Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading books that I don't feel like blogging.

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Thursday, October 11, 2018

Echoes of "Hypotheses non fingo"

I haven't felt like blogging anything in a while, but I am currently reading Newton's Opticks. I had always heard that Newton held back progress in optics by promoting a ray theory, but I am struck by the clarity of his thought and care of his experiments. He really made a lot of progress on color.

Furthermore, in Book II, Part II, Proposition XII, he acknowledges that light has an oscillatory behavior. He knew that these rays had some characteristic that oscillated in time. This part has echoes of "hypotheses non fingo", his refusal to pronounce on the nature of gravity:

"What kind of action or disposition this is; Whether it consists in a circulating or vibrating motion of the Ray, or of the Medium, or something else, I do not here enquire."

He goes on to concede that a wave model might work, but says he will not pursue that.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Privilege, class, and diversity

I like this essay from the Hedgehog Review.  The three final paragraphs are the best:

 The concept of diversity first germinated in the corporate world, and was quickly seized upon by academia in the 1990s. It arrived just in the nick of time. The previous two decades had seen the traditional mission of the university undermined, if not abandoned, under pressure from a highly politicized turn in the humanities that made its case in epistemic terms, essentially debunking the very idea of knowledge. The role that the upper-tier university soon discovered for itself, upon the collapse of ideals of liberal learning, was no longer that of training citizens for humane self-government, but rather that of supplying a cadre to staff the corporations, the NGOs, and the foundations. That is, the main function of elite schools is to supply the personnel required to run things in an economy that has become more managerial than entrepreneurial.
The institutional desideratum—the political antipode to hated “privilege”—is no longer equality, but diversity. This greatly eases the contradiction Furet identified, shielding the system from democratic pressure. It also protects the self-conception of our meritocrats as agents of historical progress. As was the case with the Soviet nomenklatura, and the leading Jacobins as well, it is precisely our elite that searches out instances of lingering privilege, now understood as obstacles to fulfillment of the moral imperative of diversity. Under this dispensation, the figure of the “straight white male” (abstracted from class distinctions) has been made to do a lot of symbolic work, the heavy lifting of legitimation (in his own hapless way, as sacrificial goat). We eventually reached a point where this was more weight than our electoral system could take, as the election of 2016 revealed. Whether one regards that event as a catastrophe or as a rupture that promises the possibility of glasnost, its immediate effect has been panic in every precinct where the new class accommodations have been functioning smoothly, and a doubling down on the moralizing that previously secured them against popular anger. We’ll see how that goes. 
The term shibboleth is interesting. Its definitions include “a peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., that distinguishes a particular class or set of persons” and “a common saying or belief with little current meaning or truth.” It is a random Hebrew word that acquired its present meaning when it was used by the Gileadites as a test to identify members of an enemy tribe, the Ephraimites, as they attempted to flee across the Jordan River. Ephraimites could not pronounce the sound sh (Judges 12:4–6). I think it is fair to say that one’s ability to pronounce the word diversity with a straight face, indeed with sincerity made scrupulously evident, serves as a shibboleth in this original sense. It answers the question of whether one wants to continue as a member in good standing of those institutions that secure one’s position in the upper middle class.

It's all about legitimizing the status quo while dismissing class.  An upper class can be diverse in terms of gender, sex, sexuality, race, ethnicity, etc., but by definition it cannot be diverse in terms of class, nor can it be equal to other classes. (And if you're confused about why I would separately list sex, sexuality, and gender in the previous sentence, that just points to another shibboleth that you can't pronounce, you heretic.)

I think it's particularly interesting how diversity is now the concept placed in tension with privilege, instead of equality.  When I was a kid, the privileged kids had affluent parents.  Now the white lower-middle class is deemed privileged, and the men of that class especially so.  That's quite a rhetorical trick.  Equality (whether economic, or of opportunity, or whatever) got pushed aside somewhere along the line, replacing solidarity with celebration of difference.  I'm not a Marxist, but on this one I see their point.  Yes, there are very valid points about the differences in the life experiences of men and women, or white people and people of color, but it's quite remarkable that the word we used to use for rich kids got co-opted to frame those very valid points.  The word may have a new denotation, but it still carries old connotations that sit uneasily with the new usage.

Also, I think there's a very important point in there about the difference between a managerial economy and an entrepreneurial one.  Founders/owners of privately-held businesses (or even businesses that have gone public but still have a very strong Founder presence) are often quite different from people who climbed corporate ladders.  They aren't always self-made people who rose from nothing (Trump built his empire on inherited wealth) but they are people who spent most of their careers making their own decisions (sometimes appropriately bold decisions, sometimes risky follies) rather than answering to a boss.

Corporate managers aren't fans of the regulatory state, but they can often make compromises (even lucrative compromises) with the regulatory state more easily than an entrepreneur can.  A corporate manager has spent his career answering to people, and following rules written by higher-ups who may be several time zones away.  This leads to a different demeanor and ideology than men who didn't have bosses.  And while privately-held companies typically face most of the same PR and HR issues as corporations of similar size, the quirks of founders play can play more of a role in how they respond to those issues (though more on that below), so they may have more room for managerial liberals (with all of their diversity talk) than a company still dominated by an entrepreneur.

One interesting exception to this dichotomy is Silicon Valley.  Large tech companies are mostly young (at least in comparison with other corporations of similar size, though Google just entered its third decade), but they are, for the most part, very socially liberal.  Mind you, I have no doubt that there are plenty of Google and Facebook managers who hate taxes and regulations, but the prevailing cultures of those places are famously liberal (at least on social issues) and unabashedly pro-diversity (unlike most of the right-wing billionaires who rose to power in the pre-internet era).  This has helped them make peace with the same cultural and regulatory issues as older corporations.

So, Trump is, on the one hand, a rich guy who has ripped off many ordinary people, and treated many workers like shit.  On the other hand, in this economy dominated by corporate managerial types (often liberal, at least in their acceptance of rules and certain PR and HR imperatives) rather than entrepreneurial types (who are often right-wing), Trump is an exception, a rich man who doesn't talk like a corporate manager.  That helps me to understand why he has appeal among some (not all) middle class white voters.  It's not the only factor, of course, but it's among them, and helps to make sense of why they see him as different from the other rich guys.

Finally, let's return to this line:
It also protects the self-conception of our meritocrats as agents of historical progress. As was the case with the Soviet nomenklatura, and the leading Jacobins as well, it is precisely our elite that searches out instances of lingering privilege, now understood as obstacles to fulfillment of the moral imperative of diversity.
This helps me understand why so many academic administrators honestly see themselves as "change agents", even while repeating the same slogans and buzzwords as every other administrator out there, and diligently following in the templates taught to them at workshops.  It explains to me why academic administrators from families of administrators see themselves and their advancement as bold and progressive rather than the fulfillment of a status quo destiny laid upon them when sperm met egg.  It helps explain why I, from a family that has grown more educated with each generation, a family that still circulates stories of immigrant roots, feel old-fashioned and traditional rather than progressive in academia:  Because the born insiders are all proclaiming their progressivity, leaving tradition as the only refuge of the outsider.

My only dissent from the above-quoted observation is that I don't see this as a uniquely contemporary thing, an artifact of a new liberalism that replaces economic class solidarity with diversity.  Hofstadter noted that Dewey's disciples, all managerial types, were desperate to find a way to institutionalize anti-institutional ideology.  All of this has happened before and will happen again.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Educational research and the promise of easy fixes

This article from Psychology Today discusses the necessity, temptation, and challenge of interpreting data.  It discusses a study that found a correlation between students' attitudes towards math and their performance in math.  While the study could not establish whether strong performance leads to positive attitudes (i.e. people like something that they do well at) or positive attitudes lead to strong performance (they push ahead and succeed because they are confident), and while the authors did acknowledge that, they nonetheless gave an optimistic take on their data.
This is a correlational study. As the authors say in their penultimate paragraph: "We could not determine the direction of causal influences between positive attitude and math achievement because of the cross-sectional nature of our study (see, however, Table S10 in the Supplemental Material)."  
Yet they also say, in the very next paragraph: "In conclusion, our study demonstrates, for the first time, that PAM in children has a unique and significant effect on math achievement independent of general cognitive abilities and that this relation is mediated by the MTL memory system." In fact, the title of the article is "Positive Attitude Toward Math Supports Early Academic Success: Behavioral Evidence and Neurocognitive Mechanisms."  
The words "effect" and "supports" are causal language. They are saying that positive attitude causes math success. Here's why that's great news: Change a kid's attitude and you'll make them better at math. Thus dawns another glorious sunrise in correlationville.  
This study does not demonstrate causation. It doesn't involve an intervention. These optimistic conclusions should not be taken at face value because there are other, equally valid, ways to look at the data.
The article goes on to note that there are significant stakes in how we interpret findings like this:
The optimist is going to invest funds into improving attitudes to create a positive cycle. The pessimist is going to give extra math help to kids who are struggling at a young age to prevent a negative cycle. 
I take the pessimistic view, and not just because of my personality.  Frankly, I think the pessimistic view can lead to more effective interventions.  If you believe that attitude is everything then you actually get to be kind of lazy.  It doesn't matter how long a problem has been allowed to fester, you can always step in at any point and start promoting positive attitude and things will improve.  On the other hand, if attitude alone isn't enough, then in order to produce good outcomes in a cumulative subject like math you really need to get it right from the start. You need to push on kids (and parents!) from a very early age. It's the only way to fix things.

We want to believe the optimistic take on psychology research, because it promises that small nudges, simple interventions, changes in attitude, etc. are all it will take to fix stubborn problems. Some of this point was made when I was reading Lee Jussim's book on bias research:  If stubborn problems in society are just the result of our biases rather than the lasting marks of inequality, at any point we can turn it around by just making different decisions.  But if disparities arise from failure to prepare people properly and equitably from an early age then we have a much bigger problem, one that we cannot simply wish away.

Monday, August 27, 2018

More from Bell's "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism"

(Not exact quotes, just synopses of points I want to remember.)

pg. 168:  He says that cults appear when dominant religions fail.  He identifies cults as groups that offer allegedly suppressed truths, rally around heterodox leaders, and offer the opportunity to be transgressive.

I really, really, REALLY want to join a cult.  The modern religions of the educated professional classes are failing, and I want a person smarter than me to give me the freedom to transgress.

Strangely, one of my favorite pieces of music lately is Lana Del Rey's Off to the Races.



pg. 179: Societies will find no easy resolution if they admit the existence of legitimate grievances and promise just remedies.  I don't know that academia can actually deliver remedies, but a bunch of people promised that we would, so here we are.

pg. 185: "A conservative measures social change by the distance from the past; a revolutionary from some mark in the future."  Then I wonder what to say of the kool-aid peddlers who proclaim that the revolution is ALREADY HERE AND YOU NEED TO GET ON BOARD NOW!!! They are definitely not conservative, but they are far too interested in their immediate comfort to be revolutionaries.

pg. 198: The burdens placed on universities are inevitable consequences of a post-industrial economy.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Bell on religion

On page 155, Bell cites Emile Durkheim, who apparently viewed religion as dividing the world not into men and gods but sacred and profane.  Seen in that light, the religiosity of a society is measured not by supernatural belief but by extremes of moral convictions.  I think our modern politically correct era is a very religious one.  However, it's a religion that cannot identify itself as one, so we lack the language and customs to respect it, critique it, constrain it, and channel it.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Latest book: Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism by Daniel Bell

I'm reading The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism by Daniel Bell.  Seventy pages in (out of 339) the book very much has the feel of a polemic, but I'm getting interesting bit of cultural history mixed in.  The question he's tackling is how a very capitalist society that was shaped by Puritan frugality and discipline has spawned such licentiousness while still remaining so capitalist.  What corporations pander to in their customers is so different from what they need from their employees, but the two have to co-exist.

The book really got interesting for me on page 61.  After describing the disciplined cultural legacy of the Puritans, he starts chronicling the backlash.  Apparently writers as early as 1915 were demanding a re-examination of our cultural roots, a re-envisioning of America as a place for not just the descendants of Puritans but also immigrants, African Americans, and urban life.  What's ironic is that the cultural and political descendants of the Puritans were foremost among the crusaders against slavery.  A less racist America is very much an America that embraces the multi-faceted legacy of the Puritans, examining their shortcomings and working to do better, but also holding on to their most positive contributions.

Bell quotes writers who saw the Puritans only as sexually repressed people.  First, sexual repression was hardly a trait unique to Puritans.  In that regard they were unremarkable among the many strains in the Western European culture that they came from.  Their values of learning, work, discipline, frugality, and egalitarianism are what made them remarkable.  Nonetheless, too many people to this day only remember them for that.

I will grant that some American ancestral strains were more open about sexuality, particularly the Scots-Irish (for whom "out-of-wedlock birth" was arguably redundant) and the Cavaliers who founded the Virginia aristocracy (and probably believed in Droit du seigneur).  However, they weren't so much liberated as bad at hiding hypocrisy.  The Scots-Irish might not have been terribly disciplined about sex but they were fervent about religion, and proclaimed themselves quite devout adherents of the most conservative strains of Christianity. And while powerful men in every society have always seen themselves as entitled to women, the Southern elites took it to particularly nasty places.  That doesn't mean that everyone else was forgiven similar indiscretions.  They were open about sex but not necessarily free about sex.

But, anyway, Bell makes the case that a century ago people sought a new Bohemia and they did so not by looking South (for then they'd have to see what comes of lack of restraint) but rather by pissing on the legacy of the Puritans.  Rejecting an idea is so much easier than arguing for its opposite, because if you start to examine its opposite you might find all sorts of unfortunate examples and precedents.  But the idea itself probably has tons of easily-identified downsides.  So, much better to argue against Puritan morals than to argue for the actually-existing cultures that rejected them.  It's the licentious version of "Oh, we just haven't seen Real Communism yet!"

Interestingly, these Bohemians of the early 20th century liked to call everything that they did "New."  "New Poetry", "New Democracy", etc.  This feels very much like the restlessness of the present. They'd probably love pedagogy workshops.  "Oh, we don't assign homework.  That's so old-fashioned!  No, we assign Take-Home Assessments!  They're totally different!"

I'm now at the part where he blames transportation and mass media for freeing us from constraints.  If you live in a world where a trip of even five miles is a big deal, you will spend most of your time in a tight network of people.  If a trip of twenty miles is no big deal, you can have more ties but also looser ties, and more activity can take place out of sight of your closest ties (such as they are).  And the movies, TV, and radio can all advertise and create material lust in your heart.

Let's see where this goes.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Havel: Systems seek legitimacy

I've read about half of the Havel book so far, including the famous essay "The Power of the Powerless."  I'm linking a .pdf copy with a few of my favorite passages highlighted.  The essay is largely about how people try to live honestly in a system that demands lies.  He returns repeatedly to the metaphor of a Greengrocer, a store manager who puts up a sign that says "Workers of the World Unite!" in his window.  The manager isn't an ideological man, and almost certainly doesn't think of his government as one that's particularly concerned for the plight of ordinary workers.  But the system demands that he put up this sign so he puts it up.  He has bills to pay, a family to care for, and a life to live.

Of course, the real message of his sign is not one of labor solidarity, but rather a way of saying "I am a man who complies with the system and does what he has to, so please leave me alone."  However, he can't just post a sign saying that explicitly.  For starters, it would offend his own dignity if he were to admit what he's really doing.  It's much better to have a pretext, so that if somebody were to ask him why he displays that sign he could respond "What's wrong with worker unity?"  It would avoid him having to say what he's really doing.

But what struck me most was how much the government itself preferred the soft message.  The Communist governments apparently desperately wanted the legitimacy that comes from ideology.  None of them believed in the ideology, but having an ideology meant not having to say what they really were: Men (and women) with guns who could compel people to do what they were told to do. They didn't really want to be gangsters.  It just sort of worked out that way.  As he says:
This explains why ideology plays such an important role in the post-totalitarian system: that complex machinery of units, hierarchies, transmission belts, and indirect instruments of manipulation which ensure in countless ways the integrity of the regime, leaving nothing to chance, would be quite simply unthinkable without ideology acting as its all-embracing excuse and as the excuse for each of its parts.
He keeps referring to these systems as post-totalitarian because they aren't interested in naked power in the way that Stalin and his ilk were.  Yes, there were thugs in those systems, men who would be happy to just do away with pretense and rule by force (and the collapse of Communism arguably enabled some of them to shed their pretenses and act more openly, as evidenced by the exploits of gangsters and oligarchs in the post-Soviet era), but there were plenty of men who had to persuade themselves that what they were doing was not gangsterism.  They surely knew that they weren't really building a workers' paradise, but having ideology on paper meant that they were at least following codes and laws.  They were products of civilization, heirs to Hammurabi, following a code, however flawed it may be.  They were not the barbarians living by the rule of might.  Some of them needed to believe that.

I see surprising analogies in the egalitarian ideologies of academia.  We pay lip service to so many mantras about student success and opportunity, we deny so many obvious facts about how not all students will succeed, and we tell ourselves that our every benefit is really for their benefit.  We drink this kool-aid and tell ourselves we're engaged in a project of changing the world rather than conferring credentials on those who show up while truly educating only those who work for it.  We tell ourselves that we believe the things we're told because it's easier than admitting that we only repeat these words in order to receive our paychecks.

When I prepare documents with ritual phrases in them, I am a greengrocer who needs to keep paying his bills. I speak some truths, but only at the edges of the permissible.  I don't cross certain lines because I make far more money than my wife and I need to keep us supported.  I know what I am and what I do. I don't like it, but I know it.

I would have made a shitty Communist, and I would have been almost as shitty as a dissident.