Asimov’s “Foundation” and Wikipedia

Last summer I read Asimov’s “Foundation” and enjoyed it.  The plot twist early on (*spoiler alert*) of having the encyclopedia project  function as a ruse to get scientists to an outlying planet hooked me for the duration.  In the story, the mere act of compiling information wasted time. 

Reading Niall Ferguson’s “Civilization, The West and the Rest” got me thinking about encyclopedias again.  Here is my review, and here is another slightly more positive take from which I extracted this quotation (thanks to Marginal Revolution for the link):

In 1420, when London was a backwater, Nanjing was the world’s largest city, and Ming China “had an incontrovertible claim to be [its] most advanced civilization.” That it was a center of learning he makes plain with a typically entertaining detail: the Emperor tasked 2,000 scholars with creating “a compendium of Chinese learning” that “filled more than 11,000 volumes,” which was “surpassed as the world’s largest encyclopedia only in 2007 … by Wikipedia.” So what happened?

Ferguson then goes on to outline the swift decline in China’s navy as the main answer, just as Paul Kennedy did in his The Rise and Fall of Great Powers.  Like Asimov, I have a different theory: China’s encyclopedia itself was a symptom of a disease that already manifested itself in the body politic.

The Roman’s first encyclopedia, for example, came in its post-Diocletian phase, a time of  desperate attempts to conserve what they had lost centuries earlier. There’s the rub; most often, encyclopedias and dictionaries come from a conservative reaction against change.*   A fear of losing something pushes us to gather our nuts frantically for the coming winter.  Thus, it makes perfect sense that the Chinese followed up its massive encyclopedia with a concomitant reaction against traveling to contact new people and ideas and risk losing what they had so carefully tried to preserve.

I use Wikipedia in desperate moments when I forget a date before class, and I think that it has gotten more reliable over the years in giving a general idea of things.  But I have no sympathy with the pleas it makes for support.  For one, we could easily do without it, but something deeper bothers me.  Many, many creative, curious, and intelligent people spend their time for Wikipedia merely repeating and compiling what others have already said elsewhere.  What Truman Capote famously said of “On the Road” could be said of Wikipedia: “That’s not writing. It’s typing.”



*I admit that the Dictionary made by the French philosophes had a more militant, aggressive character, and is an exception to this rule.

Niall Ferguson’s “Civilization: The West and the Rest”

I did not read this cover-to-cover, so take everything with a handful of salt. 

I liked what I read, but this book feels uneven and rushed in parts. Perhaps that is because his subject is so big. While it feels incomplete, the book does raise some pertinent questions, given the recent rise of China and India.

Ferguson asserts that the great shift in power from East to West that started ca. 1500 can be traced to what he calls six “Killer Applications” (sometimes he uses the word ‘Apps’ – bleah!). They are science, medicine, work ethic, consumption, property rights, and competition. In no order, my thoughts:

  • Some of this feels dated. It seems to me that Paul Kennedy already treated some of these topics regarding competition, openness etc. in his ‘Rise and Fall of Great Powers.’ Ferguson is a great controversialist but this does not feel controversial
  • Couldn’t science and medicine go together?
  • As usual, he has many great visual aids, graphs, etc.
  • Ferguson has an interesting take on the decline of religion in Europe vs. America, and he roots the difference at least in part on America’s more total embrace of competition and the market and its application to churches. He makes the astute observation that having done so, America’s consumer oriented churches will feed an enfeeblement of values that unhindered consumerism brings with it. Thus, while American churches will tell its parishioners to do what we say, not what we do — it probably won’t work.

This was a rare moment of interesting argument for Ferguson (in this book at least), but it doesn’t hold up for me. True, Europe has its state churches, but people are not forbidden from going to Catholic churches in England or Baptist churches in France. The real difference must lie elsewhere — in a deeper place.

The whole religion question seemed like a great opportunity for Ferguson. Here he truly dabbles in some controversy, such as mostly agreeing with Weber’s much discredited ideas surrounding Protestantism. He discusses the rise of Christianity in China and calls it a significant factor in China’s recent rise. By his not not so subtle implication, the decline of Christianity in Europe might be cause for its decline. But having broached the topic, he swerves away. The whole religion question seemed like a great opportunity for him. But he just dips his toe. Jump in, Mr. Ferguson! Sometimes I disagree with you but I like that you make people think and reconsider their ideas. He does not do that here as in some of his other books.

Another moment of missed argument – the idea of a civilization’s ‘confidence.’ He dismisses some of Kenneth Clark’s views on civilization but then basically agrees with one of Clark’s key points, that civilizations need ‘confidence’ to survive. He then comes close to calling out various Western academics that teach nothing but the evils of Western civilization. He almost asserts that such people undermine the basic psychological foundations of the west, an argument many conservatives make. But again, he does not press it home or follow its implications.

This is what makes this work so tame in comparison to others. He no longer acts like the young historian out to take on the world, like in ‘The Pity of War.’ I disagreed with decent chunks of that book, but it was fun to read. This one is boring, if not still informative.

He raises, but leaves wide open, the question of whether or not China’s rise will mean a smooth transition for the West or not. China has gotten more powerful by adopting many of the ‘Killer Applications’ that made the West. Is this good for us? Should we root for China to become more western? Will the U.S. in 20 years be China’s partner like England is to the U.S.? Or will it go worse for us? Ferguson hints, dances, and leaves it in the air.

Here’s hoping that Ferguson takes some time off from books and tv, goes into a cave, and emerges five years from now with something better.

11th Grade: Market Psychology


This week we looked at the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and how it happened.   Not all Stock Market crashes cause deep depressions or recessions, and in fact, many now argue that the Great Depression had many other factors besides the ’29 crash.  For example, only about 3% of Americans owned any stock at all in 1929.  But I do think that the crash both revealed and foreshadowed deep problems within the economy as a whole, and so I still thought it worthwhile to examine.  At the very time, for example, when the stock market rose dramatically, key industries like agriculture and construction showed major signs of weakness.
Not only that, it gave us a great platform to discuss the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000, which did not bring about substantial economic harm, and the crash of 2008 recently which did.  What were the differences in the two, and which was 1929 more like?  It seems that the 2000 dip revealed a weird anomaly in the economy, whereas in 2008, the problems lay much more at its heart, with our financial system in general.  Here are a few different graphs that show similar drops in the market, but each had its own particular effect on the economy:
This graph suggests that maybe market ‘crashes’ are simply ‘corrections.”
We spent two days this week on our own’Stock Market of the  1920’s’ activity.   My main purpose was not recreate  entirely how stocks are actually sold and have value.  I wanted the students to focus on understanding the psychological aspect of not only stock value, but the  value of anything at all.  After all, what makes our paper money  valuable in itself?  Only that we have all agreed as a society that it  does carry value.  If we lost that belief, the economy would collapse  shortly.  
In our game the four teams quickly got a handle on how they could disrupt other teams.  Each began with a diversified portfolio, but watchful eyes soon noted who had accumulated the most amount of a certain stock.  Other teams would then work hard to devalue that stock, trying to sell it to others at ridiculously low prices, with the some teams countering by buying it way too high.  
This instability made the market wobbly, whereby the ‘government’ (myself) stepped in to buy shares at market prices.  Unfortunately, this strategy left the government holding a great deal of unpredictable stock.  Luckily for all, one investor decided to buy back from the government at slightly higher than market rate, which boosted market confidence in general.  That move propelled them to a narrow victory.
I hope the students had fun, as I did watching their not very subtle machinations against one another.
Dave Mathwin

12th Grade: Wag the Dog

This week we looked at Athens’s disaster in Sicily and the subsequent extensive fallout.
Why did Athens lose in Sicily?
Part of Thucydides’s brilliance as a historian is that does not look merely at battles and personalities, but finds ways to link events to a grand narrative.  Athens had so many strengths, and one could argue that their democracy itself was a product of their search for excellence and truth.  But it appears to me, at least, that something began to go wrong just prior to the Peloponnesian War with the completion of the Parthenon.  The Parthenon is of course one of the great architectural achievements in history.  Ostensibly, it is a temple to Athena, the patron goddess of the city.  But a closer look at the carvings on the Parthenon reveal not scenes of gods or goddesses but of events in their own history.  Did Athens really create a temple to their own glory?  Did they think they had arrived?  Did they begin to, in essence, worship themselves?  What would this mean for them?
This question is related to the idea of democracy itself?  Is democracy about voting?  Is it only about having a voice?  If so, then democracy becomes naval gazing, only about perpetuating itself through a process, serving no higher end.  If democracy (or any form of government) serves a higher ideal, it has a built in check upon itself.  But if we don’t have this, then whatever result we come up with must indeed be democracy, it must serve us well by definition, because it serves ourselves.  This kind of attitude, of which ancient Athens has no monopoly, will lead to disaster.  Imagine traveling with your head down continually.  You would drive off a cliff at some point.  G.K. Chesterton has a great quote about self-worship (what he calls ‘The Inner Light’) in his book ‘Orthodoxy”:

 That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.

The problems with the Sicily expedition can be traced to the problems with their democracy.  Alcibiades wanted the expedition, Nicias opposed it.  Both were wealthy, experienced in politics and military matters, and each had their own constituency.  Alcibiades was the fire to Nicias’s ice.  Their personal and political rivalry spilled over into the formation of Athenian policy.  The tail had begun to wag the dog.  Among other things, Nicias’s political maneuverings against Alcibiades led to drastic changes in the composition of the fighting force and, perhaps even the goal of the mission.  One wonders if they realized this.  With their heads down, I think not.  In my opinion they thought. . .
– We voted, just as always
– We picked experienced people
– We have followed the procedures and processes defined by law
– Everything is fine, or possibly even better than fine
I don’t think they had the wherewithal to realize that they had just voted for a massive expedition that had no real relation to their war with Sparta far from home against a powerful enemy.  The man who ultimately led the expedition, Nicias, argued against any expedition at all.   In my opinion, the disaster in Sicily was the terrible price exacted for their self-worship.  AJ Toynbee wrote in “An Historian’s Approach to Religion,”
‘The strength of the devotion that parochial-community worship evokes holds its devotees in bondage even when it is carrying them to self-destruction; and so the warfare between contending parochial states [i.e. war between Athens and Sparta] tends to grow more intense and devastating in a crescendo movement.  . . . All parochial community-worship ends in a worship of Moloch, and he exacts more cruel sacrifices than the Golden Calf.  War to the death between parochial states has been the immediate external cause of the breakdown of almost all, if not all, the civilizations that have committed suicide up to date.”
Their failure in Sicily brought about the collapse of their democratic regime.  Their god had failed to provide for their basic needs, and he needed replaced.
In this election season, we do well to remember that we cannot call ourselves a democracy if we merely count votes.  Democracies work when they serve higher purposes than themselves, and fail when the process becomes the end in itself — a means of power over our fellow men.
The oligarchs that replaced the democracy in Athens did no better, ruling wantonly based on their own pent up sense that it was “their turn.”  We sometimes see this happen when one party, shut out of Congress for a time, suddenly gains control.  With this attitude in place things go poorly, and the Gingrich led government shutdown in the 1990’s comes to mind.
Democracy came back, but the instability engendered by these power struggles did the Athenians no favors in their war effort.  In our discussion as to why Athens lost the war, I threw out a few theories bandied about by historians, such as the superiority of infantry over the navy in general, and the Sicily invasion in particular.  But most agreed that Athens made themselves their own worst enemy through their arrogance.  Their self-worship turned their gaze inward.  They never had a filter for their decisions beyond their own immediate wants, and they never opened themselves to an external variable like “justice” to use as a guide.
Next week we will look at the Plato’s critique of democracy, and Aristotle’s response to Plato.  While studying these two titans the students will read Euripides’s The Bacchae to help us get some important issues in a different way.
Dave Mathwin

10th Grade: The World Turned Upside Down

This week we discussed the preamble to the Declaration of  Independence.  While the particular grievances have come and gone,  Jefferson’s preamble is deservedly remembered.  In 1765 the colonists  talked of ‘English liberties,’ and protested on that basis.  In the  Declaration, however, we see the concept of universal human rights  enunciated.  The colonists were not fighting to be English, but in a sense to be more human.  While Jefferson was a deist and not a  Christian, he is clear to point out that these rights are universal because they originate in the fact that we are created by God.  In  class we discussed how these ideals have shaped our nation.
Many in the world, rightly or wrongly, accuse us of meddling, not minding  our own business, and so on.  Whether this charge is just or not can be debated.  What we can trace back to the Declaration, however,  is that we seek in some measure to spread our ideals not because they’re ours, but because we believed that they belonged to  all.  Are we right about this crucial assertion?  Clearly the words of the Declaration not only reflected, but also molded and shaped our self perception as a nation.
Again, this does not mean that we have always done this, or done it well, or at the right times, places, and so on.
We wrapped up the fighting of the war this week as well, and focused on the crucial battles of Saratoga and Yorktown.  To help cement the impact of these battles we did a card game activity, where the rules and structure of the game give an advantage to the ‘favorite.’  However, I hoped that the students would discern that the underdog had certain advantages as well:
– They could afford to play more recklessly, since they had less to lose
– If they got lucky or could bluff their way to 1 big success, they could simply fold (i.e. retreat in orderly fashion) and wait until the end of the game — until time ran out.
Many of you may have seen an action movie where the lone hero has to fight his way into a compound, boat, or some other such structure.  Despite being outnumbered, miraculously he kills the bad guys and escapes.  Along with Hollywood escapism at work, our hero does have one advantage.  Every person he sees on the boat he knows immediately is a bad guy.  He can shoot first, ask questions later.  Because the bad guys are so numerous, chances are nearly every person the bad guys see in the shadows is on their side.  They hesitate and give the hero the advantage, showing how their numbers work against them at least in some ways.
I could easily stretch this analogy too far, but British failures at Saratoga and Yorktown show the great difficulty the British faced winning the war.  How could they solve the problems that created the war in the first place through violence?  The situation between England and their colonies from 1764-1775 craved a political response that the British proved unable to provide.  Victory through violence therefore required an absolutely crushing military defeat, and this mean they would have to take chances to achieve it.  Both times they did this, it backfired mightily upon them.  To add to their problems, Americans could afford to take chances occasionally because their victories would mean so much more than British ones.  England’s  political bungling in the decade prior to the war prepared the way for their defeat.  I touch on some of these issues in this post on whether or not generalship can be “clutch” or not here.
Next week we will begin our unit on the Constitution and our mock Supreme Court Activity.  Many thanks for all your support,
Dave Mathwin
Here is the song supposedly played by the British at their Yorktown surrender:

Does “Clutch” Exist?

Many behavioral economists and stat crunchers decry the notion that “clutch” players exist.  Here is an excerpt from Dan Ariely’s The Upside of Irrationality:

Clutch players are paid much more than other players, and are presumed to perform especially brilliantly during the last few minutes or seconds of a game, when stress and pressure are highest.

With the help of Duke University men’s basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski (“Coach K”), we got a group of professional coaches to identify clutch players in the NBA (the coaches agreed, to a large extent, about who is and who is not a clutch player). Next, we watched videos of the twenty most crucial games for each clutch player in an entire NBA season (by most crucial, we meant that the score difference at the end of the game did not exceed three points). For each of those games, we measured how many points the clutch players had shot in the last five minutes of the first half of each game, when pres- sure was relatively low. Then we compared that number to the number of points scored during the last five minutes of the game, when the outcome was hanging by a thread and stress was at its peak. We also noted the same measures for all the other “nonclutch” players who were playing in the same games.

We found that the non-clutch players scored more or less the same in the low-stress and high-stress moments, whereas there was actually a substantial improvement for clutch players during the last five minutes of the games. So far it looked good for the clutch players and, by analogy, the bankers, as it seemed that some highly qualified people could, in fact, per- form better under pressure.

But—and I’m sure you expected a “but”—there are two ways to gain more points in the last five minutes of the game. An NBA clutch player can either improve his percentage success (which would indicate a sharpening of performance) or shoot more often with the same percentage (which suggests no improvement in skill but rather a change in the number of attempts). So we looked separately at whether the clutch players actually shot better or just more often. As it turned out, the clutch players did not improve their skill; they just tried many more times. Their field goal percentage did not increase in the last five minutes (meaning that their shots were no more accurate); neither was it the case that non- clutch players got worse.

At this point you probably think that clutch players are guarded more heavily during the end of the game and this is why they don’t show the expected increase in performance. To see if this were indeed the case, we counted how many times they were fouled and also looked at their free throws. We found the same pattern: the heavily guarded clutch players were fouled more and got to shoot from the free-throw line more frequently, but their scoring percentage was unchanged. Certainly, clutch players are very good players, but our analysis showed that, contrary to common belief, their performance doesn’t improve in the last, most important part of the game.

Seems convincing, and here is another take on the issue with the same conclusion in a different sport.

But I don’t buy it, or at least not all of it.

I am willing to believe that my own personal emotional perception can influence what I think of hard data, but it’s also my own experience.  I grew up playing baseball and there were times when I wanted to be at the plate in crunch time and times when I hoped that the guy in front of me would win the game and spare me the agony.  The expected results often followed my attitude.  Of course, those times tended to be when I was having a good or bad season, respectively.   But the pressure definitely seemed to heighten my expectation of success or failure, and surely this had something to do with my performance.  Perhaps the key variable is pressure, not performance.

But aside from sports, can “clutch” exist in generals?

Washington only won three battles in the Revolutionary War, but he won them at the right time.  The Battle of Trenton seems something like hitting two foul shots to send the game into overtime.  Yorktown was perhaps not as crucial, but still similar in the timing and result.  Pressure brought out the best in Washington.

By contrast, the British general surely had less to play for in the Revolutionary War.  They had the best army on paper, not just against the colonies but throughout Europe and perhaps the world.  Yet they had no “clutch” performances, perhaps because pressure did not draw it out of them.  Winning and losing meant much less to them compared to the colonists.

My point is that pressure reveals something about us.  It does not always reveal something “good” or “bad” about us, but with the testing comes opportunity.

Fire away, statisticians, I still think something like “clutch” exists.

Bligh’s Portable Nightmare

The full title of the book is Captain Bligh’s Portable Nightmare: From the Bounty to Safety — 4,162 Miles Across the Pacific in a Rowing Boat.

With such a title, the author John Toohey borrowed from the dense Enlightenment style from the period he chronicles.  The original title of Bligh’s own book was The Narrative of the Mutiny aboard His Majesty’s Ship ‘Bounty;’ And the Subsequent Voyage of Part of the Crew, in the Ship’s Boat. 

Bligh’s mentor and hero Captain Cook wrote one entitiled, The Voyages of Captain Cook Round the World: Illustrated with Numerous Engravings on Wood and Steel.

Clearly, the late 18th century liked long titles.

Toohey writes well and tells a remarkable story, making some inspired guesswork about what happened on the launch and how they possibly could have traveled so far and survived.  Put Bligh’s accomplishment in the long list of things perhaps no one on Earth could do today.  To be fair to us, Bligh may have been one of the few of his time that could have done it as well.

The book grabbed me for other reasons.  Bligh represents much of his time.  In Bligh we have a man of incredible mathematical and navigational gifts.  But the journey required a great amount of indescribable “feel” as well as inspired guesswork honed by years of sailing by sun and stars.  Bligh’s abilities were innate to be sure but also honed by all the fruits that the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment had to offer.

But it’s the long titles of all those 18th century books that bothers me.  Those titles seem so earnest and so dedicated, just like the men themselves.  But their style can be so heavy and didactic that all life gets sucked out of them.  In the same way, some of the era’s  great men like Bligh seem out of touch not just with the universe itself but with each other.  Even while in the rowboat fighting for the life of the crew, Bligh managed to make these impressive maps of surrounding islands that later sailors would use themselves and declare accurate:

But when one the men on the launch died in a Dutch settlement, Bligh did not even know if the deceased had family to notify.  He could save the lives of his men without relating to them as human beings.  Bligh’s tragic resentment towards his men whom he believed did not sufficiently appreciate him shows him to be all to human indeed.



And now as a postscript, being for the edification of Ladies and Gentlemen alike, for the purpose of reinforcing the bloggist’s aforementioned point concerning the titles of books in the said era under discussion. . .

Some other titles of 18th century books:

An Introduction to the Italian Language Containing specimens both of prose and verse … with a literal translation and grammatical notes, for the use of those who, being already acquainted with grammar, attempt to learn it without a master …   By Samuel Johnson

The New England Almanac, or, Lady’s and Gentlemen’s diary, for the year of our Lord Christ 1775, calculated for the meridian of Providence, New England,  lat. 41° 51′ n. and 71° 16′ w. from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich; but may serve all the adjacent provinces.  By Benjamin West