You can’t have Denmark without Danes

Wednesday, February 28th, 2018

You can’t have Denmark without Danes, Megan McArdle notes:

On my first day of interviews, I met with Lars Hvidberg, who works as a speechwriter at the culture ministry. Hvidberg has lived in the U.S., so he seemed well qualified to speculate about the differences between the two countries.

“There are basically four stories about Denmark,” he said. Here’s a breakdown:

The social liberal story: Free education, free speech and democratic government have created social trust and the ability of people to take responsibility and to act for themselves.

The social democracy story: Benefits are high and the taxes are high, which creates equality and trust and enables people to plan for the long term without fear of destitution.

The market liberal story: The real reason Denmark is so successful is that compared to other countries, it’s actually very classically liberal. It has free trade, low regulation, almost no corruption, and makes it easy to start a company.

The nationalist version: The reason Denmark has a well-functioning society is that it’s homogeneous, with a lot of people who think the same, and who place a high value on things like work and honesty and trust toward strangers. In other words, Denmark works so well because it’s full of Danes.

A little apologetically, he said, “I believe all of these stories are true.”

Ironically, New Yorker Megan McArdle got her phone stolen in Copenhagen:

I learned a lot about Danish culture by the reaction to the theft of my phone. I discovered the loss the day after it happened, just as I was about to leave my hotel for a few last interviews. Suddenly, I had to my name only a few Danish kroner — too few even for a round-trip bus ride. I briefly debated canceling the interviews and spending the afternoon trying to round up some cash and a way to get to the airport the following day. Instead, throwing caution to the winds, I borrowed a bike from the hotel and set off, arriving bedraggled and half-an-hour late. Then I climbed four flights of stairs and nearly passed out.

The man I was interviewing responded by leaving to fetch me an enormous bottle of sparkling water, which I greedily consumed. (Maybe an American would have done the same.) The next man I interviewed, the think-tank scholar Agerup, offered to lend me whatever money I needed to get home. (Maybe an American stranger would have done the same, or maybe not.)

Later, I informed the staff at the Copenhagen Island Hotel that all my credit cards needed to be canceled, meaning that I would be unable to pay the considerable bill the next day. Also, that I had no cash and no way to eat for the next 24 hours. The clerk commiserated. Then he mobilized what seemed like the whole staff to make sure that it would be all right.

The hotel people pre-charged both dinner and breakfast to my room, figured out how to give the airport taxi service a hotel voucher and then closed out my entire bill a day early, right before I canceled my credit card. They did this all for a stranger they had no reason to trust.

It was exactly what I’d been hearing about Danish businesses and government all week — the individual initiative of relatively low-level employees, the pragmatism, the adherence to the spirit rather than the letter of rules.

I don’t mean to imply that my own company would have left me stranded in Denmark if it hadn’t been for the hotel — as soon as the U.S. woke up, I also had my own team of Bloomberg people trying to make sure I got home safely. The point is that I didn’t need much help, because the marvelously efficient and flexible Danes had already taken care of the problem.

Two weeks later, after I’d canceled my credit cards and replaced my phone, I got a package in the mail covered in foreign stamps. The Danish police had thoughtfully mailed my phone case back to me, at their own expense — sans phone, alas, but with driver’s license and credit cards and various wallet detritus intact. It saved me a trip to the DMV to replace my license, and gave me a warm feeling for the Danes who had, apparently as a matter of course, extended themselves to help a stranger.

Read the whole thing.

A fountain pen is not a screwdriver

Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

Willis McNelly’s interview with Frank Herbert had a number of interesting tidbits I thought I’d quote (or paraphrase):

  • Ecology is the science of understanding consequences.
  • The name of the game is power.
  • There is a law of supply and demand as long as you only have one form of exchange, but once you start getting other media of exchange, such as force, then the law of supply and demand gets different beats on it, different rhythms.
  • Western man has assumed that if you have enough power, there is no problem which won’t submit to this approach, even the problem of our own ignorance.
  • It’s my contention that feudalism is a natural condition of human beings…not that it is the only condition or not that it is the right condition…that it is just a way we have of falling into organisations. I like to use the example of the Berlin Museum Beavers. Before World War II there were a number of families of beaver in the Berlin Museum. They were European beaver. They had been there, raised in captivity for something on the order of seventy beaver generations, in cages. World War II came along and a bomb freed some of them into the countryside. What did they do? They went out and they started building dams.
  • Campbell turned down the sequel. Now his argument was that I had created an anti-hero in Paul in the sequel, and he has built his magazine on the hero. But Galaxy snapped it right up and paid Campbell’s rates.
  • Virginia Heinlein says that every time that Bob wanders away she says, “Cut to the chase.”
  • As my wife is fond of telling my children, a fountain pen is not a screwdriver.
  • So there was a light from back in there and so she could see the cards, and she said, see if you can predict the cards. And she had been shuffling them, so she picked up the first card, and I closed my eyes, and I saw that card. And so I told her…that was it. She put it down. That was the card. I swear to you, Will, I went through that entire deck, predicting every card that she was going to see, and there wasn’t a failure at all. I told her every card. I did it the same every time.
  • Well, one of the threads in the story is to trace a possible way a messiah is created in our society, and I hope I was successful in making it believable. Here we have the entire process, or at least the large and some of the subtle elements of the construction of this, both from the individual standpoint, and from the way society demands this of you. It’s the references in there, you know, that the man must recognize the myth he is living in, because the creation of an avatar is a myth-making process. We’ve done it in our…in recent times. Look at what’s happening to John F. Kennedy.

Diversity is the reigning social and political ideal of our age

Monday, February 26th, 2018

Diversity is the reigning social and political ideal of our age, and it got its start with a “scattered” Supreme Court ruling:

In 1974 California resident Allan Bakke brought suit against the University of California, Davis for twice rejecting his application to its medical school. Despite his having test scores well above average for the school’s applicant pool in addition to four years service in the Marine Corps and a seven month tour in Vietnam, UC-Davis refused Bakke admission. The School of Medicine justified this in part because of his age — such discrimination being perfectly legal at the time — and in part because of the manner in which he blamed his first rejection on the School’s affirmative action policy. Beginning shortly after its founding in 1968, the Davis medical school operated a quota system for racial minorities in which around 15 percent of its admission slots were reserved for non-white students. Although Congress believed its Civil Rights Act banned quotas in employment and the Department of Labor under President Nixon clearly forbade them, colleges and universities had been using various types of admissions quotas for decades and were committed to continuing them.

In 1978, four years after Bakke’s original suit, the Supreme Court issued its famously scattered ruling. The nine justices issued six separate opinions, none gathering a majority. Justice Lewis Powell’s idiosyncratic opinion, however, garnered enough partial support in places that it stood as the judgment of the Court. In a victory for affirmative action opponents, it ordered Bakke to be admitted to the Davis School of Medicine and barred the use of racial quotas. Yet in a victory for affirmative action supporters, the Court also agreed that some alternative system of racial preferences could pass constitutional muster. It is precisely here that the ideology of diversity entered mainstream American thought and practice.

Justice Powell argued that “a diverse student body” was a worthy goal of any university which allowed the consideration of race in admissions. He justified this neither on the grounds of racial justice nor the amelioration of past or present discrimination, but on the grounds of diversity. Powell claimed that racial and ethnic diversity advanced the core intellectual mission of American higher education, namely “speculation, experiment and creation,” “the interplay of ideas and the exchange of views,” and an encounter of differing “ideas and mores of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples.” This claim hardly originated with Powell, of course. He was simply repeating the collective views of Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania as stated in their joint brief to the Court in defense of affirmative action. According to the country’s most elite private universities, diversity in all its forms — race, region, social class, field of interest, occupational life plan (although not sex, as Harvard College was male-only until 1977 as was Columbia College until 1983) — is a precondition for the best educational experience possible.

Powell’s endorsement of the so-called ‘Harvard plan’ as a constitutionally permissible and even preferable equal opportunity practice spread diversity throughout American higher education and the elite business sector. Equal opportunity officers and consultants morphed into diversity officers and consultants. New diversity categories expanded older affirmative action mission statements. Diversity training replaced race relations workshops. Culture audits burst onto the scene. By the early 1990s, diversity had conquered Corporate America.

I’ve got to go and incorporate this knowledge into my decisions

Sunday, February 25th, 2018

Arnold Kling found Russ Roberts’ recent interview with Bryan Caplan to be one of his favorite EconTalk episodes, “because Russ pushes back so hard and of course Bryan debates effectively.” I also enjoyed both the Caplan quotes he cited:

I would say if there is no designable test that can show that people learn something, then they haven’t learned it. You might say the test is bad, in which case I would say, ‘Fine. Design a better test, and then show it to me.’ But, if you want to say that people have been transformed but it’s a way that no one can actually show, no matter how hard they try, then I’m going to say, ‘No. That just sounds like wishful thinking.’


I’m weird in this way, in that when I read something that seems true to me, like I just feel this incredible, this weight on the world: ‘I must repent. I can’t keep living the way I used to live anymore. I’ve got to go and incorporate this knowledge into my decisions, day after day. And, I’m a sinner if I don’t.’ But even that is such a weird response to a book. Most people read Tetlock’s Superforecasting and say, ‘Oh, yeah. So interesting. Some people are really great at this stuff. Yeah. Right.’ And then they go back and live their normal lives.

How Star Wars was saved in the edit

Saturday, February 24th, 2018

I wasn’t aware of how Star Wars was saved in the edit:

I actually like the idea of Luke looking up through his macrobinoculars (or theodolite) at the battle above Tatooine.

(Hat tip to Morlock Publishing.)

There are other reasons why stories are remembered

Friday, February 23rd, 2018

I recently shared an interview with Frank Herbert, where he and Professor McNelly discuss, among other things, why stories are remembered:

Willis McNelly: I have said this to my classes that, in many ways as satisfying as “Dune” is, I find it unsatisfying because there are so many unanswered questions; you don’t tie up the loose ends of, say, Paul’s sister, unless you read…what is it?.. a “Huntress of a Thousand Worlds” (Laughter)…that marvellous little…little footnote of Princess Alia. But… or several other things. The whole question of the Spacing Guild itself and how it got to be the way it was is handled very…you know…

Frank Herbert: Well, let’s…let’s examine something, as far as fiction in general is concerned…

WM: All right.

FH: Now there are other reasons why stories are remembered, and I’m talking about story in the classic sense of the knights who goes from castle to castle to earn his meal.

WM: All right.

FH: Entertainment…

WM: Sure.

FH: The stories that are remembered are the ones that strike sparks from your mind, one way or another. It’s like a grinding wheel. They touch you and sparks fly.

WM: Would this be something like the Miller’s tale of Chaucer or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, if you please?

FH: Yes, indeed.

WM: Or, well, we could adduce thousands of other examples up to, say, Treasure Island or what you will. There’s sparks there.


WM: I understand your term.

FH: Now we all have stories that we go on with after we finish reading them. As children, we can remember playing Treasure Island…

WM: Or playing Tom Sawyer…

FH: Or Tom Sawyer…any of these. We remember playing these. The story stayed with us…the characters and their conflicts, their joys, their play all stayed with us.

WM: And it enkindled sparks in our own imagination, so that we were then active in creative play.

FH: That’s exactly right! We went on and told the story ourself…

WM: Yes.

FH: Now, I deliberately did this in “Dune” for that purpose. I want the person to go on and construct for himself all of these marvellous flights of fantasy and imagination. I want him to…you see, you haven’t had the Spacing Guild explained completely…just enough so that you know its existence. Now with lots of people, they’ve got to complete this.

WM: Yes.

FH: So they build it up in their own minds. Now this is right out of the story, though, you see…

WM: Yes. Or the whole…

FH: The sparks have flown.

I found this almost ironic, since I had just watched the first episode of Netflix’s The Toys that Made Us, about the original Star Wars toys, which no major toy manufacturer was willing to produce. Only Kenner was willing to take on the project, because Bernard Loomis recognized how toyetic the new film would be. Millions of kids would go on to play out their own versions of Star Wars, never knowing how heavily it borrowed from Dune.

Is the education system really a waste of time and money?

Thursday, February 22nd, 2018

Is the education system really a waste of time and money, Bryan Caplan asks, as his new book claims right on the cover? This is a strange topic to debate with Eric Hanushek, he explains:

Why? Because if Hanushek had absolute power to fix the education system, education might actually be worth every penny. Hanushek is famous for focusing on what schools teach rather than what they spend — and documenting the vast disconnect between the two. If you haven’t already read his dissection of “input-based education policies,” you really ought to. Hanushek, more than any other economist, has taught us that measured literacy and numeracy are socially valuable — but just making kids spend long years in well-funded schools is not.

Tragically, however, Hanushek is not our education czar. Instead, all levels of our education system are extremely wasteful and ineffective. After spending more than a decade in class and burning up over $100,000 in taxpayer money, most Americans know shockingly little. About a third of adults are barely literate or numerate. Average adult knowledge of the other standard academic requirements — history, social studies, science, foreign languages — is near-zero. The average adult with a B.A. has the knowledge base you’d intuitively expect of the average high school graduate. The average high school graduate has the knowledge base you’d intuitively expect of the average drop-out. This is the fruit of a trillion taxpayer dollars a year.

For economists, however, there’s a powerful objection to this condemnation. If students really learn so little, why on earth is education so lucrative in the labor market? Why do high school grads outearn dropouts by 30%? Why do college grads outearn high school grads by 73%? Explain that! Employers want profit and they aren’t dumb. They wouldn’t pay exorbitant premia unless education dramatically improved worker productivity, right?

Wrong. There are TWO solid business reasons to pay extra for educated workers. One is that education teaches useful skills, transforming unskilled students into skilled workers. This is the standard “human capital” story. The other reason, though, is that education certifies useful skills, helping employers distinguish skilled workers from imposters. This is the “signaling” story. In the real world, naturally, it’s a continuum. But since Hanushek is not the education czar, signaling explains most of education’s financial reward.

How can we know this? We should start with the massive gap between learning and earning, combined with the fact that even the most irrelevant subjects and majors yield decent financial rewards. If human capital were the whole story, why on earth would employers care if about whether you’ve studied Shakespeare, Latin, or trigonometry? Think about all the classroom materials you haven’t used since the final exam.

If that doesn’t fully convince you, many other facts that every student knows cut in the same direction. Such as:

1. It’s easy to unofficially attend college classes without enrolling or paying tuition, but almost no one bothers. Why not? Because after four years of guerilla education, there’s one thing you won’t have: a diploma. The central signal of our society.

2. Students’ focus on grades over learning, best seen in their tireless search for “easy A’s.” Signaling has a simple explanation: If a professor gives you a high grade for minimal work, you get a nice seal of approval without suffering for it.

3. Students routinely cram for final exams, then calmly forget everything they learn. Signaling provides a clean explanation: Learning, then forgetting, sends a much better signal than failing.

In The Case Against Education, I also review multiple major bodies of academic research to help pin down the true human capital/signaling breakdown. In the end, my best estimate is that signaling explains 80% of the payoff. Key pieces of evidence:

1. Most of the payoff for school comes from graduation, not mere years of study. This is a doozy for human capital theory to explain; do schools withhold useful skills until senior year? But it makes perfect sense if graduation is a focal signal of conformity to social norms.

2. There has been massive credential inflation since 1940. The education you need to do a job hasn’t changed much, but the education you need to get any given job has risen about three years. Hence, the fact that waiter, bartender, security guard, and cashier are all now common jobs for college grads.

3. Though every data set yields different estimates, the effect of national education on national income is much smaller than the effect of personal education on personal income. How is this possible? Signaling! Give everyone more useful skills, and you enrich the whole nation. Give everyone more stickers on their foreheads, and you fritter away valuable time and tax money.

If you’ve been wondering, “What does signaling have to do with wasteful education?,” I hope you’re starting to see the link. Sure, it’s useful to rank workers. But once they’re ranked, prolonging the ranking game is a socially destructive rat race. When education levels skyrocket, the main result isn’t good jobs for every graduate, but credential inflation: The more education the average worker has, the more education the average worker needs to be employable. And while sending fancy signals is a great way for an individual to enrich himself, it’s a terrible way to enrich society.

Given Hanushek’s work, I’m optimistic that he’ll agree with much of what I’ve said. It’s our remedies that starkly diverge. My primary solution for these ills is cutting education spending. In a word, austerity. Austerity: It’s word I love. It’s a word I believe in. If Hanushek’s bleak assessment of input-based education policies is right, austerity will save tons of time and money with little effect on worker skill.

Cutting waste is easy and transparent

Wednesday, February 21st, 2018

Bryan Caplan has some fun explaining why public education is a waste by analogy:

You think we have too much education, and I think we’re doing education wrong. In other words, you want less education, and I want better education.

My response is that doing less education is easy, and improving the education system is hard. Here’s an analogy I use in the book: Imagine that your friend comes to you and says, “You know that toenail fungus cream that you’re spending a hundred bucks a month on?” “Yeah.” “Here’s clear proof it doesn’t work, so stop using it,” and you say, “Well, I’m not going to stop using it until you give me a toenail fungus cream that does work.”

Your friend says, “Well, I don’t really know one that works, and there’s a lot of debate about it, and it’s really hard to find one. What I do know is that you should stop wasting a hundred bucks a month.”

To me, that’s a lot of what’s going on with education. We’ve got very clear evidence that we’re wasting a lot, but we don’t have a clear idea as to what would be better. All we know is that the system we have now is grossly dysfunctional, so I don’t think we should keep pouring money into it.


Cutting waste is easy and transparent. But making things better is really hard and, in order to do it, you’ve got to trust a bunch of people who have already really screwed up, and that sounds imprudent to me.

The story of the rebel lieutenant

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018

Owen Stephens shares what might very well be the best roleplaying-game story of all time, the story of the rebel lieutenant, from when he was putting on a demo of the then-new Star Wars roleplaying game:


Tuesday, February 20th, 2018

In his interview with Frank Herbert, English professor Willis E. McNelly mentions the parallels between Dune and Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo.

Sci-fi fans may recognize Nostromo as the name of the ship in the original Alien:

The ship was originally called the Snark, then later the Leviathan, before Ridley Scott chose the name Nostromo due to his love of Conrad’s works. People and places from Conrad’s works would go on to feature repeatedly as the names of space-going vessels in the Alien franchise, inspiring the names of the Narcissus (also from Alien), the USS Sulaco (from Aliens), the USCSS Patna (from Alien3), the USS Verloc (from Aliens versus Predator 2), the USS Marlow (from Aliens vs. Predator) and the USS Sephora (from Aliens: Colonial Marines).

The ship’s role as a tug, pulling an automated ore refinery, only tenuously links it to the Conrad story, which revolves around the corrupting influence of vast mineral wealth — silver, by the way, not spice.

Conrad’s author’s note explains how the story came about:

As a matter of fact in 1875 or ‘6, when very young, in the West Indies or rather in the Gulf of Mexico, for my contacts with land were short, few, and fleeting, I heard the story of some man who was supposed to have stolen single-handed a whole lighter-full of silver, somewhere on the Tierra Firme seaboard during the troubles of a revolution.

On the face of it this was something of a feat. But I heard no details, and having no particular interest in crime qua crime I was not likely to keep that one in my mind. And I forgot it till twenty-six or seven years afterwards I came upon the very thing in a shabby volume picked up outside a second-hand book-shop. It was the life story of an American seaman written by himself with the assistance of a journalist. In the course of his wanderings that American sailor worked for some months on board a schooner, the master and owner of which was the thief of whom I had heard in my very young days. I have no doubt of that because there could hardly have been two exploits of that peculiar kind in the same part of the world and both connected with a South American revolution.

The fellow had actually managed to steal a lighter with silver, and this, it seems, only because he was implicitly trusted by his employers, who must have been singularly poor judges of character. In the sailor’s story he is represented as an unmitigated rascal, a small cheat, stupidly ferocious, morose, of mean appearance, and altogether unworthy of the greatness this opportunity had thrust upon him. What was interesting was that he would boast of it openly.

He used to say: “People think I make a lot of money in this schooner of mine. But that is nothing. I don’t care for that. Now and then I go away quietly and lift a bar of silver. I must get rich slowly—you understand.”

There was also another curious point about the man. Once in the course of some quarrel the sailor threatened him: “What’s to prevent me reporting ashore what you have told me about that silver?”

The cynical ruffian was not alarmed in the least. He actually laughed. “You fool, if you dare talk like that on shore about me you will get a knife stuck in your back. Every man, woman, and child in that port is my friend. And who’s to prove the lighter wasn’t sunk? I didn’t show you where the silver is hidden. Did I? So you know nothing. And suppose I lied? Eh?”

Ultimately the sailor, disgusted with the sordid meanness of that impenitent thief, deserted from the schooner. The whole episode takes about three pages of his autobiography. Nothing to speak of; but as I looked them over, the curious confirmation of the few casual words heard in my early youth evoked the memories of that distant time when everything was so fresh, so surprising, so venturesome, so interesting; bits of strange coasts under the stars, shadows of hills in the sunshine, men’s passions in the dusk, gossip half-forgotten, faces grown dim…. Perhaps, perhaps, there still was in the world something to write about. Yet I did not see anything at first in the mere story. A rascal steals a large parcel of a valuable commodity—so people say. It’s either true or untrue; and in any case it has no value in itself. To invent a circumstantial account of the robbery did not appeal to me, because my talents not running that way I did not think that the game was worth the candle. It was only when it dawned upon me that the purloiner of the treasure need not necessarily be a confirmed rogue, that he could be even a man of character, an actor and possibly a victim in the changing scenes of a revolution, it was only then that I had the first vision of a twilight country which was to become the province of Sulaco, with its high shadowy Sierra and its misty Campo for mute witnesses of events flowing from the passions of men short-sighted in good and evil.

Two sweeping moral visions of guns

Monday, February 19th, 2018

Ross Douthat notes that mass shootings aren’t leading to legislative action, because we have a chasm between two sweeping moral visions of guns that is too wide to be bridged by incrementalism:

The anti-gun moral vision regards America’s relationship to gun ownership as a kind of collective moral madness, a love affair with violence, a sickness unto death. Liberals increasingly write about gun ownership the way social conservatives write about abortion and euthanasia — it’s a culture of death, a Moloch devouring our children, a blood sacrifice to selfish individualism.

The pro-gun moral vision, meanwhile, links arms and the citizen, treating self-defense as an essential civic good, a means of maintaining Americans as free people rather than wards (or prisoners) of the state.

The pro-gun vision is linked, of course, to practical concerns — support for gun ownership is higher in rural areas where the police are far away. But it’s essentially a moral-political picture in which the fullness of citizenship includes the capacity to protect and defend, to step in when the state fails and resist when it imposes illegitimately.

If you asked me to defend only one of these moral pictures I would defend the pro-gun vision. I am not a gun owner but I can imagine many situations and political dispensations in which a morally responsible citizen should own a weapon; I have encountered many communities where “gun culture” seems healthy and responsible rather than a bloodthirsty cult. And the claim, often urged on anti-abortion writers like myself, that guns and abortion should both be opposed on “life” grounds seems like a category error, since every abortion kills but guns sit harmless in millions of households and many deter violence or turn back evil men.

Naturally the New York Times includes a photo of “high-capacity clips” to adorn the article. (They are regular-capacity AR magazines.)

Douthat is not a gun guy, but he takes a stab at gun regulations that would not apply to every gun owner, but instead would be imposed on the young and removed with age:

Let 18-year-olds own hunting rifles. Make revolvers available at 21. Semiautomatic pistols, at 25. And semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 could be sold to 30-year-olds but no one younger.

Again, he’s not a gun guy, and he doesn’t seem aware that standard practice already works a bit like this, with long guns (rifles and shotguns) available at 18 and handguns at 21. The legal right to carry a handgun (concealed) generally requires a more thorough background check and a modicum of “training” — you have to sit through a class and not scare the instructor too badly when you go to shoot your gun at the range. Simply requiring paperwork seems to weed out most irresponsible people.

Of course, a system designed to keep guns away from criminals and ordinary hotheads might do very little to keep guns away from quiet loners with a nihilistic obsession.

An English professor interviews Frank Herbert in 1969

Sunday, February 18th, 2018

In 1969, English professor Willis E. McNelly interviewed Frank Herbert on the origins of Dune:

Herbert does in fact sound just like a sci-fi geek. At this point, the first novel had been quite successful — pulling in fifteen thousand dollars — and the second novel was about to come out under a new publisher. I found Dune oddly compelling.

Katabasis leads to catharsis

Saturday, February 17th, 2018

Depression serves a purpose:

At the center of Hutson’s piece is Paul Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist at McMaster University in Canada. Andrews argues that depression may be “an adaptation for analyzing complex problems.” He sees it in the condition’s bouquet of symptoms, which include “anhedonia,” or an inability to feel much pleasure; people who are depressed ruminate frequently, often in spirals; and they get more REM sleep, a phase associated with memory consolidation. This reflects an evolutionary design, the argument goes, one that’s to, as Hutson summarizes, “pull us away from the normal pursuits of life and focus us on understanding or solving the one underlying problem that triggered the depressive episode.” Like, say, a “failed” relationship. The episode, then, is a sort of altered state, one different from the hum of daily life, one that’s supposed to get you to pay attention to whatever wounding led to the upset. For example, 80 percent of subjects in a 61-person study of depression found that they perceived some benefit from rumination, mostly assessing problems and preventing future mistakes.


Still, this framing of depression as a space for reflection is empowering, and lends a degree of agency to the person being pressed down. Like anxiety, depression might be trying to tell you something. The language of therapeutic traditions is useful: a Jungian analyst would describe depression as katabasis, an Ancient Greek word for descent. Like Orpheus heading to Hades or Luke Skywalker in the swamps of Dagobah, it’s a journey into the underworld, where the adventurer is to “go through the door … immerse himself in the wound, and exit from his old life through it,” like Robert Bly writes in Iron John. Since it is subjective, the problems and solutions will be personal — of the person and their particular psychological history — and thus demand the individualized understanding of the sufferer of depression, perhaps with the assistance of a skilled therapist. That’s another theme: While disengagement from emotionality characterizes depression and other disorders, engagement with one’s inner world looks to to be the way out. Put more poetically: You exit through the wound.

“Most episodes of depression end on their own — something known as spontaneous remission,” Vanderbilt psychologist Steven Hollon tells Nautilus, noting that the depression-as-adaptation narrative may explain why. Indeed, “cognitive behavioral and problem-solving therapies may work precisely because they tap into and accelerate — in a matter of weeks — the very processes that have evolved to occur over the space of months,” he added. Katabasis leads to catharsis; not coincidentally, there’s a shared theme in the personal narratives of people who reach midlife with a sense of well-being and generativity toward others: redemption.

(Hat tip to Richard Harper.)

Taleb’s style can be imitated but never fully mastered

Friday, February 16th, 2018

Branko Milanovic thinks that Nassim Nicholas Taleb is one of the most important thinkers today:

Taleb went from (a) technical observations about non-Gaussian distributions of some phenomena to (b) generalization of what this means for our perception of reality and the way we comprehend things (epistemology) to (c) methodology of knowledge and the role of inductive thinking to finally (d) a statement on ethics. To convey this he created a new type of writing. I will leave this last part undiscussed, but whoever has read Taleb knows that his writing style is absolutely original and like Borges’ can be imitated but never fully mastered.


This has also led him to conservative political philosophy, similar to Edmund Burke’s (whom he does not mention): institutions should not be changed based on deductive reasoning; they should be left as they are not because they are rational and efficient in an ideal sense but because the very fact that they have survived a long time shows that they are resilient. Taleb’s approach there has a lot in common not only with Burke but also with Tocqueville, Chateaubriand and Popper (whom he quotes quite a lot). One may notice how a technical/statistical point made by Taleb such as “my field is error avoidance” leads to agreeing with Hayek’s critique of the “conceit of reason”.

Premised on a sense of Authority and Seriousness

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

In the conflict between the “Blue Church” (of the televised Mainstream Media) and the digital Insurgency, there are deep forces shifting:

Attention is attention. By means of direct digital communications, the Insurgency has largely controlled the attention of legacy media (and by proxy the attention of its entire audience). Consider the infamous “covfefe” post of May. Within hours of the post, nearly the entirety of the English-speaking broadcast media was giving its attention to the Insurgency. And while the Blue Church’s conscious evaluation of the event might have been to deride the President as an incompetent, it is the unconscious meaning that matters: they gave him their attention en masse and almost for free. Over and over again in 2017, we saw this dynamic play out. If we think of attention as the primary resource of narrative creation, what we are witnessing is the increasing capacity of the decentralized, digital, interactive media to control the legacy broadcast media’s access and use this resource. Rather than standing as a competitive peer to Digital, Television is slowly becoming an organ and resource of Digital.

It is Kayfabe all the way down. The power of the Blue Church is premised on a sense of Authority and Seriousness. By pushing the entire conversation into the realm of the absurd (“really Fake News”), the Insurgency robs the Church of its simulacrum of legitimacy. If it is all just a game designed to manipulate your emotions and grab and hold your attention (say for advertising bucks or for political points), then pretenses of Authority and Seriousness are just that: pretenses. 4chan in particular has been playing with this game effectively in the past year — successfully causing the Blue Church to attend with Seriousness the notions that milk, the OK hand sign and a cartoon frog are deep symbols of a Serious alt-right conspiracy. Note — if what I just said here feels shocking, alarming or wrong, this would be a very good point to slow down and consider the frame that I am trying to examine. I am not, for example, saying that there isn’t an alt-right, nor that Pepe the Frog isn’t associated with the alt-right. What I am saying is that if you think Pepe the Frog is the symbol of the alt-right and that the alt-right exists as an ideology in the same way that symbols and ideologies worked under the 20th Century models of Broadcast media (e.g., like Uncle Sam and America or the Swastika and Nazism), then you are missing something unspeakably important. For the Insurgency, what matters is not the symbol or the ideology; what matters is who produces symbols and ideologies and how they hold them. To assume and rely on some Authority to produce them and to take them Seriously is always already to be playing the Blue Church game. Within the Insurgency, the shibboleth is style, not content; disposition, not ideology.

Velocity, velocity, velocity. The Blue Church is like a Battleship. Very slow moving and able to focus its efforts on only a very narrow set of targets. If you stand around long enough to get punched, it can still land some heavy blows. But if the conditions of the ground are changing faster than the Blue Church can Observe, Orient, Decide and Act, it is constantly caught flat footed and swinging at the wrong targets.The Insurgency, by contrast, is more like a swarm of Slaughterbots (go ahead and watch that video, it is a very good use of seven minutes): a whole lot of small pieces that can coordinate into a big punch when necessary but more often flow around the landscape taking opportunities when they arise. In this context, velocity is key. If you have been feeling disoriented by the pace and seeming complete disjunction of events in 2017, you are not alone. This is the point: the entire Blue Church approach to collective sensemaking and action requires a particular velocity of change. By moving the entire landscape into a much higher pace, the Insurgency is making it impossible for the Blue Church collective intelligence to maintain effective coherence.