Maybe America is too Dumb for Democracy: A Review of Nichols’s The Death of Expertise

For today’s Cathedral Round-Up, I finally kept my commitment to review Tom Nichols’s The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. It was better than I expected, (though that isn’t saying much.)

Make no mistake: Nichols is annoyingly arrogant. He draws a rather stark line between “experts” (who know things) and everyone else (who should humbly limit themselves to voting between options defined for them by the experts.) He implores people to better educate themselves in order to be better voters, but has little patience for autodidacts and bloggers like myself who are actually trying.

But arrogance alone doesn’t make someone wrong.

Nichols’s first thesis is simple: most people are too stupid or ignorant to second-guess experts or even contribute meaningfully to modern policy discussions. How can people who can’t find Ukraine on a map or think we should bomb the fictional city of Agrabah contribute in any meaningful way to a discussion of international policy?

It was one thing, in 1776, to think the average American could vote meaningfully on the issues of the day–a right they took by force, by shooting anyone who told them they couldn’t. Life was less complicated in 1776, and the average person could master most of the skills they needed to survive (indeed, pioneers on the edge of the frontier had to be mostly self-sufficient in order to survive.) Life was hard–most people engaged in long hours of heavy labor plowing fields, chopping wood, harvesting crops, and hauling necessities–but could be mastered by people who hadn’t graduated from elementary school.

But the modern industrial (or post-industrial) world is much more complicated than the one our ancestors grew up in. Today we have cars (maybe even self-driving cars), electrical grids and sewer systems, atomic bombs and fast food. The speed of communication and transportation have made it possible to chat with people on the other side of the earth and show up on their doorstep a day later. The amount if specialized, technical knowledge necessary to keep modern society running would astonish the average caveman–even with 15+ years of schooling, the average person can no longer build a house, nor even produce basic necessities like clothes or food. Most of us can’t even make a pencil.

Even experts who are actually knowledgeable about their particular area may be completely ignorant of fields outside of their expertise. Nichols speaks Russian, which makes him an expert in certain Russian-related matters, but he probably knows nothing about optimal high-speed rail networks. And herein lies the problem:

The American attachment to intellectual self-reliance described by Tocqueville survived for nearly a century before falling under a series of assaults from both within and without. Technology, universal secondary education, the proliferation of specialized expertise, and the emergence of the United States a a global power in the mid-twentieth century all undermined the idea… that the average American was adequately equipped either for the challenges of daily life or for running the affairs of a large country.

… the political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote that “the complexity of modern life has steadily whittled away the functions the ordinary citizen can intelligently and competently perform for himself.”

… Somin wrote in 2015 that the “size and complexity of government” have mad it “more difficult for voters with limited knowledge to monitor and evaluate the government’s many activities. The result is a polity in which the people often cannot exercise their sovereignty responsibly and effectively.”

In other words, society is now too complex and people too stupid for democracy.

Nichols’s second thesis is that people used to trust experts, which let democracy function, but to day they are less trusting. He offers no evidence other than his general conviction that this change has happened.

He does, however, detail the way he thinks that 1. People have been given inflated egos about their own intelligence, and 2. How our information-delivery system has degenerated into misinformational goo, resulting in the trust-problems he believes we are having These are interesting arguments and worth examining.

A bit of summary:

Indeed, maybe the death of expertise is a sign of progress. Educated professionals, after all, no longer have a stranglehold on knowledge. The secrets of life are no longer hidden in giant marble mausoleums… in the past, there was less tress between experts and laypeople, but only because citizen were simply unable to challenge experts in any substantive way. …

Participation in political, intellectual, and scientific life until the early twentieth century was far more circumscribed, with debates about science, philosophy, and public policy all conducted by a small circle of educated males with pen and ink. Those were not exactly the Good Old Days, and they weren’t that long ago. The time when most people didn’t finish highschool, when very few went to college, and only a tiny fraction of the population entered professions is still within living memory of many Americans.

Aside from Nichols’s insistence that he believes modern American notions about gender and racial equality, I get the impression that he wouldn’t mind the Good Old Days of genteel pen-and-ink discussions between intellectuals. However, I question his claim that participation in political life was far more circumscribed–after all, people voted, and politicians liked getting people to vote for them. People anywhere, even illiterate peasants on the frontier or up in the mountains like to gather and debate about God, politics, and the meaning of life. The question is less “Did they discuss it?” and more “Did their discussions have any effect on politics?” Certainly we can point to abolition, women’s suffrage, prohibition, and the Revolution itself as heavily grass-roots movements.

But continuing with Nichols’s argument:

Social changes only in the past half century finally broke down old barriers of race, class, and sex not only between Americans and general but also between uneducated citizens and elite expert in particular. A wide circle of debate meant more knowledge but more social friction. Universal education, the greater empowerment of women and minorities, the growth of a middle class, and increased social mobility all threw a minority of expert and the majority of citizens into direct contact, after nearly two centuries in which they rarely had to interact with each other.

And yet the result has not been a greater respect for knowledge, but the growth of an irrational conviction among Americans that everyone is as smart as everyone else.

Nichols is distracting himself with the reflexive racial argument; the important change he is highlighting isn’t social but technical.

I’d like to quote a short exchange from Our Southern Highlanders, an anthropologic-style text written about Appalachia about a century ago:

The mountain clergy, as a general rule, are hostile to “book larnin’,” for “there ain’t no Holy Ghost in it.” One of them who had spent three months at a theological school told President Frost, “Yes, the seminary is a good place ter go and git rested up, but ’tain’t worth while fer me ter go thar no more ’s long as I’ve got good wind.”

It used to amuse me to explain how I knew that the earth was a sphere; but one day, when I was busy, a tiresome old preacher put the everlasting question to me: “Do you believe the earth is round?” An impish perversity seized me and I answered, “No—all blamed humbug!” “Amen!” cried my delighted catechist, “I knowed in reason you had more sense.”

But back to Nichols, who really likes the concept of expertise:

One reason claims of expertise grate on people in a democracy is that specialization is necessarily exclusive. WHen we study a certain area of knowledge or spend oulives in a particular occupation, we not only forego expertise in othe jobs or subjects, but also trust that other pople in the community know what they’re doing in thei area as surely as we do in our own. As much as we might want to go up to the cockpit afte the engine flames out to give the pilots osme helpful tips, we assume–in part, ebcause wehave to–that tye’re better able to cope with the problem than we are. Othewise, our highly evovled society breaks down int island sof incoherence, where we spend our time in poorly infomed second-guessing instead of trusting each other.

This would be a good point to look at data on overall trust levels, friendship, civic engagement, etc (It’s down. It’s all down.) and maybe some explanations for these changes.

Nichols talks briefly about the accreditation and verification process for producing “experts,” which he rather likes. There is an interesting discussion in the economics literature on things like the economics of trust and information (how do websites signal that they are trustworthy enough that you will give them your credit card number and expect to receive items you ordered a few days later?) which could apply here, too.

Nichols then explores a variety of cognitive biases, such a superstitions, phobias, and conspiracy theories:

Conspiracy theories are also a way for people to give meaning to events that frighten them. Without a coherent explanation for why terrible thing happen to innocent people, they would have to accept such occurence as nothing more than the random cruelty either of an uncaring universe or an incomprehensible deity. …

The only way out of this dilemma is to imagine a world in which our troubles are the fault of powerful people who had it within their power to avert such misery. …

Just as individual facing grief and confusion look for reasons where none may exist, so, too, will entire societies gravitate toward outlandish theories when collectively subjected to a terrible national experience. Conspiracy theories and flawed reasoning behind them …become especially seductive “in any society that has suffered an epic, collectively felt trauma. In the aftermath, millions of people find themselves casting about for an answer to the ancient question of why bad things happen to good people.” …

Today, conspiracy theories are reaction mostly to the economic and social dislocations of globalization…This is not a trivial obstacle when it comes to the problems of expert engagement with the public: nearly 30 percent of Americans, for example, think “a secretive elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world” …

Obviously stupid. A not-secret elite with a globalist agenda already rules the world.

and 15 percent think media or government add secret mind controlling technology to TV broadcasts. (Another 15 percent aren’t sure about the TV issue.)

It’s called “advertising” and it wants you to buy a Ford.

Anyway, the problem with conspiracy theories is they are unfalsifiable; no amount of evidence will ever convince a conspiracy theorist that he is wrong, for all evidence is just further proof of how nefariously “they” are constructing the conspiracy.

Then Nichols gets into some interesting matter on the difference between stereotypes and generalizations, which segues nicely into a tangent I’d like to discuss, but it probably deserves its own post. To summarize:

Sometimes experts know things that contradict other people’s political (or religious) beliefs… If an “expert” finding or field accords with established liberal values, EG, the implicit association test found that “everyone is a little bit racist,” which liberals already believed, then there is an easy mesh between what the academics believe and the rest of their social class.

If their findings contradict conservative/low-class values, EG, when professors assert that evolution is true and “those low-class Bible-thumpers in Oklahoma are wrong,” sure, they might have a lot of people who disagree with them, but those people aren’t part of their own social class/the upper class, and so not a problem. If anything, high class folks love such finding, because it gives them a chance to talk about how much better they are than those low-class people (though such class conflict is obviously poisonous in a democracy where those low-class people can still vote to Fuck You and Your Global Warming, Too.)

But if the findings contradict high-class/liberal politics, then the experts have a real problem. EG, if that same evolution professor turns around and says, “By the way, race is definitely biologically real, and there are statistical differences in average IQ between the races,” now he’s contradicting the political values of his own class/the upper class, and that becomes a social issue and he is likely to get Watsoned.

For years folks at Fox News (and talk radio) have lambasted “the media” even though they are part of the media; SSC recently discussed “can something be both popular and silenced?

Jordan Peterson isn’t unpopular or “silenced” so much as he is disliked by upper class folks and liked by “losers” and low class folks, despite the fact that he is basically an intellectual guy and isn’t peddling a low-class product. Likewise, Fox News is just as much part of The Media as NPR, (if anything, it’s much more of the Media) but NPR is higher class than Fox, and Fox doesn’t like feeling like its opinions are being judged along this class axis.

For better or for worse (mostly worse) class politics and political/religious beliefs strongly affect our opinions of “experts,” especially those who say things we disagree with.

But back to Nichols: Dunning-Kruger effect, fake cultural literacy, and too many people at college. Nichols is a professor and has seen college students up close and personal, and has a low opinion of most of them. The massive expansion of upper education has not resulted in a better-educated, smarter populace, he argues, but a populace armed with expensive certificates that show the sat around a college for 4 years without learning much of anything. Unfortunately, beyond a certain level, there isn’t a lot that more school can do to increase people’s basic aptitudes.

Colleges get money by attracting students, which incentivises them to hand out degrees like candy–in other words, students are being lied to about their abilities and college degrees are fast becoming the participation trophies for the not very bright.

Nichols has little sympathy for modern students:

Today, by contrast, students explode over imagined slights that are not even remotely int eh same category as fighting for civil rights or being sent to war. Students now build majestic Everests from the smallest molehills, and they descend into hysteria over pranks and hoaxes. In the midst of it all, the students are learning that emotions and volume can always defeat reason and substance, thus building about themselves fortresses that no future teacher, expert, or intellectual will ever be able to breach.

At Yale in 2015, for example, a house master’s wife had the temerity to tell minority students to ignore Halloween costumes they thought offensive. This provoked a campus wide temper tantrum that included professors being shouted down by screaming student. “In your position as master,” one student howled in a professor’s face, “it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students… Do you understand that?!”

Quietly, the professor said, “No, I don’t agree with that,” and the student unloaded on him:

“Then why the [expletive] did you accept the position?! Who the [expletive] hired you?! You should step down! If that is what you think about being a master you should step down! It is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home here. You are not doing that!” [emphasis added]

Yale, instead of disciplining students in violation of their own norms of academic discourse, apologized to the tantrum throwers. The house master eventually resigned from his residential post…

To faculty everywhere, the lesson was obvious: the campus of a top university is not a place for intellectual exploration. It is a luxury home, rented for four to six years, nine months at a time, by children of the elite who may shout at faculty as if they’re berating clumsy maids in a colonial mansion.

The incident Nichols cites (and similar ones elsewhere,) are not just matters of college students being dumb or entitled, but explicitly racial conflicts. The demand for “safe spaces” is easy to ridicule on the grounds that students are emotional babies, but this misses the point: students are carving out territory for themselves on explicitly racial lines, often by violence.

Nichols, though, either does not notice the racial aspect of modern campus conflicts or does not want to admit publicly to doing so.

Nichols moves on to blame TV, especially CNN, talk radio, and the internet for dumbing down the quality of discourse by overwhelming us with a deluge of more information than we can possibly process.

Referring back to Auerswald and The Code Economy, if automation creates a bifurcation in industries, replacing a moderately-priced, moderately available product with a stream of cheap, low-quality product on the one hand and a trickle of expensive, high-quality products on the other, good-quality journalism has been replaced with a flood of low-quality crap. The high-quality end is still working itself out.

Nichols opines:

Accessing the Internet can actually make people dumber than if they had never engaged a subject at all. The very act of searching for information makes people think they’ve learned something,when in fact they’re more likely to be immersed in yet more data they do not understand. …

When a group of experimental psychologists at Yale investigated how people use the internet, they found that “people who search for information on the Web emerge from the process with an inflated sense of how much they know–even regarding topic that are unrelated to the ones they Googled.” …

How can exposure to so much information fail to produce at least some kind of increased baseline of knowledge, if only by electronic osmosis? How can people read so much yet retain so little? The answer is simple: few people are actually reading what they find.

As a University College of London (UCL) study found, people don’t actually read the articles they encounter during a search on the Internet. Instead, they glance at the top line or the first few sentences and then move on. Internet users, the researchers noted, “Are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed, there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”

The internet’s demands for instant updates, for whatever headlines generate the most clicks (and thus advertising revenue), has upset the balance of speed vs. expertise in the newsroom. No longer have reporters any incentive to spend long hours carefully writing a well-researched story when such stories pay less than clickbait headlines about racist pet costumes and celebrity tweets.

I realize it seems churlish to complain about the feast of news and information brought to us by the Information Age, but I’m going to complain anyway. Changes in journalism, like the increased access to the Internet and to college education, have unexpectedly corrosive effects on the relationship between laypeople and experts. Instead of making people better informed, much of what passes for news in the twenty-first century often leaves laypeople–and sometimes experts–even more confused and ornery.

Experts face a vexing challenge: there’s more news available, and yet people seem less informed, a trend that goes back at least a quarter century. Paradoxically, it is a problem that is worsening rather than dissipating. …

As long ago as 1990, for example, a study conducted by the Pew Trust warned that disengagement from important public questions was actually worse among people under thirty, the group that should have been most receptive to then-emerging sources of information like cable television and electronic media. This was a distinct change in American civic culture, as the Pew study noted:

“Over most of the past five decades younger members of the public have been at least as well informed as older people. In 1990, that is no longer the case. … “

Those respondents are now themselves middle-aged, and their children are faring no better.

If you were 30 in 1990, you were born in 1960, to parents who were between the ages of 20 and 40 years old, that is, born between 1920 and 1940.

Source: Audacious Epigone

Fertility for the 1920-1940 cohort was strongly dysgenic. So was the 1940-50 cohort. The 1900-1919 cohort at least had the Flynn Effect on their side, but later cohorts just look like an advertisement for idiocracy.

Nichols ends with a plea that voters respect experts (and that experts, in turn, be humble and polite to voters.) After all, modern society is too complicated for any of us to be experts on everything. If we don’t pay attention to expert advice, he warns, modern society is bound to end in ignorant goo.

The logical inconsistency is that Nichols believes in democracy at all–he thinks democracy can be saved if ignorant people vote within a range of options as defined by experts like himself, eg, “What vaccine options are best?” rather than “Should we have vaccines at all?”

The problem, then, is that whoever controls the experts (or controls which expert opinions people hear) controls the limits of policy debates. This leads to people arguing over experts, which leads right back where we are today. As long as there are politics, “expertise” will be politicized, eg:

Look at any court case in which both sides bring in their own “expert” witnesses. Both experts testify to the effect that their side is correct. Then the jury is left to vote on which side had more believable experts. This is like best case scenario voting, and the fact that the voters are dumb and don’t understand what the experts are saying and are obviously being mislead in many cases is still a huge problem.

If politics is the problem, then perhaps getting rid of politics is the solution. Just have a bunch of Singapores run by Lee Kwan Yews, let folks like Nichols advise them, and let the common people “vote with their feet” by moving to the best states.

The problem with this solution is that “exit” doesn’t exist in the modern world in any meaningful way, and there are significant reasons why ordinary people oppose open borders.

Conclusion: 3/5 stars. It’s not a terrible book, and Nichols has plenty of good points, but “Americans are dumb” isn’t exactly fresh territory and much has already been written on the subject.

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Book Club: The Industrial Revolution and its Discontents, Code Economy, ch. 5

1. The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in “advanced” countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in “advanced” countries. –Kaczynski, Industrial Society and Its Future

The quest to find and keep a “job for life”–stable, predictable work that pays enough to live on, is reachable by available transportation, and lends a sense of meaning to their daily lives–runs though every interview transcript, from those who are unemployed to those who have “made it” to steady jobs like firefighting or nursing. Traditional blue-collar work–whether as a factory worker or a police officer–has become increasingly scarce and competitive, destroyed by a technologically advanced and global capitalism that prioritizes labor market “flexibility”… Consequently, the post-industrial generation is forced to continuously grapple with flux and contingency, bending and adapting to the demands of they labor market until they feel that they are about to break. –Silva, Coming up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty

The historical record confirms that the realities of the ongoing processes of mechanization and industrialization, as noted early on by Lord Byron, were very different from the picture adherents to the wage fund theory held in their heads. While the long-term impact of the Industrial revolution had on the health and well-being of the English population was strongly positive, the first half of the nineteenth century was indeed a time of exceptional hardship for English workers. In a study covering the years 1770-1815, Stephen Nicholas and Richard Steckel report “falling heights of urban-and rural-born males after 1780 and a delayed growth spurt for 13- to 23-year old boys,” as well as a fall in the English workers’ height relative to that of Irish convicts. By the 1830s, the life expectancy of anyone born in Liverpool and Manchester was less than 30 years–as low as had been experienced in England since the Black Death of 1348. –Auerswald, The Code Economy

On the other hand:

Chapter 5 of The Code Economy, Substitution, explores the development of economic theories about the effects of industrialization and general attempts at improving the lives of the working poor.

… John Barton, a Quaker, published a pamphlet in 1817 titled, Observations on the Circumstances Which Influence the Condition of the Laboring Classes of Society. … Barton began by targeting the Malthusian assumption that population grows in response to increasing wages. … He began by noting that there was no a priori reason to believe that labor and capital were perfect complements, as classical economists implicitly assumed. The more sensible assumption was that, as wages increased, manufacturers and farmers alike would tend to substitute animals or machines for human labor. Rather than increasing the birth rate, the higher wages brought on by the introduction of new machinery would increase intergenerational differences in income and thus delay child-bearing. Contrary to the Malthusian line of argument, this is exactly what happened.

There’s an end note that expands on this (you do read the end notes, right?) Quoting Barton, 1817:

A rise of wages then does not always increase population… For every rise of wages tends to decrease the effectual demand for labor… Suppose that by a general agreement among farmers the rate of agricultural wage were raised from 12 shillings to 24 shillings per week–I cannot imagine any circumstance calculated more effectually to discourage marriage. For it would immediately become a a most important object to cultivate with as few hands as possible; wherever the use of machinery, or employment of horses could be substituted for manual labor, it would be done; and a considerable portion of existing laborers would be out of work.

This is the “raising the minimum wage will put people out of work” theory. Barton also points out that when people do manage to get these higher-paid jobs, they will tend to be older, more experienced laborers rather than young folks looking to marry and start a family.

A quick perusal of minimum wage vs. unemployment rate graphs reveals some that are good evidence against minimum wages, and some that are good evidence in favor of them. Here’s a link to a study that found no effects of minimum wage differences on employment. The American minimum wage data is confounded by things like “DC is a shithole.” DC has the highest minimum wage in the country and the highest unemployment rate, but Hawaii also has a very high minimum wage and the lowest unemployment rate. In general, local minimum wages probably reflect local cost of living/cost of living reflects wages. If we adjust for inflation, minimum wage in the US peaked around 1968 and was generally high throughout the 60s and 70s, but has fallen since then. Based on conversations with my parents, I gather the 60s and 70s were a good time to be a worker, when unskilled labor could pretty easily get a job and support a family; unemployment rates do not seem to have fallen markedly since then, despite lower real wages. A quick glance at a map of minimum wages by country reveals that countries with higher minimum wage tend to be nicer countries that people actually want to live in, but the relationship is not absolute.

We might say that this contradicts Barton, but why have American wages stagnated or gone down since the 60s?

1. Automation

2. Emergence of other economic competitors as Europe and Japan recovered from WWII

3. Related: Outsourcing to cheaper workers in China

4. Labor market growth due to entry of women, immigrants, and Boomers generally

Except for 2, that sounds a lot like what Barton said would happen. Wages go up => people move where the good jobs are => labor market expands => wages go down. If labor cannot move, then capitalists can either move the businesses to the labor or invest in machines to replace the labor.

On the other hand, the standard of living is clearly higher today than it was in 1900, even if wages, like molecules diffusing through the air, tend to even out over time. Why?

First, obviously, we learned to extract more energy from sources like oil, coal, and nuclei. A loom hooked up (via the electrical grid) to an electric turbine can make a lot more cloth per hour than a mere human working with shuttles and thread.

Second, we have gotten better at using the energy we extract–Auerswald would call this “code.”

Standards of living may thus have more to do with available resources (including energy) and our ability to use those resources (both the ‘code” we have developed and our own inherent ability to interact with and use that code,) than with the head-scratching entropy of minimum wages.

Auerswald discusses the evolution of David Ricardo’s economic ideas:

By incorporating the potential for substitution between capital and labor, Ricardo led the field of economics in rejecting the wage fund theory, along with its Dickensian implications for policy. He accepted the notion the introduction of new machinery would result in the displacement of workers. The upshot was that the workers were still assumed to be doomed, but the reason was now substitution of machines for labor, not scarcity of a Malthusian variety.

Enter Henry George, with a radically different perspective:

“Like a flash it came over me that there was the reason of advancing poverty with advancing wealth. With the growth of population, land grows in value, and the men who work it must pay more for the privilege.” …

George asserted that increasing population density, (not, as Malthus claimed, population decline) was the source of increased prosperity in human societies: “Wealth is greatest where population is densest… the production of wealth to a given amount of labor increases as population increases.”  The frequent interactions among people in densely populated cities accelerates the emergence and evolution of code. However, while population growth and increased density naturally bring increased prosperity, they also, just as naturally, bring increasing inequality and poverty. Why? Because the fruits of labor are inevitably gathered by the owners of land.

In other words, increasing wages => increasing rents and the workers are right back where they started while the landlords are sitting pretty.

In sharp contrast with Karl Marx, … George stated that “the antagonism of interest is not between labor and capital… but is in reality between labor and capital on the one side and the land ownership on the other.” The implication of his analysis was as simple as it was powerful: to avoid concentrating wealth in the hands of the few, it was the government’s responsibility to eliminate all taxes on capital and laborers, the productive elements of the economy, and to replace those taxes with a single tax on land.

Note: not a flat tax on land, but a tax relative to the land’s sale value.

I was glad to see Henry George in the book because I enjoy George’s theories and they are under-discussed, especially relative to Marxism. You will find massive online communities of Marxists despite the absolute evidence that Marxism is a death machine, but relatively few enthusiastic Georgists. One of the things I rather appreciate about Georgism is its simplicity; the complication of the tax code is its own, additional burden on capitalists and workers alike. Almost any simplified tax code, no matter how “unfair,” would probably improve maters a great deal.

But there’s more, because this is a dense chapter. Auerswald notes that the increasing complexity of code (ie, productivity) has lead to steadily increasing standards of living over the past two centuries, at least after the Industrial Revolution’s initial cataclysm.

Quoting economist Paul Douglas, some years later:

“The increased use of mechanical appliances in offices has tended to lower the skill required. An old-fashioned bookkeeper, for instance, had to write a good hand, he had to be able to multiply and divide with absolute accuracy. Today his place is taken by a girl who  operates a book-keeping machine, and it has taken her a few weeks at mot to become a skilled bookkeeper.” In other words, the introduction of machinery displaced skilled workers for the very same reason it enhanced human capabilities: it allowed a worker with relatively rudimentary training to perform tasks that previously required a skilled worker.

…”Another way of looking at it, is this: Where formerly the skill used in bookkeeping was exercised by the bookkeeper, today that skill is exercised by the factory employees who utilize it to manufacture a machine which can do the job of keeping books, when operated by someone of skill far below that of the former bookkeeper. And because of this transfer of skill form the office to the factory, the rewards of skill are likewise transferred to the wage-earner at the plant.”

This is a vitally important pint… The essence of this insight is that introducing more powerful machines into the workplace does more than simply encode  into the machine the skills or capabilities that previously resided only in humans; it also shifts the burden of skill from one domain of work to another. … A comparable shift in recent decades has been from the skill of manufacturing computing machines (think IBM or Dell in their heydays) to that of creating improved instructions for computing machines’ the result has been a relative growth in programmers’ wages. The underlying process is the same. Improvements in technology will predictably reduce demand for the skills held by some workers, but they also will enhance the capabilities of other workers and shift the requirements of skill from one domain of work to the other.”

The problem with this is that the average person puts in 15-20 years of schooling (plus $$$) in order to become skilled at a job, only to suddenly have that job disappear due to accelerating technological change/improvement, and then some asshole one comes and tells them they should just “learn to code” spend another two to four years unemployed and paying for the privilege of learning another job and don’t see how fucking dispiriting this is to the already struggling.

The struggle for society is recognizing that even as standards of living may be generally rising, some people may absolutely be struggling with an economic system that offers much less certainty and stability than our ancestors enjoyed.

A final word from Auerswald:

… work divides or “bifurcates” as code advances in a predictable and repeatable way. The bifurcation of work in a critical mechanism by which the advance of code yields improvements in human well-being at the same time as it increases human reliance on code.

Stereotypes, Expertise, and Class

Tom Nichols’s book, The Death of Expertise, has a passage that inspired a tangent that I’d like to discuss separately from my main review:

“You can’t generalize like that!” Few expressions are more likely to arise in even a mildly controversial discussion. People resist generalizations–boys tend to be like this, girls tend to be like that–because we all want to believe we’re unique and can’t be pigeonholed that easily.

What most people usually mean when they object to “generalizing,” however, is not that we shouldn’t generalize, but that we shouldn’t stereotype, which is a different issue The problem in casual discourse is that people often don’t understand the difference between stereotypes and generalizations, and this makes conversation, especially between experts and laypeople, arduous and exhausting. –Tom Nichols

Nichols brings up a good point, but is wrong about stereotypes–to generalize, most stereotypes are true, and people object to stereotypes and generalizations for the exact same reasons. Or as Psychology Today puts it:

“Stereotypes” have a bad name, and everybody hates stereotypes. But what exactly is a stereotype?

What people call “stereotypes” are what scientists call “empirical generalizations,” and they are the foundation of scientific theory. That’s what scientists do; they make generalizations. Many stereotypes are empirical generalizations with a statistical basis and thus on average tend to be true. If they are not true, they wouldn’t be stereotypes. … 

SAT scores by race and parental income

We only call them “stereotypes” when we don’t like the information they convey. “African Americans have more melanin, on average, than non-African Americans,” is not a controversial statement; “African Americans score worse on the SAT, on average, than non-African Americans” is controversial, even though both are empirically true.

Nichols grasps for this false distinction between “generalizations” and “stereotypes” because Nichols sees himself as a Good Person, not an Evil Racist, and only Evil Racists use stereotypes. (We know that because the liberals said so.)

Except for the uncomfortable fact that most stereotypes are basically true, otherwise people wouldn’t bother to have them. This leaves Nichols in the uncomfortable position of eternally trying to explain to people why it’s okay when he, an expert, says mean things about the Russians, but totally not okay when ordinary people say mean things about the Russians.

I can almost hear Nichols objecting, “It can’t be racist if it’s true,” to which I raise the average Somali IQ:

In the US, the cutoff for “mental retardation” or “intellecutal disability” is set at an IQ of 70 or below. The averaged measured Somali IQ is in the low 70s. Almost half of Somalis would be, in the US, legally retarded.

The only way to dull the sting of this statement is to note that 1. of course the majority of Somalis aren’t retarded; 2. Somali migants are heavily selected from the smarter end of the Somalia, because they’re the folks who were clever enough to escape; 3. Somali IQ is probably being depressed by terrible local conditions. Still, if you work for Google, I don’t recommend writing any memos trying to give a nuanced version of “Somalis have low average IQs.” For that matter, I don’t recommend writing that if you work anywhere except in an explicit IQ-related job. If your coworkers are IQ-experts, they might already be familiar with Somali IQs; otherwise you will get sacked immediately for being racist.

Everything is fine for experts if they promote ideas that people already believe or want to agree with. Saying that “Fast food is bad for you,” raises few hackles. Everyone knows that.

The findings of the now-discredited Implicit Association Test were widely touted because people wanted evidence that “everyone is a little bit racist,” (or at least that whites are all subconsciously racist, even the ones who say they aren’t.) The IAT was obviously bogus from the start, but confirmation bias and wanting it to be true led people to latch onto it.

When experts and common wisdom agree, all is well.

It’s when experts and lay-people disagree that problems arises. If the matter is purely scientific–What is the atomic weight of cesium?–people will usually defer. But if the matter is personal or involves deeply held religious beliefs, people resist. (We evolutionists have been dealing with this for a long time.)

Nichols gives the example, “Russians are more corrupt than Norwegians.” It’s absolutely true, unless we’re using some strange definition of “corrupt.” And Nichols, a guy who speaks Russian and has been studying Russia for decades, has the relevant expertise to make such a judgment. But normal people who don’t know anything about Russia (or Norway) get their hackles up because the statement sounds mean and contradicts their deeply held belief that all groups of people are morally and intellectually equal.

If the only difference between a stereotype and a generalization is that a stereotype offends the hearer, then “Russians are more corrupt than Norwegians” is a stereotype.

Life is hard for experts if they contradict things people deeply believe, but it’s even harder if they contradict things believed by their own social class.

Scientists studying evolution face criticism and disbelief from people who believe that humans were created by God from a ball of dirt on the sixth day of creation, but evolution is a “high class” belief and creationism is “low class,” so scientists face no loss of social standing by advocating for evolution and generally don’t even associate socially with creationists.

By contrast, a geneticist like Harvard’s David Reich, who recently admitted in the New York Times that “race” is biologically, even genetically real, is contradicting the beliefs of his own social class that “race is a social construct.” Harvard is full of people who believe creationist nonsense about the biology of men, women, and racial groups, but since these are high-class religious beliefs, Reich faces a loss of social standing by contradicting them and will have to actually deal with these people in real life.

Slate Star Codex recently posed, “Can Things be Both Popular and Silenced?” a discussion of whether authors like Jordan Peterson, who has received a ton of media attention lately and sells millions of books and is doing quite well for himself, can be accurately described as “silenced” in some way.

SSC briefly touches on social class and then moves on to other important matters, but I think social class really ties matters together. Peterson is a book-writing professional with a medical degree, (I think. I haven’t read any of his work,) that is, an academic intellectual. Reich is a Harvard professor doing ground-breaking, amazing work. James Watson won a goddam Nobel prize. Bret Weinstein was a professor at Evergreen State. Etc. These are high class academics in conflict with the rest of their social class, which can cause a great deal of anxiety, the loss of friends, and outright conflict, as when students at Evergreen college literally tried to hunt Professor Weinstein down with bats and tazers for the crime of not leaving campus on “no white people on campus day.” (Relevant posts on Weinstein and Evergreen; See also the James Damore incident at Google and the Christakis incident at Yale.)

A conservative person living in a conservative part of the country probably doesn’t lose much social standing for criticizing stupid things liberals believe, but someone in a liberal profession or social environment will. Even if he is actually an expert who is actually correct, he still faces hoards of ignorant people who are socially more powerful than he is and will happily punch him silent in defense of their religious beliefs. (The same is probably also true in reverse; I wouldn’t want to be openly pro-choice in a highly conservative workplace, for example.)

A lot of what gets called “silencing” is just class insecurity or conflict. Fox News rails against “the media” even though it is the media; more people watch Fox than listen to NPR, but PR is high-class and Fox is low-class. It’s not that “the media” is liberal so much as that the upper class is liberal and the lower classes don’t like being looked down upon.

You can rail against Fox News or Infowars or whatever for being stupid, but this is a democracy, so if one side tries to be objective, correct, or have high-status experts, then the other side will rail against all of that. If one side tries to promote cute puppies, the other side will become the anti-cute-puppies party.

Experts run into troubl when their research leads them to believe things that fit with neither party, or only with the opposite social class from the one they run in. This is both very uncomfortable for the individual and hard to describe to outsiders.

Ultimately, I think class is far more important than we give it credit for.

New Blog Feature: The Female Side

In response to the suicide of Kathleen Forth, I’ve created a new blog feature, The Female Side. It’s really just an open thread for female readers.

Life can be isolating, especially if you have an unusual personality or are pretty introverted. This end of the internet doesn’t have that many women in it, which can make it doubly isolating.

Of course my intention is not to make a sad and lonely place, but a place where women can have a pleasant time together. (Work in progress.)

My fine male readers, you are welcome to use the About post as an open thread (people already do) and really, everyone is welcome to post off-topic comments on any thread. It’s fine.

Off-topic, but does anyone know how to get in touch with Peter Frost? Asking for a friend.

Anthropology Friday: Appalachia, pt 3/4

Blue Ridge Mountains, Appalachia

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we are continuing with Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1913, starting with homicide rates.

In my opinion, Homicide Rate data collected before 1930 or so is highly questionable, for reasons that will soon become clear:

“Mountaineers place a low valuation on human life. I need not go outside my own habitat for illustrations. In our judicial district, which comprises the westernmost seven counties of North Carolina, the present yearly toll of homicides varies, according to counties, from about one in 1,000 to one in 2,500 of the population. And ours is not a feud district, nor are there any negroes to speak of. Compare these figures with the rate of homicide in the United States at large, about one to 8,300 population; of Italy, one to 66,000; Great Britain, one to 111,000; Germany, one to 200,000.”

EvX: And yet there are very few convictions, as noted previously.

““The laws are insufficient for the Governor to apply a remedy.” One naturally asks, “How so?” The answer is that the Governor cannot send troops into a county except upon request of the civil authorities, and they must go as a posse to civil officers. In most feuds these officers are partisans (in fact, it is a favorite ruse for one clan to win or usurp the county offices before making war). Hence the State troops would only serve as a reinforcement to one of the contending factions. To show how this works out, we will sketch briefly the course of another feud.—

“In Rowan County, Kentucky, in 1884, there was an election quarrel between two members of the Martin and Toliver families. The Logans sided with the Martins and the Youngs with the Tolivers. The Logan-Martin faction elected their candidate for sheriff by a margin of twelve votes. Then there was an affray in which one Logan was killed and three were wounded.

“As usual, in feuds, no immediate redress was attempted, but the injured clan plotted its vengeance with deadly deliberation. After five months, Dick Martin killed Floyd Toliver. His own people worked the trick of arresting him themselves and sent him to Winchester for safe-keeping. The Tolivers succeeded in having him brought back on a forged order and killed him when he was bound and helpless.

“The leader of the Young-Toliver faction was a notorious bravo named Craig Toliver. To strengthen his power he became candidate for town marshal of Morehead, and he won the office by intimidation at the polls. Then, for two years, a bushwhacking war went on. Three times the Governor sent troops into Rowan County, but each time they found nothing but creeks and thickets to fight. Then he prevailed upon the clans to sign a truce and expatriate their chiefs for one year in distant States. Craig Toliver obeyed the order by going to Missouri, but returned several months before the expiration of his term, resumed office, and renewed his atrocities. In the warfare that ensued all the county officers were involved, from the judge down. …

“The posse here mentioned was organized by Daniel Boone Logan, a cousin of the two young men who had been murdered, a college graduate, and a lawyer of good standing. With the assent of the Governor, he gathered fifty to seventy-five picked men and armed them with the best modern rifles and revolvers. Some of the men were of his own clan; others he hired. His plan was to end the war by exterminating the Tolivers.

“The posse, led by Logan and the sheriff, suddenly surrounded the town of Morehead. Everybody gave in except Craig Toliver, Jay Toliver, Bud Toliver, and Hiram Cook, who barricaded themselves in the railroad station, where all of them were shot dead by the posse.

“Boone Logan was indicted for murder. At the trial he admitted the killings; but he showed that the feud had cost the lives of not less than twenty-three men, that not one person had been legally punished for these murders, and that he had acted for the good of the public in ending this infamous struggle. The court accepted this view of the case, the community sustained it, and the “war” was closed.”

EvX: older homicide stats are not trustworthy.

“It should be understood that national and state politics cut little or no figure in these “wars.” Local politics in most of the mountain counties is merely a factional fight, in which family matters and business interests are involved, and the contest becomes bitterly personal on that account. This explains most of the collusion or partisanship of county officers and their remissness in enforcing the law in murder cases. Family ties or political alliances override even the oath of office.”

On the Origins of “poor whites” and Appalachians:

“The unfortunate class known as poor whites in the South is descended mainly from the convicts and indentured servants with which England supplied labor to the southern plantations before slavery days. The Cavaliers who founded and dominated southern society came from the conservative, the feudal element of England. Their character and training were essentially aristocratic and military. They were not town-dwellers, but masters of plantations. Their chief crop and article of export was tobacco. The culture of tobacco required an abundance of cheap and servile labor.

“On the plantations there was little demand for skilled labor, small room anywhere for a middle class of manufacturers and merchants, no inducement for independent farmers who would till with their own hands. Outside of the planters and a small professional class there was little employment offered save what was menial and degrading. Consequently the South was shunned, from the beginning, by British[Pg 357] yeomanry and by the thrifty Teutons such as flocked into the northern provinces. The demand for menials on the plantations was met, then, by importing bond-servants from Great Britain. These were obtained in three ways.—

1. Convicted criminals were deported to serve out their terms on the plantations. Some of these had been charged only with political offenses, and had the making of good citizens; but the greater number were rogues of the shiftless and petty delinquent order, such as were too lazy to work but not desperate enough to have incurred capital sentences.

2. Boys and girls, chiefly from the slums of British seaports, were kidnapped and sold into temporary slavery on the plantations.

3. Impoverished people who wished to emigrate, but could not pay for their passage, voluntarily sold their services for a term of years in return for transportation. …

“Then came a vast social change. At a time when the laboring classes of Europe had achieved emancipation from serfdom, and feudalism was overthrown, African slavery in our own Southland laid the foundation for a new feudalism. Southern society reverted to a type that the rest of the civilized world had outgrown.

“The effect upon white labor was deplorable. The former bond-servants were now freedmen, it is true, but freedmen shorn of such opportunities as they were fitted to use. Sprung from a more or less degraded stock, still branded by caste, untrained to any career demanding skill and intelligence, devitalized by evil habits of life, densely ignorant of the world around them, these, the naturally shiftless, were now turned out into the backwoods to shift for themselves. It was inevitable that most of them should degenerate even below the level of their former estate, for they were no longer forced into steady industry.

“The white freedmen generally became squatters on such land as was unfit for tobacco, cotton, and other crops profitable to slave-owners. As the plantations expanded, these freedmen were pushed further and further back upon more and more sterile soil. They became “pine-landers” or “piney-woods-people,” “sand-hillers,” “knob-people,” “corn-crackers” or “crackers,” gaining a bare subsistence from corn planted and “tended” chiefly by the women and children, from hogs running wild in the forest, and from desultory hunting and fishing. As a class, such whites lapsed into sloth and apathy. Even the institution of slavery they regarded with cynical tolerance, doubtless realizing that if it were not for the blacks they would be slaves themselves.”

EvX: Note: the image of the lazy, apathetic Southern white was mostly caused by chronic anemia due to epidemic levels of hookworm infection. Hookworms came with the African slaves, who were at least somewhat adapted and thus resistant to their effects, and quickly infected the local whites (the poorest of whom had no shoes and worked barefoot in the fields, spreading, yes, human waste for fertilizer on the crops) who had much less evolved resistance to the worms…

“Now these poor whites had nothing to do with settling the mountains. …

“The first frontiersmen of the Appalachians were those Swiss and Palatine Germans who began flocking into Pennsylvania about 1682. They settled westward of the Quakers in the fertile limestone belts at the foot of the Blue Ridge and the Alleghanies. Here they formed the Quakers’ buffer against the Indians, and, for some time, theirs were the westernmost settlements of British subjects in America. These Germans were of the Reformed or Lutheran faith. They were strongly democratic in a social sense, and detested slavery. They were model farmers and many of them were skilled workmen at trades.

“Shortly after the tide of German immigration set into Pennsylvania, another and quite different class of foreigners began to arrive in this province, attracted hither by the same lodestones that drew the Germans, namely, democratic institutions and religious liberty. These newcomers were the Scotch-Irish, or Ulstermen of Ireland. …

“Being by tradition and habit a border people the Scotch-Irish pushed to the extreme western fringe of settlement amid the Alleghanies. They were not over-solicitous about the quality of soil. When Arthur Lee, of Virginia, was telling Doctor Samuel Johnson, in London, of a colony of Scotch who had settled upon a particularly sterile tract in western Virginia, and had expressed his wonder that they should do so, Johnson replied, “Why, sir, all barrenness is comparative: the Scotch will never know that it is barren.”

“West of the Susquehanna, however, the land was so rocky and poor that even the Scotch shied at it, and so, when eastern Pennsylvania became crowded, the overflow of settlers passed not westward but southwestward, along the Cumberland Valley, into western Maryland, and then into the Shenandoah and those other long, narrow, parallel valleys of western Virginia that we noted in our first chapter. This western region still lay unoccupied and scarcely known by the Virginians themselves. Its fertile lands were discovered by Pennsylvania Dutchmen. The first house in western Virginia was erected by one of them, Joist Hite, and he established a colony of his people near the future site of Winchester. A majority of those who settled in the eastern part of the Shenandoah Valley were Pennsylvania Dutch, while the Scotch-Irish, following in their train, pushed a little to the west of them and occupied more exposed positions. There were representatives of other races along the border: English, Irish, French Huguenots, and so on; but everywhere the Scotch-Irish and Germans predominated.”

Source

EvX: If you aren’t already familiar with the Appalachian chain, a god look at a topographic map reveals that the easiest area for introgression is around Pennsylvania, then southward through parallel mountain valleys, rather than westward over the tops of the mountains.

 

Book Club: The Code Economy chs. 3-4: Machines and Computers

Machines are fascinating.

Imagine if we discovered, by some chance, in a previously unexplored niche of the world, a group of “people” who looked exactly like us, but had no technology at all: no fire, no pots, no textiles, not even an Acheulean hand axe. Let us further assume that they were not merely feral children who’d gotten lost in the woods, but an actual community that had sustained itself for generations, and that all attempts to introduce them to the art of tool-making failed. They could not, despite often watching others build fires or throw pots, make their own–much less understand and join in a modern economy. (A bulldog can learn to ride a skateboard, but it cannot learn to make a skateboard.)

What would we think of them? Would they be “human”? Even though they look like us, they could only live in houses and wear clothes if we gave those to them; if not given food, they would have to stay in their native environment and hunt.

It is hard to imagine a “human” without technology, nor explaining the course of human history without the advance of technology. The rise of trans-Atlantic discovery, trade, and migration that so fundamentally shaped the past 500 years cannot be explained without noting the development of superior European ships, maps, and navigational techniques necessary to make the journey. Why did Europe discover America and not the other way around? Many reasons, but fundamentally, because the Americans of 1492 didn’t have ships that could make the journey and the Europeans did.

The Romans were a surprisingly advanced society, technology wise, and even during the High Middle Ages, European technology continued to advance, as with the spread of wind and water mills. But I think it was the adoption of (Hindu-)Arabic numerals, popularized among mathematicians in the 1200s by Fibonacci, but only adopted more widely around the 1400s, that really allowed the Industrial and Information Revolutions to occur. (Roman numerals are just awful for any maths.)

An 18th century set of Napier’s Bones

From the Abacus and Fibonacci’s Liber Abaci, Napier developed his “bones,” the first European mechanical calculating machine, in 1617. These were followed by Pascal’s Calculator in 1642, the slide rule (early 1600s,) and Leibniz’s Stepped Reckoner in 1672. After that, progress on the adding machine problem was so rapid that it does not do to list all of the devices and prototypes devised, but we may mention Gaspard de Prony’s impressive logarithmic and trigonometric mathematical tables, for use by human “calculators”, and Babbage‘s analytical and difference machines. The Arithmometer, patented in 1820, was the first commercially successful mechanical calculator, used in many an office for nearly a century.

The history of mechanical computing devices wouldn’t be complete without reference to the parallel development of European clocks and watches, which pioneered the use of gears to translate movement into numbers, not to mention the development of an industry capable of manufacturing small, high-quality gears to reasonably high tolerances.

Given this context, I find our culture’s focus on Babbage–whose machines, while impressive, was never actually built–and his assistant Ada of Lovelace, a bit limited. Their contributions were interesting, but taken as a whole, the history is almost an avalanche of innovations.

Along the way, the computer has absorbed many technological innovations from outside computing–the Jacquard Loom pioneered the use of punch cards; the lightbulb pioneered the vacuum tubes that eventually filled Colossus and ENIAC.

But these early computers had a problem: vacuum tubes broke often.

During and immediately after World War II a phenomenon named “the tyranny of numbers” was noticed, that is, some computational devices reached a level of complexity at which the losses from failures and downtime exceeded the expected benefits.[2] Each Boeing B-29 (put into service in 1944) carried 300–1000 vacuum tubes and tens of thousands of passive components.[notes 4] The number of vacuum tubes reached thousands in advanced computers and more than 17,000 in the ENIAC (1946).[notes 5] Each additional component reduced the reliability of a device and lengthened the troubleshooting time.[2] Traditional electronics reached a deadlock and a further development of electronic devices required reducing the number of their components.

Also:

…the 1946 ENIAC, with over 17,000 tubes, had a tube failure (which took 15 minutes to locate) on average every two days. The quality of the tubes was a factor, and the diversion of skilled people during the Second World War lowered the general quality of tubes.[29]

The invention of the semiconductor further revolutionized computing–bringing us a long way from the abacus of yesterday.

Chapter 3 takes a break from the development of beautiful machines to examine their effects on humans. Auerswald writes:

By the twentieth century, the systematic approach to analyzing the division of labor that de Prony developed would have a name: management science. the first and foremost proponent of management science was Frederick Winslow Taylor, a child of privilege who found his calling in factories. …

This first experience of factory work gave Taylor an understanding of the habits of workers that was as intimate as it was, ultimately, unfavorable. Being highly organized and precise by nature, Taylor was appalled at the lax habits and absence of structure that characterized the early twentieth-century factory floor. … However, Taylor ultimately concluded that the blame did not lie with the workers but in the lack of rigorously considered management techniques. At the center of management, Taylor determined, was the capacity to precisely define the tasks of which a “job” was comprised.

What distinguished Taylor was his absolute conviction that worker could not be left on their own to define, much less refine, the tasks that comprised their work. He argued that authority must be fully vested in scientifically determined routine–that is to say, code.

Sounds hellish.

I know very little of management science beyond what can be found in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. According to Wikipedia, Vladimir Lenin described Taylorism as a “‘scientific’ system of sweating” more work from laborers.[3] However, in Taylor’s defense, I don’t think the adoption of Taylorism ever resulted in the mass starvation of millions of people, so maybe Lenin should shut up was wrong. Further:

In the course of his empirical studies, Taylor examined various kinds of manual labor. For example, most bulk materials handling was manual at the time; material handling equipment as we know it today was mostly not developed yet. He looked at shoveling in the unloading of railroad cars full of ore; lifting and carrying in the moving of iron pigs at steel mills; the manual inspection of bearing balls; and others. He discovered many concepts that were not widely accepted at the time. For example, by observing workers, he decided that labor should include rest breaks so that the worker has time to recover from fatigue, either physical (as in shoveling or lifting) or mental (as in the ball inspection case). Workers were allowed to take more rests during work, and productivity increased as a result.[11]

Also:

By factoring processes into discrete, unambiguous units, scientific management laid the groundwork for automation and offshoring, prefiguring industrial process control and numerical control in the absence of any machines that could carry it out. Taylor and his followers did not foresee this at the time; in their world, it was humans that would execute the optimized processes. (For example, although in their era the instruction “open valve A whenever pressure gauge B reads over value X” would be carried out by a human, the fact that it had been reduced to an algorithmic component paved the way for a machine to be the agent.) However, one of the common threads between their world and ours is that the agents of execution need not be “smart” to execute their tasks. In the case of computers, they are not able (yet) to be “smart” (in that sense of the word); in the case of human workers under scientific management, they were often able but were not allowed. Once the time-and-motion men had completed their studies of a particular task, the workers had very little opportunity for further thinking, experimenting, or suggestion-making. They were forced to “play dumb” most of the time, which occasionally led to revolts.

While farming has its rhythms–the cows must be milked when the cows need to be milked, and not before or after; the crops must be harvested when they are ripe–much of the farmer’s day is left to his own discretion. Whether he wants to drive fence in the morning and hoe the peas in the afternoon, or attend to the peas first and the fence later is his own business. If he wants to take a nap or pause to fish during the heat of the day it is, again, his own business.

A factory can’t work like that. If the guy who is supposed to bolt the doors onto the cars can’t just wander off to eat a sandwich and use the restroom whenever he feels like it, nor can he decide that today he feels like installing windshields. Factories and offices allow many men to work together by limiting the scope of each one’s activities.

Is this algorithmisation of labor inhuman, and should we therefore welcome its mechanization and automation?

Why are there no Han Chinese Fields Medalists?

IQ by country

I am specifically referring to Han Chinese from the People’s Republic of China (hereafter simply called “China,”) but wanted to keep the title to a reasonable length.

There are about a billion Han Chinese. They make up about 90% of the PRC, and they have some of the highest average IQs on the planet, with particularly good math scores.

Of the 56 Fields Medals (essentially, the Nobel for Math) awarded since 1936, 12 (21%) have been French. 14 or 15 have been Jewish, or 25%-27%.

By contrast, 0 have been Han Chinese from China itself.

France is a country of 67.15 million people, of whom about 51 million are native French. The world has about 14-17.5 million Jews. China has about 1.37 billion people, of whom 91.51% are Han, or about 1.25 billion.

Two relatively Chinese people have won Fields medals:

Shing-Tung Yau was born in China, but is of Hakka ancestry (the Hakka are an Asian “market-dominant minority,”) not Han. His parents moved to Hong Kong when he was a baby; after graduating from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, he moved to the US, where he received his PhD from Berkley. Yau was a citizen of British-owned Hong Kong (not the People’s Republic of China), when he won the Fields Medal, in 1982; today he holds American citizenship.

Terence Tao, the 2006 recipient, is probably Han (Wikipedia does not list his ethnicity.) His father hailed from Shanghai, China, but moved to Hong Kong, where he graduated from medical school and met Tao’s mother, another Hong Kong-ian. Tao himself was born in Australia and later moved to the US. (Tao appears to be a dual Australian-American citizen.)

(With only 7.4 million people, Hong Kong is doing pretty well for itself in terms of Fields Medalists with some form of HK ancestry or citizenship.)

Since not many Fields Medals have been awarded, it is understandable why the citizens of small countries, even very bright ones, like Singapore, might not have any. It’s also understandable why top talent often migrates to places like Hong Kong, Australia, or the US. But China is a huge country with a massive pool of incredibly smart people–just look at Shanghai’s PISA scores. Surely Beijing has at least a dozen universities filled with math geniuses.

So where are they?

Is it a matter of funding? Has China chosen to funnel its best mathematicians into applied work? A matter of translation? Does the Fields Medal Committee have trouble reading papers written in Chinese? A matter of time? Did China’s citizens simply spent too much of the of the past century struggling at the edge of starvation to send a bunch of kids off to university to study math, and only recently achieved the level of mass prosperity necessary to start on the Fields path?

Whatever the causes of current under-representation, I have no doubt the next century will show an explosion in Han Chinese mathematical accomplishments.

Homeschooling Corner: A Mathematician’s Lament, by Paul Lockhart

Paul Lockhart’s A Mathematician’s Lament: How School Cheats us of our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Artform is a short but valuable book, easily finished in an afternoon.

Lockhart’s basic take is that most of us have math backwards. We approach (and thus teach) it as useful but not fun–something to be slogged through, memorized, and then avoided as much as possible. By contrast, Lockhart sees math as more fun than useful.

I do not mean that Lockhart denies the utility of balancing your checkbook or calculating how much power your electrical grid can handle, but most of the math actual mathematicians do isn’t practical. They do it because they enjoy it; they love making patterns with numbers and shapes. Just because paint has a very practical use in covering houses doesn’t mean we shouldn’t encourage kids to enjoy painting pictures; similarly, Lockhart wants kids to see mathematics as fun.

But wait, you say, what if this loosey-goosey, free-form, new math approach results in kids who spend a lot of time trying to re-derive pi from first principles but never really learning algebra? Lockhart would probably counter that most kids never truly master algebra anyway, so why make them hate it in the process? Should we only let kids who can paint like the Masters take art class?

If you and your kids already enjoy math, Lockhart may just reinforce what you already know, but if you’re struggling or math is a bore and a chore, Lockhart’s perspective may be just what you need to turn things around and make math fun.

For example: There are multiple ways to group the numbers during double-digit multiplication, all equally “correct”; the method you chose is generally influenced by things like your familiarity with double-digit multiplication and the difficulty of the problem. When I observed one of my kids making errors in multiplication because of incorrect regrouping, I showed them how to use a more expanded way of writing out the numbers to make the math clearer–promptly eliciting protests that I was “doing it wrong.” Inspired by Lockhart, I explained that “There is no one way to do math. Math is the art of figuring out answers, and there are many ways to get from here to there.” Learning how to use a particular approach—“Put the numbers here, here, and here and then add them”–is useful, but should not be elevated above using whatever approach best helps the child understand the numbers and calculate the correct answers.

The only difficulty with Lockhart’s approach is figuring out what to actually do when you sit down at the kitchen table with your kids, pencil and paper in hand. The book has a couple of sample lessons but isn’t a full k-12 curriculum. It’s easy to say, “I’m going to do a free-form curriculum that requires going to the library every day and uses every experience as a learning opportunity,” and rather harder to actually do it. With a set curriculum, you at least know, “Here’s what we’re going to do today.”

My own personal philosophy is that school time should be about 50% formal instruction and 50% open-ended exploration. Kids need someone to explain how the alphabet works and what these funny symbols on the math worksheet mean; they also need time to read fun books and play with numbers. They should memorize their times tables, but a good game can make times tables fun. In short, I think kids should have both a formal, straightforward curriculum or set of workbooks (I have not read enough math textbooks to recommend any particular ones,) and a set of math enrichment activities, like tangrams, pattern blocks, reading about Penrose the Mathematical Cat, or watching Numberphile on YouTube.

(Speaking of Penrose, I thought the chapter on binary went right over my kids’ heads, but yesterday they returned all of their answers in math class in binary, so I guess they picked up more than I gave them credit for.)

YouCubed.org is an interesting website I recently discovered. So far we’ve only done two of the activities, but they were cute and I suspect the website will make a useful addition to our lessons. If you’ve used it, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

That’s all for now. Happy learning!

Anthropology Friday: Appalachia, pt 2/4

Gutierrez map of 1562 showing Appalachia

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today were are continuing with Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1913.

Physical appearance:

“Spartan diet does not put on flesh. Still, it should be noted that long legs, baggy clothing, and scantiness or lack of underwear make people seem thinner than they really are. Our highlanders are conspicuously a tall race. Out of seventy-six men that I have listed just as they occurred to me, but four are below average American height and only two are fat. About two-thirds of them are brawny or sinewy fellows of great endurance. The others generally are slab-sided, stoop-shouldered, but withey. The townsfolk and the valley farmers, being better nourished and more observant of the prime laws of wholesome living, are noticeably superior in appearance but not in stamina.”

EvX: I cannot help but think we have lost something of healthy stamina.

“There is a wealthy man known to everyone around Waynesville, who, being asked where he resided, as a witness in court, answered: “Three, four miles up and down Jonathan Creek.” The judge was about to fine him for contempt, when it developed that the witness spoke literal truth. He lives neither in house nor camp, but perambulates his large estate and when night comes lies down wherever he may happen to be. In winter he has been known to go where some of his pigs bedded in the woods, usurp the middle for himself, and borrow comfort from their bodily heat.”

EvX: I do not now about you, but I feel a kind of kinship with this man. Often I feel a restlessness, a sense that I am trapped by the walls of my house. It is not a dissatisfaction with the people in my house–toward them I feel no restlessness at all–but the house itself.

I am at peace again when I find myself in the woods, the trees towering over me; I am at peace in the snow, drifting through a blizzard. I am at peace in a fog, the world shut out by a faded haze. In the distance I see the mountains, and though I am walking to the playground or the shops they tug at me, and I am always tempted to turn my feet and just keep going until I arrive.

I do not want a large or fancy house; I just want to live in the woods among the plants and people I love.

But back to the man in the woods in the court:

“This man is worth over a hundred thousand dollars. He visited the world’s fairs at Chicago and St. Louis, wearing the old long coat that serves him also as blanket, and carrying his rations in a sack. Far from being demented, he is notoriously so shrewd on the stand and so learned in the law that he is formidable to every attorney who cross-questions him.”

Religion:

“The first settlers of Appalachia mainly were Presbyterians, as became Scotch-Irishmen, but they fell away from that faith, partly because the wilderness was too poor to support a regular ministry, and partly because it was too democratic for Calvinism with its supreme authority of the clergy. This much of seventeenth century Calvinism the mountaineer retains: a passion for hair-splitting argument over points of doctrine, and the cocksure intolerance of John Knox; but the ancestral creed itself has been forgotten.

“The circuit-rider, whether Methodist or Baptist, found here a field ripe for his harvest. Being himself self-supporting and unassuming, he won easily the confidence of the people. He preached a highly emotional religion that worked his audience into the ecstasy that all primitive people love. And he introduced a mighty agent of evangelization among outdoor folk when he started the camp-meeting.

“The season for camp-meetings is from mid-August to October. The festival may last a week in one place. It is a jubilee-week to the work-worn and home-chained women, their only diversion from a year of unspeakably monotonous toil. And for the young folks, it is their theater, their circus, their county fair. (I say this with no disrespect: “big-meetin’ time” is a gala week, if there be any such thing at all in the mountains—its attractiveness is full as much secular as spiritual to the great body of the people.)”

EvX: Vacation Bible Camp is still a thing, of course.

“It is a camp by day only, or up to closing time. No mountaineer owns a tent. Preachers  and exhorters are housed nearby, and visitors from all the country scatter about with their friends, or sleep in the open, cooking their meals by the wayside.

“In these backwoods revival meetings we can witness to-day the weird phenomena of ungovernable shouting, ecstasy, bodily contortions, trance, catalepsy, and other results of hypnotic suggestion and the contagious one-mindedness of an overwrought crowd. This is called “taking a big through,” and is regarded as the madness of supernatural joy. It is a mild form of that extraordinary frenzy which swept the Kentucky settlements in 1800, when thousands of men and women at the camp-meetings fell victims to “the jerks,” “barking exercises,” erotic vagaries, physical wreckage, or insanity, to which the frenzy led.

Christian snake handlers

“Many mountaineers are easily carried away by new doctrines extravagantly presented. Religious mania is taken for inspiration by the superstitious who are looking for “signs and wonders.” At one time Mormon prophets lured women from the backwoods of western Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Later there was a similar exodus of people to the Castellites, a sect of whom it was commonly remarked that “everybody who joins the Castellites goes crazy.” In our day the same may be said of the Holy Rollers and Holiness People.”

EvX: Wikipedia appears to have nothing on the Castellites, but Wiktionary says they were a religious group in North Carolina in the late 19th century.

Language:

“An editor who had made one or two short trips into the mountains once wrote me that he thought the average mountaineer’s vocabulary did not exceed three hundred words. This may be a natural inference if one spends but a few weeks among these people and sees them only under the prosaic conditions of workaday life. But gain their intimacy and you shall find that even the illiterates among them have a range of expression that is truly remarkable. I have myself taken down from the lips of Carolina mountaineers some eight hundred dialectical or obsolete words, to say nothing of the much greater number of standard English terms that they command. …

“Our highlander often speaks in Elizabethan or Chaucerian or even pre-Chaucerian terms. His pronoun hit antedates English itself, being the Anglo-Saxon neuter of he. Ey God, a favorite expletive, is the original of egad, and goes back of Chaucer. Ax for ask and kag for keg were the primitive and legitimate forms, which we trace as far as the time of Layamon. When the mountain boy challenges his mate: “I dar ye—I ain’t afeared!” his verb and participle are of the same ancient and sterling rank. Afore, atwixt, awar, heap o’ folks, peart, up and done it, usen for used, all these everyday expressions of the backwoods were contemporary with the Canterbury Tales.

“A man said to me of three of our acquaintances: “There’s been a fray on the river—I don’t know how the fraction begun, but Os feathered into Dan and Phil, feedin’ them lead.” He meant fray in its original sense of deadly combat, as was fitting where two men were killed. Fraction for rupture is an archaic word, rare in literature, though we find it in Troilus and Cressida. “Feathered into them!” Where else can we hear to-day a phrase that passed out of standard English when “villainous saltpetre” supplanted the long-bow? It means to bury an arrow up to the feather, as when the old chronicler Harrison says, “An other arrow should haue beene fethered in his bowels.”

Social Organization (or lack thereof):

“Bear in mind that in the mountains every person is accorded the consideration that his own qualities entitle him to, and no whit more. It has always been so. Our Highlanders have neither memory nor tradition of ever having been herded together, lorded over, persecuted or denied the privileges of free-men. So, even within their clans, there is no servility nor any headship by right of birth. Leaders arise, when needed, only by virtue of acknowledged ability and efficiency. In this respect there is no analogy whatever to the clan system of ancient Scotland, to which the loose social structure of our own highlanders has been compared.

“We might expect such fiery individualism to cool gradually as population grew denser; but, oddly enough, crowding only intensifies it in the shy backwoodsman. Neighborliness has not grown in the mountains—it is on the wane. There are to-day fewer log-rollings and house-raisings, fewer husking bees and quilting parties than in former times; and no new social gatherings have taken their place. Our mountain farmer, seeing all arable land taken up, and the free range ever narrowing, has grown jealous and distrustful, resenting the encroachment of too many sharers in what once he felt was his own unfenced domain. And so it has come about that the very quality that is his strength and charm as a man—his staunch individualism—is proving his weakness and reproach as a neighbor and citizen. The virtue of a time out-worn has become the vice of an age new-born.

The mountaineers are non-social. As they stand to-day, each man “fighting for his own hand, with his back against the wall,” they recognize no social compact. Each one is suspicious of the other. Except as kinsmen or partisans they cannot pull together. Speak to them of community of interests, try to show them the advantages of co-operation, and you might as well be proffering advice to the North Star. They will not work together zealously even to improve their neighborhood roads, each mistrusting that the other may gain some trifling advantage over himself or turn fewer shovelfuls of earth. Labor chiefs fail to organize unions or granges among them because they simply will not stick together.”

 

Which came first, the City or the Code? (book club Code Economy Ch 2)

The Code of Hammurabi

Writing, which is itself a form of code, enable humans to communicate code. Cities grow as code evolves. –Auerswald

Welcome to The Code Economy: A Forty-Thousand Year History, by Philip E. Auerswald. Chapter Two: Code looks at two epochal developments in human history: writing and cities.

One of the earliest pieces of writing we have uncovered is the Sumerian Hymn to Ninkasi, Goddess of Beer, which contains, yes, a recipe for making beer (translation by Miguel Civil):

Your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.
Ninkasi, your father is Enki, Lord Nidimmud,
Your mother is Ninti, the queen of the sacred lake.

You are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with sweet aromatics,
Ninkasi, you are the one who handles the dough [and] with a big shovel,
Mixing in a pit, the bappir with [date] – honey,

You are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,
Ninkasi, you are the one who bakes the bappir in the big oven,
Puts in order the piles of hulled grains,

You are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,
Ninkasi, you are the one who waters the malt set on the ground,
The noble dogs keep away even the potentates,

You are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.
Ninkasi, you are the one who soaks the malt in a jar,
The waves rise, the waves fall.

You are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes,
Ninkasi, you are the one who spreads the cooked mash on large reed mats,
Coolness overcomes,

You are the one who holds with both hands the great sweet wort,
Brewing [it] with honey [and] wine
(You the sweet wort to the vessel)
Ninkasi, (…)(You the sweet wort to the vessel)

The filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on a large collector vat.
Ninkasi, the filtering vat, which makes a pleasant sound,
You place appropriately on a large collector vat.

When you pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.
Ninkasi, you are the one who pours out the filtered beer of the collector vat,
It is [like] the onrush of Tigris and Euphrates.

Sumerian tablet recording the allocation of beer

You guys requested beer or wine with your books, so here you go.

The hymn contains two layers of code–first, there is the code which allows each symbol or character to stand for a particular sound, which let the author write down the recipe and you, thousands of years later, decode and read the recipe; and second, there is the recipe itself, a code for producing beer.

The recipe’s code likely far predates the hymn itself, as humans had begun brewing beer at least a couple thousand years earlier.

Writing and cities go hand in hand; it is difficult to imagine managing the day-to-day need to import food (and water) for thousands of people without some ability to encode information. As cities grow larger, complexity grows: one man in the woods may relieve himself behind a tree; thousands of people packed into a square mile cannot.

Each solved problem, once routinized, becomes its own layer of code, building up as the city itself expands; a city of thousands or millions of people cannot solve each person’s problems anew each day.

Gobekli Tepe, Turkey

But which came first, the city or the alphabet? Did the growth of cities spur innovations that improved agricultural output, or did agricultural innovations spur the growth of cities?

For example, settlement and construction appear to have gotten underway at Jericho (one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities) around 9 or 10,000 BC and at the mysterious Gobekli Tepe site began around 7-9,000 BC, before agriculture emerged in the region.

Writing developed a fair bit later, developing from clay shapes to shapes impressed in clay between 8,000 and 4,000 BC.

Amphitheater, Norte Chico, Peru

Others of the world’s earliest civilizations had either no or very little writing. The Norte Chico civilization of Peru, for example; by the time the Spaniards arrived, the Inca had an accounting system based on the quipu, a kind of string abacus, but appear to have not yet developed a true writing system, despite their palaces, cities, roads, emperor, and tax collectors. (Here is my previous post on Norte Chico.)

The Great Bath of Mohenjo-daro

The extensive Indus Valley civilization had some form of symbolic encoding, but few of their inscriptions are longer than 4 or 5 characters–the longest inscription found so far is 26 symbols, spread over three different sides of an object. Not exactly an epic–but the Indus Valley Civilization was nevertheless quite large and impressive, supporting perhaps 5 million people. (Previous post on the Indus Valley.)

Auerswald documents some of the ways cities appear to drive innovation–and to “live”:

The Santa Fe team found that cities are like biological organisms when it comes to “metabolic” urban processes that are analogous to nutrient supply and waste removal–transportation, for example, ha a branching structure much like veins or bronchi–but that cities differ fundamentally from biological organisms when it comes to indicators reflecting the creation and transmission of code. measuring the size of cities based on population and on the urban “metabolism” using metrics such as wages, GDP, electric power and gasoline consumption, and total  road surface, the team found a systematic relationship between city size and indicators of the supply of “nutrients” and waste removal… However, while metabolic indicators do not keep pace with the size of cities as they grow, indicators relating to the creation and transmission of code increase at a greater rate than city size. … In short, the creation of ideas accelerates with city growth, whereas the cost of new infrastructure is minimized.

This intriguing macro-level departure from the inverse relationships that hold for organisms ends up risking more questions about the evolution of cities than it answers: What mechanism enables larger cities to produce disproportionately more innovation and wealth than smaller cities?

Data Economy has a fascinating article in a similar vein: Street Smarts: The Rise of the Learning City:

The city as a brain

An amalgam of terms that have been used for parallel conceptions of the Smart City among them cyberville, digital city, electronic communities, flexicity, information city, intelligent city, knowledge-based city, MESH city, telecity, teletopia, ubiquitous city, wired city.

However the one I would like to propose, with population movement in mind, is The Learning City.

The term is based on a combination of two theories The Ego City and The Flynn Effect.

In 2009 Neurobiologist Mark Changizi from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute released a paper entitled Ego City: Cities Are Organized Like Human Brain.

Changizi sees strikingly real similarities between the brain and a city.

The central idea being that they organise and evolve similarly due to the need for efficiency.

As brains grow more complex from one species to the next, they change in structure and organisation in order to achieve the right level of reciprocity.

This is analogous to the widening of streets in cities.

The research team found mutual “scaling laws” for brains and cities.

For example, as the surface area of a brain or city grows, the number of connectors (neurons or highways) increased at a similar rate for each.

Likewise, a bigger city needs more highway exits in the same proportion as a bigger brain needs more synapses connecting neurons.

“The brain is like a city.

Cities develop and grow bigger and may get problems with roads and infrastructure, which is similar to what happens to our brains when we get older”, notes Håkan Fischer, Professor of Biological Psychology at the Department of Psychology at Stockholm University.

 The learning city

This is curious when taken in the context of The Flynn Effect.

Intelligence Researcher James Flynn found that every decade without fail the human population scored higher on IQ tests.

An average increase of 3 points per decade.

His thesis suggests that the more information we as humans have to absorb and compute leads to an increase in IQ.

In this instance the increased information is data collected within the city.

As cities gain more data they adapt and in turn get smarter.

Human brains faced with a busier world filled with more information brings about an increase in IQ from generation to generation.

As people migrant to cities creating a more complex environment for the city it to must gather this data, learn and raise its Smart City IQ.

This is The Learning City.

On the other hand, the data Auerswald cites–from the “Santa Fe Team”–only looks at cities from the US, China, the EU, and Germany. How would this data look if it incorporated other megacities, like Manila, Philippines (the world’s densest city); Sao Paolo, Brazil; Bombay, India; Caracas, Venezuela; Karachi, Pakistan; or Jakarta, Indonesia? Of the world’s ten biggest cities, only two–Seoul, #1, and Tokyo, #10–are in the first world. (#9 Shanghai, is well on its way.)

#2 Sao Paolo might be more energy efficient than villages in the Brazilian hinterland (or it may not, as such towns may not even have electricity,) but does it produce more innovation than #11 New York City? (No American city made the top 10 by population.)

If cities are drivers of innovation, why are so many of the biggest in the third world? Perhaps third world countries offer their citizens so little that they experience a form of extreme brain drain, with everyone who can fleeing to the most productive regions. Or perhaps these cities are simply on their way–in a century, maybe Sao Paolo will be the world’s next Shanghai.

The city, by definition, is civilization–but does the city itself spur innovation? And are cities, themselves, living things?

Geoffrey West has some interesting things to say on this theme:

“How come it is very hard to kill a city? You can drop an atom bomb on a city, and 30 years later, it’s surviving.”

Here’s a transcript of the talk.

Hiroshima in 1945:

Hiroshima today:

Hiroshima montage

Detroit, 1905:

Belle Isle Park, Detroit, 1905–h/t Photos of Detroit’s Golden Age

Detroit today:

Detroit Book Depository

“Bombs don’t destroy cities; people destroy cities.”