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Book Review: Raise A Genius!

I.

A few months ago, I learned about Laszlo Polgar, the man who trained all three of his daughters to be chess grandmasters. He claimed he could make any child a genius just by teaching them using his special methods. I was pretty upset because, although he had a book called Raise A Genius, it was hard to find and only available in Hungarian and Esperanto.

Many SSC readers contributed money to get the book translated, and Esperanto translator Gordon Tishler stepped up to do the job. Thanks to everyone involved. You can find his full translation here: Raise A Genius!

I was hoping that this book would explain Lazslo Polgar’s secrets for raising gifted children. It does so only in very broad strokes. Nor does he seem to be holding much back. But it looks more like he doesn’t really have secrets, per se. The main things he does differently from everyone else are the things he’s talked about in every interview and documentary: he starts young (around the time the child is three), focuses near-obsessively on a single subject, and never stops. Polgar:

The first characteristic of genius education – I could say the most important novelty distinguishing it from contemporary instruction – and its necessary precondition, is early specialization directed at one concrete field. It is indeed true what Homer said, “A person cannot be experienced or first in everything.” Because of this parents should choose a specific field at their discretion. It is only important that by the age of 3-4 some physical or mental field should be chosen, and the child can set out on their voyage.

He has a couple more things to say, but they’re more like vague principles than like specific details. The rest of the book is his opinions on the meaning of genius, his gripes about the Hungarian government, the ways public schooling destroys children’s natural creativity, and various related subjects.

And maybe this stuff deserves some attention. He spends a long time responding to people who say it’s inhumane or immoral to educate children the way he does it, and certainly those claims need a response. A lot of his pedagogical philosophy and personal philosophy of life come out in the way he answers these questions, and given how few specifics he gives, maybe understanding his broader worldview is the way to go. And although a lot of people talk about how public school destroys children’s minds, it’s always good to hear it from the mouth of somebody who’s put his money where his mouth is and done a better job.

But what can we glean from this book in terms of how one can educate a child in the Polgar method?

The closest Raise A Genius comes to anything like a specific prescription is Polgar’s description of what a day might be like in some kind of imaginary Polgar genius school:

In genius education it is necessary that the pedagogue (whether the parents or professional teachers or tutors) stay in direct, constant and intensive contact with the child. Because of this we imagine groups of only 10-15 members. In practice an intensive collaborative contact between the child and an adult must be formed, in which the child does not feel “subordinate.” Think how advantageous it would be if the child already understands at the age of 10 that they know a great deal, that they are a person of the same value as an adult, and that in their life there is at least one field they master as well or better than adults.

As for the curriculum, it would be:

– 4 hours of specialist study (for us, chess)
– 1 hour of a foreign language. Esperanto in the first year, English in the second, and another chosen at will in the third. At the stage of beginning, that is, intensive language instruction, it is necessary to increase the study hours to 3 – in place of the specialist study – for 3 months. In summer, study trips to other countries.
– 1 hour of general study (native language, natural science and social studies)
– 1 hour of computing
– 1 hour of moral, psychological, and pedagogical studies (humor lessons as well, with 20 minutes every hour for joke telling)
– 1 hour of gymnastics, freely chosen, which can be accomplished individually outside school. The division of study hours can of course be treated elastically.

All of this cries out for more explanation (in particular, the humor lessons sound fascinating), but the only part he really explains is the foreign language. He quotes Frantishek Marek: “Learning foreign languages in early childhood is very important, because without that a person cannot later express themself spontaneously, rapidly, and appropriately”, and I think suggests (though I might be misunderstanding) that languages are one of the easiest things to teach young children, and so a good way to get them into the spirit of learning things. He also thinks languages are nice because they have a defined end-goal (speaking fluently) and obvious progress along the way, so children feel good about learning them. He argues Esperanto is perfect for this: as a logical constructed language, it’s very easy to learn, and it convinces children that learning is fast and easy. Then with their Esperanto knowledge they’ll be much better able to pick up other languages later on. I’m not really sure what to think of this – language learning might be more important if you grow up speaking Hungarian rather than English, and Polgar seems so enthusiastic an Esperantist that it’s hard to picture him recommending it for purely rational reasons – but he’s quite insistent on it.

This idea that children should learn things they find exciting and enjoyable – and where they keep making measurable progress – recurs throughout the book. Often it’s in the context of a kind of counterintuitive point, where someone asks him “Won’t kids hate having to learn so much?” and Polgar answers that kids may hate public school, where they sit around a lot and never feel like they’re really mastering anything, but won’t hate intensive genius education, where they actually feel like people are trying to make them good at things:

In conditions of intensive instruction a child will soon feel knowledgeable, perceive independence, achieve success, and shortly become capable of independently applying their knowledge. Let us take an example from language learning. Let us suppose that someone visits a class for interpreters at a school for geniuses, where they are occupied for 5-6 hours with a first foreign language, Esperanto if possible. (Why precisely with this language I will clarify below.) After some months they are already corresponding with children in other countries, they participate in meetings in and outside of their country – and longer-lasting – where they experience serious successes, and they converse fluently in the language they have learned by then. Is this a nice feeling for a child? Yes, it is nice. Is it useful for the child? Yes, it is useful. Is it useful for society? It is useful. In the following year one can do the same with another foreign language – let us say English – and in the year after that another.

The same is valid for any field of life. In this way a child really enjoys what they are doing, and they see that it makes sense. In contemporary schools students do not understand why they are learning. But in genius-education schools the children know that after a few months they will speak Esperanto, in the following year English, in the following year German, etc. Or in the field of chess; in the first year they play at level 3, after the third year at level 1, after five years as a master candidate, after 6-7 years as a master, after 8-10 years as an international master, and after the 15th year as a grandmaster. So the child sees the goal and meaning of their work.

And:

One thing is certain: one can never achieve serious pedagogical results, especially at a high level, through coercion. One can teach chess only by means of love and the love of the game. If I may advise: one should make sure that before everything the father or mother should not diminish the child’s habit of chess playing by too much severity. We should make sure not to always win against the child; we should let them win sometimes so that they feel that they also are capable of thinking. In this way we should bring them to a feeling of success.

So how does one go about ensuring that a child loves education?

At the start it is most important to awake interest. We should make the child aware that who learns this knows this. And chess is learnable. If we educate the child such that they can be a partner, can accept, create, and initiate, then we can always entrust them with more independent tasks. We should get the child to love what they do – to such a degree that they do it almost obsessively. The Hungarian psychologist Tamas Vekerdy warns of the same thing, that infants more easily master things that awake and draw their interest, their attention. And even at the beginning, the child should feel joy. We should not be angry, if they jump around here and there during a chess game; indeed, it is a known fact in psychology that even though a child might frolic aimlessly because of their age-appropriate character, their thoughts can still stay on the task. We should not tell them everything; we should try to get the child themself to say something! We should not ourselves make all the moves; we should try to get the child themself to make the moves! This is the so-called Socratic method, and the essence of instruction in problem-solving – projected onto chess.

Of course great success is not achievable without motivation. At the age of 5-6, if the activity is sufficiently interesting, success can also function as a strong incentive. Stimulation, encouragement, and instilling passion and trust are very important. If the parents and tutors tell the child that they are foolish and bad, the child will probably truly believe this. But the opposite also applies: if we say that they are clever and skillful, they will believe that as well. They often truly believe that, and try harder to actually become so. I consider it a basic principle that success is extraordinarily important. When I began the experiment, I thought that although I would not let my daughters avoid failure, they would nevertheless need to grow up accompanied by success. The proportion of failure to success should be 1 to 10.

Likewise:

The experience of success or failure, as Adler demonstrates, greatly influences the self-confidence – or uncertainty – of the child. According to P. Michel as well, the experience of success, the admiration of others, and the recognition of teachers, significantly stimulates further action, increases the trust of the child in their knowledge and ability to a high degree.

According to Frank, failure, suffering, and fearfulness decrease achievement. Following a number of successive failures, even a damaging inhibitory complex can be created. With an increase in stress, action becomes more superficial and behavior less calm. Similarly, in the opinion of M. Juck, success experienced in one area increases (and failure decreases) the level of aspiration in other areas. Helm’s experiments prove that experience of success decreases the time necessary for solving later tasks, and increases the elasticity and ideational richness of the mind, while following failure there can be hindrances, rigidity, and relative ideational poverty in thinking, and problem-solving time increases.

Likewise:

One should have great patience. We should let the child arrive at a sense of success, but we should not handicap ourselves (we should not give up major pieces or an advantage in pawns), because in that case the structure of the game changes. Preferably the parents or teachers should provide a temporal handicap, or weave intentional mistakes into the game, so that the child can use them for themself. During the game the tutor should organize their position on the board intentionally as is appropriate for the student and the development of the child at their age.

And:

To awaken the child’s interest. The child should like what they are occupied with, that is, be interested in it. One must little by little accustom them to the work and create in them the unification of work and play. It is important as well that the child become accustomed to learning and working. Particular training is necessary for the workload. I call well-organized and age-appropriate work active rest. A child’s workload should be such that they experience it as active rest. Students, for example, who must attend lectures which they then enjoy, feel more rested afterwards than before. And if the speaker lectures inexpertly, they almost fall asleep from boredom and fatigue after half an hour.

There’s a lot of this, always exhorting people to make sure children enjoy being intensively educated, but always giving only vague gestures on how to do it. I suspect Polgar was a naturally gifted teacher, and his daughters naturally curious students, and that he never really encountered problems in this regard and doesn’t expect other people to either. Some of this seems apparent in his section on play:

I think of play as a very important phenomenon, perhaps more important than do many of those psychologists who put it on a pedestal.

But play is not the opposite of work. Play is very important for a child, but in play there is an element of work. One should not separate these two factors in a child’s value system; if for example a child hears at an impressionable age, “Play, son, don’t work!” this can later result in him feeling that work is alien. On the contrary, it is my opinion that a child does not like only play: for them it is also enjoyable to acquire information and solve problems. A child’s work can also be enjoyable; so can learning, if it is sufficiently motivating, and if it means a constant supply of problems to solve that are appropriate for the level of the child’s needs.

A child does not need play separate from work, but meaningful action. Children already enjoy doing meaningful things in infancy. They like solving problems during play, even pleasurable play. The more meaningful and information-rich the problems they solve during their activities, the greater is their enjoyment and sense of success. In the end it is most important at this age to awaken enjoyment and good feelings in them.

Regarding my daughters, it is my experience that learning presents them with more enjoyment than a sterile game. I have the feeling that play deprived of information often plays only a surrogate role, of surrogate action, of surrogate satisfaction.

This is proven also by the fact that when we examine the biographies of exceptionally capable children, we find that they played much less than their peers. The profound and lengthy research of L. M. Turman in California in 1920 uncovered many differences between the play of unusually capable children and their peers. As expected, play that demanded mental action was much more interesting to the talented children. They played alone somewhat more often, compared to the control group. Susanna Millar writes in her book Psychology of Play that sometimes unusually capable children who lack peers at the same intellectual level can have difficulties in play with others. Thus I generally do not rigidly separate learning from play, or work from hobbies at an adult level.

From my point of view, workloads could be measurably increased by appropriate methods. I agree with the pedagogical tendency to ask for intensive instruction. The essence of intensive instruction lies really in using goal-directed workloads, age-appropriateness, the holding of
interest, and the lived experience of achievement and success. The American G Doman thinks the same. In his analogy: as the different muscles of the body can be developed and strengthened only by regular training, so also the capabilities of the brain can only grow by means of daily training. The lack of structured logical thought and learning causes a decrease in intelligence, just as un-exercised body parts atrophy. Doman knows, on the basis of three decades of practical experience, that the brain grows most rapidly between the ages of 1 and 6, and it almost “effortlessly” assimilates knowledge. The ability to learn by play decreases after 6 years of age, when assimilation of information becomes more difficult mental work.

More on peers:

The contemporary psychological and pedagogical literature emphasizes in one sense the importance of the peer group. But in my pedagogical concept it receives a slightly different emphasis. According to me, it is not primarily important for a child to have suitable companions of the same age, but preferably to have spiritually (mentally) appropriate partners, friends worthy of the level of their intellectual capabilities. If the social relationships of a child are exclusively or for the most part limited to groups of the same age, this will slow the progress of an exceptionally capable child.

[Some say that children should not spend too long with adults, but this] is disadvantageous only if the intellectual level is too different, and if the relationship between child and adult is not suitable, for example, if the adult imposes everything on the child so they take away their independence and initiative. But if they try to correctly develop these traits in the child, it is not damaging, but on the contrary is useful. About this I do not want to say that a child should always be in the company of adults. One must find the right proportion of being with adults and peers. I believe that passing their time in the company of those who have a similar level of intellect and similar interests and sense this well in these interactions is decisive.

Zsuzsa is a concrete example: if at the age of 13 she had played chess only with 13-year-olds, who were weaker than her in many categories, this would have been less than useful for her. And for her opponents it would not have been nice to be “knocked out” in every match. Zsuzsa herself would not have profited, because she needed playing partners at a similar level, and those were
found only among adults.

However, this was not a cause for concern, as the age difference itself did not prevent friendly relationships with others, and having good friends and colleagues at the same time. And friendship often flowed from work relationships. Thus one’s work is at the same time a hobby.

On curriculum design:

Of course, one should make everything appropriate to the stage! With regard to the content of instructional materials and also the duration of instruction, one should start from the traits of the age of the child, and tailor the tasks for the optimum ability of the child. At first we should only play chess for half an hour; after some time a bit more. After a week we can extend the duration. At first we should solve only simple problems, and with the passing of time we should always progress to more complicated ones. One should get the child to play a great deal, but always with suitable partners, who have a generally similar playing ability. On some occasions they can be weaker, on some stronger, so that the child experiences what winning and losing are like. But one must certainly find the right proportion. In childhood they should play rapidly, so they should play many blitz matches and those with a short time limit.

[…]

In this case age-appropriateness is also very important. First one should learn the movements of the king. We practiced this for several days, and later we play “king against king.” The task is this: one king must reach the opponent’s baseline, that is, one must go to the other side of the board. Whoever does this first wins. If some king can stand next the other, then the game ends without a decision. When we had learned this well, we added the next piece, the pawn. In this game the goal was the same: to get to the other side. After several days we added the rook, then the knight.

After 3-4 weeks we arrived at the queen. Understanding the queen’s mate followed later. Possessing this knowledge, we played great pawn battles during the following weeks. That is, only the pawns and the two kings were on the board. After a pawn changed to a queen we played until mate. The children really liked this. During this we started learning the knight’s moves. This is most difficult for children, but not truly a problem, although one must carefully practice this.

Later we became acquainted with the simplest mating moves. First I collected around 1,000 one-move mate diagrams; later I found two-, three-, and four-move mate diagrams and posed them as problems. Only after this did we begin playing real chess. The time we spent getting there lasted about 3-4 months. We should not begrudge the time for this! In this way we assimilate (very deeply and solidly) not only rudimentary knowledge, but the children become accustomed to the carefully considered and foundational game, work. Possessing solid knowledge, they simply and easily learned the later tasks. The possessed resolution, and self-confidence, and arrived at success. They experienced the knowledge and enjoyment of its use.

On grades and competition:

If the instruction is good, one has no need of giving grades. In addition, this truly makes no sense in chess. I would rather arrange various in- and inter-class contests. It is worth sending children to foreign competitions only if we feel that they will do well there. Competition only makes sense when it is evident that it will develop those who are capable of it, and can inspire greater accomplishments on the basis of the results. We should never drive students to failure.

And on the end goal:

An important function of genius education is instilling the capability for self-education. It starts with establishing in the child independent interests. Little by little we can instill in them self-education, independence, and creative work. The pedagogical co-worker cannot always stay at their side. So one of the most important educational tasks is to teach self-education. The latter contributes to, among other things, the child liking what they do, and in their life work is not separate from hobbies.

And unrelated to child-rearing, but very related to a previous discussion on this blog:

The fact is that today a newborn baby, being Jewish, has a much greater chance, by the statistics of Nobel prizes, at this prize, than if they are born in a non-Jewish family. This seems to many to be genetically determined. I have a completely different opinion. I conclude that social “heredity” and the response to one’s own Jewishness causes this phenomenon. I accept – this is indeed a fact – what Endre Czeizel also mentioned on Hungarian Radio (1989-05-23), that the proportion of Jews among Nobel prize-winners is 30%…, and if one is born Jewish, they have a hundred times greater chance of a Nobel prize than an average non-Jew. And most of the Hungarian Nobel prize-winners were Jews. Among chess world champions their proportion reaches – to my knowledge – more than 50%: Lasker, Steinitz, Tal, Botvinnik, Smyslov, Kasparov and Fischer are half Jewish. However, I claim that this is also socially determined.

To mention a few factors: The first essential point is that Jewish families – partly because of strong traditions – are relatively stable, and they are always very concerned with education. Another reason comes from the minority status of Jews and from the frequent persecutions throughout their history. How do these factors contribute to the development of the mind? From a negative side in this way, that because of the always disadvantageous situation of the Jews they always had to appear in almost everything doubly more capable than others. Because of the frequent persecution they knew that at any time they might have to leave their homes, dwellings, and even homelands, and begin lives elsewhere. So what is fixed in Jewish tradition? “Learn, my son, because (1) only thus can you succeed in life, and (2) if you must flee, no one can take knowledge away from you, so you can take it with you anywhere.” Jews could not take their houses with them, so they customarily preferred to buy no houses or unportable things, but gold
and diamonds and trinkets, so that during persecutions they could pocket them and run away. And their knowledge bore fruit everywhere.

On the other hand, Jews are always on the periphery, and this awakens stresses in them; they become “eternal adolescents.” Adolescents do not know whether they are children or adults, and their uncertainty comes from this. Similarly, Jews most often do not know to what degree they are – for example – Hungarian, or Jewish, or both. This situation is difficult to clarify to themselves. Because of it they constantly live with internal conflict. This makes them develop with open minds, a habit of problem-solving, and also develops their adaptability. (This can also cause certain negative qualities, for example over-sensitivity, loudness, aggression, extremism, being critical of oneself and others, a very strong ambition for accomplishments, over-driven activity, etc.)

II.

I want to emphasize a second time that I’ve left out most of the book, which is Polgar’s philosophical and moral reflections on why genius is important / why it’s ethical to try to raise children to be geniuses. If you’ve got any concerns in those areas, please look a little deeper into the source text and you’ll find them answered. At length. Twenty times. Interspersed with enthusiastic infodumps about how great Esperanto is.

In contrast, I said above that there wasn’t much specific pedagogical advice. I wrote that before quote-mining it to write a review; after doing so I realize there’s more than I thought. It’s just very broad, and not too different from what you’d expect a smart and up-to-date educator to say at your local slightly-hippy-ish private school.

I think the main reason I keep feeling like Polgar’s not describing his system enough – even though he describes it at some length – is a mismatch between his astounding results, and his excellent-but-not-that-different-from-common-sense educational advice. Surely there are schools that try to make children love learning and feel a sense of accomplishment in their work (don’t be snarky here, I’m as depressed as anyone by the education system but there are so many different private schools with wacky philosophies that I’m sure at least one of them has hit the target). But none of them have all their students grow up to be world-class chess grandmasters or the interdisciplinary equivalent. Why not?

Appealing to genetics can only take us so far. Both Polgar parents are undoubtedly geniuses. But a lot of wacky private schools get a steady supply of students with really smart parents. There’s got to be something more.

My guess is that the “start really early” and “concentrate on one subject” parts do more of the heavy lifting than I’d previously thought. I also think the one-to-one instruction (well, two-to-three instruction) that the Polgar parents were able to give their kids was probably very important, based on the disproportionate number of child prodigies who were home-schooled by their parents (I don’t know if the low teacher:student ratio or the parent-child relationship itself is important). And I suspect Polgar himself was just a naturally gifted educator who was able to effortlessly instill passion for a subject. Get those four things right – early start, single-subject focus, 1:1 home schooling, and a great parent/teacher – and the rest is just common-sense advice. Common-sense advice that lots of educators fail miserably at, admittedly. But common sense advice nonetheless.

This should be encouraging for people who want to repeat the Polgars’ experiment. You probably don’t need an education degree, let alone training in some secretive arcane Polgar Education Technique, to make it happen. You just need a monomaniacal focus, a lot of free time, and hard-to-define talent.

I think I have a lead on how to get this last one. Polgar talks about how he devised his system by reading the biographies of former child geniuses like John Stuart Mill. It might be useful to repeat this project, if only to see whether someone else can absorb some of the same implicit lessons Polgar did, and gain the same breadth of knowledge he had. This would be my next step from here if I wanted to try to learn more about education.

One concluding quote from Polgar:

There is no magic even in chess instruction, so I want to “warn” those who are expecting to discover miracles. The main pedagogical method and explanations of basic psychological ideas can be found naturally in pedagogical, psychological and technical chess textbooks.

There’s a word for someone who successfully performs miracles, writes a book called Perform Miracles!, and then “warns” those who are “expecting to discover miracles”. That word is “tease”. But Polgar gives us enough of a sketch to at least start out on the road he went on, and hopefully enough further leads to go the rest of the way.

OT81: Open Djed

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit, the SSC Discord server, or the Cafe Chesscourt forum. Also:

1. There’s now a Meetup tab on the top of the blog, with a list of times and places for all of the in-person SSC meetups going on around the world. Take a look – and if you’re a meetup organizer, make sure the times and places for your meetups are up to date.

2. Highlighting some good comments from the Griggs vs. Duke thread: Mark Anderson on various things including international hiring norms, Walter on other regulatory issues promoting credentiolocracy, and Sebastian on the way legal cases work. And Robert VerBruggen links this paper on the broader effects of disparate impact laws. Also, Eliezer Yudkowsky on Facebook about the way that minimum wage laws help enforce credentiolocracy.

3. Other good comments: Larry Kestenbaum (himself an elected official) on why (contra a Current Affairs article I linked) it makes sense for the Democrats not to concentrate on Georgia (and some further clarification).

4. Thanks to everyone who emailed Katja about rationalist housing in Berkeley. You should have heard back about various house-viewing options; if not, try sending her a reminder. There are always new houses opening up nearby (including one I’m trying to rent) so it’s not too late to get your name on the waiting list if you’re interested.

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Against Signal-Boosting As Doxxing

A recent spat on Twitter, which I won’t link: some guy using his real name tweeted an offensive joke about how women should make sandwiches at a group of women. A feminist columnist with tens of thousands of followers retweeted with the comment “This is a young man who ostensibly wants a job someday, tweeting at professional women in his field under his own name…RT to help ensure [REAL NAME]’s prospective employers know this when they search for [REAL NAME]’s name”.

[EDIT: See here for discussion of various complicating factors; my claim isn’t going to be that a completely innocent person was punished, so much as that this entire paradigm of punishment is dangerous]

What particularly bothered me about this situation was that the columnist involved was a libertarian who writes for Reason, and her supporters were mostly other influential libertarians. And they were all using the old argument that the concept of “free speech” came into existence ex nihilo on December 15, 1791 with the ratification of the First Amendment, and has no meaning or significance outside a purely legal context of delimiting government power.

I have a friend who grew up gay in a small town in Alabama, where “faggot” was the all-purpose insult and the local church preached hellfire as the proper punishment for homosexuality. He unsurprisingly stayed in the closet throughout his childhood and ended up with various awful psychological problems.

If you’re a very stupid libertarian strawman, you might ask whether that town had any anti-gay laws on the book – and, upon hearing they didn’t, say that town was “pro-gay”. If you’re not a very stupid libertarian strawman, you hopefully realize that being pro-gay isn’t about boasting how progressive your law code looks, it’s about having a society where it’s possible to be gay. Not having laws against locking up gay people is a necessary precondition, but it’s useless on its own. You only get good results if good laws are matched by good social norms.

Likewise, the goal of being pro-free-speech isn’t to make a really liberal-sounding law code. It’s to create a society where it’s actually possible to hold dissenting opinions, where ideas really do get judged by merit rather than by who’s powerful enough to shut down whom. Having free speech laws on the books is a necessary precondition, but it’s useless in the absence of social norms that support it. If you win a million First Amendment victories in the Supreme Court, but actively work to undermine the social norms that let people say what they think in real life, you’re anti-free-speech.

But I’ve discussed this before at more length. What I want to get into here is a point specific to this situation: the guy made this joke under his real name. All the Reason columnist did was retweet it and add some commentary about how she hopes he becomes un-hire-able. This isn’t doxxing. It’s not even divulging a secret; the guy said it on his public Twitter. Is it really so wrong to do what’s basically just signal-boosting his comment?

A quick philosophical digression: what are we even doing here? My thought is: we’re trying to hash out a social norm. We expect this social norm to be sometimes in our favor and sometimes against us, so we want it to be universalizable and desirable under a veil of ignorance.

On that note: let him who is without sin throw the first stone. Have any of you ever said or done anything which, if signal-boosted, would be very embarassing and might prevent you from getting a job?

Before you answer, consider this: the person signal-boosting you has much wider reach than you do. There are now tens of thousands of people in the world who know you only as the guy who said that one embarassing thing one time. For that matter, anyone who Googles you will know you only as the guy who said that one embarassing thing one time. All of your triumphs, all of your defeats, all your loves and fears and follies – none of these exist in the public mind. If you cross a blogger, a columnist, or a Twitter celebrity, all that will exist is that you once retweeted a racist joke on the 26th of March, 2014.

Never retweeted a racist joke? Someone will find something. Maybe you’ve been a sex worker once – hope you didn’t put your picture up on the Internet, or else Reason columnists will say it’s not “doxxing” to merely “signal-boost” it so that everyone knows. Heck, even watching porn is enough to get people fired some places. Maybe you were stupid enough to admit you were gay or trans under something traceable to your real identity. Maybe you voted for Trump (a firing offense in some places) or against Trump (a firing offense in others). Maybe you committed a crime someone can find on a public crime database, or maybe you said something perfectly innocent which can be twisted into a sinister “dog whistle” out of context.

My own story – some antipsychiatry crackpot decided to target me, went through a couple of posts I’d written defending the practice of involuntary psych commitment in certain cases, and took a few statements out of context to make it look like I thought we should lock up all mentally ill people and throw away the key. Then he posted it on an antipsychiatry website, asking if anyone could find the address of my workplace so he could send it there to prove that I was unfit to work with the mentally ill. Luckily the moderator contacted me and deleted the post, and it stopped there. And it was never that convincing an effort to begin with. But…

In a world where an average of 250 resumes are received for each corporate position, how convincing does an effort have to be to ruin somebody’s life? Do you think your dream company is going to spend a long time sorting through each claim and counterclaim to determine that the highly-Google-ranked page about you claiming you’re unfit to work in your industry is mostly unfair? No. They’re just going to cut their risks and move on to the other 249 candidates.

Here’s an exercise which I encourage you to try. Suppose there’s a Reason columnist who wants to get you fired. They pore over your public statements – Twitter feed, Facebook timeline, any blogs you might have written, anything you’ve said in mixed company that you don’t know if somebody else wrote down waiting for the time they could use it against you. Imagine the most incriminating dossier of your statements, out of context, that they could put together. Imagine what would happen if they were pretty determined, and sent it to your workplace, your church, your parents, et cetera. How much of your life could they destroy?

And I agree this is weird. It’s bizarre that so many people trust to security by obscurity, when anybody with an axe to grind can destroy their obscurity and reveal them to the world. It’s bizarre that we treat Twitter as a private place, when literally everything that happens there is visible to every human being on Earth. It’s bizarre that we trust to these fragile online identities when any hacker can cut through them, bizarre that we wear such different masks to different friends when they could just talk and compare notes, bizarre that we dare to talk at all when we know every word we say is logged and the future may be less forgiving than the past.

But don’t let the fact that it’s bizarre make you think it isn’t important. How many of us can say, honestly, that we could bear the Panopticon? If every valley were raised up and every mountain pulled down, so there was nowhere to hide, and we were rendered naked to any eye anywhere in the world, how long could we endure? Wouldn’t we retreat into ourselves, turtle-like, afraid to ever speak at all?

And who would enjoy this new flattened landscape more than the biggest and most predatory? In the Panopticon, any celebrity with a platform can destroy the lives of any ordinary person, just by mentioning them. It would be paradise for any petty tyrant with a blog, and hell for anybody too poor to tolerate a risk of losing their livelihood.

I have a pretty big blog. But other people have bigger ones. I’m not confident that the amount of fun I could have destroying the reputations of people I don’t like outweighs the chance of someone else destroying mine. I’m certainly not confident that the aggressive-signal-boosting power would mostly end up in the hands of good people. So I reject the entire tactic. I think it’s morally wrong to try to signal-boost people’s bad behavior – even their semipublic bad behavior – to get them fired. Probably there’s a lot of subtlety here and there have been times in the past I’ve supported cases that seem completely different to me but might seem similar to others. I admit there’s an argument that doxxing is a way of shaming people in order to enforce social norms, and that we need some way to enforce social norms eg the one against offensive jokes – though see my post Be Nice, At Least Until You Can Coordinate Meanness about good and bad ways to do this. But for now I just am very suspicious of the whole enterprise.

Lord Byron wrote of his political philosophy:

I wish men to be free
As much from mobs as kings; from you as me

I stand with Byron. But I worry there’s a big strain of libertarians today who don’t. Who wish men were free from kings, but not from mobs. Who wish men were free from others, but definitely not from them.

All I can say to that is – it’s a package deal, people. Either promote good social norms, or be destroyed by the bad ones when the tide turns against you. That’s the only choice on offer.

Djoser Joseph Osiris

My recent move has already paid off in terms of increased access to the Bay Area intellectual milieu, by which I mean wacky outlandish hypotheses about completely random stuff. The other day a few people (including Ben Hoffman of Compass Rose) tried to convince me that Pharaoh Djoser was the inspiration for the god Osiris and the Biblical Joseph. This sort of thing is relevant to my interests, so I spent way too long looking into it and figured I ought to write down what I found.

The short summary is that the connection between Djoser and Osiris is probably meaningless, but there’s a very small chance there might be some tiny distant scrap of a connection to Joseph.

Djoser, who ruled Egypt around 2680 BC, was a pretty impressive guy. Egypt had been unified by one of his predecessors a few generations before, but they’d let it get un-unified again, and Djoser’s father was the one who reunified it. Djoser inherited a kingdom of newfound peace and plenty – and made the most of it, starting lots of impressive infrastructure and religious projects. His chief minister Imhotep was famous in his own right as a polymath who invented medicine and engineering (he may also have been the first person to use columns in architecture). He was later deified for his accomplishments. Djoser and Imhotep cooperated to build the first pyramid, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara.

Osiris was a legendary god whose worship was first recorded around 2400 BC. The legends say he was a wise and benevolent Pharaoh of Egypt in some unspecified distant past before being killed by his brother Set. One thing led to another, and he eventually ended up as the god of death and resurrection and the underworld. Scholars have long debated the exact origins of the Osiris cult, and tend to attribute it to some historical memory of something or other but disagree viciously over the details.

The argument I heard for Djoser inspiring Osiris hinges on a couple of points (there may be others I didn’t get). First, the times sort of match up – this legend of the wise king Osiris first appears just a century or two after Djoser died. second, Djoser was a big fan of an Egyptian symbol called the ‘djed’, a weird column shape thing. Djoser included djeds all over the step pyramid he and Imhotep built together, and may have kind of had an obsession with the thing (and why shouldn’t he? – if I helped invent the column, I’d talk about it a lot too). Meanwhile, the djed is traditionally considered the symbol of the Egyptian god Osiris. And third, if you’re going to deify a pharaoh into the god of death and resurrection, the beloved and powerful ruler who invented the first pyramid sounds like a pretty good candidate.

I think this argument is probably wrong. For one thing, although nobody can prove Osiris existed before the death of Djoser, everybody suspects that he did. In The Origins Of Osiris And His Cult, Egyptologist John Griffiths appeals to some early inscriptions that might name Osiris, and concludes that

There is a strong likelihood that the cult of Osiris began in or before the First Dynasty in connection with the royal funerals at Abydos, [although] archaeological evidence hitherto does not tangibly date the cult ot an era before the Fifth Dynasty

A common consensus is that he began as a local deity of the city of Busiris and (as mentioned above) the necropolis at Abydos. Djoser has no connection to either city, and in fact was the first king not to be buried at Abydos. His building a pyramid is less impressive than it sounds; all the Egyptian rulers were into building big tombs, and he just took it to the next level.

Djoser liked djeds, but so djid lots of Egyptians. They were popular long before Djoser and remained popular long after him; among their many fans may have been such pharaohs as eg Djedkara, Djedkheperu, Djedkherura, and Djedhotepre. The djed started out as a general fertility symbol, later became a symbol of the god Ptah, and only became fully associated with Osiris a thousand years after Djoser’s djeath. This makes it hard to argue Osiris got associated with the djed because of some cultural memory of Djoser.

This is kind of weak evidence against the theory – a speculation that Osiris is older than he looks, a little bit of confusion around when Osiris became associated with his sacred symbol. But it was a weak theory to begin with, so weak counterevidence convinces me.

So let’s get to the more interesting claim – that Djoser inspired the Biblical Joseph.

This comes from a monument called the Famine Stele, written two thousand years after Djoser’s death but telling a legend that had grown up around him. According to the stele, in the time of Djoser there were seven years of famine. Djoser asks his chief minister Imhotep for help. Imhotep investigates and finds that the problem is related to the god Khnum. He prays to Khnum and offers to worship him better, and Khnum appears to him in a dream and says that okay, he’ll make the crops grow again. Djoser and Imhotep repair Khnum’s temple, the famine ends, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The parallels to the Joseph story are pretty apparent. A seven year long famine. A Pharaoh who begs his chief minister to do something about it. A dream that provides the solution. Sure, the crocodile-and/or-ram-headed god Khnum gets left out of the Biblical account, but that sounds like just the sort of thing the Hebrews would conveniently forget.

There are some other differences, of course. The Joseph story involves seven years of plenty before the famine; the Imhotep story doesn’t. Joseph gains his chief ministerial position because of the famine incident; Imhotep is already in charge when the famine begins. God gives Joseph a rational planning strategy; Imhotep uses divine intervention directly. But isn’t there still a suspicious core of similarity here?

Creationists think so. They get really excited about this connection since it seems to link the Bible to a verified historical event (for values of “verified” equal to “someone made a stele about it two thousand years later, and in fact after the Bible itself was written”). Back during the presidential campaign, Ben Carson got soundly mocked for saying the pyramids were silos for storing grain. Everyone attributed this to his warped fundamentalist Christian view of history, but nobody thought to ask why fundamentalist Christians seized on this falsehood in particular. The answer is: if the pyramids were grain silos, then the link between Joseph (whom the Bible says built grain silos) and Imhotep (whom Egyptian records say built pyramids) becomes even more compelling.

Awkwardly for the creationists, this doesn’t even match their own hokey Biblical history. There are various different Biblical chronologies, but they mostly date Joseph around 1900 – 2000 BC – too late to be Imhotep, who lived closer to 2600. Also, don’t tell anyone, but the Bible is probably false.

Atheists have a better option available – they can claim that the Egyptian legend of Imhotep inspired the Israelite legend of Joseph. This is the strategy taken by a Ha’aretz article, which first roundly mocks any identification of Imhotep with Joseph, saying that this makes no sense and is totally stupid, and then adds:

There is a consensus among the majority of biblical scholars that the Joseph story dates, at the earliest, to the 7th century BCE, namely 2700 years ago. Many Judahites were residing in the Nile Delta at the time, as proven among other things, by the existence of a replica of the Jewish First Temple in Jerusalem on the island of Elephantine. It seems these Judahites may have been behind the adoption of the Imhotep tale as an Israelite story.

It doesn’t cite which scholars it’s talking about, or explain why they suddenly backtracked from their “there is no connection between Joseph and Imhotep shut up you morons”, but the overall point seems pretty plausible. Remember, the 7th century would have been just a few centuries before the Famine Stele was written, and the Djoser/Imhotep famine legend might have been popular in Egypt around this time. It sounds just barely possible that some Jews might have rewritten it with an Israelite protagonist the same way a bunch of pagan goddesses and even the Buddha ended up as Christian saints.

(or, for that matter, the Egyptians could have rewritten the Bible story with an Egyptian protagonist, although it seems less likely for cultural transmission to go that direction given the two cultures’ relative sizes.)

Or maybe none of that happened. Wikipedia’s article on the Famine Stele points out that a seven-year famine was a weirdly common motif all across the Ancient Near East, citing eg the Epic of Gilgamesh:

Anu said to great Ishtar, ‘If I do what you desire there will be seven years of drought throughout Uruk when corn will be seedless husks. Have you saved grain enough for the people and grass for the cattle? Ishtar replied. ‘I have saved grain for the people, grass for the cattle; for seven years o£ seedless husks, there is grain and there is grass enough.’

I don’t know if all of this derives from the same proto-Near-Eastern source, or whether seven year famines are just sort of a natural kind (compare all the different cultures that have something like “may your reign last a thousand years!”). But it warns us against leaping into accepting this too quickly. This is especially true in the context of atheists’ haste to believe things like “Christ is just a retelling of the Osiris myth!” or “What if Moses was really just Akhenaten” that later turn out to not really make that much sense. Part of the lesson I wanted to teach with Unsong is that this sort of thing is too easy, and therefore we need to increase our guard. I don’t know how to weight this, but maybe say there’s like a 30% chance

As a perfect example, here’s a completely insane work of Biblical apologetics claiming that a totally different pharaoh associated with djeds corresponded to the Biblical Joseph.

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Why Is Clozapine So Great?

[Epistemic status: Very speculative; I don’t fully understand a lot of the studies involved]

Clozapine is an antipsychotic drug sometimes used to treat schizophrenia. Like most antipsychotics, it works by blocking dopamine receptors in the brain. Conventional wisdom among psychiatrists goes that most antipsychotics are about equally good – except for clozapine, which is better.

It’s fun to listen to psychiatrists, usually pretty quick to admit how crappy a lot of the drugs they prescribe are, wax rhapsodic about clozapine. From Joober & Boksa:

Consensus of opinion is rare in psychiatry. Even in the field of clinical trials, where experimentation is tightly controlled and regulatory bodies scrutinize the proof, controversies are frequent and difficult to resolve. One issue for which there is a widespread consensus is the unique place that clozapine occupies in the treatment of severe mental illnesses, particularly refractory schizophrenia. This molecule is distinct because of its effectiveness, numerous and sometimes mysterious pharmacologic characteristics, serious side effects and under use…

Every clinician who has prescribed clozapine can recount a few experiences of seeing patients emerge from their chaotic psychotic experience. This is one of the most rewarding experiences that a psychiatrist can have in his or her professional life, and it is among the most important strikes we have made against one of the most devastating diseases affecting mankind.

Psychiatrists wish they could give clozapine to everyone who needs an antipsychotic. They can’t, because its increased efficacy goes side-by-side with greater side effects. The best known are agranulocytosis, metabolic syndrome, seizures, myocarditis, and eosinophilia, and the list just goes on from there.

This has led a lot of people to wonder: why is clozapine so uniquely great? And can we get a version which is just as good without the side effects?

Recently there’s been increased interest in the glutamate system (especially NMDA receptors) in schizophrenia, and in glutamatergic compounds as possible treatments. Various teams have taken schizophrenic patients already on antipsychotics and added NMDA modulators, especially d-serine, glycine, and sarcosine. Meta-analyses have been guardedly positive (Tiihonen & Walbeck) or explicitly positive (Singh & Singh, Tsai & Lin). There’s a widespread hope that the next generation of antipsychotics will be glutamatergic drugs which are able to attack more symptoms than the dopaminergics we have today.

But what if that next generation were already here?

Both of the recent meta-analyses of glutamatergic augmentation of antipsychotics noted the same exception. From Singh & Singh:

When added to clozapine, none of the drugs demonstrated therapeutic potential

And from Tsai & Lin:

Patients receiving risperidone or olanzapine, but not clozapine, improved.

Why should this be? A couple of recent studies have converged on an exciting possibility: clozapine is a combination antipsychotic + NMDAergic. That is, NMDA glycine site agonists don’t add anything to clozapine because clozapine is already agonizing the glycine site.

This is the suggestion of Schwieler et al, based on their electrophysiology studies in rats. They find that clozapine causes a characteristic change in the firing rates of certain rat neurons, a change which is reversed by the glycine site antagonist kynurenic acid. They conclude (I don’t know enough to confirm) that:

The enhanced response of [ventral tegmental area] [dopaminergic] neurons to clozapine seen following lowered [kynurenic acid] is what should be expected from a partial NMDA/glycine-site agonist.

Javitt et al also work with rats, and find that clozapine “inhibited transport of both glycine and MeAIB, but not other amino acids, at concentrations associated with preferential clinical response”. Other antipsychotics do nothing of the sort. A lot of their biochemistry is a little too in-the-weeds for me, but I think what they’re saying is that clozapine increases natural extracellular glycine levels, and so really is a direct analogue of medicinal glycine administration. They conclude:

This study suggests first that System A transporters, or a subset thereof, may play a critical role in regulation of synaptic glycine levels and by extension of NMDA receptor regulation, and second that System A antagonism may contribute to the differential clinical efficacy of clozapine compared with other typical or atypical antipsychotics.

Jardemark et al find that clozapine facilitates NMDAergic neurotransmission through something called protein kinase C. My head is starting to hurt trying to keep track of all of these different chemicals, and in particular I’m not sure whether all of these people are positing different and incompatible mechanisms or if they can be unified into one big biochemical pathway. But it sure looks like a lot of people have found some kind of interesting NMDAergic effect.

This doesn’t really prove anything. For one thing, a bunch of drugs coincidentally have NMDAergic effects that have nothing to do with their mechanism of action – eg the antibiotic cycloserine treats tuberculosis and happens to be a pretty good NMDA agonist on the side. For another thing, what if all antipsychotics have NMDAergic effects? Blocking dopamine is probably going to do something or other upstream. Right now evidence seems pretty mixed on this, with one study suggesting they do (1) and a couple suggesting they don’t (1, 2, 3).

If this really was the source of clozapine’s special powers, it would be a really important big breakthrough. All through residency, I kept hearing “nobody really knows why clozapine is so great” or “it probably has something to do with its weak D2 binding affinity or something”. If we knew it was just because clozapine was an antipsychotic plus glycine, we could just give people an antipsychotic plus glycine, and avoid the agranulocytosis, metabolic syndrome, seizures, myocarditis, eosinophilia, etc.

This theory isn’t ready for prime time yet; it’s still not really proven that the NMDA agonists work for schizophrenia at all. And it probably never will be – it’s hard to patent these chemicals, meaning that it would take extreme creativity to jump the bureaucratic hurdles necessary to get them into the pharmacopoeia. Until that happens, using these chemicals will remain experimental, and replacing clozapine with them downright irresponsible.

Still, it’ll be hard to watch treatment-refractory schizophrenia patients get their agranulocytosis, metabolic syndrome, seizures, myocarditis, eosinophilia, etc without wondering whether another way is possible.

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Don’t Blame Griggs

Griggs vs. Duke Power Co seems to come up a lot here as a scapegoat. This is the Supreme Court case that said companies can’t use anything like an IQ test to help in job interviews unless they can prove in court they’re not being racist. Since this is hard to prove, most people play it safe and avoid these tests.

So (opponents of the case figure) this is the reason we’ve gotten so bogged down in credential-ocracy. Along with whatever particular skill they’re going for, employers want generally smart people. They’re not allowed to test for that directly, but someone who can finish a college degree is probably pretty smart. So employers demand a college degree as a minimum requirement. And we end up with this farce of someone going $50,000 into debt to study Art History for four years so they can get a job in marketing.

This is the story, but I don’t think it’s true.

The Griggs decision explicitly places the same restrictions on college degrees that it does on IQ tests. Obviously nobody cares about this, and it turns out the Griggs restrictions aren’t that strict and most people manage to ask about college degree just fine. This changes the argument to be about whether there’s complicated case law around Griggs which makes employers figure that college degrees will probably be accepted in practice, but IQ tests probably won’t be.

But I don’t think that’s the main cause either. Other countries don’t have their own version of Griggs vs. Duke. I don’t know too much about their labor market, but I think many of them have the same problem. This UK website starts by saying “the fight for a well-paid job without a degree is a tough one, but there are still a handful of roles out there in which you can earn serious money without a degree-level qualification,” which seems like the same over-optimistic language you might hear on a US article saying the same. I also remember that when I went to teach English in Japan – a job which required no teaching credential and only the English-speaking ability typical of any Anglophone child – they still insisted I have a Bachelor’s in something before letting me apply.

Another point against – I think it’s Griggs v. Duke-compliant to ask people their SAT scores. See Wall Street Journal: . And TIME: Your SAT Scores Will Come Back To Haunt You. Contrary to these articles’ predictions, I don’t think asking SATs in job interviews ever really caught on, but that’s not the point. The point is it seems to be legal and a known thing which companies could do if they wanted. Given that the SAT more or less approximates an IQ test, if there were some pent-up demand for IQ-testing job candidates the SAT would be a perfectly good alternative. Given that only the handful of companies in the articles above ask for SAT scores, I don’t think employers are really that interested in IQ.

This leads to a third objection; there are some fields where standardized test scores are universally available, and they end up as credentialocratic as everywhere else. In medicine, for example, all applicants take the MCAT, a pre-med focused standardized test. But medical schools in the US still require a college degree plus a bunch of universally-recognized-as-irrelevant requirements (all pre-meds have to pass a Calculus II class, even though Calculus II never comes up in medicine). All medical students are required to take several USMLEs and report the results to the residencies they apply for, but which medical school you went to still matters a lot if you want a residency in a competitive specialty. In fact, residencies are infamous for turning down candidates from foreign schools with genius-level USMLEs in favor of US-trained candidates who barely managed a pass, for unclear reasons. Lawyers have the LSATS (and possibly bar exam scores?) and are also pretty famous for being judged on what school they went to.

All of this makes me think that, as nice as it would be to attribute everything irrational about credentialocracy to one bad Supreme Court decision, there’s probably something wrong on a deeper level.

Highlights From The Comment Thread On Meritocracy

[followup to Targeting Meritocracy]

Some commenters rightly question exactly what we mean by meritocracy. For example, Mark writes:

Isn’t the real problem that we have no good system to identify who deserves power over others, in the most general sense?

Grant the surgeon their power, in their specific field of expertise, within their own hierarchy. But I think we have to question strongly whether we need grant them any special power beyond that.

Different considerations certainly apply to surgeons versus senators, and talking about appointment to a vague “ruling class” probably confuses things pretty badly. I’m much more willing to listen to arguments for a randomly selected Congress than I am for a randomly selected surgical staff. Maybe the problem is that, aside from a few elected officials, nobody ever notices that they’re choosing people for the ruling class at all. They’re just choosing economists, lawyers, bankers, et cetera, for the particular purposes of their institution/law firm/bank. Any rigorous discussion of meritocracy would have to separate these out more than anyone’s done so far, and definitely more than I am going to do in the rest of this thread.

Another group of people express concern about meritocracy insofar as they define it as focusing on certain kinds of proxies for merit (standardized testing?) rather than real merit. From RSJ:

Meritocracy is an ideological hammer to beat down those who demand consequences for failure. It is a shift from being judged based on results to being judged based on “qualifications”. It is very easy to be judged based on qualifications since that status never changes no matter how often you get things wrong. It’s a type of aristocracy that short-circuits the necessary discipline that must be applied to any elite.

Tom Bartleby tries to tease some of this apart:

Genuine question (for Scott and everyone else): what is the “meritocratic” outcome in the following hypothetical:

Alice and Carol are both programmers, and are up for a promotion to management. Alice is smarter, works harder, and produces better code. She gets along well with everyone and is consistently rated as the highest performer in the group. By contrast, Carol is consistently a mediocre programer. She’s not awful—certainly in no danger of being fired. But she’s not as smart, she doesn’t work nearly as hard, and her code is acceptable rather than excellent.

On the other hand, Carol has a real knack for management. When she’s in a group project, she naturally takes the lead and others feel comfortable deferring to her. (Alice is more likely to just do an unfair share of the work herself.) Looking at the two of them, we can confidently predict that—even though Alice is the better programer—Carol would be the better manager.

So, is it more meritocratic to promote Alice or Carol?

I would say that it’s more meritocratic to promote Alice. If a company has the habit of promoting people like Alice, I would describe that company as having a meritocratic culture. I get the feeling, though, that Scott disagrees.

Some Faceless Monk had the same worry, but was more fatalistic about it:

I think in some ways, meritocracy as it is practiced as opposed to meritocracy as it is idealized is in play here. Companies that incorporate meritocracy start out in the idealistic manner: Choosing based on merit and ability. However, over time, companies (especially big ones that get hundreds or thousands of applications) will start to make the hiring process efficient, and gloss over a lot of details by weighing on specific factors: “Oh hey, these guys came from X school and were in Y organization and have done really well for us! We should pay attention to more applicants that have X and Y.” Or “Oh, these two guys have experience from Z company and were fired two months in. Are we sure we want applicants from Z?” The reasons why X, Y, and Z matter are almost never analyzed, and instead these name just get turned into keywords for the applicant tracking system to filter. This can lead to, worst of all, “This applicant may have the abilities, but they went to A school, served in B organization, and worked at C company. And I haven’t heard any of these!” What you witness is an institutionalized form of quasi-nepotism, in that your application gets weighed on by the names on your resume rather than what you did with those names. That’s what I really think these publications are deriding, they just call it meritocracy because they can’t think up a good word for it.

MartMart was more fatalistic still:

If word X should mean X, but thru out known history has always meant Y, it’s not unreasonable to claim that you oppose X on the grounds that it always results in Y which is terrible. I mean, people who oppose soviet style communism do just that.

I would counter-argue that people still use words like “justice” and “equality” despite their similarly dismal histories. If we have to abandon a good-sounding word just because the people who claim to practice the good-sounding word usually don’t, we’re not going to have a lot of good-sounding words left.

A third group of people have more fundamental concerns that apply even to ideal meritocracies. A common worry was that if all the meritorious people end up in the upper-class, then the upper-class has complete power and the lower classes don’t have anyone competent left to represent their class interests. For example, dndsrn writes:

[Young’s] attack on meritocracy – really, the original attack on meritocracy – was not “gee it’s awful convenient how the people on top have come to the conclusion that society puts the best on top” (which is, to a considerable degree, a legitimate and true criticism) – his attack on meritocracy was that it would strip the working classes of high-IQ individuals from those classes who in his world (the Britain of the early to mid 20th century) became union reps and Labour politicians – that a real meritocracy would leave the working classes defenceless against being snookered by the bosses.

And Iain quotes part of the Guardian article:

It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.

They have been deprived by educational selection of many of those who would have been their natural leaders, the able spokesmen and spokeswomen from the working class who continued to identify with the class from which they came.Their leaders were a standing opposition to the rich and the powerful in the never-ending competition in parliament and industry between the haves and the have-nots.

With the coming of the meritocracy, the now leaderless masses were partially disfranchised; as time has gone by, more and more of them have been disengaged, and disaffected to the extent of not even bothering to vote. They no longer have their own people to represent them.

I’ve heard this argument before in the context of segregation and immigration. That is, when segregation ended, many of the upper-class black people who could move to white neighborhoods did, stripping black neighborhoods of their potential leadership. And when the doctors and lawyers in a Third World country immigrate to America, it creates a brain drain back home.

Both of these are recognized as difficult problems, but the meritocracy version seems even harder. Once someone from the lower class becomes a Senator, they’re not so lower-class anymore; this seems like a natural problem in any governmental system. I’m not going to say it’s tautologically impossible, because there are ways to keep them more or less in touch with their lower-class roots, but it does seem like a harder problem than a lot of people give it credit for.

This naturally segues into another class of critique: meritocracy unifies all of the talented people into a hegemonic upper class with its own values, disconnected from the people they’re supposed to rule. RSJ again:

Meritocracy-as-practiced means herd behavior as a very small group schools (both intellectual and actual) produce the leaders who echo each other’s conventional wisdom. This is how we get entire nations pursuing economically or militarily disastrous policies, such as the whole western world deciding it needed to go back on the gold standard after WWI, or, for that matter, WWI. Or the current tragedy of Greece, and the sadism of the European Monetary Union. It’s how all economists agree that we should tax consumption rather than unearned income. It’s how we got financial de-regulation, wall street bailouts, a flatter tax schedule, a shrinking middle class. When these are deeply unpopular beliefs among common, less “meritocratic” people who didn’t all go to the same 5 elite graduate schools.

And Jaskologist quoting dndsrn:

Their cluelessness, lack of self-awareness, and lack of empathy for people they consider below them is absolutely breathtaking. “Let them eat cake” level stuff. They can’t understand that their high IQs are not earned, and that intellect is not a moral quality (as an aside, I think this is part of the appeal of blank-slatism to intelligent people: if they ignore that IQ is probably about 50% inherited, and most environmental factors are out of their control, they can pretend that their university degrees and so on simply show their high quality as individuals, instead of showing that they rolled well for INT at character creation). They can’t understand why all those factory workers who want to keep their jobs, or want the jobs to come back to town, instead of learning to code and moving to the Bay, or getting a business degree and moving to London or NYC, or getting a law degree and… etc. Their mastery of skills that allow them to pick up and move pretty much anywhere and earn well doing it mean that they have little consideration, respect, or loyalty for their countrymen who cannot. The people from all over the world working in finance in London feel loyalty to each other – after all, they are the best, are they not? – far more than they do to the peons from wherever they come from.

I hope that deemphasizing education in favor of skill will be of some help with this – after all, where do these people learn their class solidarity and distinct values except at Harvard and Oxford? When I hear rags-to-riches stories from a bygone era, they always involve the guy who did such a good job as a waiter that he became head waiter, then restaurant manager, then head of the restaurant chain. That seems both most truly meritocratic, and like a strong antidote for the identical-Oxbridge-clones problem.

I really don’t think that self-contained elites are meritocracy’s fault. The hereditary aristocracy wasn’t exactly famous for avoiding the failure mode of becoming a cloistered elite who talked only among themselves and ignored the people they were supposed to rule. Has there ever been a system that was any good at this?

A final class of commenter takes this to its logical conclusion and says that the problem isn’t rule based on merit, it’s rule, period. From qwints:

Young is proceeding from a socialist perspective by looking at classes means of reproducing themselves. His key emphasis is on the suffix – the ruling done by the intellectual elite. The problem is not at all an inequality of opportunity, it’s the power given to those who’ve taken the opportunity and the moral authority they wield.

These critiques are really saying that letting the most able rule is, in fact, a bad thing – even worse than letting all the important jobs go to aristocrats (at least for Hayes and Young). They’re really saying that the seductive nature of the claim “we should give out jobs based on merit” is dangerous, and the claim must be opposed. The solution they offer is getting rid of the idea of ruling altogether.

I was also lucky enough to get a response from Andrew Granato, author of the Vox article linked in the piece. He wrote on Twitter:

Even if we had some extremely accurate way of identifying the most talented people and allocating them to the top positions, we would still have the same structural force at play that mars America now: the stratification of society into increasing distant tiers. Except now the stratification would be more based on “merit” than what we have now- which is what Ivies sought to do in the 60s and 70s.

Seems reasonable to claim that there are ways of finding better elites than we currently have. But it would still generate elites by design. And whenever you structurally give people money and power, you give them the means to seek and extract rents from society.

Okay, so, uh, the problem is that we “structurally give people money and power”. And the solution is “getting rid of the idea of ruling altogether”. That sounds nice and straightforward. Let’s get a couple of grad students to write a white paper on it and try to have it implemented by next quarter.

Okay, fine, I’m being mean. But it does seem like a lot of these solutions are utopia-complete; that people’s objection to meritocracy is that it’s not a perfectly just world where everyone is free and equal and prosperous and lives in harmonious understanding and nobody has power over anyone else. I agree this is a pretty good objection to a lot of things. But it doesn’t seem to be an objection to anything in particular.

I guess what I mean by this is…suppose I attack welfare. I write a bunch of articles like “Welfare Is Destroying America” and “We Need To Smash Welfare” and “Ten Reasons Why Welfare Ruins Everything (Number Six Will Astound You!)”. When questioned, I admit my main objection is that welfare is inferior to a world where everyone is rich. There’s no way my criticism helps produce the everyone-is-rich world, but it’s super-likely that it helps people like Paul Ryan who just literally want to destroy welfare, in the normal sense of destroying welfare.

And look. A couple days ago, Donald Trump nominated Sam Clovis as the Department of Agriculture’s chief scientist. Clovis is a right-wing talk radio host who has “never even taken an undergraduate course in any science”, and believes global warming is a scam. This follows a few months after Trump appointed his son-in-law as one of the nation’s top diplomats. And I wish I could say this is one of those completely unique Trump things that we keep being told we should “never normalize”, but it’s just an exacerbation of politics as usual. We justly celebrate the decline of the spoils system in much of the civil service, but it never totally disappeared, and I wouldn’t want to speculate on how common it is today, whether it’s going up or down, or anything like that.

The most salient alternative to welfare isn’t everyone-being-rich, it’s poverty. The most salient alternative to meritocracy isn’t perfect equality, it’s cronyism. If people keep criticizing meritocracy, eventually the word is going to become uncool, it’ll be impossible to advocate for it without giving three boring paragraphs worth of qualifiers that put everyone to sleep, and it’ll become that much harder to criticize cronyism or advocate for something different.

And for that matter, what is the anti-meritocracy endgame? I agree that it’s bad when people at the top can claim they’ve gotten their positions based on merit, but how do we prevent that other than by not giving those positions based on merit. If we don’t give positions based on merit, what do we give them on? Affirmative action doesn’t solve this problem, just punts it down a step to “most meritorious woman or minority”. Should we return to a hereditary aristocracy? Just let people hire their sons-in-law more? Throw a dart at a phone book and appoint whoever it hits? What are we going for here? I honestly want to know.

One point I keep pushing on this blog is that it’s a bad idea to demand downstream solutions to upstream problems. For example, I’ve argued that if a company’s applicant pool is only 20% women, and the company engages in gender-blind hiring and gets 20% women employees, it’s more useful to focus on the factors shaping the applicant pool composition than it is to yell at the company. For some reason nobody (sometimes including me) seems very good at this.

But this same problem seems to be shaping discussions of meritocracy. If you don’t like the fact that the CEO of Goldman Sachs exists, that’s a pretty reasonable upstream problem to have. If instead you complain about the downstream problem that he’s chosen based on merit, all you’re going to get is more people appointing their son-in-laws.

Other miscellaneous good comments: baconbacon on which seemingly-unmeritocratic rules are just excuses to protect people’s feelings. Nikolai Rostov on the difficulty of measuring merit in different domains. And especially rminnema linking to an excellent article on how the Soviet upper class always managed to get their kids into top schools despite the system’s supposed Communist bent.

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Targeting Meritocracy

I.

Prospect Magazine writes about the problem with meritocracy. First Things thinks meritocracy is killing America. Feminist Philosophers comes out against meritocracy. The Guardian says “down with meritocracy”. Vox calls for an atack on the false god of meritocracy. There’s even an Against Meritocracy book. Given that meritocracy seems almost tautologically good (doesn’t it just mean positions going to those who deserve them?), there sure do seem to be a lot of people against it.

Some of these people are just being pointlessly edgy. The third article seem to admit that a true meritocracy would be a good thing, but argues that we don’t have one right now. This hardly seems “against meritocracy”, any more than saying we don’t have full racial equality right now means you’re “against racial equality”, but whatever, I guess you’ve got to get clicks somehow.

The other articles actually mean it. Their argument seems to be gesturing at the idea that elites send their kids to private schools, where they get all A+s and end up as president of the Junior Strivers Club. Then they go to Harvard and dazzle their professors with their sparkling wit and dapper suits. Then they get hired right out of college to high-paying management positions at Chase-Bear-Goldman-Sallie-Manhattan-Stearns-Sachs-Mae-FEDGOV. Then they eat truffle-flavored caviar all day and tell each other “Unlike past generations of elites, we are meritocrats who truly deserve our positions, on account of our merit”, as the poor gnash their teeth outside.

Grant that this is all true, and that it’s bad. Does that mean we should be against meritocracy?

II.

There’s a weird assumption throughout all these articles, that meritocracy is founded on the belief that smart people deserve good jobs as a reward for being smart. Freddie de Boer, in his review of yet another anti-meritocracy book, puts it best:

I reject meritocracy because I reject the idea of human deserts. I don’t believe that an individual’s material conditions should be determined by what he or she “deserves,” no matter the criteria and regardless of the accuracy of the system contrived to measure it. I believe an equal best should be done for all people at all times.

More practically, I believe that anything resembling an accurate assessment of what someone deserves is impossible, inevitably drowned in a sea of confounding variables, entrenched advantage, genetic and physiological tendencies, parental influence, peer effects, random chance, and the conditions under which a person labors. To reflect on the immateriality of human deserts is not a denial of choice; it is a denial of self-determination. Reality is indifferent to meritocracy’s perceived need to “give people what they deserve.”

I think this is both entirely true and entirely missing the point. The intuition behind meritocracy is this: if your life depends on a difficult surgery, would you prefer the hospital hire a surgeon who aced medical school, or a surgeon who had to complete remedial training to barely scrape by with a C-? If you prefer the former, you’re a meritocrat with respect to surgeons. Generalize a little, and you have the argument for being a meritocrat everywhere else.

The Federal Reserve making good versus bad decisions can be the difference between an economic boom or a recession, and ten million workers getting raises or getting laid off. When you’ve got that much riding on a decision, you want the best decision-maker possible – that is, you want to choose the head of the Federal Reserve based on merit.

This has nothing to do with fairness, deserts, or anything else. If some rich parents pay for their unborn kid to have experimental gene therapy that makes him a superhumanly-brilliant economist, and it works, and through no credit of his own he becomes a superhumanly-brilliant economist – then I want that kid in charge of the Federal Reserve. And if you care about saving ten million people’s jobs, you do too.

III.

Does this mean we just have to suck it up and let the truffle-eating Harvard-graduating elites at Chase-Bear-Goldman-Sallie-Manhattan-Stearns-Sachs-Mae-FEDGOV lord it over the rest of us?

No. The real solution to this problem is the one none of the anti-meritocracy articles dare suggest: accept that education and merit are two different things!

I work with a lot of lower- and working-class patients, and one complaint I hear again and again is that their organization won’t promote them without a college degree. Some of them have been specifically told “You do great work, and we think you’d be a great candidate for a management position, but it’s our policy that we can’t promote someone to a manager unless they’ve gone to college”. Some of these people are too poor to afford to go to college. Others aren’t sure they could pass; maybe they have great people skills and great mechanical skills but subpar writing-term-paper skills. Though I’ve met the occasional one who goes to college and rises to great heights, usually they sit at the highest non-degree-requiring tier of their organization, doomed to perpetually clean up after the mistakes of their incompetent-but-degree-having managers. These people have loads of merit. In a meritocracy, they’d be up at the top, competing for CEO positions. In our society, they’re stuck.

The problem isn’t just getting into college. It’s that success in college only weakly correlates with success in the real world. I got into medical school because I got good grades in college; those good grades were in my major, philosophy. Someone else who was a slightly worse philosopher would never have made it to medical school; maybe they would have been a better doctor. Maybe someone who didn’t get the best grades in college has the right skills to be a nurse, or a firefighter, or a police officer. If so, we’ll never know; all three of those occupations are gradually shifting to acceptance conditional on college performance. Ulysses Grant graduated in the bottom half of his West Point class, but turned out to be the only guy capable of matching General Lee and winning the Civil War after a bunch of superficially better-credentialed generals failed. If there’s a modern Grant with poor grades but excellent real-world fighting ability, are we confident our modern educationocracy will find him? Are we confident it will even try?

Remember that IQ correlates with chess talent at a modest r = 0.24, and chess champion Garry Kasparov has only a medium-high IQ of 135. If Kasparov’s educational success matched his IQ, he might or might not have made it into Harvard; he certainly wouldn’t have been their star student. And if it was only that kind of educational success that gave spots on some kind of national chess team, Kasparov and a bunch of other grandmasters would never have a chance. Real meritocracy is what you get when you ignore the degrees and check who can actually win a chess game.

One of the few places I see this going well is in programming. Triplebyte (conflict of interest notice: SSC sponsor) asks people who want a programming job to take a test of their programming ability, “no resume needed”. Then it matches them with tech companies that want the kind of programming the applicant is good at. It doesn’t matter whether you were president of the Junior Strivers’ Club in college. It doesn’t matter whether you managed to make it past the gatekeepers trying to keep you out for not excluding the right kind of upper-class vibe. What matters is whether you can code or not. As a result, a bunch of the people I know are poor/transgender/mentally ill people who couldn’t do college for whatever reason, bought some computer science books and studied on their own, and got hired by some big tech company. Programming is almost the only well-paying field where people can still do this, and it doesn’t surprise me that the establishment keeps portraying its culture as uniquely evil and demanding it be dismantled.

I think we should be doing the opposite: reworking every field we can on the same model. Instead of Goldman Sachs hiring whoever does best at Harvard, they should hire people who can demonstrate their knowledge of investing principles or (even better) who can demonstrate an ability to predict the market better than chance. Some of these people will be the academic stars who learned how to do it at Harvard Business School. But a lot of others will be ordinary working-class people who self-studied or who happen to have a gift, the investing equivalents of General Grant and Garry Kasparov.

I don’t think the writers of the anti-meritocracy articles above really disagree with this. I think they’re probably using a different definition of meritocracy where it does mean “rule by well-educated people with prestigious credentials”. But I think it’s important to defend the word “meritocracy” as meaning what it says – decision by merit, rather than by wealth, class, race, or education – and as a good thing. If we let the word be tarnished as some sort of vague signifier of a corrupt system, then it’s too easy for the people who really are in that corrupt system to exploit the decline and fall of the only word we have to signal an alternative. “Oh, you don’t like that all the important jobs go to upper-class people instead of the people who are best at them? You’d prefer they be given out based on merit? But haven’t you read The New Inquiry, First Things, and Vox? Believing in so-called ‘meritocracy’ is totally uncool!” And then we lose one of the only rallying points, one of the few pieces of vocabulary we have to express what’s wrong with the current system and what would be a preferable alternative. We ought to reject the redefinition of “meritocracy” to mean “positions go to people based on their class and ability to go to Harvard”, and reclaim it as meaning exactly what we want instead – positions going to those who are best at them and can best use them to help others. Which is what we want.

(None of this solves one of the biggest problems that the anti-meritocracy folk are complaining about: the fact that there’s a distinction between millionaire Goldman Sachs analysts and starving poor people in the first place. I’m just saying that in a world where somebody has to be an investment banker, a surgeon, or a Federal Reserve chair, I’d rather choose them by true meritocracy than by anything else.)

[see here for more discussion]

Classified Thread 2: Best In Classified

I’m still on vacation, so here’s another classified thread. Post ads, personals, and any interesting success stories from the last thread.

…and I’ll start. SSC is part of a wider movement of philosophy enthusiasts, transhumanists, effective altruists, etc which has somehow ended up with the simultaneously boring and arrogant moniker of “the rationalist community”. We’ve developed a small intellectual/social scene in the SF Bay Area, with a few hundred interesting people who hang out together and cooperate on various projects. Since rent in the Bay is so high, a lot of the rationalists there are living in group houses, which have become nuclei for social events and cooperation.

Four of these have ended out clustered on Ward Street in Berkeley, and we’re thinking we might as well try to accelerate this and turn the area into a center of the community. We’ve been trying to snatch up houses in the area, and we just got dibs on four houses immediately adjacent to the existing rationalist cluster that are currently available for rent:

1. A five bedroom house for ~$5500/month, available now
2. A four bedroom house for ~$4200/month, available now
3. A seven-to-eight bedroom house, cost to be determined, available 9/1/17
4. A three bedroom house for ~$3100/month, available now (not adjacent to existing cluster; a few blocks away)

All of these are owned by the same landlord, who we’ve previously found pretty reasonable. They’re all kind of old and not going to win any Modern Architectural Design awards or even Especially Well Maintained awards, but we think (investigations still ongoing) that they’re basically solid and in good shape. Pictures and viewings available on request.

We’re currently looking for people who might be interested, either in renting entire houses, or in taking single rooms in what will probably become group houses. Existing community members are of course welcome to apply, but so is anyone who’s reading this and who thinks the idea sounds interesting. If interested, contact katja.s.grace[at]gmail[dot]com for more information and to arrange viewings, etc.

(disclaimer: I enjoyed living in the Bay Area, but I can’t deny that the prices are terrible, the local politics absurd, and the density at just the right level to frustrate lovers of big cities and quiet suburbs alike. Experiences with the rationalist community there vary widely, from people who say it was life-changingly good to people who found it disappointing and difficult to get into. The housing situation here might make it easier to get into, but no guarantees)

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Links 7/17: URL of Sandwich

Did you know: medieval Christians who didn’t understand Islam imagined Muslims as worshiping a god named Termagant; through a weird chain of events this became the modern word for an argumentative woman.

The fantastic Hungarian architecture of Imre Makovecz. Also: the Cologne Central Mosque and Michiel Schrijver’s cityscapes.

I was previously pretty convinced that lithium in drinking water was having a significant (and positive) effect on populations, but the most recent study is skeptical.

Ancient people believed the kidney was involved in conscience and deliberation, and according to the Talmud “one of the two kidneys counsels what is good, and the other evil”. What would they think of kidney donors? (h/t Elissa)

You know what nobody hates each other over yet? Quilting.

Study on economic vs. social politics finds that economically-conservative-socially-liberal people (libertarians?) are rarest, economically-liberal-socially-conservative people (populists?) are much more common than expected.

Another highly positive study on the connection between lead and crime, this one almost a true experiment. Children placed in a lead-reduction program, compared to children just over the cutoff for qualifying for the program, saw their risk of violent crime as adults drop by 66%! The reduction of lead in the experimental group of this study was about the same as the society-wide reduction over the past twenty years.

Vice presents a counter-narrative about the opioid crisis: pain patients prescribed opiates rarely get addicted, most addicts happen when the pills get diverted away from real patients. Haven’t really evaluated this to see how true it is but I agree with them that some of the statistics going around about how every single person prescribed a painkiller is at high risk of addiction are a little overblown.

Among the latest attempts to cut federal bureaucracy: ordering agencies to stop providing updates on their preparations for the Y2K bug.

That time Pepsi bought 17 submarines, a cruiser, and a destroyer from the Soviet Union as part of the Cola Wars.

Some context for Jon Ossoff’s loss in the recent Georgia special election: was the last Democratic candidate for that seat even a real person?

Daniel Lakens: Impossibly Hungry Judges. That famous study showing judges are more likely to convict just before lunch has such a high effect size that it can’t possibly make sense. Also a link to a more thorough critique of the study suggesting that courts schedule defendants without representation just before lunch, providing a more likely explanation than judges’ hunger.

Elizabeth Warren as synthesis of the Hillary/Bernie dialectic. I think she’s probably the Democrat closest to my own views right now.

Someone responded to my post using “murderism” as a reductio ad absurdum by pointing out the controversial police training classes by Dave Grossman, “the world’s sole authority on killology”.

Jonathan Kay discusses mob culture and attacks on free speech, but focuses on something important that isn’t mentioned enough. Yes, the PC-left are doing most of the attacking, but the PC-left is also most of the victims. Non-leftists can occasionally get in trouble if they’re Charles-Murray-level good targets, but generally escape unscathed (Murray’s conservative think tank unsurprisingly continues to support him). Leftists live in constant fear because they’re in social circles where this happens all the time and where all their friends will automatically side with the accusers. This isn’t just mean, it’s really bad strategy if you want people to stay on the left. I wonder if part of the success of the Bernie Sanders/socialist left is about it being a leftist space which is safe(r) from this kind of thing.

How much of effective altruism is about doing things directly, versus acting as a living advertisement to attract the attention of rich people with a thousand times more money available than everyone else? I think this is an important question insofar as it challenges the philosophy that doing good is always more important than looking good. Some form of weirdness which raises effectiveness 10% but turns off one otherwise-recruitable billionaire ends up being pretty costly.

Center For A Stateless Society has probably the best response to my cost disease post I’ve seen so far, which suggests the problem is something like oligopolies, plus weird accounting rules that treat “costs” and “revenues” in confusing and inappropriate ways.

Political Regime Type And Warfare: Evidence From 600 Years Of European History. Between 1200 and 1800, parliamentary regimes were more likely to get involved in wars than absolutist ones.

What Democrats mean when they say that AHCA is being “rammed through” Congress (compared to Obamacare).

Milton Friedman on how to change the world; relevant for almost everybody.

Vox on the sordid history of the COEXIST bumper sticker. Spoiler: the various people with financial stakes in the design aren’t very good at coexisting.

Washington Post: No One Is Paying Attention To The Worst Humanitarian Crisis Since World War II: “the danger [is] that about 20?million people in four countries will suffer famine in the coming months, and that hundreds of thousands of children will starve to death.”

Lots of discussion about the recent study finding that Seattle’s minimum wage increase backfired and hurt poor workers. The argument in favor of the study, as presented by the Foundation for Economic Education; the argument against, as presented by the Economic Policies Institute. But also, see the Seattle Weekly on how the city tried to cover up/muddy the waters on the incriminating data, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on how St. Louis’ minimum wage is decreasing, Marginal Revolution on potentially relevant evidence from Denmark, Megan McArdle and Noah Smith‘s analyses, and Zvi (1, 2) on some ways the Seattle data don’t really add up. Luckily, there are enough other cities making large minimum wage increases (and Seattle plans to increase it further) that we should have much more evidence on this pretty soon.

Related: Maine Tried To Raise Its Minimum Wage; Restaurant Workers Didn’t Want It. “Some cried with relief, Buckwalter said, when the final vote ended at 110 to 37 — overwhelmingly [in favor of lowering their wages]”.

Popehat: “There are many very stupid ideas about free speech in academia. Perhaps the stupidest is this: free speech is a legal norm used to protect the powerful at the expense of the powerless, but exceptions to free speech will benefit the powerless. Nobody with a passing knowledge of the history of free speech takes this seriously.” Related (albeit old): Why I Think XKCD Is Wrong About Free Speech.

Related: Data On Campus Free Speech Cases. “Of the 77 cases, I coded 20 (26%) as censorship of liberals, 40 (52%) as censorship of conservatives, and 17 (22%) as apolitical censorship.”

Something I didn’t expect to see a serious argument for today: “The entire edifice of Western civilization – all the cultural, social, and philosophical structures that define the world in which we live today – can be traced back to a stupid loophole in Roman inheritance law.”

2,100 Australian public servants participate in a gigantic resume experiment to assess unconscious bias against women and minorities; finds that there is in fact bias in favor of women and minorities, and that gender-blind or race-blind assessments cause more whites and men to be hired. Concludes that this indicates “need for caution when moving towards blind recruitment processes”.

Everything about economics in India sounds like a mess, but there’s been at least one small step forward with the passage of a national sales tax. “The official schedule of rates runs to 213 pages and has undergone repeated changes, some taking place as late as on Friday evening…Adding to the complexity, businesses with pan-India operations face filing over 1,000 digital returns a year.”

Example-Based Synthesis Of Stylized Facial Animations, the movie – watch an AI convert a video to different artistic styles on the fly.

The US government can borrow money at about 1% per year. The stock market earns about 4% per year. “I expect the government should own a bunch of stuff.”

Roman concrete does outlast modern concrete, but it’s not a simple story about ancient wisdom so much as different solutions for different problems.

A very very thorough study not only finds no effect of birth order, but demonstrates some of the ways other studies that did claim to find an effect could have gone wrong. The only exception is a small effect on “intellect”, defined as whether people self-report as being “eager for knowledge”. Possibly related to this study on firstborn IQ and the very strong birth order effects on the LW survey?

NYT: How To Make Congress Bipartisan. Described by Jonathan Haidt as “the best single idea I’ve seen to reduce political polarization and dysfunction”. Make larger districts with proportional representation, so that there’s an actual fight between Democrats and Republicans everywhere, and nobody is more afraid of being primaried than of the general election.

Neural networks generate Harry Potter fan fiction.

New from OpenAI: Deep reinforcement learning from human preferences. Obvious AI safety implications.

Latest study in growth mindset shows decent effect sizes, persistence at least three weeks.

More evidence against corporate campaign contributions mattering: “We find no evidence that corporations benefit from electing their favored candidate, and we can statistically reject effect sizes greater than 0.4 percent of firm value…corporate campaign contributions do not appear to but significant political favors.”

Detecting polygenic adaptation in admixture graphs. Genes linked to educational attainment show signs of differential recent selection in different populations. Except if I’m reading it right, the only populations that show selection are East Asians and Peruvians, which is kind of a weird grab bag of groups. And the East Asian selection seems to have happened very early (10,000+ years ago?), which rules out explanations based on the Chinese civil service exams or any other historical selection pressures. Overall not sure what to think about this. [EDIT: See discussion in the comments]

Someone commenting on my perception/cognition post found me this paper, which tries the same thing and not only finds very little connection between illusion perception and personality, but even very little correlation between perception of different illusions. “The findings suggest that vision is highly specific; ie there is no common factor”.

What will football be like in the future?

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