It’s been a while since I read the Internet. If people would stop writing it so fast, it would be easier to keep up.
Dammit I’m Mad
Demetri Martin in Slate
A 225 word palindrome which, if not totally coherent, is at least reasonably well-themed. How hard is that to do? It took me an hour to come up with this one 10% as long:
No peels? Rev ire!
Line, not pen, I draw.
Even wayward inept one, Nile River, sleep on.
The real crisis? We stopped being wise
Barry Schwartz at the TED conference
“We are engaging in a war on wisdom.” That’s what Schwartz says about America. This is the epitome of refined oration. Balancing passion with reason, Schwartz lays out the case against the abuse of rules and incentives in a talk of watertight coherence.
Schwartz condemns a formulaic, rule-based approach to work as inflexible and homogenized, saying “Scripts… prevent disaster, but what they ensure in its place is mediocrity.” He cites the example of a kindergarten curriculum in Chicago that lists 75 precise items the teachers must cover while reading at 25 page picture book to their class.
It’s nothing new to claim that the algorithmic approaches we take towards problems like the legal system and education lead to results that are no better than acceptable and sometimes pitiful. But I wonder about our ability to draw a line. Humans are rules, though complicated ones. Everything we do relies on other people being mostly predictable.
If we value rationality, then we also value rule-following. Human social interactions are mostly systems of tacit rules. Some are more obvious: when we should shake hands and when we should hug, but others are less visible because they are so deeply ingrained: the way our voices should inflect at the end of a question or the angle at which we ought to stand while holding a three-way conversation. Comedians make their living by calling attention to these social rules (by breaking them).
Education, which Schwartz loves, consists mostly of learning rules; the state of knowledge about a given field consists largely of rules of how to think about it. Rules are so pervasive that nearly anything we can comprehend has some sort of rule. Schwartz lauds virtue, for example, and what is virtue but adherence to rules? We have a name for people who follow no discernible rules – insane.
Rules, though, exist on a continuum. Schwartz is focused on rules at one part of this continuum. He is against rules that are very specific. If you’re programming a robot to navigate a maze, you can take two approaches. One is to write a clever algorithm that tells the robot the general guidelines it should follow. We could tell it to take every single right turn it encounters until it reaches a dead end, then to go back and take the first available unexplored branch, then to keep making right turns until it reaches a dead end… Alternatively, we could look at the maze for ourselves, find the route out, and tell the robot the exact path to take. They’re both rules. According to Schwartz, we’re choosing the second option, but the maze is changing in ways we can’t follow. Our robots are running amok. If people are robots, they’re at least very clever robots. We should treat them that way.
It’s a judgment call, though, just how much preprogramming and how much intelligent freedom we should have in any given situation. At least, it’s a judgment call from Barry Schwartz’s point of view. You want a fast food worker to be mostly algorithmic and a gourmet chef mostly creative. You want citizens driving automobiles to follow rules more closely than they do, and judges who interpret everything literally to loosen up a little.
If each situation is unique, on what criteria do we make the unique judgments they demand? How do we decide on where on the continuum people engaged in a certain activity should lie? Or should we instead not make those decisions, by try to establish a system in which people naturally adjust to the appropriate level? All Schwartz offers is the opinion that we’re too far to one side – the strict rule-following side. But how can we intelligently decide just where we should be?
More novel (or at least less hackneyed) than the lamentation of rigidity in rules is Schwartz’s coupling of the creative paralysis brought on by strict procedure to the moral paralysis brought on by reliance on incentives. He claims, “Moral skill is chipped away by an over-reliance on rules that deprive us of the opportunity to improvise and learn from our improvisations. And moral will is undermined by an incessant appeal to incentives that destroy our desire to do the right thing.”
Schwartz’s opening statements entwine ‘moral skill’, the knowledge and ability to do the right thing, and ‘moral will’, the innate desire to do the right thing. Only when both are present do we get people to do the sort of good work that makes the world a better place.
The issue of incentives is, for me, more clear-cut than the issue of rules. To the greatest extent possible, incentives should be extremely direct. People should want to do things specifically because they want to do that thing, not because it earns them ulterior incentives (monetary or otherwise). The reason is exactly as Schwartz says. If you are laying the foundation for your client’s house, you do a good job to protect your professional reputation. But if you’re laying the foundation on your own family’s house, you build that thing to withstand a motherfuckin landslide (see John McPhee’s Los Angeles Against the mountains (behind a New Yorker pay wall, sadly)).
It’s pervasive. The people I live around are mostly students, and many of them pursue grades and good recommendation letters rather than understanding or creative insight in their field. The result is that even at a top-notch school many students are uninterested and unskilled (at least compared to the many other good students we have here). These students go on to get jobs, and the incentive becomes money. Or the incentive can be recognition, or control, or sex, whatever. It’s so blindingly obvious to me it’s the wrong way. But this indirect incentive mentality is engraved in our culture, if not our nature. It’s in different people to different extents. It’s in me more than I like and even more than I can normally admit to myself. The question then becomes, “how do you get it out?” Forget changing the nation. How do you change one person? I hear a lot of cliches about this. I know a lot of hypocrites, too.
Kids’ Letters to President Obama
Alex, age 11, from Ann Arbor Michigan, says to President Obama:
Will you have a peaceful place to sit in the White House? I’ll tell you about the big city of Ann Arbor and how things flow there. Two thousand eight was a large year for doing such things as going to the symphony and eating out for dinner.
Bryan, age 9, from Chicago Illinois says:
I hope you like your new house. I hope you miss Chicago. You are very famous. Can you invite me to your new house to eat pizza?
Mark, age 24, says
Have you ever been sitting on the toilet whistling, and then stopped because you suddenly realized you’re the President of the United States of America? Also, do you get “Hail to the Chief” stuck in your head very often? For me, your celebrity has made you like Einstein, in that the more I hear about you, the less able I am to think of you as a human rather than as a socially-constructed Barack Obama abstraction. Presumably, you’ve spent most of your life on pretty intimate terms with yourself. Does that get harder to do everyone in America knows your dog’s name?
Fun With Sums
Peter Luthy at The Everything Seminar
Follow the link to find out what’s going on.
The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity
Carlo M. Cipolla and James Donnelly
It would be a profound mistake to believe the number of stupid people in a declining society is greater than in a developing society. Both such societies are plagued by the same percentage of stupid people. The difference between the two societies is that in the society which performs poorly:
a) the stupid members of the society are allowed by the other members to become more active and take more actions…
Even if you disagree with them, and even if you think they’re raving wildly or spitting venom out of unchecked contempt, it’s damn fun when someone is willing to say exactly what’s on their mind. Especially if what’s on their mind is irreverant, insightful, clever, and flawed.
from South Park
Feel the vengeance of the Economy!
Sailing Into the Wind, or Faster than the Wind
Terry Tao at What’s New
“By alternating between a pure-lift aerofoil (red) and a pure-lift hydrofoil (purple), one can in principle reach arbitrarily large speeds in any direction.”
The Volvo Ocean Race
Oskar Kihlborg at The Big Picture
Magic and the Brain: Teller Reveals the Neuroscience of Illusion
Teller is the quiet one from Penn and Teller. Turns out he can talk! And his house is a crazy trick illusion house. I bet he’s a secret murderer who enjoys fooling his victims into thinking their own head has been cut off a bunch of times. Then he actually cuts it off and they don’t even realize it’s for real cause they’ve gotten so used to the fakes. Anyway, he’s creepy enough for that.
Tags: Barry Schwartz, Demetri Martin, illusion, incentives, letter-writing campaign, magic, math of sailing, morality, palindrome, President Obama, rules, sailing, South Park, stupidity, sums of squares, TED conference