What I’m Learning: Day 7/365

Activity IV: Read for one hour

Free to Learn by Peter Gray
Chapter 2 (pages 21-42)

On the relationship between education and the preservation of culture:

Education, by my definition, is cultural transmission. It is the set of processes by which each new generation of human beings, in any social group, acquires and builds upon the skills knowledge, lore, and values — that is, the culture — of previous generations in that group.

On the parental and educational philosophy of hunter-gatherer cultures:

The central tenet of their parenting and educational philosophy seems to be that children’s instincts can be trusted, that children who are allowed to follow their own wills will learn what they need to learn and will naturally begin to contribute to the band’s economy when they have the skills and maturity to do so.

On the fear that children will become spoiled if allowed to much time for free play:

Most people in our culture would consider such indulgence to be a recipe for producing spoiled, demanding kids who grow up to be spoiled, demanding adults. But, at least within the context of the hunter-gatherer way of life, nothing could be further from the truth. Here is how Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, one of the earliest observers of the Ju/’hoansi, responded to the question of spoiling: “We are sometimes told that children who are treated so kindly become spoiled, but this is because those who hold that opinion have no idea how successful such measures can be. Free from frustration or anxiety, sunny and cooperative….the Ju/’hoan children were every parent’s dream. No culture can ever have raised better, more intelligent, more likable, more confident children.

On the relationship between play and social values:

By allowing their children unlimited time to play with one another, hunter-gatherer adults allow their children unlimited practice of the social skills and values that are most central to their way of life. Social play (that is, all play that involves more than one player) is, by its very nature, a continuous exercise in cooperation, attention to one another’s needs, and consensual decision-making.

Play is not something one has to do; players are always free to quit. In social play, each player knows that anyone who feels unhappy will quit, and if too many quit, the game ends. To keep the game going, players must satisfy not only their own desires but also those of the other players. The intense drive that children have to play with other children, therefore, is a powerful force for them to learn how to attend to others’ wishes and negotiate differences.

On the value of mixed-age play:

Research in our culture shows that age-mixed play is qualitatively different from same-age play. It is less competitive and more nurturing. In age-mixed play, each child tires to do his or her best, but has little or no concern for beating others. When playmates differ greatly in age, size, and strength, there is little point in trying to prove oneself better than another. The age-mixed nature of the play, coupled with the egalitarian ethos of the cultures, ensures that the play of hunter-gatherer children is highly cooperative and noncompetitive.

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

An Anatomy of Inspiration: A 1942 Guide to How Creativity Works

With its countless anecdotes from some of mankind’s most remarkable creators and its synthesis of common ground, An Anatomy of Inspiration is, if not a blueprint to true creativity, at the very least an invaluable lens on the nooks and crannies of the creative process.

Those were the words used by Popova to describe this interesting-sounding book. I enjoyed perusing her highlights and notes from the text. Here was one of my favorite highlights:

(Harding: Originality depends on new and striking combinations of ideas. It is obvious therefore that the more a man knows the greater scope he has for arriving at striking combinations. And not only the more he knows about his own subject but the more he knows beyond it of other subjects. It is a fact that has not yet been sufficiently stressed that those persons who have risen to eminence in arts, letters or sciences have frequently possessed considerable knowledge of subjects outside their own sphere of activity.

(Popova) Harding goes on to give a number of examples: Pasteur was a bachelor of literature in addition to being a doctor of science; James Watt rested his mind from honing the steam engine with archeology and poetry; Emmanuel Kant read classics, mathematics, physics, astronomy, metaphysics, law, geography, and travel; Goethe was a collector of art and science ephemera, and took a close interest in the engineering of canals, harbors, and tunnels; George Eliot was obsessed with philology:

This topic of combinatorial thinking seems to be a recurring theme in Popova’s works and that is more than fine by me. I think she is one of the greatest curators of interesting and rare materials of our time. So I look forward to reading both her thoughts and notes on various things. One thought I’d add to this topic is the importance of following your genuine interests. I can easily imagine the aspiring young creator/expert trying to read all sorts of books on different subjects in an eager quest to develop eccentric ideas, but I believe this is a trait and skill that belongs to those who study subjects that actually compel their sense of intrigue. I’m reminded of a beautiful quote by Richard Feynmen on this issue:

Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.

We all have interests that go beyond the things we’re required to know in order to meet the demands of our careers and everyday responsibilities. They key is to give ourselves permission to make time for the pursuit of those things as opposed to chasing after obscure knowledge in an effort to be eccentric for eccentricity’s sake.

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalk podcast

Leeson on Pirates and the Invisible Hook

This episode of the EconTalk podcast featured Peter Leeson. Leeson is a professor at George Mason university and he’s the author of Invisible Hook. Leeson discusses the discrepancy between Hollywood portrayals of 18th century pirate culture and the historical reality of how these groups governed themselves. According to Leeson, pirates had a sophisticated system of self-governance that kept instances of fraudulent and violent behavior at a minimum in their communities. Much of Leeson’s work shows how the behavior of communities that are often regarded as lawless, uncivil, and disorderly, are governed by the same considerations of rational self-interest that govern other communities. He exposes the falsehood of the idea that some people (ie. criminals and outlaws) are arbitrarily evil characters who act with no regard for incentives.

Addressing the question of why we should care about pirates and what we can learn from them, Leeson says the following:

In a sense, we ought to be unabashedly pro-pirate and that’s in the following way: All thieves should be condemned as thieves, but not all thieves are equal. Some, in addition to taking something out of the world, also gave the world something back. And I think pirates are an example of this. And what I think they gave the world back was testament to the effectiveness of self-governance and…early experimentation with constitutional democracy…What pirates are doing was quite remarkable for the time in which they’re doing it. They are experimenting with a system of checks and balances, separated powers, and so on more than half a century before Madison puts pen to paper. In fact, they were experimenting with the beginnings of the system before the bill of rights.

In particular, the fact that it’s not just that they are early experimenters with the system, but who they are. They are outlaws. They are motley, nasty outlaws, violent outlaws, and you see them developing this system and you see the system being effective amongst them. It points to, in my mind, the robustness of certain forms of social organization. And they are kind of unique in providing that with that sort of evidence…In that way, I think they are truly fascinating. Another thing:  the book is called “Invisible Hook” which is play on Adam Smith’s idea. And I do think that pirates, at a minimum, generate what I call some conditional social benefits…With pirates, it’s a tougher situation because they’re thieves, so they’re just transferring wealth to themselves…but their self-interested behavior did generate some things that I think can be counted as genuine social benefits. One of those is actually racial tolerance. At a time of black slaves, pirates were basically granting them, in many cases, their freedom. They did this not because they were racially tolerant. There wasn’t something exceptional about pirates.  They were just as racists as their legitimate contemporaries. But they did it because it bolstered the bottom line. In particular because enslaving fellows, in many cases, would have been more costly than it’s worth. So you’ve got piratical self-interest seeking leading to a system of constitutional democracy.

This early experimentation leading to things like racial tolerance…in many ways providing a testament to…some of the modern world’s most cherished values. Values like democracy, equality, and even social safety with their private system of social insurance. So that’s why we ought to be interested in pirates. That’s probably the theme I emphasize the most in the book…the theme of self-governance….There’s something I want to clarify. Governance refers to a system of privately created rules and means of enforcement. Spontaneous order certainly can be a way of generating governance as opposed to that top-down creation of government which I distinguish.

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

Peter Lamarque on Literature and Truth

Nigel Warburton begins the interview with what strikes me as a simple question that presupposes an uncontroversial idea:

Some people argue that the reason why we should read a novel like Dostoyevsky’s Crime & Punishment is because it reveals something true at a deep level about the human condition. Is that a plausible view?

So I found Lamarque’s answer intriguing:

I’m a bit skeptical about that. I’m skeptical that the idea of truth, or the idea of knowledge or insight, that these are the right ideas or the right idioms for finding value in the sorts of novels you’re talking about….There is a tradition which sees those novels as revealing truths about human nature, human existence, what it’s like to be a human in a certain situation and so on. And I can accept a lot of those intuitions, but I’m skeptical that truth and knowledge are the right terms to describe those intuitions.

When asked about the writing of Shakespeare and the general perception that his writings reveal so many intricate facets of human psychology:

Maybe it’s a narrow view, but I think it’s an important one when I say I’m skeptical of describing this as truth. What we do when we engage with the Shakespeare play is engage imaginatively, we think of new possibilities, we put ourselves perhaps in the shoes of characters. We do all of that and we get immense pleasure from it and maybe we learn from it. But the idea that there is a deep psychology or that Shakespeare is in competition with philosophers or psychologists in revealing human nature, that’s what I’m skeptical about. I think that’s putting works of literature…into the wrong category, putting them into the category of science, or social science, or psychology, or even philosophy, and I don’t think that’s where they belong. I think they belong in the arts…and they’re offering imaginings that we engage with, a certain kind of pleasure, but I think once we describe that as truth, and as knowledge, we’re shifting that evaluation into a philosophical or psychological sphere which I think doesn’t do justice to the peculiarities of literature.

Lamarque acknowledges the fact that stories can be a great means for illustrating ideas by painting pictures of what the world may look like if certain ideas were acted up on, believed, etc. He mostly takes issue, however, with the notion that literature is a source of truth in the sense of making a contribution to knowledge.

My worry there is that philosophers do that or scientists do that, they offer us theories, for one thing, and they offer us evidence for their theories, and they offer us arguments. Now, famously, novels don’t do that. If you put them into that truth-telling category, they fall short. Proust hasn’t got a theory of memory.

When asked why one should read Kafka if not to discover or uncover profound truths, Lamarque had the following to say:

Kafka presents a vision of the world where human beings are oppressed, and alienated, and cut off from their fellows in a completely heartless and mindless bureaucracy. I hope that most of us think that, on a strict true/false dichotomy, that’s a false vision of human nature. But does that mean we reject the of novels of Kafka or maybe the plays of Samuel Beckett? Surely not, because what these novelists and playwrights are offering us, this modernist and alienated vision, is precisely a clear vision of a certain outlook on life. If it was written by a philosopher or a psychologist, it would be dry as it were and lifeless. But these novelist realize a certain kind of alienation in a fictional setting and there is no better way than understanding that kind of outlook than reading it in a novelist like Kafka or in a playwright like Beckett. So I think that’s quite a good example where one might want say that the vision these works offer is false, but nevertheless the works have huge value.

Regarding Lamarque’s claim that literature does not uncover or discover truth in the manner that Science and Philosophy does, I would be curious to hear what he has to say about the role art and literature has played in scientific discovery. One could argue that art often provides the conceptual and linguistic apparatus for grasping truths that are later deemed philosophical or scientific. I would also be curious to know if he believes thought-experiments, a tradition in philosophy and theoretical physics that relies on imagined outcomes and hypothetical scenarios, are sources of truth and, if so, what would prevent one from approaching the literary experience as a kind of elaborate, prolonged thought-experiment? I’m sure he’d have interesting things to say about these matters. Maybe one day I can have a conversation with him about these things.

Activity X: Educational lecture/talk

Economics in One Lesson: Part 6 | Walter Block

Block on the nature of job creation:

The idea we have to address is what creates jobs in the first place…The reasons we have jobs in the first place is scarcity. And what is scarcity? Scarcity means we have less than what we want. We have this much and we want that much and that’s where the jobs come from. As long as there are unmet needs, as long as people want more stuff than they have, there’d be jobs not only for the U.S. Soldiers, but for a billion Martians. As long as we want more things than we have, there will be jobs available for people who are willing to produce or do those things we want to have.

Block on pricing:

You have the right to own things, but you don’t have the right to own the price of them. The price is determined by all the buyers and sellers.

Tucker & Block on unemployment:

(Tucker) A lot of the issues that Hazlitt is dealing with here are refuting fallacies generated from a mechanistic view of economics. It doesn’t look at economics from the point of view of human actors, but looks at these big aggregates. And so one of these aggregates is the unemployment rate.

(Block) The essence [ of what Hazlitt’s saying] is we don’t want full employment. What we want is full production….If you really wanted full employment, get rid of all the trains and then put the stuff that goes on all the trains…put that on people’s backs, fifty pounds to a person and let them walk from Atlanta to Chicago. And we’ll have jobs not only for, everyone in the United States, we’ll have jobs for everyone that’s ever lived and for trillions of people…that way you’ll have full employment. But everyone would be working on carrying stuff from Atlanta to Chicago. We’d have no food, we’d have no clothing, we’d have no medical care, nothing.

Block on how minimum wage laws price the poor out of the market by stripping them of their ability to compete through the offering of cheap labor.

The analogy that I like to use sometimes with the minimum wage is that the skunk is a very weak animal, but it has a compensating differential: the smell. If it didn’t have that, it’d probably go extinct.  The porcupine is a very weak animal except for its quills and if it didn’t have that, it’d go extinct. Deer too, except for its speed. These are very weak animals, but they have one thing that helps keep them alive. Well very unskilled people, too, have a compensating differential: the ability to work for low wages and then they can get a job. But the minimum wage is like taking away from a poor person the quills of the porcupine, the smell of the skunk, or the speed of the deer.

Activity XI: Watch One Stanford E-corner Talk

Free Time Fosters Free Thinking – Mark Zuckerberg

Zuckerberg on the importance of creating an organizational culture that fosters creative thinking through chemistry:

I think that as organizations grow, a lot of the issues and structure that’s put in place is put there because a comfort level breaks down in people communicating freely in a way that they can when they’re friends. If you’re working with your friend, you can tell him or her whatever you’re thinking and it’s not going to offend him or her and they’ll probably comprehend it similarly to how you imagined it…language isn’t really a perfect idea transmission vehicle…Saying take 20% of your time to go put into action an idea that you might have, is necessary in a large organization where people can’t necessarily speak the same language or ideas can’t get out freely. So I think one of the things that I do focus on at Facebook is making sure that culture is very friendly and that people hang out. So instead of having 20% of people’s time spent on their own projects, I make people hang out with each other. I mean, I don’t make people be friends with each other but I mean, you know…I can’t force you to hang outside of work, but I can make it so that people are more comfortable with each other and can communicate more freely…by doing this we kind of create a culture where people just talk to each other about stuff and get what each other is thinking more clearly than they would if the organization is more bureaucratic or if like people wouldn’t be heard. Since people are always talking, ideas get bounced off each other and then eventually, someone starts making something, and then we’re done.

I agree with Zuckerberg here. The less people within an organization are concerned about offending each other, stepping on one another’s toes, being rejected or ostracized for what they have to say, the more effectively they can collaborate with one another. When looking to improve an organization’s culture, people often limit their focus to professional development. As Zuckerberg points out here, building a strong personal bond is no less crucial to the businesses success.

Activity XII: Read one Farnam Street Blog Post

Elon Musk on How To Build Knowledge

This was a very brief post, but fortunately brevity is not mutually exclusive with profundity. In this piece containing advice from Elon Musk on how to build knowledge, Shane Parish shares the following quote from Musk:

How do you learn so much so fast? Lots of people read books and talk to other smart people, but you’ve taken it to a whole new level.

Musk: I do kinda feel like my head is full! My context switching penalty is high and my process isolation is not what it used to be.

Frankly, though, I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying.

One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

One of the main deterrents to learning, in my estimation, is the difficulty we have with admitting how little we know about things we feel we ought to know. This sense of shame about our own ignorance results in us covering up our inabilities, suppressing the expression of our opinions, failing to ask questions for fear of being despised. If want to be refined in our thinking, we can;t afford to look disparagingly on the basics. The basics provide the foundation for sophistication. The process of mastering fundamentals may seem boring or tedious at times, but it’s that very process that opens the way for ability to have fun playing around with the more exotic high-level concepts.