What I’m Learning: Day 18/365

“Those people who develop the ability to continuously acquire new and better forms of knowledge that they can apply to their work and to their lives will be the movers and shakers in our society for the indefinite future.” ― Brian Tracy

To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I completed yesterday, click here.

Activity IV: Read for one hour

Free to Learn by Peter Gray

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

J.R.R. Tolkien on Fairy Tales, Language, the Psychology of Fantasy, and Why There’s No Such Thing as Writing “For Children”

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Maria Popova on there being no such thing as writing for children:

“I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book,” the great Maurice Sendak once said in an interview. “I don’t write for children,” he told Colbert. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” This sentiment — the idea that designating certain types of literature as “children’s” is a choice entirely arbitrary and entirely made by adults — has since been eloquently echoed by Neil Gaiman, but isn’t, in fact, a new idea.

Tolkien on the power of myth and how language makes it possible for human beings to be creators:

Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind. It would be more near the truth to say that languages, especially modern European languages, are a disease of mythology. But Language cannot, all the same, be dismissed. The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power — upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

Tolkien on the normalcy and appropriateness of adults reading fairy tales:

It is usually assumed that children are the natural or the specially appropriate audience for fairy-stories. In describing a fairy-story which they think adults might possibly read for their own entertainment, reviewers frequently indulge in such waggeries as: “this book is for children from the ages of six to sixty.” But I have never yet seen the puff of a new motor-model that began thus: “this toy will amuse infants from seventeen to seventy”; though that to my mind would be much more appropriate. Is there any essential connexion between children and fairy-stories? Is there any call for comment, if an adult reads them for himself? Reads them as tales, that is, not studies them as curios. Adults are allowed to collect and study anything, even old theatre programmes or paper bags.

Tolkien on fantasy as a virtue rather than a vice:

The mental power of image-making is one thing, or aspect; and it should appropriately be called Imagination. The perception of the image, the grasp of its implications, and the control, which are necessary to a successful expression, may vary in vividness and strength: but this is a difference of degree in Imagination, not a difference in kind. The achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality,” is indeed another thing, or aspect, needing another name: Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation. For my present purpose I require a word which shall embrace both the Sub- creative Art in itself and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image: a quality essential to fairy-story. I propose, therefore, to arrogate to myself the powers of Humpty-Dumpty, and to use Fantasy for this purpose: in a sense, that is, which combines with its older and higher use as an equivalent of Imagination the derived notions of “unreality” (that is, of unlikeness to the Primary World), of freedom from the domination of observed “fact,” in short of the fantastic. I am thus not only aware but glad of the etymological and semantic connexions of fantasy with fantastic: with images of things that are not only “not actually present,” but which are indeed not to be found in our primary world at all, or are generally believed not to be found there. But while admitting that, I do not assent to the depreciative tone. That the images are of things not in the primary world (if that indeed is possible) is a virtue, not a vice. Fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent.

Tolkien on the difficulty of creating internally consistent worlds of fantasy:

Fantasy … is difficult to achieve. Fantasy may be, as I think, not less but more sub-creative; but at any rate it is found in practice that “the inner consistency of reality” is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World. It is easier to produce this kind of “reality” with more “sober” material. Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely “fanciful.” Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough — though it may already be a more potent thing than many a “thumbnail sketch” or “transcript of life” that receives literary praise.

To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

Tolkien on why good fantasy requires the use of reason:

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.

For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.

Tolkien on how fantasy sets the mind free from the danger of familiarity:

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.


Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds.

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalk podcast

Boettke on Living Economics

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

In this episode of EconTalk, Peter Boettke discusses the value and importance of understanding economics as a discipline that deals with human action and the incentives that drive it. To think of economics solely or primarily in terms of mathematics and statistics limits our capacity to accurately make sense of human behavior and it results in the advocacy of policies that lead to harmful criticism.

One interesting concept Boetkke mentioned is what he calls “The Roman Emperor Fallacy.” According to Boetkke, when a Roman Emperor served as a judge for singing contests, he would immediately reward the second singer after only hearing the first one. The emperor’s logic was that the first singer was so bad that it would be impossible for the second singer to be worse. Boetkke contends that a similar kind of logic is at play when people invoke government as a solution to market failures. While the market doesn’t always meet our needs in the manner and timing we desire, it would be fallacious to assume that government would be better without subjecting government to the same sort of scrutiny.

One theme that Botekke emphasizes in this discussion between mainstream economics and mainline economics.

According to Boetkke, good economics is based on at least two key principles:

1) The self-interest postulate: This does not mean that people are selfish nor does it mean we all carry around calculators that helps us determine the units of satisfaction we’ll receive from our decisions. It also doesn’t mean that we explicitly think about our choices in terms of costs and benefits. It means “Individuals pursue what they want to see as best as they can given their situation.”

2) The Invisible Hand: This refers to “the self-regulating aspects of the market.” When individuals freely act in accordance with their self-interests, order spontaneously emerges.

Critiquing mainstream economics and contrasting it with Austrian theory economics, Boetkke says the following:

When it comes to mainstream economics, note that you can’t put a finger on what the substantive propositions are. In the mainstream, you can have Joe Stiglitz, who no one would deny is a mainstream economist, Paul Krugman, but you also have, on the other side, Bob Lucas. And Bob Lucas and Joe Stiglitz couldn’t disagree more about substantive economics, but yet they agree completely about the style or the toolkit of economics. So what happens is mainstream becomes a sociological moniker for people that believe methodologically what they believe at the top five schools. And they use and speak in that language. Whereas in the past, if you were a Smithean economist, you could speak in English, you could speak in French, you could speak in German, You could speak with math, you could speak with just pure natural language, and what mattered was whether or not you believed the substantive propositions of economics. In modern economics, mainstream became “are you using these tools and it didn’t really matter much what the substantive propositions are per se.

Another interesting point made by Boettke was that while there are macroeconomic problems, there are only microeconomic solutions.

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

Paul Seabright on the Relationship Between the Sexes (Social Science Bites)

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Seabright on why an economist would take up an interested in the relationship between the sexes:

If you want a serious answer: it has to do with the fact that the relationship between the sexes is one of the most economic relationships there has ever been. Let me put it two ways; one is, it’s about co-operation. Sexual reproduction is the most co-operative activity in the universe. That’s true whether you’re talking about sexual reproduction between fish, or birds, or any kind of animal, but humans have taken it to a very extreme form. The amount that we invest in our offspring is, by the standards of the animal kingdom, absolutely spectacular. We have offspring that are dependent on us for nearly two decades, which is massively longer than any other species, and that requires a sort of massive co-operative endeavor.

The second reason has to do with the role of scarcity. Economics is really the science of scarcity, and I was fascinated when I first did biology of sexual reproduction, apart from the aspects that would fascinate any adolescent doing the biology of sexual reproduction – what really interested me intellectually about this was that here you have a technology, if you like, which uses the same amounts of male inputs and female inputs, one sperm, one egg, and yet the eggs are incredibly scarce and the sperm are incredibly abundant. The woman produces one egg a month, and men produce a thousand sperm a second, and there seemed to be something spectacularly weird and wasteful about that. Here was this very strange technology in which you were doing something together, collectively, you had one input that was very scarce, and the other that was very abundant. And of course what it means, and that’s why it’s so interesting from an economic point of view, is that you have an enormous amount of competition among those sperm and their progenitor, to be the favored ones that actually get to fertilize the eggs.

On how economic thinking can make sense out of apparently mysterious forms of relationship dysfunction:

First of all, at a relatively general level, I think we really have to understand that natural selection doesn’t select for optimal relationships. That’s where some insight from economics, and specifically from Game Theory, is really very helpful. Because one of the things you learn when you start to do simple Game Theory is that even if the players in a game are each doing as well as they can, given what the others are doing, then the outcome could be a lot worse for both of them than some other imaginable outcome. There’s a famous case of this known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma where each of us may be doing as well as we can, given what the others are doing, but we’re both doing a lot worse off than if we could somehow commit to a collectively better outcome. So, there are lots of examples of sexual relationships which are extremely wasteful, violent, unhappy for all the parties, and if you think that that’s just because something which natural selection should have selected for, but has gone wrong for mysterious reasons, then I think it’s much harder to think about how to fix that.

If, instead, you think well, natural selection never really selected for the relationship to be optimal, what it did select was for various kinds of traits and behaviors, to be fitness-maximizing for the individuals, or rather more strictly speaking, likely to lead to the copying of the genes that made those traits more likely to happen, then we can understand why all of the parties to a relationship may be stuck in a set of outcomes that could be dysfunctional, could be costly, could be violent, could be wasteful, but for reasons that can’t simply be put down to either mysterious dysfunction, or to individuals not doing what’s in their own interest.

On what a scientific approach to gender differences reveals about differences in women and men’s aptitudes:

I think the science requires you to test conjectures against evidence wherever you can, and I’m struck by the number of questions on which I’ve changed my mind in the last few years as I’ve looked more closely at the evidence. So let me give you an example: I have looked recently in a lot of detail at the evidence on gender and IQ and more generally intelligence and personality testing. Now, before I did that, I had a prior view that when I looked at it, I was likely to find substantial overall gender differences in IQ, and I was a little worried about that because I was nicely comfortable in my previous belief that there probably weren’t any differences. Now, it turned out that I was wrong, at least I was wrong in not a very straightforward way: there are a lot of differences between men and women with respect to particular capacities and talents that we have for various things. So in a lot of contexts men perform better than women on tests of visual, spatial skills. Women tend to perform better than men on tests of verbal comprehension. What I discovered looking at this, was the extent to which nobody, but nobody, has come up with a sensible overall theory about how you would weight these different talents and constituent competences against each other.

So it’s a little bit like the old early days of doing national income accounting when people sort of said, ‘Well, how are you going to measure the performance of an economy when it produces apples and nuclear submarines and software programs and musical performance and so on?’ and, eventually, a well-developed theory was worked out, that you would weight the production of all of these different things according to their relative prices because those prices represent the contribution to marginal utility. Now there is no theory, but no theory, that explains how you should weight performance in a test of visual spatial rotation of objects in three-dimensional space versus a test of performance of verbal comprehension. And I think we need that, and we need a more open and frank debate about it, which has been very difficult to have because it’s been taboo for so long to discuss even the possibility that there might be gender differences in performance in tests. And it’s about time we started to see, you know, which of those tests actually better match the kinds of talents that we need in a modern economy. And I’m not at all sure that the answer when it comes up will either be systematically in favor of one sex or the other, and whether we’re going to see any very interesting gender differences along those lines at all.

On the value of investigating differences in aptitude even though their value is subjective:

Nigel Warburton: I mean, that’s an interesting case of psychological research which has certain sorts of presumptions about the relative weighting of different aspects of intelligence, but it’s still got this basis on a human construct which is the idea of an intelligent person, which is not a natural kind, as it were. It’s not as if you’re going out and measuring the temperature at which water boils.

Paul Seabright: No, it’s absolutely not a physical constant. On the other hand, the interesting way to think about talents is they’re just a bundle of competences that we have. And the interesting talents that an economist wants to look at is talents for doing things that other people value, and that’s because we’re not just social animals, but we’re animals that live by exchange. So there are lots of things that matter for my happiness, but that essentially I do for myself; but there are a lot of other things that matter for my well-being which I do because other people value what I do. So, I cannot survive by eating my own economics lectures, but fortunately I manage to persuade other people to pay me enough to buy my food, in return for my delivering economics lectures. All of us, therefore, live by exchange. So, of course, you’re right, that’s not what philosophers would call a natural kind: it’s a bundle of different capacities which may not have any very close relationship to each other. But to go from that to say that there’s no stability in the things that make people good at doing the things that people value, I think would be a mistake.

On how the study of social science can lead to changes in our behavior:

There’s a book by Steven Pinker called The Better Angels Of Our Nature, and it deals with something that I’ve thought about a lot in the past which is about why the levels of violence in modern societies are so much lower than they’ve been, both in recorded history and in pre-history. Now that’s a really interesting fact, and the best explanations for that fact have to do with a more systematic understanding of our social environment, which we have been able to put to work. It’s a complex thing, it’s not just about reason replacing emotion: it’s a lot about reason harnessing emotion and reason understanding our emotions better so as to put them to do good social work. But it is about creating very complex and subtle webs of incentives in the modern institutions that surround us that simply make it a better bet for most of us to handle our differences peacefully rather than to fight and to kill each other. There’s not been a single social innovation that’s done that: there’s just been an enormous number of small innovations that have brought that about, largely piggy-backing on the gradually improving and more systematic understanding of how other people behave.

Activity X: Educational lecture/talk

Economics Is A Value-Free Science | by Jörg Guido Hülsmann

Beginning with David Hume’s distinction between “is” propositions and “ought” propositions, Hülsmann discusses subjective values and shows how economic thinking makes sense of social phenomena without prescribing what we should do about such phenomena. That is, “It is a fact-based analysis with no value judgment.”

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Activity XI: One episode from my favorite podcasts list

The Importance of “Stupid Ideas” and How That Relates to Education

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

I like to say that “stupid is the new smart” because when you come into this new belief that a stupid idea can be great, you start thinking about it in different ways.

With that statement, Richie Norton opens an inspiring discussion on why it’s helpful to embrace, rather than condemn, our seemingly stupid ideas. According to Norton, life is a puzzle and we’re all in the process of putting the pieces together. What often appears to be stupid is nothing less than a valuable puzzle piece for which we have yet to find the proper context. When we have an idea that seems stupid, it’s important for us to ask ourselves “Is it inherently stupid or am I just scared?” According to Norton, our problem is not that we have stupid ideas, it’s that we lack the patience and persistence to keep exploring past the initial iteration of a fragile idea. Norton also discusses the importance of not taking an all-or-nothing approaching to exploring our ideas. Unearthing the value of stupid ideas is only possible when we maintain a playful attitude. Trying something new doesn’t mean you have to quit your job.

Activity XII: Read one Paris Review Interview

Joy Williams, The Art of Fiction No. 223 Interviewed by Paul Winner

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

On the importance of short stories:

I recently received a letter from an Iowa Workshop grad—typical—seeking my participation in a “collaborative” interview. The question was, Why do short stories matter and why should we value them? What a retro question. It sounded like something out of the 1940s. I was too weary for a reply, but I think they probably don’t matter all that much. A herd of wild elephants matters more. And which stories are we talking about? There are so many of them.

On her concept of what a story is:

What a story is, is devious. It pretends transparency, forthrightness. It engages with ordinary people, ordinary matters, recognizable stuff. But this is all a masquerade. What good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensi- bility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes—which is Wallace Stevens, I think. As a form, the short story is hardly divine, though all excel- lent art has its mystery, its spiritual rhythm. I think one should be able to do a lot in less than twenty pages. I read a story recently about a woman who’d been on the lam and her husband dies and she ends up getting in her pickup and driving away at the end, and it was all about fracking, damage, dust to the communities, people selling out for fifty thousand dollars. It was so boring.

On the responsibility of the writer to signs and dreams:

I think the writer has to be responsible to signs and dreams. Receptive and responsible. If you don’t do anything with it, you lose it. You stop getting these omens.

On the importance of respecting our unconscious creative thoughts and being faithful to our true self:

There’s a story about Jung. He had a dream that puzzled him, but when he tried to go back to sleep a voice said, “You must understand the dream, and must do so at once!” When he still couldn’t comprehend its meaning, the same voice said, “If you do not understand the dream, you must shoot your- self!” Rather violently stated, certainly, but this is how Jung recollected it. He did not resort to the loaded handgun he kept in a drawer of his bedside table—and it is somewhat of a shock to think of Jung armed—but he deciphered the dream to the voice within’s satisfaction, discovering the divine irrationality of the unconscious and his life’s work in the process. The message is work, seek, understand, or you will immolate the true self. The false self doesn’t care. It feels it works quite hard enough just getting us through the day.

On the possibility of embracing that which is not easily understood:

I wonder if understanding the dream is really what must be done. Can we incorporate and treasure and be nourished by that which we do not understand? Of course. Understanding something, especially in these tech times, seems to involve ruthless appropriation and dismantlement and diminishment. I think of something I clipped from the paper and can’t lay my hands on. This peculiar aquatic creature who lives deep within the sea—it looked like a very long eel—came up to the surface, where it was immediately killed and displayed by a dozen or so grinning people on a California beach. Didn’t have a chance to evolve, that one. Curiosity by the nonhuman is not honored in this life. For many people, when confronted with the mysterious, the other, the instinct is to kill it. Then it can be examined.

On her desire to write and see more stories addressing diversity from a larger ecological perspective:

To return to the idea of the avant-garde, real avant-garde writing today would frame and reflect our misuse of the world, our destruction of its beauties and wonders. Nobody seems to be taking this on in the literary covens. We are all just messing with ourselves, cherishing ourselves. Andrew Solomon wrote a mega-successful nonfiction book titled Far from the Tree in which he ticks off every emotional, physical, mental, social disability you could possibly imagine and yokes them to true tales of actual practitioners or victims—though Solomon would never employ such a word—which he then bathes in a golden humanist light. We are all so special, particularly the very special, whose needs must be met. We are all so different and some of us are even more different, and this difference must be cherished and celebrated. The critics were ecstatic. What a hymn to diversity! No one spoke of how claustrophobic Far from the Tree was, the tree being utterly metaphorical, how narrowly and pridefully focused, how dismissive of a world outside the human. Cultural diversity can never replace biodiversity, though we’re being prompted to think it can. We live and spawn and want—always there is this ghastly wanting—and we have done irredeemable harm to so much. Perhaps the novel will die and even the short story because we’ll become so damn sick of talking about ourselves.

On the importance of never being bound by methods:

Methods limit you as soon as you recognize them. Then you have to find another form to free yourself.

On writing and freedom:

Yes, yes. Freedom is most desirable. Of course none of us are free. Our flaws enslave us, the things we love. And through technology we’re becoming more known to everyone but ourselves. What’s that phrase about certain writers being what the culture needs? Most writers just write about what the culture recognizes.