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.

FH: OK.

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:

Nostromo

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.

A charismatic situation

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

The period after World War I in Europe was a charismatic situation, Xavier Marquez explains, when a number of people made charismatic claims more or less successfully:

The most famous of these people was Hitler, in Ian Kershaw’s classic interpretation. If we conceptualize charisma merely as a sort of talent, Hitler was an unlikely candidate for leadership. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was a loser. To be sure, he did have some qualities, including “massive overconfidence”, that would help him later in his rise to power, and he was well-served by the fascist genius for ritual spectacle; but none of these qualities, by themselves, explain his later charismatic authority over millions of people. (At best, they would have made him a moderately successful rabble-rouser — what he in fact was in the early 1920s).

What really invested him with charismatic authority among many Germans in the 1930s were his successes, including his unlikely electoral gains, his astonishing diplomatic and military victories after he gained power, and perhaps most of all the taming of German unemployment. It did not matter much whether some of these successes were actually attributable to Hitler, or based on illusory assessments, so long as he was visibly associated with them. And because Hitler wildly exceeded initial expectations (he was, after all, a perfect outsider), too many people adjusted their priors “too much” in the direction of “miracle worker.” But by the same token, when his decisions led to a massive failure that he had to take responsibility for (in particular, the defeat at Stalingrad) his charismatic authority started to ebb. (It had to be a massive failure, by the way: minor failures would not have dented his reputation much, as they would have been easily rationalized).

Similar stories could be told for other classic cases of charismatic leadership in this period. A common thread in these stories seems to be that leaders who are later said to be charismatic are successful bluffers, outsiders who make unlikely gambles and win. Mussolini with his “March on Rome” is another case in point. The march represented no big threat to the Italian state (Prime Minister Luigi Facta was ready to impose martial law to prevent it, and would likely have succeeded), yet king Vitorio Emmanuele III folded and gave Mussolini the prime ministership. This success was one event that helped construct Mussolini’s charismatic authority, complementing the ritual dimensions of fascist rule. Fascist spectacle by itself was insufficient; Mussolini, another paradigmatic outsider, required unlikely, striking successes for large numbers of people to greatly increase their trust in him as a leader. But again, when he failed, his charisma quickly ebbed, and he came to depend more and more on the legal authority of the state rather than on his personal authority as a charismatic leader.

This is the logic of lex talionis

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018

William Ian Miller’s Eye for an Eye did not make it onto T. Greer’s top 10 reads list for 2017, but he did find it quite thought-provoking:

Miller is an unusual creature: part law professor, part medievalist, Miller is equally comfortable discussing ancient Hittite legal decrees, the etymology of old Norse runes, the tropes of Elizabethan Drama, and modern tort law. I suppose if you were to take J.R.R. Tolkien, Thomas Schelling, a good dose of dead-pan humor, and a pinch of the morbid, and then shook them up together in a bottle, Mr. Miller is the man who would emerge.

Miller’s book looks at the politics of social life (in places like medieval Iceland):

When one man (or one women) meets another calculations begin: how should I treat this person? Are we equals, or is he my social inferior? Or perhaps he is my social superior? How do I let him know what my social status is, and how should I respond if he does not take the hint? Is this person worth an insult? A fight? What are the consequences of letting things slide? What are the consequences of refusing to do so?

Eye for an Eye looks at lex talionis — “the law of the talion, the principle of an eye for an eye, of justice through vengeance, retaliation sanctioned by culture and law”:

This understanding of justice is what propels the Icelandic sagas. But it wasn’t just a Viking tick. “Eye for an eye” was standard practice just about everywhere a few thousand years ago, from the shores of Germainia and the fields of the Greek polis to the warring tribes of Canaan and the even more distant lands of the Kurus and the Zhou. We view this understanding of justice as backward and crude. We say things like “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Miller aims to convince us otherwise.

In Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, Miller tells the story of some Norwegian merchants who had chopped off Skæring’s hand and thought the judgment too steep:

“Then I shall make you another proposal,” said Gudmund. “I will pay Skæring the thirty hundreds that you were judged to pay, but I shall choose one man from amongst you who seems to me of equivalent standing with Skæring and chop off his hand. You may then compensate that man’s hand as cheaply as you wish.”

This did not appeal to the Norwegians and they decided to pay the original award immediately. Gudmund took Skæring with him when they left the ship.

[...]

To the Norwegians the award should reflect the price of a middling Icelandic hand. Gudmund forces them to conceive of the award in a different way: it is not the price of buying Skæring’s hand, but the price of preserving a Norwegian hand.

This is the logic of lex talionis, T. Greer explains:

This is why “an eye for an eye” did not in fact make the whole world go blind. The principle of an eye for an eye, as Miller sees it, is “the more ancient and deeper notion that justice is a matter of restoring balance, achieving equity, determining equivalence, making reparations… getting back to zero, to even.” Trading eyes for eyes is not so much about indiscriminate, unthinking violence as it is carefully calculated attempts to match punishment to crime. Talionic justice is a system built on deterrence — not only deterring criminals from committing crimes, but deterring vengeance seekers from exacting too heavy a price in retaliation for crimes committed against them. This is empathy enforced by blood. You think carefully about the pain you inflict on others knowing, that measure for measure, the pain you give others will be given back to you.

We have a sorry habit thinking about revenge as “as going postal and blasting away,” but as Miller notes, “revenge cultures did not think of it that way.” This is obvious if you read the stories revenge cultures created. Characters in the Icelandic sagas approach murder with the meticulousness of a father inspecting his daughter’s suitor. They conducted their feuds not in the heat of rage, but through cold, calculations. Heroes from revenge plays like The Oresteia cycle or The Orphan of Zhao plan their vengeance months or even years in advance, and when the moment comes often have to be goaded into taking revenge. One gets the sense that these people believed that feuding was utterly necessary but not entirely natural.

Despite treating a caricature of a caricature with trivial algorithms

Monday, February 12th, 2018

A few months back, while I was stepping through Techniques of Systems Analysis, Scipio Americanus recommended Keith R. Tidman’s The Operations Evaluation Group as “a fine overview of the development of the OR/OA field from the naval perspective.” I immediately ordered a copy, read it, and failed to achieve OR Enlightenment, so I didn’t get around to preparing a post full of insights from the book.

Gwern, on the other hand, did follow through and did produce just such a review, which summarizes my experience, too:

So overall: reasonably well-written, covers intrinsically interesting topics like ASW in WWII and Vietnam air tactics; compromised by official history purpose to recount thoroughly uninteresting internal details while omitting too much of both context and technical detail for my tastes and suspiciously hamstrung in certain areas like nuclear strategy or Harpoon.

Here is Gwern’s list of insights from the book:

  • after compiling all data about U-boat sinkings, Edison found merchant shipping routes were unchanged despite the risk, 94% of sinkings were during the day, and <4% of ships carried listening devices or radios. Edison set up a simple war game on a map simulating a merchant vs U-boat, proving that travel by night from port to port would largely eliminate sinkings. Unfortunately, his findings were ignored.
  • Blackett’s Circus used animal experiments demonstrating that lethality of air pressure blasts was overestimated 5x, reducing over-optimistic estimates of the effect of bombing campaigns in Germany
  • Depth charges were set to explode at 100 feet depth, on the assumption that U-boats would be that deep after being spotted; analysis indicated that half had not even submerged when depth-charged, much less reached 100 feet, and the optimal setting was 20 feet (which the depth charges didn’t even allow as a setting), which “new setting [of 35 feet] at least quadrupled their destructive capability.”
  • Big convoys turned out to have half the loss rate of small convoys, due to U-boats being unable to amass more, leading to a shift away from small convoys
  • A British naval program in the Mediterranean armed merchant ships with AA guns to reduce losses from aerial bombing; the program was going to be canceled because only 4% of attacking planes were being shot down and the deployment of scarce guns looked like a waste, however, an OR re-analysis of ship rather than aircraft losses showed that the armed ships had a 10% loss rate versus unarmed ships’ 25% loss rate. The latter was clearly a more relevant end-metric.
  • initial attempts by naval researchers to record underwater ship sounds to fool sound-based naval mines failed as the device invented to make ship-like sounds turned out to not sound much like a ship at all; this device serendipitously turned out to be nearly perfect for fooling the German sound-seeking homing torpedoes, largely scuppering their deployment (and freaking out the U-boat crews by its bizarre sounds, who were sure that the “singing saws” were “some powerful, dangerous weapon”)
  • William Shockley (taking a break from electronics research to serve as an OEG analyst during WWII), deployed to England to observe ASW there and was struck by an incident in which a plane attempted to bomb a discovered U-boat but the bomb jammed due to rust, then, fixed, went out again 2 days later only to crash in the fog. Shockley found that “on the average, an aircrew had just one opportunity to kill a submarine before its own members were either killed or wounded or at least moved on to another assignment. An aircrew thus had little or no opportunity to learn on the job.” ASW could only be developed institutionally and given the nature of search over large areas, statistically.
  • OEG was deeply involved in the early development of optimal search theory (Bayesian or otherwise), developing models of what probability a search plane had of spotting U-bots or periscopes under various conditions and altitudes. This then allowed development of optimal search patterns and setting up barrier patrols, which, when deployed in the Strait of Gibraltar, caught 3 U-boats in 4 months and then sealed off the Mediterranean; this was followed by capture or destruction of 4 of 5 German blockade-runners carrying vital rubber/tin supplies from Malaysia/Japan (the equivalent of “a year and a half” of German supplies).
  • study of U-boats off the US East Coast and also the Caribbeans showed that air patrols were staying far too close to land and needed to be outfitted with radios and spotlights; the patrol patterns were changed.
  • on the other side of the Atlantic, radar+spotlights on even a few planes around France proved to be a potent combination in striking U-boats at night when they typically surfaced to rest & travel rapidly, forcing them to shift travel to during the already-dangerous day. “In sum, the night flying of 2 squadrons had increased the effectiveness of antisubmarine operations in the Bay [of Biscay] by more than 7 squadrons of day flying.” (And also prompting the introduction of radar-detectors, which led to radar-detector-detectors etc.) A similar scenario played out in the Pacific: analysis demonstrated that US subs were lost at the same rate regardless of using their radar, so the Japanese planes did not have radar-detectors, and US subs could go back to using radar full-time.
  • The existence of radar-detectors led Caribbean pilots, when outfitted with a new radar that regularly revealed vanishing contacts, to assume they were being detected by U-boats, and to abandon use of the highly effective radar, crippling their submarine hunting. OEG didn’t believe radar-detectors could have been deployed so fast by the Germans and investigated; the vanishing contacts turned out to be glitch in the radar and the pilots resumed use.
  • US submarines were being lost at high rate in the Pacific for unknown reasons, as few survived long enough to report the cause; study of US submarine miss rates in attacking Japanese subs (which able to report back) revealed that contrary to the US Navy’s belief, most of the US subs were being killed by Japanese subs and not airplanes or surface ships. Immediately, tactics and sound equipment were revised to emphasize anti-torpedo tactics, and “By the close of the war, several commanders had credited the modified torpedo detection equipment and new tactics with saving their submarines from destruction.” While they were at it, they modeled mine fields and appropriate counter-tactics, and “of 12 submarines assigned to operate in the Sea of Japan, none was lost to the mines that heavily dotted the straits leading into and out of the area.”
  • anti-kamikaze tactics were likewise worked out (evasive maneuvers: big ships yes, small no; turn towards a high-diving but away from a low-diving)
  • Analysis of Korean fighter-bomber strikes showed the F4U was much more vulnerable than the F9F, due to tactics like going much lower and more often in range of AA (and even small-arms fire). It also showed pilots were wrong about their belief that the last airplane in a strike ran the largest risks due to loss of the element of surprise (it actually ran the least risk). Changes reduced the F4U losses.
  • a 1958 OEG study found a ‘window of vulnerability’ of the US to USSR pre-emptive strikes 1961-1963 and a ‘missile gap’. Tidman defends the report, noting that it made a number of suggestions for eliminating the ‘window’, many of which were taken: “…the hardening and dispersal of fixed weapons sites, a program of continuous flights by SAC bombers, the sped-up procurement of available weapons systems (such as mobile cruise missiles), and the increased preparedness of naval air. OEG also recommended that emphasis remain on the development of mobile and concealable forces, rather than on fixed-site forces. Polaris, for example, was spotlighted as meriting accelerated production. The defense policies of two administrations were greatly influenced by this expectation of a possible low point in U.S. deterrence…As soon as John F. Kennedy took over the presidency, however, he decided to embark on an extensive program of strengthening American strategic forces. Mirroring much of what OEG’s study had recommended three years earlier, he increased the production rate of Polaris submarines by several months, and added 10 submarines to the original planned total. He also doubled the capability for producing Minuteman and improved the alert status of SAC’s B-52s.”
  • during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy’s order to blockade Cuba was implemented by the US Navy based heavily on OEG-researched doctrines and with active OEG assistance; OEG further studied data during the blockade about intercept rates, helping confirm that the blockade was tight and intercepting almost all Soviet vessels.
  • this blockade research would be further used in Vietnam as part of the “Operation Market Time” blockade/intercept line, where OEG optimized it & showed that the blockade there too was highly effective in eliminating Vietcong supplies
  • around 1966, OEG “conducted a study of surface-to-surface missiles that led directly to the development of the Harpoon antiship cruise missile.” (Unfortunately, Tidman doesn’t go into more detail about Harpoon other than to note later OEG involvement in finetuning Harpoon based on field exercises and against what was known of Russian ship defenses.)

Here is Gwern’s more meta insight:

Kahn makes an interesting point: one often sees an argument (particularly in conservative/libertarian circles) about ‘Chesterton’s fence’ and variants thereof — that societies have evolved rich and highly effective tactics through vast experience & evolution that mere humans cannot hope to improve upon nor understand; yet, as OR has proved many times, it is possible — easy, even (“it was found that almost any honest, technically competent person could turn out worthwhile and interesting results”) — to apply a little statistics to a problem and despite treating a caricature of a caricature with trivial algorithms or even none at all beyond basic arithmetic, improve, possibly quite a bit, over the carefully-considered judgments of humans in the field with decades of experience. And of course we can add many examples of human judgment being exceeded in areas like chess or Go or math despite millennia of study, or entire areas of human knowledge turning out to be almost 100% wrong (religion, medicine) before the introduction of methods like ‘record all data’ or ‘flip a coin to decide whether to administer a medicine to see if it works’.

Kahn ascribes this in part to technological change (no one is competent to understand how to hunt German submarines in WWII because it is too novel a problem for any folk wisdom to have evolved), and while that’s certainly a problem (witness Shockley’s anecdote of why no air crews could develop real expertise), we also have to note the presence of systematic biases and error in human reasoning demonstrated throughout OR. The problem with Chesterton’s fence is that everything does change, people can’t learn the right thing in the first place, and from an information-theoretic & genetics perspective, there just is not enough reliable transmission of information nor selection within or between societies to maintain more than a few traditional practices with cryptic efficiency. (If societies were a bacteria with a genome, they would succumb to mutational meltdown almost instantaneously.)