Merry Christmas!

December 25th, 2018

Please enjoy these yuletide posts of Christmas Past:

Draw to remember

December 24th, 2018

A picture is worth a thousand words — when it comes to taking notes:

Fernandes and her colleagues first established what they call the “drawing effect” — getting people to draw quick pictures of words in a list (such as “truck” or “pear”) led to much better recall of those words than writing them out multiple times. Creating just a four-second drawing was also superior to imagining the items or viewing pictures of the words.

This was proof of principle type work. The researchers next looked at whether drawing aids memory of more complex terms and concepts. They found that study participants who had a minute to draw an image representing “isotope” or “spore”, for example, were more likely to remember the meaning than people who were asked to copy out the definitions instead. “As with single words, we reasoned that drawing facilitates retention, at least in part, because it requires elaboration on the meaning of the term and translating the definition to a new form (a picture),” the researchers write.

In fact, there are various components to the process of drawing a picture of a word or concept, each of which seem to cumulatively aid memory. Getting people to trace over an existing drawing (so getting them to make relevant arm and hand movements, but not allowing personal elaboration), or to create a drawing which they were then not allowed to see (so allowing the physical movements and personal elaboration, but depriving them of the visual memory of the end result) both improved memory — but not as much as when all of these stages were allowed. “Memory scaled up as components were added to the encoding task,” the researchers note.

Fernandes and her colleagues went on to find that although older adults performed worse than younger adults at remembering words they had learned by writing, there was no difference between the two age groups in their ability to remember words they had drawn. Encouraged by these results, the team then asked 13 people diagnosed with dementia and living in a long-term care facility to either draw or write 60 words that were read aloud by an experimenter. The results showed a “massive” memory benefit for words that had been drawn rather than written. If it can be shown that drawing also helps with other sorts of memory — for where things are kept, perhaps — this strategy could be practically useful for people with dementia.

In some cases, the patients’ drawings looked just like scribbles. But how good — or bad — the drawings were didn’t seem to matter. In fact, in most of the experiments, the researchers assessed their participants’ ability to create vivid images and also their experience at drawing, and neither was correlated with memory performance. Even people who struggle to create a stick figure should, then, get memory benefits from drawing.

(Hat tip to Hans G. Schantz.)

Let the best woman win!

December 23rd, 2018

Don’t deny girls the evolutionary wisdom of fairy-tales:

Ironically, far from contaminating young female minds, these Disney princess stories — and their fairy-tale-fic precursors — provide vitally helpful messages that parents could be discussing with their girls.

Cinderella, for example, revolves around the perniciousness of what researchers call “female intrasexual competition” — the often-underhanded ways women compete with each other. While men evolved to be openly competitive, jockeying for position verbally or physically, female competition tends to be covert — indirect and sneaky — and often involves sabotaging another woman into being less appealing to men. Accordingly, in Cinderella, when the king throws a ball to find the prince a wife, the nasty stepsisters aren’t at all “let the best woman win!” They assign Cinderella extra chores so she won’t have time to pull together something to wear. (Mean Girls, the cartoon version, anyone?)

[...]

Understanding this evolutionary mismatch helps women get why it’s sometimes hard for them to speak up for themselves — to be direct and assertive. And identifying this as a problem handed them by evolution can help them override their reluctance — assert themselves, despite what feels “natural.” Additionally, an evolutionary understanding of female competition can help women find other women’s cruelty to them less mystifying. This, in turn, allows them to take such abuse less personally than if they buy into the myth of female society as one big supportive sisterhood.

[...]

In other words, the allure of “princess culture” was created by evolution, not Disney. Over countless generations, our female ancestors most likely to have children who survived to pass on their genes were those whose emotions pushed them to hold out for commitment from a high status man — the hunter-gatherer version of that rich, hunky prince. A prince is a man who could have any woman, but — very importantly — he’s bewitched by our girl, the modest but beautiful scullery maid. A man “bewitched” (or, in contemporary terms, “in love”) is a man less likely to stray — so the princess story is actually a commitment fantasy.

How long is a moment?

December 22nd, 2018

How long is a moment? This rather philosophical question used to have a literal answer:

For centuries, and as late as the early 19th century, a “moment” was something quite specific — a 40th of an hour, or around 90 seconds. But modern English doesn’t treat the word this way. It can mean the barest speck of time or it can stretch over hours, days, weeks — with so many different meanings that trying to pin it down might seem a fool’s errand. Sometimes, simply changing “a” to “the” truncates moments to instantaneity: “I seized the moment,” “The moment had come,” “That was the moment I knew.”

None of the online dictionaries I checked had that quantitative definition, but Wikipedia came to the rescue:

A moment (momentum) was a medieval unit of time. The movement of a shadow on a sundial covered 40 moments in a solar hour. An hour in this case means one twelfth of the period between sunrise and sunset. The length of a solar hour depended on the length of the day, which in turn varied with the season, so the length of a moment in modern seconds was not fixed, but on average, a moment corresponds to 90 seconds. A day was divided into 24 hours of both equal and unequal lengths, the former being called natural or equinoctial, and the latter artificial. The hour was divided into four puncta (quarter-hours), ten minuta, or 40 momenta.

The unit was used by medieval computists before the introduction of the mechanical clock and the base 60 system in the late 13th century. The unit would not have been used in everyday life. For medieval commoners the main marker of the passage of time was the call to prayer at intervals throughout the day.

The earliest reference we have to the moment is from the 8th century writings of the Venerable Bede, who describes the system as 1 hour = 4 points = 5 lunar points = 10 minutes = 15 parts = 40 moments. Bede was referenced five centuries later by both Bartholomeus Anglicus in his early encyclopedia De Propreitatibus Rerum (On the Properties of Things), as well as Roger Bacon, by which time the moment was further subdivided into 12 ounces of 47 atoms each, although no such divisions could ever have been used in observation with equipment in use at the time.

Excellence is a compound effect of mundane actions

December 21st, 2018

Sociologist Daniel F. Chambliss wrote an ethnographic report on stratification and Olympic swimmers, which examined the mundanity of excellence:

Excellence here is defined as consistent superiority of performance.

1) Quality > Quantity: Excellence is a qualitative phenomenon. Doing more does not mean doing better. It is the quality of the work you do, not the quantity of the work you do, that makes the difference.

2) Talent is a useless concept. Varying conceptions of natural ability mystify excellence, treating it as the inherent possession of a few; they mask the concrete actions that create outstanding performance.

3) Excellence is a compound effect of mundane actions. Excellence is accomplished through the doing of actions, ordinary in themselves, performed consistently and carefully, habitualized, compounded together, added up over time.

When my friend said that they weren’t exciting, my best answer could only be, simply put: That’s the point.

I don’t know if it’s all just epicycles, but it’s a heck of a good try

December 20th, 2018

Evolutionary psychology is famous for having lots of stories that make sense but are hard to test, Scott Alexander says, and psychiatry is famous for having mountains of experimental data but no idea what’s going on:

Maybe if you added them together, they might make one healthy scientific field? Enter Evolutionary Psychopathology: A Unified Approach by psychology professor Marco del Giudice. It starts by presenting the theory of “life history strategies”. Then it uses the theory — along with a toolbox of evolutionary and genetic ideas — to shed new light on psychiatric conditions.

Some organisms have lots of low-effort offspring. Others have a few high-effort offspring. This was the basis of the old r/k selection theory. Although the details of that theory have come under challenge, the basic insight remains. A fish will lay 10,000 eggs, then go off and do something else. 9,990 will get eaten by sharks, but that still leaves enough for there to be plenty of fish in the sea. But an elephant will spend two years pregnant, three years nursing, and ten years doing at least some level of parenting, all to produce a single big, well-socialized, and high-prospect-of-life-success calf. These are two different ways of doing reproduction. In keeping with the usual evolutionary practice, del Giudice calls the fish strategy “fast” and the elephant strategy “slow”.

The following is not a figure from Del Giudice’s book, he says, but maybe it should be:

Not a Figure from Del Giudice's Book

Psychiatry is hard to analyze from an evolutionary perspective, he argues:

From an evolutionary perspective, it shouldn’t even exist. Most psychiatric disorders are at least somewhat genetic, and most psychiatric disorders decrease reproductive fitness. Biologists have equations that can calculate how likely it is that maladaptive genes can stay in the population for certain amounts of time, and these equations say, all else being equal, that psychiatric disorders should not be possible. Apparently all else isn’t equal, but people have had a lot of trouble figuring out exactly what that means. A good example of this kind of thing is Greg Cochran’s theory that homosexuality must be caused by some kind of infection; he does not see another way it could remain a human behavior without being selected into oblivion.

Del Giudice does the best he can within this framework. He tries to sort psychiatric conditions into a few categories based on possible evolutionary mechanisms.

First, there are conditions that are plausibly good evolutionary strategies, and people just don’t like them. For example, nymphomania is unfortunate from a personal and societal perspective, but one can imagine the evolutionary logic checks out.

Second, there are conditions which might be adaptive in some situations, but don’t work now. For example, antisocial traits might be well-suited to environments with minimal law enforcement and poor reputational mechanisms for keeping people in check; now they will just land you in jail.

Third, there are conditions which are extreme levels of traits which it’s good to have a little of. For example, a little anxiety is certainly useful to prevent people from poking lions with sticks just to see what will happen. Imagine (as a really silly toy model) that two genes A and B determine anxiety, and the optimal anxiety level is 10. Alice has gene A = 8 and gene B = 2. Bob has gene A = 2 and gene B = 8. Both of them are happy well-adjusted individuals who engage in the locally optimal level of lion-poking. But if they reproduce, their child may inherit gene A = 8 and gene B = 8 for a total of 16, much more anxious than is optimal. This child might get diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, but it’s just a natural consequence of having genes for various levels of anxiety floating around in the population.

Fourth, there are conditions which are the failure modes of traits which it’s good to have a little of. For example, psychiatrists have long categorized certain common traits into “schizotypy”, a cluster of characteristics more common in the relatives of schizophrenics and in people at risk of developing schizophrenia themselves. These traits are not psychotic in and of themselves and do not decrease fitness, nor is schizophrenia necessarily just the far end of this distribution. But schizotypal traits are one necessary ingredient of getting schizophrenia; schizophrenia is some kind of failure mode only possible with enough schizotypy. If schizotypal traits do some other good thing, they can stick around in the population, and this will look a lot like “schizophrenia is genetic”.

How can we determine which of these categories any given psychiatric disorder falls into?

One way is through what is called taxometrics — the study of to what degree mental disorders are just the far end of a normal distribution of traits. Some disorders are clearly this way; for example, if you quantify and graph everybody’s anxiety levels, they will form a bell curve, and the people diagnosed with anxiety disorders will just be the ones on the far right tail. Are any disorders not this way? This is a hard question, though schizophrenia is a promising candidate.

Another way is through measuring the correlation of disorders with mutational load. Some people end up with more mutations (and so a generically less functional genome) than others. The most common cause of this is being the child of an older father, since that gives mutations more time to accumulate in sperm cells. Other people seem to have higher mutational load for other, unclear reasons, which can be measured through facial asymmetry and the presence of minor physical abnormalities (like weirdly-shaped ears). If a particular psychiatric disorder is more common in people with increased mutational load, that suggests it isn’t just a functional adaptation but some kind of failure mode of something or other. Schizophrenia and low-functioning autism are both linked to higher mutational load.

Another way is by trying to figure out what aspect of evolutionary strategy matches the occurrence of the disorder. Developmental psychologists talk about various life stages, each of which brings new challenges. For example, adrenache (age 6-8) marks “the transition from early to middle childhood”, when “behavioral plasticity and heightened social learning go hand in hand with the expression of new genetic influences on psychological traits such as agression, prosocial behavior, and cognitive skills” and children receive social feedback “about their attractiveness and competitive ability”. More obviously, puberty marks the expression of still other genetic influences and the time at which young people start seriously thinking about sex. So if various evolutionary adaptations to deal with mating suddenly become active around puberty, and some mental disorder always starts at puberty, that provides some evidence that the mental disorder might be related to an evolutionary adaptation for dealing with mating. Or, since a staple of evo psych is that men and women pursue different reproductive strategies, if some psychiatric disease is twice as common in women (eg depression) or five times as common in men (eg autism), then that suggests it’s correlated with some strategy or trait that one sex uses more than the other.

This is where Del Giudice ties in the life history framework. If some psychiatric disease is more common in people who otherwise seem to be pursuing some life strategy, then maybe it’s related to that strategy. Either it’s another name for that strategy, or it’s another name for an extreme version of that strategy, or it’s a failure mode of that strategy, or it’s associated with some trait or adaptation which that strategy uses more than others do. By determining the association of disorders with certain life strategies, we can figure out what adaptive trait they’re piggybacking on, and from there we can reverse engineer them and try to figure out what went wrong.

This is a much more well-thought-out and orderly way of thinking about psychiatric disease than anything I’ve ever seen anyone else try. How does it work?

Unclear. Psychiatric disorders really resist being put into this framework. For example, some psychiatric disorders have a u-shaped curve regarding childhood quality — they are more common both in people with unusually deprived childhoods and people with unusually good childhoods. Many anorexics are remarkably high-functioning, so much so that even the average clinical psychiatrist takes note, but others are kind of a mess. Autism is classically associated with very low IQ and with bodily asymmetries that indicate high mutational load, but a lot of autistics have higher-than-normal IQ and minimal bodily asymmetry. Schizophrenia often starts in a very specific window between ages 18 and 25, which sounds promising for a developmental link, but a few cases will start at age 5, or age 50, or pretty much whenever. Everything is like this. What is a rational, order-loving evolutionary psychologist supposed to do?

Del Giudice bites the bullet and says that most of our diagnostic categories conflate different conditions. The unusually high-functioning anorexics have a different disease than the unusually low-functioning ones. Low IQ autism with bodily asymmetries has a different evolutionary explanation than high IQ autism without. In some cases, he is able to marshal a lot of evidence for distinct clinical entities. For example, most cases of OCD start in adulthood, but one-third begin in early childhood instead. These early OCD cases are much more likely to be male, more likely to have high conscientiousness, more likely to co-occur with autistic traits, and have a different set of obsessions focusing on symmetry, order, and religion (my own OCD started in very early childhood and I feel called out by this description). Del Giudice says these are two different conditions, one of which is associated with pathogen defense and one of which is associated with a slow life strategy.

[...]

There is a part of me that thinks this book is a beautiful example of what solving a complicated field would look like. You take all the complications, and you explain by layering of a bunch of different simple and reasonable things on top of one another. The psychiatry parts of Evolutionary Psychopathology: A Unified Approach do this. I don’t know if it’s all just epicycles, but it’s a heck of a good try.

Can’t realize a profit

December 20th, 2018

Amazon is starting to realize that it sells a lot of CRaP — merchandise where it can’t realize a profit:

One example: bottled water from Coca-Cola Co. Amazon used to have a $6.99 six-pack of Smartwater as the default order on some of its Dash buttons, a small device that allows for automatic reordering with a single press. But in August, after working with Coca-Cola to change how it ships and sells the water, Amazon notified Dash customers it was changing that default item to a 24-pack for $37.20.

That raised the price per bottle to $1.55 from $1.17. And Coca-Cola will start shipping those orders directly to consumers, sparing Amazon the expense of shipping from its warehouses. Manufacturers shipping from their warehouses is something Amazon has asked more brands to do to cut its own costs.

Amazon told Coca-Cola that it was losing money on the smaller, cheaper shipments, according to people familiar with the matter.

Culture is too important to be left to the sociologists

December 19th, 2018

Culture matters, Virginia Postrel reminds us:

The mid-20th century period in which the modern libertarian movement arose is now looked upon with great nostalgia, especially in the United States. As my friend Brink Lindsey puts it, the right wants to live there and the left wants to work there.

When Donald Trump says “Make America Great Again,” the again refers to the world in which he grew up. The war was over, standards of living were rising, and new technologies from vaccines to synthetic fibers promised a better future.

Social critics of the day deplored mass production, mass consumption, and mass media, but the general public enjoyed their fruits. The burgeoning middle class happily replaced tenements with “little boxes made of ticky-tacky.” Snobs might look down on the suburbs, but families were delighted to settle in them. Faith in government was high, and other institutions—universities, churches, corporations, unions, and civic groups—enjoyed widespread respect.

It looked like a satisfactory equilibrium. But it wasn’t. The 1950s, after all, produced the 1960s.

Consider a series of best-selling books: The Lonely Crowd, by David Riesman, published in 1950; Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and The Organization Man by William Whyte, both published in 1957; and The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, published in 1963. All of these books, and undoubtedly others I’ve overlooked, took up the same essential theme: the frustration of the person of talent and integrity in a society demanding conformity and what Riesman called “other-directedness.”

These books succeeded in the economic marketplace, as well as the marketplace of ideas, because they tapped a growing sense of discontent with the prevailing social and business ethos. Their audience might have been a minority of the population, but it was a large, gifted, and ultimately influential one. Despite the era’s prosperity—or perhaps because of it—many people had come to resent social norms that demanded that they keep their heads down, do what was expected of them, and be content to be treated as homogeneous threads in the social fabric. The ensuing cultural upheaval, which peaked in the late 1970s, took many different forms, with unanticipated results.

One of the most paradoxical examples I’ve run across comes from Dana Thomas’s 2015 book Gods and Kings, on the fashion designers Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. It’s about Galliano, who was born in Gibraltar and grew up in South London as the son of a plumber. His career, Thomas comments in passing, was made possible by two cultural phenomena: Thatcherism and punk.

How could that be? After all, Thatcherism and punk are usually seen as antagonistic. I asked Thomas about it in an interview. “Both were breaking down British social rules and constraints,” she said. Punk brought together kids of all classes, while Thatcher’s economic reforms encouraged entrepreneurship.

    If you had an idea and you had the backing then you could make it happen, no matter what your dad did in life or your mother did in life or where you came from or what your background was, or where you grew up or what your accent sounded like. These were all barriers before. So it double-whammied for Galliano. It was great. Because it allowed him to get out of South London, get into a good art school and be seen as a bona fide talent on his own standing, as opposed to where he came from. And he was also able to get the backing to start his company, because there was more money out there. It gave him more freedom. Before punk and before Thatcherism, chances were the son of a plumber was not going to wind up being the head of a couture house.

If you care about the open society, how could you not be interested in a phenomenon like that? How exactly do such transformations take place, and what are their unexpected ripple effects? What processes of experimentation and feedback are at work? Could a young designer do the same thing today and, if not, why not? Are these moments of cultural and economic opportunity inherently fleeting?

(Hat tip to Arnold Kling.)

RIP Laverne De Fazio

December 19th, 2018

Penny Marshall has died, at age 75, “due to complications from diabetes” — after having been diagnosed with lung and brain cancer in 2009 and then making a full recovery.

I didn’t know much about her early life and career:

Carole Penny Marshall was born in the Bronx. Her mother taught tap dancing, while her father directed industrial films. She attended the University of New Mexico for 2½ years. While there, Marshall got pregnant at 19, and soon thereafter married the father, a football player.

Marshall made her screen debut in 1968 with small roles in Richard Rush’s “The Savage Seven” and Jerry Paris’ “How Sweet It Is!,” on which her brother Garry was a writer. She also had small roles in Paris’ 1970 film “The Grasshopper,” but she found much more work on television, guesting on series including “That Girl,” “Love, American Style” and “The Bob Newhart Show.”

From 1972-74 she recurred on “The Odd Couple,” a show developed for TV by brother Garry, as Myrna, the schlumpy secretary employed by Jack Klugman’s Oscar Madison. (Marshall reprised the role for the 1993 reunion movie, “The Odd Couple: Together Again”).

She was a series regular on the critically acclaimed but short-lived CBS sitcom “Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers,” in which she played Janice, who frequently mocked her brother-in-law, played by Sand, for his romantic failures.

In 1975 she guested on “Mary Tyler Moore” but, more importantly, on “Happy Days,” where Marshall’s Laverne De Fazio and Cindy Williams’ Shirley Feeney first appeared on an episode where Fonzie chooses two girls from his little black book for a double date with Ron Howard’s Richie. (“Happy Days” was, like “The Odd Couple,” co-created by Penny’s brother Garry Marshall); letters to the show revealed that viewers liked the Laverne and Shirley characters, and when Garry Marshall was asked by then ABC programming exec Fred Silverman to come up with an idea for another sitcom with which to build a Tuesday night comedy block, he devised “Laverne & Shirley.”

Make a radio using simple supplies

December 18th, 2018

I’m a bit shocked that I hadn’t stumbled across How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler until just now, while reading about how building a radio transmitter is easier than building a clock:

Historically, humans were able to navigate with two instruments: a sextant and a clock. A sextant is used to measure the altitude of the celestial north pole so you can determine your latitude. The clock is needed to measure the difference between local noon and Greenwich Mean Time so you can get your longitude. Yes, that’s really how it works — here are the details if you are interested.

But how would you build these on your own? The sextant is pretty simple — it’s just a tool for measuring angles. The clock on the other hand, that’s not so easy. I don’t think I could build an accurate clock from scratch even if I knew exactly how it works (it’s not that difficult conceptually).

If the clock is so difficult to make, then don’t make it — that is the idea from Ryan North, and it’s brilliant. Instead he suggests that it would be easier to make a radio and use that for navigation. If you can build a radio transmitter, you won’t need a clock. The key part of using a clock for navigation is to know the difference between local noon (when the Sun is at its highest point) and noon in Greenwich (or any other reference location). If you have a radio, you can just broadcast the time from Greenwich and compare that to your local time. Boom. You just found out where you are. You didn’t even need to wind up a pocket watch.

Now you are thinking — but isn’t a radio even more complicated than a clock? Nope. The clock needs precision and accuracy in the building process. If you understand physics, you can make a crude radio, no problem. That’s exactly what I’m going to do. I’m going to make a radio using just the simplest supplies I can find.

Of course there are some prerequisites. If you are stuck in the past, you are going to need to “invent” some other things first. Here’s what you need (none of these are terribly difficult).

  • Copper wire. I guess it doesn’t have to be copper, but you will need some metal wire. This shouldn’t be too difficult once you get a good forge going.
  • A battery. If you have two different types of metals and an acid, you can make a battery. It’s that easy. In fact, you can even make a battery from several pennies—here’s how.
  • A ferromagnetic material like iron.
  • A radio receiver. I know this seems like cheating, but it’s not that difficult to build. Here is how you can make one. There are other ways to do this that might be easier, but the bottom line is it’s possible to make one.

That’s pretty much all you need. Even a stranded time traveler could eventually figure out these things.

Sacrifices must be made!

December 18th, 2018

The Occult Defence Agency Budgeting Simulator looks like a bit of fun:

Occult Defence Agency Budgeting Simulator
“Sacrifices must be made!”

The minister, who was previously in charge of education, and before that, of health, and who is now heading occult affairs after the most recent cabinet reshuffle, having once again failed to unseat the prime minister, shakes your hand. His skin is damp and oddly yielding. You relax when you realize he doesn’t mean human sacrifices. He just wants to reduce your organisation’s budget, he explains. By twenty percent. Effective immediately.

Your organisation is in charge of defending the United Kingdom from paranormal threats. Vampire covens, stray werewolves, pixie swarms, cultists with funny robes and impractical daggers, unlicensed hauntings, and more obscure matters. Also, to liaise with sister organisations as part of the EUROCC framework — except maybe not anymore, as no one can agree on whether EUROCC, which predates the EU, is affected by Brexit — and to render occult aid and advice to the government — as if they’d ever listen.

Your predecessor, in charge for over twenty years, finally retired last year, got his life peerage, and is now spending most of his time with ducks. He left behind a sprawling agency and very little documentation as to which parts are vital to the defence of the realm, and which parts are the hobby-horses of an eccentric Oxfordian.

Well, you’re just going to have to find out. Start cutting.

Gestures of virtue are as formalized as kabuki

December 17th, 2018

We’re back to the hypocrisy sweepstakes, Camille Paglia:

As a bumptious adolescent in upstate New York, I stumbled on a British collection of Oscar Wilde’s epigrams in a secondhand bookstore. It was an electrifying revelation, a text that I studied like the bible. What bold, scathing wit, cutting through the sentimental fog of those still rigidly conformist early 1960s, when good girls were expected to simper and defer.

But I never fully understood Wilde’s caustic satire of Victorian philanthropists and humanitarians until the present sludgy tide of political correctness began flooding government, education, and media over the past two decades. Wilde saw the insufferable arrogance and preening sanctimony in his era’s self-appointed guardians of morality.

We’re back to the hypocrisy sweepstakes, where gestures of virtue are as formalized as kabuki. Humor has been assassinated. An off word at work or school will get you booted to the gallows. This is the graveyard of liberalism, whose once noble ideals have turned spectral and vampiric.

Turning psychosocial discourse back toward the syncretistic, multicultural Jung

December 16th, 2018

There are astounding parallels between Jordan Peterson’s work and Camille Paglia’s own, she says:

In its anti-ideological, trans-historical view of sex and nature, my first book, Sexual Personae (1990), can be viewed as a companion to Peterson’s first book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (1999). Peterson and I took different routes up the mountain — he via clinical psychology and I via literature and art — but we arrived at exactly the same place. Amazingly, over our decades of copious research, we were drawn to the same book by the same thinker — The Origins and History of Consciousness (1949), by the Jungian analyst Erich Neumann. (My 2005 lecture on Neumann at New York University is reprinted in Provocations.) Peterson’s immense international popularity demonstrates the hunger for meaning among young people today. Defrauded of a genuine humanistic education, they are recognizing the spiritual impoverishment of their crudely politicized culture, choked with jargon, propaganda, and lies.

I met Peterson and his wife Tammy a year ago when they flew to Philadelphia with a Toronto camera crew for our private dialogue at the University of the Arts. (The YouTube video has had to date over a million and a half views.) Peterson was incontrovertibly one of the most brilliant minds I have ever encountered, starting with the British philosopher Stuart Hampshire, whom I heard speak impromptu for a dazzling hour after a lecture in college. In turning psychosocial discourse back toward the syncretistic, multicultural Jung, Peterson is recovering and restoring a peak period in North American thought, when Canada was renowned for pioneering, speculative thinkers like the media analyst Marshall McLuhan and the myth critic Northrop Frye. I have yet to see a single profile of Peterson, even from sympathetic journalists, that accurately portrays the vast scope, tenor, and importance of his work.

Out with the false idols and in with the true!

December 15th, 2018

Secular humanism has been a disastrous failure, Camille Paglia argues:

As I repeatedly argue in Provocations, comparative religion is the true multiculturalism and should be installed as the core curriculum in every undergraduate program. From my perspective as an atheist as well as a career college teacher, secular humanism has been a disastrous failure. Too many young people raised in affluent liberal homes are arriving at elite colleges and universities with skittish, unformed personalities and shockingly narrow views of human existence, confined to inflammatory and divisive identity politics.

Interest in Hinduism and Buddhism was everywhere in the 1960s counterculture, but it gradually dissipated partly because those most drawn to ‘cosmic consciousness’ either disabled themselves by excess drug use or shunned the academic ladder of graduate school. I contend that every educated person should be conversant with the sacred texts, rituals, and symbol systems of the great world religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Judeo-Christianity, and Islam — and that true global understanding is impossible without such knowledge.

Not least, the juxtaposition of historically evolving spiritual codes tutors the young in ethical reasoning and the creation of meaning. Right now, the campus religion remains nihilist, meaning-destroying post-structuralism, whose pilfering god, the one-note Foucault, had near-zero scholarly knowledge of anything before or beyond the European Enlightenment. (His sparse writing on classical antiquity is risible.) Out with the false idols and in with the true!

Why Is American mass transit so bad?

December 14th, 2018

Why Is American mass transit so bad? It’s a long story:

One hundred years ago, the United States had a public transportation system that was the envy of the world. Today, outside a few major urban centers, it is barely on life support. Even in New York City, subway ridership is well below its 1946 peak. Annual per capita transit trips in the U.S. plummeted from 115.8 in 1950 to 36.1 in 1970, where they have roughly remained since, even as population has grown.

This has not happened in much of the rest of the world.

[...]

What happened? Over the past hundred years the clearest cause is this: Transit providers in the U.S. have continually cut basic local service in a vain effort to improve their finances. But they only succeeded in driving riders and revenue away. When the transit service that cities provide is not attractive, the demand from passengers that might “justify” its improvement will never materialize.

[...]

[The Age of Rail] was an era when transit could usually make money when combined with real-estate speculation on the newly accessible lands, at least in the short term. But then as now, it struggled to cover its costs over the long term, let alone turn a profit. By the 1920s, as the automobile became a fierce competitor, privately run transit struggled.

But public subsidy was politically challenging: There was a popular perception of transit as a business controlled by rapacious profiteers—as unpopular as cable companies and airlines are today. In 1920, the President’s Commission on Electric Railways described the entire industry as “virtually bankrupt,” thanks to rapid inflation in the World War I years and the nascent encroachment of the car.

The Depression crushed most transit companies, and the handful of major projects that moved forward in the 1930s were bankrolled by the New-Deal-era federal government: See the State and Milwaukee-Dearborn subways in Chicago, the South Broad Street subway in Philadelphia, and the Sixth Avenue subway in New York. But federal infrastructure investment would soon shift almost entirely to highways.

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It is not a coincidence that, while almost every interurban and streetcar line in the U.S. failed, nearly every grade-separated subway or elevated system survived. Transit agencies continued to provide frequent service on these lines so they remained viable, and when trains did not have to share the road and stop at intersections, they could also be time competitive with the car. The subways and els of Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston are all still around, while the vast streetcar and interurban networks of Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Detroit, and many others are long gone. Only when transit didn’t need to share the road with the car, and frequent service continued, was it able to survive.

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All of these [systems introduced in the 1970s] featured fast, partially automated trains running deep into the suburbs, often in the median of expressways. With their plush seating and futuristic design, they were designed to attract people who could afford to drive.

But these high-tech systems were a skeleton without a body, unable to provide access to most of the urban area without an effective connecting bus network. The bus lines that could have fed passengers to the stations had long atrophied, or they never existed at all. In many cases, the new rapid transit systems weren’t even operated by the same agency as the local buses, meaning double fares and little coordination. With no connecting bus services and few people within walking distance in low-density suburbs, the only way to get people to stations was to provide vast lots for parking. But even huge garages can’t fit enough people to fill a subway. Most people without cars were left little better off than they had been before the projects, and many people with cars chose to drive the whole way rather than parking at the station and getting on the train.

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Service drives demand. When riders started to switch to the car in the early postwar years, American transit systems almost universally cut service to restore their financial viability. But this drove more people away, producing a vicious cycle until just about everybody who could drive, drove. In the fastest-growing areas, little or no transit was provided at all, because it was deemed to be not economically viable. Therefore, new suburbs had to be entirely auto-oriented.