’s “Thor.” Soon afterward, he played the lead role in a second franchise, “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and has headlined thrillers including “Rush” and “Blackhat.”

Marvel takes the same approach with directors—in contrast to competitors like Warner Bros., which has entrusted its superheroes to high-end auteur Christopher Nolan and experienced action director Zack Snyder. Kenneth Branagh’s career directing big-screen Shakespeare adaptations petered out several years before Marvel picked him to direct “Thor.” After that film hit it big, Mr. Branagh continued a second career in big-budget movies such as last year’s “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” and March’s live-action “Cinderella.”

“Everyone pays attention to who’s starring, who’s directing, who’s writing Marvel movies,” said producer and former Sony executive Michael De Luca. “Because of their track record… how can you not pay attention to their farm system?”

[...]

To secure lead actors for its series of interlocking sequels and spinoffs, Marvel typically signs them to six-movie deals. For stars, upfront salaries are paltry by Hollywood standards, often just barely over $1 million per picture for the first two films in a deal, after which they start to rise.

Actors receive bonuses when films meet box-office milestones, but the total payday is still far below what A-listers like Johnny Depp regularly earn on similarly successful blockbusters like “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

[...]

The company’s successful track record ironically allows for more experimentation in genre and form than is typically allowed in Hollywood these days—so long as it’s done with comic-book characters. It’s unthinkable that any other studio would greenlight a big budget political thriller like next year’s “Captain America: Civil War” or a science-fiction action-comedy like last year’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

In addition, since the studio makes only two to three movies a year, its president and top creative executive Kevin Feige is personally involved with every project, and the company rarely develops scripts it doesn’t intend to make.

“It makes a huge difference to deal with Kevin all the time, as opposed to several layers of people trying to guess what their boss wants,” said Anthony Russo, co-director with his brother Joe of last year’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

Mr. Feige is said to be a firm believer that the characters and the Marvel brand itself are the stars of his films. That approach syncs well with Mr. Perlmutter’s tight-fistedness and gives Mr. Feige the leeway to make bold choices. He cast Mr. Downey as “Iron Man” in 2008, even though the actor’s career was on the rocks at the time, because his showboating bad-boy persona mirrored the character of Tony Stark, the man behind the Iron Man mask.

How Much is the U.S. Worth?

April 25th, 2015

All the land in the US is worth $23 Trillion:

That’s William Larson’s estimate for the value of the 1.89 billion acres of land that accounts for the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia. The dollar figure — equal to about 1.4 times last year’s gross domestic product – represents only the value of the land, and not buildings, roads or other improvements, and excludes bodies of water.

He also determined values for every state. California is worth the most at $3.9 trillion and Vermont is worth the least at a paltry $44 billion. On a per acre basis, New Jersey has the most valuable land at $196[,41o] an acre and Wyoming the least, $1[,557] an acre.

[...]

His estimates reflect the land’s value in 2009. Therefore it shows a post-recession figure (he says country’s value fell 24% from 2006 to 2009) and doesn’t account for the changes in value due to the shale-gas activity in the Midwest and elsewhere.

Some key findings:

  • The federal government owns 24% of all land, worth a collective $1.8 trillion. (That’s 8% of the country’s total value, or around 10% of the total outstanding federal debt.)
  • Just 5.8% of U.S. land is developed, but that land accounts for 50.7% of the total value.
  • Almost half, 47%, of U.S. land is used for agriculture.

A typical state is just 7 percent developed, with a land value of just $10[,000] per acre. D.C., on the other hand, is 87 percent developed, with a land value just over $1,000[,000] per acre.

Psychopathic violent offenders’ brains can’t understand punishment

April 24th, 2015

Psychopathic offenders are different from regular criminals in many ways:

“Regular criminals are hyper-responsive to threat, quick-tempered and aggressive, while psychopaths have a very low response to threats, are cold, and their [aggression] is premeditated,” added Dr. Nigel Blackwood, who is affiliated with King’s College London. “Evidence is now accumulating to show that both types of offenders present abnormal, but distinctive, brain development from a young age.”

[...]

While inside the brain scanner, the violent offenders and non-offenders completed a task that assessed their ability to adjust their behaviour when the consequences of their responses changed from positive to negative. The task was an image matching game — sometimes points were awarded for correctly pairing images, sometimes they weren’t. “When these violent offenders completed neuropsychological tasks, they failed to learn from punishment cues, to change their behaviour in the face of changing contingencies, and made poorer quality decisions despite longer periods of deliberation,” Blackwood explained.

The researchers also examined activity across the brain during the completion of the task. “We found that the violent offenders with psychopathy, as compared to both the violent offenders without psychopathy and the non-offenders, displayed abnormal responding to punishment within the posterior cingulate and insula when a previously rewarded response was punished. Our previous research had shown abnormalities in the white matter tract connecting these two regions. In contrast, the violent offenders without psychopathy showed brain functioning similar to that of the non-offenders,” Blackwood explained. “These results suggest the violent offenders with psychopathy are characterized by a distinctive organization of the brain network that is used to learn from punishment and from rewards.”

Deciding on what to do involves generating a list of possible actions, weighing the negative and positive consequences of each, and hopefully choosing the behaviour most likely to lead to a positive outcome. “Offenders with psychopathy may only consider the possible positive consequences and fail to take account of the likely negative consequences. Consequently, their behavior often leads to punishment rather than reward as they had expected,” Hodgins said. “Punishment signals the necessity to change behaviour. Clearly, in certain situations, offenders have difficulty learning from punishment to change their behaviour.”

(Hat tip to Peter Turchin.)

Generally Accepted Parenting Practices

April 24th, 2015

Megan McArdle doesn’t think there’s one easy answer to why we’ve become insane:

Why has America gone lunatic on the subject of unattended children? Parents hover over their kids as if every step might be their last. If they don’t hover, strangers do, calling the police to report any parent who leaves their child to run into the store for a few minutes. What’s truly strange is that the parents who are doing this were themselves left to their own devices in cars, allowed to ride their bikes and walk to the store unsupervised, and otherwise given the (limited) freedom that they are now determined to deny their own kids. The police are making arrests that would have branded their own parents as criminals. To hear people my age talk about the dangers of unsupervised children, you would think that the attrition rate in our generation had been at least 30 percent.

Even people who haven’t gone crazy are afraid of the Pediatric Patrol. A mom of my acquaintance whose house backs up to a school playground, with a gate that lets her children walk straight into the schoolyard, is afraid to let them go through the gate without an adult, for fear that someone would call the same nutty CPS that has taken to impounding the Meitiv children. She compromises by letting them play alone in the playground only when she is in the backyard, so that she can intervene if the police arrive.

Think about that: Kids have the priceless boon of a playground right in their backyard, but they can’t use it unless Mom drops everything to accompany them. I am running out of synonyms for “insane” to describe the state we have worked ourselves into. What on earth has happened to us?

How can we explain it? A few possible causes:

Cable news. When you listen to parents talk about why they hover, you’ll frequently hear that the world is more dangerous than it used to be. This is the exact opposite of the truth. [...] There were always stranger abductions, but they were always extremely rare, perhaps 2 or 3 per 1 million children under 12 in the U.S. each year. However, in the 1970s, you most likely only heard about local cases, and because these were rare, you would hear about one every few years in a moderately large metropolitan area. [...] Then along came cable news, which needed to fill 24 hours a day with content. These sorts of cases started to make national news, and because our brains are terrible at statistics, we did not register this as “Aha, the overall rate is still low, but I am now hearing cases drawn from a much larger population, so I hear about more of them.” Instead, it felt like stranger abductions must have gone up a lot.

Collective-action problems. When it comes to safety, overprotective parents are in effect taking out a sort of regret insurance. Every community has what you might call “generally accepted child-rearing practices,” the parenting equivalent of “generally accepted accounting principles.” These principles define what is good parenting and provide a sort of mental safe harbor in the event of an accident.

Individual Differences in Executive Functions Are Almost Entirely Genetic in Origin

April 23rd, 2015

Individual differences in executive functions are almost entirely genetic in origin:

Recent psychological and neuropsychological research suggests that executive functions — the cognitive control processes that regulate thought and action — are multifaceted and that different types of executive functions are correlated but separable.

The present multivariate twin study of three executive functions (inhibiting dominant responses, updating working memory representations, and shifting between task sets), measured as latent variables, examined why people vary in these executive control abilities and why these abilities are correlated but separable from a behavioral genetic perspective.

Results indicated that executive functions are correlated because they are influenced by a highly heritable (99%) common factor that goes beyond general intelligence or perceptual speed, and they are separable because of additional genetic influences unique to particular executive functions. This combination of general and specific genetic influences places executive functions among the most heritable psychological traits. These results highlight the potential of genetic approaches for uncovering the biological underpinnings of executive functions and suggest a need for examining multiple types of executive functions to distinguish different levels of genetic influences.

Ray Wolters’ The Long Crusade

April 23rd, 2015

Ray Wolters has written an excellent and fascinating book about education, John Derbyshire says — and he’s flattered to be included among the dramatis personae:

In his final section, Wolters covers “Contrarian views of school reform.” He gives a chapter to Diane Ravitch, who argues an interesting combination of Kozol-style social reform with Hirsch’s Core Knowledge instruction.

He then ventures into taboo territory with a chapter on race realists. The intractability of the race gaps, and the fact that they remain constant even when overall achievement rises, strongly suggests that they have a biological origin.

The names here will be familiar to readers of VDARE.com: Murray and Herrnstein, James Watson, Bruce Lahn, Jason Richwine, and … me.

Wolters describes my address to the Black Law Students Association at the University of Pennsylvania in 2010, in a panel discussion of the question: “Should the government play a role in eliminating racial disparities in education and employment?”

Derbyshire began his remarks by stating that he thought the question before the panel was based on a false premise. He did not think racial disparities in education could be eliminated … According to Derbyshire, these disparities were “facts in the natural world, like the orbits of the planets.”

He also gives a fair, even-handed account of my roughing-up by the Thought Police in 2012, and the discussion that followed.

The last contrarian Wolters presents, in the final chapter of The Long Crusade, is our own Happy Warrior Bob Weissberg.

Bob’s 2010 book Bad Students, Not Bad Schools was a fresh breeze in the cobwebbed halls of education theory.

Enlisting in the Military

April 22nd, 2015

Why do people enlist in the U.S. military? It’s genetic:

Analysis of twin pairs drawn from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) revealed that 82% of the variance was the result of genetic factors, 18% of the variance was the result of nonshared environmental factors, and none of the variance was accounted for by shared environmental factors.

A Stimpack for Gamers

April 22nd, 2015

I’m still surprised that so-called eSports — spectator video games — have taken off, but I’m not surprised that competitors have resorted to performance-enhancing drugs. It is rather cyberpunk though:

Hours before Steven* was due to compete in his second professional eSports tournament, another team-member offered him a pill. “I had taken Adderall for a while when I was younger to treat my ADHD,” he says. “So I knew from prior experience that it helps with stress and concentration.” Steven, who was 16 at the time and who is now a third year university student in Kentucky, didn’t hesitate. “I took it,” he says. “I shouldn’t have. But it was amazing — like a kind of legal speed. Before, I’d suffered from nerves when competing in front of an audience. The atmosphere got to me. But when I played on Adderall and I was only focused on what was in front of me. It made me a far better player.”

[...]

But Adderall is peculiarly well suited to the medium, where victory depends on a competitor’s alertness, ability to concentrate and hand-to-eye-coordination. As one StarCraft player wrote in 2011 on the game’s official forums: “Adderall is basically a stimpack for gamers.”

One-Way Thoroughfares

April 21st, 2015

In the 1950s and ’60s, streets that once flowed both directions were converted into fast-moving one-way thoroughfares to help cars speed through town — but this had unintended consequences:

In John Gilderbloom’s experience, the notorious streets are invariably the one-way streets. These are the streets lined with foreclosed homes and empty storefronts, the streets that look neglected and feel unsafe, the streets where you might find drug dealers at night.

“Sociologically, the way one-way streets work,” he says, “[is that] if there are two or more lanes, a person can just pull over and make a deal, while other traffic can easily pass them by.”

It’s also easier on a high-speed one-way road to keep an eye out for police or flee from the scene of a crime. At least, this is the pattern Gilderbloom, director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods at the University of Louisville, has observed in San Francisco, in Los Angeles, in Houston and Washington…

I always thought they were simply annoying, but now researchers have collected data about one-way streets and the problems they cause:

In 2011, Louisville converted two one-way streets near downtown, each a little more than a mile long, back to two-way traffic. In data that they gathered over the following three years, Gilderbloom and William Riggs found that traffic collisions dropped steeply — by 36 percent on one street and 60 percent on the other — after the conversion, even as the number of cars traveling these roads increased. Crime dropped too, by about a quarter, as crime in the rest of the city was rising. Property values rose, as did business revenue and pedestrian traffic, relative to before the change and to a pair of nearby comparison streets. The city, as a result, now stands to collect higher property tax revenues along these streets, and to spend less sending first-responders to accidents there.

Gilderbloom and Riggs have also done an analysis of the entire city of Louisville, comparing Census tracts with multi-lane one-way streets to those without them. The basic pattern holds city-wide: They found that the risk of a crash is twice as high for people riding through neighborhoods with these one-way streets. The property values in census tracts there were also about half the value of homes in the rest of the city.

Some of these findings are more obvious: Traffic tends to move faster on a wide one-way road than on a comparable two-way city street, and slower traffic means fewer accidents. The rest of these results are theoretically connected to each other in complex ways.

(Hat tip to Tyler Cowen.)

Automation Complacency

April 21st, 2015

Pablo Garcia suffered from a rare genetic disease called NEMO syndrome, but when the 16-year-old went in for a colonoscopy he started complaining about numbness and tingling all over his body:

At 9 o’clock that night, Pablo took all his evening medications, including steroids to tamp down his dysfunctional immune system and antibiotics to stave off infections. When he started complaining of the tingling, Brooke Levitt, his nurse for the night, wondered whether his symptoms had something to do with GoLYTELY, the nasty bowel-cleansing solution he had been gulping down all evening to prepare for the procedure. Or perhaps he was reacting to the antinausea pills he had taken to keep the GoLYTELY down.

Levitt’s supervising nurse was stumped, too, so they summoned the chief resident in pediatrics, who was on call that night. When the physician arrived in the room, he spoke to and examined the patient, who was anxious, mildly confused, and still complaining of being “numb all over.”

At first, he was perplexed. But then he noticed something that stopped him cold. Six hours earlier, Levitt had given the patient not one Septra pill — a tried-and-true antibiotic used principally for urinary and skin infections — but 38½ of them.

Levitt recalls that moment as the worst of her life. “Wait, look at this Septra dose,” the resident said to her. “This is a huge dose. Oh my God, did you give this dose?”

“Oh my God,” she said. “I did.”

The doctor picked up the phone and called San Francisco’s poison control center. No one at the center had ever heard of an accidental overdose this large—for Septra or any other antibiotic, for that matter—and nothing close had ever been reported in the medical literature. The toxicology expert there told the panicked clinicians that there wasn’t much they could do other than monitor the patient closely.

How did this happen?

As the pediatric clinical pharmacist, it was [Benjamin] Chan’s job to sign off on all medication orders on the pediatric service. The chain of events that led to Pablo’s catastrophic overdose unfolded quickly. The medication orders from Jenny Lucca, Pablo’s admitting physician, reached Chan’s computer screen moments after Lucca had electronically signed them.

Pablo had a rare genetic disease that causes a lifetime of infections and bowel inflammation, and as Chan reviewed the orders, he saw that Lucca had ordered 5 mg/kg of Septra, the antibiotic that Pablo took routinely to keep infections at bay.

Chan immediately noticed a problem with this Septra order: the dose of 193 mg the computer had calculated (based on the teenager’s weight) was 17 percent greater than the standard 160-mg Septra double-strength tablets. Because this discrepancy exceeded 5 percent, hospital policy did not allow Chan to simply approve the order. Instead, it required that he contact Lucca, asking her to enter the dose corresponding to the actual pill size: 160 mg. The pharmacist texted Lucca: “Dose rounded by >5%. Correct dose 160 mg. Pls reorder.”

Of the scores of medications that the resident would order — and the pharmacist would approve — that day, this was probably the simplest: an antibiotic pill dispensed by corner drugstores everywhere, being taken as a routine matter by a relatively stable patient. Neither the doctor nor the pharmacist could have anticipated that this text message, and the policy that demanded it, would be a lit match dropped onto a dry forest floor.

Both Chan and Lucca knew that Pablo weighed less than 40 kilograms (38.6 to be exact, or about 85 pounds). But here is where worlds — the worlds of policy, practice and computers — collided. The 40 kilogram policy required that Lucca’s original order be weight-based (in milligrams of medication per kilogram of body weight), but the 5 percent policy meant that Chan needed Lucca to reorder the medication in the correct number of milligrams. What should have been a simple order (one double strength Septra twice daily) had now been rendered hopelessly complex, an error waiting to happen. And so one did.

After receiving Chan’s text message, Lucca reopened the medication-ordering screen in Epic, the electronic health record system used by UCSF. What she needed to do was trivial, and she didn’t give it much thought. She typed “160” into the dose box and clicked “Accept.” She then moved to the next task on her long checklist, believing that she had just ordered the one Septra tablet that she had wanted all along. But she had done something very different.

[...]

Since doses can be ordered in either milligrams or milligrams per kilogram, the computer program needs to decide which one to use as the default setting. (Of course, it could leave the unit [mg versus mg/kg] box blank, forcing the doctor to make a choice every time, which would actually require that the physician stop and think about it, but few systems do that because of the large number of additional clicks it would generate.)

In UCSF’s version of Epic, the decision was made to have the screen default to milligrams per kilogram for all kids weighing less than 40 kilograms, in keeping with the weight-based dosing policy. That seemingly innocent decision meant that, in typing 160, Lucca was actually ordering 160 mg per kg — not one double-strength Septra, but 38½ of them.

In a seminal 1983 article, Lisanne Bainbridge, a psychologist at University College London, described the irony of automation:

“The more advanced a control system is,” she wrote, “so the more crucial may be the contribution of the human operator.” In a famous 1995 case, the cruise ship Royal Majesty ran aground off the coast of Nantucket Island after a GPS-based navigation system failed due to a frayed electrical connection. The crew members trusted their automated system so much that they ignored a half-dozen visual clues during the more than 30 hours that preceded the ship’s grounding, when the Royal Majesty was 17 miles off course.

In a dramatic study illustrating the hazards of overreliance on automation, Kathleen Mosier, an industrial and organizational psychologist at San Francisco State University, observed experienced commercial pilots in a flight simulator. The pilots were confronted with a warning light that pointed to an engine fire, although several other indicators signified that this warning was exceedingly likely to be a false alarm. All 21 of the pilots who saw the warning decided to shut down the intact engine, a dangerous move. In subsequent interviews, two-thirds of these pilots who saw the engine fire warning described seeing at least one other indicator on their display that confirmed the fire. In fact, there had been no such additional warning. Mosier called this phenomenon “phantom memory.”

Computer engineers and psychologists have worked hard to understand and manage the thorny problem of automation complacency. Even aviation, which has paid so much attention to thoughtful cockpit automation, is rethinking its approach after several high-profile accidents, most notably the crash of Air France 447 off the coast of Brazil in 2009, that reflect problems at the machine–pilot interface. In that tragedy, a failure of the plane’s speed sensors threw off many of the Airbus A330’s automated cockpit systems, and a junior pilot found himself flying a plane that he was, in essence, unfamiliar with. His incorrect response to the plane’s stall — pulling the nose up when he should have pointed it down to regain airspeed — ultimately doomed the 228 people on board. Two major thrusts of aviation’s new approach are to train pilots to fly the plane even when the automation fails, and to prompt them to switch off the autopilot at regular intervals to ensure that they remain engaged and alert.

This bias grows over time as the computers demonstrate their value and their accuracy (in other words, their trustworthiness), as they usually do. Today’s computers, with all their humanlike characteristics such as speech and the ability to answer questions or to anticipate our needs (think about how Google finishes your thoughts while you’re typing in a search query), engender even more trust, sometimes beyond what they deserve.

The warnings in cockpits are now prioritized to reduce alarm fatigue:

“We work very hard to avoid false positives because false positives are one of the worst things you could do to any warning system. It just makes people tune them out.”

[...]

Because of this process, the percentage of flights that have any alerts whatsoever — warnings, cautions, or advisories — is low, well below 10 percent.

The goal of root cause analysis is to concentrate on system flaws:

Reason’s insight, drawn mainly from studying errors outside of healthcare, was that trying to prevent mistakes by admonishing people to be more careful is unproductive and largely futile, akin to trying to sidestep the law of gravity.

(From The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age, by Robert Wachter. Hat tip to T. Greer.)

Elite Anti-Elitists

April 20th, 2015

A modern textbook tries to “sell” students on physics as a source of “new technologies for leisure” and tries to humanize physicists as regular people, but, Matthew B. Crawford laments, it makes no effort to resuscitate the ideal of ancient science, learning for its own sake:

The pose of anti-elitism seems to be a cover for something far more disturbing, something that is perhaps typical of elite anti-elitists. The author writes, “Sometimes the results of the work of physicists are of interest only to other physicists. Other times, their work leads to devices…. that change everyone’s life.” Are these the only two possibilities? Physicists on their mountaintop, speaking only to one another, and the rest of us in the plains, waiting for them to descend bearing magical devices? Nothing in-between? Aren’t there intelligent, curious people who are not professional physicists, but who have the patience and desire to learn? I believe it is this dichotomization of humanity into two ideal types, professional scientists and ignorant consumers, that is responsible for this book’s cynicism. The author doesn’t seem to think his readers are really capable of being educated. This is the worst sort of elitism. Paradoxically, we have here the worst of both worlds: an anti-elitist rhetoric that discredits the higher human possibilities, the very possibilities by which the author orients his own life as a scientist, together with a more substantive elitism that views students from so far above that it can’t be bothered to cultivate in them those same human possibilities.

The author’s cynicism is ultimately rooted in a common confusion, a false conflict between democracy and elitism, one that forgets the ways in which these two human ideals actually depend on one another. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a “natural aristocracy,” made possible by the liberation of talents that comes with equality of opportunity. He suggests that democracy not only makes such a natural aristocracy possible, it is also peculiarly in need of cultivated human beings who can exert a leavening effect on society, giving our common freedom the character of liberty rather than license. That distinction seems to turn on the objects toward which freedom is directed. It is a distinction that allows us to speak of liberal pursuits, such as music, science, literature, mathematics, and so forth. If liberal democracy requires a critical mass of liberally educated citizens, it would seem to require a regime of education guided not only by the love of equality but also by the love of thinking. Happily, such a love is requited by those beautiful things that unveil themselves before a powerful and disciplined mind working at full song. Here is a logic that reconciles the private good of the student with public felicity. It is the logic of liberal education, classically understood.

A great teacher once said that precisely because we are friends of liberal democracy, we are not permitted to be its flatterers. With its confused anti-elitism, this book flatters the lowest elements of the democratic spirit. This is unfortunate because it is precisely the democratic spirit that, at its best, provides the most fertile home for the spirit of scientific inquiry. Glencoe Physics takes a very dim view of the educability of students, never venturing to lead them beyond the narrow concerns of comfort and entertainment. This is not so much meeting the students on their own terms as capitulating to the terms offered to students by mass commercial culture. Cowed by the times, our author lacks political courage on behalf of thinking, something that is incumbent on all teachers.

Ecclesia

April 20th, 2015

The ecclesia (or ekklesia) was the principal assembly of the democracy of ancient Athens during its Golden Age:

It was the popular assembly, open to all male citizens with 2 years of military service. In 594 BC, Solon allowed all Athenian citizens to participate, regardless of class, even the thetes.

The assembly was responsible for declaring war, military strategy and electing the strategoi and other officials. It was responsible for nominating and electing magistrates, thus indirectly electing the members of the Areopagus. It had the final say on legislation and the right to call magistrates to account after their year of office.

In the 5th century BC its members numbered about 43,000 people. It would have been difficult, however, for non-wealthy people outside of the urban center of Athens to attend until payments for attendance were introduced in the late 5th century.

It originally met once every month, but later it met three or four times per month. The agenda for the ekklesia was established by the Boule, the popular council. Votes were taken by a show of hands.