Last night, the lovely Mrs. YardsaleoftheMind and I went out for dinner. This is not all that remarkable in and of itself, but there’s a story:
A few months ago, we arranged an anniversary getaway to a cabin at Elim Grove attached to Raymond’s Bakery, in Cazadero near where the Russian River enters the Pacific. We highly recommend it if you find yourself looking for a B&B among the redwoods only a couple hours from San Francisco. Our dear son thought he’d send us out to dinner, so he searched for nearby restaurants, and set us up with reservations at El Paseo in Mill Valley
This was a lovely and kind thought. However, while Mill Valley is not all that far from Cazadero as the crow flies, it’s over an hour away as the car drives. Our dear son, who has not driven that area, would not know this.
I did not check this out before we left. So, after having driven the couple hours up to the cabin, we find out there’s no practical way to make it back down to Mill Valley that evening for dinner. We had to postpone it. Until yesterday evening.
The 40 mile drive from Concord to Mill Valley takes anywhere from just under an hour to an hour and a half or more depending on traffic. Bay Area traffic can be and often is evil, so we left in plenty of time to spare. And got there in a little over an hour.
With time to kill, we walked around beautiful, quaint and well-moneyed Mill Valley, a old city nestled in the Marin hills, beloved by hippies, former hippies and would-be hippies with money. That odd and frankly crazy blend of wealth and counter-culture that characterizes much of California’s self image is nowhere better expressed than here. Just as the hippies aged into the Greed is Good crowd on Wall Street in the 80s while somehow still imagining that they were not The Man to whom they had lately imagined they were sticking it, elderly boomers with millions grab will grab an organic frozen yogurt here and browse the boutiques for natural hemp clothing and handmade South American art. Their high priced lawyers will be engaged to sue to prevent some other resident’s latest act of architectural self-expression interfering with the view. And so on, after the manner of their kind. But it sure is beautiful and quaint – great place to stoll and grab dinner!
As we headed up Blythe (one of the main drags) we spotted an enormous, ugly church, which I immediately would have bet money on being Catholic. Sadly, I was right.
The Lord’s ways are not our ways, it is always good to keep in mind. We walked up and tried the door – locked. As we walked around the building, we tried the various side doors. Finally, on the far left, the last door was open! We went inside to look around.
One woman knelt in the middle section of pews, but otherwise the church was empty. Coming in at a weird angle far off to one side, it took me a minute to notice the monstrance atop the tabernacle – Adoration was in progress! All the sudden, that became a very beautiful church!
We knelt and prayed for a bit, then took a look around. I walked past the lady in the pews, who smiled and whispered, asking how I knew Adoration was being held – I told her we didn’t know, just lucked into it. She said they were doing an all night Adoration.
As we left, another woman was arriving. God bless them – and I’m sure He does! – for being there for Him. How beautiful that these parishioners keep this devotion.
As we headed out, I noticed the epiphany chalk inscription above the door of what appeared to be the rectory. Cool! So, whatever the architectural and artistic limitation, the people at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel seem intent on keeping the faith. God bless them all!
We descended down to our dinner. El Paseo is heavy on the quaint in keeping with Mill Valley city ordinances no doubt, set back from the street accessible via a brick passage and pateo and ensconced in an old brick building. Sammy Hagar, who you might have heard of and who fits in marvelously with the overall 60s sort of vibe of Mill Valley, bought and renovated the restaurant some years ago. I honored him by refusing to drive 55 on our way there and back.
All in all, a lovely evening was had by my beloved and me. The food and service were excellent, and Mill Valley is still beautiful. Our son’s kind deed was finally realized.
My compulsive surfing of YouTube turned up this wonderful video of some real Mongolians preparing and eating the classic Mongolian delicacy boodog with the enthusiasm appropriate to such a feast. As previously discussed on this here blog, first, you kill the goat:
The only tragedy from the non-goat perspective is that the dish is not pronounced Boo Dog, but rather, as you can hear on the video below, something more like buh-dig.
After watching the preparation and the party in the yurt, and seeing how it turned out, I’m thinking it’s not half as bad as it sounds: goat meat roasted in the goat’s own skin using hot rocks on the inside and a blowtorch on the outside.
Burning goat hair. That’s gotta smell – not good? But you end up with roasted goat with vegetables in a broth – sounds like dinner, and the people in the video seemed to like it just fine.
I did notice, however, a lot a vodka drunk straight from the bottle. We will generously assume it’s just traditional Mongol celebration drinking and not a necessary aide to getting the boodog down.
Anyway, I here repeat my call to use “Throwin’ Down the Boodog!” as the ultimate call to par-tay! Because boodog!
Since Youngest Son is off to a week of camping tomorrow early, we will be throwing down the Father’s Day boodog this evening. Since suburban Contra Costa County is woefully short goats, we will be throwing down with barbecued burgers, corn, guacamole and watermelon, and either some beer or margaritas.
So what do you think? Would you eagerly attend a real Mongolian barbecue to get a little of that boodog action?
Two thoughts: Like Hank himself, it seems the Enlightenment is, surprisingly, still kicking. Also: End the Enlightenment? Where’s the parade and party being held? Oh wait – Hank thinks that would be a bad thing. Hmmm.
Onward: Dr. K opines:
“What would be the impact on history of self-learning machines —machines that acquired knowledge by processes particular to themselves, and applied that knowledge to ends for which there may be no category of human understanding? Would these machines learn to communicate with one another? [quick hint: apparently, they do] How would choices be made among emerging options? Was it possible that human history might go the way of the Incas, faced with a Spanish culture incomprehensible and even awe-inspiring to them?”
Note: this moment of introspection was brought about by the development of a program that can play Go way better than people. Little background: Anybody can write a program to play tic-tac-toe, as the rules are clear, simple and very, very limiting: there are only 9 squares, so there will never be more than 9 options for any one move, and no more than 9+8+7+6+5+4+3+2+1 possible moves. A simple program can exhaust all possible moves, dictate the next move in all possible scenarios, and thus guarantee whatever outcome the game allows and the programmer wants – win or draw, in practice.
Chess, on the other hand, is much harder game, with an effectively inexhaustible number of possible moves and configurations. People have been writing chess playing programs for decades, and, a few decades ago, managed to come up with programs sophisticated enough to beat any human chess player. Grossly put, they work by a combination of heuristics used to whittle choices down to more plausible moves (any chess game contains the possibility of any number of seemingly nonsensical moves), simply brute-force playing out of possible good choices for some number of moves ahead, and refinement of algorithms based on outcomes to improve the heuristics. Since you can set two machines to play each other, or one machine to play itself, for as long or as many games as you like, the possibility arises – and seems to have taken place – that, by playing millions more games than any human could ever play, measuring the outcomes, and refining their rules for picking ‘good’ moves, computers can program themselves – can learn, as enthusiasts enthusiastically anthropomorphize – to become better chess players than any human being.
Go presents yet another level of difficulty, and it was theorized not too many years ago to not be susceptible to such brute-force solutions. A Go master can study a board mid-game, and tell you which side has the stronger position, but, legendarily, cannot provide any sort of coherent reason why that side holds an advantage. The next master, examining the same board, would, it was said, reach the same conclusion, but be able to offer no better reasons why.
At least, that was the story. Because of the even greater number of possible moves and the difficulty mid-game of assessing which side held the stronger position, it was thought that Go would not fall to machines any time soon, at least, if they used the same sort of logic used to create the chess playing programs.
Evidently, this was incorrect. So now Go has suffered the same fate as chess: the best players are not players, but machines with programs that have run through millions and millions of possible games, measured the results, programmed themselves to follow paths that generate the desired results, and so now cannot be defeated by mere mortals. (1)
But of course, the claim isn’t that AI is mastering games where the rules clearly define both all possible moves and outcomes, but rather is being applied to other fields as well.
After hearing this speech, Mr. Kissinger started to study the subject more thoroughly and learned that artificial intelligence goes far beyond automation. AI programs don’t deal only with the rationalization and improvement of means, they are also capable of establishing their own objectives, making judgments about the future and of improving themselves on the basis of their analysis of the data they acquire. This realization only caused Mr. Kissinger’s concerns to grow:
“How is consciousness to be defined in a world of machines that reduce human experience to mathematical data, interpreted by their own memories? Who is responsible for the actions of AI? How should liability be determined for their mistakes? Can a legal system designed by humans keep pace with activities produced by an AI capable of outthinking and potentially outmaneuvering them?”
“Capable of establishing their own objectives” Um, what? They are programs, run on computers, according to the rules of computers. It happens all the time that following the rule set, which is understood to be necessarily imperfect in accordance with Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, computer programs will do unexpected things (although I’d bet user error, especially on the part of the people who wrote the programming languages involved, is a much bigger player in such unexpected results than Godel).
I can easily imagine that a sophisticated (read: too large to be understood by anyone and thus likely to be full of errors invisible to anyone) program might, following one set of instructions, create another set of instructions to comply with some pre existing limitation or goal that may or may not be completely defined in itself. But I’d like to see the case where a manufacturing analysis AI, for example, sets an objective such as ‘become a tulip farmer’ and starts ordering overalls and gardening spades off Amazon. Which is exactly the kind of thing a person would do, but not the kind of thing one would expect a machine to do.
On to the Enlightenment, and Hank’s concerns:
“The Enlightenment started with essentially philosophical insights spread by a new technology. Our period is moving in the opposite direction. It has generated a potentially dominating technology in search of a guiding philosophy. AI developers, as inexperienced in politics and philosophy as I am in technology, should ask themselves some of the questions I have raised here in order to build answers into their engineering efforts. This much is certain: If we do not start this effort soon, before long we shall discover that we started too late.”
Anyway, go watch the videos at the bottom of the article linked above. What you see are exactly the problem Dr. K is worried about – “AI developers, as inexperienced in politics and philosophy as I am in technology” – although in a more basic and relevant context. The engineer in the videos keeps saying that they wrote a program that, without any human intervention and without any priming of the pump using existing human-played games of Go, *programmed itself* from this tabla rasa point to become the (machine) Master of (human) Masters!
When, philosophically and logically, that’s not what happened at all! The rules of the game, made up by humans and vetted over centuries by humans, contain within themselves everything which could be called the game of Go in its logical form. Thus, by playing out games under those rules, the machine is not learning something new and even less creating ex nihilo – it is much more like a clock keeping time than a human exploring the possibilities of a game.
The key point is that the rules are something, and something essential. They are the formal cause of the game. The game does not exist without them. No physical manifestation of the game is the game without being a manifestation of the rules. This is exactly the kind of sophomore-level philosophy the developers behind this program can almost be guaranteed to be lacking.
(Aside: this is also what is lacking in the supposed ‘universe simply arose from nothing at the Big Bang’ argument made by New Atheists. The marvelous and vast array of rules governing even the most basic particles and their interactions must be considered ‘nothing’ for this argument to make sense. The further difficulty arises from mistaking cause for temporal cause rather than logical cause, where the lack of a ‘before’ is claimed to invalidate all claims of causality – but that’s another topic.)
The starry-eyes developers now hope to apply the algorithms written for their Go program to other areas, since they are not dependent on Go, but were written as a general solution. A general solution, I hasten (and they do not hasten) to add: with rules, procedures and outcomes as clearly and completely defined as those governing the game of Go.
Unlike Dr. Kissinger, I am not one bit sorry to see the Enlightenment, a vicious and destructive myth with a high body count and even higher level of propaganda to this day, die ASAP. I also differ in what I fear, and I think my reality-based fears are in fact connected with why I’d be happy to see the Enlightenment in the dustbin of History (hey, that’s catchy!): What’s more likely to happen is that men, enamoured of their new toy, will proceed to insist that life really is whatever they can reduce to a set of rules a machine can follow. That’s the dystopian nightmare, in which the machines merely act out the delusions of the likes of Zuckerberg. It’s the delusions we should fear, more than the tools this generation of rootless, self-righteous zealots dream of using to enforce them.
There was a period, in the 1980s if I’m remembering correctly, where the best chess playing programs could be defeated if the human opponent merely pursued a strategy of irrational but nonfatal moves: the programs, presented repeatedly with moves that defied the programs’ heuristics, would break. But that was a brief Star Trek moment in the otherwise inexorable march forward of machines conquering all tasks that can be fully defined by rules, or at least getting better at them than any human can.
Been a crazy busy/stressful last several days. Here’s where we stand:
A. Beta readers: Got feedback already from several of you – thanks! Just send the same story to a couple more people. Right now, I’ve got 6 beta readers! Wow! You guys are generous.
I want to give each of your comments proper consideration, which, given both time constraints and focus distracted by Real Life, I have yet to do. Thought a three-day weekend would give me an opportunity, but didn’t happen. Now looking at school camping trip this weekend (supposed to be 93F – oh, joy.) followed by the year end/graduation party next weekend, with Mrs Yardsale flying to SoCal to be with Elder Daughter for her graduation from an acting conservatory in L.A.. Meanwhile, 80 yr old mother in law lives with us, which is overall a beautiful thing for which I am grateful, but it does eat time and cramp any spontaneity. And all this is on top of Other Stuff that’s taking a toll on time, concentration, sleep – the usual.
Sooo – please be patient. I really do appreciate all your comments, and will make revisions as appropriate.
B. What’s up with this r/K theory of political alignment? Ran into it a few times over the last few months, even found a free book expounding it (by some anonymous author who says it’s his idea). Count me unimpressed.
Here’s how it goes:
In biology, r = rate of procreation; K = an environment’s carrying capacity for a particular creature. These variables became associated with two reproductive strategies, called r and K.
So: in an environment of relative abundance, an r strategy is proposed as best from a Darwinian/gene survival point of view: produce as many offspring as possible as fast as possible. Animals pursuing (in that weird sense in which animals are said to pursue gene-survival strategies ) an r-strategy exhibit 5 behaviors:
Conflict avoidance. Avoid competing;
Reproduce young and often;
Breed indiscriminately – lots of mating with whoever is handy;
Provide minimal or no care in raising the offspring;
Show no group loyalty – no concern for other members of your tribe.
The r-strategy is said to occur in prey animals, where predation keeps their numbers down to a point where survival is never a question of competition for scarce resources. The population is always below the environment’s carrying capacity. The reasoning is thus: if there is plenty of food and water, don’t fight over it; if predators are likely to pick you off sooner rather than later, breed early and often; since survival is a numbers game, don’t waste time finding an optimal mate or raising your young; everybody gets eaten sooner or later, so no point worrying about who is getting eaten today.
The K-strategy is said to occur among predators, whose numbers tend to be constrained by the availability of prey. Thus, they live at or near the carrying capacity K of their environment. The optimal strategy is said to include:
Competition is natural and unavoidable, so you’d better compete agressively;
Only the most fit offspring survive, so delay and limit breeding to produce fewer but very fit offspring;
Mates are chosen carefully and competed over, as the most fit mate produces the most fit offspring
Large investment in raising the young, with both parents and the herd/pack taking care;
Show loyalty and interest in the group you belong to, because that’s the group your mating prospects and survival depend upon.
You can see where this is going. Rabbits are the example typically given of an r-strategy species. It’s an appealing generalization – I recall seeing a video of a stoat hunting rabbits in a field full of rabbits. The stoat picked his target, and began to harass and exhaust it while the other rabbits continued to nibble away at the abundant grass. The stoat eventually killed it. (The stoat leapt on the rabbit’s back, bit through the rabbit’s spine at the neck, and then dragged the much larger prey away. Nasty little devils.)
The other rabbits hardly looked up during the whole ordeal. Presumably, they went back to the warren and bred like, well, rabbits immediately after being sated with grass.
Wolves are given as the K-strategy poster-creatures. They compete with each other yet also hunt as a team, they spend comparatively large amounts of time and effort raising comparatively fewer young to be as fit as possible. Only mature, fit individuals get to breed. Wolves are loyal to their pack. They compete for the best mates.
Humans, it is proposed, are genetically disposed toward one or the other of these strategies, because our environments run to both extremes. When we’re settled and competing for resources with each other, K is successful and r would be out competed. But when we migrate to new places where there are no people, such as we hominids have done repeatedly for the last million years, then an r strategy wins. We’d just be wasting time with a K strategy, competing with each other when we could be out hunting the abundant game or gathering the abundant edibles – and breeding up a bunch of offspring.
Accordingly, r-strategy Americans end up Democrats or Socialists. while K-strategy Americans gravitate toward being Republicans or Libertarians.
There is more to read, which the author claims gives all the boring scientific evidence and reasoning for all this, but I think we’ve already arrived at a point where a boatload of prudent skepticism is called for. First off, like all sociobiological theories, there’s large dollop of Just So story here. The inquiring mind wants to know: how, exactly, would one even construct an experiment or field study to demonstrate any of this in the animal kingdom? Not saying it can’t be done, but it’s not obvious. How does one measure, for example, identify breeding preferences in wild populations, let alone group cohesion or how much a parent morns? While it’s easy to say an elephant mourns when its baby dies, and that a rat does not, how are we to measure this? How do we filter out the anthropomorphizing and confirmation biases?
Then, you’d need to replicate it across a bunch of species and environments to prove it out. Then you’d need the usual double-blind non-WEIRD study of people across a wide population – you know, like is almost never done – before applying any of this to human beings in general.
For starters. Then there’s the claim that there are genetic markers for behaviors as generally ill-defined as being liberal or conservative – or something, haven’t gotten to that part yet. I’m doubtful.
What I’m not doubtful of is the appeal of sociobiological explanations for complex human behavior. We’re into our second century of explaining what makes people tick based on some understanding of Darwin or other. Such explanations reveal much more about what the explainer is interested in than what’s going on in the world.
As a footnote, here’s my pet sociobiological theory: some people will only eat food with which they are familiar, others look forward to trying new dishes. (confession: heading off to a Peruvian restaurant tonight to celebrate our 31st anniversary. Why? Because I’ve never been to a Peruvian restaurant before. So you know where I fall.)
Here’s why, according to the theory which is mine: farms have been part of the environment of evolutionary adaptation for many thousands of years now. Settled people tend toward a set menu – what available on the farm and nearby. So natural selection has inclined them to be ‘eat what I know’ types. Meanwhile, other people migrate, such as across the Bering land bridge or on boats to Hawaii. They arrive at places full of edible stuff they’ve never seen before. For such people, the willingness to try new stuff is a must. Natural selection inclines them to go, say, to a Peruvian restaurant.
Of course, a spectrum of behaviors will exist here, as the fuddy-duddies and adventurous insist on marrying each other occasionally, mixing up all those genes. But the extremes prove the point.
Well? You convinced? How is this argument weak in a way other sociobiological arguments are not?
Yesterday’s post got off leash and wandered, going places I didn’t start out intending to go. Nothing wrong with that, or, rather, nothing wrong with it that isn’t also wrong with about 95% of the content on this here blog. That said, let’s take up the theme again, see where it goes this time.
I posited that there are two consistent themes in America’s political history, one of which believes that all problems can be solved if the right people – good, forward-thinking people – have overwhelming power. The power is required to be overwhelming, as there exist Bad People who must be overwhelmed. In fact, the problem definition of those who embrace this line of thought always, as in, always, contains the idea that it is only bad people who oppose them, that good people would never dream of opposing them.
Thus, we have a dichotomy: the rhetoric used by such people will always be about justice, fairness, the little people, and how their goals would be simply achievable, inevitable, even, except for the bad people who lie, bully and obfuscate in order to stop them. The rhetoric is ultimately moral; with all morality on the side of those on the team, and complete immorality the defining characteristic of the opposition.
But: the concrete actions proposed are always, as in always, a power grab; the methods are almost without exception immoral by any objective measure. The likes of Dewey and Alinsky even acknowledge this when they denounce any who would hesitate to lie, manipulate or do any other evil to further the cause. Freire, among others, makes it clear that there are no rights except those gained by commitment to the Cause. While life and property are the obvious targets – we kill you and take your stuff being the logically inevitable next step of these self-appointed messiahs – the right one might imagine one has to be told the truth is, in practice, the first victim of effort. As Dewey, taking a break from re-architecting our modern school system, said in his defense of the Russian Revolution, the end is all that matters; the collective means everything, the individual nothing.
As, I think, Zinn, of all people, points out: the Puritans fled relative religious freedom in England and Europe in order to establish their own theocracy in America. Be that as it may, the founders of Harvard were graduates and professors from Cambridge miffed that that hoary institution wasn’t Puritan enough, but still tolerated less pure and Puritan ideas. So off to America they go, to set up a proper Calvinist state. Per Wikipedia’s article on Harvard:
A 1643 publication gave the school’s purpose as “to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust”; in its early years trained many Puritan ministers. It offered a classic curriculum on the English university model—many leaders in the colony had attended the University of Cambridge—but conformed to the tenets of Puritanism. It was never affiliated with any particular denomination, but many of its earliest graduates went on to become clergymen in Congregational and Unitarian churches.
The ‘never affiliated with any particular denomination’ is an odd claim – when the stated goal is to provide replacements for ‘our present ministers’ and the state is an arm of the Church, as it most certainly was in colonial Boston, what would ‘never affiliated’ mean? Also, one might get the impression from the way the above is worded that Congregational and Unitarian ministers were trained together at Harvard in a lovely gesture of ecumenism. What actually happened was that around 1800, a battle raged between the ‘almost certainly damned and there’s nothing you can do about it’ Calvinist Congregationalist and the ‘we’re all saved and there’s no way for us not to be’ Univeralists, which was ultimately won by the Universalists. Because Universalists, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, don’t really believe anything, Harvard quickly fell to the secularists. (1)
The point here is that, while what has proved to be the superficial aspects of religion have been shed, the core belief that, if only they were in charge, the leaders of the Harvard community would bring about some sort of paradise on earth has persisted unabated, and, having shed the restraints of even Calvinist Christianity, is even more hell-bent on the destruction of its enemies.
While really truly Calvinist Puritans despised all other beliefs, believing Methodists, for example, almost certainly damned, they shared with other Protestants a particular hatred of Catholicism. They (we) were the real enemy, the Church the whore of Babylon. Over the last century or so, many ‘good’ Catholics have fallen under the sway of Harvard, and will, as the price of sitting at the cool kid’s table, embrace the project.
Of course, not everyone gets to go to Harvard. But there are workarounds. Early in the 19th century, Harvard ditched its ‘classic curriculum on the English university model’ and refashioned itself into a research or Prussian-model University, after the then-new University of Berlin. In the 18th century, various president and scholars at Harvard had prided themselves on their mastery of Latin and the classics; commencement speeches were delivered in Latin. But this began to pass away, as Harvard lost its religious drive and replaced it with the Prussian model’s research drive. It became much more important to discover new things, to advance mankind, than to pass on old things such as Latin and the classics.
As the oldest and most successful University in America, and as the source of key faculty and administration to other American colleges, Harvard was the model to follow. Publish or perish. Get in line with Progress. We are centuries smarter than those old guys anyway.
Everybody learns this wherever they go to school in America. (2)
The dominant position of this take has made assuming those who do not share it are ignorant, stupid and evil as easy as falling down for those who accept it. You, the true believer, owe them nothing but contempt. Following Marx, you would assume there is practically no chance you can awaken them to the enlightened truth, although, out of the goodness of your heart you might try. That’s how it happens that we who disagree get lectured on what we believe by those hoping to convince us, and dismissed with ad hominems when we push back. You either get it and are woke, or you don’t and are broke beyond repair.
The other thread mentioned yesterday, the one championed by Washington and the writers of the Federalist Papers, is the ferocious commitment to being free from tyrants of any flavor. To such a one, the most pathetic belief possible is that today’s wannabe tyrant, arriving in the fullness of time and one the Right Side of History, cares, really cares, about Justice, Fairness and all that is good, and will only inflict the degree of harm on our enemies that is necessary to achieve the Good.
Having seen the world operate under tyrants, under Central Committees and Committees for Public Safety and Five Year Plans, having read about Athens and Florence and Paris and the whiplash of mob rule to tyranny to aristocracy and back, and all the innocents destroyed and all the wealth robbed and wasted, we aren’t buying that now, finally, it will work of only we put a nice man like Bernie in charge. He’ll only seize the wealth of those who have too much (presumably more than three houses and a net worth of a couple million, but I’m sure that’s flexible…) and give it to those who deserve it!
What could go wrong? We, the Enlightened, the Woke, simply won’t repeat the results of EVERY OTHER ATTEMPT THROUGH ALL OF HISTORY to anoint a secular savior. We just won’t, and you’re a meanie, an unenlightened bad person to even bring it up.
Is it any wonder the Bern wants college for everyone?
I’ve long noticed something I call the Christian Hangover, where those who have drunk deeply of Christian ideals typically stay drunk on them for a generation or even two, all the while claiming their behaviors are not based on Christianity. Thus, we often see rabid atheists, at least for the first generation or even two, behaving more or less like traditional Christian gentlemen. It falls to their children or sometimes grandchildren to reach the logical conclusion that gentlemanly behavior is stupid under their current beliefs. This is why it is a good thing atheists have so few children. Harvard kept up appearances until almost 1900. It went from demanding traditional moral behavior from its staff – a manifestation of its internalized Puritanism – to tolerating bad behavior if you kept it quiet, to tolerating bad behavior out in the open to, today, demanding the enthusiastic embrace of immorality as a condition of employment. Increase Mather’s corpse is doing about 1,000 RPMs.
With, one hopes, the exception of the Newman List schools and some of the committed Evangelical schools. And maybe St. John’s College.
For those just joining us, to recap – my main point about schooling: the graded classroom model is the problem. Segregating children by age, putting them into classrooms and teaching them all the same stuff at the same time regardless of what they already know or are interested in is such a crazy and destructive idea it could only have come from academia.
And it did.
But but but… people imagine there’s something logically or historically compelling about this barbaric practice, as if compulsory graded classroom schooling somehow represents a rational evolution in education. They imagine poor children, neglected by? parents? If not, who? who needed to be rounded up and MADE to sit in a classroom, for their own good. And that Science! had discovered, for example, that having 35 kids learn See Spot Run together was *better* than having them taught individually to read from the King James Bible on grandma’s knee. (1)
Were some kids in the bad old days neglected and uneducated? Sure – just as they are now, except now, it’s generally among those in school. Do you imagine kids in those ‘underperforming’ inner city schools are learning much? Before they drop out for good, as a majority in such schools do? Whatever horror stories the education establishment can cook up about homeschooled kids pale to insignificance compared to their failures as seen in the products of their own schools.
Horace Mann, after Fichte as taught in the University of Berlin, saw state run compulsory schooling not as a way to educate children in anything so trivial as reading, writing and arithmetic. Rather, he saw it as a way to morally educate children. Fichte had floated the idea to the educated elites of Berlin that the problem with Germany wasn’t to be found in the mirror, but rather in the education of the children out there. Those peasants and shopkeepers imagine that their children are, you know, theirs. But all enlightened people, such as the Berliners who paid to attending lectures by Fichte, know that the individual only has value as a part of the state. Therefore, proper education destroys the free will of the child and replaces it with unquestioned obedience to the state. Proper education also removes the child as completely as possible from the influence of the parents. Fichte imagined that children would be seized at some very young age, removed from their homes to be educated by state officials.
Fichte says as a simple matter of fact that what a child most wants as he matures is the approval of his father, which desire can easily be transferred to the teacher certified by the state for just this task. Just so long as we get the actual fathers out of the picture early enough. The compulsory state-run graded classroom model of schooling was invented specifically to implement Fichte’s ideas.
Does anything going on today ring a bell? Schoolwork and activities eliminating family time? Fathers out of the picture much? Wide diversity of thought encouraged in school? Most of all, conformity to the opinions of your betters if you want to get ahead?
You can search the archives here for the source materials for the above. Today, I want to discuss the problem of what I’ll call the two schools. One school would be in an expanded sense a home school. Sometimes it indeed took place in the home, such as the above mentioned grandmother teaching a child to read on her knee. Other times, it would be schooling that supported what went on in the home, including the personal relationships of siblings, cousins and neighbors, such as the classic American one-room schools. For the upper crust, it would include all the tutors and even the academies provided for their children. These practices and institutions reinforced what a child would learn in the home – or the parents wouldn’t inflict them on their kids. They tend to be much less time and energy intensive than modern schooling.
The second school might be represented by the work of St. John Bosco. His schools were indeed centralized, highly structured affairs. The boys boarded there. The approval of the priests and brothers did indeed substitute for the approval the boys’ fathers. There was indeed a fairly rigid code of behavior rather strongly enforced. So one might be tempted – indeed, many seem to have succumbed – to think that modern schools are much like the best Catholic schools of yore.
But there is one great difference: in the first schools, more or less intact families operating within solid social structures and rules used very flexible and diverse means to educate their kids. Read the biographies of early American heros to see this in practice. Less rich or ambitious families might do less than the better off more ambitious ones, maybe going with apprenticeships and such at earlier ages, but the general pattern of seeing schooling as something done within and to reinforce existing social relationships is clear.
Don Bosco was dealing with abandoned boys. He understood that first, before any formal education could take place, he needed to provide some form of home to his students. Homes set examples, provide comfort and structure and enforce basic discipline. There were no fathers or mothers, so the brothers must step up into that role as much as possible. Thus, the practices of Don Bosco’s school were much more defined by needing to provide a home than a school. The schooling, while excellent (and directed toward getting the boys gainful employment and thus a place in their society) was by necessity very secondary.
Don Bosco found orphaned or abandoned boys begging and stealing on the streets, and, out of Christian love, wanted to help them. His highly structured schools thus arose from a very different set of needs and goals than modern schools.
We must not get sucked into accepting parallels between modern graded classroom schooling and schooling that grew out of trying to care for orphaned and abandoned children. They might look very similar superficially, but the needs and goals are completely different.
Based on history and reason, the practices we should consider when thinking how schooling should truly be done are the practices of the first kinds of schooling, homeschooling broadly considered. We should assume family and culture as that within which education takes place. We should grow more comfortable with the freedom such educations provide to both the child and the family.
We should not be sucked in to imagining that modern schooling could be made to be more like the benevolent model set up by the early Salesians under Don Bosco. Both modern schooling and Don Bosco’s schools are trying to replace families. The difference is that modern schooling seeks to destroy the families that exist, while Bosco sought to stand in for families that should have been there but weren’t.
One review I read of the remake of True Grit pointed out that the dialogue, being based on the language of the book, captured the KJV flavor of everyday communication in what was then the West. In literate households – and practically ALL households were literate in 19th century America outside slaves, former slaves and some new immigrants – the one book that was likely to be everywhere was the Bible. So the King James translators’ flavored the English in America for generations. Read some of the letters written during the Civil War, and you’ll see it.
Contrary to the above title, I will not be deploying a chemical solution to the weeds of the Internet, but rather plucking a few flowers:
First, David Warren talks about the history of health and medical care. He is the son of a mother who spent her career in healthcare, and so has perhaps a different perspective than most. Much of what he says is news to me: that the adoption of anesthetics, which make life easier on the doctor, was all but instantaneous across the Western world once demonstrated in Boston in 1846, but that the effectiveness of sterile surgery in preventing infections and increasing patient survival chances was demonstrated in 1865 in Glasgow – but was not universally adopted until well into the 20th century – soldiers by the thousands were dying of easily preventable infections in WWI, half a century after it had demonstrated that such deaths were easily preventable. If you sedate patients, you can more easily perform surgery and people will more easily submit to it (that anyone submitted to significant surgery without being anesthetized is frankly amazing) – and that’s good for business. But someone with a bullet wound is in no condition to complain about filthy conditions in your operating room. He’ll be in no condition to complain about much of anything soon enough, most likely.
His point is that what history shows is that doctors are all over changes that make their lives easier, and less ready to adopt changes that impose work on them – while simple enough, it is a lot of work to keep things sterile – even when it benefits the patients greatly. I think it’s fair to say Warren isn’t picking on doctors uniquely here, but rather pointing out how things work among us fallen people.
One of his main points is also one of my main points, made occasionally here: you want to improve people’s health? Sanitation and clean water get you most of the benefits. The formula I usually use: Sanitation, clean water, plenty of calories on a regular basis and political stability. These cover by far the lion’s share of the improvement in life expectancy that the modern world has experienced.
Then, for medicine, it’s the cheap basic stuff that provides almost all of the benefits: antibiotics, vaccines, and a sterile environment for medical care. Now, I am personally very grateful for some of the more fancy stuff – blood pressure meds, various straight-forward surgeries, and – very big one, this – modern dental care (people died from infections around impacted teeth and dental abscesses, or had their health greatly compromised).
I’ve now made it to 60, which means, historically, I’m playing with house money from here on out. Life expectancy for an American male in 1900 was 49. While there are many cases like me, of people whose comparative longevity and vigor have resulted from some more advanced medical care, the overall increase is due almost entirely to simple, cheap, proven practices.
Lots more good stuff in that essay – you’d do better reading it than hanging out here, that’s for sure.
Next, some Feynman quotations, in honor of his 100th birthday (he didn’t make it to the celebration). These are not my personal favorites, except for these:
2. “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”
As Feynman said in The Character of Physical Law, many people understand other sophisticated physical theories, including Einstein’s relativity. But quantum mechanics resists an equivalent depth of understanding. Some disagree, proclaiming that they understand quantum mechanics perfectly well. But their understanding disagrees with the supposed understanding of others, equally knowledgeable. Perhaps Feynman’s sentiment might better be expressed by saying that anyone who claims to understand quantum mechanics, doesn’t.
I find this comforting, somehow, as I certainly don’t understand it. Also, it illustrates something that would fall out from the assumption that the mind – oops, the brain, which is assumed to be the mind and not merely the organ of the mind – resulted from Natural Selection: we would not expect anything in nature that falls outside the realm of things that affect our survival chances to be understandable by a brain designed by exactly those things which affect our survival chances. Quantum mechanics cannot have had any role in our ancestors’ environment of evolutionary adaptation. They did not shape spears or hunt warthogs better based on their understanding of Heisenberg, with those with a better understanding somehow, all other things being equal, killing more warthogs.
The more interesting question: how is it, under Natural Selection, that anybody cares about quantum mechanics at all? Or about any of the other millions of things humans have been interested in, obsessed over, even, that have no effect on our survival chances? I think the claim that, somehow, understanding quantum mechanics, however imperfectly, or art or music or philosophy and so on falls out from evolutionary theory should be accompanied by evidence that masters of such fields have comparatively many and vigorous children. Otherwise, it is a just so story in the face of contrary evidence.
Natural Selection, while beautiful in its way, cannot be the whole story.
1. “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”
The best Feynman quote of all (from a 1974 address), and the best advice to scientists and anybody else who seeks the truth about the world. The truth may not be what you’d like it to be, or what would be best for you, or what your preconceived philosophy tells you that it is. Unless you recognize how easily you can be fooled, you will be.
This idea is unknown to most people, it seems, and applied to others first by most who do know it – that guy over there is fooling himself. Rare is the man who consistently applies this to himself first. I aspire to this, but it is hard.
Next, on Twitter, which I use to publicize posts here and follow writers, Catholics, scientists and the various combinations of those traits the real world provides, I’m conducting a whimsical experiment. 20 years ago, I wrote a bunch of jokes for a defunct humor list. No money involved, mostly just the honor of amusing the other writers. While obviously I’m not great at it – I’m working a desk job, and have been for almost 40 years now – I did make the honorary Hall of Fame and have a small pile of fan letters from readers. So, no great shakes, but not totally worthless either.
So I’ve taken to posting a recycled joke or 2 each day, to see what happens. Note: I think I understand Twitter about as well as I understand quantum mechanics. ‘Impressions’ is twitterese for eyeballs (well, eyeballs divided by roughly 2) in front of which pass your tweet. I have a bit over 200 ‘followers’ who, if they all checked their feed every day, should result in about 200 ‘impressions’ per tweet as a baseline.
Some followers are just people trying to sell stuff – they come and go, and at any rate are not checking their twitter feeds every day. The reality is that I’ll get around 100 ‘impressions’ for just some random tweet. But if people ‘like’ or better ‘retweet’ a tweet of mine, I’ll get well over 100, since the tweet is now exposed to the eyeballs on the likers or retweeters tweets.
Once, I tweeted some insults at Carl Sagan, Bill Nye and that Tyson fellow. These resulted in over 100,000 impressions a day for a few days. People took sides, tempers flared, people insulted me back. Good times. Otherwise, I’ll post from 0 to 2 tweets and get 250 impressions on a typical day. Days go by without me tweeting or even looking. I really have no idea what to make of Twitter.
Anyway, back to my research. What I’ve discovered: using ‘impressions’ as a surrogate for ‘funny’, I have no idea what other people think is funny. What I mean: if people ‘like’ and retweet a joke, more eyeballs hit it. If they don’t, fewer. So the number of eyeballs could be a measure of how funny a joke is. Maybe. It’s a stretch, but – maybe.
Back when I was writing these jokes, this one, that I tossed off as a ‘meh’ joke, was my most admired quip based on largely anecdotal evidence, for reasons that escape me:
People often wonder what it is that makes the Beatles so great. I think it is probably their songs.
That got a fairly decent response on Twitter. I have no idea why. I’ve only been doing this for a week, but so far, my ‘best’ joke by far based on Twitter metrics is:
The tiny fish gets eaten by the little fish, which gets eaten by the big fish, which gets eaten by the bigger fish, which gets put into a can and fed to my cat. Personally, I’m holding off marveling at the grandeur of Nature at least until the cat can use the can opener.
Ok, I guess. Over 700 sets of eyeballs have seen this in the couple hours since I threw it up there.
For comparison, here are two of my favorites that still crack me up, in the form of headlines – haven’t tweeted them yet:
Child Development Center Releases Prototype
Phlogiston Blamed in Antique Shop Fire
My understanding of humor is, um, idiosyncratic? Is that too nice a way to put it?