Sunday, November 22, 2015

Fewer Rules, More Cooperation

This TED talk by Yves Morieux is excellent:

How too many rules at work keep you from getting things done

His theme is that there are too many rules and not enough cooperation. I like his illustration of effective cooperation, a relay race, even if the French women beat the U.S. women in his example.

Mr. Morieux's earlier TED talk is also good, and provides further discussion of his theme:

As work gets more complex, 6 rules to simplify

Mr. Morieux is a business consultant, speaking to a business audience about business examples. I certainly support the application of these themes to business. I also think that these themes are even more applicable to how a free people should organize their government. As our world becomes more complex, we have created an ever more complex government. Our government is now far too complex. What we need now is a simpler government with fewer rules (laws and regulations), and more cooperation outside of government.

A word about cooperation: it is by definition voluntary. If you need laws to force "cooperation," then it isn't cooperation. It's authoritarianism. The essence of government is coercion, which is the opposite of cooperation.

Of course, there is a yin-yang tension here. We need some amount of government to prevent anarchy and chaos. But too much government can be as bad as too little government.

There has been recent support for the idea that too much government is a problem from a surprising source: the White House. I say "surprising" because in my part of the business world, agricultural finance, we have seen more new laws and regulations during the Obama administration than during any other time in my career. By far. The Dodd-Frank Act (signed 7/21/10) and the Food Safety Modernization Act (signed 1/04/11), and the endless regulations flowing from these laws, are just two examples.

The most recent assertion out of the White House that too many rules create problems concerns land-use regulation (e.g., zoning):

Why White House Economists Worry About Land-Use Regulations

A pronouncement from last summer was about occupational licensing:

White House Warns States On Job-Licensing Requirements

I applaud this support for less government from the White House! (I wonder if they would go so far as to support Slow Government?)

Yves Morieux does not mention that much of the reason for increasing complexity in business is because it is forced on us by an overzealous government. But he is right that we in business bring much unneeded complexity on ourselves. We need to fight counterproductive complexity on both fronts: what we do to ourselves, and what we allow government to do to us.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Making It All Up

The cover story in the October 19, 2015 issue of The Weekly Standard is titled "Making It All Up." It is about the state of science in the behavioral sciences. It's not pretty, as you can guess from the title of the article.

The article discusses an August report in the widely-respected journal Science titled "Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science" (link). Scientists attempted to reproduce the results of 100 studies published in three psychology journals:

The Reproducibility Project: Psychology was a collaborative, crowdsourced effort of 270 authors and 86 additional volunteers. Across multiple criteria, we successfully reproduced fewer than half of the 100 original findings investigated. (link)

Fewer than half! This is bad science.

Why does this matter? One reason is that bad science contributes to mistaken ideas about the human condition. Another reason is that bad science undermines public support for and trust in science itself.

The problem is not just these 100 relatively current studies. The article explores the weaknesses of several landmark studies in psychology including the famous Stanley Milgram electric shock experiments conducted at Yale in the 1960s.

Another famous psychology study, not mentioned in The Weekly Standard article, was the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo in the 1970s and the subject of a 2015 movie by that name. For a good discussion of the weaknesses of that study see: Why Zimbardo's Prison Experiment Isn't in My Textbook.

Beware the findings of social scientists!

The gold standard of what it means to "know something" in science is still Feynman's 1974 commencement address at Caltech: Cargo Cult Science. I have seen numerous references to this theme lately in widely different fields. Search for "Feynman integrity" on Google to see some examples.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Coddling of the American Mind

The cover story in the September issue of The Atlantic is titled "The Coddling of the American Mind." The opening sentences:

"Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense."

The article explains microaggressions and trigger warnings – two concepts now common on campus.

Here is another article on this topic from The Atlantic, by a different author:

The Rise of Victimhood Culture

Here are some thoughts on this topic by Megan McArdle, whom I've quoted on this blog before:

How Grown-Ups Deal With 'Microaggressions'

And here is a local Vermont story about trigger warnings on campus:

Public reading of a fictional description of a rape sparks debate over freedom of expression at arts college

Our world is changing. I'm not sure for the better.

UPDATE: Although the Atlantic article does not mention this, the title of the article must be a reference to this 1987 book by Allan Bloom: The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

More about "The Year Without A Summer"

The Economist has a long and interesting article about the eruption 200 years ago of Mount Tambora, and the resulting climate effects the following year, 1816 – "The Year Without A Summer":

After Tambora

Two hundred years ago the most powerful eruption in modern history made itself felt around the world. It could happen again at almost any time.

For a different view on the effects of volcanic eruptions on climate, see this post on "Watts Up With That?" from 2012:

Missing the Missing Summer

The author makes the case that average temperatures were not noticeably affected by the eruption of Mount Tambora.

There is a lot of interesting discussion in the comments about volcanoes, average temperatures, crop yields, etc. Many of the commenters provided links to additional information.

See also my earlier posts on this subject:

Mount Tambora - 200 Years Ago
1800 and Froze to Death

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Mount Tambora - 200 Years Ago

The most significant volcanic eruption observed and recorded by humans was 200 years ago yesterday – April 10, 1815 – on Mount Tambora in Indonesia. This led to global cooling and widespread misery in 1816 – The Year Without a Summer.

There is an excellent post about this event here, with links to more information:

200 Years Ago This Week: Tambora's Eruption Causes a Planet-Wide Climate Emergency

Something I learned from this post: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was written in the cold, dreary summer of 1816 and was likely influenced by the weather. Here is the story from Wikipedia:

During the rainy summer of 1816, the "Year Without a Summer", the world was locked in a long cold volcanic winter caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. Mary Shelley, aged 18, and her lover (and later husband) Percy Bysshe Shelley, visited Lord Byron at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The weather was consistently too cold and dreary that summer to enjoy the outdoor holiday activities they had planned, so the group retired indoors until dawn.

Sitting around a log fire at Byron's villa, the company amused themselves by reading German ghost stories translated into French from the book Fantasmagoriana, then Byron proposed that they "each write a ghost story".

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein grew out of that exercise.

The gloomy weather in the summer of 1816 also inspired Lord Byron's poem "Darkness." From Wikipedia:

Darkness is a poem written by Lord Byron in July 1816. That year was known as the Year Without a Summer, because Mount Tambora had erupted in the Dutch East Indies the previous year, casting enough ash into the atmosphere to block out the sun and cause abnormal weather across much of north-east America and northern Europe. This pall of darkness inspired Byron to write his poem.

Last fall Nancy, Emily and I saw the Tom Stoppard play Arcadia. One of the characters in the play quotes the first five lines of "Darkness":

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguished, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;

For more links about the weird weather in 1816 see my earlier post: 1800 and Froze to Death.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Money and Religion

What is money? I am coming to realize what a complicated question this is.

Somehow money is intertwined with debt. Through the magic (or black magic) of fractional-reserve banking, the act of making a loan creates money. Since I am an executive at a financial institution that makes loans, that is a sobering thought. I appear to be involved in the creation of money without fully understanding what I am doing. (I wonder if anyone fully understands it.) On my list of books to read someday is Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber. Perhaps that will help me understand.

Somehow debt is intertwined with how countries govern themselves. Democracies issue debt which becomes money. That is a sobering thought, too. As citizens in a democracy, do we have any idea how our government's debt affects money, the economy, and the sustainability of our society? Also on my list of books to read someday is A Free Nation Deep in Debt: The Financial Roots of Democracy by James Mcdonald. Perhaps that will help me understand.

The subject of today's post, however, is money and religion, prompted by this column by Spengler (aka David P. Goldman):

Why Jews are good at money

His thesis is that the value of money depends on debt; that the value of debt depends on trust; that trust depends not only on a government that enforces contracts but also on something broader and deeper - an underlying faith; and that the Jews were the first to develop religious faith.

It's an interesting thesis. I recommend reading the whole column. It's not long.

So money and religion have something in common: they both depend on faith. That's an interesting thought. Douglas Adams said something similar. I'm not sure, however, that this is the lesson one gets out of Matthew 21:12-13. The story of the moneychangers in the temple does not seem to indicate that Jesus thought that money and religion had much in common.

Islam has some ideas about money, too. I need to learn more about that someday.

And what about bitcoin? The idea of the block chain seems to be a new concept in the world, made possible by the computing power of today's information networks. Perhaps the block chain will provide the faith that is needed to sustain the concept of money.

But returning to the ideas of money, religion, and faith - what about doubt? Can we live without doubt? It is a basic principle of science that we must always leave room for doubt. On my work blog, I once wrote about the tension between belief (another word for faith) and doubt: Two Greek Maxims.

Coincidentally, my favorite source on the essential role of doubt in science is Richard Feynman, who was born a Jew.

Oh, the world is so complicated! Someday I'll figure it all out.

Tip o' the hat to Maggie's Farm for the link to Spengler's column.