Good and perfect

This technique is employed big time by the self styled “moral leaders” of our society.
We can always imagine better than anybody can achieve, so you are guaranteed to be right when you say that anybody, anywhere at anytime is not living up to standard. You can also seize the rhetorical high moral ground. The only problem is that it is completely dishonest and ends up harming everyone.

I spent my career trying to explain the USA to foreign audiences. When I gave a lecture, I would usually start by saying that anything they think about the USA is probably true. We have great examples of the good and bad in humanity within our borders. We strive to be “more perfect” which implies we will never get there. But we had to apply the “compared to what?” criterion, the only valid measure.

This was not a defensive crouch. It rather expressed a belief in diversity, progress and continual improvement, as well as a preference for the real world good over the ethereal perfection. America, I explained, is lived better than it is often portrayed, and it was not in spite of our lack of perfection but because of it. When I gave this talk before the fall of the Soviet Union, I used to digress into the Soviet constitution, which I said was much better than ours in theory, but horribly wrong in practice. It was good to be compared to such a benighted place.

Most of my talks were give-and-take, so each was different and responded to peculiar audience preference. Each was different and adaptive. In all modesty, I was very good at these things, and always got good reviews and request. I brag about this for a specific purpose here. What made them good was the give-and-take. I never knew exactly what I would say.

And I would close my program with a recognition of that. I would explain that the reason that they liked the program is that they had helped build it, that I could not do it w/o them, and that the reason we could do so well is that we were not scripted. My implication was that we were seeking something good, but did not expect perfect.

Hate the president if you want, but do not underestimate America

Winston Churchill supposedly quipped that Americans always do the right thing … after they have tried everything else. I do not see that as an insult, and I am do not think Churchill did either.

America has always relied on a decentralized system with distributed decision-making. Much of what other countries do with central authority is done in the USA by state or local authorities, or by the people themselves individually or in voluntary cooperation. It is an emergent system, and emergent systems are hard to understand, so they are often dismissed.

It is not true that in emergent systems nobody is in charge and it certainly is not true that people are not working together. In fact, emergent social systems are often more tightly coordinated than hierarchical ones. They are just harder to diagram. It is also not true that nobody is in charge, but rather that authority is fluid.

Historians, like I was, we hate emergent systems because we cannot put them into our narratives. The narrative is that the king or the leader make a plan and then others carry it out. We often name whole ages after a particular leader. Leadership is important, but the leader is part of the emergent system too. The plan is important, but the it really works only as part of an emergent system.

The USA has been better than most in recognizing & harnessing emergence, but even we feel uneasy about it.

Let me bring all this to current events. Many of you reading this hate Trump with significant passion. You should get over that, but if you cannot at least recognize what is happening during this current COVID-19 crisis.

Everybody is feeling confused and nobody knows exactly what to do because that is at this point unknowable. I know that our central planners hate this idea even more than they hate Trump, but it is true. The fact that we do not have one central plan does not mean that we have no plan.

We have a wonderful plan and an even better process. Lot of people are making decisions about things they know about and this distributed decision-making has been producing an emergent and adaptive plan.

Despite all the gnashing of teeth and screaming, the USA is doing well in addressing this crisis. You need not credit Trump. In fact you should NOT credit him. The American nation is greater than the American government and the American government is greater than the current occupant of the WH, whoever that is.

What we have is bench strength and institutional resilience. Lots of people are thinking about the problem and coming up with lots of solutions. None of these will work to solve the problem, but together they can adapt one. This solution will not be perfect because we can always imagine something better than anybody can achieve, but it will very likely be better than any alternative.

It is tempting to demand THE plan, but better to have many options and make choices from that. None of us really knows much of anything, but all of us together know quite a lot.
When a treatment is found for COVID-19, American science will be a big part of that. The same goes for a vaccine. Everybody kind of knows this, no matter how much we pretend otherwise.

Hate the president if you want, but do not underestimate America.

Summers Vindicated (Again)


How much do innate differences account for differing outcomes? This is an uncomfortable question and even asking it is dangerous. Larry Summers lost his job at Harvard in part for stating a truth about how the distributions of men and women differ, with the male distribution having a much higher dispersal, i.e. the average is very similar but there are more men at the extreme genius level and more men among the abject failures.

Science has been unable to determine how much of this comes from biology and how much is from cultural reasons. What is not in dispute is that men and women – in the aggregate – make different choices that result in different outcomes. We stipulate that we should counter all forms of overt discrimination. We are talking about what would remain even if we were 100% successful, the differences based on innate characteristics or choices. If we could identify the sources of this, what should we do?

John Rawls, on whose theories are an important underpinning for current progressive ideas on justice, talked about the vail of ignorance. If you did not know what position you would have in society, what sort of society would you choose?

Let’s adapt Rawls’ formulation a little. If you knew nothing about what your position in society would be, would you choose to be male of female in America? Consider the following – the distribution of men and women is different. A male will have a better chance of being among the top individuals in professions, business and science. Good. But there are not many people who reach these heights. The top 1% is … 1%. A male also has a greater chance of being homeless, landing in jail, being a victim of violent crime, dying in an on the job incident and dying in general. Men don’t live as long. Recent research indicates that although females earn less on average than males, women control more than half of all the personal wealth in the U.S. Some of this is likely related to the living longer factor.

Anyway, if you were a non-designated individual in some ethereal plane, and given the choice of gender – with absolutely no other information about whether you would be born rich or poor, privileged or persecuted, lucky or cursed – which would you choose?

Fear tactics

Interesting misuse of statistics.  Cancer is a serious issue. The report on which this is based headlines “Effective prevention measures urgently needed to prevent cancer crisis.”  But there is no crisis. Why is cancer rising? Because people are living longer.  If you live long enough, cancer will kill you.  Our ancestors were “spared” cancer because most died of something else first.  The black plague was a great way to avoid cancer or heart disease. It seems less a crisis to know that increased cancer is caused by longer lives.

It reminds me of the headline from the Onion “World Death Rate Holding Steady At 100 Percent.”  It went on to call all medicine a failure, since it clearly had not prevented even one death in the long run of history.

The good news is that cancer rates have been dropping for two decades, that is when you compare the comparable.  Naturally, an 80-year-old has a greater risk of dying of anything than a 20-year-old.  If you have more old guys, more people die. It doesn’t mean life is more dangerous.

BTW homicides using guns has also dropped a lot.  They are down 49% in the last twenty years.  Rape rates have dropped to one-sixth of what they were 20 years ago.
The fact is that almost everything is getting better, but we don’t know that because the reports are much worse.  Some of this just has to do with the news.  But much of it is the active measures by activists to create fear to gain more funding or political power.  Life is not perfect today, but it really is better than ever.

But if you want to be afraid, let me help.  I can guarantee that sometime in the future something will kill you.  Nobody gets out of here alive.  And if you live long enough, you will get cancer.  Believe it.

The sum of all fears gets smaller

One of the biggest transformations in our lifetimes is happening before our eyes. America is becoming energy independent. U.S. CO2 emission have dropped to twenty year lows and are still going down (we will soon hit our putative Kyoto targets) while production of U.S. oil is at a 17 year high and we have never before in our history produced as much natural gas as we do today.

In a short time, the Middle East won’t really matter to us very much anymore and we won’t be so affected by various petro-despots. We will be producing most of our own energy right here in America and the rest will come from nearby.

I still find this hard to believe. But things like this happen. I remember when the Soviet Union collapsed. Nobody predicted it would happen and then it seems like no time that the thing that had threatened all our lives was gone.

I remember the 1970s. Experts told us that we would soon run out of oil and gas. We had to freeze in the cold. Today we have achieved energy production way beyond my wildest dreams at that time.

Some big fears I had in the 1970s have just gone away. Let me list the top five.

1. Soviet Union/nuclear war
2. Energy crisis
3. Population bomb
4. Global cooling
5. Stagflation (well that one could come back)

I graduated HS 40 years ago and worried about the future of my country and of the planet. Things turned out a lot better than I thought they would. 40 years from now there is a good chance I will be dead, but if I am not and I can still remember and reason, I expect that most of the big things i worry about today will be as quaint as the five listed above.

We should think about the future and work to solve the problems of today, but most of the bad things we fear don’t happen or turn out to be unimportant when they do. I hesitate to just be insouciant because it is so UN-PC, but that has always been one of my characteristics. It seems glib to say “don’t worry, be happy” but sometimes I think that is the best advice I can give.

Bright educational future

We are often told how bad things are. This is good if it makes us strive to be better, but not if it leads to despair. I have been working on education for the last year & I am here to remind you that we have a superb higher education system and it is adapting and getting better all the time. I am particularly impressed by the community college system, which will, after all, help train the bulk of our future labor force.

I was reminded of the Morrill Act of 1862 and the follow up in 1890. You may not have heard of these things. These are among the greatest contributors to America that you have never heard of. or maybe don’t know much about. The others, IMO, are the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Homestead Act of 1862 & the GI Bill of 1944. The Morrill Act granted land to states to build universities that would teach useful things like science, mechanics/engineering & agriculture and research the same. Their mission was the Hatch Act of 1887, which established agricultural experiment stations. Our big research universities are land grant. Most are public, the exceptions being Cornell and MIT. But I digress.

I am impressed with the system. I find that it is much better than I understood it was before the visit. My earlier understanding was simplistic and outdated. I still thought in terms of a university or a school as the unit of analysis. I knew that schools created and maintained connections with other schools and the outside community, but what I didn’t really understand was the extent that all these entities have effectively merged. This is why the ecosystem analogy is apt. The parts of schools are not only interacting with other parts and outside actors; they are dependent and cooperative with entities well removed from their own cooperation. It is like the bird that eats berries on top of a tree in interacting with soil bacteria that allow the roots to take advantage of minerals many steps removed.

The coordinating mechanism is a kind of distributed decision making process. All the various actors are responding to the changing circumstances, incentives and opportunities. The mature educational ecosystem provides lots of shared services or at least opportunities that all can use. This makes the power of big institutions less overwhelming and empowers smaller institutions. It levels the playing field when everybody has access to resources that once were concentrated only in well-established institutions.

All this means that we are on the threshold of a new age of higher education. This is the same revolution experienced by big industry in the 1970s and 1980s. That was when the advantage of the big and established organizations eroded. You didn’t need to have in-house services when such things were available by outside vendors cheaper and more efficiently. The education establishment hung on a bit longer providing full services. In fact, the positions of the majors strengthened as customers moved to prestige providers. There were few alternative products and it was hard to unbundle them. The value of the name was strong.

I think this is changing rapidly. Educational wealth has been distributed wider. You can get a great education all over America and sometimes you don’t even have to enter a prestigious university program or a university program at all. The connections are all over the place now.

In my old world, you went through different stages. I remember one book I read called them “boxes of life.” You didn’t skip them and you rarely went back. You graduated HS; some went to college; you got out four years later and went to work for the next thirty or forty years and then retired. You were done with formal education for the most part the day you graduated. Today things are different. You have to keep learning. Students of various ages and occupations are mixing. Now you might go back to school or at least formal training many times during a working life. This education can be delivered in a variety of ways, at a variety of times by a variety of providers. The traditional four-year institution enjoys no advantages and the paradigm that brings people in at the bottom, processes them through a set program and graduates them at the end may in fact be a liability.

The new paradigm is much more customized. No two people take exactly the same coursework. Their needs are not the same. No one institution can satisfy all the needs. The expertise will not be available at any one institution. The expertise may not be available at all. It needs to be created in the process of the interaction of learning and teaching. It is an interesting new world.

My picture is just a big tree in New Orleans. I suppose I could think of a connection, but I just like trees. 

The Marvelous City

Espen and I are in Rio de Janeiro. This is the first time for him. I have been here a few times, but never really as a tourist.  So this time we went up to the Corcovada to see Christ the Redeemer, the iconic symbol of Rio. It seems very peaceful and serene in the pictures.  In real life it is teaming with people. 

You have two options. You can take the train or take a car to a parking lot and then take a van to the top.  We took the car-van option.  I think the train might have been a better option.  There was a big line at the place where you get the van too.  I suppose that there is no way to avoid the crowds if you come on a weekend.

It is worth seeing at least once. The statue is as massive as it seems in the photos and the view from the top is spectacular. The day was a little hazy, but it was still good to look out over Rio. Espen commented that the city below us looked like the kind of thing you see in a game like Sim-City.

Scary Myths Laid to Rest (Again)

We have had several deadly tornadoes recently, so the short memory set is talking again about killer weather. The fact is that weather related deaths have been dropping for a generation. But it is like other news of improvements, such as the drop in crime, drop in traffic fatalities or the drop in cancer deaths . It goes unnoticed and reports of the facts are greeted with disbelief or even hostility. For the 30-year span of 1980-2009, the average annual number of Americans killed by tornadoes, floods and hurricanes was 194—fully one-third fewer deaths each year than during the 1940-1979 periods, as outlined in this article. This is even more remarkable, since the American population in 2009 is more than double what is was in 1940, so your individual chances of dying in a weather related event is even lower. The weather has not become more benign since 1940. The weather is … the weather. It varies a lot. It gets very cold sometimes and hot other times. Sometimes it rains a lot; other times it rains hardly at all. The difference is human adaption. We are better at predicting weather and better at saving lives. People are adaptive.

My posting is based on an article by Professor Donald Boudreaux of George Mason University. He believes that the number of weather related deaths will continue to decline and has offered to bet $10,000. the dooms sayers always underestimate is human ability to adapt and triumph. They see what is today and cannot conceive of anything that doesn’t follow in direct projection. They assume that in the face of a rising tide, human beings will sit like King Canute instead of moving.

The bottom line is that my life is significantly better than my father’s. My sons and daughter will live better than I do. When I was 18 I didn’t believe this. We were told that the American dream was over and that we would face bleak futures. I think they tell us that every year, but people seem to forget the earlier predictions. It is like that clown that predicted the rapture … and then it didn’t happen. We have secular versions of that too. It seems we all like to think our times are uniquely difficult. It provides an excuse for our personal failures.

Progress will end. Everything ends, but probably not today, not tomorrow and not soon. The new hi-tech, such as biotech and nanotech, will revolutionize the way we live, creating greater wealth and engendering new anxiety among the weak minded and the credulous. Twenty years from today, people will look back on our times and claim that our challenges were nothing compared to theirs, just as we do with earlier times. They too will be wrong.

The Light Bulb Goes Off

The great Ronald Reagan said that you could accomplish almost anything as long as you don’t care who gets credit. Of course Reagan was not the first person to say that. It is almost impossible to trace an idea to its “source” because there really is no one source. Ideas don’t pass unchanged through the people who hold them and none of us ever has a truly original thought, which is why we might not fight so hard to take or give credit. 

 I proudly proclaim that I have never in my life had a truly original thought. I am well educated. The chief benefit of education is that you tap into the accumulated wisdom of other people, places and other generations. I spend a lot of time reading with the specific goal of appropriating the ideas of others. I cannot keep them straight. I often cannot remember where I picked them up and I mix them together in ways that complicate provenance. It doesn’t bother me, although I suppose that some people of deceive themselves about their own originality might be upset that I “stole” their ideas. Footnotes have always been a challenge for me. 

The image of the lone genius coming up with a great breakthrough was always mostly mythical. Innovative ideas are created when they bounce off and recombine with each other. (Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist characterizes it as ideas having sex and producing synergistic offspring. His book, BTW, is among those I have assimilated in the Borg-like fashion I mentioned above.) They do not do well when they are contained in a single mind, the more people involved in an idea, the better.

I have little patience with the careful parsing of credit. That is a reason I had to flee academia, where the first ¾ of any research consists of summarizing and discussing the lineage of all the ideas you will be considering in the second-last paragraph of your thesis. It is just an awful long run for a very short slide and beyond that it does not reflect how people think or ideas are born outside the ivory tower.

Let me break my credit rule again by referring to another book I recently read called Where Good Ideas Come From. If you follow the link, you will find a good illustrated summary of the main ideas of the book, which saves me the need to write it all down here. The summary does not include, however, the point that in an academic sense I would give him credit for. That is that many people have similar ideas when faced with similar challenges and similar opportunities. Of course, this is not a new idea. I wrote a post with some of the same thoughts before I read the book and I think before the book was published. It kind of proves the point about ideas flowing around.

You can also look at the TED Lecture. If you are unfamiliar with TED lectures, you might want to take a look; they are usually interesting. On an unrelated note, one of my favorites was on the intelligence of crows.

Johnson gives some good examples. The most famous is probably Darwin and Wallace, who came up with the theory of evolution completely independently about the same time. The idea was gestating around in general at the time. Thinking up the theory was made possible by scientific advances that made analysis of species possible, by floods of communications that spread that knowledge and, not inconsequentially, by the society that had developed in the West that would not stone or burn anybody who published such ideas as infidels or heretics. In short, a person living in the 15th Century anywhere in the world or even living in the 19th Century anyplace else probably could not have thought of the details of the theory of evolution at all or, if he had managed the thought, would have died in a nasty way shortly after revealing it to anybody else.

When I studied anthropology and ancient history, we used to refer to diffusion. This was the concept that ideas and technologies were created in some place, in ancient history usually the Mesopotamia or Anatolia, and then they were carried – diffused – to other parts of the world. This led to a linear type of history, where your attention is first drawn to Sumer in southern Mesopotamia and then you move the “center” of civilization to northern Mesopotamia, expand it to include the Eastern Mediterranean, then to Greece, then Rome. After that you move to the Empire of the Franks, then to England and finally you end up in America.

Of course, I am conflating diffusion with an ethnocentric historical perspective, but diffusion is essentially an ethnocentric historical perspective and it is based on that bogus concept that ideas are invented and then spread, rather than the more correct one that ideas spread and then they are invented. (This diffusion thing gets even worse, BTW. Some people believe that space aliens came around and “seeded” ideas)

It is not exclusive. It is likely that people in different places, faced with similar challenges and opportunities came up with similar adaptations. It is also likely that when they came in contact with other ideas the mixed, matched and innovated. So did the use of particular tools, pottery or agricultural techniques spread through diffusion from originating centers or did they develop in many places at once? The answer is yes.

So the academic exercise of trying to find the “origins” can be fun, but it is isn’t much use.

Next year we will essentially outlaw the traditional incandescent light bulb, and with it the long-time symbol of innovation and new ideas. We all learned that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, but there are always wise guys who point out that he didn’t. They are right. The Greeks invented light bulbs almost 3000 years ago. The problem is that they didn’t work. Who had the basic idea first doesn’t really count for much. It matters who can make it work and make it useful. The greatest innovators are not those who have the best new ideas, but rather those who can figure out how to make ideas work for themselves and others and those who can reformulate ideas into new mixes.

All ideas are old in their basic form. I am convinced that the Greeks, Chinese or Native Americans (if you want to be PC) pretty much thought of everything on a basic level. If you want to say that the concept of a chariot of the gods is essentially the same as the space shuttle, you are being silly and impractical but you have a nerdly rhetorical point. Just don’t take that kind of thing to seriously and don’t get annoyed when you don’t get credit for having useful ideas.

America Lags Behind …

We hear that all the time. Today I read an article saying that America lags behind THE WORLD in processing e-waste. I heard on the radio yesterday that American higher education is at risk. You would think we lived in the worst place it world.  Yet anybody who has lived or especially worked anywhere else knows that America is one of the best places in terms of almost everything people really want. 

Is everybody just stupid for not seeing this?  Is it anti-American propaganda?  Do “they” hate us? Are we betrayed by the opinion-making elites in our own country?   I think the answer often is simpler and structurally-based on a few factors that seem neutral in themselves but produce the negative buzz we have come to expect from the chattering classes in the American and international media. 

Doom and gloom industry

There are definite concrete and often money advantages to looking at the negative side of life.  Various NGOs have organized to solve the world’s problems.  They depend on bad news to fund raise.  What are the chances they will announce that the problem they have been fighting for years has been substantially solved?  This incentive system goes double for lawyers, who can often get courts to use their coercive power to get money directly.   Of course, this doesn’t apply only to America, but it applies especially to America where the money going to NGOs and lawyers is by far the largest in the world.  It makes sense to go after the deep pockets.

Cherry picking comparisons

One of my jobs was to give talks about America to foreign audiences.  I used to start with the statement, “Everything you have heard about America is right.”   This is true because the U.S. is so big and diverse.  We have the some of the best schools and some of the worst.   We have the fattest people and the fittest people.   We also have fifty states, each with its own problems and personality.    We like to make lists and it is very easy to pick the comparison you want and usually those comparisons are negative.

The U.S. is a continental country.   In many ways, it can be compared only to other continental units, such as China, Russia, Brazil, India or maybe the ENTIRE EU. Otherwise we get inappropriate unit comparisons of the whole U.S to whatever are the best performing countries in any particular category.   It would be like comparing the average of 1000 people in various categories against the best individuals – different ones depending on the need.  We could do the same with states. For example, the relatively poor American state of Arkansas has a per-captia income about that of Germany.

There are also problems of scale.  A country like Norway has only around 5 million people and they are relatively homogenous.  Many things can be done on a small scale that cannot be scaled up. I lived in Norway for four years and thought it was a great place to be but I understood that the institutions that work for them cannot be scaled 60 times, even if all the 300+ Americans wanted to do it.

What they say, not what they do

Surprise.  Not everybody does what they promise.  This is especially true among leaders of less democratically oriented countries, since they have less of a domestic check, but it works for everybody.  My personal indicates that America promises less than many other places, but delivers more. Many countries declare the RIGHT to things and may even assign a government bureaucracy to deliver, but they don’t.  Citizens get stuck with long waiting lines or defacto rationing.   For example, I observed that people found it very difficult to get day-care in Norway.  It was a RIGHT, but there was a long waiting list.   Sometimes the problem was solved when the kid got old enough not to need it.  We have fewer official social rights in the U.S. but we can often GET things easier. 

One problem is that REALITY in America is compared with promises or aspirations elsewhere.  It is always easier to make plans and promises than to deliver results.   But it gets even worse when the promises are compared.    We lose whenever we get into a rhetorical bidding war.  Reality is more important but harder to measure.

Government v private & theories of history

The government even today has a smaller role in American society than it does almost every place else.  This goes back hundreds of years.  Alexis de Tocqueville described it in 1831.  We Americans rely much more on self-organized groups and volunteers.  No other country has such a large charity and volunteer sectors.

Related to the role of government is a deeply embedded theory of history and storytelling.  Stories have heroes and villains.   Actual events often do not.  The American system is decentralized and much more self-organized than the average country.  But people still look for some human agent even when something happens for diffuse and impersonal reason. They always find one.  That is why conspiracy theories are so popular.  It is usually not true, but we get blamed anyway.

The Katrina Effect

I was listening to NPR as I was writing this an on came Daniel Schorr with a tangential example.  He was talking about the shortages of H1N1 flu vaccine and how people were blaming government incompetence. People get very high expectations that government can control natural disasters, he said, and when things work less well than can be imagined, they get angry.  It was a similar problem with Katrina. I was a little surprised that Schorr used the Katrina example. I guess as we get farther away from it, it becomes less politically charged. 

Improvement actually makes things look worse

I wrote about this in a previous note. Continuous Improvement Makes Everything Look Bad Looking Back

Anyway, these are a few of the thoughts that came to me after seeing those articles.  I am not saying that there are not bad guys out there that want to give us a hard time, but even absent ill will, we still face structural challenges.  The sad part is that there is little we can do about them.   In many ways it would be better if it was the work of our opponents. We might be able to identify them and contain their propaganda, maybe even change some minds.  With structural problems … we just have to live with them.  I would say that we can slowly change them, but I am not sure we can.  Sometimes you have to choose between actually doing something and seeming to do something. Promises are great, but it is usually better to get something really.