Monthly Archives: March 2017

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Apart from their civic importance, hierarchies can be surprisingly benign in life more broadly. Hierarchy is oppressive when it is reduced to a simple power over others. But there are also forms of hierarchy that involve power with, not over. Daoism characterises this kind of power effectively in the image of riding a horse, when sometimes you have to pull, and sometimes let go. This is not domination but negotiation. In Daoism, power is a matter of energy and competence rather than domination and authority. In this sense, a hierarchy can be empowering, not disabling.

Take the examples of good relationships between parents and children, teachers and students, or employers and employees. These work best when the person higher in the hierarchy does not use that position to dominate those lower down but to enable them to grow in their own powers.

A common Confucian ideal is that a master ought to aim for the student to surpass him or her. Confucian hierarchies are marked by reciprocity and mutual concern. The correct response to the fact of differential ability is not to celebrate or condemn it, but to make good use of it for the common pursuit of the good life.

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Because there is a trade-off between width and depth of expertise, the greater the expert, the narrower the area of competence. Hence the best role for experts is often not as decision-makers, but as external resources to be consulted by a panel of non-specialist generalists selected for general-purpose competences. These generalists should interrogate the experts and integrate their answers from a range of specialised aspects into a coherent decision. So, for example, parole boards cannot defer to one type of expert but must draw on the expertise of psychologists, social workers, prison guards, those who know the community into which a specific prisoner might be released, and so on. This is a kind of collective, democratic decision-making that makes use of hierarchies of expertise without slavishly deferring to them.

The entire article is very good.

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From Chris Olah, it’s called Distill:

As people rush out new discoveries without putting effort into communication, they produce research debt. The field becomes noisy and energy draining to follow. In such an environment, I think it’s extremely valuable for there to be people focused on human understanding, clarity, and communication — a kind of “research distiller” role.

Read more about it on Chris’ announcement post.

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A short review of Dennett’s new book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back.

And a quote explaining the main theme of the book:

Yet, as Dennett and others argue, genetic evolution is not enough to explain the skills, power and versatility of the human mind. Over the past 10,000 years, human behaviour and our ability to manipulate the planet have changed too quickly for biological evolution to have been the driving force. In Dennett’s view, our brains turned into fully fledged modern minds thanks to cultural memes: ‘ways of behaving’ — pronouncing a word this way, dancing like so — that can be copied, remembered and passed on.

Some memes are better than others at getting passed on. This drives natural selection, fashioning memetic design without a designer. The first memes, Dennett argues, were words, “the lifeblood of cultural evolution”, which act as virtual DNA for the richly cumulative cultural evolution that marks out our species. At first, he writes, words evolved to better fit the brains they had to colonize. Only later did brains start evolving genetically to better accommodate words, beginning a co-evolutionary process that turned us into voluble creatures.

*They Thought They Were Free* by Milton Mayer

My notes from They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer. Published in 1955, this book is a collection of stories by Mayer, a Jewish-American, as he interviewed 10 Germans in Kronenberg. Each of them were involved with Nazism in some form, but none of them were very high in the ranks of leadership, in fact they called themselves “little men”. Given that he was Jewish, and this was published so close to the date of the tragic Holocaust, I’m impressed at his journalistic ability to remain objective in his questioning and analysis.

My overall impression of the book is very good. The first half especially is worth a read, if only to get inside the mind of regular German people from the WWII days. Mayer does some very good journalism and storytelling in order to capture the characters, actions, and belief systems of his Nazi friends. The second half of the book is not so as great, it reads like a combination of rushed journalism and bad historical analysis.

What follows is a write up of my notes, each heading is a chapter or collection of chapters with summaries, observations, and quotes from each chapter. Page numbers are in parentheses. Enjoy…

Continue reading

An quote I dug up in my notes from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Complete Sherlock Holmes

He walked past the couch to the open window, and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.
“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be build up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our power, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its color are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”

It seems to me that this notion of religion and Providence as nature in general was essential to the Victorian worldview, as Doyle (via Holmes’ quote) clearly acknowledges here.

Ben Sima

5 March 2017

This afternoon I imported a ton of archives from previous years and a few different places. Some posts are about things I had forgotten I knew, but it’s so nice to re-read them, for example this old analysis of Christianity and Alcohol. My thinking hasn’t really changed much since 2011, to be perfectly honest. But don’t read the old essays, those are embarassing; I will keep them up for skin in the game of course.

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Edward Tufte keynote: “The Future of Data Analysis”

The presentation starts at 2:30. The news article is here

Bulletpoint take-aways from the end of the presentation:

  • Numbers on the screen are representations of the real world.
  • Look at the real world, not just representations.
  • Walk around what you want to learn about.
  • In doing creative work, do not start your day with addictive time-vampires such as The New York Times, email, and Twitter.
  • All scatter eye and mind, produce diverting vague anxiety, clutter short-term memory.
  • Instead begin right away with your work.
  • Many creative workers have independently discovered this principle.
  • How does what I see come to be seen by me? For what they show us is what we see. What we find is what we see. What we see is what we see. And what we see may not contain the answer.