Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World

Precision engineering is critically important for our modern world, yet usually taken for granted. However, it has become an integral part of our society. In this book, Simon Winchester traces how things have become more and more precise. Then he takes a step back and looks at the benefits of the non-precise. (Japan provides a good case of a culture that celebrates both the ultra-precise and the non-precise.) When there is a big disaster, such as a tsunami, the "precisely engineered" often fail, while the giant trees and other things that have redundancy survive.
Precision has enabled us to make things much smaller and more efficient. Microchips are so small that a spec of dust can ruin one. Airplane engines are both simple and complex. Minute details allow for the engine to be cooled down to prevent it from overheating. (One chapter discusses the story of an engine explosion that was caused by a minor impression in an engine.)
Attempts at providing precise measurements can be challenging. The metric system has gone through various systems of getting a more precise measurement of a meter. Precisely engineered parts allow for mass production in manufacturing. As technology advances, precision can be increased. This can be beneficial for society, but also create greater challenges when precision fails. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Julian Comstock

More is not necesarily better. Julian Comstock was an expansion of a previously written short story. It seems to blather on a lot, with perhaps too much early 21st century moved directly extrapolated to the 22nd century. The world ran into difficulties with climate change and oil. The United States has merged with some of Canada and is now in a battle with the "Dutch" over some of remaining parts. People have retreated to a more fundamentalist lifestyle, with a "dominion" forcing a religious orthodoxy. The heroes bump against the grain. They experience some of the forbidden arts and literature. They even produce a musical about Charles Darwin. One of them, Julian Comstock even managed to become leader. However, his leadership is short live as he dies of the "pox". There are are also forced enlistments in the military as well as "beauty" vaccinations. (Vaccines are trendy, and people get them without a strong medical need or even safety.) In the end, the characters escape to France where they no longer have to live in controlling American state. The internal "author" has a degree of naivety about him. He is from a small town and is shocked to see a typewriter. He chases after a singer, and eventually hooks of with her - after helping to battle her brothers. There are some interesting bits, but just not enough to make it a compelling book.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Humankind: A Hopeful History

Humankind presents the "optimistic" view of humanity. We are not all greedy cutthroats out to get personal gain at everybody else's expense. Instead, we tend to work together to benefit mankind. The author appeared to initially side with the "greedy" hypothesis until he dug deeper into some of the big cases.

It turns out that many key psychological studies and anecdotes were filled with flaws. There was the story of the lady that was killed in the stairwell as the neighbors looked on and did nothing. This received significant press coverage. However, the press wanted their narrative and ignored the contradictory accounts. The neighbors did call the police. The police just thought it was a minor domestic violence incident and didn't come. A neighbor was even cradling her as she died. The press, however, didn't want to contradict the established narrative by talking to these people. The bystander effect tends to be positive rather than negative. There was another example given of many Dutch jumping into freezing water to save a woman and child they did not know. It required all working together to quickly save them.

The "Stanford Police study" was a famous study where some students were cops and others were prisoners. The prisoners were brutally attacked by the in-power police. Power begat cruelty. Or at least so it seems. In actually, the "police" were egged on and encouraged to be brutal to get the bold results desired. Similarly, there was another study that showed people willing to give a possibly fatal shock to an anonymous person when they missed a question. This was seen to show people were cruel. Digging deeper, it turns out that this "shock killers" were cajoled to give shocks "in the name of science". People thought they were doing something for the greater good. Others felt it was impossible that a study would let people die.

Interestingly the author does have bad words to say about empathy. That can make us make bad decisions. In one example, if people are know about a person on the waiting list for an organ transplant, they are more likely to move them up - even though that person is no more needy than the other. Empathy ends up distorting the natural altruistic behavior. Instead, it is more beneficial to feel compassion. We should try to understand how people feel in order to help them, but not try to feel as they do.

Trusting the "goodness" of men goes against the grain in our modern world. We have carrot and stick systems. The "carrots" of capitalism have seen to won out. However, these can distract from true motivation. Examples are given of schools that focus on letting kids learn what they want as well as companies that eschew management to let the employees do their work. (The Dutch "leader" of the company does anything but lead - and that is what makes the company so efficient. Management often justifies their existence by introducing complexity rather than producing.) If we trust the goodness of people and internal motivation, we can depend on them to do good work even without bribing them with bonuses and internal prestige. One type of study has reproduced this "Pygmalion" effect by arbitrarily dividing mice or people into "good" and "Bad" groups. Those running the study know the group of each participant, and because of this, the "good" are more likely to succeed than the "bad".

We can make a positive experience by contracting the "bad" with "good". Turning the other cheek actually works. Examples are given of the Norwegian prison system. It treats prisoners with respect and helps integrate them in society. The recidivism rate is much lower. There was also the example of a person that treated his wood-be mugger to dinner. They enjoyed the time, and he got his wallet back, and gave the mugger a meal and $20. Even when analyzing large scale protest movements, it was found that peaceful ones are more likely to succeed than violent ones (despite the likelihood of violent protests to gain more coverage.) Nelson Mandela succeeded in South Africa in part from his willingness to work with the other side and even speak their language. It is hard to fight against somebody that you know. (There were other examples of Columbia helping to combat FARC by encouraging them to return home to Mom and of World War I troops celebrating Christmas with the enemy - much to the chagrin of their leaders.) 

People want to be good. They often have to have "badness" forced upon them. Many troops fail to fire their weapons. Hand to hand combat is even more challenging. They need to dehumanize the enemy to fight. However, they may be fighting for a higher cause. If a group of troops has a strong bond together, they are likely to fight hard for each other. Similarly, the best way to get people to do evil things is to convince them that what they are doing is good. People want to do good and need to be "tricked" to do otherwise.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice

The Cult of Smart was written by an avowed Marxist, yet espouses many views that would be more commonly found in Libertarian circles. The author identifies the "blank slate" philosophy as one of the core problems with education. We assume that all students have the same ability and that a good education system can enable anyone to learn. Our fear of segregation and racism has caused us to disregard individual variation. This would be similar to saying that a good basketball coach could turn anyone into an NBA star. There may be cases where pure determination causes somebody to succeed. However, this determination is likely to also be a genetically-connected trait. People differ in their genetic abilities. Some can easily succeed at school. Some cannot. 

The author takes pains to say that he is talking about only "individual variation" rather than group variation. This is probably not enough to escape the calls of racism. However, it probably also is not enough to account for effect of purely genetic population differences. There are likely to be some differences in comparing population groups. However, there will be much greater variation among individual people than in a group as a whole. Education policy will often tend to focus on the differences in the environment of groups and individuals. However, even if we were able to purely equalize the environment, the individual genetics would still remain different.

The education system's treatment of everyone as equal conflicts with the system's desire to sort students out. Grades can be absolute or relative (on the curve). Colleges and selective schools attempt to achieve an ideal mix of students through selective admissions. If a school can mold a student, why not just randomly accept any student and allow them to succeed? We also have common curriculum. Some students will struggle with individual classes that may or may not be relevant to their ultimate education and career goals.

The author proposes a number of solutions. We should allow students to drop out at a younger age. If school is not for them, they should not be required to stay. We should also be flexible in the curriculum. It is better to have a student pass statistics than to fail algebra. We can provide universal free child care and health care to improve the environment for all. Guaranteed jobs or income are also viable solutions to help provide an equal setting. Eliminating the price tag for public colleges will allow them to be more accessible for those that want to study. We should focus college on those that need it. Otherwise, jobs that do not require advanced education should be readily available.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History's First Global Manhunt

Henry Every was a British pirate who inadvertently helped the British empire come to be. Enemy of all Mankind attempts to document his life and history and the unsuccessful worldwide manhunt for him. The actual facts are rather sparse (and wound up with a lot of fiction.) The book at times seems to try to spin elaborate detail over minute facts. However, it does provide an interesting narrative of the pirate.

Every may have been an accidental pirate. He, along with others, were enlisted to sail on a ship that was just not going anywhere. They had had enough of that, and decided to mutiny and claim the ship for themselves. They were kind enough to let those that wanted to leave and return back to land.

The voyage set out to various pirates dens, such as Madagascar. They later ended up near the red sea and then started to prey on Indian ships returning from the haj to Mecca. His ship teamed with a few others and got some nice spoils from a ship. The pirates democratically divided it up, with everyone receiving their share (with the Captain receiving two.) This single victory would give pirates the equivalent of a decades' wages. However, they still wanted more. 

They attacked an Indian ruler's ship. The pirates were at severe size disadvantage, however, they were extremely lucky. One of the cannons exploded on the big ship, killing many (and eliminating firepower.) Then the pirate ship hit a direct hit on one if the first shots. The leadership of the Indian ship freaked out, later arming some of the harem on board. This did not go well. The pirates ended up with great loot. There were also varying stories of what happened to the women. By some accounts, they were brutally raped, while by others they were taken as wives. The former is the most supported by facts.

In response to the attacks, the Indian leadership imprisoned the English India company officers. Since the pirates were English, they figured the India company must be also. In order to save face, the British led a global manhunt for the pirates. They also struck a deal where the British will provide protection for the Indians. This would help lead to British domination in India.

The manhunt did not succeed in finding Every. The pirates had a head start and had left the region. Many of the crew decided to leave, going abroad in places like Reunion, the Bahamas or North America. A few managed to sneak back to England. One pirate was caught with some of his plunder sewn into his jacket. A few pirates were tried for their crimes against the Indian ship. This was seen as a "show trial" to demonstrate how tough on pirates the British were. However, it backfired, with the jury finding the pirates not guilty. However, rather than set them free, they were later tried for the mutiny on the British ship. For this they were sentenced to hang. Seems like xenophobia was still strong in the day.

Every was never found. There were various rumors as to his whereabouts and future life. To the common man, he was often admired as a Robin Hood figure. To the elites, he was still a public enemy.