Posts

Mau-mauing the Meritocracy

 Not being the sort of person who is tuned into such matters, I suppose that the first I heard about meritocracy being controversial was Dr. (DPhil, Oxford) Connolley's review of Michael Sandel's The Tyranny of Merit.   I tend to view his evaluations with skepticism, especially when he cites Hayek, but at least he is more entertaining than his guru.  He didn't like the book, and really, it is hard to dislike merit, though maybe not so much if it is purely priced in market value. I didn't think much about the subject until I noticed The Atlantic running a bunch of stories on the subject.  One of them was by Daniel Markovits , a Yale Law professor, who, among other things seems to have picked up a couple of degrees from Oxford, and is author of The Meritocracy Trap which anticipated Sandel by a year or two.  I haven't read his book either, but I did read his article in The Atlantic:  How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition  Meritocracy prizes achievement abo

Conquering Europe: Book Review

The Making of Europe, by Robert Bartlett. Before Europe conquered the world, Europeans conquered Europe (950-1350).  More precisely, one group the Normans, or Anglo-Normans, after conquering England, went on to conquer and colonize Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Spain, Portugal, much of Italy and Greece, much of the Baltic, and even a lot of the Holy Land.  Besides personal ferocity, they brought important military technology: armored heavy cavalry, the castle, and the crossbow.  Their victims, especially in the British Isles and the around the Baltic mostly lacked these, though they were bloody enough warriors themselves: slavers, pillagers, and cattle rustlers.  Their blades and light armor were no match for a charge of heavy cavalry paired with swarms of archers, and their counterattacks were defeated by the castles built by the conquering Franks, as they came to be called. The Muslims of Iberia, Sicily, and the Middle East had more sophisticated military technology, but at first, anyway

The SAT and the ASEA

The SAT test was invented when James Bryant Conant and a few others decided that smart kids from modest backgrounds should get a chance to attend university.  Lately, though, many top universities have gone to a test optional stance on admissions.  The purported reason for this is that such exams give an advantage to students with the resources to prepare for and do better on such exams. A more honest justification would call such policies the Asian Student Exclusion Act, or ASEA for short.  Elite schools at every level have seen their test qualified classes filling up with students of Asian ancestry, while the number of whites and especially students of color has shrunk. Similar reasoning has changed the admissions policies at our highly selective public high schools.  These schools have famously been incubators for some of our top scientists, mathematicians, and others.  A good question is whether eliminating the highly selective admissions tests will dilute student quality to a poin

Economics Zero

Economics is the science that is, among other things, concerned with the allocation of scarce resources.  Ever since the invention of agriculture and civilization, the most central scarce resource has been  agricultural land.  Such land has always been a scarce resource because of the principle discovered by Dr. Malthus - reproduction will tend to exceed the replacement rate and the Earth isn't making more land.   The dramatic expansion of the feudal system in the centuries just before and after the start of the Second Millennium of the Christian Era owes its dynamism to this fact.  Household knights usually could not marry unless they had a fief of land, and younger sons of a lord also faced the prospect of social status loss.  The solution for such a younger son was to recruit some landless knights and soldiers and set off for a foreign land to rob the local inhabitants.  If such a venture was successful, as in the case of William the Conqueror, the foot soldiers would become kni

Tiny Boltzmann Brains and Big Brains

The potions master starts with a tiny bit of skin and in a carefully calibrated series of steps adds a little bit of this and a little bit of that, a little molecular magic, and, presto the former skin cells become  neural stem cells.  Next, a cell or two is placed into tiny wells, and, with a bit more molecular magic, they start growing into a tangled mass of neurons.  Tangles?  Well, not really, because they organize themselves into circuits, and start sending out random pulses which eventually synchronize into something like brain waves.  The experimenter drums his fingers on the table, and the tiny Boltzmann brains, er, neural organoids synchronize with the drumming. These potions masters are not at Hogwarts, but in university labs.  One interesting thing they have discovered in their experiments is that a single switch seems to be mainly responsible from brain size. Organoids from chimp and gorilla brains stop growing much sooner than human brain organoids.  Not coincidentally, hu

Elite Public High Schools

 A number of elite public high schools were founded in the US, mostly in major cities, with the objective of encouraging the most gifted students.  One of these is Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax, Virginia.  These high schools have an excellent track record for producing elite adults, including numerous Nobel Laureates, but they are coming under attack. At TJHSST 66% of the admitted students are Asian, while less than 4% are Black or Hispanic.  Poorer children are highly underrepresented.  A similar picture is seen at other elite schools.  Admission criteria at TJHSST mix grades, preparatory courses, and a crucial exam.  The idea, of course, is to select the students with the greatest talent and preparation. Talent, we suppose, is inborn, but preparation depends both on the student and the environment they live in.  How prepared students are depends on their elementary and middle schools, but probably even more on the resources parents can and do comm

Galileo Under House Arrest

 [Nobel Prize Winner James] Watson attended that initial meeting of the CRISPR group, as he did most meetings at Cold Spring Harbor, and he sat in the front row of the auditorium, underneath a grand oil portrait of himself, to hear Doudna’s talk. It was a reprise of her first visit there as a graduate student in the summer of 1987, when Watson also sat up front as she presented, with youthful nervousness, a paper on how some RNAs could replicate themselves. After Doudna’s CRISPR talk, he came up to say a few words of praise, just as he had done almost thirty years earlier. It was important, he said, to push the science of making gene edits in humans, including enhancing intelligence. For some in attendance, it felt historic. Stanford biology professor David Kingsley took a picture of Watson and Doudna talking.1 But when I show up at the 2019 meeting, Watson is not in his usual seat in the front row. After fifty years, he has been banished from meetings, and the oil portrait of him remo