A collection of essays by Bill (website@ccjj.info) accompanied by feedback from his friends.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

I'm Leaving Blogspot

I've decided to take my blogging to a new site.

The problem is, Google overtook blogspot, and they've mismanaged it.

Before, when you posted something on your blogspot blog, you could set it to send you an email every time someone comments. They changed it so that you had to have some sort of Google identity (I don't remember the details, all I knew was I didn't want one), and to see if there were any comments on your blog, you had to periodically check your identity.

That's unacceptable. I just want to check my email.

I have taken my business to Wordpress, which does contact me through email if anyone responds to my blog. You can see my new blog at http://xyquarx.wordpress.com

Sunday, January 1, 2012



When I was a teenager, most of my peers were interested in smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. Neither of those activities appealed to me, but I was fascinated by fireworks.

I was living in Germany, and there, fireworks are legal to sell only twice a year -- for a couple of weeks before New Years, and during Fasching. Fasching is sort of negative Lent. Since people are going to deprive themselves of pleasure during Lent, they have a period before Lent, Fasching, during which they throw wild parties, which sometimes involve fireworks.

Many stores would sell fireworks. Legally, you had to be 18 to buy them, but most stores would bend the rules and sell them to minors.

My parents, especially my mom, didn't want me to have them. She was afraid I would get hurt.

So if you were a kid, you had to A: save up your money before the season during which fireworks were available, B: buy them, and C: hide them from your parents.

Year after year I did this.

I remember, when I was in 5th grade, I did have one explode in my hand. There were 'screamers', which made a lot of noise but were safe to hold in your hand. But they said on them, "Don't hold in your hand", in German. I bought another firework that looked like a screamer, but it was a different color. It said "Don't hold in your hand", but since screamers were safe to hold in your hand, I ignored this. It screamed for awhile, then got quiet. A little flame came out and I wondered what it would do next. Then "BANG" -- I got my answer. It was very small. The explosion was painful, but did not harm my hand. I never told mom about that, of course.

Once I tried to make a hand grenade. I put a very big firecracker in an empty soft drink can. At the time, German soft drink cans were steel, not aluminum. I took it into the forest near where we lived and threw it in into a gully where the shrapnel wouldn't hurt anybody. It was quite a disappointment -- the explosion just blew off the end of the can, the rest of the can was intact -- no shrapnel was formed.

I remember one type of firework I had, it didn't have a conventional fuse. One end was sulfurous, like a match head, and you struck it on a match box and then it would flame like a blow torch for awhile, then the firework would explode. Once I was in the woods and I lit one of those and threw it down a steep hill in a forest. It landed in a tree, 40 feet up. The first 30 feet of the tree didn't have any branches, so there was no hope of climbing the tree. More and more smoke came from the firework and I realized the blow torch was setting the tree on fire. I was worried it was going to start a forest fire and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Then the explosion came, which blew the fire out.

We generally didn't have forest fires in Germany, the place is too wet.

In Germany, I went to an international school, and our school had an American Boy Scout troop. We would go on camp outs with other American troops, virtually all of whom were military kids. Military kids rarely went off base, I don't think most of them had German money in their pockets. So they didn't know they could get fireworks from the Germans. I went around at a camp out selling fireworks to Americans at a hefty profit.

I remember a prospective customer didn't like it that the fireworks didn't have a conventional fuse. I showed him the troop number on the shoulder of my uniform and promised him that if he couldn't get it to light, he could come to my troop and find me and he'd get his money back.
The next day I was walking along and I saw him coming the other way and he had one eye bandaged. He said "The firework blew a hole in a tent.". I was freaking out, thinking he'd injured himself with the firework I'd sold him, but he realized what I was thinking and told me the injury was because of something else.
What had happened is that the guys in his troop were very skeptical that the firework would work, and someone had been sitting in a tent, slowly striking it against a matchbox, then it went into blowtorch mode, so he threw it to the other side of the tent. While still in blowtorch mode, it burned a hole in the tent.

When I was 15, I got word that my family would be moving to Australia in a month. I met some grownups who had lived in Australia, but I couldn't trust them to ask them what the firework situation was there. They would think I was too young to have them and fink on me to my mom.

I had saved up some money from a job I'd had selling refreshments at movies that were shown at my high school, and I spent basically all of it on fireworks. My dad's company was going to ship everything we had to Australia, even the food in the pantry.

I hid the fireworks in a lot of different places. I took a lamp apart and stashed some there. I put some in the pockets of my mom & dad's military uniforms in the attic. We had some American cake mix in the pantry, so I made a cake, filled the box with fireworks, and glued it back shut.

I hid the fireworks in about 8 different places, and wrote a list of those places. When we moved to Australia, it took about 8 weeks for all the stuff to get there by boat, and during that time, I lost the list.

When the stuff arrived, I collected my fireworks as best I could.

In Australia, soft drink cans were aluminum like in the US, so I repeated the hand grenade experiment. Again, no shrapnel, but the bottom of the can was blown out into a half-spherical shape.

A year or two after we arrived in Australia, my mom opened up a box of powdered sugar to find fireworks inside. I'd forgotten about those. By then I was old enough that she was cool with me having them, so she just gave them to me.

A few years later I was in college in California, and wanted to take my fireworks there. Returning from a visit home to Australia, I smuggled some in my suitcase. I knew they did not pose a danger, because I had been experimenting with fireworks for years and knew that if they went off, they wouldn't even blow the suitcase open.

Years after that, I saw a sign at an airport saying the penalty for carrying explosives on an airplane was 5 years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Sobering.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Book Report: The Big Short by Michael Lewis

This book provides an inside look at the mortgage meltdown, through the eyes of investors.

The mortgage meltdown is something of huge importance and relevance to our times, in that it is responsible for the current recession. It is also not very well understood at all by the lay public.

  • Many see the problem as "greed", whatever that means.
  • Leftists see the meltdown (which they didn't predict) as an inevitable consequence (like everything else they don't like in the world) of the Evils of Capitalism.
  • Democrats were quick to blame it on "deregulation". For awhile they were at a loss to say the removal of which regulation, in particular, was responsible. Eventually some of them said that the 1999 repeal of some provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act was to blame, and the rest of them echoed this sentiment without the foggiest idea of what Glass-Steagall actually was. I have yet to hear a coherent account of how Glass-Steagall would have prevented any bad mortgage loans from being made.
  • Predictably, Republicans countered the Democrats, blaming the meltdown on too much, rather than too little, government, somehow laying it at the feet of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government agencies set up to facilitate home loans.
Many people say they saw the meltdown coming, and most of them are full of baloney. In The Big Short, the author, Michael Lewis, focuses on the few investors who can credibly make this claim, those who not only saw the meltdown coming, but anticipated it well enough to profit from it.

Three groups are followed, a lone investor in Silicon Valley, a pair of rich hippies in Berkeley who liked making long-odds bets, and some very cynical New York investors who just smelled a rat in the mortgage market from the very beginning.

Michael Burry, the lone investor in Silicon Valley, was a smart fellow with Asperger's Syndrome. Asperger's Syndrome is just a formal way of saying someone is extremely geeky. Such people have great difficulty with interpersonal relationships, but are quite bright and often focus on very narrow areas of interest, becoming experts in their fields. Burry had gotten a medical degree but lost interest, particularly because he didn't like interacting with his patients. He became interested in finance and demonstrated a precocious talent for picking stocks. He eventually found himself running an investment fund worth many millions of dollars of other people's money, and his fund greatly outperformed the rest of the stock market.

At some point he became interested in mortgage bonds, and unlike most other investors, read the fine print. He really didn't like what he saw, some of these home loans being made were so bad that there was a fortune to be made betting against them. He figured out how to make such bets. Unfortunately, it was hard to predict exactly when the loans would go bad and the bets against them would pay off, and he didn't do a very good job of selling his strategy to his investors, most of whom lost faith in him and deserted him. In the end, he and those who stuck with him made a killing.

Jamie Mai and Charley Ledley were a pair of 30 years olds who started investing with $110,000 and a Charles Schwab account in 2003, working from a shed in the back of a friend's house in Berkeley, California. They had an interest in long-odds bets, and some of their early bets paid off, leaving them with many millions of dollars. At some point they became interested in credit default swaps, where, for a small sum of money, you can bet to win a large amount of money if a bond defaults. They decided to bet against mortgage bonds and the rest is history.

Steve Eisman was a New York investor whose bias about the world was that most other investors were crooks for phonies. When he started dealing with the mortgage market, it seemed to confirm his bias, and he ran with it. Unlike Burry, who sat secluded in his office in California reading the fine print of contracts, Eisman went out of his way to seek out all the people he felt were blowing it and confront them with his world view, to confirm whether he or the world was going insane.

The book follows these three characters as they travel through the investment world, and we see all the signs that the subprime mortgage bond market was insane, which looks so obvious in hindsight, while so few people actual paid attention to these signs at the time.

My own take on the mortgage meltdown, which I wrote nearly two years ago, is here. One thing that was really apparent to me before the meltdown was that no one I talked to who was buying real estate seemed to take seriously the idea that there was any possibility whatsoever that home values could sink. This shows up in The Big Short, when Steve Eisman encountered someone who worked for the rating agencies. Eisman had calculated that if real estate prices just stopped rising, there would be massive defaults. Eisman asked the rater if he had run calculations on the prospects for the bonds if real estate values were to decline. The rater replied that the software he used refused to take input predicting a decline in real estate values. But the book doesn't stress this as much as I do, in fact the book does not hold the home buyers accountable at all -- it is mostly focused on the relevant people on Wall Street.

I've heard a lot of talk about the rating agencies being "corrupt" (the media is obsessed with labeling financial activity as criminal or borderline so) in that the agencies were paid by the banks whose bonds they were rating, which undermined their objectivity, but one problem discussed in the book that I hadn't previously been hearing about was with the quality of the people at the rating agencies. The salaries to be had working for a rating agency paled in comparison with what one could make as an investment banker. As one investor put it, "If you couldn't get a job working at an investment bank, you could always go work for the rating agencies". On top of that, the lowest-ranking people in the rating agencies were the ones rating mortgage bonds. As a result, the investors who would put together deals of mortgage loans were much smarter than the people rating the resulting bonds, and learned to game the system and fool the rating agencies into giving the bonds much better ratings than they deserved.

One thing the book talks about is how, after the cataclysm, people on both ends of the deals gone bad wound up rich. The people who had shorted the bond market were obviously rich, and justly so, but the major players who lost their banks billions of dollars by betting on subprime loans wound up out of work, but sitting on tens of millions of dollars they made before losing their jobs in disgrace. I'm not sure what can be done to counter this -- if I were a bank, I would want to provide a disincentive for my employees to lose me billions of dollars, but I'm not sure how I could hold them accountable. The worst thing you can do to an employee who hasn't violated a contract or done anything illegal is fire them in disgrace. If you've been paying them tens of millions of dollars a year up to that time, they wind up unemployed, disgraced, and very rich. I can't think of a solution here. It's a big problem, because it seems plausible to me that an investor might see a 10% chance of a financial meltdown in a few years. If he bets against the meltdown, he has a 90% chance of making a large salary over those few years, and if he gets held accountable for the meltdown, he just takes a very luxurious vacation for a few years afterward. Furthermore, if you make bets alone against the system and you're wrong, everyone thinks you're a fool. If you make bets with everybody else and the whole system fails, you don't get held individually accountable, you were just one of many people wiped out by hard times.

The psychologies of the different characters were very different, in interesting ways. Michael Burry, with his Asperger's, was quite content to sit in his office, read the fine print, and calmly conclude that the world had gone insane and bet millions of dollars on that opinion without further ado. Steve Eisman, a more normal character, wasn't going to make huge bets that the world was going insane unless he met the people involved, publicly called them idiots to their faces, and confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were insane, or at least very stupid. It all makes for fascinating and dramatic reading.

There are some things that are not well explained by this book. For example, the worst mortgages sold were these adjustable-rate mortgages that started out with a small monthly payment being required for a couple of years, then would suddenly reset to much larger monthly payment that the homeowner had no hope of being able to pay. What was going through the heads of the homeowners who signed those mortgages? Did they know about the reset? Were they fooled? And if they were fooled, what were the mortgage originators thinking when they loaned people money that wouldn't possibly be repaid? As it was, these originators were able, for awhile, to fool the homeowners into signing the mortgages and fool the banks into buying the loans, but it must have gone through their heads that this was not a sustainable state of affairs. This isn't mentioned in the book, but I remember the CEO of Countrywide, one of the worst mortgage originators, saying, when confronted with the fact that he had generated a huge number of bad loans, "If these loans were so bad, why were the investors buying them?".

There was a lot of money lost on credit default swaps. A credit default swap is where you buy insurance in case a bond will default. This is fine, but all insurance is based on basically making a bet that something bad will happen -- if the bad thing happens, the insured "wins", and gets money to help him recover from his misfortune, and the insurer loses, paying that money. Well, a lot of people were buying credit default swaps on bonds they didn't own, so it wasn't really "insurance" any more, it was just a bet. A lot of money was obviously lost when homeowners couldn't pay back the money they borrowed, but there was a huge shadow market of credit default swaps, where banks lost a lot of money just betting that the home loans were good, multiplying those losses.

One issue that comes up a lot in the book is that Michael Burry was one of very few people who was actually reading the fine print of these contracts. This highlights one problem our society has -- many people are entering into agreements without reading the contracts, just signing long documents with the belief that since "everybody else is doing it too", so if the deal goes bad, no matter how stupid signing the contract was, the government will come to everyone's rescue. Signing a mortgage is an extremely important contract, probably second only to marriage contracts in importance as the most important contract one signs in one's whole life. If the contract is too long or too boring to read, one should hire a lawyer to at least make sure one understands what one is signing.

There is a push in the current administration to have regulation simplifying mortgage contracts, in such a way that, for instance, people will plainly see what the maximum mortgage payment they will be expected to make will be. In an ideal world, people would just refuse to sign contracts they don't understand and thus force the banks to write simple contracts in plain English, but apparently we don't live in such an ideal world so such regulation is probably a good idea.

One change that I think would be constructive is if the banking system changed the way it handled credit default swaps. I think if I were in the business of selling credit default swaps, I would want to make sure that for every swap I sold, the buyer of the swap actually owned the bond being insured -- so I would know that I was selling to people looking for insurance for what they perceived to be an unlikely event, not making bets against people who knew more than I did. I don't think any government action is necessary to bring this change about, just the sellers of credit default swaps need to wise up.

I think, and this is my own take, it's not stated in the book, that too many people in too many places in the investment system were assuming that, even if their own piece of the system were a weak link, the rest of the system was sound and would make up for that weak link. Thus, the loan originators figured that if the investors bought the loans, they must be good loans. The investors assumed that the ratings were sound, though they should have known better. Everyone assumed that the value of the house would always be at least as much as the outstanding value of the loan, so if the homeowner didn't pay, you could foreclose and get your money back.

A lot of reform has already happened, independent of the government. The bond market now realizes that the ratings are fallible. Everyone now realizes that real estate values can sink. Banks will not recklessly sell credit default swaps on mortgage loans like they used to.

In the afterword, Michael Lewis discusses a lot of conversations he had with politicians and government officials after he published the book. Most of them really hadn't figured out what on Earth had gone wrong, and were trying to get him to explain it to them. After a lot of such conversations, an official who actually was pretty knowledgeable called him and they had a conversation. At the end of the conversation, the official asked him "I understand you've discussed this with a lot of politicians and officials. Was anybody particularly insightful who I might call up and interview?". Lewis explained to him that none of those callers were explaining anything to him, they were all asking him to explain the situation to them. The official laughed, thanked him for his time, and ended the call.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

I went down to the "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrations a couple of times. I had read hostile reviews from the right-wing press, and the more mainstream press seemed to be saying that the demonstrators generally weren't sure what they wanted.

There were basically no demonstrators at the New York Stock Exchange. They were at Liberty Square, about 6 blocks away. I would estimate there were a couple of thousand of them. Many sleeping bags lay on the ground, so I guess a lot of the people had come a long way.

The demonstration didn't seem to have obtained appropriate permits, so they weren't allowed to use audio amplification. The speaker would yell a sentence, then people 30 feet away would repeat it, then people 30 feet further on would repeat it again. It didn't seem to me to be a good way to come up with nuanced insights into macroeconomic theory sufficient to get us out of the recession and bring the jobs back. The second time I went there they had a video screen where the speaker's words would be typed.

At least 85% of the demonstrators were under 25. Generally, the young people lacked concrete suggestions about specific policy changes, and the few ideas they had were half baked. I went around, generally asking people "What are you demonstrating for? What do you want?". Several people obviously were unprepared for anybody to ask them that and felt a bit put on the spot. People with signs, however, generally had a lot to say.

One kid had a sign saying "Jail guilty bankers". I asked him what laws he felt the bankers had broken. He said that Obama had said that no laws were broken by Wall Street in the mortgage meltdown, and the kid wasn't satisfied with that, he wanted an investigation. I remembered seeing some congressional hearings on TV a couple of years ago, I think investigations did occur. I told the kid I felt a lot of home buyers applying for homes had illegally exaggerated their incomes, pretending to be able to afford houses they couldn't, but that obviously wasn't what he was looking for. I excused myself and moved on.

I tried to seek out people who looked old enough to buy a beer without getting carded and talk to them. They tended to be hippies / radicals, and they tended to interpret the demonstration as being in support of whatever the individual hippie or radical in question wanted.

Of course, people would ask me who I was. I told them I was a computer programmer for Wall Street, that I voted for Obama and intended to vote for him again next year, and give him money. When I engaged with people, I generally took the point of view that the best course of action was to support the Democratic party.

During the 2 hours I was there, there was no friction between the cops and the demonstrators.

I did talk for a long time with one demonstrator, Robert, who was about 50 and had been there for most of the demonstration. He had been arrested while blocking the Brooklyn Bridge. He said the demonstrators had been walking toward the bridge, but the sidewalk crossing it was too narrow for the large crowd, and many of them spilled over onto the roadway. The police warned them that if they continued they would be arrested. Robert wanted to commit an act of civil disobedience and deliberately proceeded forward. The demonstrators reached the middle of the bridge before the police descended on them with nets and arrested several hundred of them. Robert said the first hundred all heard the warning that they would be arrested, but the several hundred following were too far back to know. He felt it was a setup, because when the police finally did arrest them they were ready with nets and vans to cart them away in.
Afterward I thought about it, and I'm not sure it was a setup. With a large crowd consisting of young people and old radical hippies gathering, demonstrating for an unclear purpose, it would have been prudent and appropriate for the cops to have arrest vans in the wings somewhere, and when the demonstrators started crossing the bridge roadway, the vans would have been called, but it would have taken time for them to reach the spot, by which time the demonstrators would have reached the center of the bridge.
Robert said the fine was $100, which he didn't consider to be anything unreasonable.

I talked to one guy who was promoting a "socialist constitution". He said the existing constitution was "based on slavery". I asked him if he wanted to overthrow the existing constitution. He said yes.

I didn't talk to any union people. It was largely random chance I didn't run into any, but I wasn't seeking them out. My own biggest misgiving about supporting the Democratic Party is that they are trying to make it easier to form unions.

They had a 2 page newspaper, "The Occupied Wall Street Journal" that I bought. Robert had told me that some politicians had been volunteering to talk at the demonstration and the organizers had rebuffed them. Unions, however, were welcome aboard, the newspaper contained endorsements from a bunch of them.

The term "99%" was bandied about a lot in the newspaper. Occupy Wall Street is claiming to represent 99% of the population.

I don't think "Occupy Wall Street" will amount to much. There isn't a clear consensus, agenda or party platform. It's mostly a bunch of kids who don't know anything, who are poorly organized and unrealistic. The older radicals aren't offering anything new, just leftist solutions that this society's been rejecting for a long time.

Monday, October 3, 2011

My High School

This is a description of the high school I went to in Australia, highlighting the differences between American and Australian education styles.

I went to FIS, an international school in Europe that was mostly American, and where the prevailing culture was American, through 10th grade, after which I went to Australia and finished up at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, one of the best (if not the best) high schools in Australia.

There were no girls at Melbourne Grammar. You wore a uniform (suit and tie), and called the teacher "sir".

The Australian school was mostly along British traditional lines. In Europe I had teachers who were mostly American and English, so I became familiar with the differences between the two styles.

One very big difference between the Australian teachers and American ones is that American teachers feel that a student's grade is a confidential matter, between teacher and student. Generally, in American schools, other students are shielded from a knowledge of how well a student is doing in all classes except gym, where everybody's performance is completely visible to their peers. As a result, American students typically put 10 times more effort into gym than they do into their academic subjects.

From what people who had been at the school a long time told me, Melbourne Grammar had made a cultural shift around 1950, +/- 10 years. Prior to that, the school had been ruled by jocks. I don't know how the school was run prior to that, and I had no friends from other schools, so I have no information about how other Australian schools were run.
Typically, when there were more students studying a subject than could fit into one class, there were naturally several classes taught. But the students were separated into classes by ability. So if there were three classes, there was the top set containing the brightest students, the middle set, and the bottom set, containing the slowest, and everybody knew which was which. On top of that, at the end of every term, a few students were switched between sets depending upon how well they had performed - talk about visibility of performance! I had been an honors student in math and science prior to arriving in Australia, but the school had seen Americans before, and generally they had struggled academically. So to be safe, they put me in bottom set everything. After one term, I was transferred two classes up to top set. It was immediately obvious to me that the top set students were treated with more respect by the faculty.
In American schools, it is really clear - studious students occupy the bottom rung of the social ladder, which is totally dominated by jocks. At Melbourne Grammar, it was a completely different story. Being a smart student carried with it a lot of prestige and recognition from the faculty and from the other students.

Another big difference was democracy. American schools tend to be very democratic. Any student who holds any office or authority got that way by being elected by the other students. At Melbourne Grammar that wasn't the case at all. The administration had the attitude that we were not adults, we were not ready to make these decisions for ourselves, and they would make the important decisions. There were some students who were "prefects", a word that doesn't exist in the American vocabulary. They were students appointed to authority by the administration. They wore different ties, different shirts, and presided over house meetings.

Your "house" corresponded to your dorm. About 20% of the students were boarders and their houses were the dorms they lived in. Everybody else had sort of a virtual house, where we would have weekly meetings. Intramural sports teams were all organized along house lines, each house had its own tie in the school uniform, and a student had a lifelong loyalty to his house. Any student could tell instantly what house any other student belonged to by looking at his tie. So having the prefects preside over house meetings was not an insignificant perk.

Being able to choose prefects gave the administration tremendous leverage over student society. The administration could choose students who they considered the most mature by adult values to be role models for other students. This is very different from American school, where students who would never have been very well liked by adults would often occupy the high rungs of the student social hierarchy.

In Australia, the grades went kindergarten, 1-6th grade, then I-VIth form, where VIth form corresponded to American 12th grade. Students in classes were totally segregated by age. Where in American high school you would often have students of radically different ages in the same class, in Australia there was no mixing of ages in anything but gym, and when there was mixing, older students had authority over the younger.

The school had it down to a science. Students progressed steadily through the years in maturity, and a VIth former was considered a nearly-finished product, very much at the top of the ladder.

One thing the school did to promote intellectualism among its students was the "VIth-form society". At the beginning of VIth form, a list was circulated to all of VIth form naming about 40 of the smartest students in the class, who were invited to attend VIth form society. The society consisted of a dinner every month, with wine, followed by a thought-provoking speaker, who would talk to the society and then have a question and answer session. It was a lot of fun.

The selection of students was not by any blind academic point system, it was a deliberate and arbitrary choice by the administration of which students they wanted to give recognition to, and being seen on that list was quite a distinction. Students who weren't invited were welcome to join, only a few did, and I remember one brilliant student who refused the invitation. I never understood what his problem was.

Grading of exams was done differently than in the US. In the US, 90% is usually an A, 80% is a B, 70% a C, and 60% a D. In Australia, 80% was an A, 70% was a B, 60% was a C, and 50% was D. This meant that an Australian exam would typically contain a lot more questions that really required major insight and imagination on the students part, since the teacher could afford to ask 10% questions that nobody could get and still have a lot of A's.

Teachers would re-normalize their grades. You would get a raw score, and then the teacher would look at the curve and adjust all the scores to fit a fairly standard curve. So if the students generally did pretty well on an exam and you got a raw 92%, the teacher might adjust it to 85% to reflect that it was really just a low A.
Mid-term grades were given as letters in the Greek alphabet instead of the Roman alphabet. I'm not sure what this achieved.

The school was flirting with co-education. It was highly, highly controversial with the parents. The alumni association (known as the "Old Boys") was extremely conservative and against the school changing in any way. But experimentation was starting.

I remember one thing that happened. We were studying Macbeth as part of our curriculum, and we had a filming of Roman Polanksy's Macbeth in our auditorium. They arranged to have some girls from Lauriston, a local girl's school, over to watch it with us. They reserved the front few rows for the girls, had all the boys sit down, then the bus bringing the girls arrived, and they filed in a sat down, and we all watched the movie. Then the girls got up and filed out. The boys all got up and were trying to get out of the auditorium, but the teachers were frantically blocking the doors trying to keep us in. After several minutes we finally did find a way out, to discover that the girls' bus had gotten a flat tire. So the girls wound up taking streetcars home, giving us a chance to actually talk to them. I think the faculty really didn't want that to happen, because they were afraid some unfortunate incident might happen and the whole flirtation with co-education would be pronounced a failure. The teachers, not have been brought up in a co-educational environment, were very nervous about the whole concept, even if they were for it.

My school in Europe had had an honors program where we went through 2 American math classes in one year - in 9th grade I covered geometry and algebra II in a single year, in a single class. This left me at a level where, having just finished half of 10th grade and moving forward a half year to Vth form by crossing the equator, I was just at the right level for the Australian curriculum.

Students in Australia tended to be segregated into technical students vs students in the humanities. If a student, like myself, choose to be a technical tracker, he took, in Vth and VIth form, a load of 2 math classes, physics, and chemistry, plus English, with one additional elective in Vth form. However, the pace of the math classes was much slower, so that we covered about as much material in a year in 2 math classes as we had covered in the same time in a single class in Europe, but in much more depth, where in Europe I had been complaining that the material was going by so fast we were often often on the verge of being reduced to memorizing equations we didn't really understand.

The government had a set of 3 hour exams given at the end of senior year, called Higher School Certificate, or HSC, exams. In most classes, 100% of your grade was determined by this exam. I took the American SAT's and achievement tests as well, but they were trivial compared with the Australian tests. There was no calculus in the American tests, and they were all multiple choice. The American questions were all very straightforward, while the Australian tests, particularly Pure Math and physics, had a lot of very difficult questions requiring major creativity to answer.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Question on 9/11

Ten years ago, less than two dozen angry barbarians killed about 3000 unsuspecting innocent Americans. What I find surprising about this is not that it happened, but that this sort of thing hasn't happened more often.

The Islamic world has a strong "victim of the West" narrative. It is deeply upsetting to them that they are not the dominant culture in the world, and they have fabricated a whole alternate reality that preaches that this is not due to any failings in their own culture, but rather a grave injustice inflicted upon them by the West though underhanded means. It is true that the West, through colonialism both subtle and outright, has been meddling in the Islamic countries, so the "victim" narrative is not entirely unjustified.

So, in 2001, a bunch of them got fired up and lashed back, killing as many Americans as they could. Surprise, surprise.

But what about all the other failing cultures in the world? There are many other societies in the world that live in crushing poverty. There must be a lot of rabble-rousers around eager to tell all these people that their problems aren't their own fault, someone else is to blame. And most of these societies have been manhandled by the West at one time or another, so it shouldn't be hard to construe a reasonably credible "victim of the West" narrative in any of those cases and sell it to the masses.

9/11 is not an isolated incident. There have been many other attempts to commit mass murder against the West, but to my knowledge, they have all been perpetrated by militant Islam. What about all the other losers of the world? Why aren't they participating in this game?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Massimo Pigliucci on Evo Psych

In the 24 pages of chapter 7 of his book "Making Sense of Evolution", Massimo Pigliucci lays out scientific objections he has with the fairly new (since 1975) field of Evolutionary Psychology. In his book "Nonsense on Stilts", there is a small section where he deals with evo psych, but it is basically just a shorter subset of what is discussed in that chapter.

Massimo has been quoted in a
Newsweek article as saying that evolutionary psychology is "not good science". I am assuming that it is in these two books where he makes his case for this. The Newsweek article was an appalling piece of journalism -- intellectually dishonest, and resorting to emotional cheap shots. Massimo's chapter, in comparison, is like a breath of fresh air -- he sticks to scientific arguments and refrains from getting personal.

I am not going to defend everything any evolutionary psychologist ever said. I have not read anything by Tooby and Cosmides, and the criticism I have read of evo psych seems to particularly single out their work. Having only heard the criticism, I don't think much of it, and the things they are quoted as saying fail to strike a chord with me like what I've read from other evo psychs such as David Buss or Steven Pinker.

Generally, I am very leery of things said by evolutionary psychologists that are not backed up with psychological experimentation. It is very easy to do a lot of armchair speculation and call it "evo psych", making up evolutionary stories that are based on things that have not been verified about our ancestral environment, and substituting modern social stereotypes for actual psychological data. But if someone carefully studies what is known about prehistoric life, comes up with theories based on that, and tests those theories with psychological experimentation, that should be taken pretty seriously.

We need to make a distinction here between two different concepts: "Evolutionary Psychology", and "Psychological Evolutionary Biology". In evolutionary psychology, we use knowledge about evolution to cast light on psychology. In psychological evolutionary biology, we use knowledge about psychology to cast light on evolutionary biology. As we shall see, Massimo is mostly debunking psychological evolutionary biology, not evolutionary psychology.

In his book, Massimo is constantly comparing evo psych with the study of the evolution of non-human organisms by evolutionary biologists. It should be noted that for evo psych to be useful to humanity, it has to be at least about as good as mainstream psychology. The study of evolutionary biology of non-human organisms is the wrong standard to which to compare it. If
both mainstream psychology and evo psych are less scientific than evolutionary biology of non-human species (as is almost certainly the case), that does not in any way establish that mankind would not benefit greatly from studying evo psych.

One objection Massimo makes is that while evolutionary biologists often study species which have many other species closely related to them, comparison and experimentation between these species being very illuminating,
homo sapiens has no close living relatives, the most recent common ancestor of ourselves and the great apes having lived some 6 million years ago. This is obviously totally irrelevant to the issue of any comparison between evo psych and mainstream psychology, since it is a problem both of them face.

Throughout his discussion, Massimo is really obsessed with distinguishing whether observed traits of species are adaptations or caused by other evolutionary forces, such as genetic drift. This is a very central issue to an evolutionary biologist, but it's not very interesting to a psychologist. A psychologist is primarily interested in whether a trait exists, not how it came into being. The difference between evolutionary psychology and psychological evolutionary biology is key here. If a species-wide genetic psychological trait is identified and verified to exist, that is progress, regardless of how the trait emerged.

Massimo says that evo psychs sometimes talk about high level, specific behavioral traits when the evidence may not be sufficient to support such conclusions. That may be true sometimes, but you can accuse any field of intellectual inquiry, including mainstream psychology, with excessive speculation beyond what the evidence would support. This may be a relevant objection to bring up with respect to specific conclusions, but it does not mean that evo psych cannot be done well.

Massimo goes into a lot of detail about the fact that humans are very difficult to study because ethical considerations preclude a lot of experimental methods routinely used on other species. Again, this is a problem shared by
both evo psych and mainstream psychology, and it says absolutely nothing about how one is better or worse than the other.

Massimo claims little is known about life during the Pleistocene. He says "little", not "nothing", so it's not clear how much he means by that. I maintain we know enough to make progress, and I deal with this issue in my piece
Manufacturing an Absence of Evidence.

Done right, evo psych has a lot to offer. Evolutionary psychologists have at their disposal every technique available to a mainstream psychologist, plus they have the evolutionary perspective, much as an anatomist is better off for being aware of the fact that the organisms being studied were being shaped by evolution, and that most of the structures being observed therefore contributed to survival and / or reproduction in some way. Demanding that psychologists ignore the theory of evolution makes about as much sense as demanding that anatomists ignore it as well.