Thursday, March 23, 2017

An obituary

What the deceased may well have taken the most joy in.
David Rockefeller was in at the conception of many other things — Manhattan property deals including the sites for the United Nations, and the former Twin Towers; the foundation of the Trilateral Commission, and so forth. It’s all in the obituaries somewhere. But these were mere flexings of money and power. The discovery and entrapment of a new beetle throws all such accomplishments into the shade, and makes the life of a plutocrat worth living.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


Did you ever wonder why you can't seem to balance things on your head the way so many Africans can? This article claims that as they grew up carrying burdens that way, their skeletons adapted to carry the weight directly. If I try, my neck muscles wind up handling a lot of the effort, and it hurts. The story seems plausible to me. Ouch.

Never mind exoskeleton stuff.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Book learning

One little problem with growing up in a white-collar family, and holding a white-collar job, is that when something needs fixing and the budget won't stretch to have a pro do it, you have to rely on the do-it-yourself manuals. (These days Youtube is a wonderful help!) I bless my father for having me work in the Ricks maintenance shop one summer, but there were a lot of things left to learn.

It turns out the Chinese had a proverb that describes the situation nicely: "It is when you are using what you have learned from books that you wish you had read more."

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Necronomicon, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray

I tend to get a bit rebellious when books are forbidden, and this one is treated like Mein Kampf in the circles I work in. (I don’t need to read that; he spelled out in blood what he meant.) And in light of the recent attack at Middlebury this seems timely.

Their Chapter 22 (A Place for All) overlaps a bit with things I’ve been worrying about, and most of their suggestions seem reasonable—though their idea that government aid for children be cut is a deserved non-starter.

Start at the beginning. (I skipped the appendices, btw.) They say society is becoming more stratified and the castes are becoming more and more isolated from each other, mediated only by pop culture which is dominated by one of the castes. This seems clear and true enough.

Then they go on to give an exposition of which social issues are and which are not highly correlated with IQ. Here I want to tear my hair. They show beautiful curves displaying how IQ correlates better with income or crime than does parental socio-economic status or education. But there are no error bars or scatter plots (like this) and I have no way of evaluating the comparisons—especially since sometimes the tails on each side have smaller statistics and are less well measured.

But let’s stipulate that the results are largely accurate (for the time being—I have 2 other books to read that are intended to refute this book).

They take a little time to worry about "dysgenics"—that with IQ (or "g", hereafter g/IQ) being strongly hereditary, when the smarter have fewer children, the overall average intelligence will drop, and the rate of really brilliant folk will drop even more. I’d think this one of the controversial sections. I think their model of society is a bit simplistic—the machine we built relies invisibly on qualities other than technological expertise—courage in battle, for example. And it relies on virtue, which I've never found to be correlated with intelligence one way or another. And I’ve often read the complaint that the engineers with the brainpower work for companies run by the guys who majored in beer and blondes--and networking.

Then H&M go into differences in g/IQ between populations. I notice that many people are unable to distinguish between statements about populations and about individuals. H&M do, and try to emphasize that point. They try.

They claim that the average measured g/IQ of Americans of African ancestry is substantially (1 standard deviation) lower than that of those of European ancestry, which in turn is lower than the average for Japanese and Han Chinese. If IQ is the measure of human worth, this is a really big deal—but I don’t believe that and H&M claim not to believe it either. Let me repeat that: human worth and dignity have nothing to do with intelligence or education or family background.

The proper first question about such a difference is not “Is this insulting” or “Will this lead to evil” but “Is this true?”

H&M cite plenty of statistics, and if I do a back of the envelope calculation using statistics from my field, I get similar numbers (restricting my sample to Americans—there was a brilliant Nigerian in our group for a while).

If this is correct, it destroys the iron rice bowl of the “disparate impact” industry. They’ve fought tooth and nail against the idea, as have a generation or 3 of education fadsters.

But it isn’t enough to have the right enemies.

H&M go on to review what has been tried, and what the results have been. Poor nutrition or early disease can stunt the brain, and great progress has already been made in dealing with these—though they think, and common sense suggests, that we hit diminishing returns long ago in this country. (Except possibly for pre-natal nutrition.) Head Start, as implemented, is worthless. (I examined Head Start’s report back in 2013 and came to the same conclusion--by grade 3 there was no effect.)

One thing that helped seriously at-risk children was adoption at birth—but this was not tested for less at-risk children, and as a policy this falls under the category of Like Hell You Will.

Some education seems to have an effect, but H&M didn’t say whether these studies were successfully replicated.

Me talking: One thing that nagged at me was the description of backwoods whites in Kingdom of Cotton. This was a seriously pathological society—feckless, uneducated, and to all appearances dull-witted. A century and a half later things didn’t look nearly so bad in that population, though drugs and lack of jobs have apparently started to make a mess of them since then.

Me talking: How g/IQ gets expressed is going to be a function of good luck (disease and environment, for example) and discipline. And if the very notion of being paper-tested is alien, you may do less well than you would with some practice (e.g. the moderate but limited increase in SAT scores with practice). And perhaps education needs to be differently structured for those at the left side, or those with chaotic families.

Me talking: Other inborn skills aren’t easy to paper-test for: musical, athletic, being able to sense what another person is feeling (as opposed to Asperger’s), and so on. Some of these matter a lot.

At any rate, they go on to worry about an increasingly stratified future in which a cognitive elite try to put the rest “on reservations”, so to speak. The Last Psychiatrist opined that prescription drugs were effectively if not intentionally used to zone out many of the underclass. Be that as it may, a “reservation” society won’t work—the inhabitants will burn it down and whatever else they can reach.

The final chapter has policy suggestions.

Chuck disparate impact but keep other parts of affirmative action; chuck civil union benefits (if you won’t commit why should we?); re-evaluate education structure; decentralize regulation so that more is decided locally—and more simply, so interactions aren't too complicated for the slower (Have you read the 1040 instructions?); simplify what you can in law and regulation; and don’t offer benefits for extra children.

The last point won’t fly, and shouldn't.

Decentralization of authority starkly opposes the principles of 1 ½ of our 2 political parties. The affirmative action industry wants to grow, not shrink, and claims that traditional morality is good are met with howls of hatred.

I can see why it raises a stir.

BTW, one of the things that complicates the field is the Flynn effect--that g/IQ scores have been rising since tests were introduced. That makes calibration difficult. Are they rising because education actually improves raw intelligence, or because people are just getting used to tests and therefore getting better at it (e.g. like practice for the SAT)?

Now for a rebuttal.

The Bell Curve Wars edited by Fraser, is a collection of essays arguing with the Bell Curve. I list the authors below.

  • Steven Gould: His description of "factor analysis" seems interesting, but his claim that the spike in g vanishes and turns into spikes in other "intelligences" if you rotate the parameter space, and that therefore the spike isn’t important, sounds backwards. He gripes about the lack of scatter plots.
  • Howard Garder: Often disingenuous—or maybe he didn’t read thoroughly.
  • Richard Nisbett: Cites lots of studies challenging the black white g/IQ gap. Hurray for Nisbett! He actually addresses some of their research!
  • Rosen and Lane: Ad hominem from the get-go. Rubbish.
  • Ramos: Addresses a few points
  • Sowell: Addresses issues of testing among white groups, questions its reliability
  • Jones: Ad hominem from the get-go and –oh look, slavery! Rubbish
  • Gates: Ad hominem, but mercifully short.
  • Andrew Hacker: Claims that tests are biased and points out the ranges in white g/IQ by ethnicity, and then indulges in mind-reading.
  • Wolfe: Questions the claim that America is developing a cognitive elite class.
  • Judis: Attacks H&M dysgenic claims
  • Kaus: Argues about the genetic vs environment, but is also disingenuous—if racial differences are prenatal, changing that would require massive and intrusive intervention.
  • Glozer: Asserts that H&M shortchange environmental effects, challenges their “utopia.”
  • Peretz: Why don’t we all get along.
  • Wiesaltier: Ad hominem, seems almost proud of his ignorance.
  • Pearson: Blacks have had it bad, and H&M will discourage them.
  • Lind: “Right wing” political history—recognizes role of religion in supporting human equality, but thinks it “ironic.”
  • Kennedy: Bell Curve is bad; people who read it are bad.
  • Patterson: H&M put in references to material which challenges their direction, and draw the reader’s attention to it—therefore the work has “self-contradictions.” His genetic argument doesn’t sound correct—he implies that intelligence is selected-for and then offers an example where propensity for violence is. If both can be, then his formula is wrong.

A few essays do deserve some followup. I’ll not spend the time myself—there are others who address this sort of detail, and I don't intend to spend what few years I have left trying to become an expert in this field. I think I'll skip the third book.

In any event, one of the thrusts of the book is barely dealt with. How to close the gap may be disputed, but the existence of the gap seems not to be. Given that gap, and given that we’re all in this together, what can we do to make sure there is a dignified role for everyone right now?

Maybe some combination of education and encouragement and pre-natal nutrition and whatever may raise the average black achievement—but if that only helps those who are children now, it doesn’t tell us how to structure things for today's adults. And Hacker points out that gaps exist among white ethnicities too—it isn’t a strictly racial divide.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Unintended consequences

AKA The Dog in the Manger

September 20, 2016 : The University of California, Berkeley, has announced that it may eliminate free online content rather than comply with a U.S. Justice Department order that it make the content accessible to those with disabilities.

And today I read that:

Today, the University of California at Berkeley has deleted 20,000 college lectures from its YouTube channel. Berkeley removed the videos because of a lawsuit brought by two students from another university under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

We copied all 20,000 and are making them permanently available for free via LBRY.

I don't think this was the intent of the ADA. Not that it matters anymore. Seriously--retrofit 20000 videos so they're suitable for the blind or the deaf? Not remotely feasible. Even the best transcription software still has (last I heard) 5% error rates, and I know no way to turn blackboard sketches of Feynman diagrams into something tactile.


When I was in high school I learned a little about Soviet education, and heard of "socialist science." That struck me as an utter obscenity--and still does. "Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason."

It is surely true that technology should serve good ends, but the first end it must serve is to be real. A free energy machine would do wonders for the impoverished of the world and so would a magic elixir that cured all diseases. The first end science and mathematics must work toward is to be true--not to be socially relevant or uplifting.

I get it that some statements may be true, but not good to say, because they mislead the careless--especially when taken in isolation. We've all heard lies told using nothing but true statements. But that doesn't change the fundamental question--is the statement true? (A statement may need clarification: it's a basic rule in science that you don't have a measurement if all you have is a number. You need the contents and the uncertainty too.)

The more dramatic stories make the news because they're not normal, but you don't have to look far to find plenty of similar attacks. Solipsistic claims that logical analysis is "oppressive" or "a tool of the patriarchy" or enabled by "white privilege" suggest a hunger for madness, and tell of an obscene idolatry of the tribe.

Sunday, March 12, 2017


God doesn't seem to want to be associated with magic. There's a command about not taking His name in vain, and rules about avoiding divination. Anything that goes "Do X and get a miracle" seems to be off the table. Jesus said that whatever we asked in His name would be given, but it must have been obvious from pretty nearly day 1 that that didn't mean just tagging on "in Jesus' name." (Though we do that anyway.)

Jesus healed in a number of different ways, and when Moses got peeved with the Israelite's complaining and said very free translation "Don't you nitwits remember how we got water for you last time?" and hit the rock again instead of speaking to it, God called Moses on the carpet about it. That seems like a small matter to us, but God thought it was a big deal. I suspect doing things the same way over and over is an invitation to try to use the procedure magically--with us in control rather than God. We like simple patterns and procedures: "Want water, hit the rock with Moses' staff." Actually being in a relationship with God is more complicated.

I remember the scheduled "Revival" services. Many weeks in advance we'd be told a revival preacher was coming, and we needed to invite people and be ready for revival. It sounds a little like magic, doesn't it? Crank up the volume and get the kids rocking, and you'll have the Holy Spirit inspiring the youth. Magic. Have 24-hour prayer services and the Lord will work. And He probably will, somehow, but sometimes the response takes a very long time. If I have the numbers right, Monica prayed for Augustine for about 17 years.

It's so tempting to feel in control.

Saturday, March 11, 2017


Democracy is the word with which you must lead them by the nose. The good work which our philological experts have already done in the corruption of human language makes it unnecessary to warn you that they should never be allowed to give this word a clear and definable meaning. They won’t. It will never occur to them that democracy is properly the name of a political system, even a system of voting, and that this has only the most remote and tenuous connection with what you are trying to sell them. Nor of course must they ever be allowed to raise Aristotle’s question: whether “democratic behaviour” means the behaviour that democracies like or the behaviour that will preserve a democracy. For if they did, it could hardly fail to occur to them that these need not be the same.


”If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?”

In recent years the West has grown very rich and productive by leveraging technology and analytical skills. You can boast of Chinese or Indian or Hellenist or Roman civilizations (and the more we learn the grander their accomplishments look)—but nothing on Earth had the scope and power and inclusion of the modern West. It would not have risen so high without the others (including the forgotten plant breeders in South America and Asia), but although other civilizations had the same opportunity none produced and distributed so much wealth and knowledge.

I don’t hear the horrid phrase “information economy” as much as I used to, but I see no shortage of people who still think it would be a good thing. And no shortage of people who have no clear idea of where food comes from, or why education costs money, and so on.

We’ve shaped a lot of our attitudes and procedures to honor and reward those analytical skills and production. A little history shows this wasn’t always so—sometimes the tradesman is despised; often warriors are the most highly honored. You can argue that we’re rich because we honor service, and I think that is part of the story (Rodney Stark’s Why the West Won has another take on it).

Is this a stable way to organize society? Can we keep growing like this forever? No and no.

First, there doesn’t seem to be any stable way to organize people. Second, Darwin has a word or two for us. The birth rate has dropped through the floor among those clever and productive people. After a while there aren’t going to be very many of us.

This latter problem is masked by immigration. But if our culture succeeded in spreading throughout the world, and everyone was part of the rich West, there’d be no place to immigrate from.

And in the meantime, it has not escaped notice that not all immigrants value the same things as us Westerners. Everybody loves the trappings and the productivity, but what makes it go is the reward for service and analytical skill here. It is not hard to find places deficient in both—even in the West. You have no reason to expect that the Western culture will stay the same, and therefore no reason to expect that the preconditions for continued growth in productivity and wealth will still be there. So no—this will not grow forever and ever into the stars.

I’ve read but not been able to verify that typically through history the richer have had more children than the poorer. Perhaps when wealth reaches a high enough level this reverses—Octavius tried all sorts of things to encourage Romans to have children, and the Swedes and Spanish wound up in the news for their proposals along those lines.

We’ve built an amazing machine that is feeding and clothing and sometimes healing at a wonderful rate. If we focus on the machine, its inputs and operations and output, we necessarily focus on things and rules, not people. Things and rules risk becoming the most important things, especially when we start believing our own advertising. We want the machine to grow, so everybody eligible needs to be a part of it. “Don’t stay at home, go work in the machine!”

You’ll notice that more religious people are, other things being equal, both more generous and more fertile. They are encouraged to focus on things besides stuff and procedures. If I read correctly, the ancient Chinese, with their emphasis on filial piety, similarly reproduced themselves at all economic levels. But my source may not have been answering that exact question, so I’m not sure.

Without children we’re rich in stuff but don’t have much of a future. Herbert Spencer would say our society isn’t “fit.” Darwin didn’t coin that phrase.(*)

But it gets worse. If you’re reading this you are one of the elite. You read well enough to read for pleasure and instruction, and you seek out that instruction. I can readily point you to people who don’t read for pleasure, and some who read only with difficulty. My wife works with some illiterate people. No amount of job training will put one of those people in the job I do at work. None. Just because these folks aren’t part of your circle doesn’t mean they aren’t there—and there’s not that much for them to do.

In other society with clear roles and expectations they can almost all marry and raise children. We don’t supply much of those. We have little work for them, and what there is gets almost no respect. We joke about "burger flippers" as though that were demeaning. We supply the unemployed with food and clothing and shelter, but not with anything useful to do.

The devil finds work for idle hands to do—and has.

Some dream of a world where robots do all the work and people pursue arts and philosophy. I work with some of these dreamers. Those folks live in their own bubble. For most of us that sort of life will never be an option--we need some other ways of participating in communal life.

The pleasure palace is so tempting—entertainment and interesting work to do—but only some of us can work there, and those who do tend to get caught up in it and leave no heirs. I can look around at work and see examples. We had 2 children when I got my PhD, but that’s not so common—the special high intensity training you endure excludes a lot of time for family, so people often have kids later. Screwtape’s point applies: the behavior that an “information economy” likes isn’t the behavior that will preserve it.

Parenthetically, monks and nuns don’t have kids either, but generally the rest made up for it.

Making room for lower skilled people in the machine would probably make the machine slower and more expensive. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the unemployed/currently unemployable were physically better off on the dole than in a land with more expensive food and stuff. I, unlike the Unabomber, claim no answers and no plans. I notice that, as expected, raising the minimum wage increased the amount of automation and reduced the number of low-skill jobs. On the other hand, without something like that, those without rare skills can wind up in a race to the bottom in wages.

Paul’s question suggests that a different way of looking at things might help. Of the people I’ve worked with over the past few decades, typically only the oldest had done any military service, and quite a few of the younger folks disdain it. War is destructive, and they want to be part of a constructive and learning machine. It turns out that doesn’t make wars impossible (funny that).

We have to honor non-“machine” skills too. It isn’t hard to honor things like military or firefighter service—it’s been done lots of times, and with a little coaxing almost anybody can say nice things about them. It’s a little harder to honor chimney-sweeps and baggers, but it’s worth a try. Making sure there’s economic room for them to thrive is harder.

(*) Please never use the phrase about an individual. I'm talking about the society as a whole, not particular people. Some people can't marry, some can't raise children, some are ill, some can't conceive children, some are called to celibacy--I know examples of all of these.

Mirror, mirror

Doug Aitken's Mirage house is part of an art exhibition, and presumably will be dismantled long before dried raindrops blur the sides and birds and squirrels leave their marks. Though there's not much rain, and probably not many birds and squirrels, so it might stay pristine for quite a while.

The interior is mirror-lined too, which I suppose gives the feeling of extra space if the mirrors are properly aligned. Or you might feel alone among multitudes--pick one.

Setting aside issue of fragility and keeping it clean, it's an interesting idea. In the desert sun it might help keep you cooler. (Although once the house does get hot it may not radiate heat away very well.)

Indoor mirrors I'm not so keen on--I get distracted by motion in my field of view, and if each automatic scratch-my-head turns into a head-swivel I'll have trouble concentrating on the problem.

When I try to imagine how it would look from various directions--most of the time it doesn't "blend into the background." It would stand out rather dramatically, especially at sunset.

Imagine trying to play hide-and-seek in a neighborhood of such houses. For that matter, imagine driving through the neighborhood at night!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Cellphone and laptops

A breathless story suggests that new phone company unlimited plans may make WiFi obsolete, and mean that coffee-shops may quit offering WiFi to customers. You've seen people turning a table into an office--will that be no more?

(If the headline is a question, the answer is no.) But never mind that, what are the tools used for?

When I look at what people around me are doing, the laptops are often used for "productivity:" emails, composing documents, looking at spreadsheets. Most of the phones and tablets are used for reading emails/facebook, playing games, and taking pictures/movies. It isn't easy to use the tiny screen to type on, and there's not much screen real estate for side-by-side comparison or cut and paste.

I've seen people watching movies on laptops (done it myself) and reading books on laptops (done it myself) and gotten work-related emails from somebody's cellphone, so there are plenty of exceptions, but by and large it looks like laptops in the coffee-shop are for production and cell phones are for consumption.

I suspect that there will still be enough people wanting to do something more than just read emails to keep the laptop and WiFi businesses afloat.

At least until somebody comes up with a robust folding screen and keyboard, and starts selling pocket-sized phones that unfold to give laptop-size screens.

Fire came down

The fire came down and he saw what a fool he’d been. With eyes fixed on the burning altar, he wrenched the emblem from his neck and slung it to the ground. He should have known—he knew—that crude statue beside him was no god. He pushed through the others, ran to the trench, and threw himself down full length before it, holding his polluted hands up away from holy ground. The heat blistered his shaved scalp and inflamed his bleeding arms and sides, but he did not move. Better die for presumption than live with such a lie. He wished the fire would burn away his past.

Caleb heard the prophet command "Take them all—let not one escape" and stride down the slope.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017


Now and then I think back on high school. The school I graduated from was small, not cheap, and very multinational. It is hard, in retrospect, to say I was top of the class--the skills of the other candidates weren't in quite the same directions--but in any case, as far as intellectual horsepower went, I had it. I wasn't rich or athletic or well-connected, and a bit shy to be a good entertainer. But I was sharp, and I played it for all the honor I could.

Wisdom, though... High-schoolers rarely overflow with wisdom. But even in that crowd,I was decidedly mediocre.

Since then I've learned to know I was often a fool, which is something, anyway. I don't know about the rest of that group. A few I see on Facebook, but that isn't designed to showcase wisdom, so I have no idea.

Which leads in turn to the question: What would be different if we honored wisdom as much as smarts?

I don't mean that everybody would be wise (though wanting to be is a step down that road). I mean things like less automatic enthusiasm for the ideas of the "new blood." Maybe the intern has some ground-breaking new ideas, and the old geezers can get stuck in a rut. But typically the intern isn't the second coming of Einstein. College students are subject to some of the silliest fads--some of them quite old--but they don't know any better yet.

Maybe one other difference would be more silence. There'd still be plenty of advertising nonsense--love of money is a big deal in all societies--but perhaps the click-bait would be different.

Politicians would be little better than they are now. I think their pretenses would be different.

You might hope that there'd be a little shift in how wisely people behaved when others were watching. How many will root for adjusting our values a little, if it gets rid of celebrity selfies?