Thursday, September 25, 2008

Education Choice Conference

Today, they held a conference on school choice in our
building. I went between classes. The conference was organized by
the same guy who taught the Atlas Shrugged class, in conjunction with
the Friedman Foundation.

One of the most interesting things was a British lady presenting
evidence on private schools in the slum areas of India and Africa.
She and her team went into the communities and found hundreds of
private schools that, according to official figures, did not exist.
She tested the students, and found that they were doing better than
students at the state schools. The parents were willing to pay
substantial fractions of their income for schooling, and, despite
being illiterate and unable to speak English themselves, did a fairly
good job of holding the schools accountable for learning.

However, that one of the main ways the parents held the schools
accountable was how well the students at that school did on state-run
standardized tests. This fact was not discussed much. Everybody
there basically had the attitude of 'What is the best strategy to get
the government out of education as quickly as possible?' I was one of
the least Libertarian people in the room. It was a strange
experience. After one presenter said that the government should pay
for school, but let parents do whatever they wanted with the money, I
spoke up and said,

"What about the rights of the taxpayer? If I am paying for something,
I want to know that the money is not being wasted. There should be
some minimal safeguards to make sure that the education is actually
doing something productive and preparing people to be good citizens."

Yes, I know that the current system is a huge mess, and does not meet
those goals. I am always arguing for school choice whenever I get the
change. But even a Libertarian will (usually) agree that the function
of government is to prevent its citizens from abusing each other, and
that the state should do something to prevent the abuse and neglect of
children.

One of the presenters had a good quote on that subject:

"Children are beings with human rights, but they do not have the
ability to make decisions about those rights."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Atlas Shrugged: Final Verdict

Note: This thing has been sitting around a long time in draft form. It has been almost two months since I read the book.

I finished reading Atlas Shrugged, and I have had some time to think about it. I will review the book on two levels: the surface literary value and the deeper philosophy behind it.

The first two parts of the book are fairly good. The decay of the society, the central mystery of the book, and the lives of the characters are chronicled well, and the filibusters do not get too extreme. However, at the start of the third part the book clearly veers into a tired old formula that I have seen in way too many places. The book becomes Yet Another Utopian Fantasy built upon the insidious premise of: "You can make a perfect world by gathering up all of the right people, letting the rest of humanity go to hell, and then building a new Eden from the ashes."

By the end of the book, it is quite clear that the heroes' plan has resulted in the deaths of millions of people, but that's all right, according to Rand, because these people were following a 'philosophy of death' and so deserved to die. Never mind that one of the people who gets killed is a sympathetic, hardworking childhood friend of the main character. They never even considered pulling him out of the dying world. Even though he perfectly followed the philosophy of the heroes, he apparently wasn't enough of an √úbermensch to be allowed into the Brave New World.

The quality of the writing also goes downhill; everything seems contrived for the sole purpose of making a point. Even Rand's apologists admit this. So what is the core philosophy that the book exists to promote?

Most of the core axioms of Rand's philosophy (reality exists, humans use logic to learn reality and create wealth from it) are clearly true. And much else that Rand says is clearly a useful way of thinking and looking at the world. However, she uses these axioms to generate a lot of conclusions that become ever more extreme and ever less defensible, like a rickety tower build on a foundation of solid bricks.

She clearly has the mind of a philosopher, and not a scientist. Thus, she tumbles into the predictable intellectual traps that philosophers and intellectuals constantly fall prey to. I'll explain this by talking about the basic epistemology of science.

A scientist is someone who observes reality and uses that data to build models of the world. A hypothesis must be tested by observation. A scientist is always willing to accept new information about the world, and is always willing to change mental models based on the information received.

The following two quotes are very instructive:

1) The map is not the territory.
2) All models are wrong, but some models are useful.

Scientists always know that the mental models they form of the world might be incorrect or even wrong. No human mind can ever contain a full and accurate model of the world, for the simple reason that the mind is a small part of the world, and so the mind must contain less information than the world. Therefore, by definition, all of our mental maps or models are a reduced, simplified versions of reality.

A scientist knows that the scientific method can never deliver a final, ultimate truth about the world. The best it can do is repeatedly fail to reject a hypothesis. Once a hypothesis has withstood many, many challenges, you can assume that it is a useful way to generate predictions that have a high probability of coming true. However, you have to accept that reality could throw you a curveball at any time, and you have to be willing to update your mental models to account for the new information the world throws at you.

A scientist knows that reality is messy and confusing, accepts this fact, and attempts to improve our understanding of that reality.

A philosopher, by contrast, believes that ultimate truth can be generated by a process of logic based on definitions. While the core axioms may be based on reality, everything else is generated in the philosopher's mind, by an iterative process, from the axioms. The only thing a philosopher cares about is internal consistency; there is no understanding that you need to check your mental models against reality.

And so, time and time again, a philosopher will generate a model of the world using the philosophical process rather than the scientific method. The results rarely have any connection to the real world. And yet the philosopher falls in love with his or her mental model, because it is so beautifully self-consistent and clean.

Often, other people also fall in love with the philosopher's model. People want easy answers, and a philosophy often gives it to them. The philosopher and/or the followers then attempt to use the philosophical model to explain everything about reality. Rather than accept the facts of reality, they start to bend and twist the facts so they fit in the model.

Eventually, they reach the point where they decide to alter reality so it fits the philosophical model. Sometimes they obtain enough power to actually attempt this. The results of this attempt are almost always a disaster. Ironically enough, Atlas Shrugged shows the horrible human cost that is inflicted whenever a group of philosophers attempt to reshape the world in their image, even as it cheerleads this very process.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Samaritan's Purse

Yesterday, I went to the Samaritan's Purse Mission Update, a conference given for people who work at or support the charity. Immediately after that, we went to the Low Country Festival, a big revival-type event run by Franklin Graham.

The lunch was standard luncheon fare, but the dessert was boysenberry cobbler, pecan pie, and vanilla pudding. It was a nice touch. I haven't eaten vanilla pudding since I was a little kid.

I talked with a guy who has done a lot of work for Samaritan's Purse abroad. He was in the military, and then he created and ran a distribution company, and now he is retired and does logistics work for the charity. We chatted about various things, but mostly Sudan, where he just finished building a hospital:

Me: "So do you run into any other charities?

Him: "They are all over the place in Juba, the capital, but nobody is out in the rural areas where we are working.

Me: "I thought the capital of Sudan was Khartoum."

Him: "That's the capital of North Sudan. South Sudan is mostly autonomous, and everybody knows they will vote for independence soon."

Hopefully that will happen without more violence, but I doubt it.

Then, there were various speakers talking about the work they are doing and how it gets done. Franklin Graham was one of them. His talk seemed weak and muddled, but that wasn't a problem. I figured that his mind was on the preaching that he would be doing later that night.

After the conference, we went to our seats at the Festival. It started off with a lot of music, mostly from contemporary Christian groups.

I realized something about popular music by watching the lead performer of one of the groups. He spent almost no time or effort singing or generating music. Instead, what he did was work the crowd. He got people to move around, dance, wave their hands, etc. I realized that this was the key skill nowadays. Musical talent is not necessary or sufficient, the thing that makes you a big-name performer is the much rarer ability to manipulate large numbers of people.

So there was a lot of yelling, singing, loud noise, and flashing lights. John Calvin would not have been pleased.

Then Franklin gave the message. I quickly realized that he is not a natural-born speaker like his father. Maybe it was because I have heard it all a hundred times before, but I was not impressed; the message seemed no better than what any preacher could do.

But something happened, because lots of people came down to the floor to talk with the counselors.

PS
I drove over seven hours yesterday. It keeps getting easier. I remember when a three-hour drive would knock me out.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Ivory Tower

This incident illustrates one of the reasons many people dislike the
academic world:

We are in the middle of the biggest economic crisis for 70 years. All
kinds of things are happening. The news is piling up faster than we
can process it. Old assumptions about the world are being called into
question. Ideas are being tested. Things are happening that will
affect the economic, social, and political environment for decades.
Clearly, it would be very valuable to talk about what is happening, to
use our knowledge to discuss and make sense of the world.

So what does the professor in my macroeconomics class say when he comes in?

"Today we are going to derive the Turnpike Theorem."

So we spend an hour and 15 minutes artfully rearranging Greek letters.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Economic Mess

One of my friends asked me for my take on the recent government
takeovers and the general market mess. I'll repost it here:

I'll use an ecology analogy. These big financial institutions are
kind of like plankton in the ocean. Everything else relies on them.
They form the basis of the entire food web. If they die off, the
entire system is in danger of collapsing. The worst case scenario is
that you would no longer be able to get any loans, use any credit
cards, write any checks, withdraw any money from the bank, or collect
on insurance claims. That scenario is highly unlikely, but there
would be problems on a smaller scale.

Basically, the government is trapped. Nobody wants to get involved in
this; they already refused a bailout once. Also, the term 'bailout'
is misleading. All of the stockholders and management are being
punished for their bad decisions. What they are really doing is
bailing out the rest of the financial system. They are protecting
people like you and me who have money in the bank and bought
insurance.

It is the equivalent of arresting a drunk driver and locking him in
jail for a while. It costs money to keep him in jail, but you do it
to keep him under control and prevent other people from getting hurt.
It is only a 'bailout' in the sense that it uses tax dollars to stop
the drunk from killing himself.

If you want to read a more in-depth article, see:

http://www.economist.com/finance/PrinterFriendly.cfm?story_id=12244993

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Quote: Consciousness

Consciousness is the ability to escape determinism. Consciousness
allows you to escape the destiny that your genes or society or
situation would write for you.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Unearned Wealth

Unearned wealth will always be defended more than earned wealth.

People who earned their wealth honestly know that they could earn it
again. The amount of effort they put into defending their wealth has
an upper limit: the amount of effort that it would take to create the
wealth anew. But people with unearned wealth, status or privilege
know that they could never regain it, so they will defend it to their
dying breath.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Vonnegut

Awesome fact of the day: The Economics department library has a copy
of Kurt Vonnegut's short story collection "Welcome to the Monkey
House"

Not-so-awesome fact of the day: My classmates do not seem to know who
Kurt Vonnegut is.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Quote: Path

Simple people stay on the path because it is the path.
Smart people find the fastest route to the destination.
Enlightened people stay on the path in order to avoid killing the grass.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Quote: Hell

"Hell is a world without standards."

If you can rely on nothing to guide you, then any sort of logical or
even sentient thought becomes impossible. You become a mere sensation
machine. Note that the need to survive is a standard, perhaps the
most exacting standard of them all. Only humans can make this
standard meaningless.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

SEC Football Game

I went to a football game yesterday. The dojo finally had
some spare tickets from the ticket pool; undergraduates all get free
tickets and can give their tickets to a club so the whole club goes to
the game together.

They were playing The Citadel. It was the traditional 'Invite a weak
team so we can smash them' start of the season. I was secretly
rooting for Citadel, because of their underdog status and the fact
that they are a military school. (And also the fact that I sometimes
like being contrary.) The final score was our team 45, Citadel 17, but
Citadel did really well in the first quarter. It took us most of
the game to fully adjust to the way that Citadel was playing; it
seemed to me that we were being outmaneuvered and our first touchdowns
were due to luck or brute force.

The halftime show was all about military stuff. They had the military
bands, and they honored fallen soldiers and a Medal of Honor winner
from WW2. It was the best part of the game, in my opinion.

After the game, lots of people went to the field and started throwing
footballs around. I went down, and started looking up at the stands,
in order to try to imagine what the players must feel like when they
play.

I'm glad I finally went to a game, but I have no desire to do it
again. It is an odd sensation to be surrounded by people who care
deeply about something, when you have zero emotional involvement in
that thing. I experience this a lot, but it never gets easier. I was
not expecting to be excited by the game or "the most exciting 25
seconds in college football" (When the team runs down the hill onto
the field) or anything else, but the whole thing really seemed to be
boring and juvenile. It was, to my mind, exactly like a high school
football game writ large.

Random Observations:

I had to throw away my water bottle at the gate, presumably for
alcohol control. During the game, several people were pouring things
from hip flasks or tiny vodka bottles into their concession stand
drinks.

After the game, each goal post was guarded by over half a dozen armed
Pickens County police officers.

The tailgaters must have thrown away enough food to feed a dozen third
world villages for a week.

The emotional power of a rifle stuck bayonet-first into the turf with
a helmet on top of it is amazing, especially with 'Taps' playing. I
was almost choked up.

In the fourth quarter, when we were clearly going to win, The Citadel
made a rather impressive touchdown play. I clapped for them and got a
lot of dirty looks from my friends. I tried explaining that our
victory was assured, we lost nothing from the score, and I was simply
admiring their skill. But the consensus was "Any point they score is
bad. We want to crush them."

There were an incredibly large number of chants, rituals, etc. that
everyone seemed to know. A touchdown, or being on defense, or a punt
all seemed to trigger some automatic group response. Watching 60,000
people wave their fists in the air and chant something will always
have a bad connotation in my mind. Being in the middle of it, even
when it is your friends, is worse. It sends a message of "You are a
stranger and do not belong here" straight to my limbic system.

I really, really dislike it when large numbers of people start
grabbing each others' shoulders and swaying. I cannot explain why,
but it seems very wrong and alien, even worse than the normal sports
rituals.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Philosophy Conference

I spent most of the day Friday at an international conference on
environmental ethics organized by our philosophy department.
They had people from all over the world giving presentations. There
was a wide range of people, from Al Gore disciples to people who
actually work on environmental restoration projects.

Some of the presentations were professors reading pure philosophy
papers, with dense jargon and big words. The surprising and amusing
thing was that I was able to follow these, and that some were quite
good. High-quality philosophy is a lot like computer programming or a
math proof: you start with definitions and then use them in a logical
sequence to achieve a result.

Others were more of a business presentation, showing what people had
done and how to do things more effectiely. One was about the Savannah
River, and one was about Dutch river management system. Of course,
they used PowerPoint. However, some of the other presentations were,
in my mind, pointless and juvenile, the kind of thing you might expect
in a high school public speaking class.

I was there for two reasons. First, it was interesting and I wanted
to learn stuff. Second, I was there to attempt economic damage
control. Many people, especially environmentalists, think that they
have a right to do economics without a license, and some of their
ideas were alarming indeed. I have learned how to talk to
philosophers, so I did my best to add some sense in the question
periods and discussions.

Sometimes, I was not necessary. When one guy started talking about
extending China's one-child policy to India, the women in the crowd
ripped him to pieces (Not literally, although that would have improved
the world*.)

At dinner, I had a long talk with a small group of people. I
explained the basic assumptions behind economic analysis**, and did my
best to dispel misconceptions***. I think it went pretty well. Here
are some paraphrased conversation moments:

Philosopher: "So, what area are you focusing on? I assume that you
might specialize in, for example, analysis of Adam Smith."
Me: "No, economists don't focus our studies by authors, like
philosophers do. Our categories are based on categories of real-world
appliciation, like Industrial Organization or Public Policy."

Philosopher: "So why would you even want to be an economist? You
never seem to generate new ideas or think about what a perfect world
should be like. All you do is look at what people do and analyze it."
Me: "An economist has the knowledge to help you put your ideas into
practice without screwing up the world. We know about unintended
consequences, like with rent control..."

Rent control is always a good talking point. People know that it was
put in place with good intentions, and they usually know how bad it is
in practice. It is easy to make the connection between that and
environmental policies.

*This is not just me being snarky or sadistic. I am simply applying
his philosophy to his own existence.

**Economists are agnostic about what people want or how they should
think. We simply take preferences as given, and show how to let
everyone achieve their desires in the most efficient manner. I fully
support the philosophers' desire to make people less materialistic so
that they value community and environment over random junk, but
changing desires is outside the scope of my field.

***Lots of people think that corporations are powerful, evil things.
I explained that, unlike governments, corporations have zero power
over you. The only way they can get money is if you decide to give
them money. All corporations are simply appendages of popular will,
the result of people voting with their wallets.

PS:
You can tell that I have spent too must time around philosophers.
This blog entry has entirely too many parenthetical comments and
footnotes :-)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Medicine Ball

Last night at martial arts practice, I and some of the other upper
rank students were playing around with a nine pound medicine ball. We
were tossing it around casually, like we would a basketball; I was
catching and throwing it with only one hand.

One of the new white belts wanted to join in. He was a big, beefy
guy, so we thought it would be no problem. I tossed the ball to him.

He caught it with two hands, but it still slammed into his chest. He
grunted and staggered back several steps.

At that point, I realized just how much technique and training I was
using. I was in a balanced, rooted stance that allowed my legs to
help absorb the momentum of the ball. I would reach out to the ball
as it came to me and then control its motion with gentle, steady
force, guiding it to a stop. The white belt could have easily beaten
me in arm wrestling, or any other feat of strength, but he did not
know how to deal with the momentum of the medicine ball coming at him.

He learned quickly, though. I showed him the basics, and eventually
he was able to handle it pretty well. He still seemed to be a little
afraid of the thing. If I threw it directly at him, he would insist
on using both hands. But when I threw it off to the side, he was able
to catch it one-handed, almost without realizing it.