Lars Andersen Responds

Friday, April 17th, 2015

Lars Andersen returns with some answers to questions about his archery:

The Spiritual Core of The Lord of the Rings

Friday, April 17th, 2015

J.R.R. Tolkien may have been a devout Catholic, but there is no religion in The Lord of the Rings:

There is quite obviously no organized religion in the sense of doctrinal beliefs, separate castes of priests, even places of worship. Nor do the characters ever mention a god or gods, resort to prayer, or even swear oaths and make imprecations that invoke the names of deities. And although there are gods in the creation myths of The Silmarillion, who are therefore presumably lurking somewhere in the cosmic background of the story in Lord of the Rings, they play no active or recognized role in the latter story, while even in the creation myths of The Silmarillion their relationship to the Chil-dren of Ilúvatar is somewhat distant, especially from men, and grows more so over time. Indeed, the god most involved in the affairs of the Children, Melkor/Morgoth, has by the beginning of the Lord of the Rings long since been vanquished, and the focus of the dark powers is his lieutenant Sauron, who although powerful, is never attributed with divinity of any sort.

Imagine seeing Tolkien’s work through another lens:

It would be relatively easy, as a hypothetical counter-example, to construct a Buddhist reading of the Lord of the Rings. One would not even need to note the interesting coincidence that the paradise of a dominant sect of Mahayana Buddhism, the Pure Land sect, is conceived of as being a land in the far west, like the mostly inaccessible lands west of the Grey Havens. A more Zen reading could focus on the transitory nature of all things (including the Third Age) as an explanation for the moments of what might well be called Enlightenment that many of the characters ?nd in small, everyday moments, as well as for the sorrow they feel at the departure of friends and Ages, a clear sign of attachment to the impermanent and therefore illusory things of the world. The problem here is that the sorrow is presented not as a problem but as a core feature of the world, so this reading, like Christian readings, works only at a level of abstraction high enough to elide the crucial details, that is, at a level of ideas common to many religions.

Middle-earth is not a created medieval world so much as a world created by a medievalist:

The difference is that for a medievalist,the world he studies—and is fascinated by, and may come to love — is gone, whereas for medieval people their world was inescapably present. For the medievalist, the important world is a past age, the evidence for whose existence is fragmentary, incomplete, degraded, and often lost. For medieval people, the evidence for their world was abundant and ever-present. Even those medievalists who recognize that we live today in a more comfortable material world and a more politically egalitarian one may feel a touch of nostalgia for the past, or a sense of melancholy that a vanished world cannot be accessed directly. Medieval people, of course, felt no such thing, because their world had not vanished, nor did they expect it to.

The Problem with Textbooks

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

Matthew B. Crawford (The World Beyond Your Head) examines the problem with textbooks:

One can learn a great deal by surveying the physics textbooks now in widespread use, as I recently did as part of a project directed by the Environmental Literacy Council. Begin with some superficial impressions: On nearly every page one finds boxes, insets, three-dimensional marginalia in four colors, and all manner of gratuitous graphics. It is difficult to discern any rank order to the different kinds of information presented. Since physics depends on coherent argument, this manner of presentation is clearly ill-suited to the books’ purpose.

Naïvely, I initially thought the formatting of the books might be intended to suit the cognitive peculiarities of today’s students. I recently taught a course (not physics, but Latin) in a suburban public high school. I was shocked to discover that relatively few students at this “Blue Ribbon National School of Excellence” (so says the Department of Education) seemed capable of real concentration. My impression was confirmed by veteran teachers who speak of a dramatic change in students over the last fifteen years. The culprits they name are familiar enough: the near-complete demise of reading, coincident with the rise of video games and the Web. The ability to follow a monological narrative or argument from beginning to end seems to have been diminished, along with the habit and taste for reading. So surely the textbooks are adapting to this sad fact in a principled way, out of necessity, guided by the latest findings of cognitive science? Not so, it turns out — as becomes all too apparent when one learns how textbooks get produced.

Not surprisingly, the textbooks offered by publishers are products of market demand. Like any market, the market for textbooks does not exist in a political vacuum. In the U.S. there is no omnipotent ministry of education that sets standards for curriculum; the states set their own standards. There are a number of well-meaning, semi-official organizations that try to bring good sense to bear on the chaos. For example, in 1993 the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued its “Benchmarks for Science Literacy,” and in 1996 the National Research Council issued its “National Science Education Standards.” But these efforts have had little real effect. The movement toward states setting their own standards received a sort of federal blessing with the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994, which linked federal funding for schools to states’ efforts to set content standards and assess academic performance.

The problem is not so much federalism itself as the way most states actually operate. Each jurisdiction sets out standards in excruciating detail, including long lists of topics to be covered. These lists are given to the publishers as “bid specs.” Publishers can maximize the likelihood that a book will be widely adopted by including everything in the bid specs of the ten or fifteen biggest markets. It is no surprise, then, that textbooks often run as much as 900 pages long. The reason this simplistic business strategy is successful, and the reason publishers’ salesmen push for allocating an ever greater share of a book’s development costs to graphics, has to do with the way textbooks are adopted.

The members of a state’s textbook adoption committee are often appointed so as to obtain geographical and political representation (they come from different congressional districts), not because of any expertise in the subject matter. In most states it is a one-time appointment, and a form of political patronage. Members generally have other jobs. In a typical scenario, they come away from their first meeting with a couple of documents from the state’s Curriculum Task Force to help them: a list of several hundred “behavioral objectives” to be accomplished by the state’s schooling in general, and another list of perhaps a hundred topic items specific to the subject. The coverage of these topics is to be checked off on a form, ranked on a scale of one to five for each textbook and the mass of materials that go with the book: teachers’ editions, consumable workbooks, wall charts, ready-made transparencies and exams, demonstration materials, lab manuals, and all manner of classroom pizzazz. Committee members had better have a spare bedroom available. As one close observer put it, “Back in their homes, committee members leaf through the mass of materials aimlessly, not sure of what to look for. Some members alight on pages they don’t understand. Some of them conclude that things must have changed quite a bit since they were young, and others conclude that they are too tired to tackle the task and go to bed.”

Even for a diligent committee member, the best that can be accomplished under such a system is merely to ascertain the presence of requisite topics, not the clarity or depth with which they are presented. The reality is that nobody involved in the selection process is actually reading the books, so from a publisher’s perspective, the important thing is that every conceivable topic be mentioned and, just as important, listed in the index for quick reference. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study found that the average U.S. science middle school textbook covers 50 to 65 topics, while texts in Japan include only five to 15 topics and German textbooks cover an average of seven topics. The superficial treatment of dozens of topics comes at the expense of students’ conceptual understanding.

In the end, the question whether students can get any pleasure or meaning out of the text is never really brought to bear on this process. And the superficial nature of the selection process dictates a coffee-table approach by the publishers, leading them to produce a lavish physical product that is heavy on impressive-looking graphical clutter. “Thus the de facto national curriculum is a thin stream of staccato prose winding through an excessive number of pictures, boxes and charts,” as Harriet Tyson-Bernstein puts it in A Conspiracy of Good Intentions. Teachers, of course, needn’t follow such texts slavishly, and in fact those teachers who have real mastery of their subject typically depart from the text and conduct their own classroom investigations. But textbooks are relied upon quite heavily by less-experienced and less-knowledgeable teachers. More generally, research conducted as part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) indicates that textbooks have a major impact on teachers’ decisions about how to present their subject material. In a survey of 16,000 science teachers conducted by Education Market Research in 2001, over 80 percent of science teachers reported using a traditional science textbook.

In many middle school texts, questions at the end of each chapter require students to do no more than repeat some definition verbatim from the text. Students generally have deeply held prior beliefs about natural phenomena, often wrong, and they can easily answer such textbook questions without recognizing the inconsistency between their understanding and the text they are memorizing. The result is that students work their way through the material without being changed by it, and often without really seeing the point of the questions asked or the answers given.

Poor kids have smaller brains

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

A recent Nature Neuroscience paper demonstrated that poor children have smaller brains than affluent children:

Neuroscientists who studied the brain scans of nearly 1,100 children and young adults nationwide from ages 3 to 20 found that the surface area of the cerebral cortex was linked to family income. They discovered that the brains of children in families that earned less than $25,000 a year had surface areas 6 percent smaller than those whose families earned $150,000 or more. The poor children also scored lower on average on a battery of cognitive tests.

The region of the brain in question handles language, memory, spatial skills and reasoning, all important to success in school and beyond.

So, what did the study’s authors conclude?

“We’ve known for so long that poverty and lack of access to resources to enrich the developmental environment are related to poor school performance, poor test scores and fewer educational opportunities,” Sowell said. “But now we can really tie it to a physical thing in the brain. We realized that this is a big deal.”

Really? Yes, these are their two hypotheses for why:

One is that poor families lack access to material goods that aid healthy development, such as good nutrition and higher-quality health care. The other is that poor families tend to live more chaotic lives, and that stress could inhibit healthy brain development.

Amazingly, journalist Lyndsey Layton interviewed James Thompson and accurately shared his thoughts — and Charles Murray’s:

“People who have less ability and marry people with less ability have children who, on balance, on average, have less ability,” he said. Thompson noted that there is a genetic component to intelligence that Noble and Sowell failed to consider.

“It makes my jaw drop that we’ve known for years intelligence is inheritable and scientists are beginning to track down exactly how it happens,” Thompson said. “The well-known genetic hypothesis has not even had a chance to enter the door in this discussion.”


“It is confidently known that brain size is correlated with IQ, IQ measured in childhood is correlated with income as an adult, and parental IQ is correlated with children’s IQ,” Murray wrote in an e-mail. “I would be astonished if children’s brain size were NOT correlated with parental income. How could it be otherwise?”


Thursday, April 16th, 2015

Legendary foes grow larger with every retelling of the tale of their defeat, but I didn’t realize this was so true of the giants of Greek mythology:

In Greek mythology, the Giants or Gigantes (singular Gigas) were a race of great strength and aggression, though not necessarily of great size, known for the Gigantomachy (Gigantomachia), their battle with the Olympian gods. According to Hesiod, the Giants were the offspring of Gaia (Earth), born from the blood that fell when Uranus (Sky) was castrated by their Titan son Cronus.

Archaic and Classical representations show Gigantes as man-sized hoplites (heavily-armed ancient Greek foot soldiers) fully human in form. Later representations (after c. 380 BC) show Gigantes with snakes for legs. In later traditions, the Giants were often confused with other opponents of the Olympians, particularly the Titans, an earlier generation of large and powerful children of Gaia and Uranus.

The vanquished Giants were said to be buried under volcanos, and to be the cause of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

Science Education and Liberal Education

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

Matthew B. Crawford (The World Beyond Your Head) compares science education and liberal education

As a component of liberal education, science is both similar to and different from the humanities in spirit and effect. The humanities might be understood simply as a record of the best that has been thought about the human situation. Acquaintance with this record has the effect of freeing us from the present, with its necessarily partial view, and opening us up to the full range of human possibilities. Further, to enter truly into the great works of the past, or of other cultures, requires an effort to free oneself from the present and its certainties. A cultivated willingness to make that effort is perhaps the cardinal intellectual virtue. Science makes similar demands, with similarly liberal effects. In studying nature closely, we are confronted with the fallibility of common sense. In fact, heavier things do not fall faster than lighter ones. More radically, the very idea of nature stands as a rebuke to convention altogether.

Yet science surely differs from the humanities as well. Pascal famously spoke of l’esprit de finesse et l’esprit de géométrie, representing different habits of mind. What is really on offer, then, in a physics class? The math instills a taste for rigor, and through experiment one learns intellectual responsibility: facts often astonish theory and compel one to rethink one’s position, starting anew from first principles. In its subject matter as well as its method, physics ennobles the mind by directing it to the permanent order of the world. One learns, first, that the world has such an order, and that it is intelligible; that there is a mere handful of truly fundamental things, and that these can be expressed with haiku-like economy. To arrive by argument at a relation such as F=ma is to experience a genuine revelation. One can’t help but feel that there is some deep harmony between the natural world and our efforts to understand it, or understanding wouldn’t be so pleasurable. Through such pleasures one acquires the tastes of a serious person.

But science is hard. It is therefore inherently “elitist,” merely in this obvious sense: as with skateboarding, some will be demonstrably better at it than others. One can fall on one’s behind while skateboarding, and when it happens there is no interpreting away the pavement. Similarly, in a physics course there are answers in the back of the book, standing as a silent rebuke to error and confusion. This sits ill with the current educational imperative of self-esteem. It has been clear for some time that the elephant of anti-elitism has run amok in education; my purpose is to report what happens when this elephant runs into the cold, hard surface of Newton’s laws. The material covered in a physics course can’t be dumbed down ad absurdum, as can that in a history or social studies course. What is to be done, then, to make physics more “inclusive”? The author of a physics textbook has certain artificial devices available to make his subject suitably democratic-looking. He can recite the technological blessings for consumers that flow from scientific research. He can emphasize good work habits or vocational skills that may incidentally be developed by a student in the course of his studies. These efforts to popularize in a superficial way carry the implicit message that science, and intellectual life more generally, must answer to the tribunal of economic life; physics has no standing as something worthwhile for its own sake. Far from giving physics a wider appeal, I suspect this merely disheartens students. Because it treats them as though they are insensitive to intellectual pleasures, this kind of anti-elitism seems strangely … elitist. As though students are merely being prepared to assume their place as workers and consumers.

Moynihan’s Mistake and the Left’s Shame

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the four-term senator from New York who died in 2003, was, Fred Siegel suggests, both a political and intellectual giant:

What brought Nixon and Moynihan together was a tectonic shift of the political plates. Nixon won the presidency in 1968 thanks to the backlash against the riots that had ripped through America’s cities. What made Moynihan a Democrat of extraordinary insight, willing to serve a Republican president, were his reactions to those riots — and to the excesses and wrong turns of American liberalism.

Today, 50 years after its issuance, some liberals “bravely” acknowledge that 1965’s so-called Moynihan Report, in which the future senator warned about the dire future consequences of the collapse of the black family, was a fire bell in the night. But at the time, and for decades to come, Moynihan was branded as a racist by civil rights leaders, black activists, and run-of-the-mill liberals. “One began to sense,” Moynihan wrote, that “a price was to be paid even for such a mild dissent from conventional liberalism.”

His capacity for irony notwithstanding, Moynihan came close to a nervous breakdown and “emerged changed” from the experience. He came to feel “that American liberalism had created its own version of a politique du pire (i.e., the worse the better)… in which evidence had been displaced by ideology.” His fear that the empirically oriented liberalism of his youth was under assault from racial and cultural nihilists intensified after the 1967 riots that burned through Cleveland, Newark, and Detroit, where 43 died. “The summer of 1967,” Moynihan wrote at the time, “came in the aftermath of one of the most extraordinary periods of liberal legislation, liberal electoral victories and the liberal dominance of the media… that we have ever experienced. The period was, moreover, accompanied by the greatest economic expansion in human history. And to top it all, some of the worst violence occurred in Detroit, a city with one of the most liberal and successful administrations in the nation; a city in which the social and economic position of the Negro was generally agreed to be far and away the best in the nation.”

In the wake of the riots, a candid Moynihan, notes Hess, addressed the liberal stalwarts of Americans for Democratic Action, an organization created as an anti-Communist counterpoint to the philo-Soviet liberals of the 1940s. “The violence abroad and the violence at home” was “especially embarrassing for American liberals,” Moynihan told his ADA listeners, “because it is largely they who have been in office and presided over the onset of the war in Vietnam and the violence in American cities… [which] must be judged our doing.” But the liberal media and establishment didn’t see it that way, shifting the blame on to the shoulders of Richard Nixon and the blue-collar voters who supported him. Fearing that America was headed toward a crack-up, Moynihan told his fellow ADA liberals that they needed to look, at least temporarily, to an alliance with conservatives to head off the breakdown.

Inside the Nixon White House, Moynihan, says Hess, proved “to be an amazingly agile bureaucratic player,” and he charmed the president with his fount of anecdotes and insights. “Pat saw that Nixon, who had experienced extreme poverty in his youth, was open to a sweeping measure that could do away with the vast ‘service’ apparatus of the poverty industry that had been created by the Great Society,” Hess writes. “Tory men and liberal measures” could shake up Washington, Moynihan told the president. He translated that approach into the Family Assistance Plan (FAP), which would have provided a guaranteed income to families in poverty. But FAP, despite Nixon’s support, was defeated not by the predictable right-wing critics like Arthur Burns, the thoughtful but dour chair of the Council of Economic Advisors who thought it too costly, but by intemperate liberals, who insisted on even more spending.

What A Good Job Looks Like

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

When Matthew B. Crawford graduated, he found that there was more demand for his services as an unlicensed electrician than as a credentialed physicist. He discusses what a good job looks like:

The work of electricians, plumbers and auto mechanics cannot be outsourced. That is reason enough for a young person to consider going into the trades. But let’s take a broader view of the matter and consider also the possibility for real satisfaction, which may or may not be present in the work we do. Human beings seem to be built in such a way that we want to see a direct effect of our actions in the world and feel that these actions are genuinely our own.

Consider the striking fact that when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in 1913, most workers simply walked out. His biographer, Keith Sward, wrote, “So great was labor’s distaste for the new machine system that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963.”

Obviously, the men who walked out had other options. Early on, the automotive industry had recruited people from carriage shops and bicycle shops–all-around mechanics who took pride in their skill and knowledge. To merely pull the same lever over and over on an assembly line was stultifying, and insulting too. Eventually Ford raised wages enough to keep the line staffed, and people got used to it.

This story has a parallel in our own time. White-collar work too gets routinized and dumbed-down. This fact often gets obscured by the fact that you may need an academic credential to get the job. I went to graduate school in the early 1990s and loved every minute of it. With my new master’s degree, I landed a job as an “indexer and abstractor.” I was to write brief summaries of articles in scientific and other academic journals.

It sounded really challenging. But my quota, after 11 months on the job, was 28 articles per day. The only way to meet the quota was to stop thinking, and in fact I was given rules for writing these summaries that were based on the supposition that it could be done in a routinized, unthinking way. The job paid $23,000 a year. I never did get used to it.

As far back as 1942, Joseph Schumpeter wrote that the expansion of higher education beyond labor-market demand creates for white collar workers “employment in substandard work or at wages below those of the better-paid manual workers.” What’s more, “it may create unemployability of a particularly disconcerting type. The man who has gone through college or university easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work.”

The current glut of college graduates, many of them with heavy debt loads, may need to overcome this problem of being “psychically” (not physically) unemployable in manual occupations, a disability acquired from sitting in classrooms from age 5 to age 22. I am happy to report that it is possible. After getting a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, followed by another prestigious-sounding but soul-killing job at a think tank, I opened a motorcycle repair shop.

Motorcycles are made on assembly lines, but the work of fixing them isn’t too far removed from what those craftsmen in the bicycle and carriage shops were doing. There’s a lot of thinking involved, and it is always my own thinking. In fact, the work of diagnosing mechanical problems is often more intellectually challenging than my think tank job was. “Motorcycle mechanic” is a less prestigious answer to give at a cocktail party when someone asks what I do, but in saying it, I feel more genuine pride.

(He also wrote Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work.)

Napoleon stooped to conquer

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

In the US today, Napoleon is an obscure figure, Walter Russell Mead laments:

To the extent he is remembered, it is for two great blunders and his fall: Louisiana, Russia and Waterloo are the words most prominently associated with his career in the minds of those few American undergraduates today who know anything specific about him at all.

Ignorance of and indifference to Napoleon is one of the chief differences between educated Americans and educated Europeans. On this side of the Atlantic he doesn’t have much of a legacy; though as Stanley Kowalski points out in Streetcar Named Desire, Louisiana still uses the Napoleonic Code as the basis of its law, the other 49 states don’t. In Europe he is the father of the modern legal system that still underlies the laws and procedures of the European Union and the man who abolished feudalism in Germany. It was Napoleon who laid out the model of church-state relations that still governs the European approach to this issue — and Napoleon whose emancipation of the Jews solved one set of problems and created another. His vision of a united Europe able to resist Anglo-Saxon influence still resonates; his effort to reconcile the powerful state of European absolutism with democratic legitimacy in a post-revolutionary age remains an influential political idea. Americans didn’t embrace Napoleon like the French; the battle against him that became a national epic in Britain and Russia leaves us cold; his unintentional role in the birth of German nationalism and in Hegel’s proclamation of the end of history do not engage much attention over here.

In teaching Napoleon to young grand strategists, I find that the first thing I have to do is to open their eyes to Napoleon’s enormous historical importance and continuing impact on our world today; the second is to help them grasp the sheer greatness and audacity of the man. They have to feel his accomplishment: how a poor young man from Corsica, who didn’t speak French well, wasn’t particularly handsome or witty or charming, who had no connections with the powerful and the rich made himself master first of France and then of half the world. That Napoleon was a great commander when given armies to lead is one thing; that he got himself into a position to command armies at all may be the more remarkable accomplishment of his career.

The most important thing about the young Napoleon, Mead says, is the intensity of his ambition:

Most bright and ambitious Americans start out in life more like Napoleon than like Pericles; they are born and grow up far from the centers of power. They can’t rely on their parents’ money or rolodexes to boost them into contention for political power. Like Napoleon, they have to work their way in.

As students start to see the young Napoleon in this way, they begin to consider the parallels between his situation and ambitions and their own. Do students want power, influence and wealth enough to work and scheme for them? If so, how should they start? What ethical considerations, if any, should inform or limit their quest? What does success look like and how is it assessed?

Napoleon had extraordinary political and personal as well as military gifts. His genius was not limited to the ability to read a battlefield and take the right action at the right time. He had a gift for reading people, for knowing what each one most desperately wanted and needed. He then had the ambition and singleness of purpose to decide which people mattered to him, and then to give them what they wanted. Napoleon betrayed almost everyone in the end, and one can retrace his progress through life by tracking discarded friendships and betrayed collaborators much as the Grand Army’s retreat through Russia was marked by abandoned wagons, loot and artillery pieces. Nevertheless before you can betray someone you have to win them over and Napoleon was willing and able to do whatever it took. One doesn’t want to end like Napoleon, but one could do much worse than begin as he did.

As Napoleon rose, he had to judge how to keep people loyal to him. This again required an exquisite sensitivity to what others want. One man can be yours for money, another seeks dignity and honor, a third power, and someone else wants the freedom and the resources to undertake an interesting and exacting task. In Napoleon’s day, when women could only play politics indirectly, taking (or no doubt in some cases pretending to take) women seriously on intellectual matters and working through political discussions with them to give them a sense of ‘being in the game’ could take a man very far with some women. Napoleon played this game for all it was worth.

I’m trying to encourage my grand strategy students to hone their people reading and people pleasing skills. This is not, as Johnson said of Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son, to teach them ‘the manners of a dancing master and the morals of a whore’. George Washington worked very hard to ingratiate himself with powerful women and men around him; so did Alexander Hamilton. A great man and a scoundrel will need many of the same skills; I would hope my students would be as good at reading people as an accomplished scam artist, but then use those powers for good.

Napoleon stooped to conquer; it’s a skill many of us could use.

Power fascinates and disorients the academy today:

Throughout the millennia teachers have assumed that getting and keeping power was one of the chief reasons that students came to their classes. The rhetorical instructors of ancient Greece and Rome were teaching students the skills that would enable them to persuade: either to persuade jurors to acquit or convict, or to persuade voters to support a given course of action or a particular candidate.

Today we focus on introducing them to various lines of academic inquiry and on giving them ‘job skills’ that will help them earn a good living. Both of these are perfectly good things to study, but how many professors would start a class off by saying that the goal of the class is to teach students to acquire, hold and use power in society at large?

More classes should start in exactly that way. An education, among other things, should help you become adept at the power game. Few things are as deeply human as the drive for power, and ambition remains one of the great drivers of any society. Getting away from that reality and providing courses that aren’t grounded in helping young people achieve the fame, glory and power that it is natural for them to seek is getting away from an essential and vital part of the educational process.

Paid to be a Narcissistic Blowhard

Monday, April 13th, 2015

Oliver Burkeman captures David Brooks perfectly, Charles Murray says:

Flawlessly. In the Guardian! Inexplicable.

From that Guardian piece:

David Brooks is aware there’s some irony in the subject matter of his latest book, which is a hymn to humility, and the importance of acknowledging how little we can ever truly know. As a twice-weekly opinion columnist for the New York Times, and a fixture on US television and radio, he is, in his own words, “paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am”; he is also one of the few conservatives whose views Barack Obama often solicits. Best known to British audiences for his books Bobos in Paradise and The Social Animal, Brooks says he considered calling the new one Humility, with the title in tiny letters and “David Brooks” in huge block capitals. In the event, he called it The Road to Character, which seems unlikely to mollify the army of bloggers who appear to find him insufferably pompous – “the biggest windbag in the western hemisphere”, to quote Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi. (New York magazine once described Brooks’s role in American life as “public intellectual/punching-bag”.) This is a pity, because it’s a powerful, haunting book that works its way beneath your skin. And the motive for writing it, far from being a pompous desire to sermonise, was at least partly due to a personal crisis: Brooks’s realisation that his own life of well-paid worldly success, plus regular meetings with the president, was missing something essential inside.

Deliver Us From Distraction

Monday, April 13th, 2015

I’ve been meaning to read Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft. Now he has a new book out, The World Beyond Your Head, about becoming an individual in an age of distraction:

The concern isn’t just the technological appendages like computers or iPhones that we’ve come to depend on; it’s that we can’t control our own responses to them. “Our distractibility indicates that we are agnostic on the question of what is worth paying attention to — that is, what to value,” Crawford writes. Everywhere we go, we are assaulted by commercial forces that make claims on our mental space, so that “silence is now offered as a luxury good.”

That isn’t just inconvenient. It destroys independence of thought and feeling: “Without the ability to direct our attention where we will, we become more receptive to those who would direct our attention where they will.” And they have gotten very good at manipulating our environment so that we are turned in the directions that can be monetized. But it’s really bad for us. “Distractibility,” Crawford tells us, “might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity.”

We have become more vulnerable to this regime of manipulated attention, he argues, because we have only individualism as a defense. The Enlightenment quest for autonomy leaves us powerless against those who mount noisy appeals to our personal preferences, in service of manipulating us.

Advanced Rail Energy Storage

Monday, April 13th, 2015

Pumped hydro is a simple and effective way to store energy — you just pump water back up over the dam — but building new dams isn’t easy. All the good spots have already been taken, and the regulatory hurdles keep growing. There are other ways to apply the same simple principles though:

Instead of trying to build new pumped hydro facilities, the founders of ARES — William Peitzke, Matt Brown and John Robinson — asked themselves, “How can we do pumped storage hydro-electric, but without any water?” The answer they found was basically the opposite of water: rocks. Or more specifically, rocks on trains.

“We realized the solution was right in front of us,” said Kelly. “The railroad industry had developed an incredibly efficient way to move mass.” One ARES engineer determined that the coefficient friction of steel wheels on railroad track is lower than the coefficient friction of ice skates on ice.

The ARES system uses excess energy from the grid to pull 140-ton railcars up hills (total train weight: 1,350 tons). When the grid needs that power back, they simply let gravity take the weighted cars back down. Regenerative braking — similar to what you find in a Toyota Prius, or in Japanese subways — captures the energy the trains produce along the way

Advanced Rail Energy Storage (ARES)

ARES built a test facility in California to prove the concept, and now they’re in the final stages of building a 50 megawatt facility in Nevada, which will come online in 2016. For comparison, this facility alone will add more energy storage than was built across the entire US in 2013 (44.2 megawatts), according to a recent recent report by US Energy Storage Monitor. The same report suggests that 220 megawatts will be deployed in 2015, twice the capacity of the previous two years combined.

A Story of Entrepreneurship

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

Tim Ferriss really goes out of his way to explain why he would interview his latest guest:

The goal of my blog and podcast is to push you outside of your comfort zone and force you to question assumptions.

This is why I invite divergent thinkers and world-class performers who often disagree. I might interview Tony Robbins and then Matt Mullenweg. Or I might have a long chat with Sam Harris, PhD, and later invite a seemingly opposite guest like…

Glenn Beck.

This interview is a wild ride, and it happened — oddly enough — thanks to a late-night sauna session. I was catching up with an old friend, who is mixed-race, a Brown University grad, and liberal in almost every sense of the word. I casually asked him, “If you could pick one person to be on the podcast, who would it be?”

“Glenn Beck,” he answered without a moment’s hesitation. “His story is FASCINATING.”

He described how Glenn hit rock bottom and restarted his life in his 30’s, well past the point most people think it possible. Fast forward to 2014, Forbes named him to their annual Celebrity 100 Power List and pegged his earnings at $90 million for that year. This placed him ahead of people like Mark Burnett, Jimmy Fallon, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Will Smith. Glenn’s platforms — including radio, tv, digital (, publishing, etc. — get somewhere between 30 and 50 million unique visitors per month.

This interview is neither a “gotcha” interview nor a softball interview. I ask some tough questions (e.g. “If you were reborn as a disabled gay woman in a poor family, what political system would you want in place?”), but my primary goal is to pull out routines, habits, books, etc. that you can use. This show is about actionable insight, not argument for argument’s sake.

First and foremost, this is a story of entrepreneurship, and whether you love Glenn, hate Glenn, or have never heard his name, there is a lot to learn from him.

How MOOC Video Production Affects Student Engagement

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

How does video production affect student engagement in MOOCs?

We measured engagement by how long students watched each video and also whether they attempted to answer post-video assessment problems.

We took all 862 videos from four edX courses offered in Fall 2012 and hand-classified each one based on its type (e.g., traditional lecture, problem-solving tutorial) and production style (e.g., PowerPoint slides, Khan-style tablet drawing, talking head). We automatically extracted other features such as length and speaking rate (words per minute). We then mined the edX server logs to obtain over 6.9 million video watching sessions from almost 128,000 students.

The lessons learned:

  1. Shorter videos are much more engaging. Engagement drops sharply after 6 minutes.
  2. Videos that intersperse an instructor’s talking head with PowerPoint slides are more engaging than showing only slides.
  3. Videos produced with a more personal feel could be more engaging than high-fidelity studio recordings.
  4. Khan-style tablet drawing tutorials are more engaging than PowerPoint slides or code screencasts.
  5. Even high-quality prerecorded classroom lectures are not as engaging when chopped up into short segments for a MOOC.
  6. Videos where instructors speak fairly fast and with high enthusiasm are more engaging.
  7. Students engage differently with lecture and tutorial videos.

Focusing the Brain on Better Vision

Saturday, April 11th, 2015

As we age, our vision deteriorates, including our contrast sensitivity, our ability to distinguish gradations of light to dark and thus to discern where one object ends and another begins:

But new research suggests that contrast sensitivity can be improved with brain-training exercises. In a study published last month in Psychological Science, researchers at the University of California, Riverside, and Brown University showed that after just five sessions of behavioral exercises, the vision of 16 people in their 60s and 70s significantly improved.

After the training, the adults could make out edges far better. And when given a standard eye chart, a task that differed from the one they were trained on, they could correctly identify more letters.


During each session, the subjects watched 750 striped images that were rapidly presented on a computer screen with subtle changes in the visual “noise” surrounding them — like snow on a television. The viewer indicated whether the images were rotating clockwise or counterclockwise. The subject would hear a beep for every correct response.

Each session took an hour and a half. The exercises were taxing, although the subjects took frequent breaks. But after five sessions, the subjects had learned to home in more precisely on the images and to filter out the distracting visual noise. After the training, the older adults performed as well as those 40 years younger, before their own training.

The older participants were also better able to make out letters on an eye chart at reading distance, although not one 10 feet away. The younger students were better able to see the distant eye chart, but not the closer one.


Dr. Andersen and his colleagues, including Denton DeLoss, a graduate student and the paper’s lead author, say they do not know how long the effects of this modest intervention will last. But an earlier study in which older adults received training to sharpen their ability to discern texture showed that the improvement was sustained for at least three months.