Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Nostromo is Italian for “mate” or “boatswain,” a contraction of nostro uomo — “our man.” To sci-fi film geeks, it’s the name of the mining craft in Ridley Scott’s Alien.

But it’s also the name of a 1904 novel by Joseph Conrad, which, Robert Kaplan says defines and dissects the problems with the world just beyond our own, by examining Westerners and indigenous inhabitants of an imaginary South American country, Costaguana:

Nostromo is neither overly descriptive and moodily vague like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, nor is its ending entirely unhappy. For a civil society-in-the-making does emerge in Costaguana, but it is midwived by a ruined cynic of a doctor who has given up on humanity, a deeply skeptical journalist, and two bandit gangs, not by the idealist whose actions had helped lead to the country’s earlier destruction. Conrad never denies the possibility of progress in any society, but he is ironic enough to know that “The ways of human progress are inscrutable”, and that is why “action is consolatory” and “the friend of flattering illusions.” Charles Gould, the failed idealist of the novel, who believes absolutely in economic development, “had no ironic eye. He was not amused at the absurdities that prevail in this world.”

Nostromo is Conrad’s best and most difficult work, Kaplan says:

In this media-obsessed age — when “intellectuals” spend their evenings watching C-SPAN and CNN — people may be better acquainted with Heart of Darkness than with Nostromo only because the former is exceedingly short, as well as amenable to skimming, on account of a thin plot and lengthy landscape descriptions. In Nostromo, however, landscape ambiance is a tightly controlled, strategic accompaniment to political realism.

It matters today, because so little has changed in the “developing” world:

It is a tribute to Conrad’s insight that his description of Costaguana and its port, Sulaco, captures so many of the crucial tidbits and subtleties about troubled Third World states (particularly small and isolated ones) that foreign correspondents of today experience but do not always inform their readers about, because such details do not fit within the confines of “news” or “objective” analysis.

There are, for example, the handful of foreign merchants in Sulaco, without whom there would be no local economy; the small, sovereign parcels of foreign territory (company headquarters and embassies) to which people flee at times of unrest; and the obscure army captain who has spent time abroad hanging about cafés in European capitals, and who later finds himself back home, nursing resentments, and at the head of a rebellion provoked by soldiers who drink heavily.

There is, too, the “stupendous magnificence” of the local scenery — what Conrad calls a “Paradise of snakes”; the conspiracy theories begot by deep isolation and the general feeling of powerlessness and “futility”; and a wealthier, more developed part of the country that wants to secede because its inhabitants are even more cynical about the political future over “the mountains” than any foreigner. Conrad shows us, too, how bad forms of urbanization deform cultures: “the town children of the Sulaco Campo”, for instance, “sullen, thievish, vindictive, and bloodthirsty, whatever great qualities their brothers of the plain might have had.”

He describes oscillations between chaos and tyranny, and political movements named after their leaders — Monterists and Ribierists — because in Costaguana, despite the talk of “democracy” and “liberation”, there are no ideas, only personalities. He describes “the dread of officialdom with its nightmarish parody of administration without law, without security.” He describes a port, an ocean port no less, that because of Costaguana’s lawlessness is “so isolated” from the world.

His conclusion is of a sort that a novelist can make with less damage to his reputation than a journalist: “The fundamental causes [of the Monterist terror] were the same as ever, rooted in the political immaturity of the people, in the indolence of the upper classes and the mental darkness of the lower.” Giorgio Viola, an Italian who fought with Giuseppe Garibaldi and now lives in Costaguana with his dying wife and two daughters, believes, moments after several bullets strike his house and a mob tries to set fire to his roof, that “These were not a people striving for justice, but thieves.”

Back to Alien:

In James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens, the Marine transport vessel is named Sulaco. (Also in Alien, the escape vessel is named Narcissus, an allusion to another of Conrad’s works, The Nigger of the Narcissus.)

Populism is popular with the ruling class

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Populism is popular with the ruling class, David Brooks notes:

Ever since I started covering politics, the Democratic ruling class has been driven by one fantasy: that voters will get so furious at people with M.B.A.’s that they will hand power to people with Ph.D.’s.

Wedemeyer’s Victory Plan

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

NerveAgent is sometimes distraught by how long it’s taking him to write his thesis, considering that then-Major Albert Wedemeyer devised the U.S. Army’s World War II grand strategy, unit structure, equipment requirements, and general concept of operations, all in a period of about three monthsbefore Pearl Harbor and America’s decision to enter the war.

Wedemeyer was tasked with calculating the nation’s total manufacturing requirements for the coming war, but he realized that his mission was much more complicated than that:

In order to deduce the nation’s ultimate production requirements, Wedemeyer concluded that the essential first task was to compute the size of the Army and Air Corps that the War Department would have to arm and equip. Size and composition of forces were functions of mission, however, and no one could estimate the size of military forces required without knowing the missions they would be ordered to execute. Missions depended upon military strategy, and in order to know the military strategy, Wedemeyer had first to know the national objective in the event of war… Wedemeyer therefore established for himself a series of questions to answer in order to accomplish his task:

  1. What is the national objective of the United States?
  2. What military strategy will be devised to accomplish the national objective?
  3. What military forces must be raised in order to execute that military strategy?
  4. How will those military forces be constituted, equipped, and trained?

Apparently no one in Washington had given those questions any thought. Wedemeyer came up with this mission statement:

To eliminate totalitarianism from Europe and, in the process, to be an ally of Great Britain; further, to deny the Japanese undisputed control of the western Pacific.

I suppose it seems obvious in retrospect, since that is what the US did, but did it make sense to wage total war against Germany to eliminate totalitarianism from Europe and, in the process, to be an ally of Great Britain? I suppose that depends on what you thought would happen without quick US intervention:

In 1941, U.S. war planners were deathly afraid that Russian resistance would soon collapse, leaving Germany in control of Mackinder’s Eurasian “heartland.” If that happened, Germany would require about two years to stabilize and exploit its conquests and reconstitute its military capabilities for an invasion of the British Isles. Because the U.S. would require almost as much time to fully mobilize, Wedemeyer had to assume the worst case scenario of America continuing the war against Germany alone.

Wedemeyer saw the importance of controlling the oceans and the air, and he realized that America did not have the manpower to overwhelm Germany without armor and tactical air support. On the other hand, he overestimated the need for anti-aircraft and tank-destroyers — because our own aircraft and tanks handled those problems just fine.

(Hat tip to Joseph Fouché.)

Reading racism into pulp fiction

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Eric S. Raymond has a scholarly interest in the historical roots of science fiction, which has led him to read — or re-read — the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs — famous for Tarzan, of course, but also for John Carter of Mars — Rudyard Kipling — famous for Kim, but also for As Easy As A.B.C. — and Harold Lamb — famous for his Cossack stories, which, he doesn’t mention, influenced Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan.

This leads him to discuss reading racism into pulp fiction:

The skepticism I’m now developing about ascriptions of racism in pulp fiction really began, I think, when I learned that it had become fashionable to denigrate Rudyard Kipling’s Kim and other India stories as racist. This is clearly sloppy thinking at work. Kim was deeply respectful of its non-European characters, especially the Pathan swashbuckler Mahbub Ali and Teshoo Lama. Indeed, the wisdom and compassion of Kipling’s lama impressed me so greatly as a child that I think it founded my lifelong interest in and sympathy with Buddhism.

But I didn’t begin thinking really critically about race in pulp fiction until I read Tarzan and the Castaways a few years ago and noticed something curious about the way Burroughs and his characters used the adjective “white” (applied to people). That is: while it appeared on the surface to be a racial distinction, it was actually a culturist one. In Burroughs’s terms of reference (at least as of 1939), “white” is actually code for “civilized”; the distinction between “civilized” and “savage” is actually more important than white/nonwhite, and non-Europeans can become constructively “white” by exhibiting civilized virtues.

Realizing this caused me to review my assumptions about racial attitudes in Burroughs’s time. I found myself asking whether the use of “white” as code for “civilized” was prejudice or pragmatism. Because there was this about Burrough’s European characters: (1) in their normal environments, the correlation between “civilized” and “white” would have been pretty strong, and (2) none of them seemed to have any trouble treating nonwhite but civilized characters with respect. In fact, in Burroughs’s fiction, fair dealing with characters who are black, brown, green, red, or gorilla-furred is the most consistent virtue of the white gentleman.

I concluded that, given the information available to a typical European in 1939, it might very well be that using “white” as code for “civilized” was pragmatically reasonable, and that the reflex we have today of ascribing all racially-correlated labels to actually racist beliefs is actually unfair to Burroughs and his characters!

It’s almost comical to see the programmer-libertarian argument play out against an imagined intellectual-progressive audience: You see, Burroughs doesn’t mean white when he says “white” — he means civilized! Therefore, he’s not racist.

Raymond’s defense of Lamb is similarly unlikely to convert anyone on the Left:

The “brushes with anti-Semitism” lie in Lamb’s portrayal of the Jewish merchants of the time. They sell the Cossacks clothes, weapons, food, and gunpowder and turn the freebooters’ loot into cash. They are depicted as avaricious, cowardly, mean, and quite willing to toady to the warriors and princes they serve. How are we to interpret this in light of Lamb’s sympathetic portrayals of a dozen other races and cultures?

Of course it’s possible Lamb was simply replaying anti-Semitic attitudes he had absorbed somewhere. But in reading these stories I had another moment like the one in which I understood that Burroughs was using “white” as culturist code for “civilized”. It was this: the behavior of Lamb’s Jewish merchants made adaptive sense. Maybe they were really like that!

Consider: The Jews of Lamb’s milieu lived under Christian and Islamic rulers who forbade them from carrying weapons, who despised them, who taxed and persecuted them with a heavy hand. If you were a Jew in that time and place, exhibiting courage and the warrior virtues that Lamb was so ready to recognize in a Mongol or an Afghani was likely to earn you a swift and ugly death.

Under those conditions, I’m thinking that being cowardly and avaricious and toadying would have been completely sensible; after all, what other options than flattering the authorities and getting rich enough to buy themselves out of trouble did Jews actually have?

Lamb seems to have have mined the historical sources pretty assiduously in his portrayals of other cultures and races. Rather than dismissing Lamb’s Jews as creatures of his prejudices, I think we need to at least consider the possibility that he was mostly replaying period beliefs about Jewish merchants, and that those beliefs were in fact fairly accurate. He certainly seems to have tried to do something similar with the other flavors of human being in his books.

Nowadays we tend to interpret Lamb’s Jewish merchants through assumptions that read something like this: (1) All racial labels are indications of racist thinking, and (2) all race-associated stereotypes are necessarily false, and (3) all racial labels and race-related stereotypes are malicious. But it seems to me that, at least as I read Burroughs and Lamb, all these assumptions are highly questionable.

Fear the Boom and Bust

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

John Papola and Russ Roberts have created a shockingly good hip-hop video about macroeconomics. Really. Fear the Boom and Bust.

Sing along:

We’ve been going back and forth for a century
[Keynes] I want to steer markets,
[Hayek] I want them set free
There’s a boom and bust cycle and good reason to fear it
[Hayek] Blame low interest rates.
[Keynes] No, it’s the animal spirits

[Keynes Sings:]
John Maynard Keynes, wrote the book on modern macro
The man you need when the economy’s off track, [whoa]
Depression, recession now your question’s in session
Have a seat and I’ll school you in one simple lesson

BOOM, 1929 the big crash
We didn’t bounce back — economy’s in the trash
Persistent unemployment, the result of sticky wages
Waiting for recovery? Seriously? That’s outrageous!

I had a real plan any fool can understand
The advice, real simple — boost aggregate demand!
C, I, G, all together gets to Y
Make sure the total’s growing, watch the economy fly

We’ve been going back and forth for a century
[Keynes] I want to steer markets,
[Hayek] I want them set free
There’s a boom and bust cycle and good reason to fear it
[Hayek] Blame low interest rates.
[Keynes] No, it’s the animal spirits

You see it’s all about spending, hear the register cha-ching
Circular flow, the dough is everything
So if that flow is getting low, doesn’t matter the reason
We need more government spending, now it’s stimulus season

So forget about saving, get it straight out of your head
Like I said, in the long run — we’re all dead
Savings is destruction, that’s the paradox of thrift
Don’t keep money in your pocket, or that growth will never lift…


Business is driven by the animal spirits
The bull and the bear, and there’s reason to fear its
Effects on capital investment, income and growth
That’s why the state should fill the gap with stimulus both…

The monetary and the fiscal, they’re equally correct
Public works, digging ditches, war has the same effect
Even a broken window helps the glass man have some wealth
The multiplier driving higher the economy’s health

And if the Central Bank’s interest rate policy tanks
A liquidity trap, that new money’s stuck in the banks!
Deficits could be the cure, you been looking for
Let the spending soar, now that you know the score

My General Theory’s made quite an impression
[a revolution] I transformed the econ profession
You know me, modesty, still I’m taking a bow
Say it loud, say it proud, we’re all Keynesians now
We’ve been goin’ back n forth for a century

[Keynes] I want to steer markets,
[Hayek] I want them set free
There’s a boom and bust cycle and good reason to fear it
[Keynes] I made my case, Freddie H
Listen up , Can you hear it?

[Hayek sings:]

I’ll begin in broad strokes, just like my friend Keynes
His theory conceals the mechanics of change,
That simple equation, too much aggregation
Ignores human action and motivation

And yet it continues as a justification
For bailouts and payoffs by pols with machinations
You provide them with cover to sell us a free lunch
Then all that we’re left with is debt, and a bunch

If you’re living high on that cheap credit hog
Don’t look for cure from the hair of the dog
Real savings come first if you want to invest
The market coordinates time with interest

Your focus on spending is pushing on thread
In the long run, my friend, it’s your theory that’s dead
So sorry there, buddy, if that sounds like invective
Prepared to get schooled in my Austrian perspective
We’ve been going back and forth for a century

We’ve been goin’ back n forth for a century
[Keynes] I want to steer markets,
[Hayek] I want them set free
There’s a boom and bust cycle and good reason to fear it
[Hayek] Blame low interest rates.
[Keynes] No,it’s the animal spirits

The place you should study isn’t the bust
It’s the boom that should make you feel leery, that’s the thrust
Of my theory, the capital structure is key.
Malinvestments wreck the economy

The boom gets started with an expansion of credit
The Fed sets rates low, are you starting to get it?
That new money is confused for real loanable funds
But it’s just inflation that’s driving the ones

Who invest in new projects like housing construction
The boom plants the seeds for its future destruction
The savings aren’t real, consumption’s up too
And the grasping for resources reveals there’s too few

So the boom turns to bust as the interest rates rise
With the costs of production, price signals were lies
The boom was a binge that’s a matter of fact
Now its devalued capital that makes up the slack.

Whether it’s the late twenties or two thousand and five
Booming bad investments, seems like they’d thrive
You must save to invest, don’t use the printing press
Or a bust will surely follow, an economy depressed

Your so-called “stimulus” will make things even worse
It’s just more of the same, more incentives perversed
And that credit crunch ain’t a liquidity trap
Just a broke banking system, I’m done, that’s a wrap.

We’ve been goin’ back n forth for a century
[Keynes] I want to steer markets,
[Hayek] I want them set free
There’s a boom and bust cycle and good reason to fear it
[Hayek] Blame low interest rates.
[Keynes] No,it’s the animal spirits

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”
John Maynard Keynes
The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money

“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
F A Hayek
The Fatal Conceit

Download the song in MP3 or AAC.

Trooper in a Strange Land

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

I did not realize that Heinlein was in the middle of writing his “hippie” classic, Stranger in a Strange Land, when he decided to write his “fascist” classic, Starship Troopers:

When Robert A. Heinlein opened his Colorado Springs newspaper on April 5, 1958, he read a full-page ad demanding that the Eisenhower administration stop testing nuclear weapons. The science-fiction author was flabbergasted. He called for the formation of the Patrick Henry League and spent the next several weeks writing and publishing his own polemic that lambasted “Communist-line goals concealed in idealistic-sounding nonsense” and urged Americans not to become “soft-headed.”

Then Heinlein made an important professional decision. He quit writing the manuscript he had been working on — eventually it would become one of his best-known books, Stranger in a Strange Land — and started work on a new novel. Starship Troopers was published the next year, and it quickly became perhaps the most controversial sci-fi tale of all time. Critics labeled Heinlein everything from a Nazi to a racist. “The ‘Patrick Henry’ ad shocked ’em,” he wrote many years later. “Starship Troopers outraged ’em.”

Mind Games

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Dr. Silvia Bunge, a neuroscientist at UC Berkeley, and her team went looking for off-the-shelf board games, card games, and video games that demanded distinct mental functions:

One group of these games was chosen because they’d give children’s reasoning ability a workout — these games require forethought, planning, comparisons and logical integration. The games chosen were card games like SET, the traffic-jam puzzle Rush Hour, and Qwirkle, a cross between Dominos and Scrabble. For the Nintendo DS, they chose Picross and Big Brain Academy. There were also two games for the computer — one called Azada, another called Chocolate Fix.

Bunge’s team brought the games to an elementary school in Oakland with historically low state test scores. The researchers asked some second, third and fourth graders to stay after school to play. The kids’ IQ averaged a 90, and their brain speed (a subtest of intelligence) ranked them at only the 27th percentile. The children’s parents, on average, were high-school dropouts. These were the kids every education policy hopes to target, and every thought leader has an opinion on how to improve.

Twice a week, the kids played the games for an hour and fifteen minutes. Every fifteen minutes the kids moved to a new table, to make sure their brains always had something new to figure out. (The neuroscientists thought it was important the sessions remained fun.)

After just eight weeks — twenty total hours of game playing — Bunge’s team retested the children’s intelligence. They were specifically interested in the kids’ reasoning ability. According to the classic theories of intelligence, reasoning ability is considered both the core element of intelligence and also the hardest to change. Allyson Mackey, Bunge’s graduate student who supervised the study, thought she might see gains of 3 to 6 points, at most.

“From adult training studies, we knew some improvement was possible,” said Bunge. “But it was enormous.”

The children’s reasoning scores, on average, leapt 32%. Translated to an IQ standard, that bumped them 13 points.

For comparison, consider that a 12 point gain is normally how much a child’s IQ goes up after an entire year of school. By giving the children precisely targeted games, Bunge and Mackey were able to beat that, in just 20 hours of game playing.

Reasoning ability was not the neuroscientists’ only target. Bunge’s team was also interested in another component of intelligence, called processing speed. So, at the same time, a second group of games was assembled, and a second group of kids spent their afternoons in that classroom. “Those games didn’t require memory or strategy, just very rapid visual recognition,” described Mackey. These included traditional card games like Spoons and Speed, the video game Brickbuster, the board game Blink, and Perfection, in which kids must push 25 plastic shapes into a springboard in under a minute.

After the eight weeks, these kids’ cognitive scores were tested as well. The kids who trained for speed saw their processing speed scores leap 27%; they began well-below average, but quickly reached a level far above-average. In football, a famous adage is “You can’t teach speed.” That doesn’t seem to be the case for the brain.

Each group’s improvements were domain-specific, so it was clear the games were the cause. The speed group saw only insignificant gains in reasoning ability. Those who trained on the reasoning games (and improved their reasoning) saw almost no speed benefit. Neither group saw improvement in working memory. This also suggests that cross-training is necessary for full-scale intelligence.

Between the Deaths of Winston Churchill and Princess Diana

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Peter Hitchens’ The Abolition of Britain is the history of the death of Britain between the deaths of Winston Churchill and Princess Diana — largely due to the occupation during the war:

The unspeakable truth was that by 1941 we were a defeated nation, whose conquerors had neglected to invade us. Impoverished, beaten in battle in Flanders and Malaya, condemned as it seemed to grey years of sacrifice with no certain end, we were invaded by our allies instead. [British traditions] simply could not compete with the vigorous, wealthy, well-fed, sheer success of the Americans.

The contrast between old Britain and new is a contrast between “feel bad” policies that worked — quite imperfectly — and “feel good” policies that do more harm than good:

The older cruelty, which took the ugly form of workhouses, shame and stigma, was hard to bear because it required active harshness from the state and from individuals. The new cruelty, which leaves hundreds of thousands of children without a proper family, is imposed through many acts of generosity by the state and by the taxpayers, and through the broad-minded tolerance of individuals and opinion-formers. It is therefore easier to bear in a society which has nationalized its conscience.

The rise in crime is quite shocking:

The Home Office had just revealed that 20,000 London homes had been broken into in 1964, compared with 5,500 in 1938. (The current total is something like 165,000 a year.)

Those snippets come from Foseti’s review.

The problem with bourgeois societies

Monday, January 25th, 2010

The problem with bourgeois societies, Robert Kaplan says, is a lack of imagination:

A person raised in a middle or upper-middle class suburban environment, a place ruled by rationalism in the service of material progress, has difficulty imagining the psychological state of affairs in a society where there is little or no memory of hard work achieving its just reward, and where life inside a gang or a drafty army barracks constitutes an improvement in material and emotional security. Even to encounter first-hand such a society — whose instincts have yet to be refined by several generations of middle class existence — is not enough in the way of an education, since the visitor tends to see it as a laboratory for his or her middle class ideals, and thus immediately begins to find “evidence” for “pragmatic” solutions.

For example, the belief among Clinton administration experts that Haiti — which, with the exception of a U.S. Marine occupation from 1915 to 1934, has not known a civil regime since before the French left in 1804 — could be made “democratic” by yet another, even less comprehensive occupation demonstrates how our elites just don’t get it.

Academics hate business

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Academics hate business, because they don’t recognize business skills at a high level — and they don’t recognize the lack of skill in themselves:

In any event, what I have noticed is that they lack a couple of key concepts — the first is that simple understanding of a concept does not mean that you can do it. While this is clear and obvious in the realm of sports and entertainment, it is not obvious in business. And that leads me to the other point.

Really successful business executives are rarely, if ever, one-trick ponies. They must not only be successful in whatever their entry level occupation is, otherwise they could never be promoted, but eventually, they must shed whatever self-styled profession they had and embrace ‘business”. In many cases, the person we promoted was not the “best” in their group, but probably in the top 5. What they had was an ability to not only learn a new skill, but to fully embrace it. Somewhere in middle management, you lose your origin. You begin to hear things like, I started out as an accountant, or I came up through sales. But to be really successful, you have to be able to become a generalist at a minimum, and still be able to master new skills, especially political ones. The others are somewhat obvious, they include finance, legal, HR, etc. You never have to be the best, but, at any one time, one of these areas becomes critical to successful outcome.

Failure at a high level comes in many cases when, under extreme pressure, the executive returns to his roots. In the bullfight, after the bull has been severely wounded, he will pick out a location of the ring and return to it, defend it, and die in it. Its called the carencia. I have seen many otherwise successful people fail because under extreme pressure they attempted to solve the problem by doing what made them initially successful. Cost reduction, layoffs, opening new stores or factories; when overwhelmed they return to what brought them success early on.

Not only are academics specialists, rather than generalists, but they don’t recognize performance skills, which differ from academic skills:

They don’t make that connection that they could be lousy sales guys, I mean, they read the book and went to sales training classes! And they refuse to believe that some guy with just a Bachelors degree from a third rate university could not only be their boss but actually be critical of them! But numbers don’t lie. These people don’t understand or accept that the sales director has certain highly developed skills and can probably operate under pressure far more effectively than they can. This is when performance differences usually emerge. And what is really frustrating, is that the skill that the sales director has, he developed because he was the social director of his fraternity, learned to win at drinking games and was actually able to pass his courses with a perpetual hangover. This is highly critical to his job performance and success.

The last point is that they don’t value experience and the judgment that comes with it. So, who would you follow into battle, the 30 year veteran or the smartest guy who just graduated from West Point? Where’s the test in that? I would say survival, but they prefer SAT scores.

This anecdote takes that sales-director bit one step further:

I’m sure you know who Lanny Davis is, he was one of the top white house lawyers in the Clinton admin. In any event, he was at Yale with Bush. He was one of the only ones on the left who warned everyone about Bush. He had seen him in action. Apparently Bush was the head cheerleader at Yale. According to Davis, he made the post more important than student council president. The story also goes that Bush was able to perform some very unusual feats of memory at his fraternity (ie, memorizing 40 some odd new recruits, name, home town, etc. after hearing them only once, and in order). While everyone on the left was saying how stupid he was, Davis was telling them he wasn’t. He had made a career out of having people underestimate him — and it apparently worked pretty well.

(Hat tip to David Foster.)

Platypus Babies

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Platypus babies are cute:

If you have the means

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Sometimes you want the maximum of a set of numbers, but you don’t want to deal with a discontinuous function — those sharp corners kill estimation algorithms — so you go with a soft maximum function, a continuous function — nice and smooth — that approximates the true max function.

John Cook recommends one based on natural logs:

softmax(x1, x2, …, xn) = log( exp(x1) + exp(x2) + … + exp(xn) )

I had something else in mind — from a totally different context — but no alarm bells went off until I read his example:

Suppose you have three numbers: –2, 3, 8. Obviously the maximum is 8. The soft maximum is 8.007.

Wait, his soft maximum is greater than the actual maximum? I had just assumed we’d want a function that gave us a value slightly less than the true maximum.

Of course, I had also assumed all non-negative numbers, which is why I had something like this in mind:

softmax(x1, x2, …, xn) = sqrt( (x12 + x22 + … + xn2)/n )

At the time, I was daydreaming about something between an arithmetic mean and a max function, and squaring the values before averaging them and then un-squaring that mean seemed simple enough.

It’s generalizable, of course. Raising each x to the third power and then taking the cube root gets us closer to the max — still not very close though — and works for negative numbers. As we move from third, to fifth, to seventh, to ninth power, we move closer and closer to the max: 5.61, then 6.43, then 6.84, then 7.08.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is what real mathematicians call a power mean or generalized mean. Now, I did recognize that it asymptotically approached the maximum function as the power went to infinity — and the minimum function as the power went to negative infinity — but I did not realize that it produced the harmonic mean at a power of –1 and the geometric mean as the power approached 0. (Naturally it produces the arithmetic mean at a power of 1, but that’s not especially interesting.)

What Writing and Reading Used to be Like

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

To dip into the Decline and Fall is to know what writing and reading used to be like, Robert Kaplan says:

Gibbon’s elliptical elegance is rare in an age when a surfeit of information, coupled with the distractions of electronic communication, forces writers to move briskly from one point to another.

Rare, too, in an age of tedious academic specialty are Gibbon’s sweeping yet valuable generalizations. When Gibbon describes everyday people in poor nations as exhibiting a “carelessness of futurity,” he exposes one tragic effect of underdevelopment in a way that many more-careful and polite tomes of today do not.

Our academic clerisy, I’m sure, could point out factual inadequacies, along with examples of cultural bias, throughout the Decline and Fall. Yet nothing on the shelves today will give readers as awe-inspiring a sense of spectacle as the Decline and Fall: of how onrushing events almost everywhere — Europe, Africa, the Near East, Asia — so seamlessly weave together. At a time of sound bites on one hand and 500-page yawns about a single issue on the other, here, blessedly, is something for the general reader.

(Is it ironic to cite that snippet in a blog post?)

Ayn Rand’s Disagreeable Niche

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Arnold Kling describes Ayn Rand’s niche:

  1. In terms of the psychological factor known as Agreeableness, I speculate that people who tend to lean libertarian tend to be low relative to the average person. We place relatively low value on going along to get along.
  2. Those of us who are low on Agreeableness really resent situations in which Agreeableness confers high status. When we think that guys are winning approval, status, and girls by expressing nice-sounding political opinions, we get ticked off.
  3. Rand makes a virtue out of being low on Agreeableness. This is almost unique in literature. Few other writers, if any, use their writing to express and advocate for low Agreeableness. Instead, most writers either are dispassionate or are strongly Agreeable. When people who are low on Agreeableness encounter Rand, they feel that they have found a rare soulmate.
  4. In my own life, I have had to work very hard to overcome my low Agreeableness. I can think of many situations in which I failed to do so, at some cost to my position on the career ladder. To this day, people with very high status trigger my disagreeableness in ways that I cannot really control (see my posts on Jonathan Gruber).
  5. I encountered Rand’s work relatively late in life. My reactions were mixed.
  6. One could argue that my own writing is aimed at the same niche. Perhaps it is all an elaborate justification for low agreeableness.

Vaulting toward the Mean

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Steve Sailer shares an anecdote about vaulting toward the mean:

When I was at Notre Dame High School, our archrival Crespi always killed us in pole vaulting during our annual track meet. In fact, Crespi vaulters set a whole bunch of different national age group and high school year records.That’s pretty amazing. Strangely enough, it becomes less amazing when you discover that all three star Crespi vaulters were named Curran. It turns out that the Curran brothers had a pole vault track and pit in their backyard, where their father, who had been a pole vaulter, trained them in advanced pole vaulting techniques.

Here’s a one minute video from a Super Eight home movie from around 1972 of seventh-grader Anthony Curran clearing 9 feet in his backyard. I had always imagined ever since I read in the 1970s about the Curran family pole vaulting practice ground that they were very rich and had a huge back yard with an Olympic Stadium type set-up, but the video shows it’s cramped, ramshackle, and the pit consists of old mattresses right in front of a brick wall. It looks like a good place to break your neck. I’m sure no modern upper middle class mom would put up with Dad and the boys building such a nightmare in the backyard, but Mrs. Curran can be seen waving happily in the home movie as her 13-year-old son hurtles toward his fate.

Not too surprisingly, the Curran Brothers were quite good pole vaulters in college (Anthony Curran, now the pole vault coach at UCLA, has an all-time personal best of 18′-8″), but they weren’t the record setters in their subsequent careers that they had been in high school. I don’t think any Curran’s ever made the U.S. Olympic team. Regression toward the mean set in as they got older and better natural athletes started to catch up to them in hours of lifetime training.

Say you were the college pole vault coach of the Curran Brothers and the athletic director said to you, “Tim Curran set a world age group record at 15, Anthony Curran sent national class year records in high school for sophomore, junior, and senior years. We recruited you the two most accomplished high school vaulters in the history of the top pole vaulting state in the Union. But under your coaching, they aren’t even winning college national championships. Why are you failing so badly with all this talent we gave you?”

The true answer is that because the Currans started training so much younger than their current competitors in college, they came closer to fulfilling 100% of their natural potential in high school than anybody else in California did. Now, the other kids are catching up and regression toward the mean is kicking in for the Currans. As high schoolers, the Currans had good nature and exceptional nurture to dominate an obscure sport. By college, they were running into competitors with even better nature, and the nurture gap was closing as all the top competitors got the same amount of coaching in college.

His real concern is measuring teacher effectiveness, but that’s not obvious unless you read the whole thing.