Linkfest 2017-06-03

Speaking from experience: a note on mysticism and religion

Niall Gooch's attempt to expand on a distinction between a mystical experience and a religious one.

Three Polish Poems

BD Sixsmith agrees with Niall in poetic form.

The History of U.S. Government Spending, Revenue, and Debt (1790-2015)

Morphing graphs on US government spending over time. 

Stratolaunch rolls out giant aircraft

Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, continues testing on his launch vehicle.

How to build a fallout shelter

The Swiss have always taken preparedness to a new level.

This data set took six years to create. Worth every moment

Every US department now rolls up budgeting data into one source.

New evidence that lead exposure increases crime

A series of analyses to test Kevin Drum's theory that lead exposure explains much crime in the US.

Why we should love null results

Knowing what doesn't work is important too.

LinkFest 2016-04-30

Titan's Great Lakes Appear to be Filled with Clear, Colorless Methane

Hopefully we will be up to the task if any life is found on the moons of other planets.

Why is Reaction Taboo?

Any treatment of the rising right in either America or Europe needs to take a good hard look at Tradition, the only twentieth century ideology that hasn't yet captured a state. Tradition shouldn't be confused with traditionalism, which is more an attitude or a disposition. Tradition is a gnostic political movement best described thus:

While there are groups that promote one or more aspects of the Politica Hermetica, there is no great conspiracy behind it. René Guénon called it "Tradition," which comes close enough, though even that exaggerates its coherence. In any case, it is a mode of thought that political science tends to overlook. It is characterized by self-appointed elites who represent a cause rather than human constituents. This implicit devotion to hierarchy, however, coexists with a tactical anarchism. This is the world of "direct action" anarchists, but it is not confined to them. No doubt we have all met "conservatives" who would not leave one stone of the modern world standing on another. Their loyalty is not to this world, but to a transcendent realm. If they are conventionally religious, they adhere to some ineffable orthodoxy that excludes most of their nominal co-religionists. To some extent, this is just a matter of personality type. Still, when we find such people, I suspect we will often find some direct ideological influence from writers associated with Tradition or the Conservative Revolution.

No Great Technological Stagnation

This is very much like a post I have been meaning to write for years. Technologically, the West continues to progress. This is readily seen by looking at any kind of data you would like. Water usage, fuel efficiency, infectious disease, food produced per acre, et cetera. Yet, the idea of a great stagnation is widely believed. I think the problem is cultural and political, rather than technological, so this doesn't surprise me.

Are History's Greatest Philosophers All That Great?

This is something I have wondered about too: is the outsized impact of certain figures on intellectual history an artifact of when they lived? Unlike the author of this piece, I have come to the conclusion that the answer is mostly, but not wholly, no. Primarily, this is because I think historical figures like Aristotle and Aquinas are just as brilliant as their reputations. 

Lewis makes a statistical argument that if we assume that intellectual ability is largely innate, and has a significant element of randomness in it, then we should expect some level of proportionality in the numbers of great intellects in any population. All else being equal, a bigger population produces more people at or above any given level of ability than a smaller one. Anatoly Karlin made a similar argument with more explicit math in December of last year.

This is an argument whose broad lines I am rather sympathetic to, but I think Lewis is missing a lot of relevant detail. For example, at the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the Ionian Greeks were considered rather clever, far more so than anyone living nearby. This implies an average difference in ability for the Ionian Greeks, which makes the foundations of Lewis's argument fall apart. 

On a slightly different tack of individual ability, Thomas Aquinas, for example was seen as exceptionally bright by his contemporaries. At university, his classmates had a hard time keeping up with him. Since Aquinas is more recent, we know a fair bit about what people wrote down about him during his lifetime. When the judgment of history and the impressions a man made in life correspond so well, I am inclined to believe them.

Finally, my personal impression from studying philosophy by reading the texts of Aristotle and Aquinas is that these men were both exceptionally bright, and exceptionally broad of mind. It is not an uncommon experience for a student of philosophy to be amazed upon first encountering the texts themselves, rather that modern summaries or glossaries. The originals are so clear and precise that the difference in quality is immediately apparent.

Thus, I find the idea that Aristotle or Plato might struggle to compete in modern intellectual life kind of silly. 

Book Review: Albion's Seed

Scott Alexander reviews Albion's Seed. This is an interesting book, especially if you don't try to make too much of it.

Has Intelligence Declined in the Modern Era?

I mentioned this subject a couple of times before.

Simple reaction time data from Woodley et al.Bruce Charlton is the first person I know of to discuss the implications of the change in simple reaction time data in the paper by Woodley et al.  Charlton claims the data shows a 1 standard deviation reduction in IQ based on the correlation [r = .3] between simple reaction time and IQ or the g factor. I remain unconvinced that that intelligence has declined in the last 100 years. For one, that is a terrible fit [see scatterplot]. For another, with that kind of correlation, I need better evidence that the model is correct. Charlton's best arguments focus on the way in which intellectual inquiry in general still seems to be dominated by the same famous men of the last century.

My late friend John Reilly used to sum it up thus:

How do we know that the 500 or so years of the Modern Age are at last drawing to a close? Lukacs's answer to this, and it's a good one, is to draw attention to the remarkable intellectual barrenness of the 20th century. In 1914, when the century began to manifest its characteristic features, the guiding spirits of the time were Freud and Marx and Darwin and Einstein. In 1989, when in a political sense the 20th century was already over, the guiding spirits of the time were Freud and Marx and Darwin and Einstein. There was no other century of modern times that produced so little new intellectual history. Indeed, all but the earliest part of the Middle Ages was livelier.

In a general sense, I agree with Charlton that the rate of the big gosh-wow discoveries in science seems to have slowed remarkably. I've come to the same conclusion myself. Where I differ is the cause. It is not apparent that the problem is our minds have gotten weaker. Rather, I think we [we meaning the West] have chosen to focus on other things. The problem is cultural.

What I lack here is any sort of quantitative data. My sense is that the tasks to which we apply ourselves have if anything, gotten harder. We just are getting less output partly because our best minds think about other things, and partly because the easy scientific discoveries have already been made. Now if only I could prove it.

There is a cracking good discussion of the technical details of the SRT paper over at Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending's blog, West Hunter, that makes some of the same points I want to make here. However, I am more interested in the cultural aspect than the scientific aspect at present.

I think we don't make big scientific discoveries anymore because we don't want to. This seems strange, this sort of thing is frequently in the news and a subject of discussion. However, if you look at our priorities as a civilization, we have decided to do other things. You might also say that our civilization is decadent. I use this in the technical sense proposed by Jacques Barzun in From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present 1st (first) edition, a decadent society is one that wills the ends, but not the means. We say we want big science, but we have a remarkably inefficient way of doing it.

So what are we interested in? I think the things we are interested in are actually very good things, but they don't produce good headlines. For example, one thing the Victorians were terrible at was industrial hygiene and product safety. A fad for green dye made with arsenic in Victorian England lead to thousands of deaths. The manufacturing process for safety matches produced a condition known as phossy jaw, which could actually make your bones glow in the dark before it killed you. The discovery of radium by Marie Curie lead to the incorporation of radium into a wide variety of products, contaminating much of Paris. It is not very hard to multiply examples like this ad infinitum. The Victorians discovered lots of new things, but they left a lot of collateral damage in their wake in the form of dead and maimed factory workers and widespread environmental pollution.

There are now systems in place to verify that products are safe before they enter the market. Designing nearly any product is vastly more complicated now than 100 years ago, not only because science and engineering have progressed and we are pushing the limits of our knowledge, but because you have to make certain every material and manufacturing process you use is safe not only for consumers, but for the workforce that creates it. The big scientific discoveries made life better for everyone on average, and the systems and techniques and regulations we have developed help make sure each individual is able to benefit from that knowledge personally. We have chosen to spend our effort on mitigating the clear downsides of progress, rather than plowing ahead with new discoveries.

This dynamic is illustrated by the development policy the Chinese seem to be following: explicitly trading pollution and worker safety for faster progress in order to catch up with the West. A brutal policy, but in fairness to them, didn't we do the same thing, with perhaps a little less self-awareness? The current Western policy is far more boring, even though it probably has greater benefits for the common man. For example, who knows the name of the man who invented the plastic barrels that sit at exit ramps and highway abutments? That man has saved thousands, maybe tens or hundreds of thousands of lives. Preventing something from happening will always be less interesting than making something happen, no matter how useful it is. Yet, our culture happens to promote this. Is that really a bad thing?

Simple Reaction Time Data

There has been a story trending recently in the news about the Victorians being cleverer than us. I've been following this story since Bruce Charlton broke it in February of 2012. I've never been that impressed, but I've thought about looking up the data to see if its as overblown as it sounds. I still haven't done that, but William Briggs does provide us with a scatterplot from the paper:

Intelligence and reaction times Woodley et al.Nice model-fitting boys. Keep up the good work.

The Little Book of Talent Review

by Daniel Coyle
$18.00; 160 pages

This is indeed a little book. It contains 52 brief techniques for improving skills, based on Daniel Coyle's research into human excellence, and how we get there. What you will not find here is a lengthy treatise expounding Coyle's theory of greatness, with footnotes. That would be The Talent Code. This book is an extended commercial for Coyle's other book, which was apparently effective, because I was curious enough to buy a copy after reading The Little Book of Talent.

The tips you find in this book seem pretty simple. I think that is a feature not a bug. Most excellent coaching seems really simple after the fact. The hard part is doing the right thing at the right time that will help the student push harder than they ever thought they could. With a new batch of tricks, that should help a coach find that right thing faster, and more often. The same idea could easy be expanded to one's self, along the lines of Getting Things Done or the 4-Hour Workweek. Try to find ways to boost yourself just a little bit everyday, and aim for a cumulative effect to achieve a bigger payoff.

The tips are pretty interesting, and I find them intuitively accurate. They match up with my own experience. What I am less impressed with is Coyle's theoretical framework. The 10,000 hour rule serves nicely as a synecdoche of Coyle's theory:

Rule of Ten Thousand Hours (n): The scientific finding that all world-class experts in every field have spent a minimum of ten thousand hours intensively practicing their craft. While this number is sometimes misinterpreted as a magical threshold, in reality it functions as a rule of thumb underlining a larger truth: Greatness is not born, but grown through deep practice, no matter who you are.

Coyle has a lot of interesting research, but the one thing he can't conquer is the popular impression that some people are born more talented than others. That is because this popular belief is true. The semantic flaw in the popular belief is that we are not born with ready made skills; we have to learn them. Thus is entirely correct to say that all geniuses must perfect their skills through intensive practice. What is missing is the genius had a greater capacity for that talent than you when he started, and if you both went through an identical training regimen, the difference would rapidly become obvious.

The other important thing Coyle has going for him is very few of us are so skilled in anything that we are bumping up against our capacity limits. You can almost always get better at whatever it is you are doing with more effective techniques. The talented people will just learn faster, and learn more than the rest of us. This grates against the American national character, however, so Coyle shouldn't have any trouble finding a willing audience.

My other book reviews

g-loading for pilots and astronauts

With the passing of Neil Armstrong, Charles Murray gives us this anecdote about Gemini 8:

Jerry began to reminisce about Gemini 8, Neil Armstrong’s previous space flight. Armstrong and his copilot, David Scott, had rendezvoused and docked with an Agena rocket as part of the rehearsal for techniques that would have to be used on the lunar mission. The combined vehicles had started to roll, so they undocked. But once it was on its own, the Gemini spacecraft started to roll even faster. Unbeknownst to the crew, one of the Gemini’s thrusters had locked on. The roll increased to one revolution per second.

I had known all this, but hadn’t thought much about it. And if you watch NASA’s version on You Tube, it is all made to sound as if the roll was a brief problem, never rising to the level of a crisis.

Actually, it was a moment that would have reduced me, and some extremely large proportion of the human race, to gibbering helplessness, no matter how well we were trained.

Imagine an amusement park ride that sits you in a pod, and that pod is twirled sideways at one revolution per second (you’ve never actually been on an amusement park ride remotely approaching that level of disorientation, because it would be prohibited). You have a panel in front of you with dozens of dials and small toggle switches, and you are supposed to toggle those switches in a prescribed sequence. While spinning one revolution per second. Pretty hard, trying to focus your eyes on those dials and coordinate your finger movement under those g forces so that you can even touch a switch that you’re aiming for. Now imagine that the sequence is not prescribed, but instead that there are many permutations, and you’re supposed to decide which permutation to do next based on what happened with the last one. Heavy cognitive demand there—long-term memory from training, short-term memory, induction, deduction. While spinning at one revolution per second. And now, to top it all off, if you don’t do it right, REALLY fast, you’re going to lose consciousness and die.

Jerry Bostick mused, “So there’s Neil, calmly toggling these little banana switches, moving through the alternatives, until he figures it out.” He shook his head in wonderment. “I’m not sure that any of our other pilots, and we had some great ones, could have analyzed the situation and solved it as quickly as he did.” I could forget about trying to make anything of Neil not being the first choice for the lunar landing.

As Tom Wolfe documented so memorably in The Right Stuff, many of the early astronauts were test pilots, men of exceptional skill and bravery. Now, astronauts are likely to be geezers with PhDs. Astronauts are likely to be very smart and hard-working, but we are probably no longer selecting for the skills Neil Armstrong exhibited.

Being smart is important to be a hell of a pilot, and if you run a statistical model on the data, as the Air Force has done, you will probably find general intelligence highly correlated with skill as a pilot. However, the Air Force decided to ignore the model, and continues to test for pilot-specific skills. Gemini 8 gives you a good idea why.


Terry Teachout rags on the 10,000 hour rule in the Wall Street Journal.

The problem with the 10,000-hour rule is that many of its most ardent proponents are political ideologues who see the existence of genius as an affront to their vision of human equality, and will do anything to explain it away. They have a lot of explaining to do, starting with the case of Mozart. As Mr. Robinson points out, Nannerl, Mozart's older sister, was a gifted pianist who received the same intensive training as her better-known brother, yet she failed to develop as a composer. What stopped her? The simplest explanation is also the most persuasive one: He had something to say and she didn't. Or, to put it even more bluntly, he was a genius and she wasn't.

I didn't even know Mozart had a sister! This is especially fascinating because Mozart and Nannerl shared both environment and genetics. What was different about them is the thing that is not reducible to a measurement: their individuality. If we were doing statistics we would call that "error", which of course it isn't in this context.

A thing I worry about with the current fashion of the 10,000 hour rule is ambitious helicopter parents trying to force their children to be this or thus. It can be done. Many famous child prodigies, such as Mozart, are the result of just such a program of accelerated instruction. What is less clear is the terrible price to be paid by the victims of such forced marches. 

Charles Sanders Peirce is one of the greatest minds who ever lived in the United States, but the damage done to him by his illustrious father, Benjamin Peirce, meant that he died a pauper, unremarked and unlamented. Benjamin Peirce was chair of the Harvard mathematics department, and he placed his second son through a grueling regimen in which he read all the famous philosophers and then had to deconstruct their arguments for his father, and he composed a history of chemistry by the time he was 11. C. S. Peirce was incredibly gifted, but he seemingly lacked common sense, leading him to vandalize the chemistry lecture hall at Harvard. His precocity and foolishness earned him the enmity of the future President of Harvard, who ensured that Peirce would never work in a university.

Peirce was forced to earn a living doing work for the USGS and by writing book reviews. Just one of the things he created was the Peirce quincuncial projection. A mouthful to be sure, but a beautiful projection of the globe to look like a square:

This is just one many things he created in exile. Peirce's work is still being evaluated, but his reputation keeps increasing as time goes on, But he had a horrible life! He learned everything except how to be a good man, which is really the primary purpose of education. Peirce had to learn this for himself at an advanced age, but how much easier would it have been to have learned it when he should have.

Now, Back to our regularly scheduled program

Sivers' post on learning musical composition at an accelerate rate is fascinating to me. Sivers is clearly an extraordinary human being. Looking around his site, I found a bit on shortening the time between thinking and doing, challenging himself, and doing what scares you.

Sivers has created a great deal of success for himself, and is probably a very inspiring speaker. Hell, I feel inspired right now. Yet I cannot help but wonder where there is a place in Sivers world for human frailty, and human brokenness. What made me wonder is this:

Ever since our five lessons, high expectations became my norm, and still are to this day. Whether music, business, or personal - whether I actually achieve my expectations or not - the point is that I owe every great thing that's happened in my life to Kimo's raised expectations. That's all it took. A random meeting and five music lessons to convince me I can do anything more effectively than anyone expects.

(And so can anyone else.)

I wish the same experience for everyone. I have no innate abilities. This article wasn't meant to be about me as much as the life-changing power of a great teacher and raised expectations.

I have bad news for you Derek. You do have innate abilities, they are just much, much better than everyone else's. I don't really dispute the value of hard work, especially focused hard work guided by a mentor like he is talking about here. I also don't dispute that people can usually do more than they think they can. 

I just think this stuff is dangerous for the less gifted people of the world. How well is this all really going to work out for the slow and the unmotivated? The problem is that we do have innate capacities, that are partially constrained by heredity. The capacity for hard work is something that is not equally distributed. Some people just cannot do it, and if they try they will burn out or break down when their capacity is exceeded. Where is the philosophy of personal success and satisfaction for the below average?

It is probably too much to expect Sivers to be all things to all men, but our age is leaving the less-able further and further behind by pretending that everyone can be anything if only they tried harder.

Laws of Human Nature: The Map is not the Territory

The first article I read about the laws of human nature today was about a numerical simulation of the Peter Principle, which states that employees keep getting promoted until the point where they can no longer perform their jobs well. This simulation is pretty clever, but I don't know that is in fact quite as revolutionary as the article hints. Based on the random ability model the authors created, the optimal promotion strategy is to select employees at random for promotions. This is pretty clearly bad for morale.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but the best promotion strategy might be to choose people at random.

"This is a really interesting alternative approach to looking at the Peter principle," says Rajiv Mehta, a professor of marketing at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark. "But it would turn on its head almost every established theory of human behaviour and would face a multitude of problems."

The other principle we ought to keep in mind here is the map is not the territory: the model is not reality. I think this model could probably be turned into something really useful if it took into account the distribution of abilities such as g and the OCEAN personality factors, plus the experience people gain on the job. I think the model is just too simple to be actually useful, rather than an interesting exercise. I really like the attempt to apply a quantitative model, it just needs to much more complicated.

I will be curious to see whether the authors of the study follow up on this, or if it was just a one-off neat idea they had. This was done by a group of physicists, and I suspect that they are not really interested in getting into all the details it would take to get this right. Physicists are notorious for their simplifying assumptions [well, assume you have a perfectly spherical cow....] and I think this tendency is at play here. Philosophers are subject to the same tendency these days, so strongly wedded to simplicity that they will prefer a simple theory even when it doesn't work quite right. I am grateful that I have worked as an engineer because it has attuned me to complexity. I have to attempt to optimize 50 attributes at the same time, and I don't understand many of them very well, but I have to get on with it nonetheless. Physics and philosophy alike tend to make simplifying assumptions in order to make problems solvable, whereas I do not have that luxury.

I followed a link in the New Scientist article, and I found another post on 5 Laws of Human Nature that is also interesting. Among the 5 laws listed in the second New Scientist article is Parkinson's Law, named for C. Northcote Parkinson. Parkinson is on my list of people to read real soon now. I started reading The Evolution of Political Thought, which is an updating of Aristotle for the XXth century, but I found Parkinson's style idiosyncratic, so I decided to put the book down and come back to it later.

The other laws, Pareto's principle especially, are also worth attention.

h/t John D Cook

Beating the System

Having had a bit to say on the subject of education, I was intrigued today by an article by a professor from the University of Houston [where I will be Monday] about a university student who completed five undergraduate degrees in six years in 1998.

Instead of finishing in four years with one degree, he finished five college degrees in only six years. He amassed 340 credit hours with a grade-point average of 3.70. His degrees are in political science, psychology, sociology, criminal justice, and communications. Coyle has taken as many as 64 credits in one semester, which qualifies as absurd. He's also been accepted into seven fine law schools. Naturally, his university is less than delighted. The provost feels that Coyle has mocked the academic process.

I would be more impressed if there was a serious degree in the bunch. Each of those subjects qualifies as a voodoo science. It is definitely unfair of me to assert that, but nonetheless true. Each of those subjects, considered unto itself, I would consider interesting. I just have serious doubts about any of them taught in an American university. Each of these disciplines as taught has a great deal of overlap, and do not require the mastery of a complex, cumulative body of knowledge. Coyle could not have amassed 340 credit hours in the same amount of time if he had chosen mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, and mechanical engineering. Go ahead, try it. I dare you.

I know this to be true, because I studied physics and mathematics at the same time. It was extremely common for physics students to double or triple major. Common adjunct majors included astronomy, mathematics, and engineering.  However, this was only truly possible because the requirements overlapped to such a large degree that only a few courses [as few as five] were required for the double major. Even the dreaded engineering physics major only required 129 credit hours.

I also know this to be true because I had a friend who completed a triple major in Criminal Justice, Political Science, and Psychology at NAU. She graduated with over 200 credit hours, which was only possible by gaming the system. NAU also does not feel that you should amass ridiculous amounts of credits, even if you are able, so there is a strict cap of 25 credit hours per semester, with over 21 requiring the dean's approval. My friend would take classes at the local community college and then transfer them, to evade the credit hour cap. I remember her as busy, but quite sane. Someone who tried to take the equivalent number of classes in a hard science would have to be inhumanly smart, insane, or both. Probably both.

There is one thing such an accomplishment shows, a very high level of conscientiousness. My friend was always organized and on the ball. I never could understand how she got so much done. Actually, I do now. She is exceptionally conscientious. In retrospect, much is clearer now. My friend also went to law school,  there seems to be more than an accidental relationship here. I should point out that my contempt is reserved for the present system, rather than either Coyle or my friend. You need to be an exceptional person to be smart enough to figure out this is possible, and be sufficiently organized to actually do it. Coyle says he isn't smart, but I don't believe him.

I do agree with the provost of the University of Nevada, Coyle did make a mockery of the system. I just feel the system deserves to be mocked.  The subjects Coyle quintuple-majored in are just not hard enough to prevent this kind of thing from happening. This kind of behavior is rare both because no one thinks of doing it, and also that the vast majority of college students don't have sufficient conscientiousness to pull it off. For a lot of smart young people, college is a very pleasant way to spend four [or five] years. Choosing a major that is not too hard can be a good way to ensure that you are still employable [given sufficient smarts], but not cramp your social life. Doing 340 credit hours in two years definitely cramps your social life.

I am largely in agreement with Charles Murray. Far too many people are going to college. This whole episode is really just a symptom. Lienard, the UH professor, relates a story from his youth where he was denied credit for exceptional drafting ability because he is dyslexic and consequently was doing poorly in high school. Lienhard did three years of classwork in one semester, but only received one semester's of credit. The school system current, both secondary and tertiary, cannot accept that people have wildly differing levels of ability in many different spheres. Some people are much smarter than others. Some people are much more organized than others. Some people can visualize in three dimensions much better than others.

This is not a bad thing. Paradoxically, I also assert that it is not a bad thing that some people are less smart, less organized, and less able to visualize in three dimensions. This is simply a fact, that must be acknowledged.

Plus, someday the last shall be first.

h/t John D. Cook

Trait Substitution

See part I, Personality Traits as Potentia

See part II, Personality Traits as Natural

This part is really more of a personal reflection than a post about the intersection of psychology and natural philosophy. But it seems to fit topically, so here it is.

The Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar got me thinking of what I call trait substitution. When it comes to the task of living your life, it is rare that there is one and only one way to go about doing things. Not only are there many ways to live your life successfully, there are multiple ways to reach one and the same goal. Accordingly, having low-C does not mean that you cannot live a good life, just as low-g does not. If you have low-C and low-g, life will probably be rough. That sucks. [which brings up personality traits and social justice, but that is a topic for another time] 

But in general, you can learn to build on your strengths instead of your weaknesses. Bach talked about having to learn how to do that in the interview I listened to. Basically, in his case he had to figure out how to use his smarts to compensate for a lack of discipline. This very much works the other way round as well. It is entirely possible to substitute hard work for smarts when it comes to school and work. I think there are at least a couple of ways of going about doing this, and one seems better than the other. [for me]

You can try to figure how to get the same result in a different way [the creative solution], or you can try to convert one trait directly into another[the brute force solution]. 

I  suppose I think of personality traits as fungible, in the economic sense. You can convert one into another at some exchange rate, which may or may not be favorable to you in terms of time, effort, and results. However, like when you exchange money, there is some cost. It is possible to make up for a lack of discipline by using to-do lists, and trying to work diligently in time blocks, or finishing tasks a little at a time, or whatever time-management thing someone has come up with. These are all ways of trying to convert smarts into conscientiousness directly. This is the brute force solution, and it can definitely work. At the very least, it works well enough to keep a small army of self-help gurus employed. But, I think the typical improvement is probably small. You can probably get 5-10 percentage points of change out of things like this. Which, if you are looking for a little boost to help you get things done is probably just the ticket.

However, my personal experience as someone with low-C is trying to convert g into C makes me really unhappy. Trying to do things that way just stresses me out, and doesn't make the work go any faster. It is just too mentally exhausting to work against my nature in that way. When I took the OCEAN test I scored at the 2nd percentile for conscientiousness.  My wife was a little more generous than I was and scored me at the 8th percentile, but we are pretty clearly talking low levels of conscientiousness here. A 5 point percentile point improvement would be only 13th at the best, and percentiles get wider in the tails, so it would probably be less than that. Basically I'm a lost cause.

So, I was really interested to listen to Bach, because his experience mirrors my own. I just can't do things the way most people do them. Trying to be organized and on the ball is really, really hard. It is especially annoying to me because I can perfectly well understand what needs to be done, it is just hard to do. Until I started learning about personality traits, this was mysterious to me. Now, it is clear what the problem is. I had to give up trying to be conscientious, and embrace my erratic work style.

My experience has been that I actually do better if I do things at the last minute, and get around to tasks when I remember them instead of trying to plan everything out. If it seems haphazard, that's because it is. But as long as the end result is acceptable, who cares? I actually find that really really good ideas percolate up into my mind as I procrastinate, and I continue to find success in life. This is the creative solution, finding a different way to get the end result. I just don't have to spend hours working on something to get a good result. I often find that I can bang out a rough draft of a technical report, and then drop it entirely for a day or so, and go back and revise it when I can get a fresh look at it. What matters is the final product, not the process of getting there. Which is probably confusing to some people, because it looks like I'm wasting time, but in the end I get as much, if not more done. It just comes out in these concentrated bursts.

I study much the same way. Taking classes at Holy Apostles, there are these suggested course outlines they give you in the syllabus: read this chapter this week, and watch this lecture, so forth. Trying to follow these basically set me up for failure. It would be easier if I actually had a lot of classes to physically go to, and I needed to break up the work. As it is, trying to read little bits and pieces just bores me, and I get distracted with work and more urgent day to day activities. What I have found to work better for me is to just cram it all together. I read the whole text book right away, and then I probably read all the class notes. I may or may not actually get around to watching all the videos until right before the final. Often, I write the term paper in about a 48-hour period the week before it is due. There is often a big lull period in the middle of the semester, which I often occupy by reading related philosophy texts or journal articles. 

This process evolved, and it works pretty well. The time it completely failed me is when I took Logic. I probably still need to go back over that, because of the difficulty of the subject, it really does need a slow and steady approach to really master the material. I now have to do that again later. On the plus side, I picked up enough that I know how the material is organized, so I can probably move through it quickly the second time.

I cannot recommend this process. It is fraught with peril, and is probably unnecessary to someone with even low-mid levels of conscientiousness, but it works for me. 

The Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar

Wednesday while doing other tasks I listened to a podcast interview with James Bach about his book, The Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar. Bach is a good example of a highly successful high-g, low-C entrepreneur. There is a good quote at about the 4 minute mark when Hanselman asks Bach whether he thinks he has a learning disability:  "I have no self-discipline....Unlike a lot of people, I seem to have no ability to learn things when other people tell me I have to, or do things when other people tell me I have to."

It is very interesting to hear Bach describe how he struggled with school because he didn't like being told what to do. He frankly admits that he cannot force himself to be conscientious even when he knows good and well that it is in his best interest. Being a little bit that way, I'm entirely sympathetic.  You have to figure out how to deal with your nature, because trying to force a low-C individual to be even average-C is probably going to fail. You just have to learn to deal with it.

Software is a field where high-g, low-C people have an opportunity to do well. You can demonstrate your skills pretty easily without the need for a degree, and enough famous people have done the same thing that it is more acceptable to forgo the degree.

h/t John D. Cook

IQ and Height

 I got a message from my first college roommate last month, asking about a Wikipedia article: Height and Intelligence. He wanted to know what it means to say that there is a 0.2 correlation between height and intelligence. That is an excellent question. I meant to get to this earlier, but I got a little distracted. I did however find time last month to read most of the cited sources

First a bit of history. The correlation coefficient, r, was actually first developed to answer precisely this kind of question. Francis Galton was interested in whether famous successful men had famous successful children. Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be generally the case, but not always. Being of a quantitative bent, Galton (the half-cousin of Charles Darwin), wanted to know more about this. He developed the ideas of standard deviation, fitting normal distributions to empirical data, and regression analysis. Regression analysis was Galton's method of quantifying the fact that sometimes the children of famous successful men turned out to be poor and obscure. He even coined a term, regression toward the mean, because it turned out that your children are likely to be more average than you are. This is widely true across a number of physical characteristics, such as height, weight, athletic ability, and so on. This is the origin of the term regression analysis.

It was a student of Galton's, Karl Pearson, who developed the correlation coefficient to quantify the degree of linear relationship between two random variables. The key insight here was to standardize each quantity, such that they each have the same scale. You standardize using the standard deviation.

Correlation Coefficient

Thus equipped, you can quantify the degree of linear relationship. Pearson's r is still widely used, and is the foundation of the r2 that is also widely used. Galton and Pearson alike are now widely excoriated for endorsing eugenics, but to be honest pretty much everyone you ever heard of from the same era believed in eugenics at the time, (except for G. K. Chesterton) so it is quite unfair to single them out.

Now, height and IQ. I read through most of the sources in the Wikipedia article. They are pretty interesting. The first sources cited studied children, and I would have expected an effect to be found in children. IQ for children is a ratio of expected performance by age versus actual performance. All else being equal, a bigger child is an older, more developed child. Children with serious developmental problems caused by nutrition or whatnot are shorter, so that alone could be part of it. The first study says that they did not find this effect in their study, but other studies did find it.

An important point to keep in mind here is ceteris paribus. This is all else being equal. There are going to be loads of exceptions to everything like this, such as kids with malnutrition being shorter, the key is that we are looking at the averages of large numbers of individuals, and then clear relationships emerge. What this does not mean is that we can make an accurate conclusion about any individual. The kind of reasoning here applies to large groups quite well, but not very well at all to individuals, because the mathematics evens out individual differences. 

Reading through these childhood IQ and height sources, an idea begins to be discussed that the results are perhaps an artifact of the time of the research. The Newcastle Thousand Families Study was started in 1947, and wartime rationing from the Second World War and its aftermath may have dominated the results . A later study in the British Medical Journal said that the correlation between height and IQ was decreasing over time. However, the study about Swedish conscripts found that shorter conscripts, men from whom everyone with an obvious physical or mental abnormality had been weeded out, had higher rates of disease and psychological instabiity, responded less well to stress, and so on.

Probably the most sophisticated analysis can be found in the article entitled: "Genetic contributions to the association between height and intelligence: evidence from Dutch twin data from childhood to middle age." There was some pretty heavy duty math and genetics in there, but the gist of it is that height and IQ are genetically correlated. However the causal relationship works, being tall and being smart tend to go together. This is also true of a number of other things; in life, to them that have, more will be given. Higher IQ also correlates with any number of things generally viewed as positive, such as overall heath, attractiveness, and so on. This was mentioned by Geoffery Miller in his new book Spent:

general intelligence is not a mental organ, but a latent variable that emerges when one analyzes the functional efficiencies of many different mental organs (such as memory, language ability, social perceptiveness, speed at learning practical skills, and musical aptitude). ...

In the 1970s, critics of intelligence research such as Leon Kamin and Stephen Jay Gould wrote many diatribes insisting that general intelligence had none of these correlations with other biological traits such as height, physical health, mental health, brain size, or nerve conduction speed. Mountains of research since then have shown that they were wrong, and today general intelligence dwells comfortably at the center of a whole web of empirical associations

One of the things a good graph can make clear is just how this relationship holds over the entire range. For example, here is one from the Swedish conscripts study.

Tuvemo, T., (1999). Intellectual and physical performance and morbidity in relation to height in a cohort of 18-year-old Swedish conscripts. Horm Res, 52, 189

The graph makes clear that intellectual ability generally increases with height, but as you get to the tallest men it starts to fall off again. This is the kind of thing that I would expect to see here, being too far at the extremes tends to mean strange things are going on. However, being unusually short is even worse, so I suppose if you had to choose you should be tall. However, none of us really choose our parents, so this is just the luck of the draw for any of us. There is really nothing to be proud of in being tall or smart, since such a large part of it is genetic. You had nothing to do with it. At least in the case of being tall and being smart, on average, one would expect them together, but there is a lot of variability here. An r of 0.2 is pretty bad, even in social science. Using the standard r2 explanation, you could expect only 4% of IQ to be explained by height. Let's see what that means graphically.

Here is a scatterplot of two random normal variables with a regression line drawn in. For this data, r is 0.1.

And here is another random normal with r = -0.21

The correlation is there, but it is pretty limited. Maybe if you binned the data and made a bar chart it would look more like the figure from the Swedish conscripts study, but that obscures the fundamental fact that most of the variability is found elsewhere. Perhaps that is the reason you don't see scatterplots in these papers, it would make the results seem silly.