Foundation is hard science fiction at its least aesthetic and humanistic

September 24th, 2021

Isaac Asimov began writing his Foundation when he was in his early 20s, after reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Toynbee’s Study of History and coming up with the idea of a Science of History that predicts the future:

This is an idea that only a very young man who hasn’t much experience with how inevitably wrong his predictions will turn out to be could dream up.

On the other hand, it’s also a really interesting idea. Foundation is hard science fiction at its least aesthetic and humanistic. Asimov wasn’t all that good at writing characters, but his mathematical psychohistorian Hari Seldon and The Mule who upsets Hari’s careful plans are useful shorthand references when talking about forecasting.

The smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace

September 22nd, 2021

A Tunguska sized airburst destroyed a Middle Bronze Age city — or two — in the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea 3,600 years ago:

We present evidence that in ~1650 BCE (~3,600 years ago) a cosmic airburst destroyed Tall El-Hammom, a Middle-Bronze-Age city in the southern Jordan Valley northeast of the Dead Sea. The proposed airburst was larger than the 1908 explosion over Tunguska, Russia, where a ~50-m-wide bolide detonated with ~1,000x more energy than the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

We’ll be laughing about those three weeks of regular high school for the rest of our lives

September 15th, 2021

Bryan Caplan explains his family’s homeschooling Odyssey:

Six years ago, I began homeschooling my elder sons, Aidan and Tristan.  They attended Fairfax County Public Schools for K-6, becoming more disgruntled with every passing year.  Even though they went to an alleged “honors” school for grades 4-6, they were bored out of their minds.  The academic material was too easy and moved far too slowly.  The non-academic material was humiliatingly infantile.  And non-academics — music, dance, chorus, art, poster projects — consumed a majority of their day.  As elementary school graduation approached, my sons were hungry for a change.

So what did we do? In consultation with my pupils, I prepared an ultra-academic curriculum. Hours of math every day. Reading serious books. Writing serious essays. Taking college classes. And mastering bodies of knowledge.

[…]

While my sons’ objective performance and subjective satisfaction in middle school were both sky-high, my wife insisted that they try regular high school. Back in those days, the political brainwashing at FCPS was modest, but the anti-intellectual pedagogical philosophy was already overwhelming. I never liked high school, but at least in my day teachers actually taught their subjects. Not so at FCPS. With the noble exception of their calculus teacher, my sons’ high school teachers just showed videos and treated teens like babies. After three weeks, my wife gave a green light to resume homeschooling.

Silver lining: Since comedy is tragedy plus time, we’ll be laughing about those three weeks of regular high school for the rest of our lives. Yes, a kid in their Spanish class really did raise his hand and say, “Spain’s in… South America, right?”

[…]

I hired an excellent Spanish tutor to give them Spanish five days a week year-round. And I asked their tutor to use the immersion method: ¡No Inglés!

The results were phenomenal. In months, the twins started speaking exclusively Spanish to each other. The wishful thinking of, “You hate it now, but work hard and you’ll come to love it” came true for them.

[…]

In 12th grade, the college application process took over my sons’ lives. While they still prepared themselves for AP Statistics and Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, filling out applications consumed almost the entire first semester. Despite everything we’d accomplished, I was nervous. The most reliable researchers I cornered told me that discrimination against homeschoolers was now mild, but short of a major lawsuit, how can anyone really find out?

To cope, I gave my sons the same advice I give everyone in this situation: Not only is admission random; funding is random as well. So throw a big pile of dice.

In response, my sons maxed out the Common App, which allows you to apply to up to 20 schools. (They also applied to Georgetown, which stubbornly refuses to join the Common App).

The college application weighed heavily on my students. I raised them to think clearly and speak bluntly. They knew to pull their punches on AP essays, but the whole college admission process is simply drenched in Social Desirability Bias. If you write a personal statement that admits, “I want to attend your school because I need a strong signal to advance my career, and you’re selling the thirteenth-best signal on the market,” you won’t be getting in. This was the one time I had to push them to do their work. Tristan averred that the academic refereeing process (four rounds of revisions!) was easy by comparison. My many pep talks largely fell on deaf ears. Still, they soldiered on, and finally resumed their actual studies. Intellectually, the highlight of their year was probably auditing my Ph.D. Microeconomics class.

Soon, college acceptances started to come in. Once the University of Virginia admitted them to their honors program, I stopped worrying. Johns Hopkins, by far the highest-ranked school in the DC area, took them as well. Then in early February, Vanderbilt offered both of them full merit scholarships. No one else came close to that deal, so that’s where they decided to go. And that’s where they are this very day. (Hi, sons!) If you see Aidan or Tristan on campus, be sure to introduce yourself. They’re not attention hogs like me, but they have much to say about anything of substance, and are hilarious once you put them at ease.

My general read: I think the median school probably did discriminate against my sons for being homeschooled. Their SATs were 99%+, their AP performance was off the charts, they ran an impressive podcast, and they had a refereed history publication. (At many schools, five such pubs would buy an assistant professor tenure!) Yet they were waitlisted by Harvard and Columbia, and rejected by all the lesser Ivies. All public schools accepted them; I don’t know if this stems from lower discrimination or just lower standards. Nevertheless, the net effect of homeschooling was almost certainly highly positive. My sons used their immense educational freedom to go above and beyond, and several top schools were suitably impressed. The critical factor at Vanderbilt, I suspect, was that their faculty, not their admissions committees, hand out academic merit scholarships.

[…]

Yes, they missed their chance to have a normal high school experience. They had something much better instead. At least in their own eyes.

New York City’s police commissioner on 9/11 sounded like he was right out of central casting

September 12th, 2021

When I listened to a recent interview with Bernard Kerik, who was New York City’s police commissioner on 9/11, he sounded like he was right out of central casting — a New York tough guy that I couldn’t quite trust.

His goes from dropping out of high school, to joining the army, to working security for the Saudi royal family, to joining the NYPD, to becoming Rudy Giuliani’s personal bodyguard, to taking over as commissioner of the city Department of Corrections, to becoming police commissioner, to being appointed Interim Minister of Interior of Iraq!

Three men and a jeep can race along the road, set up, fire one or two missiles, be gone before we can react, then repeat the process a few hundred meters away

September 11th, 2021

In Red Storm Rising, Clancy makes the point that “three men and a jeep” can counter an armored breakthrough:

“Every time we break through,” Major Sergetov (the aide to General Alexseyev) observed quietly, “they slow us down and counterattack. This was not supposed to happen.”

“A splendid observation!” Alexseyev (Deputy CINC, Western Theater) snarled, then regained his temper. “We expected that a breakthrough would have the same effect as in the last war against the Germans. The problem is these new light anti-tank missiles. Three men and a jeep… can race along the road set up, fire one or two missiles, be gone before we can react, then repeat the process a few hundred meters away. Defensive fire power was never so strong before, and we failed to appreciate how effectively a handful of rear guard troops can slow down an advancing column. Our security is based on movement…a mobile force under these conditions cannot afford to be slowed down. A simple breakthrough is not enough! We must blast a massive hole in their front and race at least twenty kilometers to be free of these roving missile crews. Only then can we switch over to mobile doctrine.”

Why on earth did the Navy need commandos who could raid anywhere on it?

September 10th, 2021

Jocko Willink recently interviewed fellow former-SEAL Ben Milligan about his new book, By Water Beneath the Walls: The Rise of the Navy SEALs, which introduces the SEALs as a unit that should not exist:

How did the US Navy create a unit whose operational center of gravity is not only directed at a mission performed on the 29 percent of the earth’s surface that its ships cannot touch, but one so fraught with difficulties that most units of the Army and Marine Corps — the US military’s traditional tenants of its land operations — are not able to perform it with anywhere near the same proficiency?

Most everyone who has ever tried to casually account for the Navy’s inland creep in special operations has explained it away as simple evolution — essentially, a nearly thoughtless process of natural selection in which the Navy responded to a changing environment by inevitably adapting to new operational opportunities. As I saw firsthand, the problem with that theory is that the US military’s various branches — and no less the US Navy — are legendarily hierarchical, thus legendarily stagnant, and thus require more than just a changing environment to turn the steam pistons of inevitability. In other words, these turns are not inevitable; at least not without the backs to crank-start their own evolution in the direction their own brains decide. Which brings us to the next explanation.

[...]

Why on earth did the Navy need commandos who could raid anywhere on it?

Men are abandoning higher education

September 9th, 2021

Men are abandoning higher education in such numbers that they now trail female college students by record levels:

At the close of the 2020-21 academic year, women made up 59.5% of college students, an all-time high, and men 40.5%, according to enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit research group. U.S. colleges and universities had 1.5 million fewer students compared with five years ago, and men accounted for 71% of the decline.

This education gap, which holds at both two- and four-year colleges, has been slowly widening for 40 years. The divergence increases at graduation: After six years of college, 65% of women in the U.S. who started a four-year university in 2012 received diplomas by 2018 compared with 59% of men during the same period, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In the next few years, two women will earn a college degree for every man, if the trend continues, said Douglas Shapiro, executive director of the research center at the National Student Clearinghouse.

No reversal is in sight. Women increased their lead over men in college applications for the 2021-22 school year — 3,805,978 to 2,815,810 — by nearly a percentage point compared with the previous academic year, according to Common Application, a nonprofit that transmits applications to more than 900 schools. Women make up 49% of the college-age population in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau.

[...]

The college gender gap cuts across race, geography and economic background. For the most part, white men — once the predominant group on American campuses — no longer hold a statistical edge in enrollment rates, said Mr. Mortenson, of the Pell Institute. Enrollment rates for poor and working-class white men are lower than those of young Black, Latino and Asian men from the same economic backgrounds, according to an analysis of census data by the Pell Institute for the Journal.

There’s fear and doubt and probably a significant amount of negative polarization

September 7th, 2021

So what would persuade the unvaccinated?

A recent iteration of the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey asked unvaccinated Americans about their reasons for putting off or refusing vaccination against COVID-19, and allowed them to select more than one option, resulting in a set of ranked concerns for COVID-vaccine skeptics. Just more than half of the respondents listed the potential side effects of the vaccines as a major concern. Perhaps they’ve been paying attention to the news. The New York Times recently reported that myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle, is more common after COVID-19 vaccination; likewise, NPR featured a story earlier this month on university researchers looking into thousands of claims of menstrual changes following vaccination, and two days later Reuters ran a news article noting that European regulators were probing a skin rash and a pair of kidney disorders as possible side effects of the vaccines. None of these potential side effects has yet been verified by rigorous research. I think the vaccines are worth the slate of (what appear to me to be) relatively minor known risks (particularly when weighed against the risks of severe complications from getting COVID-19), and I haven’t had any sort of trouble since my Pfizer shots, which I got back in April — but that set of concerns is at least distinct from the total recalcitrance sometimes imputed to the unvaccinated.

Down the list we go: Nearly four in 10 unvaccinated Americans don’t trust the vaccines, which might be an expression of concern about either efficacy or side effects; a similar proportion want to wait and see whether they’re safe, which, again, is a deflatingly concrete concern, if not the decision I would (and did) make in the same situation. A third don’t trust the government (brothers and sisters: same here), and only then do we arrive at the just less than a quarter who don’t believe they personally need a vaccine. A rung down, after the 22 percent who aren’t sure that the vaccines are actually protective, are another 17 percent who don’t see COVID-19 as a major threat — a fairly small minority, all things considered.

What strikes me about the responses of the unvaccinated — as opposed to the tempting caricature presented by their worst representatives in pulpits and politics — is that there does seem to be significant willingness to consider vaccination, though I doubt that persuasion lies in lurid accounts of death or allegations that the unvaccinated themselves are guilty of killing those who end up infected. There’s fear and doubt and probably a significant amount of negative polarization — the god-awful inclination of each political faction to double down on its worst tendencies when opponents satirize or criticize them — worsened by the gross incentives of traditional and social media. But skepticism precludes certainty. That means there’s still openness — to the right kind of persuasion.

If the process is meritocratic, it is a good idea to trust the people at the top

September 6th, 2021

Humans are social learners, Arnold Kling reminds us:

We have to trust other people in order to gain knowledge and to make decisions. Our social epistemology will not get better by simply showing less deference to people who have a reputation for expertise.

I believe that the fundamental issue in social epistemology is the process by which people climb the status hierarchy. If the process is meritocratic, as in a chess tournament, it is a good idea to trust the people at the top. If the process is corrupted, by rules that are unfair or easily gamed. then the high-status people are not so worthy of our trust. But the solution to corruption is to improve the process, not (just) to belittle high-status people.

[…]

How do I determine that you are knowledgeable in a field? If I knew enough to independently verify your knowledge, then I would not need your expertise. Since I cannot personally evaluate your knowledge, I rely on a signal. The fundamental social challenge is to make sure that these signals are accurate.

Incumbents with high status in a field usually participate in setting up and operating the signaling system in their field. To at least some degree, this is desirable. You want doctors involved in the system that decides the qualification for who becomes a doctor.

But you also need a system that is open to innovation and capable of discarding conventional views that turn out to be wrong. If there is insufficient competition, an entire field can decay. I saw this happen in macroeconomics in the 1980s, as Stanley Fischer all but monopolized the placement at prestige universities of young macroeconomic specialists. Students who did not want to conform to Fischer’s approach ended up avoiding macroeconomics and/or accepting low-status placements. The result, in my opinion, was the atrophy of macroeconomics.

The CIA is better at creating foreign armies

September 5th, 2021

The CIA is better at creating foreign armies than the U.S. military:

Since the days of its Office of Strategic Services forebearers, the CIA has been able to get two core principles of covert training and support missions right: Politics is local, and people fight for their families, beliefs, and survival. Obligation to community — or for many, religion — trumps flags and oaths to relatively new constitutions of artificial states ratified by distant strangers to whom these soldiers have no personal or communal loyalty. Training and support, therefore, isn’t an off-the-shelf solution but rather a custom fit.

Even the most conservative estimates suggest Washington spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the Lebanese Armed Forces in the early to mid-1980s and billions building national armies in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, only to see these forces collapse in the face of what Americans perceived to be their enemies. The reality, of course, was that these national armies comprised soldiers who were being ordered to face opposing forces, in some cases from their own communities, or to sacrifice their lives in contests that had no meaning for themselves, their families, or their clans. And they were often led by officers to whom they felt no loyalty or connection apart from a common uniform.

Politically, bureaucratically, and logistically, the U.S. military blueprint tends to assume an integrated force in which the fighters are loyal to the central government and the officers under whom they serve, regardless of their superiors’ ethnicity, religion, or clan. Order of battle, strategy, and tactics are likewise aligned to U.S. strengths and norms, rather than tailored to cultural, historic, geographic, educational, or topographic local realities. Washington then proceeds to arm such troops with weapons too complex and expensive for their use and often unsuitable for the terrain or the enemy’s tactics (for example, Bradley Fighting Vehicles to the Lebanese army or MD 530 helicopters to the Afghan army). Furthermore, there is often no way to measure effectiveness or monitor corruption.

In 2016, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) acknowledged to Congress that, in many cases, “U.S. funding dedicated to the ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] was wasted, whether inefficiently spent on worthwhile endeavors or squandered on activities that delivered no apparent benefit.” Moreover, SIGAR listed five major challenges confronting U.S. efforts to develop the ANDSF that were never overcome: 1) limited oversight visibility; 2) questionable force strength numbers; 3) unreliable capability assessments; 4) limited on-budget assistance capacity; and 5) uncertain long-term sustainability.

The CIA is by its own culture focused on people and relationships. Whereas the U.S. defense establishment is replete with unrivaled experts in their vocational fields, the CIA assigns people to such programs who blend technical prowess with interest and depth in the local history and culture and whose approach is informed by intelligence. The drawback of this approach is that there aren’t enough personnel with Arabic- and other foreign-language skills to scale the program. Nevertheless, CIA officers work more intimately with their foreign counterparts and often remain in such programs, rotating repeatedly with the units they support. Rather than being separated in distant fortresses, CIA teams are more typically collocated with their partners without walls or other barriers between them.

Donald Shoup debated calling his treatise Aparkalypse Now

September 3rd, 2021

Donald Shoup debated calling his treatise Aparkalypse Now, but he went with The High Price of Free Parking instead:

America’s 250 million cars have an estimated 2 billion parking spots and spend 95% of their time parked. To make cities more equitable, affordable, and environmentally conscious, Shoup makes the case for three simple reforms:

1. Stop requiring off-street parking for new developments.

2. Price street parking according to market value, based on the desirability of the space, the time of day, and the number of open spots.

3. Spend that revenue on initiatives to better the surrounding neighborhoods.

If people had to pay for street parking, he argues, it would bring in money to pay for local repairs, infrastructure (like that free Wi-Fi he was talking about), and beautification. It would also make public transit more attractive and force many curbside cruisers to head straight for parking garages and other paid spots—a win for neighborhood air quality, global greenhouse gas levels, and those still playing those two-ton games of musical chairs.

As anyone who lives in a city knows, the pandemic blew up most of what we understood about parking in America. Oh, it was possible this whole time to hand over parking spaces to restaurants? To turn whole streets into semi-permanent pedestrian thoroughfares? To cut traffic enough to yield noticeable improvements in air quality? All it took was a once-in-a-century public-health catastrophe.

[…]

According to his research, U.S. cities dedicate more land to parking than any other single use, including housing and commercial space.

[…]

In many cities decades-old ordinances require real estate developers to set aside a certain amount of space for parking — usually, a shocking amount. America has an average of 1,000 square feet of parking for each car, vs. 800 square feet of housing per person.

[…]

Most American restaurants have at least three times the square footage devoted to parking as they do to the restaurant itself.

People begged for pieces of his cane as sacred relics

September 2nd, 2021

I was aware that a gutta percha walking stick was used in the famous caning of Charles Sumner, but I had assumed that gutta percha was simply a hard wood, ideal for walking sticks, but gutta percha in much more interesting than that:

The stick is made of gutta percha, the hardened latex of the Palaquium gutta tree, originally native to Malaysia. This is a natural “thermoplastic” substance, meaning it can be softened with heat and shaped into a form that is retained on cooling. Gutta percha was introduced to Europe in 1842 by Dr. William Montgomerie, a surgeon serving with the British army in the East Indies who had come across the substance in Singapore, where it was being used to make handles for machetes. He thought the substance would be useful to produce handles for medical devices as well as splints for fractures.

Victorian society quickly took to gutta percha. Chess pieces, mirror cases and jewelry were fabricated with it, and dentists found it useful for filling cavities. But perhaps the biggest impact was on the game of golf. At the time, golf balls were made of feather-stuffed leather, were expensive, and not exactly aerodynamic. Balls fashioned out of gutta percha were cheaper and flew further. When they were dinged up, these “gutties” could be repaired by softening in boiled water, and then reshaping in a hand press. The ball’s popularity increased when it was discovered that grooves cut into the surface allowed for a longer flight. Gutties were the ball of choice until about 1900, when they were replaced by the Haskell ball, made of a solid core of rubber wrapped tightly with rubber threads.

Interestingly, rubber, which is also an exudate of a tree, and gutta percha have almost identical molecular structures. They are both polymers of a simple molecule, isoprene, so can be termed as polyisoprenes, but different “kinks” in the long molecules, referred to as “cis” or “trans,” allow for different properties. While gutta percha is thermoplastic, rubber is thermosetting, meaning that once formed into a shape it cannot be reshaped with heat. The rubber used in the Haskell ball was “vulcanized,” a process introduced by Charles Goodyear, who discovered that treating natural rubber with sulphur allowed it to be made into a very hard material. It turns out that the sulphur atoms cross-link the cis polyisoprene units to form a tough latex.

Michael Faraday, the brilliant English scientist who carried out numerous experiments with electricity, found that gutta percha was an excellent insulator — a property that allowed it to be put to use as a coating for the newfangled telegraph cables. In a monumental engineering undertaking between 1854 and 1858, the first transatlantic telegraph cable, insulated with gutta percha, was laid down. Unfortunately, it quickly failed. But by 1865, improvements in technology resulted in a properly functioning gutta percha-insulated telegraph cable that allowed messages to be sent between the continents in a few minutes. Prior to this, communication was via ships and could take weeks. Gutta percha proved to be a huge triumph and served well until it was eventually replaced by polyethylene insulation.

[…]

In 1856, Democrat Preston Brooks brutally attacked Republican Sumner with his walking stick on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Sumner, a dedicated abolitionist, had made a strong speech against slavery, a practice that Brooks favoured. The attack was so violent that Brooks’s gutta percha cane broke into pieces, some of which were recovered from the Senate floor and cut into rings that southern lawmakers wore on neck chains to show their solidarity with Brooks, who boasted that people begged for pieces of his cane as sacred relics.

(Hat tip to Hans Schantz.)

Dissenting voices were ground into dust by the national security bureaucracy

September 1st, 2021

We can divide what went wrong in Afghanistan into three decision-making failures, John Robb says, each owing to an inability to update operating assumptions:

First, a failure to accept that the Taliban had won the guerrilla war and adapt to the situation once it was apparent. Second, a failure to adapt to the speed of the Taliban’s offensive by building contingencies to protect the U.S. evacuation effort. Finally, a failure to appreciate the dangers of being besieged in Kabul and to take steps to protect U.S. troops and civilians.

[…]

The leadership’s unshakable attachment to the viability of the Afghan government and the success of nation-building wasn’t based on evidence. It was a belief based on a political and institutional need that it be true. It was necessary to maintain the illusion that the U.S. was there to modernize and globally integrate Afghanistan at the political level. Institutionally, it was needed to justify the losses (thousands of U.S. lives) and vast expense (trillions of dollars) already consumed by the venture and protect the careers of those involved with it. As a result of these imperatives, dissenting voices were ground into dust by the national security bureaucracy and by political factions committed to the social-reform effort there.

[…]

Guerrilla wars are slow-moving conflicts fought in the moral sphere. You can picture a guerrilla war as opposing planets competing through gravitational attraction. The way you fight it is to create the highest gravity possible (a moral pull that attracts: incorruptibility, moral integrity, altruism) while causing the competing planet to break apart (moral repulsion: corruption, unpopular social changes, selfish abuses). Because of the dynamics of this type of warfare, when victory arrives, it often does so suddenly, with the complete disintegration of the opponent. That’s what happened in Afghanistan, and we should have quickly accepted this fact.

[…]

When it became clear in July that the Taliban had won the guerrilla war and were conducting a maneuver-based offensive to take the country, the U.S. should have responded by deploying contingencies. Chief among them should have been retaking the abandoned and defensible (not surrounded by a heavily populated city) Bagram airbase north of Kabul to ensure air support and evacuation missions were always available, particularly if the single runway at Kabul’s airport was damaged or denied. With Bagram swiftly reopened, stepped up air-support missions for the Afghan army could have been provided, slowing the Taliban’s advance. Additionally, special operations units could have been employed to evacuate civilian personnel stranded by the rapidity of the Taliban’s advance. And the leadership should have radically sped up the evacuation of U.S. civilians and accelerated the awarding of visas to Afghan nationals who might be at risk. It didn’t: the State Department was still forcing citizens to pay a $2,000 repatriation fee—more for non-citizens—and sign promissory notes if they didn’t have the cash, up until August 20, five days after the fall of Kabul.

Instead of adapting, the U.S. leadership froze — overloaded by a fast-moving ground campaign that constantly shifted priorities and disoriented by deceptive Taliban diplomacy that promised a return to the status quo. While the U.S. talked, the Taliban acted. The result: textbook maneuver warfare. It was so effective that when the Taliban began to take major cities in early August, all American leaders could do was plead with the Taliban for mercy.

[…]

As the evacuation dragged on, it became increasingly evident, even to a U.S. leadership unwilling to admit it, that the Taliban could turn the U.S. mission into a hostage crisis within hours. To prevent this outcome, the U.S. was undoubtedly forced to make concessions to the Taliban. On the surface, this took the form of government public messaging that increasingly depicted the Taliban as reformed and reasonable rulers of a new Afghanistan — trustworthy partners who would help protect the U.S. mission from harm and assist in evacuations. Behind the scenes, there may also have been concessions on removing the Taliban from terrorist watch lists, removing trade restrictions, and providing access to Afghan government funds. Announcements on such concessions, if they occurred, would obviously be delayed due to the political costs of revealing them now; by the end of 2021, we’ll probably know the extent of the capitulation.

[…]

Despite this failure, it’s likely that nothing will be done to ensure that it doesn’t happen in the future. Politicized analysis of the retreat will depict it as a victory for diplomacy. Few U.S. soldiers were killed, and over 100,000 people were evacuated. Further, claims will be made that any analysis that doesn’t support this narrative is the equivalent of delusional disinformation. The institutional failures that prevented successful adaptation, from recognizing the failure of nation-building to the danger of relying on a single point of failure during a military evacuation, will be glossed over and forgotten. From the start of the effort decades ago to its ignoble end, nobody responsible for the venture will accept any accountability for it. No one will suffer damage to his career or incur reputational damage, except those brave souls who tried to stop it.

How do we build more exceptional institutions?

August 31st, 2021

In a world where functional institutions are now the exception, Samo Burja asks, how do we build more exceptional institutions?

A key component of institutional health is personnel — people who understand the social system. Every institution has an official “org chart” and set of protocols, but beneath the org chart lies a deposit of “intellectual dark matter” vital to the institution’s function: private social networks, unwritten plans, roles with more or less power than officially stated, and more. This institutional memory resides in the heads of people who know how to use it.

Such people are essential to the maintenance of existing systems. A healthy organization needs leaders who understand not only what is being done but also why it is being done, which allows them to see which areas are succeeding or failing. Departments may be succeeding according to internal metrics but failing to advance the general mission of the organization. It often takes unusual skill to tell these apart. Without enough such people to repair internal drift and respond to changes in the external environment, an organization will become corrupt and obsolete.

Once an institution has enough people who understand the social system, the second key component is effective meritocracy. Merit must be defined in accordance with the logic of the specific institution. Skilled people must end up in the right roles or their talents will achieve very little. Healthy institutions don’t need to achieve the philosophical ideal of perfection. Rather, they need to get enough good people into responsible positions and put highly capable people into the most demanding roles. In most domains, relationships, soft skills, and effective combinations of skills — such as Scott Adams’s concept of talent stacks — tend to be more relevant to success than marginal differences in pure skill. Moreover, an effective meritocracy does not ignore the problem of trust and coordination between its meritocrats. Trustworthiness, loyalty, and other people skills are as important qualities as narrow skill in a domain. The competent people in an organization have to get along, one way or another, or nothing will get done.

This is especially true in politics. President John F. Kennedy was highly capable as a politician, but his success also depended on his looks, charisma, and family resources. He appointed his brother, Robert Kennedy, to be attorney general. An ideal meritocracy would condemn this as nepotism, but it would hardly make sense for JFK to have combed the earth looking for the objectively “best” candidate when he had a loyal, capable brother who was a graduate of Harvard and conversant with his aims. The degree of trust and loyalty between them outweighed any considerations for a marginally more competent lawyer when it came to the question of coordinating on government policy. Historically, dynasties like this were unremarkable, as it was widely recognized that family members would be motivated to work together.

Counterintuitively, this type of meritocracy can sometimes coexist with a rigid class system. For example, Britain in the 1700s was a highly stratified society, with hereditary nobility at the top of the social pyramid. Nevertheless, many of the most powerful people came from the middle class and gentry. Government ministers like Robert Walpole, generals like Robert Clive, and industrialists like Boulton and Watt faced few barriers as they rose to greatness and contributed to the dominance of the British Empire, while less competent nobility retained social privileges without real power. Weaker class barriers could have increased the pool of potential leaders even further, but so long as the pool is large enough, a society can thrive.

Training and education are essential to institutional continuity. A new generation of skilled people must be intentionally cultivated. Autodidacts may sometimes rise on their own, but never in sufficient numbers to make education obsolete. There are no societies of autodidacts; society must instruct its future leaders. Education is indispensable, but credentialism can be a far greater barrier to professional success than a rigid class system and was historically not the dominant system.

The Roman Republic’s cursus honorum put young elites in a variety of military and civil positions to get hands-on experience with the mechanics of power. The Ivy League of the early 1900s taught a broad classical curriculum to young American elites that prepared them for effective leadership, not for a specific profession or area of expertise. Individual companies, professions, subcultures, and other institutions must also pass down their individual traditions of knowledge or see them decay.

Effective institutions must also solve the succession problem. As time passes and skilled people retire or die, an institution must find ways to preserve the knowledge and structures that allow it to function. Existing institutions must solve the succession problem and hand control to people of sufficient ambition and skill. As new power centers arise, elites must find a way to incorporate them into the system. A more recent example is the effort to integrate tech companies into the ruling elite.

They are looking for the best possible move every time, instead of a good move

August 30th, 2021

To compete means to risk losing, and women, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing explains, judge this risk differently than men:

A Stockholm University study of 1.4 million [chess] games over 11 years showed that elite women are less likely to use an aggressive opening move than elite male players. The women devote more deliberative thought to their first 25 moves: they are looking for the best possible move every time, instead of a good move.

(That means they often run short on time in tournaments and have to rush at the end.)

Women are less likely to arrange a draw when the outcome is predictable — women want to play the game out. If it’s a sure win for women, they want to get that win.

(Men seem to get bored or decide that the time spent finishing the game is more trouble than it’s worth.)