COWEN: Your works are, in scholarly circles, very highly respected. Hardly anyone, if anyone, knows more about the history of the New World than you do, as illustrated in your books, 1491 and 1493. The breadth and also depth of your knowledge of the environment and history of environmental movements in your new book, The Wizard and the Prophet, again seems virtually without parallel. So I would ask, what is the Charles C. Mann production function? How do you get this stuff done? What is it you know about being productive in your path? I’m not saying you would tell other people to do exactly what you did, but what’s your insight into how you’ve become Charles C. Mann? What’s your production function? What’s the secret?
MANN: [laughs] Well, I don’t go to meetings. And unfortunately, academia is replete with meetings. One of the reasons for living in Amherst is that they don’t request me to come and talk to people. So there’s a huge amount of the overhead of, say, an academic job, that I’m very lucky not to have to do.
The other thing is that, because I live near a university, I’m able to use the University of Massachusetts Library. And there’s a bunch of colleges and universities around here, good libraries, a wonderful thing, and they’re kind enough to let me use it even though I’m like a parasite.
The second thing is the wonderful tradition of scholars in which, if somebody with a plausible interest in what they’re doing calls them up or writes to them, nine times out of ten, they’re very happy to talk to you about what they’re interested in. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to this tradition. People will talk to me for hours; it gains them nothing. I try to make it pleasant for them, but frankly, it’s sort of nuts, but they’re willing to do this.
Then the third thing is that I am able to sit down and read a lot of stuff, and my secret weapon is that I can read.
Paul Romer and William Nordhaus, were awarded this year’s ‘Nobel’ for economics. I first came across Romer in the David Marsh book, Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations. Since then I have read quite a bit of Romer’s more public work. Nordhaus pens great articles for the New Your Review of Books, too.
The FT writes of Romer:
One of his first big contributions was to show that “ideas” were the missing ingredient of economic growth, contributing as much as the traditional inputs of labour, skills and physical capital — and that this could help explain the big variation in growth and living standards between otherwise similar countries.
He went on to show that rules, or policy interventions — around patent law, competition law or subsidies for research and development — are vital to encourage actors in a market economy to produce the ideas needed to drive long-run growth.
The second paragraph is something I failed to fully appreciate before middle age.
But Romer has also said some very sensible things in this context about higher education (as readers of my web pages will know).
“In the old model, a teacher had to be so engaging that he inspired students to put in the effort that is necessary for learning,” Romer explains. “The problem is that that is not a scalable model [emphasis mine]. There simply aren’t enough inspiring teachers and inspirable students.”
“What we have right now is a reputational model for universities rather than an outcome model,” Romer says. “The presidents at the elite institutions know that if the competition were to be based on some credible measure of output or value added, they would lose.”
For me the key issue here is ‘scalability’ (first para). I wrote at that time:”Romer’s solution, a company he founded called Aplia is, I think, the direction we should be going in.”
I think there is a lot more that needs to be said about this. We are living though a world of massive expansion in higher education, driven by institutions that have failed to get to grips with the fundamentals that underpin their own value proposition.
Points on a distribution, make for fun numbers.
Fifty years ago Japan had just 327 centenarians; in 2017 it had 67,824, and the largest per capita ratio of them in the world.
There are some interesting memes for our time in this FT podcast: 1968: The Year that Music Changed. Fifty years ago. What moved me most was the link (27:30 in) to the YouTube speech from Bobby Kennedy, where he told an audience — who were still unaware — that Martin Luther King has just been assassinated, making use of the following lines of Aeschylus.
“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
I am not certain what other people of my age say in answer to the question, “Where were you when JFK died?” I have no memory for Dallas. But I do remember where I was in Cardiff, when my Irish mother picking me up to drive me somewhere, told me that Bobby Kennedy had just been assassinated. And I was expected to know why this was important, and why it was important to her. And just go compare with what we see now across the pond, drifting.
Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times writes
what you are left with is just this – a country that has gone to enormous trouble to humiliate itself.
You can guess the context. (Via he who swims off Penglas in West Cork)
It’s curious, the question that comes up without fail, when I’m asked what I do for a day job – how can you defend somebody you know is guilty? But I’ve never once been asked by anyone – how can you prosecute someone you think is innocent?”
But outside in Times Square, the LED news tickers were telling a different story. On Tuesday, Gibson Brands, Inc – with the biggest product line in the guitar business – filed for bankruptcy, succumbing to an estimated $500m debt load and a failed reinvention in 2014 as a “lifestyle brand”.
Now I know things are really bad.
Troubles in the land of the six-string are not restricted to Gibson. Ten years post-recession, the guitar industry in the US continues to bob, with the 2,633,000 units sold in the United States in 2017 about 5% short of where things stood in 2008, according to Music Trades magazine. The heavyweight retailer on the American scene, Guitar Center, carries $1.6bn in debt.
And here, too.
Factfulness: The stress-reducing habit of only carrying opinions for which you have strong supporting
He saw what other people had not yet seen, that this was a new space—one to which he quickly applied an existing term, cyberspace, and his own metaphor, the electronic frontier.
From the Economist’s obituary (the best writing in this world is about the dead..). He of the wonderful:
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather…I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.
Then the thug with hoodie took over and the garden was enclosed.
It was Stewart Brand who made clear to me the link between the creation of the modern (computer — for that is what it is) age, and all that was good about the 1960s:
I think that hackers — dedicated, innovative, irreverent computer programmers — other most interesting and effective body of intellectuals since the framers of the US Constitution….. No other group that I know of has set out to liberate a technology and succeeded. They not only did so against the active disinterest of corporate America, their success forced corporate America to adopt their style in the end. The quietest of all the ‘60s subcultures has emerged as the most innovative and powerful.
[Stewart Brand’s description nails it (previous link of mine)]
And in memory here is the version of Dark Star (“The Finest Rock Improvisation Ever Recorded” – Robert Christgau). Listen to Lesh’s bass signalling the coming together at 1’15” onwards
The easiest way to predict the future is to prevent it.
Original version is Alan Kay (the easiest way to predict the future is to invent it), and this permutation is his, too. As he says, very appropriate for education.
“In Sweden, if you ask a union leader, ‘Are you afraid of new technology?’ they will answer, ‘No, I’m afraid of old technology,’” says the Swedish minister for employment and integration, Ylva Johansson. “The jobs disappear, and then we train people for new jobs. We won’t protect jobs. But we will protect workers.”
Alan Kay says:
a change in perspective may be worth 80 IQ points (or words to that effect). A nice visual metaphor for this below. (The one that is revealed from 1-20 seconds works for me, best).
I am a bad
(awful) guitarist, but remain fascinated by guitars and the people who wield them. In recent years I have become ever more interested in the pedagogy of the guitar, and what insights it may throw on professional practice and education, and how people learn outwith the academies. And even if I would not have expressed it in these terms at that time, as a teenager the guitar was my intellectual bridge into understanding that there is as much — if not more— discipline and rigour outside the academy than within it. (If you are interested in the ‘how’ of learning the guitar, check out Gary Marcus’ book).
With many great players, even if I cannot work out exactly how they do it, I have a good idea. You can spot the pentatonic or the classic major and minor scales easily enough: Clapton doesn’t play the same notes as Akkerman. But the first time I heard Allan Holdsworth (playing with Bill Bruford), I was confused. I couldn’t work out the scales and his phrasing was not like that of any guitarist I knew (nor was I any wiser, quite frankly, after seeing him on stage at Newcastle University, on this tour I suspect).
Bjørn Schille, says it well below
“As opposed to much of the music I spent time listening to and examining, his music left me with both chills and a feeling of total confusion. I had no idea what he was doing. Both his chord progressions and his phrases defied my sense of tonality and sounded like nothing I had ever heard. At the same time, it all sounded so perfectly unstrained and logical; like a beautiful language I had yet to understand. His choice of notes may have resembled jazz, but the character of the music had a much darker melancholy, as well as an absence of the swing rhythm that to me makes traditional jazz always a little too cheerful.”
(Bjørn Schille, Master Thesis in Musicology – February 2011 Institute of Musicology, University of Oslo [ you can hear the author here])
The guitarist John McLaughlin has wryly admitted he would have been happy to borrow just about anything his fellow Yorkshireman invented, if only he could have figured out how it was done.
There are some YouTube clips below. The sound is not too good, but they give a flavour of his genius. There is also a 12CD boxed set released shortly before he died [link here]. He would have hated the title.
Many of us held down a summer job during our school days to earn a bit of cash. Some, such as those who attended the fictional Scumbag College, did everything they could to avoid work. Things look a bit more draconian over in Zhengzhou where, as my colleague Yuan Yang has revealed, thousands of students have been working 11-hour shifts to assemble the iPhone X. There is nothing wrong with a bit of hard work but this situation constitutes illegal overtime for student interns under Chinese law. Six students told the Financial Times that they were among a group of 3,000 from Zhengzhou Urban Rail Transit School sent in September to work at the local facility run by Apple supplier Hon Hai Precision Industry, better known as Foxconn. The mandatory three-month stint was called “work experience”.
[Barry] John ran in another dimension of time and space. His opponents ran into the glass walls which covered his escape routes from their bewildered clutches
Economics is perfectly capable of incorporating questions of morality, says Mr Tirole. It simply imposes structure on debate where otherwise indignation would rule. It might make sense to ban some markets, like dwarf-tossing,
and before you get alarmed:
[of dwarf-tossing] ….its existence diminishes the dignity of an entire group. But a market in organs or blood, for example, should not be rejected on the basis of instinctive moral repugnance alone. Policymakers should consider whether payment would raise the supply of donated blood or kidneys, improving or even saving lives. (It might not, if the motivation of money makes generous people afraid of looking greedy.) Whatever the answer, policymakers should make decisions from “behind the veil of ignorance”: without knowing whether any one person, including the policymakers themselves, would be a winner or loser from a particular policy, which society would they choose?
From a review of “Economics for the Common Good”, by Jean Tirol in the Economist [link]. I assume the ‘veil’ reference is from John Rawls, an approach that I always like, but worry that I am missing something deeper.
“Whenever a company decides it’s ok to screw its suppliers, its customers, or its employees, it is only a matter of time until it gets around to screwing all 3 groups. That is because the idea that screwing people is ok becomes the corporate mindset.”
Comment by Howard on I, Cringely
This is a term I first learned from Clark Glamour and colleagues in Android Epistemology. Dermofit was a failed attempt to try and invent such a prosthesis.
Thinkers and thinking societies build tools that enhance their own thinking. When the speed of the positive feedback increases rapidly, we see a scientific and cultural revolution. When grit is put into the cogs or the base metals diluted, the opposite happens.
Last week I was giving a talk about tech, medicine and medical education, and for the life of me could not remember the following example, showing how key representation is to our intellectual toolbox. Worse, I knew it had an Edinburgh connection. Wikipedia has more.
Writing was invented to support taxation. Elites’ insatiable appetite for fully domesticated workers boosted forced labour and slavery. It almost comes as a relief to be reminded that the oppressive character of the state was leavened by its own brittleness: rather than precipitating a calamitous slide into chaos, periodic collapse would simply have disassembled larger states into their constituent communities. Plenty of fetters were loosened in the process.
This is not too far from the antifragility, of Taleb
Review of ‘Against the Grain’, by James C Scott in the FT.
It was 40 years ago when Carwyn James warned of the dangers of what he called crash-ball centres, players who were being encouraged to feel rather than think. “The boring, unthinking coach continually preaches about mistakes,” he once said. “The creative coach invites his players to make mistakes. This new midfield ‘crash-ball’ is a disaster – hunks of manhood with madness in their eyes, battering-ram bulldozers happy to be picked off on the gain-line by just-as-large hunks from the opposing side. For what? Just to do it all over again.”
Just last week, when faced with a report that its advertising numbers promised an American audience that, in certain demographics, well exceeded the number of such humans in existence, judging by U.S. Census Bureau numbers, Facebook told the Wall Street Journal that its numbers “are not designed to match population or census estimates. We are always working to improve our estimates.” Facebook’s intercourse with the public need not adhere to the so-called norms of so-called reality.
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, like Cameron and François Hollande, belong to the exam-passing classes.
Great essay by Bruce Schneier.
In 2020 — 10 years from now — Moore’s Law predicts that computers will be 100 times more powerful. That’ll change things in ways we can’t know, but we do know that human nature never changes. Cory Doctorow rightly pointed out that all complex ecosystems have parasites. Society’s traditional parasites are criminals, but a broader definition makes more sense here. As we users lose control of those systems and IT providers gain control for their own purposes, the definition of “parasite” will shift. Whether they’re criminals trying to drain your bank account, movie watchers trying to bypass whatever copy protection studios are using to protect their profits, or Facebook users trying to use the service without giving up their privacy or being forced to watch ads, parasites will continue to try to take advantage of IT systems. They’ll exist, just as they always have existed, and — like today — security is going to have a hard time keeping up with them.
Welcome to the future. Companies will use technical security measures, backed up by legal security measures, to protect their business models. And unless you’re a model user, the parasite will be you.
Which just reminds my of my own ecological ignorance. Many years back I was moaning to William Bains about how “surely the system (insert your own bête noire) will collapse under the weight of all these people who do nothing except get in the way and stop real work being done”. He corrected me by reminding me that in many biological systems the biomass of parasites exceeds that of the non-parasites. It is now my strategy when meeting somebody or hearing some new idea to ask the simple polite question: are you a parasite? There are an awful lot of them. I expect to see more and more.
From the Obit of Derek Walcott.
He would cup a breast as he fondled a white stone from the beach. These propensities, noted when he was teaching in America in the 1980s and 1990s, cost him the chance to be, in 1999, Britain’s poet laureate and, ten years later, professor of poetry at Oxford. He was not concerned, for he did not want to drop his anchor long on any northern shore.
It is odd to live in a country whose very name—the United Kingdom—sounds increasingly sarcastic.
FT. Obvious, but puzzled as I haven’t see it everywhere.
Interesting editorial in Nature. And unexpected. The issue is support for science and the state of politics in the US.
Just telling the same old stories won’t cut it. The most seductive of these stories — and certainly the one that scientists like to tell themselves and each other — is the simple narrative that investment in research feeds innovation and promotes economic growth. ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, so the saying goes, and as nations become a little less stupid by pushing against the frontiers of knowledge, so the benefits of all this new insight spread from the laboratory to the wider population, as improvements in the standard of living and quality of life. This comfortable story has all the hallmarks of a bubble waiting to pop.
The article goes on:
It is right that more scientists should tell stories of the good their research can do. But it is more important and urgent than ever that researchers should question how these stories really end — and whether too many of the people they claim to act for don’t really get to live happily ever after.
Much science is in a vacuous bubble, and arguments for more funding from its practitioners is increasingly viewed as self serving. Universities share some or much of this blame, all too happy to ‘shift more units’. This lack of intellectual honesty will harm academia in the long term. The one uniting feature that justifies higher education is the pursuit of truth in whichever direction enquiry moves. Universities are not businesses, profit centres, or corporations. They have a different set of norms that are distinct from those advertised by much of the rest of the corporate world (or government). STEM has never been enough, and truthfulness is not something you can opt in or out of, like you can some undergraduate modules. The role for universities — and science — is greater than ever: the issue is whether the universities have the necessary leadership. Even with the right leaders, it is a tough ask.
Well, not that I do, and in particular not this one. But, after sitting recently working in a coffee shop across the road from a school playground in Berlin, being both disturbed (“I was working!”) and amazed at the racket from all the frantic school children hurtling around a school playground, I do puzzle why it all changes when you ‘grow up’.
This from Science
Anyone who rose morning after morning this week for an exhausting and ache-generating exercise class to fulfill a New Year’s resolution will envy the bar-headed goose. The bird has the strength and endurance to fly 3000 kilometers over the Himalayas between its breeding grounds in Mongolia and wintering grounds in India. Yet a new study indicates that it doesn’t do a lick of exercise to prepare.
In at least some species, extra exercise may even be harmful, studies of captive zebra finches reported at the meeting suggest……… birds getting the extra exercise suffered cellular damage, from oxygen radicals and other charged molecules released by active muscle.
Birdbrain I might be, but not of the goose persuasion.
“This may upset some of my students at MIT, but one of my concerns is that it’s been a predominantly male gang of kids, mostly white, who are building the core computer science around AI, and they’re more comfortable talking to computers than to human beings. A lot of them feel that if they could just make that science-fiction, generalized AI, we wouldn’t have to worry about all the messy stuff like politics and society. They think machines will just figure it all out for us.”
Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab
(Via John Naughton)
Or as I quoted Steven Weinberg in a paper with the title, “The Problem with Academic Medicine: Engineering Our Way into and out of the Mess”
“My advice is to go for the messes—that’s where the action is.”
I first became ware of the importance of intellectual property law and custom after reading James Boyle’s ‘Shamans, Software and Spleens’. I had been completely unaware of how important the institution of private intellectual property was, and how destructive it frequently was of human advance. Of course, it was not meant to be this way. Boyle’s book is dense but funny, and he lambasts the contradictions in copyright law, the tortured logic in the bizarre attempts to explain why blackmail and insider trading are illegal, and the craziness that surrounded patenting DNA and what you can do with my spleen once you once removed it. As Cory Doctorow commented, about another of Boyle’s books, ‘Bound by Law’, “Copyright, a system that is meant to promote creativity, has been hijacked by a few industrial players and perverted. Today copyright is as likely to suppress new creativity as it is to protect it.” It was reading Boyle that led me to write an essay in the Lancet on how the ease or difficulty of assigning IPR distorted medical advance.
This is a funny story with a surprise inside. The funny part is the artwork: an artist created glass blocks exactly the dimensions of a FedEx box and then shipped them in those boxes, producing unique art out of the cracks and breakage that resulted. The surprise is that it turns out that Fed Ex has corporate ownership over that space. “There’s a copyright designating the design of each FedEx box, but there’s also the corporate ownership over that very shape. It’s a proprietary volume of space, distinct from the design of the box.” Now I’m afraid I might accidentally violate FedEx’s ownership over that specific shape should I decide to, I don’t know, create my own mailing box.
Not so much enclosing the commons, but space itself.