In a comment on SlateStarCodex today the author (“leoboiko”) advocates a programme of socialism under the assumption that intelligence and ability are inherited, rather than earned, by their possessors. She said,

For one thing, this means that the idea of “meritocracy” is inherently unfair. Giving people access to wealth and resources based on their IQ-related achievements is as unfair as making people richer when they’re born taller. We would want some sort of social program to guarantee everyone access to a decent life according to their needs, not according to their abilities.

And went on to illustrate the unfairness of a world in which wealth was allocated according to height.

I do think intelligence and ability is mostly genetic, and I agree that’s unfair. My response is,

What we are rewarding (and want to reward) is success in helping society progress – materially, culturally, etc. Helping other people. Making the world a better place to live.

Our society is not meritocratic in any sense. We don’t reward merit. Or intelligence. Being meritorious, well-intentioned, hard-working, intelligent, and capable gets you…nothing. What gets rewarded (imperfectly, of course) is actually delivering the result – benefits to other people, as evaluated by those people, by their willingness to voluntarily trade wealth for those benefits.

Intelligence is associated with wealth because we reward pro-social activity, and intelligence makes success in such activity more likely. Height doesn’t (except in basketball).

Steve Jobs wasn’t wealthy because he needed it, or because he was a nice guy (he seems to have been an asshole). He was wealthy because he created great things that benefited billions of people.

That’s as it should be. It’s not, and never has been, about fairness. It’s about incentives.

Without such incentives, capable people wouldn’t try very hard. And wouldn’t control large amounts of capital for use in their projects. And we all would be far worse off.

Of course I’m not claiming our society does this perfectly or consistently. There are lots of ways to cheat the system, and lots of people who become wealthy in ways other than “making the world a better place” – most obviously, monopolists and power brokers. I advocate fixing that.

But the basic system works. Making the world a better place to live is more important than fairness.

For a shock, read Francis Wayland’s The Elements of Moral Science (1835; try also here), “one of the most widely used and influential American textbooks of the nineteenth century“.

As Wayland – prior to Darwin’s theory of evolution – explained, conventional Christian morals were based on the idea that Man was made by God, and so had special moral responsibilities.

Darwin knocked that bucket over, and in the process broke the long-accepted rationales for all kinds of legal, moral, and ethical rules. The reverberations from that were still being felt at least into the 1970s, and included socialism, progressivism, communism, the sexual revolution (of the 1920s, not the 1960s one), fascism, bad art, ugly buildings, environmentalism, hippies, flower power, and more. Some of it was good, more of it was bad. Things didn’t really start to settle down until the 1980s in the US, the 1990s in Europe, and still aren’t settled in the Islamic world.

And there are plenty of people – all over the world – who still haven’t made peace with it.

In Asia there wasn’t as much commotion about Darwin because Asian societies tended to take their social rules from non-theistic sources (as the West does now, mostly); Darwin’s revelations didn’t invalidate them.

It is telling, I think, that East and West had more-or-less similar rules (and still do, post-Darwin), despite supposedly getting them from independent sources.

I think that shows the rules really came from social evolution, a la Friedrich Hayek (certain rules tend to make societies dominant). Ironic, no?

Thank you, Lee Kuan Yew

March 23rd, 2015


Lee Kuan Yew passed away yesterday.

Much to my regret, I never met him. I did not agree with him about many things.

But he was the greatest single benefactor of mankind in history.

As a direct result of the actions of Harry Lee and his “socialist” People’s Action Party, billions of people were lifted out of abject poverty, through reforms first in Singapore, then copied in China and in much of Asia.

Billions of people.

Today Reuters quotes Lee as saying in 1986 “We have to lock up people, without trial, whether they are communists, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists. If you don’t do that, the country would be in ruins”.

He outlawed long hair on men in the 1970s. Banned the sale of chewing gum. And, of course, many drugs.

Those things don’t fit with my politics. But look at the result. Singapore, once almost a synonym for filth and poverty, today is arguably both the freest and wealthiest country in the world. And – billions of people.

Deng Xiaoping, architect of China’s rise through market economics, based directly on emulation of Lee Kuan Yew’s policies in Singapore, famously said “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, if it catches mice it is a good cat”.

Lee’s cats caught mice.

And so, despite everything, I mourn Lee Kuan Yew.

And, about our political disagreements? Maybe I’m wrong.

sm lee press conference

Murphy’s law

November 17th, 2014

Murphy’s law anticipated the Everett-Wheeler conjecture (viz., “all permutations will be explored”).

Which I find ironic, considering that neither Everett nor Wheeler wrote about keyed connectors at all.

Perhaps it had to come to this…

December 18th, 2012

From Techdirt, 2012-12-17:

China Tries To Block Encrypted Traffic
from the collapsing-the-tunnels dept

During the SOPA fight, at one point, we brought up the fact that increases in encryption were going to make most of the bill meaningless and ineffective in the long run, someone closely involved in trying to make SOPA a reality said that this wasn’t a problem because the next bill he was working on is one that would ban encryption. This, of course, was pure bluster and hyperbole from someone who was apparently both unfamiliar with the history of fights over encryption in the US, the value and importance of encryption for all sorts of important internet activities (hello online banking!), as well as the simple fact that “banning” encryption isn’t quite as easy as you might think. Still, for a guide on one attempt, that individual might want to take a look over at China, where VPN usage has become quite common to get around the Great Firewall. In response, it appears that some ISPs are now looking to block traffic that they believe is going through encrypted means.

A number of companies providing “virtual private network” (VPN) services to users in China say the new system is able to “learn, discover and block” the encrypted communications methods used by a number of different VPN systems.

China Unicom, one of the biggest telecoms providers in the country, is now killing connections where a VPN is detected, according to one company with a number of users in China.

This is the culmination of at least 35 years of official concern about the effects of personal computers.

I’m old enough to remember. As soon as computers became affordable to individuals in the late 1970s there was talk about “licensing” computer users. Talking Heads even wrote a song about it (Life During Wartime).

The good guys won, the bad guys lost.

Then, even before the Web, we had the Clipper chip. The EFF was created in response. And again the good guys won.

Then we had the CDA, and then CDA2. And again, the bad guys lost and the lovers of liberty won.

In the West, the war is mostly over (yet eternal vigilance remains the price of liberty).

Not so in the rest of the world, as last week’s ITU conference in Dubai demonstrated.

I say – let them try it. Let them lock down all the VPNs, shut off all the traffic they can’t parse. Let’s have the knock-down, drag-out fight between the hackers and the suits.

Stewart Brand was right. Information wants to be free. I know math. I know about steganography. I know about economics.

I know who will win.

Annie Keegan has a posting on about textbook quality that has been getting a lot of attention lately. It’s worth a quick read.

She bemoans the quality of (US) K-8 math textbooks, and blames it on rushed and underfunded development schedules caused by the greed of a quasi-monopoly of “educational publishers left after rabid buyouts and mergers in the 90s”, plus squeezed budgets.

Of course this is true in a trivial sense – the textbooks are in fact horrible, publishers do try to maximize profits, budgets are always less than one would wish, and the textbooks are indeed “there’s no other way to put it—crap”[1].

But she completely misunderstands the causes. And this misunderstanding is likely to lead to more of the same problems, instead of solutions.

Keegan writes:

At one time, a writer in this industry could write a book and receive roughly 6% royalties on sales. The salesperson who sold the product, however, earned (and still does) a commission upwards of 17% on the same product. This sort of pay structure never made sense to me; without the product, there’d be nothing to sell, after all. But this disparity serves to illustrate the thinking that has been entrenched industry-wide for decades—that sales and marketing is more valuable than product.

First, the 6% royalty on all sales of the book is not comparable to the 17% commission on an individual sale to a single school. The salesperson only earns commission on what she sells. There are many salespeople who split that 17% of the book’s total sales, but only one author who collects all of the royalties.

And I don’t think Keegan would complain that a bookshop earning a 40% markup on a book is an indication that retailing is somehow more important than authorship.

Second, the “the thinking that has been entrenched industry-wide” does not decide how “valuable” each contribution to making a book is. There could never be any consensus on that.

Instead, compensation is based on supply and demand – if more people want to be textbook authors, that increases the supply and reduces the pay. If less people want to sell them, that decreases the supply and increases the value of salespeople. If Ms. Keegan thinks salespeople have a better deal, perhaps she should become one – this is how the market shifts labor (and other resources) from less-valuable to more-valuable purposes. If she prefers to remain an author despite the (supposedly) lower pay, that’s her choice, and that choice shows that, to her, being an author (with lower pay) is better than being a book salesperson (with higher pay). She ought not to complain if she is better off — by her own standards.

But none of these misunderstandings get to the heart of why the books are “crap”.

The books are not crap because of the publisher’s greed and the limited budgets.

People who make televisions and plumbing supplies and instant noodles are greedy humans, too. And the people who buy them always wish they had more money to spend than they do. Yet these things aren’t crap.

School textbooks are crap because, unlike televisions and plumbing supplies and instant noodles, the people who make the decision to buy them (administrators and school boards) are not the same people who use them (students and parents).

These two groups of people – buyers and users – have different priorities. The quality of content is foremost for the users of the textbook, but the buyers are easily influenced by other things – fun trips to “educational seminars”, fancy lunches paid by salespeople, kickbacks of varying forms and legality, etc.

In the end, publishers must supply what buyers want, or face being replaced by other publishers who will. What students and parents want is relevant only insofar as it influences what buyers want. Even if a publisher were to have high standards, ensure adequate budgets and schedules, etc. to produce a high-quality product, this would only mean that their expenses would be higher than those of publishers who concentrate only on what sells books.

This problem cannot be solved by changing how publishers work or how school boards and administrators buy textbooks. Buyers will always do what is good for buyers and sellers (publishers) will always do what is good for sellers – increasing budgets simply means they will do more of it. This is an iron law of nature.

The only solution is to make the buyers care more about the wishes of the users – parents and students.  As long as students are assigned to schools without choice, administrators have little reason to fear losing students and the funding the comes with them – it’s easy to prioritize (and rationalize) their personal interests as buyers over the interests of users. School choice forces administrators to care about losing dissatisfied students and parents – and so to demand quality textbooks.

Like pushing on a string, changing what suppliers offer does not change what buyers want.  Buyers will simply find other suppliers with less scruples. You can only pull on a string – change will happen only when buyers demand better quality from publishers, and that can happen only when buyers and users have the same interest – quality textbooks and quality education.


[1] Of course the whole issue with math textbooks is moot because math doesn’t change; there’s no reason to update math textbooks in the first place. If you’re a school, my advice is to find a good math textbook that’s 100+ years old (and therefore out of copyright) and use it.

But book salespeople won’t take you on fun trips if you do that, so while this advice is best for your students, it might not be best for you as an administrator. Which is my larger point.

(Some will say that math doesn’t change but teaching methods do – I agree, but for the very same reasons that textbooks are “crap”, they don’t change for the better.)

Happy Columbus Day, all – the day we celebrate the last man to discover America.

As most people know, Christopher Columbus was by no means the first person to discover America.

Aside from the early visitors and settlers of the Americas whose names are lost to history, and the well-known explorations of Erik the Red and his son Leif Erikson, there may well have been earlier visits from Europe, Africa, or China. It would be surprising if, in the 10,000 years prior to 1492, there weren’t dozens of “discoveries” of America by people from across the ocean.

But that doesn’t diminish the historical importance of Columbus one bit – on the contrary, it makes him all the more pivotal to the history of the world.  Because Columbus was the one, and only, last discoverer of America.

Before Columbus, the Americas were to the rest of the world at best a legend – a story of faraway islands.

After Columbus, the Americas were, definitively, discovered.  They were a known place, not a rumor.

And that only happened once.

My wife and I were comparing school experiences today.

I grew up in Massachusetts, she in a communist country.

My experience was horrible. I was in high school in the 1970s. The teachers were droning idiots (mostly), the students asleep most of the time. I learned, to a first approximation, nothing. (What little I know I learned outside of school; I’m lucky to be one of the few who is able do this.)

Her experience was totally different. She was challenged and, like most Europeans of my acquaintance, learned a lot in school.


I think it’s the quality of the teachers. In the US, teaching is a lousy job. It pays poorly and has low social status. Teachers are not respected.

In her country, teaching was (at least at that time) a highly respected and well-rewarded profession (as communist jobs go). So the best and brightest were attracted to the teaching profession. Both her parents were high-school teachers (biology and mathematics). Her father, retired more than 20 years now, is still called “professor” when he goes around town (with respect, not irony).

Naturally, there are good reasons why teachers aren’t respected in the US. They aren’t respectable. When I was graduating from high school, the best students were going into law, medicine, or engineering. The middling students went into business or the arts. The worst – the bottom of the barrel, the ones who could barely get accepted into any college at all – into teaching.

Because they could. There was essentially no competition in the teaching profession; anyone could get in.

It’s a vicious self-reinforcing cycle – teaching pays poorly, is low-status, so no capable person wants to be a teacher. So only the incompetent and dull become teachers. And so teaching becomes even less attractive as a profession – your colleagues are drones, the pay is poor, the administrators (drawn from the ranks of teachers) are idiots, and your friends think you’re a loser.

It gets worse. The incompetent are insecure (understandably so) and so push for unionization and bureaucratic rules to make the job less challenging, and oppose all efforts to measure or reward excellence, as they know they have little of it. (With exceptions, of course. There are always a few outliers, but early in their careers most of these either quit in frustration or are scooped up by private schools.)

So why was the situation different in communist Europe? One of my themes on this blog is the importance of competition as a necessity for excellence, yet communist primary schools, like American ones, didn’t compete with each other. (Actually they did, a little, but I think this was a minor factor.)

In less-developed countries, most people have to do manual labor – work in the fields, a factory, etc. Only a very few can hope for a profession (or even office work). These coveted slots are reserved for the best and brightest. Teaching is well-paid compared to most other jobs (and offers lots of vacation time). As a result, there is great competition to enter the teaching profession. Bright people become teachers, do a good job, and earn the respect and admiration of students and parents. They are, rightly, seen as the best, and have high social status.

A wise farmer doesn’t eat his best produce – he saves the best seeds to plant next year. We in the US have been using our worst, instead of our best, to educate the next generation, and we are reaping the rewards.

The situation in colleges and universities is completely different – US higher education is widely considered the best in the world. Why? Because universities compete with each other for professors and students. Judging from the amount and intensity of marketing materials my high-school senior son received, running a university is incredibly profitable (a racket, I suspect, but that’s for another essay). The tremendous competitive pressure forces universities to seek the best professors.

Well-paid and well-perked, being a university professor in the US is a good job that attracts highly competent people – who compete with each other for the few tenured professorship slots. Again, the self-reinforcing cycle works, but this time in the positive direction: Competent, articulate, erudite professors enjoy high social status and (reasonably) good pay.

Yet the lure of alternative professions detracts from the quality of teaching even in US universities – if 150 years ago professors were drawn from the top 0.1% of minds, today they are drawn from the top 20%. But this is a far cry from the situation in primary schools.

What is to be done?

The simplest solution is to make teaching an attractive profession again.  If teachers were paid on a scale similar to, say, lawyers, far more competent young people would be attracted into the profession.  To throw out rough numbers, say $150,000/year for starting salaries, rising to $350,000 – $400,000 for a senior teacher with an excellent reputation.

It would take a generation to make the change.  At first, only the mercenary would be attracted.  Over time, as the social status of the profession improved, others would be attracted as well.

In the early days of the change there would be understandable outrage at the idea of paying such sums to the existing incompetents.  But what alternative is there?  Any system that limited the new salaries to the competent would be bitterly fought by the powerful teaching lobbies.  And if the new salaries were offered only to new teachers entering the profession (in the unlikely event that such a scheme was politically possible), this would drive the few existing competent teachers out of the schools in protest at the unfairness.

Of course, given a fixed budget, there is always a necessary tradeoff between quality and quantity.  If teacher salaries are raised by 4x, class sizes must increase by the same amount.  So the change needs to start at the highest grades, in the high-schools, and gradually work its way toward the lower grades, as the public becomes used to the idea of larger class sizes.  (Numerous studies show that teacher quality matters far more to educational outcome than class size.)

At some point, perhaps below 5th or 6th grade, it may be better to keep the existing low-paid teachers and small class sizes.  Young children are not capable of learning very much (my mathematics professor father-in-law started school, illiterate, at the age of 14; but that’s another story), and probably need more supervision.  And it doesn’t take a tremendous intellect to teach young children.

One way to get from here to there is through competition between schools, however created.  If schools had to compete for the custom of students and parents, the successful competitors would have to improve outcomes through better teaching (and the unsuccessful ones would disappear, as they ought to).

But as the communist example shows, vast improvement is possible even without competition between schools – as long as the incentives are put in place for competent people to compete to become teachers.

How Fortunes are Made and Lost

January 27th, 2009

From The Big Bonanza: An Authentic Account of the Discovery, History, and Working of the Comstock Lode by Dan DeQuille (Hartford, American Publishing Company, 1876):


Bulls and bears – Doings of the brokers – On a margin – “Pussycat Tilde” and “Bobtaile” – Going up! – Dealers and dabblers

During the prevalence of a big stock excitement, times are lively along the Comstock range. Virginia City then hums like a Brobdingnagian beehive. All who failed to make fortunes on the occasion of previous excitements in stocks are going to do better this time. They have seen how these things work and this time are going to sell when they can do so at a fair profit. They don’t want the last cent; they will give someone else a chance to make something.

This is the way they talk at the start. As soon as there is a marked advance in stocks, however, they will be heard to say: “As soon as I can double my money I am going to sell.” In three days from the time of their making this assertion, stocks have taken such a jump that they could sell and double or more than double their money. Everybody is saying, however, that they are not selling for half what they are worth; that they will sell for twice or three times present prices be­fore the end of another month.

The men who were intending to sell whenever they could double their money cannot think of doing anything of the kind as things are now looking. Instead of selling they become excited, put up their stocks (which they had probably bought and paid for “out and out”) as a “margin,” then put in all the money they can raise besides and buy as many shares of their favorite stocks as they can in any way manage to secure. Stocks still go up, and each day these dabblers will be found counting their profits. They have invested largely in the low-priced stocks of “outside mines” – mines in which nothing of value has yet been found, but mines in which, all are saying, grand developments are liable to be made at any time – mines, in short, which in dull times are generally designated as “wildcat.” The masses – the servant girls, chambermaids, cooks, hostlers, washerwomen, preachers, teachers, hackmen, and draymen – are wildly and blindly buying these low-priced stocks, and from day to day they are going up “with a rush,” and everybody is getting rich. Our men who only “went in” to make a fair profit now tell you that they made yesterday ten thousand dollars; today they have made fifteen thousand dollars, and in a week or two they will say that they are worth a quarter of a million, half a million, or a million of dollars.

But they are not going to sell yet; no indeed – the rise has only com­menced. Pretty soon stocks fall off a little. Never mind, tomorrow they will do better. Tomorrow they are still a “little off,” as is said when stocks are going down. The next day they are rather “soft,” which is the same thing as a “little off.” However, that is all right. Our dealers – amateur speculators – have some points given them by a friend who is on the inside. A development is about to be made in a favorite mine. The “bears” are trying to break the stock; but they can’t do it; no, sir! – impossible. Too much merit in the mines at this time. All will be up and “booming” in a day or two. Next time you shall see them go higher than they have yet been seen.

Our men who started in to make a fair profit might yet sell and double their money – much more than double it – but they are not going to do anything of the kind. They are going to wait till “things take a turn.” The “bulls” will soon make a grand rally, and when things go up again, our men will sell. They admit that they should have sold when their stocks were all up before, but never mind! they will go to the same figures again in less than a fortnight, when they will be sure to sell.

There does come a “spurt,” and for a day or two there is a cheering improvement in prices along the whole line. Faces brighten and everybody talks of all stocks going higher than ever.

All at once everything is again “soft,” the next day “softer,” and the next decidedly “off.” It is then said that someone in the “bear” interest has been telegraphing to the “Bay” (San Francisco) a pack of lies about the mines, and the “bears” “below” (at San Francisco) have made use of these lies to get up a “scare.” Never mind! the scare will be over in a day or two.

But stocks still go down. Then it is said that some big dealer is “unloading” and there is talk of a “crash.” Still our men who started in but to make a “fair profit” do not feel like taking thousands, when they might a short time before have taken tens of thousands of dol­lars. They still hold on, saying that even though one or two big deal­ers are unloading, the big men among the bulls will “stand in” and take all the stocks that are offered. Also, they will have some points from a friend “on the inside” and developments are about to be made in one or two of the mines that will make all who have sold “very sick,” particularly those bloodless demons who have “sold short.” The “shorts” will have a merry time of it when they come to “fill.”

Thus matters stand when suddenly there comes what looks very much like the beginning of a “crash.” The “bears” are all diligently crying: “Stand from under.” Many persons become frightened and throw their stocks upon the market. Down go prices and soon “soft” is no name for it. The masses – the tinker and the tailor, the preacher and the teacher, the hostler and the waiter – rush in to try to “save themselves” and there is seen a grand and unmistakable crash. Brokers are calling on all sides for “margins” to be “made good,” and men are rushing about trying to raise money to “put up” in order to prevent their stocks being sold at less than cost.

They perhaps raise the money required and for a few days breathe again, when there is a further decline in stocks, and the brokers are again sending notes to their customers telling them that if they do not put up more money they will be sold out. Sooner or later there comes a time when the customer can raise no more money, and his stocks are thrown into the market by the broker – in whose hands they re­main – and are sold. Thus ends the grand speculation.

Our men who at the start were resolved to be content with a fair profit are generally found among the number of those who are sold out, when they are heard to say that if they ever have another such chance to make money they will not hold on for the last cent. They have said the same thing year after year ever since the opening of the Comstock mines. But whenever there is a grand upward movement in stocks, they never fail to become excited and try to buy about ten times as much stock as they can pay for. In this way they lose all except what they may have happened to purchase at a fair price in a mine of real merit.

Why journalism is so bad

October 27th, 2008

A friend forwarded me Orson Scott Card’s recent essay Would the Last Honest Reporter Please Turn On the Lights?, in which Card complains about journalistic bias (in this case, concerning the causes of the mortgage loan crisis).

Card writes:

If you had any personal honor, each reporter and editor would be insisting on telling the truth — even if it hurts the election chances of your favorite candidate.

Because that’s what honorable people do. Honest people tell the truth even when they don’t like the probable consequences. That’s what honesty means. That’s how trust is earned.

Card is a great science fiction writer (if you haven’t heard of him, go read Ender’s Game), but oddly, he seems to expect journalists to care about the truth.

I’m guessing he didn’t study journalism in school.

Professional journalists are trained to worry about “fairness”, not truth.  Reality, they are told, is socially constructed, and there is no such thing as objective truth.

Fairness means reporting “both sides” of a story even when there are 3 or 4 sides, or when it’s obvious who is lying and who isn’t.

If journalists were interested in truth, they wouldn’t pretend to be impartial (they’re human, of course they have opinions of their own).  Instead they’d openly admit their viewpoint and let the reader judge their arguments.

There are still countless newspapers in the US with “Republican” or “Democrat” in their title.  I suspect the relatively high esteem which journalists enjoy is a legacy from the era when these newspapers were founded.

Before the rise of “professional” journalism in the middle of the 20th century, truth was assumed to exist (even if it was difficult to find), and publishers were proud to announce their political allegiance.