Leaving Afghanistan

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Getting troops out of Afghanistan is the easy part:

But after 11-plus years of war, the accumulated American hardware in Afghanistan amounts to more than 600,000 pieces of equipment valued at $28 billion. In that arsenal are systems that always present challenges to international shipping, including MRAP mine-resistant troop transports and Stryker infantry fighting vehicles, each built with tons of armor, and heavy tractor-trailers and tankers.

So far, the heavy vehicles have all been shipped out by air because Afghanistan is landlocked, it has a primitive road system and the Taliban remain strong in many parts of the country. But the real problem to withdrawing from Afghanistan is the same one that has helped make fighting there so difficult: the tenuous relationship with neighboring Pakistan, which offers the cheapest land route to the closest seaport but through border crossings that are unreliable.


“Afghanistan is not Iraq, and it’s harder,” said Lt. Gen. Raymond V. Mason, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for logistics. “No. 1, it’s landlocked. And we have no Kuwait. We have no ‘catcher’s mitt,’ no shock absorber. In Iraq, on the last day, you could still send stuff across the border into Kuwait, and absorb it there.”

A Savage Continent

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

For centuries Europe remained a savage continent:

By the time he dictated his memoirs in the early 1570s, the French commander Blaise de Monluc had spent a lifetime in battle, and he had the scars to prove it. His face was covered by a leather mask because of a bullet that had taken off his nose and shattered his cheekbones. In Italy, he had defended Siena in the siege of 1554 against the Florentines, and he went on to kill Huguenots by the cartload in the French Wars of Religion (1562-98). He became known as the king’s butcher, traveling everywhere with two hangmen. “One might see all thereabouts which way I had gone,” he wrote, “the Trees upon the High-ways wearing my Livery. One man hanged terrified more than a hundred that were killed.”


[In Furies: War in Europe, 1450-1700, Lauro Martines, a professor emeritus of history at UCLA,] describes the average army — consisting of 20,000 to 30,000 men plus an equal number of camp followers (women, cobblers, carpenters) — as an “ambulant city.” Slowed by its baggage and artillery trains, it could cover only a dozen miles a day and had to be constantly on the move to feed itself. These “mammoth search-and-eat engines” laid waste to whole regions of Europe. Though bristling with hardware, however, such armies were fragile, Mr. Martines notes, prone to epidemics. There is a rough correspondence between the main military movements of the age and the spread of plague.

Ragged, disease-ridden and hungry soldiers, unleashed on the civil population, spell catastrophe. But as the author is well aware, the risk with victims’ history is that it easily slips into dry sociology: Most of the dead are faceless and unknown. So he interlards his narrative with eyewitness accounts, such as the eminent mathematician Niccolò Tartaglia’s recollections from the 1512 sack of Brescia, in northern Italy. Tartaglia was only 12 years old when French soldiers attacked him in the city’s cathedral: “In my mother’s presence, I was dealt five very grave wounds, three on the head, in each of which you could see my brain, and two in the face, such that if my beard failed to hide them now, I would seem a monster.” Unable to afford a doctor, his mother “copied the example of dogs, which, when they are wounded, heal themselves by licking the wound clean with their tongues.”

From the French Wars of Religion, Jean de Lery, a Huguenot pastor, reports from the siege of Sancerre, a Protestant stronghold besieged by the Catholics in 1572-73. He includes a recipe for boiled drum skins, which are first soaked for 48 hours and then scraped with a knife and boiled till tender. You test their tenderness by “scratching at the skins with your fingers and seeing if they were glutinous.” Cut into small pieces, the whole affair is then seasoned with herbs and spices. The pastor goes on to record a case of cannibalism in stomach-churning detail. In the same desperate vein, the Spanish ambassador, during the 1590 siege of Paris, suggested that Parisians grind the bones from the Cemetery of the Innocents, mix them with water and pretend it was bread.

London in the 1980s

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

Michael Lewis introduces John Lanchester’s novel Capital with his own memories of London in the 1980s:

When I moved to London for graduate school back in the early 1980s, the city felt as if it existed for just about every purpose other than for people to make money in it. Everyone was either on the dole or on strike, or about to be — and not just working-class people. No one appeared, or wanted to appear, all that interested in what they did for a living, except for the taxi drivers, who were better than those in the US. In the middle of any work day an extraordinary number of grown-ups looked as if they had just gotten out of bed.

Nothing functioned properly; everything that wasn’t broken was about to fall apart. The food was almost deliberately inedible, an inside joke cooked up by the locals to see what human beings would willingly consume. (I had a friend from Manhattan who said that every time he passed a British sandwich shop “I want to go in and strangle the owner.”) And the most extraordinary anticommercial attitudes could be found, in places that existed for no purpose other than commerce. There was a small grocery store around the corner from my flat, which carried a rare enjoyable British foodstuff, McVities’ biscuits. One morning the biscuits were gone. “Oh, we used to sell those,” said the very sweet woman who ran the place, “but we kept running out, so we don’t bother anymore.”

If you had to pick a city on earth where the American investment banker did not belong, London would have been on any shortlist. In London, circa 1980, the American investment banker had going against him not just widespread commercial lassitude but the locals’ near-constant state of irony. Wherever it traveled, American high finance required an irony-free zone, in which otherwise intelligent people might take seriously inherently absurd events: young people with no experience in finance being paid fortunes to give financial advice, bankers who had never run a business orchestrating takeovers of entire industries, and so on. It was hard to see how the English, with their instinct to not take anything very seriously, could make possible such a space.

Yet they did. And a brand-new social type was born: the highly educated middle-class Brit who was more crassly American than any American. In the early years this new hybrid was so obviously not an indigenous species that he had a certain charm about him, like, say, kudzu in the American South at the end of the nineteenth century, or a pet Burmese python near the Florida Everglades at the end of the twentieth. But then he completely overran the place. Within a decade half the graduates of Oxford and Cambridge were trying to forget whatever they’d been taught about how to live their lives and were remaking themselves in the image of Wall Street. Monty Python was able to survive many things, but Goldman Sachs wasn’t one of them.

The introduction into British life of American ideas of finance, and success, may seem trivial alongside everything else that was happening in Great Britain at the time (Mrs. Thatcher, globalization, the growing weariness with things not working properly, an actually useful collapse of antimarket snobbery), but I don’t think it was. The new American way of financial life arrived in England and created a new set of assumptions and expectations for British elites — who, as it turned out, were dying to get their hands on a new set of assumptions and expectations. The British situation was more dramatic than the American one, because the difference between what you could make on Wall Street versus doing something useful in America, great though it was, was still a lot less than the difference between what you could make for yourself in the City of London versus doing something useful in Great Britain.

In neither place were the windfall gains to the people in finance widely understood for what they were: the upside to big risk-taking, the costs of which would be socialized, if they ever went wrong. For a long time they looked simply like fair compensation for being clever and working hard. But that’s not what they really were; and the net effect of Wall Street’s arrival in London, combined with the other things that were going on, was to get rid of the dole for the poor and replace it with a far more generous, and far more subtle, dole for the rich. The magic of the scheme was that various forms of financial manipulation appeared to the manipulators, and even to the wider public, as a form of achievement. All these kids from Oxford and Cambridge who flooded into Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs weren’t just handed huge piles of money. They were handed new identities: the winners of this new marketplace. They still lived in England but, because of the magnitude of their success, they were now detached from it.

The Long Peace

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

During the so-called Great Moderation, markets moved toward fewer but deeper departures from the mean, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says.

Great Moderation

Now, to Taleb’s horror, Steven Pinker sees an analogous Long Peace:

The fact that nuclear bombs explode less often that regular shells does not make them safer.

Pinker conflates nonscalable Mediocristan (death from encounters with simple weapons) with scalable Extremistan (death from heavy shells and nuclear weapons). The two have markedly distinct statistical properties. Yet he uses statistics of one to make inferences about the other. And the book does not realize the core difference between scalable/nonscalable (although he tried to define powerlaws). He claims that crime has dropped, which does not mean anything concerning casualties from violent conflict.

Another way to see the conflation, Pinker works with a times series process without dealing with the notion of temporal homogeneity. Ancestral man had no nuclear weapons, so it is downright foolish to assume the statistics of conflicts in the 14th century can apply to the 21st. A mean person with a stick is categorically different from a mean person with a nuclear weapon, so the emphasis should be on the weapon and not exclusively on the psychological makup of the person.

Had a book proclaiming The Long Peace been published in 1913 it would carry similar arguments to those in Pinker’s book.

The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden

Monday, February 18th, 2013

The man who killed Osama bin Laden tells Phil Bronstein of Esquire what would have happened if they had been surrounded by Pakistani troops:

We would surrender. The original plan was to have Vice-President Biden fly to Islamabad and negotiate our release with Pakistan’s president.

This is hearsay, but I understand Obama said, Hell no. My guys are not surrendering. What do we need to rain hell on the Pakistani military? That was the one time in my life I was thinking, I am fucking voting for this guy. I had a picture of him lying in bed at night, thinking, You’re not fucking with my guys. Like, he’s thinking about us.

We got word that we’d be scrambling jets on the border to back us up.

At Jalalabad, a CIA analyst asked the Shooter why he was so calm:

told her, We do this every night. We go to a house, we fuck with some people, and we leave. This is just a longer flight. She looked at me and said, “One hundred percent he’s on the third floor. So get to there if you can.” She was probably 90 percent sure, and her emotion pushed that to 100.

The success of the surge depended on such work:

“We would go kill high-value targets every night,” the Shooter tells me. He and other ST6 members who would later be on the Abbottabad trip lived in rough huts with mud floors and cots. “But we were completely disrupting Al Qaeda and other Iraqi networks. If we only killed five or six guys a night, we were wasting our time. We knew this was the greatest moment of our operational lives.”

From Al Asad to Ramadi to Baghdad to Baquba — Al Qaeda central at the time — the SEALs had latitude to go after “everyone we thought we had to kill. That’s really a major reason the surge was going so well, because terrorists were dying strategically.”

During one raid, accompanied by two dogs, the Shooter says that he and his team wiped out “an entire spiderweb network.” Villagers told Iraqi newspapers the next day that “Ninjas came with lions.”

It is important to him to stress that no women or children were killed in that raid. He also insists that when it came to interrogation, repetitive questioning and leveraging fear was as aggressive as he’d go. “When we first started the war in Iraq, we were using Metallica music to soften people up before we interrogated them,” the Shooter says. “Metallica got wind of this and they said, ‘Hey, please don’t use our music because we don’t want to promote violence.’ I thought, Dude, you have an album called Kill ‘Em All.

“But we stopped using their music, and then a band called Demon Hunter got in touch and said, ‘We’re all about promoting what you do.’ They sent us CDs and patches. I wore my Demon Hunter patch on every mission. I wore it when I blasted bin Laden.”

On deployment in Afghanistan or Iraq, they would “eat, work out, play Xbox, study languages, do schoolwork.” And watch the biker series Sons of Anarchy, Entourage, and three or four seasons of The Shield.

East Asian EDAR

Monday, February 18th, 2013

Several distinctive East Asian traits — thicker hair shafts, more sweat glands, characteristically identified teeth and smaller breasts — can be traced back to a mutation in the EDAR gene that occurred about 35,000 years ago:

The Broad team engineered a strain of mice whose EDAR gene had the same DNA change as the East Asian version of EDAR.

When the mice grew up, the researchers found they did indeed have thicker hair shafts, confirming that the changed gene was the cause of East Asians’ thicker hair. But the gene had several other effects, they report in Thursday’s issue of the journal Cell.

One was that the mice, to the researchers’ surprise, had extra sweat glands. A Chinese member of the team, Sijia Wang, then tested people in China and discovered that they, too, had more numerous sweat glands, evidently another effect of the gene.

Another surprise was that the engineered mice had less breast tissue, meaning that EDAR could be the reason that East Asian women have generally smaller breasts.

East Asians have distinctively shaped teeth for which their version of EDAR is probably responsible. But the mice were less helpful on this point; their teeth are so different from humans’ that the researchers could not see any specific change.

The finding that the gene has so many effects raises the question of which one was the dominant trigger for natural selection.

Dr. Sabeti said the extra sweat glands could have been the feature favored by natural selection, with all the other effects being dragged along in its train.

The Real Cuban Missile Crisis

Monday, February 18th, 2013

Since 1997, scholars have had access to the recordings that Kennedy secretly made of meetings with his top advisers, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (the “ExComm”), and so they know that the popular story of the Cuban Missile Crisis is misleading in many, many ways:

Reached through sober analysis, Stern’s conclusion that “John F. Kennedy and his administration, without question, bore a substantial share of the responsibility for the onset of the Cuban missile crisis” would have shocked the American people in 1962, for the simple reason that Kennedy’s administration had misled them about the military imbalance between the superpowers and had concealed its campaign of threats, assassination plots, and sabotage designed to overthrow the government in Cuba — an effort well known to Soviet and Cuban officials.

In the 1960 presidential election, Kennedy had cynically attacked Richard Nixon from the right, claiming that the Eisenhower-Nixon administration had allowed a dangerous “missile gap” to grow in the U.S.S.R.’s favor. But in fact, just as Eisenhower and Nixon had suggested — and just as the classified briefings that Kennedy received as a presidential candidate indicated — the missile gap, and the nuclear balance generally, was overwhelmingly to America’s advantage.


This included deploying, beginning in 1961, intermediate-range “Jupiter” nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey — adjacent to the Soviet Union. From there, the missiles could reach all of the western U.S.S.R., including Moscow and Leningrad (and that doesn’t count the nuclear-armed “Thor” missiles that the U.S. already had aimed at the Soviet Union from bases in Britain).

The Jupiter missiles were an exceptionally vexing component of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Because they sat above ground, were immobile, and required a long time to prepare for launch, they were extremely vulnerable. Of no value as a deterrent, they appeared to be weapons meant for a disarming first strike — and thus greatly undermined deterrence, because they encouraged a preemptive Soviet strike against them.

A commenter summarizes Red Heat, by Alex Von Tunzelmann, which gives its own account of how the crisis played out:

In Tunzelmann’s version, Kennedy was only a peripheral player, not the central character that the Atlantic article describes.

After the Bay of Pigs, Bobby Kennedy advocated for a full invasion of Cuba. Khrushchev committed to defend Cuba, against his advisors’ counsel. (How Cuba become a Soviet ally is an even more surprising story in Von Tunzelmann’s book.) The only way the Soviets could defend an island 90 miles off Florida was to put in nuclear missiles. Hundreds of missiles were installed, with a explosive power of 6,000 Hiroshimas, without the U.S. discovering their presence. The Atlantic’s assertion of “the effectiveness of America’s aerial and satellite reconnaissance” is nonsense.

The missiles were under the control of two thousand Soviet personnel. The Soviets enjoyed Cuba — tropical beaches, sexy women, plenty of rum — and they became fast friends with the Cuban military officers. And they were enamored of Fidel, who was far more charismatic than Khrushchev. Khrushchev began to realize that Fidel could likely talk the Soviet officers into giving him control of the missiles. And if not, the 2,000 Soviets were surrounded by 200,000 Cuban soldiers.

Then American U-2 flights brought back photos of missile sites under construction. Kennedy said that he would order bombing if missiles were installed, or if a U-2 were shot down. If the missile sites were bombed, Fidel might launch the missiles at the United States in retaliation, or to prevent an invasion.


Meanwhile, a U-2 flew over Cuba for more than two hours. It flew over the completed missile sites for the first time. Fidel realized that if he did nothing, the Americans would soon realize that Soviet missiles were installed and ready to launch. This would certainly cause Kennedy to order bombing. Fidel waited as long as he could, and then when the U-2 turned to return to the United States he ordered it shot down.

A few hours later Khrushchev received Fidel’s letter. He tried to make heads or tails of it — then came to the erroneous conclusion that Fidel was saying that he wanted to launch a first strike. Khrushchev realized that putting missiles in Cuba had been a huge mistake. He called Kennedy and said that he had ordered the removal of all missiles. The call came while Kennedy was in a meeting with the CIA, being told that a U-2 had failed to return and may have been shot down.

Thus the Cuban Missile Crisis ended. In this version of events, Kennedy plays almost no part, just as in American versions (including the Atlantic’s version) Fidel plays no role.

The history of inequality

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Peter Turchin (Secular Cycles) presents a history of inequality:

From 1800 to the 1920s, inequality increased more than a hundredfold. Then came the reversal: from the 1920s to 1980, it shrank back to levels not seen since the mid-19th century. Over that time, the top fortunes hardly grew (from one to two billion dollars; a decline in real terms). Yet the wealth of a typical family increased by a multiple of 40. From 1980 to the present, the wealth gap has been on another steep, if erratic, rise. Commentators have called the period from 1920s to 1970s the ‘great compression’. The past 30 years are known as the ‘great divergence’. Bring the 19th century into the picture, however, and one sees not isolated movements so much as a rhythm. In other words, when looked at over a long period, the development of wealth inequality in the US appears to be cyclical. And if it’s cyclical, we can predict what happens next.


First, we need to think about jobs. Unless other forces intervene, an overabundance of labour will tend to drive down its price, which naturally means that workers and their families have less to live on. One of the most important forces affecting the labour supply in the US has been immigration, and it turns out that immigration, as measured by the proportion of the population who were born abroad, has changed in a cyclical manner just like inequality. In fact, the periods of high immigration coincided with the periods of stagnating wages. The Great Compression, meanwhile, unfolded under a low-immigration regime. This tallies with work by the Harvard economist George Borjas, who argues that immigration plays an important role in depressing wages, especially for those unskilled workers who compete most directly with new arrivals.


This connection between the oversupply of labour and plummeting living standards for the poor is one of the more robust generalisations in history. Consider the case of medieval England. The population of England doubled between 1150 and 1300. There was little possibility of overseas emigration, so the ‘surplus’ peasants flocked to the cities, causing the population of London to balloon from 20,000 to 80,000. Too many hungry mouths and too many idle hands resulted in a fourfold increase in food prices and a halving of real wages. Then, when a series of horrible epidemics, starting with the Black Death of 1348, carried away more than half of the population, the same dynamic ran in reverse. The catastrophe, paradoxically, introduced a Golden Age for common people. Real wages tripled and living standards went up, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Common people relied less on bread, gorging themselves instead on meat, fish, and dairy products.

Much the same pattern can be seen during the secular cycle of the Roman Principate. The population of the Roman Empire grew rapidly during the first two centuries up to 165AD. Then came a series of deadly epidemics, known as the Antonine Plague. In Roman Egypt, for which we have contemporary data thanks to preserved papyri, real wages first fell (when the population increased) and then regained ground (when the population collapsed). We also know that many grain fields were converted to orchards and vineyards following the plagues. The implication is that the standard of life for common people improved — they ate less bread, more fruit, and drank wine. The gap between common people and the elites shrank.

Naturally, the conditions affecting the labour supply were different in the second half of the 20th century in the US. An important new element was globalisation, which allows corporations to move jobs to poorer countries (with that ‘giant sucking sound’, as Ross Perot put it during his 1992 presidential campaign). But none of this alters the fact that an oversupply of labour tends to depress wages for the poorer section of the population. And just as in Roman Egypt, the poor in the US today eat more energy-dense foods — bread, pasta, and potatoes — while the wealthy eat more fruit and drink wine.


Too many elites relative to the general population (a condition I call ‘elite overproduction’) leads to ever-stiffer rivalry in the upper echelons. And then you get trouble.

In the US, there is famously a close connection between wealth and power. Many well-off individuals — typically not the founders of great fortunes but their children and grandchildren — choose to enter politics (Mitt Romney is a convenient example, though the Kennedy clan also comes to mind). Yet the number of political offices is fixed: there are only so many senators and representatives at the federal and state levels, and only one US president. As the ranks of the wealthy swell, so too do the numbers of wealthy aspirants for the finite supply of political positions.

When watching political battles in today’s Senate, it is hard not to think about their parallels in Republican Rome. The population of Italy roughly doubled during the second century BC, while the number of aristocrats increased even more. Again, the supply of political offices was fixed — there were 300 places in the senate and membership was for life. By the end of the century, competition for influence had turned ugly. During the Gracchan period (139—110BC), political feuding led to the slaughter of the tribunes Tiberius and Gaius on the streets of Rome. During the next century, intra-elite conflict spilt out of Rome into Italy and then into the broader Mediterranean. The civil wars of the first century BC, fuelled by a surplus of politically ambitious aristocrats, ultimately caused the fall of the Republic and the establishment of the Empire.

Beside sheer numbers, there is a further, subtler factor that aggravates internal class rivalry. So far I have been talking about the elites as if they are all the same. But they aren’t: the differences within the wealthiest one per cent are almost as stark as the difference between the top one per cent and the remaining 99. The millionaires want to reach the level of decamillionaires, who strive to match the centimillionaires, who are trying to keep up with billionaires. The result is very intense status rivalry, expressed through conspicuous consumption. Towards the end of the Republic, Roman aristocrats competed by exhibiting works of art and massive silver decorations in their homes. They threw extravagant banquets with peacocks from Samos, oysters from Lake Lucrino and snails from Africa, all imported at great expense. Archaeology confirms a genuine and dramatic shift towards luxury.

Intra-elite competition also seems to affect the social mood. Norms of competition and extreme individualism become prevalent and norms of co-operation and collective action recede.

You should read the whole thing.

Socratic Practice

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Michael Strong began his experience as an educator training teachers in Socratic Seminars in Chicago Public Schools for Mortimer Adler’s Paideia Project in the late 1980s:

Paideia was a public school reform movement that aspired to give poor children as high quality an education as more fortunate children had. The slogan was Robert M. Hutchins’ “the best education for the best is the best education for all.” Socratic Seminars — text-based open-ended discussions — were a deliberate attempt to integrate higher-level thinking skills as well as meaning and purpose into public school curricula where they had been lacking.

From roughly 1988 to 1996 I spent much of my time training thousands of public school teachers to lead Socratic Seminars. Despite the opportunity to continue working as a public school consultant making $2,000+ per day, I became depressed over the outcomes. While a few teachers were capable of leading rigorous Socratic discussions, most were not. I realized that I could not ensure high quality intellectual development among students by means of providing brief in-service trainings of teachers at public schools.

Sadly, even with more in-depth training most existing teachers cannot be trained properly: Another Socratic Seminar teacher trainer was named the administrator for a $10 million grant to Timken High School in the 1990s, at the time the largest single philanthropic gift to a public school. Although the terms of the grant stipulated that it could only be spent on educational improvements, and not bricks and mortar, this man quit well before he had finished spending the money. He realized that the teachers, many of whom were hard-working and conscientious, had never experienced intellectual inquiry themselves. With no power to hire, fire, or promote staff, he realized that no amount of spending on teacher training would result in the necessary improvements.

Meanwhile programs that I supervised personally were successful. In an inner-city Anchorage public school I created a program in which minority female students gained as much on the Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal in four months of Socratic Practice as the average American student gains in four years of high school. Later at a private Montessori school in Palo Alto, I created a middle school program in which students averaged 100 point annual gains on the SAT vs. 15-30 point annual gains for the average American high school student.

I received supportive letters from leading educational experts, including Project Zero founders Howard Gardner and David Perkins, MacArthur “Genius” Award winning educator Deborah Meier, 1994 National Teacher of the Year Elaine Perkins, brain-based learning experts Renate Numella and Geoffrey Caine, authentic assessment expert Grant Wiggins, and others.

One of the differences between the highly successful projects that I oversaw personally and the inconsistent outcomes in most public school implementations was due to the transition from “Socratic Seminars” to “Socratic Practice.” “Socratic Seminars” were weekly events in which teachers led a discussion. By contrast, “Socratic Practice” was the daily practice of the prerequisites to intellectual dialogue: Close textual analysis, group dynamics, and the habit of taking ideas seriously (a trait that defines “intellectual” but which is only irregularly encountered in K-12 student populations).

In collaboration with colleagues in Alaska, I had discovered that children without educated parents often lacked the social, emotional, and intellectual skills needed to engage in classroom intellectual dialogue. This creation of a learning culture rather than merely a classroom activity inspired my book, The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice. It is misleading to describe the issue as one of skill development: The process of holding students accountable for their own moral beliefs and, even more importantly, getting students to hold each other accountable for acting in integrity with their beliefs, goes well beyond “skill.” The goal is to transform culture by means of instilling a new set of interpersonal norms.

While it may sound unexpected that such a focus on interpersonal norms could result in improved academic performance, it is worth considering the extent to which much of secondary school in the U.S. resembles Beavis and Butthead. At the most banal level, subcultures that watch less television tend to perform more highly than do those that watch more television. Consider that on an international comparison of test scores (PISA), the U.S. ranks 20th among OECD nations. But the average score of students from U.S. homes with only one television set would rank us third in the world. Almost 80% of American children live in homes with three or more television sets, and scores from children in those homes are almost 40 points lower than are those from children from one television homes — a score difference that is roughly the same magnitude as the difference in scores between 20th-ranked U.S. and top-ranked Finland (see Table 2 here). Simply creating a school in the U.S. at which students take learning seriously can result in significant improvements.

In 2002, after several years creating private schools, I had the opportunity to create a charter school based on Socratic Practice in northern New Mexico. The students there had never taken an Advanced Placement course; indeed, a representative of University of New Mexico-Taos told me point-blank that northern New Mexico students were incapable of passing an AP exam.

Through daily Socratic Practice by the second year of operation our school ranked 143rd best public high school in the U.S. on Newsweek’s Challenge Index. Our third year we ranked 36th, with a pass rate (score of “3” or higher) on AP exams that was more than double that of the national average. The schools more highly ranked were either magnet schools or in elite suburbs.

The statewide AP coordinator of New Mexico hired my faculty and me to train teachers from across the state. Parents moved to our area to enroll their children in our school at Moreno Valley High School.

Nonetheless, I was forced out of the school because I had never obtained an administrator’s license. When NM charter school legislation had originally been signed by Governor Gary Johnson, no such license had been required. But after I founded the school Governor Bill Richardson signed new legislation requiring all charter school principals to be licensed. In order to enter an administrative licensure program in New Mexico, I would have needed to have had seven years’ experience as a licensed teacher. Despite my fifteen years in K-12 education, I had never been a licensed teacher. Appeals to the State Board of Education fell on deaf ears.

Republic and Empire

Saturday, February 16th, 2013

The history of the world has been the struggle of republic and empire, Jerry Pournelle says:

Each has its champions.

It used to be fashionable to say “the Republic of the United States,” and our Pledge of Allegiance preserves that language. The name of republic holds magic no less than does the name of empire.

Some of that magic has been lost. In this enlightened time, we are all officially in favor of democracy, and we are pleased to call this the era of democracy. We are taught not only that all democracies are good, but that the worth of a government depends on how democratic it is. The notion that a government can be “good” but not democratic will strike many as bizarre.

It has not always been thus. If we believe, with Thomas Jefferson, that the purpose of government is to assure the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we might do well to recall what Acton said in tracing the history of freedom in Athens:

Two men’s lives span the interval from the first admission of popular influence, under Solon, to the downfall of the State. Their history furnishes the classic example of the peril of democracy under conditions singularly favorable. For the Athenians were not only brave and patriotic and capable of generous sacrifice, but they were the most religious of the Greeks. They venerated the Constitution which had given them prosperity, and equality, and freedom, and never questioned the fundamental laws which regulated the enormous power of the Assembly. They tolerated considerable variety of opinion and great license of speech; and their humanity towards their slaves roused the indignation even of the most intelligent partisan of aristocracy. Thus they became the only people of antiquity that grew great by democratic institutions. But the possession of unlimited power, which corrodes the conscience, hardens the heart, and confounds the understanding of monarchs, exercised its demoralizing influence on the illustrious democracy of Athens. It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist. But from the absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no redemption, no refuge but treason. The humblest and most numerous class of the Athenians united the legislative, the judicial, and, in part, the executive power. The philosophy that was then in the ascendant taught them that there is no law superior to that of the State—the lawgiver is above the law.

It followed that the sovereign people had a right to do whatever was within its power, and was bound by no rule of right or wrong but its own judgment of expediency. On a memorable occasion the assembled Athenians declared it monstrous that they should be prevented from doing whatever they chose. No force that existed could restrain them, and they resolved that no duty should restrain them, and that they would be bound by no laws that were not of their own making. In this way the emancipated people of Athens became a tyrant, and their government, the pioneer of European freedom, stands condemned with a terrible unanimity by all the wisest of the ancients.

They ruined their city by attempting to conduct war by debate in the marketplace. Like the French Republic, they put their unsuccessful commanders to death. They treated their dependencies with such injustice that they lost their maritime Empire. They plundered the rich until the rich conspired with the public enemy, and they crowned their guilt by the martyrdom of Socrates.

The repentance of the Athenians came too late to save the Republic. But the lesson of their experience endures for all time, for it teaches that government by the whole people, being the government of the most numerous and most powerful class, is an evil of the same nature as unmixed monarchy, and requires, for nearly the same reasons, institutions that shall protect it against itself, and shall uphold the permanent reign of law against arbitrary revolutions of opinion.

— John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton
“The History of Freedom in Antiquity”

Classical writers spent much time analyzing the forms of government. Machiavelli put it better than most:

I must at the beginning observe that some of the writers on politics distinguished three kinds of government, viz., the monarchical, the aristocratic, and the democratic; and maintain that the legislators of a people must choose from these three the one that seems most suitable. Other authors, wiser according to the opinion of many, count six kinds of government, three of which are very bad, and three good in themselves, but so liable to be corrupted that they become absolutely bad. The three good ones are those we just named; the three bad ones result from the degradation of the other three, and each of them resembles its corresponding original, so that the transition from the one to the other is very easy.

Thus monarchy becomes tyranny; aristocracy degenerates into oligarchy; and the popular government lapses readily into licentiousness. So that a legislator who gives to a state which he founds, either of these three forms of government, constitutes it but for a brief time; for no precautions can prevent either one of the three that are reputed good, from degenerating into its opposite kind; so great are in these attractions and resemblances between the good and the evil.

— Niccolo Machiavelli, The Discourses

This view of government was held universally among writers on history and politics from Aristotle to very nearly the present day.


To [the ancients], human history was no more than the endlessly sad tale of the cycle from tyranny to aristocracy, aristocracy to oligarchy, oligarchy to democracy, and democracy to a chaos ended only by the imposition of an emperor, whose successor will be a tyrant; and on, per omnia secula seculorem.

However, there might be a remedy to the tragedy of the cycles. Cicero puts it this way:

When there is a king, everybody except the king has too few rights, and too small a share in what is decided; whereas under an oligarchy, freedom scarcely extends to the populace, since they are not consulted and are excluded from power. When, on the other hand, there is thoroughgoing democracy, however fairly and moderately it is conducted, its egalitarianism is unfair since it does not make it possible for one man to rise above another.

I am speaking about these three forms of government—monarchy, oligarchy, democracy—when they retain their specific character, not when they are merged and confused with one another. In addition to their liability to the flaws I have just mentioned, each of them suffers from further ruinous defects. For in front of every one of these constitutional forms stands a headlong slippery path to another and more evil one. Thus beneath the endurable, or if you like, lovable Cyrus—to take him as an example—lurks the cruel tyrant Phalaris, influencing him towards the arbitrary transformation of his own nature: for any autocracy readily and easily changes into that sort of tyranny. Then the government of Marseille, conducted by a few leading men, is very close to that clique of the Thirty which once tyrannized Athens. And as for the Athenian democracy, its absolute power turned into rule by the masses; that is to say, into manic irresponsibility.

You may well ask which of them I like best, for I do not approve of any of them when it is by itself and unmodified: my own preference is for a form of government which is a combination of all three.

— Cicero, “Dialogues on Government”

Cicero believed that the Roman Republic had achieved that mixed form; that the Roman constitution was as near perfection as mankind could achieve. Yet even as he wrote, the Republic was falling, and Cicero was eventually murdered by agents of Octavius Caesar, later called Augustus. A single lifetime was sufficient to witness the glory of the Republic extinguished in civil war; the dictatorship of Julius Caesar; and the monarchy of Augustus.

Read the whole thing.

Meteorite Crash in Russia

Friday, February 15th, 2013

The imagery of a meteor streaking across the Russian sky is indeed striking:

As Ingrid Lunden of TechCrunch points out, much of the video has been shot by ordinary people — specifically with dashboard cameras:

The dash cam has become a familiar presence in Russia. It’s grown in popularity as a way for drivers to help protect themselves in cases where they have car accidents, or have been pulled over by corrupt police and demanded to pay “fines” for alleged illegal driving, by recording what it is that actually happened.

A larger meteorite could leave (some of) us the problem of bootstrapping society.


Friday, February 15th, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty features a CIA operative treating a detainee to a sumptuous dinner for sharing information that has saved American lives:

The thing is, the detainee doesn’t remember telling his captors anything. But weak in mind and body, after several sleepless days and nights of torture, he accepts what Maya says as the truth.

We call that gaslighting:

The term itself was popularized by the 1944 film Gaslight, an adaptation of the 1939 play Angel Street. In the film, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, “Gregory,” played by Boyer, maintains that a gaslight his wife “Paula” (Bergman) sees growing dim then brightening is in fact steady. This small deception is followed by countless others. Paula initially protests her husband’s accusations about her “forgetfulness,” but in time she questions her every action and memory. In reality, her husband Gregory is plotting to have her committed to an asylum so that he can take her inheritance.


Chinese Eugenics

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

I suppose Edge lived up to its name by publishing Geoffrey Miller’s answer to their annual question: What should we be worried about?

Chinese biopower has ancient roots in the concept of “yousheng” (“good birth” — which has the same literal meaning as “eugenics”). For a thousand years, China has been ruled by a cognitive meritocracy selected through the highly competitive imperial exams. The brightest young men became the scholar-officials who ruled the masses, amassed wealth, attracted multiple wives, and had more children. The current “gaokao” exams for university admission, taken by more than 10 million young Chinese per year, are just the updated version of these imperial exams — the route to educational, occupation, financial, and marital success. With the relaxation of the one-child policy, wealthier couples can now pay a “social fostering fee” (shehui fuyangfei) to have an extra child, restoring China’s traditional link between intelligence, education, wealth, and reproductive success.

Chinese eugenics will quickly become even more effective, given its massive investment in genomic research on human mental and physical traits. BGI-Shenzhen employs more than 4,000 researchers. It has far more “next-generation” DNA sequencers that anywhere else in the world, and is sequencing more than 50,000 genomes per year. It recently acquired the California firm Complete Genomics to become a major rival to Illumina.

The BGI Cognitive Genomics Project is currently doing whole-genome sequencing of 1,000 very-high-IQ people around the world, hunting for sets of sets of IQ-predicting alleles. I know because I recently contributed my DNA to the project, not fully understanding the implications. These IQ gene-sets will be found eventually — but will probably be used mostly in China, for China. Potentially, the results would allow all Chinese couples to maximize the intelligence of their offspring by selecting among their own fertilized eggs for the one or two that include the highest likelihood of the highest intelligence. Given the Mendelian genetic lottery, the kids produced by any one couple typically differ by 5 to 15 IQ points. So this method of “preimplantation embryo selection” might allow IQ within every Chinese family to increase by 5 to 15 IQ points per generation. After a couple of generations, it would be game over for Western global competitiveness.

The Vandals are within the gates

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

The Vandals are within the gates, Fred Reed warns — but they are all texting each other:

Why are things that once were the common property of the cultivated now regarded as fossils predating the trilobites? One reason I think is the weakening of the barriers of class. The educated cannot maintain standards of excellence when constantly bathed by television in mangled grammar and illiterate usage.

Then there is a variant of Gresham’s Law that says bad culture drives out good. Stated more carefully, in the absence of barriers of class the values of the drains of society tend to become universal. Thus we have rap music, if such it is, hanging pants encompassing louts, piercings, and functional illiteracy. In a sentence, the vulgar have discovered that it is easier to reject higher standards than to meet them. By sheer numbers they prevail.

The death of good language is part of the larger death of all culture, springing from the same causes: the domination of society by the mob. Note the decline in the sales of books, particularly books of history, the sciences, and literature: the rapid growth in genuine illiteracy, the disappearance of symphony orchestras. We have no poets, a nation of over three hundred million being far inferior to tiny, muddy London in the Seventeenth Century. Classical music is seldom played and never written. Architecture means K Street boxes; sculpture, curious confabulations made to be sold to bureaucrats in the Parks Department.

Little hope exists of a reversal any time soon, if ever. In 1850 those deficient in schooling knew their deficiencies, and wanted to learn. Today there is an actual preference for ignorance, which is regarded as authentic or democratic and morally superior to knowing anything, which would be elitist. In politics we see a vengeful delight that control of society passes to non-European minorities without interest in any culture but that of the streets. “He is street smart,” or sometimes just “He street smart” conveys approbation that once would have been expressed by “He is a man of taste and discrimination.” Once learning or even the desire for it has been lost, they do not readily return.

If You Want to Stop Gun Violence, Start With Bullets

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

Wired‘s Danger Room has published an embarrassingly bad infographic and accompanying article in which Joanna Pearlstein tries to argue that if you want to stop gun violence, you need to start with bullets:

Guns don’t kill people; people don’t kill people; bullets kill people. As the nation debates, again, the best way to curb gun violence, many of the questions focus on the firearms themselves. But an equally important consideration is ammunition. Roughly 10 billion rounds are manufactured in the US each year, with a weight equal to two Titanics. More to the point, it’s enough bullets to pump 32 rounds into every man, woman, and child in America.

Actually, people do kill people, all the time, often without guns or bullets. When they do use guns to shoot bullets, it only takes a few rounds to commit a massacre. Bullets are not the bottleneck there.

On the other hand, it takes thousands of rounds to become a competent shooter. In fact, competitive shooters can go through tens of thousands of rounds per year. Competitive shooters kill no one.

If You Want to Stop Gun Violence, Start With Bullets