Monthly Archives: November 2011

True School Believers

A few weeks ago I met the head of a prestigious institute devoted to studying and promoting college education. He disapproved of Bryan Caplan’s writings skeptical of college social value, and felt so strongly that at one point he broke off our conversation to compose himself. Yet when I raised the point that most students don’t seem to ever use much of what they learn, he agreed and endorsed the view that college mainly helps students hone work habits, a view I find plausible and first heard from Tyler.

In a long review of education reform books, Steven Brint, who directs a similar pro-college institute, also ends up endorsing a similar view:

A few jobs require specialized skills that can only be acquired in technical programs, but most jobs are relatively routine. They require workers to know basic literacy and numeracy, but other skills can be picked up on the job. The most important requirements are that workers show up and do their jobs every day, feel comfortable working with people from a variety of backgrounds, and know how to find information they need in non-routine situations. Following the directives of supervisors is essential. Reliability and steady effort are highly valued. …

[In] the society in which we live, … educational structures that might otherwise seem low-performing, expensive, and inefficient make perfect sense. Dedicated work is not required in college because it will not be required at work. In most jobs, showing up and doing the work is more important than achieving outstanding levels of performance. … [People think] inequality is legitimate, talent can always be identified, a regulated work force is possible, technical training is possible, adjustments for credential inflation are possible, the regulation of ambition is possible, and the elite is preserved in gilded educational enclaves. (more)

Even so, Brint rejects the scenario where we use college less, and hone work habits on the job. He would instead “welcome” our “invest[ing] in a revival of the gospel” that college 1) should be available to all regardless of performance, 2) is the main route to personal success, and 3) solves all social problems, 4) including social inequality. This even though he “cannot be optimistic about the prospects for reform.” Like democracy fans who insist the only acceptable solution to democracy’s failings is more democracy, for many school fans the only acceptable solution to school failings is more school.

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Every Move You Make

Soon the police will always be watching every public move you make:

A vast system that tracks the comings and goings of anyone driving around the District. … More than 250 cameras in the District and its suburbs scan license plates in real time. ..

With virtually no public debate, police agencies have begun storing the information from the cameras, building databases that document the travels of millions of vehicles. … The District [of Columbia] … has more than one plate-reader per square mile, the highest concentration in the nation. Police in the Washington suburbs have dozens of them as well … creating a comprehensive dragnet that will include all the approaches into the District. … The data are kept for three years in the District. … Police can also plug any license plate number into the database and, as long as it passed a camera, determine where that vehicle has been and when. …

The tag readers … cost about $20,000 each. … The District has 73 readers; 38 of them sit stationary and the rest are attached to police cars. D.C. officials say every police car will have one some day. … The District’s … officers make an average of an arrest a day directly from the plate readers. … There are no laws governing how or when Washington area police can use the tag reader technology. … 37 percent of large police agencies in the United States now use license plate reader technology. (more; also)

As prices rapidly fall, this will be widely deployed. Unless there is a public outcry, which seems unlikely at the moment, within twenty years most traffic intersections will probably have tag readers, neighboring jurisdictions will share databases, and so police will basically track all cars all the time. With this precedent, cameras that track pedestrians and people in cars via their faces and gaits will follow within another decade or two.

If firms tried to set up camera networks to collect and sell similar info, I would expect an outcry and regulations to stop them. But police will be not only be allowed to continue, they’ll probably also usually succeed in intimidating citizens away from recording police interactions with citizens, no matter what the official rules say.

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Trillions At War

The most breathtaking example of colony allegiance in the ant world is that of the Linepithema humile ant. Though native to Argentina, it has spread to many other parts of the world by hitching rides in human cargo. In California the biggest of these “supercolonies” ranges from San Francisco to the Mexican border and may contain a trillion individuals, united throughout by the same “national” identity. Each month millions of Argentine ants die along battlefronts that extend for miles around San Diego, where clashes occur with three other colonies in wars that may have been going on since the species arrived in the state a century ago. The Lanchester square law [of combat] applies with a vengeance in these battles. Cheap, tiny and constantly being replaced by an inexhaustible supply of reinforcements as they fall, Argentine workers reach densities of a few million in the average suburban yard. By vastly outnumbering whatever native species they encounter, the supercolonies control absolute territories, killing every competitor they contact. (more)

Shades of our future, as someday we will hopefully have quadrillions of descendants, and alas they will likely sometimes go to war.

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Second Chances

In 1993, at the age of 34, I began a Ph.D. at Caltech, which I finished four years later. I probably didn’t make much more money afterward, but I’m a lot more satisfied with my life. Apparently this is a common outcome of late life schooling:

This paper addresses the economic returns on tertiary degrees obtained in ages above 30 for individuals with upper-secondary schooling [in] Sweden [where] labor market legislation supports employees who take a leave to study. … Late degrees were found to increase the employment rate by 18 percentage points and earnings while employed by 12 percent. … The effects were absent in the higher parts of the earnings distribution, and females gained more than men. (more)

Human lives are long. If you are willing to work, you can radically change direction, even at the age of 34.

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Galaxy Calc Shows Aliens

What makes a planet a good host for life? That is, what does a planet need for life to originate there and then evolve to something at the human level? Astronomers today say a planet at least needs a star that 1) lasts long enough, 2) has enough heavy elements, and 3) is not too often hit by nearby supernovae or gamma ray bursts. Using such criteria, several astronomers (mentioned below) have tried to calculate “galactic habitable zones,” i.e., galactic distributions of good-for-life planets, in both space and time. Such calculations are far more important than I had realized – they can help say how common are aliens! Let me explain.

Imagine that over the entire past and future history of our galaxy, human-level life would be expected to arise spontaneously on about one hundred planets. At least it would if those planets were not disturbed by outsiders. Imagine also that, once life on a planet reaches a human level, it is likely to quickly (e.g., within a million years) expand to permanently colonize the galaxy. And imagine life rarely crosses between galaxies.

In this case we should expect Earth to be one of the first few habitable planets created, since otherwise Earth would likely have already been colonized by outsiders. In fact, we should expect Earth to sit near the one percentile rank in the galactic time distribution of habitable planets – only ~1% of such planets would form earlier. If instead advanced life would arise on about a thousand planets, Earth should sit at the 0.1 percentile rank. And if life would arise on a thousand planets, but only one in ten such life-full planets would rapidly expand to colonize the galaxy, Earth should again sit near the one percentile rank.

Turning this argument around, if we can calculate the actual time distribution of habitable planets in our galaxy, we can then use Earth’s percentile rank in that time distribution to estimate the number of would-produce-human-level-life planets in our galaxy! Or at least the number of such planets times the chance that such a planet quickly expands to colonize the galaxy. If Earth has a low percentile rank, that suggests a good chance that our galaxy will eventually become colonized, even if Earth destroys itself or chooses not to expand. (An extremely low rank might even suggest we’ll encounter other aliens as we expand across the galaxy.) In contrast, if Earth has a middling rank, that suggests a low chance that anyone else would ever colonize the galaxy – it may be all up to us.

At the moment published estimates for Earth’s time percentile rank vary widely. An ’04 Science paper (built on an ’01 Icarus paper) says: Continue reading "Galaxy Calc Shows Aliens" »

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Buying Affiliation

We care about the origins of art. Comparing two physically identical artworks, we pay more for an original than a duplicate, and not because we think originals have better quality, rarity, resources, or effort. Instead it seems we pay for a more direct physical connection to the artist:

Duplicate artworks are judged to be less valuable than duplicate artifacts. We observed this effect even when both the original artwork and the original artifact were one of a kind and were equivalent in value. Experiment 2 helped to further rule out the potentially confounding inferences based on the relative quality of a duplicate artwork versus a duplicate artifact, as well as on the belief that duplicate artifacts are simply more common than duplicate artworks. Finally, the results of Experiment 3 address the alternative explanation that original artworks are valued because they are perceived as requiring more effort and resources to produce. …

The [importance of] degree of physical contact with the original artist (contagion). … was supported in Experiment 1 and more directly in Experiment 5, where artworks made with a hands-on process were judged to be more valuable than those made with a hands-off process. In addition, contagion had a larger impact for artworks than for artifacts. Support for uniqueness of performance as an important dimension came primarily from Experiment 4, where the act of intentionally duplicating a painting (as opposed to accidentally making a similar looking painting) had a twofold impact on judgments of value in driving down the value of a duplicate, while driving up the value of the original. …

[The idea] that people value original artworks solely because they observe that other people value originals more than duplicates—cannot be entirely correct. … Previous research has documented how … mere proximity between two items in a shopping cart or on a table may be sufficient to trigger inferences about contamination, which can raise or lower value. … Similarly, everyday artifacts can gain value through contact with certain special individuals, such as celebrities. Finally, assessments of a performance as effortful or unique may apply to wide array of objects and events, such as evaluations of sports or scholastic achievement. (more)

This lends some support to the suggestion that customers of academia, such as students, funders, and readers, pay in part for a more direct affiliation with certified-as-impressive academics.

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Science Fiction Is Far

SF author Greg Benford posts a ’97 Peter Nicholls talk:

I decided that I would write ALIEN ARTEFACTS but call it BIG DUMB OBJECTS. … But the joke was on me, because as I came to write the entry, I realized that the subject– which was vast alien enigmatic artefacts–was at the heart of what attracted people to science fiction. And even stranger, I realized that no matter what literary shortcomings you found in Big Dumb Object sf – and believe me, there are plenty – that Big Dumb Object stories were often successful, that even if badly written they were usually good to read. Why? …

There is in science fiction, even or especially (as I will argue later) in so-called Hard science fiction, something which in other context we tend to think of as unscientific, be it called sense of wonder, or the sublime, or the transcendent as the Panshins have it, or the romantic. And one rather mechanical way of creating this effect is for the storyteller to imagine something very very big and mysterious, like the spaceship Rama, or like Larry Niven’s Ringworld. That is, the mysterious something in science fiction often has its locus classicus in the Big Dumb Object. …

Of the BDO novels I’ve cited, [big] voyages in space become [big] voyages in time in the majority of them: … It is, as the celebrated cliché has it, the last frontier, and this ties in with what one does in frontiers of all kinds, one meets the “other”. I think the meeting of humanity with the other is now generally accepted as one of the great themes of science fiction. … The sublime … is dehumanising. It makes us feel small and unimportant and indeed hardly there at all. I think this feeling of our vulnerability and littleness in the context of cosmic vastness and indifference, is one of the root feelings of space fiction. … Sf writers capable of perfectly good straightforward, journeyman prose, tend to fall into florid poetics of the most excruciatingly embarrassing kind when trying to imagine what transcendence might feel like. …

BDO fiction … is about being dwarfed by space and hugeness, about attempting to maintain our own humanity, warts and all, in the light of this vastness, while at the same time yearning to be better or other than what we are. And this is not a theme that is intrinsically scientific at all, which makes it all the odder that it is in the hardest and most scientific sf that we tend to find the purest examples. …

I began by saying that I had recently re-read a dozen or so classics of hard science fiction, and I listed them. What I didn’t say then is that it was a rather disappointing experience. … The main problem is the sense of wonder, that feeling you get when confronted by the truly awe-inspiring in sf. It doesn’t tend to occur so poignantly the second time round. (more)

Immersing ourselves in images of things large in space, time, and social distance puts us into a “transcendant” far mode where positive feelings are strong, our basic ideals are more visible than practical constraints, and where analysis takes a back seat to metaphor. Many “hard science” folks who won’t allow themselves ordinary religious feelings do allow themselves these transcendant feelings. Which seems ok, but for the risk that it might overly infect their practical beliefs.

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Forget Salt

From May:

A new JAMA study finds a strong correlation: the third of folks who eat the least salt die over three times as often as the third of folks who eat the most salt. (more)

Now:

[A] new analysis … conducted …. for the Cochrane Collaboration … analyzed 167 studies conducted between 1950 and 2011 that compared people who consumed low-sodium versus high-sodium diets. Low-sodium diets did cut blood pressure levels in people with high and normal blood pressure. … But it also significantly increased other risk factors for heart disease, such as cholesterol levels, triglycerides, adrenaline and renin, the researchers reported in the American Journal of Hypertension. “These results do not support that sodium reduction may have net beneficial effects in a population of Caucasians.” (more; study)

The official response is no change in official advice:

U.S. health officials recommend that adults get no more than 2,300 mg of sodium daily. … “We eat a lot of sodium — way too much — and I don’t think it’s going to hurt anybody to lower sodium in the current American diet,” Penny Kris-Etherton, a spokesperson for the American Heart Association [said]. (more)

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Invisible Winks

Ben Casnocha:

“Inside baseball” refers to using jargon, specialized knowledge, acronyms, first names instead of full names. … They subtly increase the bond between the people in the know. … [It] reinforces a defined ingroup based on our common experiences, knowledge, vernacular. …

Where it gets tricky is when … you make inside references and outsiders read/hear them … and … feel excluded. … One idea: use “Invisible Winks” … insiders get the wink while outsiders do not notice the wink; additive to insiders, neutral to outsiders. … David Foster Wallace did this a lot … with hidden references and allusions, but not in a way where outsiders (i.e., people who don’t pick up on the allusion) feel like they’re “missing” something. …

Does this all sound insanely oveanalzyed? Maybe, but I think it’s important. When I think about socially brilliant people, they possess a remarkable sensitivity to insider/outsider dynamics when speaking and writing to groups. It’s part of what makes them socially brilliant. (more; HT Tyler)

Reading Ben you might get the impression that invisible winks are a special advanced technique, used only by the most sophisticated. But while only the most “socially brilliant” may use it consciously, my claim is that all humans are born with sophisticated abilities for related behaviors. Selective communication is a core capacity that enables humans to coordinate to hypocritically evade social norms, and I’ve argued that such hypocrisy is, after language, humanity’s most distinctive mental capacity.

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Political Puzzles

Some puzzling political phenomena I’ve pondered lately:

  1. We trust government more when we feel vulnerable to it, and then avoid info that might undermine such trust.
  2. We don’t elect actors and other celebrities, who we seem to trust, respect, like, know, etc. more than the politicians we elect.
  3. We think we’d be horrified live under a king, but quite enjoy stories set in such places.
  4. We over-estimate leader autonomy, neglecting their need to serve supporting coalitions.

We love to look down on submissive sheep who accept domination by the powerful. And we think of ourselves as quite different, eager to control our leaders via democracy, and to keep them from becoming kings. Some of our actions even fit well with this story. But many other actions fit badly.

I hypothesize that much of this hails from our homo hypocritus heritage. Humans developed language to express and enforce social norms, most importantly to limit domination and related supporting behavior, such as bragging. But then foragers quickly learned to dominate and submit covertly, just out of reach of language-based norm enforcement. So we should expect to have many complex, subtle, and mostly unconscious capacities to dominate and submit, while pretending otherwise.

Thus we should expect to see people giving lip service to resisting domination, while largely accepting it when resistance is costly. We should be prone to telling ourselves that our dominators serve our interests well, when in fact we are just scared of being beaten down. We tell ourselves that our leaders’ power is solid, even when we notice cracks, to avoid appearing disloyal. And we tell ourselves that we want likable leaders, when we are actually more impressed by strength. Homo hypocritus cowers in a corner, pretending to examine a spot on the ground.

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