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 Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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Saturday, February 18, 2017

A fun little argument in relativity

Confession:  I know next to nothing about general relativity.  My graduate work was in materials and optics.  My current research is mostly on optics and biophysics.  I enjoy the elegance of special relativity, but I never studied general relativity.

In a couple weeks I'm teaching students about Newtonian mechanics in non-inertial reference frames, and I felt like I should try to learn at least a few tidbits of general relativity.  I wanted to understand gravitational time dilation, so I came up with a nice little argument that I'm quite proud of.

Suppose that a pair of particles collide and produce two photons.  One photon goes left, the other goes right.  We use mirrors to send them upward (i.e. to a place to higher gravitational potential) and then recombine them.  The photons collide and produce a pair of particles of the same type as the original particles.  (Such things can happen, though the cross-sections are small.)  If the photons did not change their frequencies, i.e. did not lose some energy, then we have a new pair of particles at higher gravitational potential energy but with the same kinetic energy. We have gained energy. We can let those particles fall and extract energy from the system to power machines...for free.  We have thus produced energy from nothing, and that's not allowed.

The photons must thus lose some energy, i.e. must change their frequencies. Say that the kinetic energy of the new particles is zero, i.e. mgy(final)=KE(initial)

The frequency shift can be found via:

KE(initial) + 2m = 2*omega (initial) = 2m + 2mgy

And 2m must also equal 2*omega(final), since the two photons have just enough energy to produce the particles, so we get that 2*omega(initial) = 2*omega(final) + 2*omega(final)*gy

omega(final)*(1+gy) = omega(initial)

omega(final) = omega(initial)/(1+gy) or approximately omega(initial)*(1-gy) (to first order)

(We are working in units where hbar and c are equal to 1.)

So the fractional frequency shift has to be of order gy/c^2.  Once we have the frequency shift, we can argue that clocks based on oscillations of EM fields must run slower lower in the gravitational field, since the people above them are receiving consecutive ticks at longer intervals.

I will present this at the end of my lecture on Newtonian mechanics in non-inertial frames, along with the argument that a guy in a falling elevator sees light curve.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Next Book: Edward Teller's Memoirs

I haven't been blogging books lately, for a lot of reasons, but I'm determined to get back to it.  Right now I'm reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.  Teller has a lot to answer for (e.g. his treatment of Oppenheimer, his utter fascination with WMD), but we're entering an era where peering inside the minds of villains might be of great practical significance.  He was a towering figure who participated in great events, working with Heisenberg as a postdoc before going to the West and getting involved in nuclear weapons.  His narration of events may not be wholly reliable, but his mind is worth peering inside.

Besides, every villain has an origin story, and in that origin story there is tragedy and triumph.  One uplifting thing I've already learned from Teller is that the British were quite proactive in recruiting German scientists as early as 1933.  I had no idea how much effort the British put into that; it is a credit to them. There's plenty else to fault them for, but at least that episode is a good one. A part of me wonders if I should be helping my Middle Eastern colleagues find jobs overseas.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Public schools have charters too

With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education there is now much discussion of charter schools and school choice.  I have no interest in debating the merits or demerits of Betsy DeVos in this venue, and I will not offer a final stance or recommendation on charter schools.  But I will offer an  observation on the wider context:

The most substantial criticism I've seen against charter schools is that they get better results by being selective about their student bodies, filtering out students with weak preparation or behavioral problems.  To the extent that the question is whether the performance of charter schools is truly superior in an apples-to-apples comparison, whether "is" statements regarding their alleged merits are based on scientifically valid comparisons, I think it's an entirely fair point to raise.  I haven't reviewed the data closely enough to know whether it's an empirically valid point, but if we take the claim at face value it is certainly valid.

On the other hand, if the question is whether excellence (by whatever yardstick) can be cultivated when one abandons democratic mandates, I think that the performance of charter schools is telling us something very, very important.  I'm not convinced that the public schools are irredeemable if we speak of the schools as buildings with trained people inside them, people who could accomplish tasks if given resources and leeway.  I am convinced that the demands we make on public schools are impossible to satisfy, and that no amount of Special Programs and bureaucratic infrastructure ladled atop a school can bring about True Democracy in education.

The people invested in the system itself--and its democratic legitimacy--cannot admit this.  Even a person who is of right-wing leanings has to believe that with proper accountability we can somehow get schools to serve all students equally, at least if that person buys into the cross-partisan democratic narratives that Americans have long bought into.  To reject these democratic assumptions you need to either have a dark, naked embrace of inequality, an idea of better and lesser people, or you need to be individualistic and believe that there is no one-size-fits-all and a system can really only serve those who choose to be served. Either way, you have to reject the charter that the public schools labor under.

My favorite teacher in high school said that America could have the best public schools on earth if we struck one word from the laws governing them:  "Compulsory."  The success of charter schools proves that.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Another critique of meritocracy

In my previous post I linked an essay on meritocracy that is actually a critique of another essay.  Here's the original essay by Helen Andrews.  I lack the time to dissect it in detail, so I'll just quote my favorite parts:

First, a candid acknowledgment of how hard it is to have procedural, neutral meritocracy without de facto aristocracy:
Others favor the slightly more radical solution of redefining our idea of merit, usually in a way that downplays what Guinier calls “pseudoscientific measures of excellence.”37 She even has a replacement in mind, the Bial-Dale College Adaptability Index, the testing of which involves Legos. (Why are you laughing? It is backed by a study.) This is even less likely to work than fiddling with the equality-of-opportunity end. For one thing, the minority of families willing to do whatever it takes to get into Harvard will still do whatever it takes to get into Harvard. They have adapted to new admissions criteria before, and they will do so again. Furthermore, unless families are abolished, successful parents will always pass on advantages to their children, which will compound with each generation. It does not matter how merit is defined; the dynamic of meritocracy remains the same, its operations inexorable.
If you set up a game, people will play it.

Second, a candid call for the elite to abandon pretenses:
The meritocracy is hardening into an aristocracy—so let it. Every society in history has had an elite, and what is an aristocracy but an elite that has put some care into making itself presentable? Allow the social forces that created this aristocracy to continue their work, and embrace the label. By all means this caste should admit as many worthy newcomers as is compatible with their sense of continuity. New brains, like new money, have been necessary to every ruling class, meritocratic or not. If ethnic balance is important to meritocrats, they should engineer it into the system. If geographic diversity strikes them as important, they should ensure that it exists, ideally while keeping an eye on the danger of hoovering up all of the native talent from regional America. But they must give up any illusion that such tinkering will make them representative of the country over which they preside. They are separate, parochial in their values, unique in their responsibilities. That is what makes them aristocratic.
I'm not sure that I buy the prescription, but I certainly agree that affirmative action cannot be achieved neutrally, so if you want to integrate the elites then you should do so unashamedly rather than trying to cook up a procedure that will magically but neutrally deliver the desired result.

A good declension narrative and a critique of separating "critical thinking" skills from knowledge of facts:
“How to think bigger” is indeed a fine quality for a governing class to have, but this young man was cheated if his teachers tried to cultivate it as a skill in isolation and not via the discipline of learning “particular things.” It was the meritocratic ideology that paved this road to ignorance. Being open to all comers, with intelligence the only criterion, meant that no particular body of knowledge could be made mandatory at an institution like St. Paul’s, lest it arbitrarily exclude students conversant only with their own traditions. This has predictably yielded a generation of students who have no body of knowledge at all—not even “like about what actually happened in the Civil War.”
Every snowflake thinks that their lack of knowledge is compensated for by their superior ability.

It closes with a good call to action:
The task of reforming our present elite ought to be entrusted to someone with a feeling for what is good in it. For all its flaws, this elite does have many virtues. Its moral seriousness contrasts favorably with the frivolousness of certain earlier generations, and its sense of pragmatism, which can sometimes be reductive, can also be admirably brisk and hard-nosed. What is needed is someone who can summon a picture of the meritocratic elite’s best selves and call others to meet the example. But this process can begin only when this new ruling class finally owns up to the only name for what it already undeniably is.
But how can we do that if we won't admit that we're elites? That's the same problem identified in the Timothy Burke piece that I blogged yesterday.


I don't have a lot of time to jot down all my thoughts on it, but I like this post on meritocracy.  In particular, I like three points:

First, that our concept of meritocracy motivates people to work frantically but not always thoughtfully, constantly striving for tokens of success.  The most creative advances are often risky, but insecure meritocracy affords less risk tolerance than aristocracy.

Second, she notes that if we completely demolish the idea of meritocracy we motivate even more short-term behavior (in the absence of aristocracy):
What Helen calls "the meritocratic delusion most in need of smashing" - the belief that hard work pays off - is actually a basic corrective for democracy's worst tendencies. Without it, we get not aristocracy, but only a more radical democracy - more short-sighted, impulsive, petty, demanding of immediate gratification (from the state). When the long-term fruits of hard work and achievement are shown to be "delusions," why not just grab what you can while you can, from whoever has it? So, we get got populism. This was not an improvement.

Third, I've noted before that the problem with meritocracy is not that the Ivy League uses SAT scores or whatever, but that we risk moving toward elite monoculture by having only a few ways to get a seat at the table of power.  As the blogger says:
We would never even need to worry about whether meritocrats "represent the country" if it weren't for centralization. Meritocracy was never a principle of representation in the first place. It was a way of determining who is qualified for what task. There is no connection between, say, the work of engineering or medicine, and the task of representing America. It's a recent lefty idea that every institution, profession, and small social gathering ought to be a microcosm of the intersectional identity distribution of the entire country in order to be legitimate. But it's a crazy goal, mathematically impossible to attain, and foolish to pursue. It's only possible to pursue it when there are so few routes to status and affluence that a handful of institutional gatekeepers can collude to very precisely regulate the in-flows, by imposing whatever standards of "merit" they choose. But that is the result of a centralization that co-opted meritocracy, not meritocracy.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

What does it mean to be "Establishment"?

I haven't been blogging much lately because I haven't been reading much of relevance to this blog lately.  But I came across a great post by Timothy Burke that reminded me of one of my old posts on what it means to be an insider or outsider. In noting how many liberal professionals identify with the masses and think of themselves as outside agitators rather than realizing how institutionalized they are, Burke writes:
One of our great weaknesses at times has been how some of us have adopted an insistence that virtue can only derive from marginality, a view that speaking from power is always a fallen and regrettable position. Because we didn’t see our ties to the establishment as virtue and we didn’t understand that our forms of power were important for defending what we had already achieved, because we had a reflexive and attachment to the idea that we were in no way powerful, that our share of the status quo could only be found in some future progress, never even partially achieved, we were unready to wake up in the year 2016 and discover that we were not only a part of an ancien regime threatened by a mob, but that we actually wanted to defend that regime rather than rush to join the mob at the barricades. It would have been better if we’d defended it that way long before this moment. But it will help even now if we recognize that this is part of what we’re doing: defending a structure of manners, of virtues, of practices, of expectations, of constraints and outcomes, against people who either don’t recognize that this structure is important for them or from people who genuinely do not benefit from that structure. That we should not be ashamed to defend our loosely shared habitus, because it really is better for the general welfare than the brutalist, arbitrary, impoverishing alternative that the populist right is pushing forward in many nations.
I myself feel ambivalent about my institutional nature, partly because of my roots in Franciscan grade school, partly because I am a contrarian, and partly because the most institutionally respectable thing in higher ed is to position oneself as a Change Agent.  I'm unabashedly traditionalist, which feels like a very anti-institutional stance when everyone is looking for Great! Amazing! Transformation!  I'd feel more comfortably institutional in a musty old library (for my traditionalist side) with slightly uncomfortable furniture and climate control (for my guilty Catholic roots).

This may be the most controversial part of Burke's post:
Some thought that you were only the Establishment if you were wealthy, or white, or male, or held a certain set of specific political ideologies and affiliations. But you can trace the existence and continuation of a great many jobs–and life situations–to a political economy that depended on the civic, governmental and business institutions built up in the United States and around the world after 1945. The manager of a local dance company in a Midwestern city who only makes $40,000 a year and is an African-American vegan lesbian with a BA from Reed is still linked to the Establishment. That dance company doesn’t exist without the infrastructure where small trickles of revenue flow from cities, states, and nations into such organizations, without the educated professionals who donate because they believe in the arts, without the dancers themselves who chase a life of meaning through art but who also want to get paid. It’s not that there wasn’t art–or patronage of art–in the 19th Century or the early 20th Century–but there was less of it, and it was less systemically supported, and less tied to a broad consensus at the civic and social center about the value of art and education everywhere. Some of us are very powerful in the Establishment, some of us grossly misuse and abuse the power of the Establishment, some of us are the wealthy beneficiaries of its operations and others poorer and less powerful at its edges. But even out at the edges, still linked, still reliant on the system, and still in some sense believers in much of what the Establishment entails.
I'm from the middle class, which is above the lower-middle class but at the bottom of the Establishment.  We have comfort derived from norms and continuity but little room for excess.  We fool ourselves into thinking that we're commoners, but we have a level of safety that the lower-middle class doesn't (while they in turn have just enough employability to not be among the truly poor). Nonetheless, we and our compatriots above and below all insist that we're equally middle-class. This American trait of everyone insisting that they're middle class (no matter how high or low they actually are) is of old lineage, as noted by de Tocqueville.

However, when those of us from the middle class move up the ladder, and find ourselves among the children of the upper-middle class, we can see both what we had and what we didn't have, so we are massively turned off when the children of the upper-middle class (and above) put on airs of commoner status:
So you've been to school for a year or two
And you know you've seen it all,
In Daddy's car thinking you'll go far,
Back east your type don't crawl.
Play ethnicky jazz to parade your snazz,
On your five grand stereo.
Bragging that you know
How the ******* feel cold
And the slum's got so much soul!
It's time to taste
What you most fear!
Right guard will not help you here.
Brace yourself my dear,
It's a holiday in Cambodia,
It's tough kid, but it's life.
It's a holiday in Cambodia,
Don't forget to pack a wife.
There are days when those lyrics run through my head repeatedly.

However, what should be more controversial is this part:
We need to identify the necessary heart of our established systems and practices, whether it’s in a small non-profit, a government office, a university, or a corporate department, and be ready to mercilessly abandon the unnecessary procedures, processes and rules that have encrusted all of our lives like so many barnacles. Those of us who are in some sense part of the larger networks of the Establishment world, even at its edges, can endure the irrelevance of pointless training sessions, can patiently work through needless processes of measurement and assessment, can parse boring or generic forms of managerial prose to find the real message inside. We’ve let this kind of baroque apparatus grow up around the genuinely meaningful institutional systems and structures that we value because it seems like too much effort in most cases to object against it, and because much of this excess is a kind of stealthy job creation program that also magnifies the patronage opportunities for some individuals. But this spreading crud extends into the lives of people who are not primed to endure it, and who often end up victimized by it, and even for those of us who know our way around the system, there are serious costs to the core missions of our institutions, to clarity and transparency, and to goodwill. It’s time to make this simpler, more streamlined, more focused, without using austerity regimes or “disruption” as the primary way we accomplish that streamlining. We don’t need to get rid of people, we just need to get rid of the myriad ways we acquiese to the collection of more and more tolls on the roads we traverse in our lives and work.
I whole-heartedly support it, but many people in my professional class would scream bloody murder.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Blank slates to the left of me, blank slates to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with truth

There's a nice essay on the concept of a "blank slate" in Quillette.

The basic idea of a blank slate is that all humans are equal in capacity.  It's a foolish notion, but it's a nice one, and it's usually a notion associated with the left:  The left recognizes that the world is not a place of equal opportunity, that people are saddled with all sorts of disadvantages by nurture rather than nature, and that all too often people try to wrongly shift the blame from the cruelty of man (nurture) to the cruelty of unequal genetic endowment (nature).  Some even go farther and (wrongly!) ascribe the disadvantages of entire groups not to the cruelty of man (nurture) but rather genes (nature).  Consequently, people on the left tend to be suspicious of genetic explanations of human behavior.  To the extent that this suspicion is merely skepticism of hypotheses that are difficult to prove and often wielded to evil ends, it is an intellectually healthy suspicion.  To the extent that it is a rejection of neurobiological inquiries into human behavior it is an unhealthy suspicion.

The author in Quillette points out that the right has its own version of a blank slate:  They argue that not only are people born equal in natural endowment, they remain equal in practical capacities even in the face of unequal nurturing, and hence unequal outcomes are primarily the consequence of bad choices, or moral failings.  It is as absurd as rejecting the idea that individuals' brains differ in part because of genetic variability among humans.  If the left is insisting that the slate was blank at birth, the right is insisting that the slate has NOT been vandalized even after years or decades of unequal conditions in a cruel world, or that the marks are at least easily erased.

Of course, the left has its own moral analysis as well:  While recognizing that it is absurd to expect the disadvantaged to simply shrug it all off and succeed equally, some do insist that college professors would obtain equal outcomes if we merely gave enough chances, and were enlightened enough in our evaluations.  If we just followed "best practices" then we would see gaps shrink substantially, and the persistence of gaps thus follows from our choice to abstain from "best practices."  It shifts the moral responsibility from the vandal who made the mark to the professor who was unable to erase it.

Like all seductive lies, it's partly true:  Some people will, if given a chance and some support, defy the odds and rise to the occasion.  To structure educational programs as Darwinian competitions with one chance and no more is both foolish and unethical.  (I will note that my grading formula rewards improvement and provides some forgiveness for initial failures.)  But it is important to recognize that working to remedy inequity in this way is costly and risky.  It won't always work, and it will cost more than simply giving one chance and moving on.  If you nonetheless value opportunity then you will accept costs and risks.  If you don't actually value opportunity then you will deny that it has a cost (because that which is without value is without cost) and insist that the only problem is a failure to identify the "right" criteria, the "right" measures.

I remark on this because, as I have noted before, our theories of success and failure can be double-edged swords.  A theory that success that success is rooted in "grit" or "growth mindset" is the key to success (rather than evil standardized tests) can be shiny and progressive if it is used to undermine evil standardized tests, but it can also be turned around and used to blame the poor and disadvantaged for lacking the moral virtues of grit and growth mindset.  A moral theory that says we are all equal in capacity can be used to blame a cruel world for failure, but it can also be used to blame failure on choices by people of presumably equal capacity.  The fact that the left and right go in such different directions from ostensibly similar assumptions means that there are additional embedded assumptions that people aren't always articulating openly.

For me, I will be disappointingly wishy-washy and say that EVERYTHING matters for success and failure.  Some kids really ARE born smarter than others.  Sorry, but it's true.  On the other hand, unequal conditions in life will ALSO leave their marks.  Some of those marks CAN be erased.  Others are much harder to erase.  Some people will surprise you and outperform expectations.  Some won't.  It's worth it to give people a chance.  It's ill-advised to keep pouring in resources as the returns diminish.  Some people really do fall on bad choices or rise on good choices.  Some people are stuck.  Abandoning personal responsibility in your moral calculus is ill-advised, but so is treating personal responsibility as the only variable.  It's complicated and we have to muddle through.

I wish I had some sort of magical solution, but I don't.