Sunday, September 25, 2011


There is a scene that will probably remain in my memory as long as I am alive. I do not know why I was thinking of it today, but I was:

Behind my parents' house, there are woods, and in those woods there is a creek. Several years ago, in the late spring, a few days after some heavy rains, I went down through the woods to the creek, as I often do. 

It was a beautiful sunny day. When I got to the creek, I saw that it had been high but was back to its normal level. Along one of the sand banks on its shore, there were puddles and little pools of water that were no longer connected to the creek and were drying up in the sun.

I looked in the puddles and saw hundreds of tadpoles. The toads had laid their eggs in the shallow water in the high rains, and they had hatched to become tadpoles, but then the water level had fallen and left the young amphibians stranded. I knew that the water would dry up and kill them before they matured.

I felt a strange sense of kinship with the tadpoles, trapped in a situation beyond their comprehension, in a world that was slowly dying. I spent some time digging a canal between the pools and the creek, so that the tadpoles could swim to deeper water. Their chances of life would still be small, but they wound not be zero.

Then, further along the sand bank, I saw dozens of bright yellow tiger swallowtail butterflies, bright and beautiful in a patch of sunlight. I had never seen so many butterflies clustered so close together, not even in butterfly gardens or on my mom's butterfly bush. They were on the ground, not moving but obviously healthy, slowly flapping their wings.

I went to investigate. The butterflies remained where they were even as I approached. Normally butterflies will move away if they sense something coming, but these did not, even when I was less than a foot away.

The butterflies were clustered around what had been a small puddle with tadpoles in it. The sun had dried this puddle completely, leaving a dark gray oozing gelatinous mass of dead tadpoles stewing in the hot sunlight. The butterflies were greedily drinking this tadpole stew like a pack of wolves devouring an elk carcass.

There was a strange savage beauty to the whole process, a study in grim efficiency. The butterflies did not care about their image as cute and beautiful flower-loving nectar-drinkers. They had access to a wonderful source of protein, and they were taking advantage of it. They were going to turn that sickening mass of dead tadpoles into butterfly eggs, and they would not be scared away from their prize.

To this day I cannot look at a butterfly without thinking of dead tadpoles. Nature is what it is, and does not care about what we think it should be.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Better Campaign

I've been seeing complaints about the Republican presidential candidates. After the last debate, commentators said all of the contenders were either boring or stupid. I think this is mainly due to the constraints imposed by the debate format. It's almost impossible to display intelligence, character, or wise thoughts in one-minute responses to questions.

Political debates used to mean something, and they use to require real intellect and rhetoric. Candidates would spend hours crafting detailed speechrs responding to each other's positions. Television changed that, turning the whole process into a shadow of its former self and reducing it to a farce. All the candidates can do is repeat sound bites crafted by image consultants.

There is no point in watching one of these debates. You would learn more about their character and capabilities by watching them play a game of poker.

Now that I think about it, that would actually be a good idea. Instead of going through another round of a mutually destructive competition, wasting resources and making everyone look bad, they could generate publicity with a positive-sum game of skill, calculation and cunning.

The Republican National Committee should ask all of the candidates to go into a room, put ten million dollars of campaign funding on the table, and keep playing poker until somebody wins the whole pot. ESPN would probably pay a lot of money for the rights to film it, and I know I would like to watch. The game would certainly be a better preparation for the trials of being president than a lot of the campaign events they go through now.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Depressing Propaganda

When I filled out the paperwork to get my master's degree, they entered me in the school's alumni database. This means that they regularly send me appeals for money, even though I am still here earning a modest PhD student's teaching assistent stipend.

The most recent one illustrates much of what is wrong with our educational system:

Dear AW, 
It's a great week to be a C.. Tiger!!
* C.. named a top 25 public university by U.S. News & World Report
* Three home football wins including a 38-24 victory against defending National Champion Auburn
* C.. ranked 21st in the AP Top 25 College Football Rankings
We are proving once again that ORANGE isn't just a color, it's a way of life. Show your colors and your determination to lead with this exclusive new T-shirt. We're counting on each of you to step up as leaders during the final months of ...
Make your gift today by...

Let's start with the grammar. The bullet points are inconsistent sentence fragments, and the wording implies that there were three football wins in one week. The use of double exclamation points, and putting a word in all caps, is simply unprofessional.

The first bullet point brags about a ranking that has been creeping down in recent years, from 22 to 23 to 25. I am reminded of the shrinking chocolate ration in 1984. The other two bullet points are about football.

The appeal is almost insulting. Be a determined leader by buying a t-shirt. The paragraph mocks and subverts the very idea of leadership; it is an impressive bit of newspeak, indicative of a postmodern mindset that attempts to redefine reality by words. Buying a t-shirt is the opposite of leadership, it is mindless herd-following and emotion-driven slacktivism.

This email was propaganda and manipulation in its purest form. It opens with a feel-good emotional appeal, devoid of substance, and then uses loaded words to try to turn that feeling into an impulse purchase that funnels money into the university.

But none of this is the really depressing thing. I see blatant advertisements all the time, and I see bad writing all the time. The really depressing thing is that the university is doing this because it works. People will buy that t-shirt after reading the email. The depressing thing about this email is what it says about human nature, and how it demonstrates how little that human nature is affected by graduating from what is supposedly a good school. Tribal instincts still rule over thoughtful calculation, and our top educational institutions deliberately encourage this process for their own benefit.

PS: I redact my name and the name of my university so they will not show up too easily in search engines. I have nothing to hide from friends and regular readers, but it is too easy to take random stuff out of context.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Three Identity Links

Recently I have seen three things all worth reading, and all on a roughly similar topic.

A friend of mine has an excellent blog post. I cannot describe it well enough to do it justice, but it is a very thoughtful and inspiring note on self-confidence and identity.

A philosopher-economist cuts through health-care arguments with an incisive point:

A great many ill, collapsed, etc. folks in the world are largely left to die, at least if curing them costs like a US hospital stay. ... argues above for "decent" national care, not global care. And even libertarians wouldn't leave family members to die. So everyone agrees that we heroically help some, and leave others to die. We only disagree on who falls into which category.

and expands it into a good analysis of how people are defined by 'us and them' tribal identities.

And finally, here is a comic that mocks a certain tribe.

At first, I simply thought "This is a great comic. I have never seen a better take-down of Mensa." But then I started to wonder why I liked it so much. After all, Mensa is mostly harmless, and there are more appropriate targets for mockery. Why do I feel good when someone cracks jokes at their expense?

Humans have an instinct to 'put in their place' people who become too self-important. Mensa is a social club, with an odd entrance requirement. As long as people understand that, nobody has any problems. But a lot of people who score high on an IQ test think that the test score makes them special and superior. The comic fights that attitude. Still, it was probably wrong for me to instinctively like it so much; it shows that I am still infected with tribal thinking.

PS: I am fairly sure that I have a Mensa-level IQ, but I am too much of a lazy tightwad to spend the time and money on the 'proper' IQ test to find out. I could join based on my 99th percentile GMAT score but I have no desire to. I do not consider 'high IQ' to be an important part of my identity. I remember character in a book saying something like "Being clever is nothing to be proud of. It is just something you come by, like being tall." I am pretty sure that it was one of the witches in a Terry Pratchett book, but I could not find the quote to confirm this. Anyway, it is a good thing to remember.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Critical Thinking

During WWII, statistician Abraham Wald was asked to help the British decide where to add armor to their bombers. After analyzing the records, he recommended adding more armor to the places where there was no damage!

Why did he do this? Think about it a minute. If you are looking over the records of damaged bombers, where they got hit and what the effects were, why would you want to add armor to places where there was no recorded damage?

This is a good lesson in how to think about the big picture. The technical term is 'selection bias' which means that the things you are looking at are not the whole picture; there was some process that made you look at only a small fraction of reality. Without considering that process, all of the best statistics in the world will not help you find the truth.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Connotation of Government

One of the main things you learn when studying or discussing philosophy is that a lot of confusion and disagreements come from people using the same word in different ways.

Consider the word 'government'. What does it make you think of?

To some, 'government' means the people who have their salaries paid by taxpayers.
To others, 'government' means the people who have the ability to fine you or put you in jail.
To others, 'government' means the things done by the apparatus of the state, like building roads or mailing Social Security Checks.
To others, 'government' means the set of laws and rules that say how society is organized.
And some people use 'government' to mean an abstract nebulous thing that has little connection with reality, like 'the will of the people'.

People who say 'government' and think about an IRS agent will find it difficult to communicate with people who say 'government' and think about the Bill of Rights. The word has so many meanings that it becomes meaningless.

I tend to use the word 'government' to mean 'a bureaucracy with the power to spend your money and put you in jail'. 'Bureaucracy' refers to the complex feedback loop between the rules and incentives of a centrally planned organization, and the people who are selected, promoted, and trained by such organizations. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years

Over the past ten years, approximately* 24 million Americans have died.

6,160,000 died of heart disease. 
5,620,000 died of cancer.
1,350,000 died of stroke.
1,270,000 died of lung disease.
1,230,000 died of accidents.
740,000 died of Alzheimer's disease.
710,000 died of diabetes.
520,000 died of pneumonia.
460,000 died of kidney disease.
340,000 died from infections (septicemia, or blood poisoning).

Those are the top ten causes of death. Many of them may seem natural or inevitable, but a large number of them could have been prevented. The lowest estimate of the number of people killed by preventable medical errors is 44,000 a year, so at least 440,000 Americans have been killed by their health care providers in the last ten years.

Here are some causes of death that are more obviously preventable:

430,000 died from car crashes.
340,000 committed suicide.
183,000 were murdered by other Americans.
34,000 died from drowning
26,000 died of malnutrition. Americans, starving to death.
6,472 American soldiers have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And finally, 
2,977 Americans died from foreign terrorist activity on American soil.

The number of people killed by terrorists is tiny compared to other causes of death. And yet, our instincts tell us that they are more important. This is because our instincts developed in a very different world. In primitive tribes, people constantly died from natural causes, but the thing most likely to wipe your tribe out completely was enemy action. If someone attacked you in a dramatic way, then you would have to respond decisively or risk the complete destruction of your entire family. So the people with instincts to remember aggression and retaliate were the ones most likely to pass on their genes.

But these instincts are not appropriate for the modern world; they cause us to overreact foolishly. In response to the events that caused about 3,000 deaths, our government has invaded two foreign countries and spent about three trillion dollars**. Three trillion is about $10,000 for every single person in the country. If that money had been spent on other things, then we could have saved around 300,000 lives.

After the 9/11/01 airline hijackings, it was reasonable and appropriate to react and make some changes. Sealing off airplane cockpits from the passengers was a very good idea. In fact, this action, by itself, would be enough to prevent any future attacks of that nature. None of the other security measures were necessary, and many of them were not even helpful.

The idea of terrorists with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons is very scary, and they could theoretically kill more than 300,000 of us. But protecting ourselves from these weapons is best done with non-proliferation efforts, which are inherently diplomatic. There will always be random terrorist groups who hate us, no matter how many terrorists we kill, but a world without weapons of mass destruction can be achieved. Our military actions over the last ten years have damaged our diplomatic standing worldwide, making it harder to control WMD's, while causing a lot of people to hate and fear us even more.

Then there is the fact that a natural pandemic is more likely and more lethal than a terrorist attack, as well as being easier and cheaper to prevent. If the CDC had been given that $3 trillion to spend on medical research and pathogen monitoring and emergency stockpiles, I would be a lot safer than I am today.

We need to start thinking of terrorism as just one more thing in a long list of potential hazards, and allocating our limited resources in a calm and well-calculated manner. Emotional appeals rarely generate good policy. The call to 'Remember 9/11' belongs in the history books, along with 'Remember the Maine'.

*These are not exact numbers, because that would take too much time to research.  I took the numbers from the death statistics in 2007 (table 10), multiplied by 10, and rounded down.

**The wars plus increased homeland security cost 2 trillion dollars, and over the past ten years the annual Pentagon budget has increased by 80%, which probably would not have happened if there was no War on Terror. Defense spending over the past ten years would probably have been 5 trillion instead of 6 trillion without the attacks.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Play Review: Caesar and Cleopatra

I am reviewing a play that was written in 1898, that most people have never seen or read, by a person most people have never heard of. But like most of my reviews, it lets me make a more general point.

I mentioned the play last week and noted that it had a quote I liked and seemed good.

Then I read it, and found that the first impression was wrong. That one scene was the only good part of the play.

I should specify why the play was bad. It was quite well-written, full of good quotes and characterization, and plenty of cleverness and wit. It is bad because of its moral core. It is one more thing to add to the list of art in the spirit of Triumph of the Will: high quality propaganda for a really nasty mindset, just like Gone with the Wind and Bonfire of the Vanities.

The author, George Bernard Shaw, combines a caustic hatred of his own society with a gushing admiration of antiquity. Either one of these things alone is bad enough, but the two of them together is truly obnoxious.

He seems mainly motivated by a Nietzschen morality. Here is what he says in the notes at the end of the play:

Hence, in order to produce an impression of complete disinterestedness and magnanimity, he has only to act with entire selfishness; and this is perhaps the only sense in which a man can be said to be naturally great. It is in this sense that I have represented Caesar as great. Having virtue, he has no need of goodness.


For this raises the question whether our world has not been wrong in its moral theory for the last 2,500 years or so.

Apparently what he likes about the ancient world is that it had 'great' men who used it as their playground. The play of full of contempt for the officers and leaders of his contemporary Britain, which by any objective measure except longevity is the greatest empire the world has ever seen. In terms of power, scope, audacity, morality, and positive effect on the peace and prosperity of the world, it far outclassed ancient Rome.

Anything that is to be admired about ancient Rome or Egypt, and there is much to admire, was even better in Britain. Anything to hate about Victorian Britain, and there is much to hate, was far worse in antiquity.

The one exception might be art and architecture. I happen to agree with his contention that the ancient Egyptians had better taste in interior decoration than the Victorian British. But this is utterly irrelevant to any serious judgment of a society.

The glorification of antiquity is pretty common. Lots of people like to make a political point by saying bad things about parts of their society they do not like. They use places that are far away in either time or space as a kind of imaginary utopia, claiming the imagined virtues of these other places and times as part of their own political ideals.

But the main problem with the play was a moral lesson that was powerfully delivered, persuasive, and totally wrong and evil. The play says, repeatedly and explicitly, that it is better for agents of the government to personally kill people they decide must die, instead of executing them after due process of law. This summary execution is portrayed as a noble virtue, while calling a court session to dispense justice is seen as weakness and vice.

Basically, George Bernard Shaw is attacking the very foundation of a free society, and championing the worst kind of despotism. In order to see how he manages to insinuate this twisted moral lesson into the mind of the reader, you would have to read through the whole play, which I do not recommend unless you are interested in social history and have a well-developed moral philosophy.

It may or may not be a coincidence that George Bernard Shaw was a Fabian Socialist, a eugenicist, and a vocal supporter of Stalin.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Obama and Libya

The rebels have won in Libya. An evil dictator has been driven from power and into hiding, his regime crushed. An enemy of our country has been eliminated. The people of Libya now have a chance for freedom and democracy.

Think of every justification that has been given for the Iraq conflict. Think of every good thing that has come from eliminating Hussein. All of these things are also true about eliminating Gaddafi. Obama's military adventure has accomplished just as much as Bush's military adventure, at a tiny fraction of the cost.

No American lives were lost, as far as we know. The marginal cost to the military budget was tiny. Almost nobody, anywhere in the world, thinks that America acted as an aggressive imperial power. This will not help anybody recruit more terrorists against us.

It is possible that the rebels will fail to form a decent government, that the country will descend into chaos or produce another dictator. But even that worst-case scenario is no worse than what has already happened in Iraq. And even if it does happen, it will not be our problem. We will not be stuck in the middle and nobody will blame us. We gave the Libyan people a chance for freedom, and their chances of making it work are at least as good as the Iraqis' chances.

Obama has proven himself to be an effective commander-in-chief, the right person for a complex world where the primary use of military force is for civilized nations to protect people in other countries from violence and oppression. He was presented with a tough situation, made a difficult but necessary choice, and managed the situation well. He was good at building consensus and alliances for this fight, and we could not have done this without allies. We did not have enough firepower in the theater and we did not have the right connections with the rebels. The other NATO members helped with the former, and several Arab countries helped with the latter. 

As I have said before, the things that Obama's administration is directly responsible for, the things that he does quietly behind the scenes, all seem to be well-managed and produce good results. But whenever Congress gets involved, he shows an astonishing inability to lead them well or produce anything of value. I still blame Congress more, but that is a topic for another post.

Obama will probably not get the credit he deserves for this. The Libyan conflict has been almost unnoticed among the continuing economic mess, and the people who did comment on it tended to complain about Obama for one reason or another.

People have a bad habit of judging things by input rather than output. Many people will see the Iraq conflict's horrible cost of blood and treasure and hate, and then tell themselves that the results must have been worth it, and then congratulate Bush on making 'hard choices'. Then, if they think of the Libyan conflict at all, they will see its tiny cost, think of it as insignificant, and conclude that Obama has no experience handling important things. This is exactly backwards. Obama's Libyan intervention has produced good results for a low price.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Obama's Economist and Wages

President Obama consistently nominates high-quality economists to top positions. His recent pick, Alan Krueger, is one of the best labor economists on the planet, which, given what it takes to be a labor economist, means that he is also one of the best statisticians on the planet.

Krueger has extensively studied the effects of minimum wage increases, and found that in many cases, they do not result in low-wage workers losing their jobs. There has been a massive academic fight about these results, which did uncover some problems with Krueger's early papers, but in the end   the consensus is that the evidence is mixed, and it is hard to find any clear proof that raising the minimum wage causes unemployment.

A few days ago, I saw a very ignorant editorial in response to this nomination. The writer was blasting Krueger, saying 

Alan Krueger can be counted on to ignore fundamental economic principles...a higher minimum wage reduces employment opportunities for young, low-skilled and inexperienced workers. After all, this is Economics 101.

Think about this for a minute. The author is claiming that a model from simplest kind of economics is better than a top expert in the field. He is saying that if you take an introductory course, then you know everything you need to know about labor economics.

All models are simplified representations of reality, and the 'Economics 101' models are very simple indeed. A lot of detail gets left out, and a lot of assumptions get put in. The basic supply and demand model does work surprisingly well in most cases, but it is not universally true.

Yes, basic economics says that in a competitive labor market, a minimum wage will reduce employment. But intermediate economics says that in a labor market where employers are price searchers, a minimum wage can increase employment. Being a price searching buyer means that you have some choice about the price you pay for things. Instead of being forced to take a market price, you can pay less and get less, or pay more and get more. In such a setting, employers will maximize profits by paying workers less than the free-market price and hiring less of them, just like a monopoly will maximize profits by charging more than the free-market price and selling less stuff.

So there are two competing models. The only way to choose between them is by collecting data. It becomes an empirical question, and Krueger has spent his life answering these kinds of questions. There is a lot of data to show that employers are price searchers, especially when dealing with workers who find it very costly to move to a different job. In the extreme situation, where there is only one factory in a town and it is hard for workers to move, a minimum wage law or a union will increase wages while actually increasing economic efficiency.

This, by the way, helps you understand the 'company towns' of the Industrial Revolution. Providing workers with houses, schools, doctors, churches, and social clubs is a way to trap them. It is not benevolence. If you want to be nice to people, it is always more efficient to simply pay them more. If you can afford to hire a doctor for your workers, you can afford to pay them enough to hire a doctor themselves. People, even poor and ignorant ones, are better off making their own decisions. If you live in a paternalistic company town and you quit your job, you lose everything. So the employer has much more pricing power over your wages. It is no accident that the people working for the most 'benevolent' employers, like Pullman, were more likely to unionize, because they were most likely to be underpaid.

As a population of workers becomes more mobile, more willing and able to switch jobs, their wages will rise. When workers can easily quit, the employers have to pay fair market wages to keep them. Highly skilled urban professionals are extremely mobile; if you have a good resume and a good network and live in a place with lots of employers, you can find a new job without too much trouble. The basic econ model works well to describe these labor markets. The best way to raise wages for everyone is to make all labor markets more competitive and all workers more mobile.

Monday, September 5, 2011


The only student in my class to ace today's quiz was a student with a documented learning disability.

I do not know what the disability is. I only know that he gave me a letter from the disability office telling me to provide accommodations like note taking and a reduced distraction testing environment.

This happens about three or four times a semester, and the list ofo accommodations is usually about the same. I would guess that most such students have been diagnosed with ADHD.

I am not exactly sure what this says about me, my class, my teaching style, the education system, and/or the medical system.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Physiology Part 2

16 days ago, I sprained my ankle. It was worse than I thought at first, but a few days after the sprain I was able to walk normally on flat ground, and by nine days after the sprain I had recovered the mobility of a normal person and was able to do most of the exercises in our martial arts workout. But 'normal person' is a much lower level of ability than I am used to. As the ankle healed, it got tight, especially the Achilles tendon, so I had to keep exercising and stretching it out and there were the occasional twinges of pain.

I just finished running our parkour course. Even though I was not very graceful, and had to do most of the jumping off the other foot, which I am not used to doing, I was able to do most of it. My overall performance was probably about equal to the second or third time I did the course.

Sometimes it is easy to underestimate how much you have trained your body. My ankle is probably stronger and more flexible than it was five years ago, but it still feels weak to me because I am used to it being so much better.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

'Top 100' speculative fiction books

NPR used a poll to come up with a list of the "Top 100 Science-Fiction, Fantasy Books". My friend went down the list and commented on the books she read.

Since I have a habit of commenting on books, and there are several on here that I have read but not talked about, I will got down the list too. If I have not read the book but have read other things by the author, I will comment on the author.

1) The Lord Of The Rings
I used to be a huge fan of this. But whenever I have tried to reread it in recent years, I never seem to want to finish. There is just too much excess prose. Also, as time goes by, it is becoming increasingly clear that Tolkien came from a world that is sharply at odds with modern sensibilities. The glorification of royalty is particularly galling.

Honestly, I now think the movies are better than the books. You get most of the good stuff in a more condensed form. My only real complaint is the absence of Bombadil; I think his existence and character added an important depth to the story.

2) The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy
I read all of the books in the series. They go downhill after a while, but the first two books are full of memorable and imaginiative things.
3) Ender's Game
I never read it and don't want to. I get the impression that this book is only popular because people read it as children and want to see themselves in the genius protagonist.
4) The Dune Chronicles
See my earlier review. The summary is:
It is possible that this book is a Watchmen-style deconstruction of the epic hero genre.  If so, it is a good one.  But it is also possible that the book is a confused mess that straddles the fence between genius and madness.  I am inclined to think the latter, because there are so many things that simply don't make sense.  The plot and setting of Dune are like soap bubbles: if you poke them or just look at them too long, they disintegrate.
5) A Song Of Ice And Fire Series
Another thing I do not want to read. I simply refuse to make the time commitment to a massive doorstopper series that dwells endlessly on political intrigue.
6) 1984
Worth reading, even though the protagonist is a complete nobody with no heroic or redeeming qualities. The depiction of the world, and the comments on the use of language, are excellent.
7) Fahrenheit 451
I never read it, but I saw the movie. This is somewhat ironic given the premise of the book. I should probably read it sometime.
8) The Foundation Trilogy
I read it but would not recommend it. Like much science fiction from the '40's and '50's, it has not aged well. Its world is so far removed from our reality or any realistic future that it should be called 'fantasy'. It has interstellar travel and psychic powers, but no computers.

It is also clear that Asimov knew very little about economics; a small colony of scientists is somehow able to produce more technological advancement than an entire civilization of billions of people. I dislike any book that claims you can build a utopia by isolating a few of the smartest people, and the Foundation books are remarkably similar to Atlas Shrugged in this conceit.

9) Brave New World
I was not impressed. I thought it was vastly inferior to Orwell's work. The thing is simply not believable.
10) American Gods
I have read several Gaiman works, but not this one. Gaiman seems interesting and impressive at first, but I quickly started to dislike his writing while reading Fragile Things. His strength is that he knows old mysticism very well and can make it seem real and powerful, but this is also what made me dislike his stuff. It is a never-ending parade of terror, misery, and superstition.

11) The Princess Bride
I started reading it but cannot remember if I finished it. I remember that it was good, but not really any better than the movie.
12) The Wheel Of Time Series
I read the first three and decided that there was no point in reading any more. The main character gains the ability to destroy any opponent, even demon lords, with a single magic spell, which means that there can be no interesting adventure and any future books must be based on politics. It was fairly well-written, but there were too many things that just seemed wrong or senseless.

13) Animal Farm
It is an excellent book and everyone should read it. It is also fairly short and easy to read, so the cost of reading it is low. Too few reviewers take this kind of cost-benefit analysis into consideration when making recommendations.

14) Neuromancer
I have never read it, but I have read other Gibson works.  They are memorable and imaginative. But I think that once you have read a couple, there is not much point in reading others.
15) Watchmen
I read it and liked it. Like Animal Farm, it is a fun easy read packed with ideas. Although it is definitely not for children.
16) I, Robot
I have read most of Asimov's robot stories. They are much better than the Foundation series, but I would still not recommend them. They often feel like some kind of strange philosophical thought experiment in a world that has very little relation to our own.

17) Stranger In A Strange Land
have read a lot of Heinlein books, but not this one. It seems to be one of his social/mystical stories, and in my opinion those are the worst. I probably will not bother.

18) The Kingkiller Chronicles
I have heard good things about these and plan to read them all when the whole trilogy is finished.
19) Slaughterhouse-Five
I have read this, and a lot of Vonnegut short stories. Vonnegut is interesting and strange, a relic of a very different world. His works are a bit too bleak and cynical for my taste, but I am glad I read them. Only recommended if you like trippy mind-bending things that are more focused on philosophical musings than storytelling.

20) Frankenstein
I have read it and I am glad I did, even though I did not enjoy it that much. Much of the novel seems to be pointless filler, but the good parts are very good.
21) Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
I have read a lot of Philip K. Dick short stories and generally enjoy them. I get the impression that I would not enjoy this novel as mich, though. See my comments on Blade Runner.

22) The Handmaid's Tale
I read Atwood's 'The Penelopiad' and liked it. Maybe one day I will get around to reading this.
23) The Dark Tower Series
I read part of a comic adaptation of this and thought it was fairly dumb. I have not been impressed with the Steven King works I have read. He knows how to write powerful and memorable things, but I do not like what he does with this ability. He is a lot like Gaiman. When I read things by either author, it is like witnessing a work of destruction rather than creation. They both seem like literary vandals, making a scene by smashing up sacred things and making the viewer nervous and uncomfortable.

24) 2001: A Space Odyssey
At first I could not remember if I had read this, or just watched the movie. Then I looked up the plot and differences between the movie and remembered that I had read it.
Overall I am not a fan of Clarke. Some of his short stories are quite good, but his books do not entertain me, and I see little value in speculating about super-advanced aliens and how they did or might affect mankind.

25) The Stand
Finally I get to something I have never heard of. Since I have already talked about Steven King, I have nothing to say. From this point I will start skipping things I have not read, unless it is an author I am familiar with but have not talked about before.

29) The Sandman Series
I started reading it, and liked it at first, but it got old very quickly. I would recommend starting it to see what you think.
31) Starship Troopers
I liked it a lot. Definitely recommended. You should read at least one Heinlein book, and it should probably be this one. It has at least as much social value as 1984, and is a lot more fun to read.
32) Watership Down
Started it, could not get further than a few pages in.
33) Dragonflight
I have read a few Anne McCaffrey books. She really loves the 'Special people who are superior' theme. It it is clearly an attempt to flatter the intended audience and provide a wish-fulfillment fantasy, and this rapidly gets tiresome. I started reading this one and did not get past the first few pages.

34) The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress
I liked it, even though it rests on the amazingly stupid idea that a moon colony would export food to the Earth. It is also quite bothersome that Heinlein says that a superior society will form after people have the freedom to kill each other off at will with no penalty.

35) A Canticle For Leibowitz
This one is really good, and underappreciated. The world is well-developed, the characters are good, and it explores interesting themes. But as I reread my earlier review, I see that my earlier reaction was more mixed than the long-term memories I formed. I guess it is like a vacation where you only remember the good parts.

36) The Time Machine
This definitely deserves its place as a classic. Interestingly enough it has aged much better than a lot of more modern works. I recommend it.
37) 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea
I did not like this book much. I was never really impressed with Verne, I see him as inferior to Wells.
38) Flowers For Algernon
Middle school reading assignment. I remember not hating it, and not being impressed either.
39) The War Of The Worlds
Another classic, but I agree that it is not as good as The Time Machine. It is still a lot better than a lot of things above it on this list.
40) The Amber Chronicles
I have never read it, but I have seen credible sources saying that it is really dumb, with the main character having far too many powers for the book to be interesting.
42) The Mists Of Avalon
I should probably read this one day. I tend to like reading female authors of sci-fi and fantasy, and I saw and liked the television adaptation.
43) Ringworld
I liked it, and I like most Niven books. Niven is perhaps the best example of good 'hard' science fiction that doers its best to take the laws of science seriously rather than just use technology or aliens as an excuse to make crazy things happen. In my opinion, his best work I have read is 'The Integral Trees' but Ringworld is also good.

45) The Left Hand Of Darkness
I have read several Le Guin books, but not this one. I liked them, so I probably should read this.
46) The Silmarillion
I tried to read it a few times and failed each time. I like Tolkien's random short stories, but the things in The Silmarillion always bore me.
47) Contact
I liked this, it had good characters and a decent plot, it handled the 'alien contact' theme better than Clarke. Although the claim that aliens made the universe and hid a message in the digits of pi is really dumb. Pi is not something like the gravitational constant that can be changed when you make the universe, it is a fact of math that cannot be altered. Still, that is a minor point in the book and the rest is quite good.

52) Stardust
I liked the movie.
53) Small Gods
There are better Discworld books than this, but it is still very good.  I recommend almost every Pratchett book; he deserves a much higher spot on the list.
58) The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever
I read about 20 pages of this, and decided that it was very bad. I wanted nothing to do with the main character or the book or the writer.
60) Going Postal
An excellent book. Highly recommended. This is one of Pratchett's most recent books, but it is still a good starting point.
61) The Mote In God's Eye
I like both Niven and Pournelle, so I should probably read this one.
64) Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
An excellent book, highly recommended, which deserves a higher place. I have discussed it here, and also see my comments on The History of Magic.

67) The Sword Of Shannara Trilogy
I read a few chapters, and then decided that it is utter trash, just a cheap cargo-cult copy of The Lord of the Rings.
68) The Conan The Barbarian Series
I should not like these as much as I do. The morality of the main character, and the author, is wrong and dangerous. And yet I really enjoy reading them. It is a guilty pleasure.
72) Journey To The Center Of The Earth
This one is one of the better Verne books, more fun and interesting than most. This is probably because I can see it as a fantasy adventure with no connection to science or our history.
73) The Legend Of Drizzt Series
This is decent genre fiction, with good characters and plots in a well-developed world, with nothing that was annoying or ovbiously derivative. If you want pure fantasy entertainment, Salvatore is a good choice.
74) Old Man's War
Good and fun. A well-developed military sci-fi story.
76) Rendezvous With Rama
One of Clarke's better books. It ended up being a bit of light fun entertainment rather than anything deep, which was probably not the plan, but I liked it.

78) The Dispossessed
This is a good exploration of social systems and people's relationship to them, but only really worth reading if you are a philosopher or social scientist.
82) The Eyre Affair
Wacky fun for people who either like british humor or know and love literature. I have reviewed it before.
86) The Codex Alera Series
I like Butcher's Dresden books but I have no desire to read these. I cannot understand why he would give up an interesting and original character and world to write yet another generic fantasy novel series. I also cannot understand why people would vote that series up above the Dresden books.

88) The Thrawn Trilogy
Zahn is one of my all-time favorite authors. This should be much higher. I highly recommend it, as well as everything else he writes. He tells good stories with good characters in good, well-developed worlds.
99) The Xanth Series
I should probably try these; I have read several other Piers Anthony books and liked them.
Now, we get to people who should be on the list but are not:
HP Lovecraft. This guy is as much of a classic as Wells or Verne. He definitely deserves a spot above a lot of things here.
Michael Crichton: There should be something by him on here, probably The Andromeda Strain. That is one of the better science fiction books I have read.
Lord Dunsany: This guy is to fantasy what Wells is to science fiction. His works are classics and I recommend reading a few of them at least. They are surprisingly deep, original, and well written. Think of a cross between Hemingway and old fairy tales.
L. Sprauge de Camp deserves a place here. He is a classic writer of both science fiction and fantasy and his stories are good.

Friday, September 2, 2011


A student who added my class late came to my office today to talk about some things, and during the conversation she remarked "You are much nicer than I thought you would be." I asked why she thought I would be mean, and she mentioned that she had read the syllabus and got the impression from it that I would be harsh.

My syllabus includes several examples of actions that will result in a point being taken off a student's final grade, like coming in late or having a laptop and not sending me class notes. I basically have to write these penalties down. It would be unfair and wrong for me to apply them without proper warning, and I need to be able to apply these penalties in order to make my class run smoothly.

She thought that I would be a mean person because I discussed these penalties. But the reverse is true. The fact that I include these penalties in the syllabus, and use them as needed, is what allows me to be nice to people. If you come in to my class late, I will not be mean to you or make you feel bad or do anything negative. I will simply mark a point off your grade, politely inform you of this fact, and continue with the class.

One of the rules I live by is "Never impose an emotional penalty when you could impose a real penalty." Emotions are a sign of weakness; they are what you use to try to control people when you have no real power. I have the ability to chop points off a student's grade. I use that ability regularly, without any hint of negativity or malice, which allows me to control things without any emotional drama or bad feelings. I set a reasonable price for bad behavior and impose that price fairly. 

People have remarked that public praise and private criticism is the bast way to handle people. That is probably true for close-knit groups. But when handling a class of 40 people, I find that the opposite is true. I am very nice and forgiving in private, but I smack people down in public to show that I am serious about the rules. It works very well.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Culture and Gender Ability Gap

A long time ago I saw the following quote:

CAESAR (recovering his self-possession). Pardon him. ... he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.

That is from George Bernard Shaw's play Caesar and Cleopatra.

After tracking down the quote, I opened the play to see it in context. I will probably be reading the whole play soon; it looks like an excellent work.

The reason I was reminded of this quote was this article. An economist studied two tribes in rural India with almost identical genetics, wealth, and living conditions, but very different cultures. This is almost a perfect natural experiment, so I expect these two tribes to be studied a lot more in the future.

One of the tribes is patrilineal. Women are not supposed to own land, and the oldest son inherits the property. The other is matrilineal. Property is inherited by the youngest daughter, men are not allowed to own land, and any earnings of the male are supposed to be handed over to his wife or sister.

They had the villagers do a simple puzzle-solving test. In the patrilineal tribe, the men did better than the women. In the matrilineal tribe, there was no statistically significant gender gap. What is even more in interesting to me is a fact that was not mentioned in the Time article: The men in the matrilineal tribe actually did better than the men in the patrilineal tribe:
Here is the actual academic paper, which may be gated. If you can open it, do so, because it is full of fascinating details that the news articles left out. If you have any unanswered questions after reading the popular article, as you should, head over to the actual scientific article.

Note that this study, like most good science, is a small bit of knowledge. It tells us about one particular mental ability. More studies are needed to test other abilities. But it is still very important. It provides evidence that the 'gender gap' in math and spacial abilities could easily be due to culture rather than genetics.

I have not seen anyone speculate on why the men in the female-dominated culture actually did better than the men in the male-dominated culture. The men in the patrilineal society actually had more education, and education was correlated with faster problem solving.

Keep this study in mind whenever people talk about 'innate' ability differences between groups. The customs of our tribe are not laws of nature.


I learned a new word today. That does not happen so often.

I know only one word to describe what the simpler camps had and the more luxurious camps lacked: haimish. It's a Yiddish word that suggests warmth, domesticity and unpretentious conviviality.