Monday, July 29, 2013


Andrew Sullivan, riffing on the statement of Pope Francis about gays, Lexuses, and other matters.

One of the most telling things about Jesus is that he did not elucidate a theology. It had to be inferred by Paul. Jesus merely told stories of great charm and mystery. But he also clearly transformed the lives of those he encountered by the way in which he lived and died. It was that that convinced so many that this human being wasn’t just any other human being, that the divine had somehow transformed him, and he could transform others.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Teaching Students How to Think

In my debates with the anti-MOOCitariat, one of the most frequent claims made for the in-person professoriat is that they "teach students how to think."

I was talking recently to a entrepreneur who had been involved in trying to set up a program in his industry at a local University. He described how the committee of young professors and he had worked out what skills an entry level person in his industry needed and were all in general agreement. At that point the Dean showed up. He pronounced that the University could not be a "trade school" school because that wasn't what they did. What they did do, said the Dean, was teach people how to think.

At this point, the entrepreneur gave up in disgust. You can teach people skills, he said, but nobody ever taught anybody how to think. My instinct was to agree, but I had a nagging feeling that there were parts of the thinking process that could be taught. How to analyze a problem or an argument, for example.

So how do we do that? Mostly, I think, by having people solve problems and analyze arguments. And the perfect context for doing so usually arises in teaching people the skills of the occupations they desire. Of course some subjects are better suited for this than others. History majors robably don't get that much practice in burger flipping.

Rehab: The Modern Refuge for Scoundrels

The modern recourse for anyone (or anyone wealthy enough) caught in public misbehavior is rehab. San Diego Mayor Bob Filner tries it out.

If Hitler were alive today he wouldn't kill himself but instead promise to do six months intensive rehab.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

More Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton is a big fan of the medieval period and of the Catholic Church. He may not be an entirely reliable reporter, but has some interesting ideas. One of them is the notion that medieval times were an age of great human progress, perhaps especially in England. He credits the Church with the major influence in transforming a world of landholders and agricultural slaves into first serfs and later peasant proprietors. He also sees nascent democracy and egalitarianism in medieval institutions of guilds and charters.

At the beginning of the Dark Ages the great pagan cosmopolitan society now grown Christian was as much a slave state as old South Carolina. By the fourteenth century it was almost as much a state of peasant proprietors as modern France. No laws had been passed against slavery; no dogmas even had condemned it by definition; no war had been waged against it, no new race or ruling caste had repudiated it; but it was gone. This startling and silent transformation is perhaps the best measure of the pressure of popular life in the Middle Ages, of how fast it was making new things in its spiritual factory.

Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2012-05-12). A Short History of England (p. 44). . Kindle Edition.

He is less impressed with more recent times, where he sees a warrior guild transformed into an aristocracy and now to what he calls a mere plutocracy.

His contempt for the plutocrats was conceived nearly a century ago, as he wrote in 1927, but his notions resonate again today as the plutocrats once again have seized more and more power.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Favorite Royal Birth Headline

From Josh Marshall:

Bizarro fairyland country decides helpless newborn infant will be future head of state.

Monday, July 22, 2013

A Short History of England

I've been reading G. K. Chesterton's

A Short History of England
. It's not so much a history as some idiosyncratic commentaries on English history from an unconventional point of view. One early comment that got my attention:

...the Romans returned and turned Britain into a Roman province, they continued to display a singular indifference to questions that have excited so many professors. What they cared about was getting and giving in Britain what they had got and given in Gaul. We do not know whether the Britons then, or for that matter the Britons now, were Iberian or Cymric or Teutonic. We do know that in a short time they were Roman.

Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2012-05-12). A Short History of England (Kindle Locations 93-96). . Kindle Edition.

However the Romans found Britain, they left it Roman, says Chesterton. Of course the same is true of much of the rest of Europe, and was true of much of the Middle East and North Africa. Despite repeated invasions from the barbarians of the North, England, he claimed, retained its roman character.

The English, in turn, made Australia, New Zealand and North America English, and the Spanish and Portuguese did similarly leave Central and South America Latin. France left a smaller footprint, but altogether they spread that new Roman wave to big chunks of the globe. The notable exception among the occupied is India.

Ten thousand plus years of separation had left the Aztec and Inca empires lacking in sufficient immunity to resist Eurasian diseases, and sufficient societal resources to resist Spanish civilization. India had thousands of years of contact with the West, and plenty of experience with their germs and Ideas, but even so appears to have been greatly transformed. The project of MacCaulay and his allies to make India English fell well short of success, but the imprint is unmistakable in its institutions and even language. India has far more English speakers than Britain, Canada, and Australia combined - though mostly as a second language, and that fact has played a key role in India's emergence as a modern technological country.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Loose Lips: Worse Consequences

Stephen "The Rifleman" Flemmi let slip to his 26 year-old girlfriend that he and Whitey Bulger were FBI informants. For this, Whitey decided, she had to die, so Flemmi stood by while Bulger strangled her.

Educational Reform

Everyone wants to reform education, but current trends, focusing on high stakes testing and extremely narrow measures of achievement seem more calculated to drive good teachers nuts than actually improve educational outcomes. So many teachers I talk to these days seem desperate to get out. If they have a lot of years in they are trapped by their pension plans. Meanwhile, an ever growing bureaucracy strangles initiative and eats up prep time and teaching time.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Oops! Loose Lips Department

It seems that the leaker of Jo Rowling's pseudonym as mystery novelist has been revealed. A lawyer for her law firm leaked it to his wife's best friend.

Through her publicist, Ms. Rowling released a statement saying that she was “disappointed.”

“A tiny number of people knew my pseudonym and it has not been pleasant to wonder for days how a woman whom I had never heard of prior to Sunday night could have found out something that many of my oldest friends did not know,” she said. “I had assumed that I could expect total confidentiality from Russells, a reputable professional firm and I feel very angry that my trust turned out to be misplaced.”

Well the friend got her ten minutes of notoriety. I would guess that she will lose a best friend, the best friend's husband will lose a cushy job, and his law firm will lose at least one very high profile client.

If Rowling sues, can she claim damages for the extra two million or so she gets in sales?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Corrections

I have now finished Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, and I have to say that it wound up being pretty satisfying. He's a good writer, even if the tribulations of his family of characters are sometimes a bit much. If implausible coincidences aren't your thing, you might disagree, but he does have wit and style.

I sometimes thought of the book as a sort of anti-pornography, in that there are rather explicit descriptions of sex, but never done with any enthusiasm. Another topic close to the heart of the book is food, and while it also rates a lot of semi-technical description, I rarely felt any stirrings of appetite inspired thereby.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Franzen Gets Annoying

Every happy family, said Tolstoy, is the same. The unhappy family in Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections gets annoying pretty quickly. Mainly it gets annoying because the main characters, though otherwise intelligent, are so thoroughly dedicated to making themselves miserable.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Corrections

Jonathan Franzen has a certain penchant for the odd sentence or two, but I suspect he puts them in there just to annoy B R Myers, since he is a wonderful writer. Here is one paragraph that I like - which might also shed some light on the cost of college question:

D—— College, with an elite reputation and a middling endowment, depended for its survival on students whose parents could pay full tuition. To attract these students, the college had built a $ 30 million recreation center, three espresso bars, and a pair of hulking “residence halls” that were less like dorms than like vivid premonitions of the hotels in which the students would book rooms for themselves in their well-remunerated futures. There were herds of leather sofas and enough computers to ensure that no prospective matriculant or visiting parent could enter a room and not see at least one available keyboard, not even in the dining hall or field house.

Franzen, Jonathan (2001-09-15). The Corrections: A Novel (Recent Picador Highlights) (pp. 33-34). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

Minor Miracles

It looks like Pope John Paul II will achieve something gravity hasn't really managed, being canonized. The qualifications seem to be a good cheering section in the appropriate places and two certified miracles. It seems that someone prayed to him and was cured of cancer. I'm not too sure whom the other 100 million or so people with cancer prayed to, but they mostly had less luck.

Still, considering that the guy was Pope of the whole world, one cancer cure seems like a pretty modest result, given the frequency of spontaneous remissions. I'd be more impressed by a more global miracle - say curing everybody's cancer, or maybe just the cancers of all Catholics. You could do it very scientifically, dividing up a large cohort of victims and having half pray to JP and the other half to Martin Luther or somebody.

Don't we need a higher standard for full sainthood of a Pope? A one person miracle might be a nice intervention for the priest of a small village, but really.

Why is College So Expensive?

The inflation rate for a University education has been growing explosively for decades - far faster than inflation and even medical inflation. Opinions on the shape of the Earth differ, here as elsewhere.

This Forbes guy says it's simple: It's a subsidized good. That inflates demand.

The economic logic has a certain truthiness to it, but it's lacking in the specificity I want. If education is sucking up a lot more money, into what is that money going? Lavish amenities for students and staff? Proliferation of new departments and majors (Asian Transgender Text Analysis, anyone?), big money for faculty and administrators, greedy bankers sucking on the bloating corpse of higher ed? I haven't been able to come up with numbers.

Besides, higher education has been a subsidized public good in the US for well over a century. Why was it still dead cheap 40 or 50 years ago?

It's at least plausible that the explosion in private college costs is mostly decoupled from that of public colleges. In the latter case, there has been a huge retreat in the share of the costs that State governments have been willing to pick up. The case can be made that Ronald Reagan's declaration of war on UC Berkeley was the beginning of the Republican retreat from belief in public education. Reagan and Prop 13 began California's retreat from free education to fee education, but by now capitulation by progressive forces has been complete, as Aaron Bady and Mike Konczal tell the story here.

Subsidized college education played a big role in making the US the economic powerhouse of the world. That economic backbone is now under heavy attack, with cost continuing to increase and return on investment declining.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013


Like most of the rest of the people in my department, I'm being furloughed one day a week, which would be OK except that I won't get paid. It seems that the rules are quite strict. Like most other people, federal employees often work a bit more than a 40 hour week, but during furlough, no meetings are allowed to be scheduled before 0800 or after 1600 (4pm). Laptops and Blackberries must be turned off after work and on furlough days. I don't suppose I would be busted if I accidentally stayed a bit after my quitting time, but you never know.

Global View

A frequent topic on this blog has been the question of how a group of tiny, fiercely divided states in Western Europe managed to gain control of much of the world between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries. They did this despite lacking significant advantages in technology, relatively tiny populations, and confrontation with the long established centers of human progress in the East. That, apparently, is one of the subjects of John Darwin's new book After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000, which is one of my latest non-fiction reads - just started.

He begins by reviewing some of the history of history writing on this subject, from naive triumphalism, to Marxist and Marxist-Leninist critiques, to more sophisticated triumphalism ala Max Weber, to the anti-colonial critiques following Edward Said in the 1980s. I take it that he thinks he has a somewhat original vision, but I haven't gotten there yet.

I heard about the book from Josh Marshall, who has a mini review here. He adds the following:

...Europeans were becoming knowledgeable about the totality of the globe, in geographical, civilizational and commercial terms, while the other great world civilizations were not, is a matter of the greatest significance, even though it wasn’t directly related, except in very limited ways, to superior wealth, technology or firepower.

Since Magellan, the West had a global view and perspective. Maybe one key advantage they had was that they could see more of the chessboard than their political rivals in India and elsewhere.

Monday, July 08, 2013


Josh Marshall has a series of simulated images based on various planets being as close as the moon. Jupiter and Saturn get pride of place naturally, but frankly I'd be a little concerned about the 1000 ft. tides.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Liberty and Equality

I've been reading more of Christopher Boehm's books on hierarchy, egalitarianism, and the origins of our moral instincts (Hierarchy in the Forest and Moral Origins). It seems that the human race's political modes have followed a sort of U shaped trajectory. Our close ape relatives are all highly hierarchical, and quite likely we all had some sort of hierarchical society back before the divergence of our species. Modern human hunter-gatherer societies are the closest proxies we have for the way humans lived before the invention of agriculture, and it seems likely that for most of human history, or rather, the prehistory of our current species, we lived very much like them. These modern and recent counterparts seem invariably to be quite egalitarian in the sense that adult males of a band lack regular hierarchies. Since the delopment civilizations, however, we have all been stuck in relatively hierarchical societies. Even our most egalitarian democracies are pretty hierarchical compared to primitie societies.

One important point I've learned from Boehm is that this lack of hierarchy is neither automatic nor effortless. People in such societies compete for status, and their is a good supply of those who would be king, chief, or leader. The reason societies manage to keep these people at bay is that the other members of the society work quite actively against anyone who seeks to put himself first. Those who attempt to use their wits, strength, hunting prowess, magic or other powers to put themselves above their fellows are actively undermined, with a whole battery of group weapons: gossip, ridicule, shunning, banishment, or, if necessary, execution.

It's precisely our human capabilities to plot, plan, and cooperate that make this kind of leveling possible. So why does this appear to break down with the development of civilization? MY guess is that the techniques of leveling that work well in a society of 50 people start to fail when the group gets much larger. Sharing the results of a successful hunt with a dozen other families makes sense. Sharing with a couple of hundred other families makes for pretty small portions all around. Also, information becomes harder to share. Fifty people can know almost everything about each other - not so 1000 people or 1 million. Maybe it's not coincidental that liberty and equality have made some progress since the invention of print, and maybe even some since the internet.

Ten Novels

One of my resolutions for this year was to read ten novels, at least some of them contemporary and literary. So far I've read:

  • Heart of Darkness, by Conrad
  • A Bend in the River, by Naipaul
  • Things Fall Apart, Achebe
  • Infinite Jest, Wallace
  • The Great Gatsby, by Fitzgerald
  • Dracula, by Stoker
  • Hunger Games, by Collins
Any nominees for the rest?  I have a few queued up that I'm not too enthusiastic about (Age of Innocence by Wharton, Frankenstein (Shelley) and another Naipaul.)  Maybe something modern but not too obnoxious.

Friday, July 05, 2013

The New Luddites

Wikipedia reminds us that:

The Luddites /ˈlʌd.aɪts/ were 19th-century English textile artisans who protested against newly developed labour-saving machinery from 1811 to 1817. The stocking frames, spinning frames and power looms introduced during the Industrial Revolution threatened to replace the artisans with less-skilled, low-wage labourers, leaving them without work.

The professors now protesting the onset of the Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) have a lot in common with their counterparts two centuries ago. Like them, they have a well-founded fear that their highly skilled occupations could disappear. Unfortunately, that seems to be the designated doom of a lot of middle class jobs today. I am disappointed in the quality of many of their protests. I'm old enough to know that professors have most of the vices of their fellow humans, but damn, they should at least be smart.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Why is Science Hard?

A new study (gated)by Ralph and Todd Stinebrickner reports that the relatively low number of science, technology, engineering and math graduates is not due to lack of interest in those subjects but by the fact that students planning to major in them find them too difficult. Matt Yglesias and Tyler Cowen have linked and commented, but I have yet to see anything deep on exactly why this is.

I am absolutely confident that this result will surprise absolutely no one who has taught or studied physics or engineering. Anyone who gets an advanced degree in one of these subjects has noticed that they are better at that sort of thing than most of their contemporaries. For the overwhelming majority of us, we are also aware that we are not nearly as good at it as some other members of the profession. What factors account for these differences?

There is a popular meme that it takes about ten thousand hours of fairly intense work to get good at anything "hard," whether it's chess, piano playing, or physics. I don't think that's wrong, and I would guess that it's at least that number for physics or math, but there will still be big disparities after those ten thousand hours. Certainly there are many who aren't willing to put in the effort, but one can hardly rule out talent as a factor.

Is it possible to be more specific about the elements of that talent? I don't claim to know the answer, especially at the higher levels of achievement, but in physics and probably most STEM subjects, our key test of accomplishment is the ability to solve problems. What does it take to solve a physics problem?

The known laws of physics can be written down rather compactly, so solving problems that doesn't require inventing new laws of physics comes down to figuring out how to apply them. So what does it take? A bag of tricks? Ingenuity? Some kind of magic analytical ability?

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Douglas Engelbart 1925-2013

Douglas Engelbart invented the computer mouse and played a key role in the development of text editors, hypertext, windows, and the internet. So far as I know, none of these activities made him fabulously wealthy, though he did achieve belated fame.

His life is another illustration of the principle that great wealth comes not to those who make great inventions, but to those who figure out how to extract rents from those inventions - the Gates and Jobs of the world.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Math MOOCs

MOOC providers seem to be producing a few math courses, but most of them aren't on a level I think I would like. Coursera is offering a new course in Complex Analysis which slightly tempts me. Now it's true that I have taken a course or three in Complex Analysis before, but that was a long time ago, and I can't remember using it for decades. Maybe I might learn (or relearn) something.