Science and Technology Read 2020

The Devil’s Doctor by Philip BallTerribly meandering book. Had very little to do with Paracelsus, mostly because the author realized that Paracelsus is an incomprehensible charlatan. However, The book offers a very pleasant overview of 16th century flavor. And has good references to more interesting vistas, namely De Re Mettalica.
De Re Metallica by Georg AgricolaA thorough and systematic treatment of metals from finding the ore, to setting up the company, to digging, refining, and crafting. I wish more books were like this! This is a true science and engineering text. Perhaps the first truly comprehensive one in history. The Hoovers were wise to translate this and promote its place in the history of science.
Every Tool’s A Hammer by Adam SavageInspirational anecdotes about creating things.
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua FoerJournalist adventures into the art of memorizing. This volume while filled with stories, had just enough information for the reader to figure out how to start crafting memory palaces, and begin their own adventures in memorization.
Speed Reading in a Week by Tina KonstantI wanted to investigate the speed reading literature because even a modest improvement in my reading speed could mean an extra book or two read per year.
Evelyn Wood Speed ReadingBut it turns out that speed reading only kind of exists as a learnable skill. Most of the techniques are actually just extensions of the methods for reading well found in How to Read a Book, which is a far better use of one’s time.
Nuclear 2.0: Why A Green Future Needs Nuclear Power, Mark LynasMark Lynas is environmental activist who advocates nuclear and GMO proponent. In the book he talks about the anti-nuclear myths held by a lot of green activists which are holding back the fight against climate change.
I didn’t know about these myths, but somehow I had come to believe some of them, especially the idea that nuclear waste is a BIG PROBLEM holding back scaling up nuclear power production. Turns out it’s not.

People are the under the impression that if a reactor goes bad or is hit by an earthquake it will explode killing hundreds of people and damaging the environment for centuries. But a Japanese Nuclear Plant close to the epicenter of the 2011 earthquake took no damage, and while Fukushima melted down, 1 person died and there was some environmental contamination.

But other sources of power contaminate the lungs of workers, spill in the oceans, and spread CO2 in the atmosphere (or as the other alternate fuels are – inefficient and are NIMBY’d to death). To the bigger political point though, nuclear energy summons great fears in the minds of people; the grassroot support isn’t there.
Wiring CompleteVery helpful guide in how to wire things around the house! Highly Recommended!

Philosophy and Economics Read 2020

De Anima Commentaries by Themistius, Avicenna, Therese Corey, Averroes. Reading De Anima and the history of commentaries upon is like watching the same movie as imagined by many different directors. This philosophical tradition is so thorough in its discussion of questions that anything short of this method feels inadequate.
Stubborn Attachments by Tyler Cowen. He’s not Aristotle, but he offers a fresh take on what it means to be a worldly philosopher, in other words, a philosopher interested in the good of the world. Although I still have no idea what the title of this book means, I can tell you that content concerns a eloquent apologia for making sustainable economic growth as moral concern, something we should care about. I would be sold but moral concerns and logical arguments only work on honest and virtuous people.
The Moral Foundation of Economic Behavior by David C. Rose considers the basic decalogue that must be secured in order for there to be economic behavior. Inspired by his rule-based vision of moral foundations, I wrote a little list of seven rules that match it with the principles of Catholic social teaching.
Painting and Reality by Etienne Gilson. You can’t recreate the Sistine Chapel without the Michelangelo’s dyes! Beautiful reflection on the unique aesthetic qualities of painting.
De Rhetorica by Aristotle plus a few commentaries by Adam Smith. How is that one mind can speak so well on so many topics? In this blockbuster Aristotle instructs the eager philosophical public on how to bend the mind and emotions towards truth through the power of language. Adam Smith offered a pleasant insight in his Belles Lettres lectures when he cautioned that when the audience is positively disposed be like Aristotle, when they are negatively disposed be Socratic in one’s speech.
Age of the Infovore by Tyler Cowen. This was pleasant dose of encouragement on how to survive in the age of information and noise and to be more accommodating to people who differ from me. The book is really a call for magnanimity. But most importantly it pointed me in the direction of Das Glasperlenspiel.
Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. The book on social capital, but do I even recommend it? It was solid, but soulless.
Big Business A Love Letter to an American Antihero by Tyler Cowen. While the author sees this book as a failed project, I came away with some important data and hard to rebut counterarguments to some common cultural assumptions about how business works. Some arguments I thought were quite weak or unappealing (I would prefer if businesses unrelated to culture did not become the arbiters of culture and orthodoxy…), but the chapters on CEO pay, inequality, and big tech made up for the small weaknesses. To me it was a huge success. Recommended.
Creative Destruction: Globalization and the World’s Cultures by Tyler Cowen. Look on the sunny side of globalized culture… there are Swedish musicians who specialize in Americana and Blues Rock, and Turkish musicians who make rap. But it cuts the other way too. I get to listen to Turkish folk music and Finnish pop and All of Bach! Demand for all genres is actually up, and musicians can access a global audience.
The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success by Ross Douthat. A rhapsody on American culture. I like Ross’ writing.
A Time to Build by Yuval Levin. A fairly light read, it is more of a sermon than a serious treatise. The thesis of the book is that institutions are supposed to form each of us into a particular type of person. They ought not be mere platforms for self-glorification and expression. The goal of an institution is to coordinate people around certain ideals and mission, not merely to apply intelligence and efficiency to solving problems, but to apply character and integrity in the fulfillment of obligations and responsibilities. (It’s some timely moralizing, I’d say!) Here is a nice quote from the book:
“Many Americans are not lucky enough to have the benefit of a flourishing family, or the opportunity for rewarding work, or an uplifting education, or a thriving community, or a humbling faith, let alone all of these at once. But some combination of these soul-forming institutions is within the reach of most, and the work of reinforcing them, sustaining the space for them, and putting them within the reach of as many of our fellow citizens as possible is among our highest and most pressing civic callings. All of these institutions now need us, and we can help by taking them seriously.”
Russian Conservatism by Paul Robinson. “There are more types of Russian Conservatism, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The Revolt of the Public

Ex-CIA digital media analyst, Martin Gurri, explored the politics of negation in 2014 and updated his thesis in 2018 in The Revolt of the Public.

The Revolt comes in pink.

The major thesis is that while the public becomes more highly networked and integrated with each other, elites have remained about as removed as they were pre-internet. This high visibility highlights their many failures, creates widespread distrust in their authority, and enables various revolts against the status quo in the form of (usually unreasonable) demands. The typical elite response is bewilderment and indignation. The savvy elite response is joining the public in blaming the leaders, the bureaucracy, or whatever malevolent force it is, and denouncing the system they are apart of.

Chesterton’s quip about love gains new meaning when the concept of neighbor becomes everyone we encounter on and because of the internet. “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people,” (Illustrated London News, July 16, 1910). This is why Christians are known for their calm and loving presence in the midst of Facebook flame wars…

The key, I believe, to getting the most out of this book, is to avoid thinking about the book in terms of our own favored political armies, and instead to focus on our personal self-adaptation. A noisier world is upon us. Living well within it is the challenge. The movements of today flash out like solar flares. Suddenly a mass of people can turn against an election, or a particular company, a particular minority, a city government, a court, a religion or a statue, a sector of the economy, or a nation. Indeed, anyone can be a besieger and anyone can be besieged by a suddenly formed public. And since criticism is cheap and available, we tend to engage in it too and judge ourselves vigilant and intelligent for seeing all the wrong.

Chesterton’s response is that “what embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism,” (“On Bright Old Things and Other Things,” Sidelights on New London and Newer New York). For if we fail to see our own failures, we will fail to forgive others their own. Martin Gurri’s response adds a little more detail than this. Building trust across a nation built on traditional brick-and-mortar hierarchies requires humility, integrity, and openness. He spells this out as the only way forward for systems to appear legitimate in a highly connected world.

I am concerned with how to build trust in an age of distrust. How to build well and offer a positive vision despite all noise, much of it vile. Martin Gurri’s book lays out a solid analysis of one level of the forces at work, but there are many others. Ideology, economy, laws and culture still matter. However all of these are influenced by the lightning fast information age.

Fortunately integrity in the internet age is about the same as integrity has always been, we just have to use the new tools to fulfill it. At the personal level: never lie, explain your reasons for what you’re doing/believing, be open about the good you wish to do, be open for input, strive for virtue, take responsibility for your actions. In your organizations, serve your clients and colleagues, take responsibility for their good, encourage them to also strive for virtue, be open for input, create goals (and be led by them!), and never lie.

Religious Works Read 2020

Populorum Progressio by Paul VI
Sollicitudo Rei Socialis by John Paul II
Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation by Joseph Ratzsinger
Witness to Hope by George Wiegel
Gaudium et Spes by Paul VI
Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil
Code of Canon Law 1983 Vatican, Pope John Paul II
Saint Louis Jacques LeGoff
Fratelli Tutti by Pope Francis
Pastoral Care by Pope Gregory the Great
Rule of St. Benedict by St. Benedict

Fiction Read 2020

Milton by William Blake. Wild bright eyed prophetic mythopoesis by the great seer of the Romantic era. Illustrations by the author are grand and delightful.
The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. With the first chapter featuring the persecution of a physicist during the Cultural Revolution in China, we have the set up of a solid novel. Coming from the perspective of an author whose country has come from killing scientists to enthroning them within a generation, optimism and belief in the possibility of progress pervades the story. This novel can stand alone without reading the next two books! Thus it’s not a huge commitment.
There Once Was A Mother who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back in by Ludmilla Petruvaskaya. From a Russian translation, comes three stories about the depressing psychology of desperate people. My wife and I read this in the hospital after childbirth. Our child has moved in, may he not move back in!
The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu. The megalopsychoi war against decadence.
Death’s End by Cixin Liu. What is progress? We begin with environmental degradation on earth and end with environmental degradation of the universe. “Make time for civilization, because civilization doesn’t make time.” A wonderful meditation on the relationship between progress and civilization. In our novel, the quest for unyielding progress can diminish civilization. But civilization without progress leads to decadence. Ultimately only self-gift can save us.
The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse. Inspiring philosophical novel blending music and philosophy into a rarefied community. Since I am a total sap for intellectual coming of age stories and this one is framed in the ironic mode of a well-researched biography, from the onset the philosophical musings of the book pulled me. The dialogue form did not survive Plato, instead it was elevated into the philosophical novel. Here is a philosophical novel without reservation. The book also features some wonderful poetry, translated from German, such as “After Dipping into the Summa Contra Gentiles.” This was the best novel I read this year.
The Man in the High Castle by Phil K. Dick. Unsettling escher-like look at the reality of history. Ultimately, however, I found the most interesting part of the book to be PKD’s notion of economics. He presents a world in which Nazi economics is doomed to inefficiency caused by centralization but stands superior to Japanese traditionalism. He also thinks New Deal economics would have worked well, or does he? That’s the question.
The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. Want to be punched in the gut by depressing and potent visions of a failing America? This is your book, though it’s ultimate message is hopeful. I enjoyed it, but really stopped feeling strong emotions after the first half of the book, when circumstances improved. I am undecided on whether I will continue to the next book, Parable of the Talents. Though, I do love a good parable.

The Child of Generations Responds to W. H. Auden’s “Under which Lyre”

‘Productivity Cult’ maligned
“A tumor on the consciousness of modern man defined
To drudgery to dredge away retail, data, ‘sembly lines.”

Proclaims my pastor poetaster
Hopped up on Hopkinisms, calling congregants to master
Shelley’s shoaly Naples verse: et al. Romantic disasters

In their cosmic solipsisms
Steering clear of beneficence, blessing with rarest chrisms
One gaudy bird. Lost in endless aphorisms.

I deserted Mercury?
I saw a city, heavenly yes, and amidst the endless artifice,
Sat the child of generations who told me this:

“Quicksilver cures our shaking knees, 
Of syphilis, but rots the teeth, like Eve’s hollow candies.
Banned in Plato is he, because Aristophanes.

“Although his wit is clever,
He can dodge Apollo, and is caught nigh-never,
He lives a bitter retreat in a container lost forever.

“Apollo, as Auden alleged in school,
Is rude, base, vulgar, a fraud through and through.
Teaches technai, forsakes Truth. Only mundanity for him will do.

“Smash these idols! This idle chatter
Odious dichotomy between form and matter
Obscuring the obvious with vain plather.”

Thus, “Produce!” I shout. “Propagate!
Ensoul matter, ye rites rational!” For in utility’s gallant gait
Truth is put to use of soul and matter transubstantiates.

The productivity cult is mine.
Raising up to consciousness of modern man the fine,
Raising all the goods of man toward the One sublime.

Wisdom from the West

How St. Benedict is a Model for Civilizational Catholicism

Reading the Rule of St. Benedict two aspects struck me as especially important for civilization. First, Benedict’s injunction to abbots to take council with all the members of the society whenever making a large decision. “Hear even what the youngest has to say” clearly indicates that the distribution of valuable input throughout the monastery is not uniform. Wisdom can come from the mouths of the youth, just as from the learned. Thus, the wise person will seek input from the community before making decisions.

As a teacher and administrator  it is so useful getting feedback from students about things that do and do not work, certainly learning at a graduation party that some aspect of one’s teaching does not work is far too late. We must be upfront about providing useful feedback and soliciting it too. Constant improvement is a part of the Christian journey to Holy Wisdom. Hence the examination of conscience, hence St. Benedict’s injunction to the abbot to always seek counsel even in small matters.

To promote wisdom at JPII, we have the house system. The house system provides students the opportunity to be leaders, to organize activities, promote virtue, and provide feedback. Any student with something to offer becomes a participant in the school culture as opposed to passive recipients of it.

Parents, as well, craft our school culture. Feedback and active participation from parents is the bedrock of a hybrid school. The privileged position of parents as first educators and facilitators 2 days each week means that they know things about their students that teachers and administration might not know. This goes both ways, and thus communication is not only necessary for our function but is the beginning of our wisdom.

The second bit of wisdom I gleaned this week from the Rule of St. Benedict was his emphasis upon the equality of the monks with regard to things of the world. Wealth, rank, and honor from the previous life count for nothing in the life of this community, only virtue distinguishes monks from each other. The fundamental Christian dignity shared by all monks alike is enforced by the Rule. This might seem a small thing, but the belief in equal dignity of people before the Rule is a fundamental principle of Western society, which now is based on equality before the law.

The Rule sets out to supply a model of monastic society that closely approximates the true city of God. It is a real constitution for a model Christian society. There is no doubt that Benedictine monasteries, and monasteries based on the same principles, spread throughout all of Europe and saved its civilization in the early Middle Ages. Would there be any “We hold these truths to be self-evident – that all men are created equal” without these monasteries enculturating this “self-evident” truth for millennia? Certainly, much more also had to happen, but nonetheless, it can honestly be proclaimed, that without St. Benedict’s constitution, we would not have had the necessary model for a community of equal citizens which gives modern law its moral force.

For us the lesson of St. Benedict could be that even a small community can one day be a cornerstone of civilization. “Let us build our school community on the same foundations, for civilization may depend on it!”

But would be too easy. There is a tension between the Rule of St. Benedict and what Benedictine Monasteries came to represent. Their purpose is the life of prayer and poverty, not civilization building. The fact that they became something more than a human attempt at the City of God and became so many centers serving the needs of man, the needs of literacy and manuscripts, of food and even at times defense, indicates a drift in the plan towards fulfilling the needs of the moment. The question of conformity then arises. Who is conforming to whom? In the 13th century Benedictine monasteries no longer had a role as the centers of learning, they were superseded by the great medieval universities. But nevertheless, Benedictine orders, and other religious orders, and the culture that sustains such things, continues to produce consequential scholars and scientists, technicians and inventors through to 2020. The culture of Catholic religious orders is astonishingly capable of maintaining that tension between holy purpose and worldly service over millennia.

In the novel The Glass Bead Game (Das Glasperlenspiel) Father Jacobus is a great Benedictine monk and statesman at the same time, serving both the functions of international diplomacy in a life dedicated to that higher purpose. Even when the Order serves the world, it receives its nourishment and direction from faith, and so it is merely looking for a practical way to apply a few centuries of acquired wisdom. The true lesson, I think, is about the relationship between high culture and the needs of civilization. Decoupled they both become dangerous to each other.

Arrested Development: Costs of Distance Learning on the Future

With schools around the country examining their options on how to educate despite the ongoing pandemic, it is critical to take a clear look at the potential impact of moving to distance learning. The effects of distance learning on the local community will be measured in decades not years. The returns on education are cumulative over the course of a person’s lifetime and impact far more than the individual alone. One might suspect that the sudden reorganization of our schooling infrastructure into distance learning will not yield the same level of quality as years previous. But what can current research tell us about this achievement gap between the students who will distance learn this year and the counterfactual brick-and-mortar schooling they would otherwise receive?

A 2011 paper by Raj Chetty suggests a good elementary teacher can increase a student’s lifetime earnings by up to 1% each year, because good teachers help students strengthen their social skills and character traits, in addition to teaching the material. Over the course of a career, that difference can spiral into hundreds of thousands of dollars of lifetime earnings, which in turn can be the difference between a community attracting investment or stagnating and backsliding.

Can these non-cognitive skills be passed on remotely? Can a teacher bring two students together to resolve conflict when there is extraordinarily little social interaction happening under her eye? Can a remote school provide good examples and a sense of belonging through civil rites? The answer seems obviously to be no. So, the value of good elementary teachers as leaders of civic virtue will be lost for distance learners this year, and 2020 will initiate the first catastrophic step backward in education in this country’s history.

Socialization effects are one thing, but what can we expect from academics? Unfortunately, the picture there inspires little hope. Graduation rates at virtual charter schools hover around 50% compared to the public-school average of 84%, according to a 2019 analysis from the National Education Policy Center. While the defenders of virtual charter schools say they are helping disadvantaged students, their detractors point out that virtual schools are enrolling a lower rate of low-income students than national brick-and-mortar schools. There is no reason to adjudicate this dispute now, but it is possible that students who enroll in virtual charters for some reason were having a hard time “making it” in a brick and mortar environment, regardless of their socioeconomic status, say because of behavioral issues or a teen pregnancy. Perhaps, but this defense still points to the importance of the social dynamics of school which coerce otherwise failed students to hand in those three missing assignments that will allow them to skirt by with a ‘D.’ Maybe the difference between these two hypothetical students is only social, not academic. But the academic and communal aspects of school are linked, and having the right social environment makes learning Algebra possible.

Consequently, we should expect distance learners to have achievement levels closer to virtual charter schools than to the public-school average. And hence the academic losses will be severe. The National Education Policy Center’s 2019 report on virtual schools cites a half-dozen statewide reports each revealing lower achievement on statewide tests for reading and especially mathematics. A similar deficit seems highly likely for 2020-2021, a year in which Spring quarter came to a screeching halt, summer offered few remedial educational programs, and Fall will return many students to distance learning without all the added benefits of three quarters of rapport and camaraderie within the classroom as happened last year. Digital truancy and absenteeism have already proven hard to stop and remedial help harder to provide.

If these deficiencies are not addressed before graduation, graduation rates will fall. According to Lochner and Moretti’s 2004 study the societal benefit of a 1% increase in male graduation rates is worth more than $2 billion. With graduation rates poised to go other direction, we may see devastating long-term effects on the local community. Opportunities for continued education and better jobs will shrivel up as the achievement gap among students becomes palpable. The second order effects will include poorer families, increased criminality, and a decrease in ability to adapt and contribute to our complex society.

However, this gloomy picture is not our fate. Online charters typically have high student-teacher ratios and low engagement. Since teachers are teaching their normal group of students, teacher-student ratios will not become worse. Schools still have many resources to bring to students’ neighborhoods. Remedial help might be offered in person. Perhaps, some social capital from years previous will carry over and mitigate the losses. And many of the students in these classes will know each other and will certainly be spending their afternoons playing together. Already many schools, like Macomb Illinois Public School, are bussing food to families twice a day. All these things could help, but parents will be stressed, supervision scarce, and the many cracks in our systems threaten to become fateful chasms.

There is still hope that schools will find ways to test and trace, that lockdowns will become dynamic and based on community spread of the virus, that a daily testing regime will surface allowing us to measure whether individuals are infectious, and that districts will support remedial help for those who quite literally need their hands held. For years, staunch public-school advocates have declared the irreplaceability of the traditional model, given its better educational outcomes than distance learning, especially for disadvantaged students, and teachers have been building their pedagogies on social-emotional learning which requires in-person interaction to be most effective. Now is a good time to try to maximize the public schools’ capacity to provide quality education, despite necessary restrictions.

At the same time, this unfortunate disruption opens new opportunities for us as a society to experiment and build better educational models (in the full sense of that word: ‘educational’) and to work with our local communities to make systems which suit them. In the future, we will see far more hybrid schools which blend brick-and-mortar instruction with at-home practice, microschools which gather students into small educational groups with a professional facilitator, homeschooling pods and co-ops as thousands of people have already joined Facebook groups with the intent to homeschool in the past few months. Both parents and educators will be iterating over these models, fashioning them from the ground up to rebuild civil society, improve academic accomplishment, and prepare the way for greater social flourishing. The wreckage in education might be severe, but resolute communities who find a way to educate anyway will become the new leaders in America.