The poor reap what the luxury belief class sows

Friday, February 9th, 2024

Troubled by Rob HendersonKay S. Hymowitz reviews Rob Henderson’s Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class:

In Rob Henderson’s first recounted memory in his new memoir, Troubled, he is three years old, screaming in terror and clinging to his mother as two policemen wrestle handcuffs onto her wrists. He had no idea why this was happening, of course; the scuffle likely had something to do with his mother’s incorrigible drug addiction. A Korean-born college dropout, she relied on prostitution to support her habit. When she and Rob weren’t living in a car, she would tie him to a chair in the apartment to attend to her customers. Her other two boys, Rob’s brothers, had different fathers; Rob would never know them or learn what became of them.

[…]

His life took a turn for the better when, lacking alternatives, he enlisted in the Air Force. Conventional wisdom has it that boys like Rob learn self-discipline and responsibility from military life, but Henderson has a different take. The military didn’t “transform” him, he argued — it merely stopped him from becoming a self-destructive basket case. Most kids with his background are not so lucky.

[…]

Later, he was accepted at Yale University. For all elite universities’ problems — Henderson spotted them quickly — Yale was rocket fuel for his under-exercised brain. Henderson sounded like the kind of student that professors pray for but rarely see: mature, mindful, and hungry for knowledge. He didn’t just “do the reading;” he tested the ideas he encountered against own experiences and observations.

Class by Paul Fussell

Henderson’s restless mind had been particularly stimulated by a 1983 book called Class: A Guide Through America’s Status System by the iconoclastic historian-critic Paul Fussell. Class opens Henderson’s eyes to the distance between forlorn places like Red Bluff and the towns of his Yale classmates’ upper middle-class upbringings. He noticed more than the obvious markers of privilege, like the students in $900 Canadian Goose jackets who strode around campus; he discovered the more subtle ways people like him were kept from moving up. Voguish words like “heteronormative” and “cisgender,” for instance, signaled that the speaker was a member of the educated class. Fussell had remarked that upper-class people often name their pets after literary or historical figures to flaunt their education. Sure enough, one of the first Yalies Henderson met had a pet cat named “Learned Claw,” a play on the name of jurist Learned Hand.

Henderson became fascinated by “class divides and social hierarchies,” adding Pierre Bourdeau, Emile Durkheim, and Thorstein Veblen to his reading list. His primary source, however, was Yale itself. In Red Bluff, hardly anyone went to college or even aspired to go; at Yale, he watched The Sopranos and was struck by Carmella’s dedication to getting daughter Meadow into Columbia. College, he realized, was the most powerful class signifier of all.

Troubled’s penultimate chapter, which might be subtitled “What I Learned at Yale,” is a tour de force that in a more rational world would be required reading for all incoming college students at elite schools. In it, Henderson developed his now widely cited concept of “luxury beliefs.” Yale students, appearing aware of their own advantages and compassionate to the downtrodden, would proudly repeat ideas that the boy from Red Bluff knew would harm the marginalized. Many of the parents of his childhood friends were drug addicts, yet his college peers cheered on drug liberalization, for example. And why not? It seemed enlightened and cost people like them nothing.

For Henderson, the most painful luxury beliefs were those that undermined families and the childhood stability he had so desperately craved. “Monogamy is kind of outdated,” a Yale graduate announced. She admitted that she had grown up with both parents and hoped someday to marry — monogamously, of course. In such people’s minds, to acknowledge the benefits of two-parent families and the stability that they are more likely to confer is to be insensitive to less fortunate families with different family structures. This attitude gets things backward, Henderson writes: “It’s cruel to validate decisions that inflict harm, especially on those who had no hand in the decision—like young children.” Luxury believers pay no price for ignoring the harms they endorse. In fact, it’s the opposite — they gain social currency at places like Yale. “The poor reap what the luxury belief class sows,” Henderson said.

Maybe fire forces growth, and stabbing them only stuns them

Monday, February 5th, 2024

Back in August, 1979, issue #29 of Dragon magazine included a game called The Awful Green Things From Outer Space. I never played it, so I didn’t realize it included this interesting game mechanic:

Scattered around the ship are various weapons. However, alien physiology is weird. Maybe fire forces growth, and stabbing them only stuns them.

At the start of each game, the Weapons Display is empty, but the first time a weapon is used, a token is drawn to determine its effect on the aliens for the remainder of the game.

This is a silly sci-fi game, but a similar concept was used by the Naval War College in the years before World War 2, so officers could learn how to learn to fight the expected war against the Japanese:

Naval War College students certainly wanted to win their big “capstone” wargame at the end of their school year. As students have always done, they asked those who graduated before them for advice, or in the vernacular of the US military, “gouge.” Graduates were happy to provide advice: “Try to engage the Japanese at night, they are blind; watch out for their torpedoes though, they are killers; fortunately, though, their ships sink like rocks after the lightest of battering.” However, when they talked to someone who graduated in a different year, they learned “Avoid night engagements, the Japs are incredible; and their ships are so rugged they can really close in and slug it out; at least you don’t have to worry about their tinker toy torpedoes.” Slowly it dawned on the students — the faculty was giving the Japanese different strengths and weaknesses in each wargame!

He was the first Corsican to attend the École Royale Militaire

Saturday, February 3rd, 2024

Napoleon by Andrew Roberts Napoleon’s education in France made him French, Andrew Roberts explains (in his biography of the Emperor of the French):

His bursary grant (the equivalent of a curate’s stipend) was dated December 31, 1778, and he started at the ecclesiastical seminary run by the bishop of Autun the next day. He wasn’t to see Corsica again for almost eight years. His name appeared in the school registry as ‘M. Neapoleonne de Bonnaparte’. His headmaster, the Abbé Chardon, recalled him as ‘a thoughtful and gloomy character. He had no playmate and walked about by himself … He had ability and learned quickly … If I scolded him, he answered in a cold, almost imperious tone: “Sir, I know it.” It took Chardon only three months to teach this intelligent and determined lad, with a will to learn, to speak and read French, and even to write short passages.

Having mastered the requisite French at Autun, in April 1779, four months shy of his tenth birthday, Napoleon was admitted to the Royal Military School of Brienne-le-Château, near Troyes in the Champagne region. His father left the next day, and as there were no school holidays they were not to see each other again for three years. Napoleon was taught by the Minim order of Franciscan friars as one of fifty royal scholars among 110 pupils. Despite being a military academy, Brienne was administered by the monks, although the martial side of studies were conducted by outside instructors. Conditions were spartan: students had a straw mattress and one blanket each, though they weren’t beaten.

[…]

His eight hours of study a day included mathematics, Latin, history, French, German, geography, physics, fortifications, weaponry, fencing, dancing and music (the last three an indication that Brienne was also in part a finishing school for the noblesse). Physically tough and intellectually demanding, the school turned out a number of very distinguished generals besides Napoleon, including Louis-Nicolas Davout, Étienne Nansouty, Antoine Phélippeaux and Jean-Joseph d’Hautpoul. Charles Pichegru, the future conqueror of Holland and royalist plotter, was one of the school’s instructors.

Napoleon excelled at mathematics. ‘To be a good general you must know mathematics,’ he later observed, ‘it serves to direct your thinking in a thousand circumstances.’ He was helped by his prodigious memory. ‘A singular thing about me is my memory,’ he once boasted. ‘As a boy I knew the logarithms of thirty or forty numbers.’ Napoleon was given permission to take maths classes earlier than the prescribed age of twelve, and soon mastered geometry, algebra and trigonometry. His weakest subject was German, which he never mastered; another weak subject, surprisingly for someone who so adored ancient history, was Latin. (He was fortunate not to be examined in Latin until after 1780, by which time it was clear that he would be going into the army or navy and not the Church.) Napoleon also excelled at geography. On the very last page of his school exercise book, following a long list of British imperial possessions, he noted: ‘Sainte-Hélène: petite île.’

[…]

Napoleon borrowed many biographies and history books from the school library, devouring Plutarch’s tales of heroism, patriotism and republican virtue. He also read Caesar, Cicero, Voltaire, Diderot and the Abbé Raynal, as well as Erasmus, Eutropius, Livy, Phaedrus, Sallust, Virgil and the first century BC Cornelius Nepos’ Lives of the Great Captains, which included chapters on Themistocles, Lysander, Alcibiades and Hannibal. One of his school nicknames — ‘the Spartan’ — might have been accorded him because of his pronounced admiration for that city-state rather than for any asceticism of character. He could recite in French whole passages from Virgil, and in class he naturally took the side of his hero Caesar against Pompey.

[…]

A contemporary recalled Napoleon withdrawing to the school library to read Polybius, Plutarch, Arrian (‘with great delight’) and Quintus Curtius Rufus (for which he had ‘little taste’).

[…]

In 1781, Napoleon received an outstanding school report from the Chevalier de Kéralio, the under-inspector of military schools who, two years later, recommended him for the prestigious École Militaire in Paris with the words, ‘Excellent health, docile expression, mild, straightforward, thoughtful. Conduct most satisfactory; has always been distinguished for his application in mathematics … This boy would make an excellent sailor.’ His clear intellectual superiority is unlikely to have helped his popularity with his classmates, who nicknamed him La Paille-au-Nez (‘straw up the nose’), which rhymed with ‘Napoleone’ in Corsican. He was teased for not speaking refined French, for having a father who had had to certify to his nobility, for coming from a conquered nation, for having a relatively large head on a thin frame and for being poorer than most of his school contemporaries. ‘I was the poorest of my classmates,’ he told a courtier in 1811, ‘they had pocket-money, I never had any. I was proud, I was careful not to show it … I didn’t know how to smile or play like the others.’ When he spoke in later life about his schooldays, he remembered individual teachers he had liked, but few fellow pupils.

[…]

Napoleon took his final exams at Brienne on September 15, 1784. He passed easily, and late the following month he entered the École Royale Militaire in Paris, on the left bank of the Seine. This was a far more socially elevated institution than Brienne. There were three changes of linen a week, good meals and more than twice as many servants, teachers and staff — including wigmakers — as students. There were also three chapel services a day, starting with 6 a.m. Mass. Although strangely the history of warfare and strategy weren’t taught, the syllabus covered much the same subjects as at Brienne, as well as musketry, military drills and horsemanship. It was in fact one of the best riding schools in Europe.

[…]

Of the 202 candidates from all of France’s military schools in 1784, a total of 136 passed their final exams and only 14 of these were invited to enter the artillery, so Napoleon had been selected for an elite group. He was the first Corsican to attend the École Royale Militaire,

[…]

Napoleon took classes from the distinguished trio of Louis Monge (brother of the mathematician-chemist Gaspard), the Marquis de Laplace, who later became Napoleon’s interior minister, and Louis Domairon, who taught him the value of ‘haranguing’ troops before battles. (Shorn of its English meaning, which implies a prolonged rant, a French harangue could mean an inspiring speech, such as Shakespeare puts in Henry V’s mouth or Thucydides in the mouth of Pericles, a skill at which Napoleon was to excel on the battlefield, but not always in public assemblies.) At the École, Napoleon encountered the new thinking in French artillery practice introduced by Jean-Baptiste de Gribeauval after the Seven Years War. (Defeat had been, as it is so often in history, the mother of reform.) He also studied General Comte Jacques de Guibert’s revolutionary Essai général de tactique (1770): ‘The standing armies, a burden on the people, are inadequate for the achievement of great and decisive results in war, and meanwhile the mass of the people, untrained in arms, degenerates … The hegemony over Europe will fall to that nation which becomes possessed of manly virtues and creates a national army.’ Guibert preached the importance of speed, surprise and mobility in warfare, and of abandoning large supply depots in walled cities in favour of living off the land. Another of Guibert’s principles was that high morale — esprit de corps — could overcome most problems.

[…]

He took his final examinations early, coming forty-second out of fifty-eight candidates — not so poor a result as it may seem given that he sat the exams after only one year rather than the normal two or three. He could now dedicate himself to his military career, and to the serious financial problems Carlo had left. Napoleon later admitted that these ‘influenced my state of mind and made me grave before my time’.

[…]

At sixteen he was one of the youngest officers, and the only Corsican to hold an artillery commission in the French army. Napoleon always recalled his years at Valence as impecunious — his room had only a bed, table and armchair — and sometimes he had to skip meals in order to afford books, which he continued to read with the same voracious appetite as before.

[…]

By late May 1788 Napoleon was stationed at the School of Artillery at Auxonne in eastern France, not far from Dijon. Here, as when he was stationed with his regiment at Valence, he ate only once a day, at 3 p.m., thereby saving enough money from his officer’s salary to send some home to his mother; the rest he spent on books. He changed his clothes once every eight days. He was determined to continue his exhaustive autodidactic reading programme and his voluminous notebooks from Auxonne are full of the history, geography, religion and customs of all the most prominent peoples of the ancient world, including the Athenians, Spartans, Persians, Egyptians and Carthaginians. They cover modern artillery improvements and regimental discipline, but also mention Plato’s Republic, Achilles and (inevitably) Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.

Harvard is something of a national institution, and its admissions policies have become everyone’s business

Wednesday, January 31st, 2024

Harvard admissions should be more meritocratic, Steven A. Pinker, Contributing Opinion Writer, opines:

Thanks to its tax-exempt status, federal funding, and outsize role as a feeder school to the American elite, Harvard is something of a national institution, and its admissions policies have become everyone’s business.

Others argue that holistic admissions are necessary to avoid a class of grinds and drudges. But elite universities should be the last to perpetuate this destructive stereotype. It would be ludicrous if anyone suggested that Harvard pick its graduate students or faculty for their prowess in athletics or music or improv comedy, yet these people are certainly no shallower than our undergraduates.

In any case, the stereotype is false. The psychologists Camilla P. Benbow and David Lubinski have found that precocious adolescents with sky-high SAT scores grew up to excel not only in academia, medicine, business, and technology, but also in literature, drama, art, and music.

Instead of “holistic admissions,” I suggest using a transparent formula that is weighted toward test scores and high school grades, adjusting it by whichever other factors can be publicly justified, such as geographic and socioeconomic diversity, and allowing for human judgment in exceptional cases. (I recognize the arguments for including race, but that has been judged unconstitutional, so the issue is moot.)

The average IQ was 100, at least four standard deviations below theirs

Monday, January 22nd, 2024

Miraca U. M. Gross proposes an experimental study:

Let us take a child of average intellectual ability, and when he is 5 years old, let us place him in a class of children with severe intellectual disabilities, children whose IQs are at least four standard deviations lower than his. The child will stay with this group for the duration of his schooling and he will undertake the curriculum designed for the class, at the level and pace of the class.

We will carefully observe and assess at regular intervals his edu- cational progress, his feelings about school, his social relationships with classmates, and his self-esteem. We will also observe the child’s parents and their interactions with the child’s teacher, school, and school system. They will, of course, have had no say in the child’s class or grade placement.

As one cannot generalize from a sample of one, the study will be replicated with 60 children in cities, towns, and rural and remote areas across the nation.

If this proposal appalls you, rest easy. Such a study will never be undertaken. No education system would countenance it. No ethics committee would approve it.

Instead, I will report some findings from a real-life study that is ongoing and that mirrors the hypothetical study described above. This study of 60 young Australians with IQs of 160 and above is in its 22nd year, and the majority of the subjects are in their mid- to late 20s. Like the children in the hypothetical study, the majority undertook their entire schooling in classes where the average IQ was 100, at least four standard deviations below theirs. These children, and their parents, were less than happy. The education systems were unresponsive and no ethics committee raised a whisper, as this treatment is common practice in Australia, as well as in the United States.

[…]

In the 1920s and 1930s, school systems grade-advanced gifted students much more readily than they do now; by the time they grad- uated from high school, 10% of Terman’s entire subject group had skipped two grades and a further 23% had skipped one (Terman & Oden, 1947). By contrast, the majority of the exceptionally and pro- foundly gifted children in the present study have been retained with age peers for the entirety of their schooling, and few of their schools have actively structured socialization opportunities for them.

[…]

The considerable majority of young people who have been radically accelerated, or who accelerated by 2 years, report high degrees of life satisfaction, have taken research degrees at leading universities, have professional careers, and report facilitative social and love relation- ships. Young people of equal abilities who accelerated by only 1 year or who have not been permitted acceleration have tended to enter less academically rigorous college courses, report lower levels of life satisfaction, and in many cases, experience significant difficulties with socialization.

Imagine, instead, if Jaime Escalante had been a great martial arts teacher

Tuesday, December 12th, 2023

Michael Strong argues for The Missing Institution:

Teaching is fundamentally a performance art — real time interactions in chaotic and complex human situations. There are no institutions in our society that provide for an environment in which master practitioners of this performance art systematically transfer their expertise.

Instead, academic departments of education have an effective monopoly on teacher training. In order to become a professor of education one must complete a Ph.D. and publish a series of research articles. The ability to produce academic research articles is not related to the ability to practice a pedagogical performance art. The analogy that I find compelling is musicianship — while there is nothing wrong with the academic study of music, one would never imagine that academic courses taught by music scholars provide the optimal path to becoming a performing artist. We don’t require Placido Domingo or Adele to take courses taught by music Ph.D.s in order to perform. There is no reason to believe that there is any correlation between being able to ace an exam on music theory and being a dazzling vocalist. Why should we imagine that such a correlation exists in education?

There are brief student-teaching assignments at the end of many teacher credentialing programs, but they are the lost stepchild of an education department — one doesn’t climb the academic career ladder for creating a better student teacher program. Moreover, even these programs are designed and controlled by education professors rather than by virtuoso teachers.

Imagine, instead, if Escalante had been a great martial arts teacher. He might have established his own school. Students from around the world would have flocked to learn directly from him. Gradually, some of his best students would open up their own schools. They would prominently display their lineage, the fact that they had studied directly with Escalante. People who were interested in becoming serious about a particular martial arts form would ask around to discover who were the best teachers. Those schools could charge a premium. Sometimes such schools would trace their lineage back through several generations of great teachers.

I describe the fact that there is no Escalante School of Mathematics Teaching as “The Missing Institution.” In the absence of government and academic domination of education for the past century, we would have seen the creation of many such training centers founded by brilliant educators, each designed to transmit their artistry.

Indeed, the Montessori and Waldorf educational systems were each designed by inspired educators; their work has existed outside of the system for nearly a century, despite considerable hostility from the establishment. Both have their own teacher training and school accreditation systems. This demonstrates that distinctive pedagogies spontaneously generate distinctive teacher training systems when they are able to do so. “The Missing Institution” is not missing in the case of Montessori and Waldorf (though in each case the training institutions are imperfect and financially precarious).

Most PhDs are irrelevant

Sunday, November 19th, 2023

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonElon Musk planned on studying material science at Stanford, Walter Isaacson explains (in his biography of Elon), after getting his physics degree from Penn:

Still fascinated by capacitors, he wanted to research how they might power electric cars. “The idea was to leverage advanced chip-making equipment to make a solid state ultracapacitor with enough energy density to give a car long range,” he says. But as he got closer to enrolling, he began to worry. “I figured I could spend several years at Stanford, get a PhD, and my conclusion on capacitors would be that they aren’t feasible,” he says. “Most PhDs are irrelevant. The number that actually move the needle is almost none.”

[…]

“I thought about the things that will truly affect humanity,” he says. “I came up with three: the internet, sustainable energy, and space travel.”

[…]

Musk had come up with an idea for an internet company during his final year at Penn, when an executive from NYNEX came to speak about the phone company’s plans to launch an online version of the Yellow Pages. Dubbed “Big Yellow,” it would have interactive features so that users could tailor the information to their personal needs, the executive said. Musk thought (correctly, as it turned out) that NYNEX had no clue how to make it truly interactive. “Why don’t we do it ourselves?” he suggested to Kimbal, and he began writing code that could combine business listings with map data. They dubbed it the Virtual City Navigator.

[…]

Nicholson, who had a PhD from Stanford, did not equivocate. “The internet revolution only comes once in a lifetime, so strike while the iron is hot,” he told Musk as they walked along the shore of Lake Ontario. “You will have lots of time to go to graduate school later if you’re still interested.” When Musk got back to Palo Alto, he told Ren he had made up his mind. “I need to put everything else on hold,” he said. “I need to catch the internet wave.”

He actually hedged his bets. He officially enrolled at Stanford and then immediately requested a deferral. “I’ve written some software with the first internet maps and Yellow Pages directory,” he told Bill Nix, the material science professor. “I will probably fail, and if so I would like to come back.” Nix said it would not be a problem for Musk to defer his studies, but he predicted that he would never come back.

Most kids get very little out of school

Tuesday, November 14th, 2023

Austin Scholar, a gifted teenager at the unconventional Alpha school in Austin, commented on X (Twitter) that “half of our graduating seniors score the EXACT same on standardized tests as the highest-performing 3rd graders,” suggesting that, “kids are literally wasting nine years of their lives,” accompanied by this table of math test scores for the top half of test-takers from kindergarten through 12th grade:

MAP Spring Mathematics Student Achievement Percentiles with Austin Scholar's Annotations
Many kids are getting very little out of school, but that’s not what this comparison shows. This comparison shows that gifted children can move through the curriculum far, far faster than they’re allowed to.

What shows that most kids get very little out of school is the curve of the median student’s performance, which climbs nicely for the first few grades and then almost levels off, so that a typical 12th-grader knows almost nothing more than a typical 8th-grader.

Since the typical student learns roughly nothing in high school, it’s a waste of everyone’s time to keep them there, going through the motions.

(School does provide childcare and juvenile detention, though.)

These are MAP test results, by the way. When you look at the lower and upper halves, the results are even more revealing:

MAP Spring Mathematics Student Achievement Percentiles 1-49
MAP Spring Mathematics Student Achievement Percentiles 50-99

The top 1st-graders outperform many 12th-graders.

The bottom 13 percent of 12th-graders are obviously not scholars, but one 7th-grader per couple classrooms (98th percentile) has the fundamental skills of a college-bound senior (90th percentile).

He came away with an impression that the bank was a lot dumber than in fact it was

Sunday, November 12th, 2023

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonElon Musk’s superpower is chutzpah, although Walter Isaacson doesn’t put it that way (in his biography of Elon):

When Kimbal moved to Canada and joined Elon as a student at Queen’s, the brothers developed a routine. They would read the newspaper and pick out the person they found most interesting. Elon was not one of those eager-beaver types who liked to attract and charm mentors, so the more gregarious Kimbal took the lead in cold-calling the person. “If we were able to get through on the phone, they usually would have lunch with us,” he

One they picked was Peter Nicholson, the executive in charge of strategic planning at Scotiabank. Nicholson was an engineer with a master’s degree in physics and a PhD in math. When Kimbal got through to him, he agreed to have lunch with the boys. Their mother took them shopping at Eaton’s department store, where the purchase of a $99 suit got you a free shirt and tie. At lunch they discussed philosophy and physics and the nature of the universe. Nicholson offered them summer jobs, inviting Elon to work directly with him on his three-person strategic planning team.

Nicholson, then forty-nine, and Elon had fun together solving math puzzles and weird equations. “I was interested in the philosophical side of physics and how it related to reality,” Nicholson says. “I didn’t have a lot of other people to talk to about these things.”

Elon researched Latin American debt for Nicholson, but the bank wouldn’t fund his “sure thing”:

“He came away with an impression that the bank was a lot dumber than in fact it was,” Nicholson says. “But that was a good thing, because it gave him a healthy disrespect for the financial industry and the audacity to eventually start what became PayPal.”

Musk also drew another lesson from his time at Scotiabank: he did not like, nor was he good at, working for other people. It was not in his nature to be deferential or to assume that others might know more than he did.

Musk’s college-admissions test scores were not especially notable

Sunday, November 5th, 2023

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonElon Musk is certainly bright, but he’s not superhuman, at least not according to his test scores and grades, as reported by Walter Isaacson (in his biography of Elon):

Musk’s college-admissions test scores were not especially notable. On his second round of the SAT tests, he got a 670 out of 800 on his verbal exam and a 730 on math.

[…]

During his first year, Musk got A’s in Business, Economics, Calculus, and Computer Programming, but he got B’s in Accounting, Spanish, and Industrial Relations. The following year, he took another course in Industrial Relations, which studies the dealings between workers and management. Again, he got a B. He later told the Queen’s alumni magazine that the most important thing he learned during his two years there was “how to work collaboratively with smart people and make use of the Socratic method to achieve commonality of purpose,” a skill, like those of industrial relations, that future colleagues would notice had been only partly honed.

He seldom finishes anything

Monday, October 23rd, 2023

Elon Musk by Walter IsaacsonElon Musk was a good student, Walter Isaacson’s notes (in his biography of Elon), but not a superstar:

When he was nine and ten, he got A’s in English and Math. “He is quick to grasp new mathematical concepts,” his teacher noted. But there was a constant refrain in the report card comments: “He works extremely slowly, either because he dreams or is doing what he should not.” “He seldom finishes anything. Next year he must concentrate on his work and not daydream during class.” “His compositions show a lively imagination, but he doesn’t always finish in time.” His average grade before he got to high school was 83 out of 100.

After he was bullied and beaten in his public high school, his father moved him to a private academy, Pretoria Boys High School. Based on the English model, it featured strict rules, caning, compulsory chapel, and uniforms. There he got excellent grades in all but two subjects: Afrikaans (he got a 61 out of 100 his final year) and religious instruction (“ not extending himself,” the teacher noted). “I wasn’t really going to put a lot of effort into things I thought were meaningless,” he says. “I would rather be reading or playing video games.” He got an A in the physics part of his senior certificate exams, but somewhat surprisingly, only a B in the math part.

He was rejected by 16 out of the 18 colleges he applied to

Friday, October 13th, 2023

Stanley Zhong, 18, is a 2023 graduate of Gunn High School in Palo Alto:

Despite earning 3.97 unweighted and 4.42 weighted GPA, scoring 1590 out of 1600 on the SAT’s and founding his own e-signing startup RabbitSign in sophomore year, he was rejected by 16 out of the 18 colleges he applied to.

[…]

He was denied by: MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UCSD, UCSB, UC Davis, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Cornell University, University of Illinois, University of Michigan, Georgia Tech, Caltech, University of Washington and University of Wisconsin.

His only acceptances: University of Texas and University of Maryland.

He won’t be going to either of those:

Zhong just started his Google job this week,

Storytelling needs to be practiced, just like flying or marksmanship

Monday, September 11th, 2023

Ian Strebel and Matt McKenzie are intelligence officers in the United States Army and Navy, respectively, who have found that creating a compelling narrative takes practice, which traditional military training does not provide:

This can be a big problem for military intelligence professionals — they are trained to deliver intelligence, not to tell stories, so the stories that commanders tell themselves win out. Despite studies showing people are far more likely to remember stories than statistics, the military trains new intelligence professionals to brief intelligence through rote memorization and presentation of information. Neither of us ever received formal training in how to present information and intelligence as a story. This breeds uncreative military intelligence professionals concerned more with being “right” or having all the facts than whether their information is absorbed. Often, when information is presented in this manner, without context, commanders don’t remember what is important or, more importantly, why something is important.

[…]

Militaries have used wargames to train ever since Lieutenant Georg Heinrich Rudolf Johann von Reisswitz introduced the concept to an initially skeptical Prussian General Staff in the early nineteenth century. Very simply, a traditional wargame is a board game that simulates some aspects of military combat. The popular game of Risk is a very simple wargame, while chess can be considered as one of the oldest. Wargames can be successful mediums for training, in part, because the narrative holds players responsible for their actions and emotionally attaches them to the game’s results. Tabletop role-playing games are just the modern evolution of the classic wargame.

[…]

Tabletop role-playing games are unique from traditional wargames because the collaborative nature of the game means that almost anything can happen. The rules of these games only help structure the narrative and determine the consequences of actions. Players are free, even encouraged, to try anything they can imagine within the limits of that narrative. Most tabletop role-playing games have several rulebooks, but, as with military doctrine, the rules do not and cannot account for every eventuality. Instead, games such as Dungeons & Dragons rely on players’ creativity and flexibility to develop and adapt rules as they go. One of the most essential aspects of such games is the application of chance, usually employed by rolling various-sided polyhedral dice, which encourages out-of-the-box thinking for players and Dungeon Masters, especially in the face of catastrophic failure or, just as critical, catastrophic success.

These rules, when applied to wargames, can make them better — we have firsthand experience with this. Ian acted as an observer during a 2023 joint wargame using the Marine Corps’ Operational Wargame System. During the wargame, an experienced aviator wrestled with the decision of whether to use an exquisite munition to attack a threat reconnaissance drone or let the drone continue unimpeded. Recalling recent footage showing a Russian fighter jet dumping fuel on a U.S. surveillance drone, which downed the MQ-9 into the Black Sea, the aviator said he’d do the same. The wargame moderator said it was a “nice try” but that the move was outside the rules. If, instead, they’d abided by tabletop role-playing game rules, the aviator and moderator would play out the situation. Most likely, the moderator or Dungeon Master would determine, on the fly, the probability of the move’s success based on the game-defined attributes of the two aircraft and ask the aviator to roll a die. The Dungeon Master would use the die results to determine success or failure.

An experienced Dungeon Master might further adjudicate the results by applying a range of outcomes based on the die roll. For example, on a twenty-sided die, a roll of a “1” (critical failure) might result in the loss of the friendly aircraft with no damage to the drone, while a roll of “20” (critical success) might down the drone with minimal fuel loss and allow recovery of the drone sensor equipment. Rolls in between could result in varying degrees and combinations of damage and fuel loss to both the friendly aircraft and drone, as deemed reasonable by the Dungeon Master. Simultaneously, the Dungeon Master would determine the enemy’s reaction to this unanticipated event, both tactically and strategically, as well as the opposing force’s long-term adaptation to this move.

This is not so different from a military intelligence professional’s job: think like the enemy, understand their capabilities, develop possible scenarios, and then play the adversary as operators run through their plans. As previously discussed, while service intelligence schools generally teach presenting just a few courses of action, in a real conflict, there are infinite threat scenarios. Modern intelligence professionals must be flexible, responsive, and creative, in both planning and ad hoc operations. The problem is, short of an actual conflict, there are practically no opportunities for these personnel to practice working in a wide-open world — this is where tabletop role-playing games could prove valuable. As Dungeon Masters, military intelligence professionals can build worlds and scenarios and act as the enemy, or red, force. Most importantly, they will learn to respond spontaneously to unexpected player actions — regardless of whether those actions are incredibly clever or incredibly stupid.

In the Netflix series The Diplomat, Keri Russell succinctly described the problem of intelligence storytelling in three short sentences: “Intelligence is a story. A story based on incomplete facts. Life or death decisions turn on whether people buy the story.”

[…]

Dr. James Fielder explained that when games are designed correctly, a synthetic environment is created that becomes real to the players. In such an environment, the learning becomes real even if the risk is not — at least not yet. This is the challenge for both Dungeon Masters and military intelligence professionals. Telling a compelling story that enables others to envision combat environments and the threats within them accurately can be the difference between success and failure.

[…]

Storytelling needs to be practiced, just like flying or marksmanship. Pilots can safely make mistakes in simulators or with instructors in the cockpit. Shooters can miss targets on a range until they understand the weapon firing process. Similarly, Dungeons & Dragons provides intelligence personnel the opportunity to practice storytelling with the ability to make and learn from mistakes. After all, if a dragon kills a party of adventurers because the Dungeon Master wasn’t clear, they can simply try again. There are no second chances when giving an operational intelligence briefing before a strike mission.

Wargaming has seen a resurgence in professional military education, something we wholeheartedly support; games make learning fun, effective, and memorable. But integrating games into this education isn’t enough. The armed services only send a military intelligence professional to formal training a few times over a long military career. Comparatively, tabletop role-playing games can provide regular practice for the skills needed in exercises, wargaming, and the real world. After all, as James Sterrett, chief of the Simulation Education Division at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, said, “Experience is a great teacher and well-designed games can deliver experiences that are tailored to drive home learning.”

They make a better argument for a “free” Kriegsspiel or a Braunstein Game than for D&D, but the basic argument is sound.

He was President of the Society for the Suppression of Useless Knowledge, and for the Completer Obliteration of the Past

Sunday, August 27th, 2023

Jason Crawford recently read Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), and it’s not really about Butlerian Jihad:

It is best known for its warning that machines will out-evolve humans, but rather than dystopian sci-fi, it’s actually political satire. His commentary on the universities is amazingly not dated at all, here’s a taste:

When I talked about originality and genius to some gentlemen whom I met at a supper party given by Mr. Thims in my honour, and said that original thought ought to be encouraged, I had to eat my words at once. Their view evidently was that genius was like offences—needs must that it come, but woe unto that man through whom it comes. A man’s business, they hold, is to think as his neighbours do, for Heaven help him if he thinks good what they count bad. And really it is hard to see how the Erewhonian theory differs from our own, for the word “idiot” only means a person who forms his opinions for himself.

The venerable Professor of Worldly Wisdom, a man verging on eighty but still hale, spoke to me very seriously on this subject in consequence of the few words that I had imprudently let fall in defence of genius. He was one of those who carried most weight in the university, and had the reputation of having done more perhaps than any other living man to suppress any kind of originality.

“It is not our business,” he said, “to help students to think for themselves. Surely this is the very last thing which one who wishes them well should encourage them to do. Our duty is to ensure that they shall think as we do, or at any rate, as we hold it expedient to say we do.” In some respects, however, he was thought to hold somewhat radical opinions, for he was President of the Society for the Suppression of Useless Knowledge, and for the Completer Obliteration of the Past.

Children are not relegated to a child-only world nor deemed too fragile to engage in difficult tasks

Monday, August 14th, 2023

Contemporary parenting in postindustrial societies is characterised by the idea that early childhood experiences are key to successful cognitive and emotional development:

The idea of parental influence is nothing new and, at a first glance, it seems rather banal: who wouldn’t agree, after all, that parents have some sort of influence over their children’s development? However, contemporary parenting (call it what you like: responsive parenting, natural parenting, attachment parenting) goes beyond this simple claim: it suggests that caretakers’ actions have an enormous, long-lasting influence on a child’s emotional and cognitive development. Everything you do – how much you talk to your children, how you feed them, the way you discipline them, even how you put them to bed – is said to have ramifications for their future wellbeing.

This sense of determinism feeds the idea of providing the child with a very specific type of care. As a document on childcare from the World Health Organization (WHO) puts it, parents are supposed to be attentive, proactive, positive and empathetic. Another WHO document lists specific behaviours to adopt: early physical contact between the baby and the mother, repeated eye contact, constant physical closeness, immediate responsiveness to infant’s crying, and more. As the child grows older, the practices change (think of parent-child play, stimulating language skills), yet the core idea remains the same: your child’s physical and emotional needs must be promptly and appropriately responded to, if she is to have an optimal development and a happy, successful life.

Like other such parents, in the first few postpartum months I also engaged, rather unreflectively, in this craze. However, when my son was four months old, during a period ridden with chaos, parental anxiety, sleep deprivation and mental fogginess, my husband and I made the decision to leave Europe. We packed our clothes and a few other things and hopped on a flight to Ecuador. Our final destination: a small Runa Indigenous village of about 500 people in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Our decision wasn’t as mad as it sounds. The Ecuadorian Amazon is where my husband grew up and where his family currently lives. It is also the place where I have been doing research for more than a decade. We wanted to introduce our newborn to our family and friends in the village, and we didn’t think twice before going. I could not yet imagine the repercussions this decision would have on me, both as a mother and as a scholar.

In the first weeks of our stay in my husband’s village, family and neighbours quietly observed how I took care of my son. He was never out of my sight, I was there always for him, promptly responding to (and anticipating) any of his needs. If he wanted to be held or breastfed, I would interrupt any activity to care for him. If he cried in the hammock, I quickly ran to soothe his cries. Our closeness soon became the subject of humour, and then, as the months passed, of growing concern. Nobody ever said anything explicitly to me or my husband. Most Runa Indigenous people – the community to which my husband belongs – are deeply humble and profoundly dislike to tell others how to behave. Yet it became clear that my family and neighbours found my behaviour bizarre, if not at times utterly disconcerting. I did not really understand their surprise nor did I, in the beginning, give it too much thought.

People, however, started rebelling. They did so quietly, without making a fuss, but consistently enough for me to realise that something was going on. For instance, I would leave my baby with his dad to take a short bath in the river and, upon my return, my son would no longer be there. ‘Oh, the neighbour took him for a walk,’ my husband would nonchalantly say, lying in the hammock. Trying desperately not to immediately rush to the neighbours’ house, I would spend the following hours frenetically walking up and down in our yard, pacing and turning at any sudden noise in the hope that the neighbours had finally returned with my son. I was never able to wait patiently for their return, so I often ended up engaging in frantic searches across the village to find my baby, under the perplexed stares of other neighbours. I usually came back home emptyhanded, depressed and exhausted. ‘Stop chasing people! He will be fine,’ my husband would tell me affectionately, giving me the perfect pretext to transform my anxiety into anger for his fastidiously serene and irresponsible attitude. At the end, my son always came back perfectly healthy and cheerful. He was definitely OK. I was not.

On another occasion, a close friend of ours who was about to return to her house in the provincial capital (a good seven hours from our village) came to say goodbye. She took my son in her arms. She then told me: ‘Give him to me. I will bring him to my house, and you can have a bit of rest.’ Unsure whether she was serious or not, I simply giggled in response. She smiled and left the house with my son. I watched her walking away with him and I hesitated a few minutes. I did not want to look crazy: surely she was not taking away my five-month-old son? I begged my husband to go to fetch our baby just in case she really wanted to take him away. When we finally found them, she was already sitting in the canoe, holding my son in her lap. ‘Oh, you want him back?’ she asked me with a mischievous laugh. To this day I am not sure whether she would have really taken him or whether she was just teasing me.

As an anthropologist, I admit, I should have known better. Scholars who work on parenting and childrearing have consistently shown that, outside populations defined as WEIRD (white, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic), children are taken care of by multiple people, not solely their mothers.

[…]

If the idea of an exclusive, preponderant relationship between mother and son might have seemed alien to our Runa family, equally strange, if not plain wrong, was the idea that a child’s needs should be always and promptly met by her caretakers. This is another central idea of current parenting philosophies: children’s emotions, needs and desires should be not merely accommodated, but also promptly, consistently and appropriately responded to. This translates into a form of care that is highly child-centred, whereby children are treated as equal conversational partners, praised for their achievements, encouraged to express their desires and emotions, stimulated through pedagogical play and talk, often with considerable investment of time and resources.

[…]

What these accounts, which claim roots in anthropology, fail to reflect is that, outside of postindustrial affluent societies, no matter how cherished, children are very rarely the centre of adults’ lives. For instance, Runa children, while affectionately cared for, are not the main focus of their parents’ attention. In fact, nothing is adjusted to suit a child’s needs. No canoe trip under a merciless sun is modified to meet the needs of a baby, let alone of an older child. No meal is organised around the needs of a young child. Parents do not play with their children and do not engage in dialogical, turn-taking conversations with them from an early age. They do not praise their children’s efforts, nor are they concerned with the expression of their most intimate needs. Adults certainly do not consider them as equal conversational partners. The world, in other words, does not revolve around children.

This is because children are not relegated to a child-only world nor deemed too fragile to engage in difficult tasks. From an early age, Runa children participate fully in adults’ lives, overhearing complex conversations between adults on difficult topics, helping with domestic tasks, taking care of their younger siblings. Participating in the adult world means that sometimes children can get frustrated, or denied what they want, or feel deeply dependent on others. At the same time, there is so much that they gain: they learn to pay close attention to interactions around them, to develop independence and self-reliance, and to forge relationships with their peers. Most importantly, in this adult world, they are constantly reminded that other people – their parents, their family members, their neighbours, their siblings and peers – also have desires and intentions.