No, You Can't Be an Astronaut Book Review

No, You Can't Be an Astronaut: Why you shouldn't follow your dreams--and what to do instead
by Patience Fairweather, PhD
Plausible Press (January 18, 2018)
$9.99 paperback; $3.49 kindle edition; 186 pages
ISBN 978-1548082963

I received this book for free from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Program.

Patience Fairweather [a pseudonym] is preaching to the choir. I have also been saying that the STEM crisis is a myth, and that we have plenty of well-educated Americans to do all the jobs we have. I appreciate it when anyone else says it, and backs it up with data.

What is more interesting, is what we should do about. Fairweather has written a book that provides sound, reasonable advice to individuals, especially the very young, or those contemplating a career change. This is not a book of policy, but rather a checklist combined with useful background information, to provide opportunity to ordinary Americans. 

After the introduction, Fairweather has a section on personality assessments. This section is pretty good, especially insofar as it encourages the reader to seek out objective information about what they like, and what they are good at. A variety of different tests are cited, including the popular-but-flawed Myers-Briggs, and the better replicated OCEAN model. The point of all is to find out what you would be willing to tolerate for money, because following your dreams can end very poorly. It is often better to find out what you can stand that someone will pay you to do.

Which is the next section of the book! Fairweather looks at ways to assess your actual likelihood of graduating college, and then assessing whether this would truly be a net financial benefit to you. Sure, on average, college graduates make more money, but will you? Sometimes, the answer is no, and Fairweather provides some tools, for example the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the United States, that can answer that question pretty accurately.

Following chapters contain commonsense advice about using time wisely in college, avoiding social media mistakes that can cost you your job, job-hunting and interview skills, and how to succeed in the workplace. I've done technical recruiting for twelve years, and this is good stuff. If you don't need this book to point this stuff out, great for you, but honest mistakes can cost people chances they would otherwise have. Don't let that be you.

Highly recommended.

My other book reviews

The Long View 2006-01-31: Save the Dinosaurs; Unfriendly Democracy; News Medley

I think John Reilly also mentioned this in other places, but here he advances the suggestion that law school is a scam, and could be folded into an undergraduate curriculum. I lack subject matter expertise to comment on law school in particular, but it seems at least plausible to me.

Bryan Caplan argues that education is less about skills and facts, and more about signaling that you have valuable qualities. In general, I find Caplan's case persuasive, although I think it would be easy to take this idea too far. Some data points in favor: I turned out to be a decent engineer, despite not studying that field in school. The English university system currently uses a much shorter timeframe for degrees, but has equivalent results.

It is always risky to generalize from a n of 1, even more so when it is your own experience. An example of what I am talking about can be seen in this twitter exchange with Greg Cochran about the evolutionary fitness cost of schizophrenia:

It isn't really a good argument to assert "I turned out fine." With that in mind, not everyone with my education background makes a good engineer. There are other personal qualities that matter. Conditional on those things, educational background loses importance as a predictor of success. If you know what to look for.

Save the Dinosaurs; Unfriendly Democracy; News Medley


Hugh Hewitt has buried the dinosaurs of the Main Stream Media (or at least so he seems to imagine) in an article in The Weekly Standard of January 30 entitled "The Media's Ancien Regime." There he describes his visit to the Columbia School of Journalism. He was well received by all concerned, particularly the dean, Nicholas Lemann. He found a relatively small graduate institution that has become very keen on teaching its students serious analytical skills, including a fair amount of number-crunching. Hewitt thinks it all for naught:

Lippman's world, Pulitzer's world, even Nicholas Lemann's world of the Harvard Crimson from 1972 to 1976--they are all gone. Every conversation with one of the old guard quoting the old proof texts comes down to this point: There is too much expertise, all of it almost instantly available now, for the traditional idea of journalism to last much longer. In the past, almost every bit of information was difficult and expensive to acquire and was therefore mediated by journalists whom readers and viewers were usually in no position to second-guess. Authority has drained from journalism for a reason. Too many of its practitioners have been easily exposed as poseurs.

It is certainly the case that journalists often seem to be woefully underinformed about what should be common knowledge. (Fr. Neuhaus remarked last week on the reporter who responded to his allusions to the pope as "the bishop of Rome" with a query about whether it was unusual that the current pope was also the bishop of Rome.) However, anyone is gravely mistaken who thinks that New Media and the blogosphere make good the deficit.

Blogs are engines of critique. They are not particularly good sources for primary news. For that, we will continue to need journalists to assemble the first-draft narratives for critique and elaboration in the noosphere (a term i use advisedly, since more than blogs are at work here). It's true that journalism used to be primarily a sort of arbitrage between information-poor and information-rich domains. It still does that, particularly at the local level, where public events enter the information stream only if a shoe-leather reporter puts them there. The effect of communications technology, which simplifies reporting for many classes of stories, is not to abolish journalism, but to allow it to focus on generating value through synthesis.

The preceding paragraph may be the geekiest thing I have ever written. Anyway:

The problem is that the type of person best suited to this is the sort of widely educated liberal-arts graduate that the universities seem determined not to produce any longer. There is something wrong with the very idea of journalism as an academic major, much less as a graduate-school subject. (Law school, in contrast, could easily be folded into an undergraduate curriculum; it's law school that the hoax.) At the end of four years of college, you should know enough languages, and accounting, and history, and sociology, to make yourself useful in a newsroom, assuming you can write acceptable expository prose. There is a craft to reporting, of course. It is ably described in any number of memoirs. Reading them may be more helpful than journalism school.

* * *

Walter Russell Meade's proposal to abolish college, which appears in The Weekly Standard Online is ingenious:

There is no reason the government should try to prevent American families who value the traditional college experience from paying hundreds of thousands of dollars, but perhaps it could offer an alternative: a federally recognized national baccalaureate (or 'national bac') degree that students could earn by demonstrating competence and knowledge.

This would leave us with, what? A think-tank industry to replace the research university and a Chinese-style civil-service test to replace the undergraduate college?

* * *

That Spengler takes no prisoners, if we may so judge by his latest at Asia Times:

Fight a dictatorship, and you must kill the regime; fight a democracy, and you must kill the people. Two years ago I called George W Bush a “tragic character” (George W Bush, tragic character, November 25, 2003) who “wants universal good, but will end up doing some terrible things”. Now we have begun the third act of his tragedy, which shatters the delusions that led him to the edge of disaster. President Bush met Nemesis in the form of Hamas, whose election victory in Palestine last week makes clear that democracy can empower the war party as well as the peace party.

Look, maybe this will help. The purpose of promoting democracy is not to create pro-American regimes. It is to create regimes that have relatively transparent and responsive political systems. They can be as anti-American as they please, but provided they nurse their grudges in public and have to convince the rest of the world that they are stable enough to do business with, then there are far preferable, far safer, than even the friendliest tyranny.

* * *

If all these recent elections are starting to run together in your mind, this piece of January 28 by David Warren will surely make it worse:

After the first TV reports that their party would win the Canadian election, Conservative campaign workers began smashing windows in the Parliament Buildings, and in government offices around Ottawa. They roved through the corridors, beating up clerks and civil servants suspected of having Liberal Party connexions. From St John’s to Victoria, both winning and losing Conservative candidates took to the streets, leading heavily armed supporters in ski-masks, followed by millions of happy, cheering, banner-waving CPC voters, dressed in toques and scarves. Merchants and homeowners raced to get Liberal and NDP signs out of view, as the Tory hordes marched through towns, firing their guns in the air, vandalizing post offices, and looting shops belonging to their opponents.

Perhaps a good test for a perspective journalist would be to examine a pile of putative newsstories and pick out the ones that, like this one, are jokes.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Linkfest 2017-07-07

Sixtus Dominus Boniface Christopher

Sixtus Dominus Boniface Christopher

Jacob Rees-Mogg announces baby Sixtus

Initially, I was sure this was a joke. Then I saw this on BBC.

Should Tyler Cowen Believe in God?

Yes. But he needs to be convinced.

Why a record number of university places might not be a good thing

Ed West cites Peter Turchin on the over-production of elites.


I probably would have called this the "obvious BS" heuristic.

Suffering in the land between black and white

The Charlie Gard case is not a straightforward one, and this is a good look at what Catholic teaching says on the matter.

No, research does not say that you produce more when working 40 hours per week

I admire the precision in thought here that distinguishes between peak output rate, and peak output over a given interval of time. Luis links to some empirical research that matches up with my own experiences: after a certain point in hours worked, no additional [or not much] output is produced. It also matches up with something Steve Sailer's father told him, that the peak output came from 52 hours of work in a week.

Average Work-week is Over, a few Thoughts on Productivity

This is an earlier post from Luis Pedro Coelho on productivity and working that was linked in the above post. This one is probably worth me blowing out into a whole blog post of my own.

Why I Write about Race and IQ

Glenn, John, and Philip K. Dick

Robert VerBruggen and pseudonymous blogger Ed Real explain why talking about race and IQ doesn't have to mean incipient fascism.

College Learning Assessment Plus

The Wall Street Journal has an article up on the CLA+ test, with an accompanying data set from 68 public colleges obtained through FOIA requests. I put all the data in an EXCEL style spreadsheet as well.  

I always like to plot my data, so here is a scatterplot matrix of the whole thing:

CLA+ Scatterplot Matrix

CLA+ Scatterplot Matrix

There are several columns that are just different ways of saying the same thing, like Freshman Score and Freshmen with Below Basic Skills. So I dropped everything that was just the same data in a different format and we get this:

Subset of CLA+ Scatterplot Matrix

Subset of CLA+ Scatterplot Matrix

Just about the only scatterplot that stands out to me is that higher freshman scores are pretty correlated with higher senior scores. I never would have guessed.

The next most interesting is the relationship between freshman score and the difference between freshmen and senior scores. The correlation is negative, perhaps implying there is a score ceiling in the test, or that average college graduates tend to end up in about the same place by the end of school.

Both freshman scores and senior scores are correlated with graduation rates, but since we are supposed to be using this data to see whether a given college does anything useful, I plotted both freshman and senior scores against graduation rates, but I color-coded the points by the improvement between freshmen and senior scores.

CLA+ relationship between senior score and graduation rates, color coded by score improvement

CLA+ relationship between senior score and graduation rates, color coded by score improvement

CLA+ relationship between freshman score and graduation rates, color coded by score improvement

CLA+ relationship between freshman score and graduation rates, color coded by score improvement

The color-coding looks random on the senior scores graph, but against freshman scores the highest improvements are concentrated at the lower-left. This might be interesting, since point difference versus graduation rates in general looks pretty random in the first scatterplot matrix.

I don't see anything groundbreaking here, which is probably why colleges don't talk about this much. If there was something to crow about, they would.

Linkfest 2017-04-21

Why is this so funny?

Why is this so funny?

Depending on you do the accounting, emergency rooms aren't the most expensive way to get care.

If you combine this essay from 2016 by Rusty Reno, editor of First Things, with this 2017 article by Steve Sailer, you can get a sense of just how weird American elite universities have gotten.

Another Rusty Reno / Steve Sailer pairing, this time on how corporate and political diversity initiatives are used to shore up the status quo.

Tyler Cowen points out that stats wise, West Virginia isn't so bad. This is an interesting article on its own merits, but it also makes me wonder whether standard economic metrics are all they are cracked up to be.

Bryan Caplan points out that talking about IQ doesn't have to make a monster, but in his experience it often does. Since I follow a lot of IQ/psychology/genetics researchers on Twitter, I got to see many of them questioning Caplan about this in real time.

This story is almost ten years old now, but I didn't know that the monasteries at Mt. Athos still run under their Byzantine grant.

A number of my favorites made this list: Gattaca, Screamers, and Event Horizon.

H. P. Lovecraft is a favorite author of mine. I think these are indeed good places to start.

This title is horribly misleading. This is really an article about intellectual property law, and how a clever strategy almost allowed Google to publish orphaned books.


The Long View: Theodore Roosevelt's Letter to the Government Printing Office


A minor mystery attends this document. Public Printer Charles Stillings says in the Government Printing Office directive of September 4, 1906, that the spelling changes are being made pursuant to "Executive order." Histories that mention Roosevelt's spelling initiative usually say that the president issued an executive order for this purpose on August 27, 1906. However, "executive order" is a term of art. Executive orders are the ordinary means that presidents use to carry out the duties of their office. They are numbered sequentially. Since the middle of the 20th century they have been systematically codified. However, no such executive order appears in the list of presidential documents issued by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 or in any other year. The letter below may be a simple letter of transmittal.

The text here is widely available in The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, Volume V: The Big Stick 1905-1907; edited by Elting E. Morison, John M Blum, Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., and Sylvia Rice; Havard University Press, 1952; pages 389-390. Note that this collection of letters does not include the list of reformed spellings. The list of spellings may be found, along with the text of the president's letter, in the Government Printing Office document of September 4 mentioned above. That document is available on mircofiche at major federal documents repositories. The series is US Executive Branch Documents, 1789-1909: no. GP102-27.1, GP102-27.2). The material includes copies of the Circulars of the Simplified Spelling Board mentioned in the president's letter.

Theodore Roosevelt's Letter to the Government Printing Office

Oyster Bay, August 27, 1906


To Charles Arthur Stillings

My dear Mr. Stillings: I enclose herewith copies of certain circulars of the Simplified Spelling Board, which can be obtained free from the Board at No. 1 Madison Avenue, New York City. Please hereafter direct that in all Government publications of the executive departments the three hundred words enumerated in Circular No. 5 shall be spelled as therein set forth. If anyone asks the reason for the action, refer him to Circulars 3, 4 and 6 as issued by the Spelling Board. Most of the criticism of the proposed step is evidently made in entire ignorance of what the step is, no less than in entire ignorance of the very moderate and common-sense views as to the purposes to be achieved, which views as so excellently set forth in the circulars to which I have referred.

There is not the slightest intention to do anything revolutionary or initiate any far-reaching policy. The purpose simply is for the Government, instead of lagging behind popular sentiment, to advance abreast of it and at the same time abreast of the views of the ablest and most practical educators of our time as well as the most profound scholars–men of the stamp of Professor Lounsbury. If the slightest changes in the spelling of the three hundred words proposed wholly or partially meet popular approval, then the changes will become permanent without any reference to what officials or individual private citizens may feel; if they do not ultimately meet with popular approval they will be dropt, and that is all there is about it. They represent nothing in the world but a very slight extension of the unconscious movement which has made agricultural implement makers write "plow" instead of "plough"; which has made most Americans write "honor" without the somewhat absurd, superfluous "u"; and which is even now making people write "program" without the "me"–just as all people who speak English now write "bat," "set," "dim," "sum," and "fish" instead of the Elizabethan "batte," "sette," "dimme," "summe," and "fysshe"; which makes us write "public," "almanac," "era," "fantasy," and "wagon," instead of the "publick," "almanack," "aera," "phantasy," and "waggon" of our great-grandfathers. It is not an attack of the language of Shakespeare and Milton, because it is in some instances a going back to the forms they used, and in others merely the extension of changes which, as regards other words, have taken place since their time. It is not an attempt to do anything far-reaching or sudden or violent; or indeed anything very great at all. It is merely an attempt to cast what sleight weight can properly be cast on the side of the popular forces which are endeavoring to make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic.

Sincerely yours

Charles Stillings observed in his directive of September 4, 1906 that 153 of the words on the Simplified Spelling Board's proposed list were already preferred by the Government Printing Office. Of the rest, 49 were not preferred but had been used when the authority that ordered the printing requested it. We should note that many of the New Spellings simply canonized American as distinguished from British usage.

Using the spellchecker in the 2003 edition of Word set for American English, the software rejected approximately 106 of the New Spellings. Of these, the largest class were forms like "affixt" and "transgrest." In contrast, the spellchecker rejected 178 of the Old Spellings. Note that, because of the inclusion of variants, there are a few more Old Spellings than New.

The List

Old Spellings








anapaest, anapæst 

anaemic, anæmia 

anaesthesia, anæsthesia 

anaesthetic, anæsthetic 



apothegm, apophthegm 



archaeology, archæology 

























chimaera, chimæra 








coaeval, coæval 

























diaeresis, diæresis 
















oecumenical, œcumenical 

aedile, ædile 

aegis, ægis 


encyclopaedia, encyclopædia 



Aeolian, æolian 

aeon, æon 



aera, æra 

oesophagus, œsophagus 

aesthetic, æsthetic 

aesthetics, æsthetics 

aestivate, æstivate 

aether, æther 

aetiology, ætiology 




























haematin, hæmatin 



homoeopathy, homœopathy 


























manœuver, manœuvre 



mediaeval, mediæval 




















orthopaedic, orthopædic 

palaeography, palæography 

palaeolithic, palæolithic 

palaeontology, palæontology 

palaeozoic, palæozoic 







paedobaptist, pædobaptist 

phoenix, phœnix 

phaenomenon, phænomenon 







praenomen, prænomen 



preterite, præterite 

praetermit, prætermit 

primaeval, primæval 







quaestor, quæstor 




















scimitar, cimeter, etc 
















subpoena, subpœna 











teasel, teasle, teazle 



though, tho' 

thorough, thoro' 



through, thro', thro 

























New Spellings














































































































































































































practise, v. & n. 





























































































T.R.: The Last Romantic
By H. W. Brands
This note is derived from H.W. Brand's, T.R.: The Last Romantic, pp. 555-558.

The History

Now Theodore Roosevelt, president of the United States from 1901 to 1909, was a great reformer. In his first four-year term (3 1/2, actually, since he assumed office after the assassination of President McKinley), he reformed the railroads, he reformed the meatpacking industry, he even reformed the rules for American football. In his second term, perhaps having run out of more obvious things to reform, he turned his attention to English spelling.

Why did Roosevelt do this? It is often mentioned in this regard that Roosevelt was a notoriously poor speller. This in itself was probably the result of the fact he had never spent any time in a conventional academic environment before he entered Harvard. He had poor health as a child and rich parents, so he was educated by tutors, who perhaps were not interested in the type of drills that constitute schooling for less-favored children. More important, though, was that Roosevelt was very language-conscious. He spoke the major modern languages and read the ancient ones. He was also a prolific author on most things under the sun. He was therefore unusually likely to be annoyed by traditional English spelling, since he struggled with it daily and knew that there were alternatives.

The result was that he issued a directive to the Government Printing Office to adopt a list of 300 reformed spellings recommended by the Simplified Spelling Board. He further directed that his report to Congress for 1906 be printed and distributed in the reformed system. Had this order stuck, most federal documents would have been issued in a slightly reformed style starting in 1907. Many of the proposed spellings were obscure scientific terms, and the changes the Simplified Spelling Board recommended did not reflect any general system of reformed spelling. Nonetheless, had the president's order been carried out, a precedent for reform would have been set.

What happened, though, was that Congress went ballistic. A big part of the problem was just that Roosevelt had tried to implement the reform by executive fiat. He had not even tried to get Congressional support for the measure. Although Roosevelt had been successful in Congress during his first term, his success was based on his ability to scare the Right with what the Left supposedly wanted to do, and vice versa. Opposition to spelling reform was one thing they could all actually agree on. Another factor, of course, was that nowhere in the Constitution is there any grant of power to the president to oversee orthography. For that matter, neither is any such power granted to the federal government as a whole.

The upshot was that Congress passed a joint resolution expressing its disapproval of the executive action. The Supreme Court refused on its own authority to use the reformed spellings. Perhaps more surprisingly, in view of Roosevelt's popularity and of the fact that spelling reform was not an unfamiliar idea in those days, the major national newspapers were uniformly derisive. The New York Times, for instance, said that it would treat any reformed spellings issuing from the federal government as misspellings and correct them. Finally, Roosevelt just rescinded the directive. Ironically, many of the recommended changes were already current and most became preferred spellings over time..

As was shown by the fuss that arose in Germany in the 1990s when the government tried to implement a quite minor spelling reform, this can be what happens when a democracy tries to reform orthography.

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Linkfest 2017-03-17: St. Patrick's Feast Day Edition

No evidence to back idea of learning styles

Steven Pinker [among others] writes a letter to the Guardian against currently fashionable learning styles fads in education. In the post pointing to this, Steve Sailer offers a mild counterpoint based on his position that a lot of "neuroscience" findings are better thought of as something like marketing, a real benefit, but nothing lasting like science should be.

Why so many conservative Christians feel like a persecuted minority

Damon Linker pens a sympathetic and critical take on Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option.

Geoarchaeologist Proposes There Was a “World War Zero”

I first came across this idea on Jerry Pournelle's website as the first dark age. This was a period of steep decline that makes the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire seem minor in comparison. In the first dark age, even the memory of writing was lost. When the Greeks began to rebuild, the fortifications of their predecessors were seen as the work of monsters, rather than men, because no one could conceive of building anything as massive. I had not heard the term 'Luwians' to describe the people of the Anatolian peninsula who may perhaps be the 'Sea People' who overran much of the civilized Eastern Mediterranean in that time.

The Fall of Rome and "The Benedict Option"

I'm not really sympathetic to Rod Dreher's Benedict Option, and a big part of the reason is that his metaphor is a really bad description of what actually happened in the fifth century.

When Public Policy meets Elementary Biology

To go along with Ross Douthat's plan to create a series of immodest proposals to try and shift public policy debates into more useful channels, here is Henry Harpending's take on how we should shift welfare policies to take into account human biology. Henry implied at the end of the post that his suggestion needed amendment to prevent bad consequences, but to my knowledge, Henry never published a followup to this before he died, which is a damn shame.

An Oxford comma changed this court case completely

I've always been a fan of the Oxford comma.

Immigrations and Public Finances in Finland Part I: Realized Fiscal Revenues and Expenditures

Emil Kirkegaard posted this on Twitter. The graph in the source report is astonishing.

Net current transfers without indirect taxes by country of birth in 2011.

Net current transfers without indirect taxes by country of birth in 2011.

Net fiscal effects by country of birth in 2011. Averages for populations aged 20-62 years old.

Net fiscal effects by country of birth in 2011. Averages for populations aged 20-62 years old.

The originating organization is a Finnish anti-immigration group, but the results astonished just about everyone. The methodology is an attempt to account for all taxes, direct and indirect, as well as government spending of all kinds. I'm not sure I would hang my hat on it, but I'm not sure it's wrong either.

Lean In’s Biggest Hurdle: What Most Moms Want

Any attempt at statistical parity in childcare is doomed to failure, because many women actually like having kids and raising them. This isn't to say that every woman wants kids, or that every woman must stay home, but given the option, many women do choose to either work part-time, or leave work entirely for a period of time.


I can't improve on SSC's opening paragraph:

Seeing Like A State is the book G.K. Chesterton would have written if he had gone into economic history instead of literature. Since he didn’t, James Scott had to write it a century later. The wait was worth it.

Right or wrong direction: The nation generally

This Reuters poll on whether the nation is generally going in the right direction is pretty striking. Especially if you compare it to this Gallup poll on President Trump's approval ratings.

I naively expected these results would roughly track [keep in mind the timeframes are very different]. They don't at all, which is pretty interesting. 

Consistent Vegetarianism and the Suffering of Wild Animals

I also have a hard time taking complaints about modern animal husbandry seriously.

Linkfest 2017-02-24

Undocumented Irrigation

Damn. Steve Sailer went and wrote something about SlateStarCodex's Cost Disease post that covers pretty much everything I wanted to write.

The Meaning of Milo

Ross Douthat has a pertinent reflection on how Milo fits into post-religious social conservatism. Ross also predicts Milo will make a comeback, which wouldn't surprise me either. We shall see.

Irish and German Immigration Waves

United States % of population added by year and country of origin

United States % of population added by year and country of origin

Razib Khan retweeted this image from Noah Smith. I agree that this is a powerful and informative graph.

Persistence and Fadeout in the Impacts of Child and Adolescent Interventions

Why you should remain wary of educational innovations.

New Fertility Study Launches

23andMe is looking at the genetics of fertility.

I'm Not a Nazi

Robert VerBruggen has to point out that understanding that eugenics is possible [trivial even] is quite different from thinking you need to sterilize people against their will.

Book Review: Richard Bauckham, “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”

Ross Douthat retweets one of Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry's book reviews, further evidence that the Gospels are as credible as any other historical text from the Roman era.

A Beautiful Church for the Poor

Based on a 2009 report by Philip Schwadel, John D. McCarthy, and Hart M. Nelsen, Matthew Schmitz wonders whether the post-Vatican II changes in liturgy have ill-served poor white Americans. This probably should be read alongside Charles Murray's Coming Apart. Not mentioned in the Schmitz article was this fascinating chart about Latino Catholics in America:

The Long View 2004-05-11: Things You Can't Say

Respectable children's literature circa 1913

Respectable children's literature circa 1913

At the end of this blog post, John reminisces about the "Boy Inventor" literature his father used to enjoy. I happen to have a number of examples lying about my house. They are jam-packed full of useful technical information, and are also completely unacquainted with current standards of safety and propriety. John joking wondered whether there were ever articles like "How to Electrocute Your Own Cat!" I just happen to know this volume contained that article, so I took a picture of it.

Things You Can't Say

I am reluctant to jinx the situation by mentioning this, but has anyone except David Brooks noticed how much the situation on the ground in Iraq has improved since the publication of the Abu Graib pictures? Peace seems to have settled on Falluja, indeed a peace that involves some continuing American presence. Meanwhile, Moqtada al-Sadr's insurrection is starting to look like Wesley Clark's presidential campaign, except that Clark did not actually have Democrats demonstrating against him.

Brooks suggests that the prospect that the US might actually lose has concentrated the minds of responsible Iraqis wonderfully; they are now keen to get a working political system up and running while there are still Coalition forces on the ground. Even the insurgents at Falluja, or some of them at least, seem to have decided that honor has been satisfied. Hostility to the US will hereafter be expressed chiefly by political parties, rather than by militias.

In short, the Jihadis' Spring Offensive has failed. Did the Abu Graib pictures actually facilitate this?

* * *

On Sunday, the Boston Globe had an article entitled Chaos Theory. The subtitle explains:

A terrorist attack on presidential candidates could throw the US into unprecedented political turmoil. So why do so few people want to talk about it?

Actually, I myself broached some questions along these lines on New Year's Day, in the same blog entry in which I so presciently forecast the success of the Dean campaign. I do worry about this, often, but I am reluctant to discuss it, particularly online. Snoopy machines might detect my speculations. This could lead to awkward interviews with the Secret Service, particularly if one of my speculations turned out to be correct. You know what happens when American intelligence catches you.

In any case, the The Globe pointed out the procedural problems that would develop if both candidates were assassinated just before or just after the election. I was relieved to read this:

Both Republican and Democratic party bylaws allow their national committee members to fill vacant nominations for president and vice president. But if there is not time enough for party leaders to pick a replacement before the election, they would have to ask supporters to vote for the dead men and trust them later to pick an acceptable replacement.

This would lead us once again into the mysteries of that 18th-century cuckoo clock, the Electoral College. Some delegates are bound by the law of their states to vote for the party of the candidate they were nominally chosen to represent. Those who are not so bound, however, might not feel obligated to do so if that candidate could not serve. Some of the issues The Globe raises are not actually different from the confusion the Electoral College could occasion even with both candidates in perfect health. This system needs an upgrade.

* * *

I am reading a book about engineering and popular culture, entitled Inventing Modern: Growing up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and Tailfins. It's by John Lienhard, a noted professor of fluid mechanics. He introduces yet another perfectly defensible definition of "Modern," this time as the spirit of the first half of the 20th century, when art nouveau turned into art deco, and technological progress meant "higher and faster."

There are all kinds of interesting things in the book, which is packed with cool illustrations from the period. What caught my attention, however, was his discussion of the old "Boy Inventor" literature. My father used to read this kind of stuff; some faded books and manuals were still around the house when I was growing up.

The wonderful thing about this material is that it antedates the age of small-minded tort litigation. Respectable youth publications told their readers how to build substantial rockets, even how to build gliders: readers were encouraged to jump off a cliff.

How far did the editors go, I wonder? Were there ever articles like: "Boys! Build Your Own Gallows!"; or "How to Electrocute Your Cat!" There is, of course, an old Ray Bradbury story called "Boys! Grow Mushrooms in Your Basement," in which the mushrooms were probably evil aliens, but I'm pretty sure he made that up.  

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

LinkFest 2016-06-10

A review on Night Enhancement Eyedrops using Chlorin e6

This is pretty nutty, but really interesting. Self-experimentation involving a photosensitizer compound to enhance night vision.

Heavy Boots

I came across this physics teaching post about the effect of gravity, and how a philosophy grad student misinterpreted it. Possibly apocryphal, but it sounds about right. The author of the post tried to be generous, but I think the philosophy TA wasn't dumb, he just didn't know anything, which is a separate problem.

Who Benefited From North American Slavery?

Not who you think.

What is neo-reaction|?

A damn good question. Tyler gives a decent answer to a question that is inherently hard to answer, because this movement is still inchoate. The comments are pretty interesting too.

The Pro-National Suicide Argument

James Chastek gives a pretty good summary of the bad things nationalism has wrought, and why you might seek to get rid of it.

The Soviet Union Series

Pseudoerasmus retweeted one of the entries in this series, and it caught my eye because the inability of the CIA, or anyone else really, to understand the economy of the Soviet Union played a big part in the Cold War. 

Gattaca: Utopia or Dystopia

An older blog post by Razib Khan. Khan rightly notes that genetic engineering could give us the opportunity to help those who have unfairly lost the genetic lottery. I commend this line of thinking, while at the same time suspecting that it won't actually work out that way.

There is no exception in Islam

A more recent post by Razib. He talks about the role of religion, and views of religion, in shaping the world. Razib is not a believer himself, but he takes religion seriously, and knows a lot about it.

The 2016 election will be horrible for America. But also, endlessly entertaining

My thoughts exactly.

The Three Ages of Pixar

I have strong disagreements with Steven Greydanus' assessments of the relative merits of Pixar movies, but I like this piece anyways.


LinkFest 2016-03-26

Holy Saturday Edition


Ruby Slippers

Gabriel Rossman makes a persuasive case that social construction is real, but the concept is mostly used by people who don't understand it, and have no sense of proportion.

How Does America "Reshore" Skills that have Disappeared?

The first couple of paragraphs of this article accurately describe what it is like to deal with offshore manufacturing in China, in my experience. The article is mostly about training workers to fill new "reshored" jobs, but the beginning of the article is my favorite.

The Author of the Martian Wrote Ready Player One Fan-Fiction, and now it's Canon

Yeah, this happened.

RIP Andy Grove

In 2010 I linked to an op-ed by Andy Grove on American manufacturing. I still think it is relevant. Requiescat in pace Andy.

Book Review: The Art of the Deal

Scott Alexander at SlateStarCodex offers up an absolutely brilliant analysis of Donald Trump's book. Go read it, right now. As something of an odd duck, Alexander sees a certain similarity in Trump also being something an odd duck. 

Trumpism after Trump

Ross Douthat sees dark years ahead for the Republican party after Trump. I'm still curious to see what happens when Bernie loses the nomination to Hillary Clinton. Some Bernie supporters seem to hate HRC only a little less than Trump. In October, I pondered whether Trump and Bernie would both end up doing third-party runs, which would put us in the same kind of four-way race that elected Woodrow Wilson. Now that I think about it, that could actually be the worst possible outcome.

Easter, Early Christians and Cliodynamics

Peter Turchin points to data for the Christianization of the Roman world that fits a logistic model.

LinkFest 2015-12-21

Where America Gets its Winter Lettuce


Lettuce Produces More Greenhouse Gas Emissions than Bacon Does

The vast fields of lettuce in Yuma, in all places, are almost enough to drive me to despair. Almost.

Dear Parents: Everything You Need to Know About Your Son and Daughter’s University But Don’t by Ron Srigley

I am sympathetic to the author, but not at all that sympathetic to his argument. The American university system is currently caught between the cracks of at least three different models. There is the old English system of the upper classes, the German research university model, and most recently a bastardized vocational model. Srigley seems most closely aligned mid-century American model, which was a combination of the German and British systems, prizing both liberal studies and science, with an undercurrent of class distinctions. He is not a fan of the many, many students who go to college today because it is a gatekeeper to the middle class vocations. However, this is not their fault, but ours, for having made a system that requires this. Also, I'm dubious of the purported distinction between 'pure' science in the past and engineering now. A focus on pure science seems like a current obsession, whereas in the past application was very much on the minds of scientists.

A Change of Mind: Is there a way to treat Down's Syndrome?

The inventor of the widely used prenatal test for Down's Syndrome is on a quest to find an effective treatment for it. I think this is a good thing.

The New Atomic Age we Need

I'm not the only one to think that nuclear power is probably the most green energy technology we currently have.

Canada and the Emerging Terror Threat from the North

One of my current favorite authors is John Schindler. Schindler worked for the NSA, and now is a columnist, historian, and professor. Schindler calls it like it is, and I always appreciate that. I have been particularly enjoying his acerbic exchanges on Twitter with critics who don't know anything about espionage or security.

The Ionian Mission

Greg Cochran asks what made the Ionian Greeks so smart? I have wondered this myself. Aristotle must have had a prodigious intellect to figure out everything he figured out. Many of the other Greeks at the time were similarly remarkable, but Aristotle in particular has pride of place. Some commenters on Cochran's post say that this is just low-hanging fruit, but I think this misses the startling depth and breadth of the Ionian Greek accomplishments.

The Once and Future Liberalism

This post echoes a number of themes John Reilly used to talk about. Mead doesn't use the term, but this article is clearly about the apoptheosis of the New Deal in the Kennedy Enlightenment.

The Big U Book Review

NOT American MegaversityI picked up The Big U while I was organizing my library, and I decided to see if I still liked it ten years [at least] since the last time I had read it.

It turns out, I do! For me, this is the perfect college satire, on the same level as Thank You For Smoking or Office Space. I read it when I was an undergraduate, and it was hilarious, and a devastating send up of the bizarre world that is the American university. Ten years later, it is still hilarious and devastating. Then I flip to the flyleaf, and I find Stephenson wrote it in 1984.

Stephenson nailed the essence of university life in a way that is still relevant thirty years later. The LARPers. The Goddess worshippers. The terrible cafeteria food. The out of control parties. This is the American university, in all of its glory. American universities have long been at the center of the culture war, fostering, even encouraging, a hothouse culture in which the strangest things can flourish. Add to that a culture that has been intellectually static for the last hundred years, a guaranteed fresh supply of naive teenagers, and you will get a system that loops through the same obsessions, over and over and over.

In the introductory chapter, Stephenson's narrator says:

What you are about to read here is not an aberration: it can happen in your local university too. The Big U, simply, was a few years ahead of the rest.

This turns out to have been prophetic. In the Big U, we have all of the current obsessions of trendy politics. Rape culture. Identity politics. Minoritarianism. Endless curricular disputes. Weird religions. There are few things in the book so outrageous that they have not managed to happen in the last thirty years. It is all so ridiculous, and all so pertinent. I liked it the first time because it seemed very much like my alma mater. I like it now because it seems like all the universities in America. If anything, my own university has only grown more like American Megaversity with the passage of time.

It is fortunate this is a book and not a movie, because it prevents you from seeing out of date clothes and assuming everything in the book happened in the past. With a few minor changes, The Big U could easily be set today. The Stalinist Underground Battalion would have to be replaced with Occupy Wall Street, smart phones would have to be added in, and the university mainframe would have to be replaced with the web, but everything else could stay the same. 

The first time I read this book, I was attracted to the commonalities to my own life. The character who was a budding physicist. The genius programmers. The awkward fit of so many of the viewpoint characters to the dominant party scene. Even the bit with the university locksmith [in college, I worked as a student locksmith for the university]. It just seemed to fit.

Ten years later, there are a few things I appreciate more now than I did the first time. The cynical university president is someone I can now identify with. The Big U administration made poor choices, but now that I have actual responsibility, I appreciate the heroic virtue that would be required to resist those temptations. S. S. Krupp is bright, decisive, and capable. His only flaw is putting the university's reputation [and lots of jobs] ahead of doing the right thing. I am glad I don't face the same choices, because it is hard to see how I could realistically do better in the same circumstances.

The sexual dynamic that drives many of the viewpoint characters is far more obvious in retrospect. Especially if you were a nerd [who I presume is Stephenson's target audience]. Teenagers are driven by their hormones in strange ways, nerdy teenagers even more so, and those of us who have survived that phase can only pity them. This too shall pass.

Of all Stephenson's books, this is the one I like best. The first Neal Stephenson book I ever read was Snow Crash. Snow Crash was recommended to me by my freshman year college roommate, and I liked it enough to try more, although I'm not sure its many fans realize it is a dystopia. The Big U was the second. I really liked The Big U, so I tried a number Stephenson's other books, but I never really enjoyed them. Stephenson wrote Zodiac when it seemed like dioxin was the worst thing ever made by humans. By the time I read it, the evidence was a little more mixed. Thus I had trouble taking the plot seriously. I couldn't get through even the first volume of the Baroque Cycle. Maybe this one was a fluke.

I choose to see it as a stroke of genius. Maybe this book couldn't have been written seriously or intentionally, because we are all too identified with sides in the on-going culture war that rages in the universities. Stephenson has a pretty clear side with the left-Libertarians now, but in this book maybe he hadn't quite found his voice, because even characters on the wrong side seem sympathetic, despite some salvos in favor of his clear favorites. As Lincoln and C. S. Lewis argued in their distinctive ways, the sides we are on, and the sides that are really in the right, may not necessarily turn out to be the same.

My other book reviews

The Long View 2002-07-01: Don't Pick Fights about God

John talks a lot of sense here. It is pretty easy to get wrapped around the axle on issues of religious freedom, but the most important take-away here is that First Amendment law as applied to the states is a very recent invention, and the overt purpose of it was to keep Catholic primary and secondary schools from getting public money. Some of the states were actually ahead of the courts on this, the Arizona constitution forbids the use of public money to support parochial schools. Clever legislators have managed to find a way around this that has been challenged all the way to the State and United States Supreme Courts and survived.

This was perhaps the biggest favor the Federal government has ever done to the Catholic Church in America. If you look at the schools in European countries that are supported by tax dollars, you find Catholic schools that are not notably Catholic, or well-attended. One might also note that the behavior of most Catholic universities in the United States can probably be explained by the exception in this First Amendment jurisprudence that allowed public money to flow to post-secondary institutions. They have behaved accordingly.

Don't Pick Fights about God



Few federal appellate court decisions have been repudiated as widely and swiftly as Newdow v. U.S. Congress. In that decision, a panel of the 9th Circuit held last week that the phrase "under God," inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, was unconstitutional. The panel also held that it was unconstitutional for a local school board to require that the Pledge be recited at the beginning of each school day, even if students who did not wish to join the recitation were not required to do so.

This decision is something of a practical joke. The Supreme Court has repeatedly used the amended Pledge as an example of a constitutional use of theism. The suit itself is an odd duck, one of those badly pled public-interest suits that no court hears unless it has an ax to grind. The plaintiff, a doctor who is also a member of the California bar, is an irate atheist and parent who represented himself. He named the "U.S. Congress" as a defendant, under the misapprehension that the courts could order Congress to amend the text of the Pledge. The district court did in fact just throw the complaint out, but the panel resurrected it. Judges can be shockingly whimsical.

There is not really a lot of doubt that the opinion will be over turned, either by the full 9th Circuit or by the US Supreme Court. The question is on what grounds the decision will be reversed. The First Amenment really does say, in part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." On the face of it, there does seem to be some problem with Congress creating a Pledge that says the US is "one nation, under God." The fact is that courts that have allowed official allusions to God to stand, such as the motto "In God We Trust" on currency, have usually fudged the matter. Conservatives have appealed to tradition, and liberals to the somewhat insulting theory that these evocations of the Almighty are too trivial to outlaw.

At the risk of spoiling the fun, I should point out that references to God are not necessarily to a supernatural entity. In Kant's philosophy, the concept of God is posited as a necessity of practical reason, in rather the way that cartographers have to posit a point of 90 degrees latitude in each hemisphere. God in that sense is an objective standard against which the morality of behavior may be judged. Kantians would argue that the attributes of this God are not merely conventional, but fixed by necessity, like the attributes of a mathematical theorem. Phrases like "In God We Trust" could then be interpreted along the lines of Mr. Spock's paeans to logic. Such a God could not be an object of worship, and so would not fall under the ban of the First Amendment. This God might be adopted as the referent of America's famous "ceremonial Deism." Since this God is really an idol, however, it's probably just as well that the possibility has been overlooked.

Back on Earth, there is a principled argument for the use of the Pledge in public schools. As we have seen, the constitutional text refers only to what Congress can't do. The Bill of Rights, of which the First Amendment is a part, was written and adopted to apply only to the federal government. The Bill of Rights was applied to the states after the Civil War, by the 14th Amendment. Even then, the application was piecemeal, and always with the recognition that the provisons of the Bill of Rights had to be customized when applied to the states. The Supreme Court did not "incorporate" all the provisions of the First Amendment in this fashion until well into the 20th century. First Amendment law regarding religion is actually almost wholly a creature of the last fifty years. It was invented chiefly to keep public money out of the hands of Catholic schools below the college level. It really is as simple as that.

At the time the First Amendment was adopted, several states had established churches, or otherwise gave preference to some kind of belief. The religion clauses of the First Amendment were intended to prevent the federal government from disturbing these arrangements. Even at the federal level, the First Amendment was not taken to mean much more than that Congress could not establish a church: the early federal government granted a charter to a Jesuit institution in the District of Columbia, Georgetown University, and quickly made provision for military chaplains, though under some protest.

There is a great deal to be said for the proposition that, whatever else the religion clauses of the First Amendment are supposed to do, they are not supposed to change the way that people live their everyday lives. They were designed not just to make sure that people are left alone in this regard, but that communities are, too. The religion clauses of the First Amendment are not supposed to direct the way that communities keep festivals, or organize public space, or especially to educate children. Education is intrinsically intrusive.

It is quite possible for parents to want their children educated to be completely secular or anti-theist. There is no doubt some constitutionally minimum requirement of non-coercion. Also, the First Amendment today clearly means that no level of government, federal, state or local, can establish an official church. The religion clauses, however, are probably best regarded as injunctions to the federal courts to leave these matters as untouched as possible.

What I have said here is pretty much what Justice Thomas said in his concurrence to Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, also decided last week, which held that the states could fund student vouchers that can go to private religious schools as well as to public and private secular ones. The problem with concurrences, however, is that they sometimes highlight what the majority opinion did not say. In this case, Chief Justice Rehnquist's majority opinion took pains to emphasize the continuity of Zelman with the trend of First Amendment law over the past 20 years, which has in fact been allowing more aid to flow to religious institution, provided the aid is for a secular purpose. What he did not mention was Justice Thomas's historically sensible notion that the states should have more leeway to experiment in this area. Neither did the dissenting opinions. The Supreme Court, perhaps wisely, does not like to talk about incorporation.

Aside from Justice Thomas, the only opinion that tried to address history seriously was Justice Breyer's dissent. He noted correctly that the First Amendment law in this area is just two generations old, and that it was created to manage the growth of a large Catholic minority. He did not, however, quite get a handle on the fact that the "neutrality" the Supreme Court adopted by 1950 was actually a bit Orwellian, with religion becoming almost the only area of human discourse against which public bodies could discriminate. He also seems to have conceived the odd idea that the repressive 20th-century jurisprudence had a pacific effect. The removal of prayer from the public schools in fact persuaded millions of Americans that their government must really be run by Martians. It was one of those progressive policies that contributed to massive alienation from government. Whatever else Zelman may do, it is not going to exacerbate the culture war. Rather the opposite, I should think.

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View: Spelling Reform

This was definitely John's least popular enthusiasm. There is just about no easier way to get a guffaw or a snicker than talk about spelling reform. Nonetheless, John did. He was even on CNN once for this I think.

August 27, 1906: On this date, President Theodore Roosevelt directed Charles A. Stillings, the Public Printer of the United States, to use 300 simplified spellings in all the executive-branch documents printed by his office. The documentation for this characterically bold initiative is here made available online for the first time.


Click Below For:

The Mysterious "Executive Order"


The List


The History



To contrast the president's lucid and manly views with the obscurantist sophistries of the Dark Lord of Lexicography, click on the image of Dr. Samuel Johnson:


Click here Spelling Reform Links

Various Schemes to Reform English Spelling
Famous Dead People Who Have Promoted Spelling Reform
Fiction, Nonfiction in Reformed Spelling
Spelling Progress Bulletin Samples

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Bryan Caplan on the Signaling Theory of College

Bryan Caplan is a popular blogger and economist at George Mason University. Caplan was recently interviewed on EconTalk about the value of a college education. Short version: a college education doesn't have much intrinsic value. I'm simplifying a bit, but only a bit. Caplan argues that higher education is more important for sorting out the smart and hard-working from the rest than in teaching anything specific.  Of course, I might very well say that. I skipped out on grad school and went into the workforce precisely because I was convinced that more school wouldn't make me any smarter, or teach me anything useful. Of course, I also hated academia.

The signaling theory of education is nothing new to me. I've certainly pooh-poohed American higher education on multiple occasions here. However, it is easy to go too far. Caplan is too careful to say one learns nothing in college. What he is saying is that overall, and for the most part, specific skills are less important than intelligence, the capacity to work hard, and a willingness to play by the rules. These are the things college selects for. These are also correlates of success in America and similar societies.

On the other hand, I can certainly point you to plenty of disgruntled college graduates who cannot readily find work because they have the wrong degree. So there is a sense in which college functions in this signalling fashion that Caplan posits, but there is another sense in which employers, particularly in the much-vaunted STEM fields, really do expect college graduates to know things, very specific things. Personal experience suggests to me that this tendency is perhaps somewhat stronger than necessary to ensure competence, but one needs to understand the difference between ability and skill, or potentia and actualia. Since Caplan is an economist, perhaps he can look at the opportunity cost of hiring an able but unskilled graduate.

[Caplan] The human capital story says that you go to school; they actually teach you a bunch of useful jobs skills; you then finish and the labor market rewards you because you are now able to do more stuff. The signaling model says, no, no, no, no; that's not what's going on. What's going on is that people go to school; they don't actually learn a lot of useful stuff; however, the whole educational process filters out the people who wouldn't have been very good workers. So people who are lower intelligence, lower in work ethic, lower in conformity--those people tend to not do very well in school. They drop out. They get bad grades. And that's why the labor market cares. It's not that the school actually transforms you to a good worker from a bad worker. It's that the schooling, the school puts a little sticker on your head--you know, Grade A student, Grade B student, Grade C student.


[Interviewer] I have a natural skepticism about it. And I think a lot of labor economists do as well. And the reason is that it's an extremely expensive signal. So, you are saying, for 4 years, I give up the chance to work; I pay this tuition, whether it's $5000 or $10,000, or $30,000, or $40,000--at a private university. And for that enormous amount of money, I prove that I am a good worker and I get a sticker on my head. Wouldn't there be an easier, cheaper way to get the sticker? If all it's doing is measuring ability, this 4-year slog that's extremely expensive? That's the best way that people have come up with to get the sticker?


[Caplan] Yes, it's an arms race. And the fact, if it is a fact, the private return is high is really a very bad argument for pouring more money on. Now, the other point, as we were saying, the return that you should be looking at in terms of this argument of not being able to borrow against your future earnings--what you are looking at is return for the marginal people who are just on the edge of going or not going. And as we've seen, the return for those people is actually not, is actually quite mediocre. And then finally if you adjust for ability and everything else, really I would say that once you appreciate signaling you realize that, so we have subsidized education way past the point of [?] returns. So by my calculations, actually, the social return to education is now quite negative. And it would be a much better policy to drastically scale it back, so rather than encouraging more people to go, I think it's better to discourage them from going or at least to encourage them less. So in fact--so, the biggest policy implication that's going to come out of my book is we just have way too much education. I call this the white elephant in the room. There are way too many people going to school, maybe not from their own selfish point of view, but certainly from a social point of view to go and pour more money on this really is just throwing gasoline on the fire. And we need to do less of it.

h/t DarwinCatholic

The STEM Crisis is a Myth

Robert Charette at IEEE Spectrum has a really good piece on the unreality of a shortage of workers with an education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology [STEM].

Charette looks at all the different ways in which STEM jobs and STEM workers are counted. Different agencies count in different ways. He also looks this phenomenon over time in the US, and currently in other countries. India is apparently concerned they don't have enough STEM graduates, which strikes me as funny since US government policy is to suck as many STEM workers from India as possible.

I particularly liked this graph:

STEM Shortage

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?

Two Good Articles

Two good articles came out in the last week. Ross Douthat exposes the anti-egalitarian heart of our top universities in the New York Times, and Dalliard defends g at Human Varieties.

Nothing Douthat said came as a surprise to me, but I have been following this train of thought for over ten years. However, I think Douthat's article is well done and worth a read.

SUSAN PATTON, the Princeton alumna who became famous for her letter urging Ivy League women to use their college years to find a mate, has been denounced as a traitor to feminism, to coeducation, to the university ideal. But really she’s something much more interesting: a traitor to her class.

Her betrayal consists of being gauche enough to acknowledge publicly a truth that everyone who’s come up through Ivy League culture knows intuitively — that elite universities are about connecting more than learning, that the social world matters far more than the classroom to undergraduates, and that rather than an escalator elevating the best and brightest from every walk of life, the meritocracy as we know it mostly works to perpetuate the existing upper class.

A couple of weeks ago, Steve Sailer wrote on this same subject, using the Hoxby-Avery study as evidence that elite colleges don't bother to cast a very wide net when they recruit students. I wrote an email to Steve about my own choice to go to Northern Arizona University, instead of something more prestigious, which would be almost anywhere. In retrospect, I think my life turned out as well or better with a college education from little-known NAU as it would have with a name-brand university on my diploma. But things are different in the technical world, where you are judged more [not solely!] on talent than education. STEM is healthier than the rest of higher education in this way, although there are still some of the same mechanisms at work. In the physics world, a lot of talented physicists have left academia for quantitative finance in Wall Street, with correspondingly exorbitant salaries. This has slowed down some with the economic downturn, but quant recruitment depends heavily on degrees and connections.

Different but related, is Dalliard's defense of Spearman's g against Shalizi's attack.

As an online discussion about IQ or general intelligence grows longer, the probability of someone linking to statistician Cosma Shalizi’s essay g, a Statistical Myth approaches 1. Usually the link is accompanied by an assertion to the effect that Shalizi offers a definitive refutation of the concept of general mental ability, or psychometric g.

In this post, I will show that Shalizi’s case against g appears strong only because he misstates several key facts and because he omits all the best evidence that the other side has offered in support of g. His case hinges on three clearly erroneous arguments on which I will concentrate.

Shalizi's essay is a more numerate version of Gould's The Mismeasure of Man. Gould was completely off base too, but his book was far more widely read than the many rebuttals it received from psychometricians.


Don't Call Yourself a Programmer

I'm a frequent visitor to the PhysicsForums career section, I try to give the advice I wish I had received when I was younger. I saw a really interesting post this week, Don't Call Yourself a Programmer.

There is a lot of good stuff here. I think the single biggest eye-opener in the whole article is the focus on money. As an engineer/programmer/technical-whatever in the business world, you exist to make the company money. This seems to be a surprisingly difficult concept, given how often it comes up in the career section of the forum.

I like using concepts in new contexts, and I think this one is really useful for understanding the difference between being a scientist and an engineer in America. I've pondered this subject a lot, because when I was little I was absolutely sure I wanted to be a scientist, and I went to college to be a scientist, and I ended up as an engineer.

In a certain sense, the tasks of an engineer and a scientist are very similar. You conduct experiments, write technical papers or reports, go to meetings, and so forth. However, very few people see these activities as the same.

The biggest difference is in the end. An engineer is almost always trying to make a product, something you can sell in the market. A scientist is trying to advance our knowledge about a subject. Science is typically seen as more pure than engineering, which is kind of dirty, since it is about money.

Due to this difference in final causes, most young people perceive scientist to be a higher prestige profession than engineer. Being a Thomist, this implicitly Aristotelian perspective amuses me.

Where the disconnect occurs is in the actual work of a typical scientist and a typical engineer. While in theory young scientists are bravely advancing the frontiers of knowledge, in practice they are grinding away at their PI's latest project, sequencing yet another strain of E. Coli. Everything you need to do is new, in a certain sense of never having been done before, but not really groundbreaking.

Rutherford's famous quip about all of science either being physics or stamp-collecting seems to be more and more true. And I'm not so sure about physics anymore.

Unlike the scientist, the engineer is focused on making a thing that has never existed before. Sometimes this does not involve new understanding, but in my own experience I have seen plenty of new discoveries come out of engineering work that would have been worthy of a dissertation in academia. The real difference is in the end that is pursued, in a sense the discoveries are accidental or secondary to the process, whereas in the scientist's case these discoveries are the whole point of the exercise.

Having seen both sides of the coin, I have come to doubt that pursuing pure science is more effective than trying to make stuff, and having the discoveries come by accident. If I were to win the lottery, I would love to investigate the biographies of famous scientists over the past 500 years [scientist wasn't even a word in English until 1834], because I have a theory that many people we now call scientists spent a great deal of time doing what we now call engineering, and their science was the better for it.

To bring this back to the beginning, in the engineering world you can stick your head in the sand and pretend it isn't about money, but if you can understand a business perspective you will be much more successful. It isn't hard for this to become perverse, but engineering is about efficiency and performing miracles with constrained resources. For a scientist, the money issue is hidden, but still present. You really can pretend that this is all about knowledge and discovery and whatnot, because the PI and the lab manager make all that happen.