Monday, January 31, 2011

Cash Transfers

Numerous studies have shown that the best way to help poor people in poor countries is to simply give them money.  Things like aid programs or free food really do not do much, compared to small regular income payments.  When you give people a little bit of extra cash, they spend it in things that improve their quality of life, or they use the money to start a small business.  Some of these programs make the cash contingent on things like medical checkups or having kids attend school, but often these restrictions are not necessary.

However, we also know that giving poor people in rich countries money is not nearly as effective.  Here's a good study that looks at lottery winners. The results:

 A comparison of Florida Lottery winners who randomly received $50,000 to $150,000 to small winners indicates that such transfers only postpone bankruptcy rather than prevent it... Furthermore, the large winners who subsequently filed for bankruptcy had similar net assets and unsecured debt as small winners. Thus, our findings suggest that skepticism regarding the long-term impact of cash transfers may be warranted.

Note that there is selection bias here.  The kind of person who purchases lottery tickets is not going to have the ability to manage money intelligently.  But even then, poverty in rich countries is fundamentally different than poverty in poor countries.

In places like India, you can be a sober, hard-working person and still be poor.  The problem is mainly lack of resources.  Giving people resources can end their poverty.  But in the United States, poverty is mainly an issue of skills.  People simply do not know how to manage money, or how to get and hold a job.  Giving them money will not solve any of their problems in the long run, as the study showed.

This does not mean that poor people here are inherently worse or stupider than poor people in India.  They never learned these kinds of skills because they do not really need to.  Natural selection is still operating in many parts of India: If you do not manage your meager resources well, you and/or your children will starve.  Thankfully we do not have that situation.  People here do not have to be clever just to stay alive.  We support their basic needs, but we leave them in a kind of limbo where they do not know how to improve their life beyond that level.

This is a hard problem.  Giving people skills is difficult, even when they know they lack the skills and want to learn.  If people do not know or do not want to admit that their own habits are a big part of the problem, it become almost impossible to do so.  If you simply take away all support, they will break rather than adjust.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Logic Named Joe

Some time ago, I read this good short story in an anthology.  It is set in a future world with personal computers that act very much like ours.  I assumed that it had been written in the 70's or 80's, and that the author was intelligently extrapolating the trends of the time.

I just learned that it was actually written in 1946, before anyone was selling anything that resembled a modern computer.  They did not even have transistors in 1946.

You might be tempted to call it 'prescient' but that would be a mistake.  There were thousands of science fiction stories written in that time period.  Most of them were amazingly wrong about what the future would be like, especially where computers were involved.

There is a lesson here: prediction is incredibly difficult. But often, people will only remember the good predictions, and forget the bad ones.  This leads to hindsight bias, where people think that the things that did happen were obvious before the fact.

There is probably a story out there that accurately describes what the world will be like 50 years from now.  But we will not know which story is the accurate one until much later.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Future Shock 5

Here's something I never thought I would read:
But if each peasant has to scan her irises every time she picks up her ration...

It sounds like something from some kind of post-apocalyptic cyberpunk book, but it is actually happening right now in India.

Apparently the best way to make sure that people living in conditions of stone-age poverty get enough food to eat involves biometric scanning and massive databases.  We definitely live in a strange world.

The Dark Side of Creativity

Creativity is a common aspiration for individuals, organizations, and societies. Here, however, we test whether creativity increases dishonesty. We propose that a creative personality and creativity primes promote individuals' motivation to think outside the box and that this increased motivation leads to unethical behavior. In four studies, we show that participants with creative personalities who scored high on a test measuring divergent thinking tended to cheat more (Study 1); that dispositional creativity is a better predictor of unethical behavior than intelligence (Study 2); and that participants who were primed to think creatively were more likely to behave dishonestly because of their creativity motivation (Study 3) and greater ability to justify their dishonest behavior (Study 4). Finally, a field study constructively replicates these effects and demonstrates that individuals who work in more creative positions are also more morally flexible (Study 5). The results provide evidence for an association between creativity and dishonesty, thus highlighting a dark side of creativity.

From what I have seen, most parent of young children have experienced this. The smarter and more creative your children get, the more likely they are to be dishonest and manipulative.

A word of caution: this does not necessarily mean that creative people are inherently worse people. In a world where everyone had exactly the same morality, and the same desires to do bad things, then creative people would do more immoral things, simply because they had the ability to get away with it. They get the same 'benefit' from immorality as everyone else, but the expected costs are lower because of their cleverness. It is basic economics that when the costs of something go down, people do more of it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


We estimate that between 2005 and 2010, the total number of poor people around the world fell by nearly half a billion people, from over 1.3 billion in 2005 to under 900 million in 2010.

This is huge.  In the last five years, a number of people greater than the entire population of the United States has escaped desperate poverty.  The increase in total human well-being is larger than if everyone in this country had their income doubled.  Even if every bad thing that people say about the global economy was true, it would have been worth paying that price to make this happen.

This amazing improvement in people's lives did not come from aid or charity.  It came from trade.  The best thing that you can do for poor people in other countries is to buy things that they are making.  Thanks to trade and the global economy, and the side effects from more wealth flowing into poor countries, more people than you can possibly imagine now have better lives, better jobs, more self-respect, and a better future.

Anyone who wants to stop trade to protect a few American workers threatens this prosperity.  It is morally wrong to produce something in the United States when it could be produced more cheaply in a poor country.  Doing so means taking money away from poor people and giving it to rich people. It also means wasting the planet's resources; paying American wages means subsidizing an American's ecological footprint.

The world is changing in a lot of ways, and almost all of them are improvements.  This century, like the previous two, will generate more prosperity than we can possibly imagine, and this time the gains will be shared with almost everyone on the planet.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Recycling Idiocy Part 2

Earlier, I talked about how they removed the trash cans from our offices.  Last week, they implemented a permanent change.  They took out the old trash can and replaced it with a large paper recycling bin and a small trash can.  Some people complained, but I did not have a problem with it.  The smaller trash can was a minor inconvenience, but I figured it would not hurt to go along with it.

But then I learned that they are not going to empty the small trash cans.  A janitor comes by and empties the recycling bin, but leaves the trash untouched.  We are supposed to go out and empty it ourselves.

So of course I now have a very strong incentive to dump all of my trash in the recycling bin.  That is the only way for it to get emptied out.  We are basically going to ignore the trash can now.

I really do care about keeping a healthy ecosystem and using resources efficiently.  I always applaud useful initiatives that reduce waste.  When they asked for budget-cutting proposals, I sent an email recommending implementing a system to force people to pay for printing.  All people should pay the cost of their activities, and letting people print for free was creating a mountain of waste.  We now have such a system, and it has worked well.

But paper recycling is useless.  It is actually worse than useless; it is a costly waste of resources.  Trees are a renewable resource.  You plant them, they grow up and suck carbon out of the atmosphere, and then you chop them down and make paper.  Recycling paper is a messy, polluting, energy-intensive process.  It is actively harmful to the environment, and it wastes money that could be used for better things.

Originally I had thought that throwing trash in the paper bin would annoy our janitors, which is never a good idea.  But now that I think about the paper recycling process, I am fairly sure that our janitors would not be affected at all.  They will just empty my bin into a big recycling bin, which will get tossed into a truck and taken to a recycling center.  That recycling center will face increased labor costs from sorting things out, especially if lots of people act like I do.  This will serve the dual purpose of hiring some local who needs a job and making paper recycling look less attractive.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Admitting Waste

I just got an email from the administration that included the following:

We have remained focused on our core mission and our commitment to academic quality even as we managed the loss of nearly $75 million in state support. As a result, we continue to be a university with high quality and high demand.

So basically, they are saying that we were able to cut $75 million a year without any real negative effects on the university.  We were wasting $75 million each year for the past decade or so.

The rest of the email was asking for volunteers to lobby the government for more money.  This is a farce.  The email basically admits that they did not really need the money.  We would have been fine without it.  They threw away massive amounts of money each year, just because they could.  There was no reason to make cuts, so waste just just building up.

Any organization will become wasteful over time.  You need the occasional burst of pressure to shake things up and restore efficiency.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Video Recording

Before you test for a black belt in my style of martial arts, you have to make a video of the eight highest-level katas* and send that video to the grandmaster so he and his assistants can check that you know your stuff.  Since you are making the video at a time and place of your choosing and you get to erase any mistakes, there is no excuse for it not to be perfect.  Everyone knows that testing conditions can make you look bad because of the stress and chaos, so the videos are a chance to show you at your best.

It took me four hours today to produce about eight minutes of video.  I made all kinds of stupid mistakes in front of the camera.  Part of it was that I had gone on a trip to train with a Master yesterday, and he and his wife, a fifth-degree black belt, told me to change and fix a lot of things about my techniques.  Trying to remember those changes often made me mess up other things.  But part of it was the result of trying to look good for the camera.  Having that electric eye watching you and mercilessly recording everything can mess with your mind.

I have a much better understanding of why filming movies and TV shows takes so long, and why they need so many takes for each scene.  I was doing a fairly simple routine of things that I had been practicing for months, without any interference from anyone else, and it would still require up to half a dozen takes to get them right.

* A kata is a specific sequence of techniques designed to make it easier to practice all of the things you should know how to do.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Brain Size

 When population numbers were low, as was the case for most of our evolution, the cranium kept getting bigger. But as population went from sparse to dense in a given area, cranial size declined, highlighted by a sudden 3 to 4 percent drop in EQ* starting around 15,000 to 10,000 years ago. "We saw that trend in Europe, China, Africa, Malaysia—everywhere we looked," Geary says.
The observation led the researchers to a radical conclusion: As complex societies emerged, the brain became smaller because people did not have to be as smart to stay alive. As Geary explains, individuals who would not have been able to survive by their wits alone could scrape by with the help of others—supported, as it were, by the first social safety nets.

*EQ is encephalization quotient, the ratio of brain size to body size.

This is not really a radical conclusion.  Anyone familiar with economic tools or biological systems will realize that it makes perfect sense.  In a Malthusian environment, people who need less calories are more likely to survive, and big brains burn a lot of calories.  If you have a smaller brain that manages to perform the same necessary tasks, you have a competitive advantage

For the last 10,000 years, about 500 generations, humans have been selected for their ability to provide physical labor while consuming as few calories as possible.  Peasants who needed to eat too much, or who couldn't work, starved.  Intelligence and wisdom didn't really do much to improve one's reproductive success, so they simply were not selected for in most cases.
In fact, intelligence may have been actively selected against for most of the population.  Smart uppity peasants who question the social order are more likely to get killed than to be successful. 'The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.'  It is only recently, with the advent of the modern economy, that smart people can make themselves successful without using politics or an army.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Quick Thought: Maturity

When you are a child, the world is divided into two simple categories: people who you can and should trust completely, and people who you cannot trust at all.

As you grow older, you learn that the people you trust can make mistakes.  If you are well-adjusted you keep loving them.  Usually you realize that they are generally trustworthy but cannot be trusted to do certain things or make good decisions about certain topics.

It takes a lot longer to learn how to deal with outsiders.  Our instincts are to judge anything that is done and said by the identity of the person.  The childish mind wants to divide the world into good and bad people, and oppose anything that the 'bad' people do or say.

Maturity is realizing that 'good' people can make terrible mistakes and that 'bad' people can do good things and be a source of insight and wisdom.  You start to judge actions and facts on their own merits.

The inspiration for this post was reading this quick article from Krugman.  The man cannot be trusted to write rationally about politics, and if I were forced to make the categorization I would call him an 'enemy'.  This does not change the fact that he is a good economist and often says valuable things about economic matters.  This article is an example.  It is wisdom and I should treat it as such, regardless of the identity of who said it.

Cash Rewards

Historically, there have been all kinds of theories about how to motivate people.  Rhetoric is one of the most ancient fields of study.  In the past few centuries we have developed psychology, sociology, and marketing, all of which study human motivation and how it can be manipulated.  All of these fields, and related ones, are very complex and murky.

Recently, economists have started popularizing and supporting a far simpler idea: The best way to motivate people is to set up carefully targeted material rewards for the behavior you want.  We have a lot of evidence to show that this works, and works well.  In many cases, people respond to prices much more than they respond to rhetoric or any of the other tools of manipulation.

In the last few years, a lot of people have been pushing back at this concept of motivation via material rewards.  Cognitive scientists will often claim that people cannot think rationally about money, and that they are mainly motivated by primitive desires like sex and social status.  They also claim that cash rewards destroy intrinsic motivation and make people less likely to to things on their own.

There have been a lot of lab experiments claiming to prove that humans are irrational or that money rewards do not work.  Some of them are decent and give good information, but almost all of these experiments feature undergraduate college students playing strange little games for minimal amounts of money.  It should be clear that if you put people in a situation they do not understand, and make the rewards artificial and irrelevant, then their behavior will not be anything like the behavior of people in a situation they know about working for things they care about.

My last homework assignment asked students to describe a situation from their personal experience that illustrates incentives.  Despite the fact that the book specifically mentions all kinds of non-monetary incentives, dozens of students wrote about situations when they had been motivated to work better or harder by cash rewards.  Often it was their parents offering them rewards for grades or housework.  All of the students who wrote about such things said that they had responded positively to these rewards.

Several of them even said that these rewards had helped them become more confident and motivated and that the rewards had started instilling good habits in them, which is exactly the opposite of what the non-economist social scientists say.  Here is an exact quote:

For example, my dad would always tell me that if I scored a goal in one of my soccer games I would earn ten dollars. That helped me to play as hard as I could and put my whole effort into it. Today, that is true with almost everything I do. I rarely do anything half-heartedly.

I had trouble believing this when I read it.  How could ten dollars mean anything compared to the thrill of scoring a goal for your team?  When I was a child, I valued money a lot and did not care at all about social status, but I do not think that any kind of cash reward could have made me put any more effort into playing sports.  I tried to do my best in baseball because it was fun to win and it made my parents proud.

This quote, and the other student papers like it, seem to be strong support for economic theories of motivation and Aristote's theory of virtue ethics.  Basically, this theory says that virtuous actions must be practiced, and once you practice them they become a part of your character.  It seems that this student practiced the virtue of focused hard work, and that this virtue remained a habit even after the cash reward that fueled it went away.

Now I will speculate and play devil's advocate for the social scientists:

This could be a generational thing.  Today's youth have grown up in a materialistic culture where talk is cheap. (Yesterday I had to put up with the nauseating spectacle of a woman walking down the hall outside my office, talking to her grandchild on a cell phone, and fulsomely and explicitly praising the kid for using a toilet.)  It could be that expressions of praise from parents mean almost nothing nowadays, so the only way to actually signal that the child has earned respect is to pay out cold hard cash.  The children might actually be chasing the respect and not the money.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


I left my office at about 9:00 last night.  To get to my car, I had to go down a stairway leading from one parking lot to the lower lot where I was parked.  As I approached this stairway, I saw two raccoons on the top stair, eating something.  The whole area was well-lit.  The raccoons did not go away as I approached.  They just looked at me for a bit and continued eating.  They may have growled at me, but they were grumbling and growling the whole time as they ate.

I yelled at them and stomped my feet, but they still did not move.  I was worried about rabies and did not want to get too close, but I needed to get past them.  Luckily, I was taking a copy of the Wall Street Journal home to read.  I folded it into a Milwall brick, giving me a decent foot-long club that I could use to swat them off if they attacked.  I cautiously edged around them, watching them closely and keeping the weapon between us.  They kept eating.

After I got past them, I saw that they were eating cat food.  There was a little pile of it.  I am sure that it was put there on purpose.  I do not know if the person intended to feed the feral cats that infest the campus, or if they intended to feed the raccoons.  Either way, their action was both stupid and morally wrong.

Feral cats are a nonnative invasive species that disrupt local ecosystems, slaughtering songbirds and small mammals.  They should be controlled and killed off.  Their existence causes a lot of real harm for almost no benefit.  Even if you care about the welfare of cats, and only cats, feeding them is stupid, because it just makes them reproduce, leaving you with more hungry animals than you started with.

Feeding wild animals is also bad and destructive.  It hurts them, as they lose their natural survival skills, and it has the potential to hurt the humans they come in contact with.  Somebody is probably going to have to kill those two raccoons.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Perverse Incentives

Take some time to think about this sentence from The Economist:

Since a botched Christmas bombing of an American passenger jet in 2009 by a jihadist trained in Yemen and a foiled plot to plant explosives in a cargo aircraft there last October, the United States has increased military aid [to Yemen] from $70m in 2009 to a planned $250m this year.

Imagine that you are a politician or military officer in a country like Yemen.  Given this news, are you more or less likely to put effort into preventing jihadists in your country from launching attacks on the USA?

If you were especially corrupt, you might make deals with the terrorists, promising to leave them alone if they also leave your civilians alone and only focus attacks in the direction of rich countries with large military aid budgets.  After they launch attacks, you collect the money, stuff a large percentage of it in a Swiss bank, and pretend to fight the terrorists:

American aid is not always used for its intended purpose. In 2009 a Pentagon-trained counter-terrorism unit was diverted to Yemen's north to fight Houthi rebels who are not generally jihadists. Recently it was reported that boats donated by America to Yemen's coastguard were being rented out for commerce.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Conscientious Objector Interview

Tell me a bit about your background.

I grew up in suburban D.C. in a pretty religious family and went to an evangelical Christian school. My family was very much involved in the church, and my father's pretty political; when I was in high school I worked with him on the Bush campaign.

What was your experience like after you enlisted?

Pretty quickly after I got in, I started to see inconsistencies between how the military was talked about in such glorified ways [when I was] growing up, and then how it was acted out in training. Training was very desensitizing. We screamed slogans like, "Kill them all, let God sort them out." We watched videos with bombs being dropped on Middle Eastern villages with rock and roll music in the background. People really started to celebrate death and destruction, and that definitely didn't match up to what I'd expected. I'd told myself that I was willing to kill if necessary, but that wasn't the same as celebrating it.

When did your willingness to go along start to shift toward a sense that you couldn't remain in the military?

That didn't take place until I actually deployed and was confronted with making crucial decisions. One of the values I'd been taught and that you hear all the time in the rhetoric of political and military leaders was that democracy is a good thing and it thrives on the will of the people.
That came into question a couple of months after we got to Baghdad. We were moving off the main base and going to live in an old factory in the poor industrial part of town. As we were moving in, the local population came out and held a large peaceful protest and told us very straightforwardly that they didn't want us in their part of town. We ignored that and pushed them out of our way and established ourselves in the factory. Within a couple of days, we had built a large barrier around the full city block that we were living in and continued to displace people who lived and worked there. So this idea that we were there to liberate the common people and help their will flourish—the way we handled that situation seemed to be the complete opposite of it.

What kind of reaction to that did you see on the ground? If you perceived the discrepancy between American rhetoric and American actions, I assume many Iraqis did, too.

Yes, absolutely. They had tried telling us nonviolently that they didn't want us in their neighborhood, and when that didn't work, they tried telling us violently, by using snipers and roadside bombs and that kind of thing. And once they started to get violent, we started to get violent, too. It went back and forth and each attack seemed to be more severe than the last one. Eventually the escalation led to a kind of desperation on the part of a lot of soldiers. There's really no way to defend yourself against a sniper shot or a roadside bomb, so some of our leaders felt that the only way we could defend ourselves was to intimidate the local population into preventing the violence in the first place. So our battalion commanders gave the order that every time a bomb went off, we were entitled to open fire on whoever was standing around.
The way I interpreted that was that we were told to out-terrorize the terrorists. That was really troubling for me; I found it wrong both morally and strategically. If that happened to me, that wouldn't make me more likely to help out whatever army was doing that; it would make me more likely to oppose them. I was in a couple of situations where I was ordered to do that and I refused that order. So that was when I was really forced to make a decision about what I stood for.

I keep hoping that situations like these are the exception and not the rule.  That hope dies a little with each new report.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Meltdowns: Financial and Nuclear

Here is an excellent article about chaos, complexity, engineering, and economics.

I have long believed that complexity is a kind of pollution, and should be taxed as such.  Anyone who makes the world a more complex place should pay a price for that action.  Sometimes the benefits of the new complex thing outweigh the costs, which is why new things should not be regulated away.  But if the innovation does not produce enough profits to pay a reasonable complexity tax, then it has made the world a worse place.  I am not sure exactly how you would measure complexity in this way, but the tools of psychology and information theory would probably give a decent number.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Pretest Thoughts

On the first day of each class I teach, I assign a pretest, to gauge the basic skills the students come in with.  The pretest gives me valuable information about the thoughts and capabilities of my students.  For example, one of the writing questions this year was "Explain accurately, in terms that a young child could understand, the concept of 'One Billion Dollars'."  Very few people could do this well.  I'll have to spend a few minutes making sure they actually comprehend it.  I would answer that question like this:

"When your parents go away to work, they are spending a day earning money.  An adult will earn about a hundred dollars by working one day, so $100 is a day's work.  To earn a thousand dollars, you have to work for ten days.  Working three years gives you a hundred thousand dollars.  Working for 30 years gives you a million dollars.  So a million dollars is almost an entire lifetime of work.  If you had a million dollars, you would never have to work or go to school.  You could spend your entire life relaxing and having fun."

"A billion dollars is much more than that.  Ten million dollars is the lifetime earnings of ten people.  A hundred million is the lifetime earnings of a hundred people.  You probably do not even know a hundred people.  To get a billion dollars, you would need to have a thousand people work for their entire lives.  If you had a billion dollars, then you could make sure than everyone you ever met would never have to work again.  You could give them all a house and cars and an entire lifetime of food and clothes and toys."

The pretest also gives the students valuable information about the class.  During the first week of classes, they can drop one class and add another.  If they get a low grade on the pretest, it tells them that my class will be very hard for them, and since this is an elective, they can sign up for something else instead.

It may seem harsh, but by encouraging the slower or ill-prepared students to drop early, I end up with a much better class.  I don't have to slow down for them, and the better students do not get bored.  The people who drop also benefit, because they do not get stuck in a class they cannot handle.

The pretest always has sections for algebra, geometry, and writing.  This semester's group of students did much better on the math portions than last semester's group.  Maybe it is from having their skills honed by more time in college.  Most people in my class are freshmen.  Instead of coming from a summer break and a slack senior year of high school, they are coming from a semester other classes that require these skills.

But I did make one change in the test that may have changed a lot.  In previous tests, the geometry section was a paragraph of facts and then four questions.  In this one, I gave the facts inside each question, breaking up the exposition and guiding them through the process.  I think this made a big difference.  Students often have the skills to do lots of different tasks, but they do not have the skills to break a big task down into smaller tasks.

This year I added questions about my syllabus.  When I emailed it out, I warned them that they would be tested on it, to give them an incentive to read the thing.  I was sick of people asking questions like 'Where is your office?' that are on the first page of the syllabus.  This should end that; almost everyone aced the questions.  Even if they forget the fact, they will remember that they once knew it and where they can find it.

I repeatedly find that simply telling people things does not work well.  If I had gone over the syllabus in class, the bad students would have ignored me and the good students, who already read it, would feel bored and insulted.  This way everyone reads it and I do not waste any class time.  My entire class is structured under the assumption that students can read things on their own.  I expect them to take care of their selves, and then they usually do.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

History of Magic

Reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell made me start thinking about the different ways that humans have thought about magical powers.  There has been a very large, but almost unnoticed, change in what people in Western societies imagine magical powers to be.  I have been vaguely aware of this for some time, but this book helped make the distinction clearer.

The modern view of a magician is someone who gains innate access to supernatural powers after a long period of practice and study.  Call this 'Magic by Training.'  This is the magic featured in most movies, most books written after The Lord of the Rings, and in most computer games and role-playing games.  I use the term 'magician' in a very broad sense here, so the term would apply to Luke Skywalker as well as Harry Potter.

The mechanics of the training are different.  Sometimes it is more physical, and sometimes it is purely mental.  Sometimes magic is tied closely to emotions, and sometimes it is as dry and mathematical as an algebra problem.  Sometimes anyone who studies hard enough can do magic, and sometimes it takes a combination of innate power and study.  What all the representations share is that, after enough study, the magician has direct access to power, and can wield it just as readily as a cowboy can pull out his six-shooter.

There is some historical precedent for this.  Many Oriental cultures believe that people have a life-energy, or ki, that can be harnessed for magical powers through training.  There are many Jewish legends of rabbis gaining magical powers after long and dedicated study of the Torah and Kaballah.

However, the idea of magic in European folklore, and in most cultures throughout the world, is nothing like this.  A European witch or sorcerer or magician was someone who summoned demons and made deals with them.  The only study involved was looking up the name of the demon you wanted to summon, the proper ritual for calling that demon, and ways of bargaining with the demon.  The magician might be granted one or two powers by the demon, but those powers were always tied to the demon.  They never actually belonged to the magician.  For example, all of the folklore on witches said that they must have a 'familiar', or demon in the shape of an animal, that stayed close to them and gave them their powers.

Magic in other cultures was very similar, except that the magician would call upon ancestors or nature spirits or one of a pantheon of gods.  Most 'magic' throughout human history is best described as 'prayer' rather than spellcasting.  Roman magicians made appeals to gods and spirits.  Tribal shamans asked Rain to come and visit for a while, or asked their ancestors to bless their houses.  Even in the case of rabbis or Buddhist monks, the legends often imply that God or Buddha gave them their powers as a reward for a good and virtuous life.

Call this 'Magic by Politics'.   For most of human history, magic meant making an appeal to a sentient supernatural being, and asking that being to use its powers to aid you.  The idea of gaining powers yourself was very rare.  Magic was who you knew, not what you could do.  The magician almost never had any kind of immediate practical power.  Everything was prayer and ritual.  The magician would spend a few hours making contact with some kind of thing and bargaining with it so that it would do what the magician wanted.

When the Harry Potter books came out and were attacked by fundamentalists, I remember thinking that a witch as described in the Bible was nothing like a witch at Hogwarts.  Whenever the Bible talks about witchcraft or sorcery, it is always describing people who are making with pacts with demons.  Harry and his friends never do anything like this.  Their magic is an innate and technical skill, like taking the derivative of a mathematical function.  

Despite the trappings of tradition, the metaphysics of Hogwarts magic is thoroughly modern.  No traditional European magician would recognize any similarity with it.  This portrayal of magic could only exist in a modern, educated, industrialized culture where people are expected to go to school for years to learn the technical skills necessary to function in a complex and artificial world.  There is very little mysticism or magical thinking or spirituality at Hogwarts.  It is Magic by Training, and mastery of the occult is made to look like an algebra class.  

The closest modern equivalent to traditional European and Christian views of magic is a drug deal.  You are seeking contact with dark and mysterious powers in order to obtain a forbidden thing that brings immediate reward but will almost certainly ruin your life.  The medieval warlock sought the names of demons and their summoning rituals the same way that modern druggies seek the names of good dealers and the location of the street corner they hang out at.  In other cultures, magic and the things you deal with to do magic are less obviously evil, but they are often mysterious and alien.  It was definitely Magic by Politics, and the process resembled a trade negotiation much more than an algebra class.

In Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, this dichotomy is made clear.  The titular English magicians are doing Magic by Training, and they are good at it.  Mr. Strange can, for example, build a temporary road from one city to another with about as much effort as a potter would use to make a vase.  He does not call upon spirits of earth or stone, he just does it with willpower and technique.  By contrast, their fairy antagonist does nothing but Magic by Politics.  He has made deals with entities like the Dawn and the North Wind, and all of his magic consists of asking them to do things for him.

I believe that society's view of magic has changed because our economies have changed.  Before the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, the only reliable way to gain wealth and power was by politics.  If you wanted to get anything done, you had to know the right people and make deals with them.  Gaining favor at a noble's court was a much better way to get wealthy than learning some kind of skill.  Wealth was not something you made, it was something you got from other people.  Their views of magic reflected their views of life: you got things by making friends with the right people.

But after the rise of the modern economy, the best way to gain wealth was by training in a technical skill.  We still have corruption and patronage, of course, but it is much less pervasive than it was before, and you often need a technical skill before you can benefit from it.  Our modern view of magic reflects our modern view of life: the best way to get wealth and power is to spend years studying a difficult skill.  Once you master this skill, you have knowledge and abilities unavailable to most, and these innate abilities let you do what you want.  Dumbledore is much more like Steve Jobs than Albertus Magnus.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Art and Perception

Last weekend, a friend and I went to an art museum.  One of the exhibits there was watercolors from the children's book painter Chris Raschka.

The exhibit gave me a headache.  Everything about the paintings was just wrong.  They were an insane riot of misshapen forms pretending to be human, in bizarre alien dreamscapes.  I am reminded of H.P. Lovecraft description of an image of Cthulhu:

Above these apparent hieroglyphics was a figure of evident pictorial intent, though its impressionistic execution forbade a very clear idea of its nature. It seemed to be a sort of monster, or symbol representing a monster, of a form which only a diseased fancy could conceive. If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing

and his descriptions of the alien geometries where the cosmic horrors live:

the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours. 

... the geometry of the place was all wrong. One could not be sure that the sea and the ground were horizontal, hence the relative position of everything else seemed phantasmally variable.

Raschka's paintings flout all rational rules of shapes, borders, and geometry.  Often it is hard to tell where a character ends and the environment ends; there are no clear lines or boundaries between objects.  I feel that looking at this art for any extended period of time would reduce me to gibbering lunacy.

This painting is typical of his work.  Just looking at it on a computer screen for a few seconds gives me a headache.

I cannot imagine why anyone would want to subject a young child to this.  It seems to me that a young mind faced with this art would either be damaged permanently or mercifully ignore it.

And yet, he seems to be a popular and successful artist.  People seem to like and to identify with his work.  Perhaps they see nothing unnatural in it.  Perhaps he accurately captures how many people, including children, look at the world.  I am forced to conclude that it is my mind that is bizarre and alien.

Whenever I look at the world, my mind focuses on lines, borders, shapes, and geometry.  I instinctively construct a 3-D mental map of what I see.  Colors and textures are of secondary importance.  My mental image of the world resembles a monochrome 3-D wireframe much more than it resembles Raschka's work.  Whenever I see any kind of art that I cannot transform into such a wireframe, my mind throws an exception and freezes up.

Here's an example of how I perceive the world.  Over the holidays, they replaced the flooring in our building.  I honestly cannot remember what it looked like before.  I think it may have been white.  My brain never remembers such things.  But if someone has moved a couch three inches to the left, I will know.