Should we be surprised?

James C. Scott might not like my schadenfreude relating to this (arguable) application of metis vs systemization, but……..

Germany has long been associated with systemization of a variety of social and technological processes. At least from the time of Kant and his philosophical peers, the guiding ethos of the nation in systemization, which was captured in the German neologism wissenschaft, and we have seen its application and effects from the Prussian education system to the industrial process of the Holocaust. A more modern outgrowth of the Prussian education system is the German system of education tracks, which in theory help place students on trajectories most in-line with their aptitude and interests. In contrast to the US/neoliberal model of promoting always and only a University Education(!), this system has increasingly been looked to by other countries in the last decade as a way to steer those more suited for or interested into vocational training and the skilled, specialized, non-academic workforce.

However, despite rising interest abroad in the system, a new headline suggests cracks in the system may be appearing in the originating country. Reuters reports:

More than a third of German companies could not fill all of their training places last year while almost one in ten received no applications for such roles, a survey by the DIHK Chambers of Commerce found.

Last year, the number of vacancies for training positions was at its highest for more than 20 years.

Germany’s twin-track vocational training system, which involves up to 3-1/2 years of on-the-job learning in firms alongside theory lessons at vocational school, is credited with giving Germany the European Union’s lowest youth jobless rate – 6.8 percent in 2017 against an EU average of 16.8 percent.

Widely admired abroad, the training system is being exported in various forms to Europe, Asia, Africa and the United States. But its popularity is waning at home as young people increasingly prefer the higher status of a university degree.

That could hurt growth in Europe’s largest economy by exacerbating a skilled labour shortage, which is partly caused by hundreds of thousands of ageing employees leaving the labour market every year.

“It’s a dangerous trend – Germany is running out of skilled workers,” said DIHK President Eric Schweitzer. “At first, orders lie around for longer, then firms have to reject them outright – to the point where entire sectors run into problems.”

At first blush it appears that the inflation of value of a university education is creating much of the problem. Something not mentioned here is the German fertility rate. Modern finance-driven capitalism tends to depend on growth. Yet the German population is on decline. This is why we’re told Germany (and the rest of the EU) needs immigrants. Immigration in Germany has boomed in the last decade. So where are the workers? A variety of reasons were offered:

Since 2013 the number of young people starting university degrees has been higher than the number starting as trainees, the education ministry said.


Companies and industry groups complain that schools focus too much on sending young people to university and should also stress the benefits of the dual system, which offers training for 327 occupations at more than 426,000 companies.


In southern Germany, for example, there were far more trainee places on offer than applicants but in Berlin the opposite was true and some sectors like administration and IT were oversubscribed.


many girls do not think of the traditionally male-dominated job when considering their options, Kley said. “If we could attract girls, we’d suddenly have 50 percent more potential applicants,” she said.

So highly skilled and likely native born Germans are seeking higher pay and status, and educators and administrators are complicit in driving this. Also maybe the patriarchy. But this doesn’t explain why immigration hasn’t solved the problem. We are frequently told that we need low skilled immigration in the US because “they do the jobs Americans won’t do.” Shouldn’t that be the solution in Germany?

But even firms that do find trainees are not always happy, telling the DIHK that many lack motivation or German and maths skills.

Aww.

Much ado

Back in March, The Baffler posted an excerpt from a now-recently published book entitled “Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer” © 2018 by Barbara Ehrenreich. Without even reading the book, the title hints at the absurdities lying within. “An Epidemic of Wellness?” This book can’t possibly be talking about the US. Alas, it is. The excerpt though focuses on none of the suggestions in the title, instead flitting from the writer’s experiences, to the public health reasons for promoting exercise, while jamming in the handwaving of individual effort along with the economic implications:

It was the existence of widespread health insurance that turned fitness into a moral imperative. Insurance involves risk sharing, with those in need of care being indirectly subsidized by those who are healthier, so that if you are sick, or overweight, or just guilty of insufficient attention to personal wellness, you are a drag on your company, if not your nation. As the famed physician and Rockefeller Foundation president John H. Knowles put it in 1977:

[The] cost of sloth, gluttony, alcoholic intemperance, reckless driving, sexual frenzy, and smoking is now a national, and not an individual, responsibility. . . . One man’s freedom [in health] is another man’s shackle in taxes and insurance premiums.

Or, in the words of former secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph Califano, “We have met the enemy and they are us.” Never mind that poverty, race, and occupation play a huge role in determining one’s health status, the doctrine of individual responsibility means that the less-than-fit person is a suitable source not only of revulsion but resentment. The objection raised over and over to any proposed expansion of health insurance was, in so many words: Why should I contribute to the care of those degenerates who choose to smoke and eat cheeseburgers?

Not merely “why should we”, but is it even feasible?

Of course none of this appears to concern the author, but(!) we are certainly informed that exercise somehow paradoxically ruined her health:

Then, in the last few years, I began to hit a wall. I developed temporarily disabling knee problems, which X-rays showed were attributable to overexertion rather than, as was to be expected at my age, arthritis. My lower back easily clenched into knots. I had to try to develop a less adversarial stance toward my body, or at least learn how to “listen” to it. The ideology of fitness, which had so far encouraged me to treat my body as a recalcitrant mass I was carrying around with me everywhere, showed a softer side, emphasizing the “wisdom of the body” and the need to develop some sort of détente with it. For a moment I even toyed with the idea of a yoga class, possibly including meditation, before deciding I’m not quite old enough for that.

Le eyeroll. Add this to another long list of books and other written fare that amount to little more than exercises in alternating self-congratulation, making excuses for personal behavior/choices, and promoting individually and/or societally damaging behavior on the basis of the authors’ emotions about the thing. Oh, and another in which even the title fails to be substantiated. Par for the course.

 

Journalism and “Journalism”

I guess it takes beating a dead horse to get me back on the writing horse.

Results were recently published in Nature, along with a lengthy FAQ, from a study conducted by more than 250 scientists to determine the genetic factors in educational attainment. This study has been ongoing for years, and the last time this group made headlines was in 2016. Here’s an excerpt from The Guardian:

While the work massively expands what researchers know about the role of DNA in reaching educational milestones, the 74 genetic factors explain only a minuscule amount of the difference in time people spend in education. Genetics accounts for at least 20% of the variation seen across the population, but family background, upbringing, and other social and environmental factors explain the rest.

“Taken together, the 74 genetic variants explain roughly half of 1% of the variation across individuals in educational attainment,” Benjamin told the Guardian. For the variant with the largest effect, the difference between inheriting zero and two copies – one from each parent – was on average nine extra weeks of schooling. That means many thousands, perhaps many millions, of genetic variants shape how long a person stays in education.

But that was 2016; what about 2018? Since the NYT has a pseudo-paywall, we will go to The Atlantic for the report:

after scanning the genomes of 1,100,000 people of European descent—one of the largest studies of this kind—they have a much bigger list of 1,271 education-associated genetic variants. The team—which includes Peter Visscher, David Cesarini, James Lee, Robbee Wedow, and Aysu Okbay—also identified hundreds of variants that are associated with math skills and performance on tests of mental abilities.The team hasn’t discovered “genes for education.” Instead, many of these variants affect genes that are active in the brains of fetuses and newborns. These genes influence the creation of neurons and other brain cells, the chemicals these cells secrete, the way they react to new information, and the way they connect with each other. This biology affects our psychology, which in turn affects how we move through the education system. 
This isn’t to say that staying in school is “in the genes.” Each genetic variant has a tiny effect on its own, and even together, they don’t control people’s fates. The team showed this by creating a “polygenic score”—a tool that accounts for variants across a person’s entire genome to predict how much formal education they’re likely to receive. It does a lousy job of predicting the outcome for any specific individual, but it can explain 11 percent of the population-wide variation in years of schooling.

Good introduction. Clear on difference population vs individual, and notes the more refined estimate of variance explained (11%). The Atlantic goes on to note that this is not trivial:

That’s terrible when compared with, say, weather forecasts, which can correctly predict about 95 percent of the variation in day-to-day temperatures. But when it comes to predicting education, it’s comparable to classic factors such as household income or how educated your parents are. “Within social science, that’s basically unheard of,” says Benjamin, who works at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. “We can explain education as well with saliva samples as with demographics.”

“Education needs to start taking these developments very seriously,” says Kathryn Asbury from the University of York, who studies education and genetics. “Any factor that can explain 11 percent of the variance in  children’s performance in school is very significant and needs to be carefully explored and understood.”

The article could end right there, and we have a good piece of journalism. But the author presses on, and the rest of the article is a very careful writeup of the results and implications, with serious commentary. Fine job Mr. Ed Yong. No averagely intelligent, reasonably educated person should come away from this with concerns. No one, apparently, but Harvard educated Olivia Goldhill of Quartz:

Parents and grandparents and teachers are proud of kids who do well in school. They shouldn’t be.

Earlier this week, an international team of scientists published a paper announcing that they had identified 1,271 genetic variants that are associated with how many years people spend in school. Their result follows on from several other academics’ papers and years of research identifying the genetic variants associated with educational achievements.

Oh. Is the probably-did-very-well-in-school Goldhill confused about the research and implications? It doesn’t appear so. She writes here in the next paragraph and in a similar article in 2017 that this does not mean what many fearmongers believe. So what’s the angle here?

amidst all the worrying over how genetics could influence the way we think about a person’s success in school lies a fundamental, unquestioned assumption: That such an intelligence-based meritocracy should exist in the first place. We are so invested in the idea that academic achievement is a de facto good that we fail to consider whether intelligence should be rewarded in the first place.

Do we have an intelligence based meritocracy? What kind of intelligence? Why is she even talking about intelligence? Is she saying that years spent in school equals intelligence?

If we didn’t associate intelligence with personal worth, there would be as little controversy as the genetics of education as there is over the genetics of height. And yet we use educational success as an indicator of personal value—despite the fact that many of the factors that determine our experiences in school are beyond our control.

Here Goldhill subtly equivocates educational success with intelligence. But educational success is not “years spent in school”, and certainly not “intelligence.” But what is this meritocracy?

An ideal world, surely, wouldn’t be one where the most intelligent do the best, regardless of their family’s wealth, but a world in which everyone’s talents are equally recognized and rewarded.

Are talents not recognized in this world? We have several genres of TV shows

celebrating diverse talents. What is she even going on about?

In 1958, sociologist Michael Young created the term “meritocracy” in a dystopian novel that warned of the horrors of categorizing humans by intelligence. Four decades on, in 2001, he wrote in The Guardian of his despair at how the word had been adapted with none of the negative connotations he intended. “With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven or before,” he wrote.

Those who buy into meritocratic ideals “actually believe they have morality on their side” added Young. As they’ve attributed their success to their own inherent worth, inequality has increased. Soaring wages for those at the top are, under the eyes of meritocrats, just rewards for their talents.

Of course pursuing knowledge is a valuable endeavor. But you can gain knowledge whether you’re studying for a final or working in kitchens, farms, concert halls, and railways. The notion that rewards should go to the most intelligent isn’t a sign of a fair society, but a truly unjust one.

Do grades categorize by intelligence? Are wages well correlated with degree attainment? Do we need grades for working on a farm? Can you not list work experience on a resume? Are work and education mutually exclusive? What does any of this have to do with genetic research which says little about individual “years in education” (which has little to do with any of the rest of what she wrote)? This whole piece is one disjointed, unsubstantiated, pseudo-moralizing rant. She claims:

I’m confident following arguments and discussions across a range of subjects.

Maybe following them, but apparently not making them, and we know a thing or two about confidence and ability. In support of the counter-argument that we have no meritocracy of intelligence, I would submit Olivia Goldhill as Exhibit A.

 

 

Not dead, just super busy

The funny thing about life and writing, from my experience, is that the better life goes, the less time you have for writing. This might explain why journalists suck and so many famous (and not famous) writers have struggled with mental health.

 

Anyways, not dead, not giving up, just very busy in the “real” world. I have an increasing backlog of posts I want to do but are putting in draft status so maybe I can eventually do them the justice they deserve.

Selling, signaling intentionality

Several days ago I wrote about the importance of living intentionally; the need for intentionality in thought and action. Responding to a piece by Tim Wu in the NYT, I cautioned against dispensing with convenience as a blanket reaction to a lack of meaning or thoughtfulness about life. I submitted that instead, technological conveniences are tools for specific ends, and to consider what your ends are, and engage the appropriate tools accordingly.

Technology is often a bogeyman or scapegoat when social critics need something to blame for perceived undesirable changes in both local and global changes in social behavior and health. Most recently our relatively overnight connection to smartphones and tablets and attendant applications (“apps”) has garnered much of the negative attention over recent years. Other criticism extends to potential deleterious effects on our mental abilities, as we offload various skills and memory requirements to our phones. In an interview with economist Tyler Cowen, economist Robin Hanson responds to this criticism with some optimistic skepticism, essentially appealing to opportunity cost:

The trend that I’m aware of is that when we have tools to help us do something, like remember phone numbers, we get worse at that thing because we offload the task onto the tool. Then, we get better at other things. We put more investment into other things. So plausibly, in whatever category we get better tools, we will simply reallocate our mental resources to other tasks that we don’t have tools for.

Hanson has recently written a book called Elephant in the Brain, which discusses findings regarding the human tendency towards signaling behaviors, particularly in richer societies, where we are in varying degrees freed from the need of long hours simply sustaining a bare existence. Signaling, roughly speaking, is behavior which has the purpose of providing information to others, above and beyond any other ends we may be pursuing through the behavior. From the book description:

Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains, therefore, are designed not just to hunt and gather, but also to help us get ahead socially, often via deception and self-deception. But while we may be self-interested schemers, we benefit by pretending otherwise. The less we know about our own ugly motives, the better – and thus we don’t like to talk or even think about the extent of our selfishness. This is “the elephant in the brain.” Such an introspective taboo makes it hard for us to think clearly about our nature and the explanations for our behavior.

Full disclosure, I have not yet read the book (but I do intend to). However, I am maybe temperamentally(?) oriented to be amenable to this understanding of human behavior. I’ve previously argued with various people against the general existence of altruism, and after reading this book, I may revisit these beliefs and their implications in a future blog post. However, at this current time I want to tie the concept of signaling back into what may turn into an ongoing discussion about living intentionally, especially as it relates to our relationship with technology.

Apoora Tadepalli writes for Real Life Magazine on the ironic online phenomenon surrounding the “analog” life organization tool of bullet journeling, noting that a significant part of bullet journaling, ostensibly an intentionally offline activity, is in practice heavily wrapped up in social media presence.

A bullet journal on Bulletjournal.com

Weekly

The bullet journal was devised and patented by a Ryder Carroll, who has capitalized on, as Tadepalli describes it “a general anxiety about unplugging from digital devices as a mode of self-care”, and has attempted to position bullet journaling as the pivotal activity in living intentionally.

At the end of this year, Carroll will be releasing a lifestyle guide on journaling and self-care aimed at “empowering you to think and live with intentionality.” (He has also given a TEDx talk on “How to Lead an Intentional Life.”) The book, he says in an Instagram caption, would be incomplete without a compilation of all the Bullet Journal success stories out there, so he requests that followers send in their own accounts of bullet journaling and how it changed their lives. Bullet journaling, like self-care and like self-presentation to audiences online in general, is all about intentionality: what you intend to do, how you intend to be seen, how to be (or at least seem to be) more thoughtful in how you direct focus. But are these intentions being engulfed by their aura, by the tales we want them to tell? “Bullet Journal is no longer just my story,” Carroll declares in his post, “it’s ours.”

I have no issue with bullet journaling itself. I see it as another technology or system, just like old Franklin Covey Planners or Google Calendar. If someone finds that it works for them in helping them set goals and see them through, then that’s a positive. Furthermore, I would argue that there’s an accountability aspect that can be accessed through social media, and we know that accountability increases goal attainment success. Those good things aside, at what point does the signaling aspect overtake the ends and activities being signaled? To what degree are people likely, mostly, signaling. Hanson?

In a rich society like ours, well over 90 percent.

Of course, one might want to discriminate between conscious and unconscious signaling, like economist Bryan Caplan does. What percentage would Hanson say are consciously signaling?

Bryan Caplan: When you give that over 90 percent–signaling share, how would that change if you defined signaling narrowly as conscious signaling, as I generally do?

So it only counts as signaling if you actually are doing something that you don’t want to do while, say, pretending that you do, or you are actually doing something where your true motivation is not the stated motivation. What would that do to your signaling share?

HANSON: It would probably drop to 30 percent or less.

An interesting conundrum arises with a population and activity that is heavily engaged purportedly in both intentionality and signaling. As Tadepalli describes it:

 it is hard to say what this kind of journaling habit would look like without this photography. It consists as much of consuming the online community’s images as it does of producing a personal to-do list. Bullet journaling thus raises a question that pertains more generally about how self-documentation for an audience affects the lives we are trying to document. Aesthetic concerns would seem to contribute little to conquering a to-do list, but in the context of social media, they convey a mood that serves a broader sense of accomplishment. Social media sharing foregrounds how in journaling, self-documentation and self-presentation can become inextricably blended.

Tadepalli takes the opportunity to turn her guns on the self-care industry at large, along with an idealogical sideswipe at capitalism:

But even as we use image-making and copying to escape the meanings and purposes imposed on us, the same processes leave us vulnerable to the imposition of new meanings. The self-help industry epitomizes capitalism’s ability to perform this double movement: It tells us to free ourselves even as it says there is something missing in our lives, and that spending money is the best way to fix them both.

The swipe at capitalism is ill-informed, but also bears acknowledging in relation to the larger point being made here. Capitalism has demonstrated itself to be an excellent form of economic organization (or disorganization, thought of in another way) for providing people what they want – and what people want (demonstrated by economic demand) may not be what they think they want or will say that they want. If we believe Hanson and the psychological literature, people frequently are not introspective about what is driving their behavior as well as distressed about their behavior and outcomes from said behavior. Subsequently, people may demand what appears helpful but is not helpful in actuality, in addition to consciously or unconsciously needing to be seen to demand these things. Enter bullet journaling +Instagram, etc. Hanson addresses this, although not directly:

People do things to appear like they’re trying to help, but because their audience hardly knows what actually helps, they don’t pay much attention to doing things that actually help. They just do something that looks like it would be a reaction to someone who felt like they wanted to help.

The more that people knew what actually helped or not, then the more that would pressure people who were trying to help to show that they have this feeling to do stuff that really helped, which would be great.

Signaling itself isn’t necessarily bad, in fact Hanson notes elsewhere in the interview it more or less is an is, and expecting the broad population to not engage in signaling, even unconsciously, is probably unrealistic in our current world. Ultimately, it seems to me, the problem with a phenomenon like bullet journaling is the same problem underlying social movements: Our built in desire for sociability and the inherent demand for signaling involved with socializing is at least potentially in opposition to living intentionally – and most people may not actually understand what it means to live intentionally anyway. Thinking and living intentionally, especially early on is hard, and isn’t amenable to Instagram or 140 280 characters. However, like with anything else, the more you engage with your life intentionally, the easier it gets. Hanson:

I think if you’re eager for these big innovative changes in how you look at things, I think there’s a peak, somewhere in the middle, perhaps. There’s two contrary effects.

One is that the more you know, the more you can learn. The more you know about many different fields, the more intersections you could make, the more easier it is to read each new textbook, the easier it is to understand each new thing they’re presenting. And so there is a scale and scope economy of knowing more over life.

People will often claim (maybe signaling!) they love innovation. Enter pictures of innovative things on Pinterest or Instagram. Again, not that there’s anything wrong with those things in themselves. It’s a matter of process. If you want to live intentionally, social media and spending your money should be somewhat if not far downstream in your process of life change, not the first step. Those selling an ability to signal, and especially those waiting to sell your signaling, will still be waiting when you finally need a bullet journal.

What is convenience? What is its place?

A pejorative assessment of our relationship with the recent era of technological advancement, the proliferation of conveniences, labels us with having a “microwave mentality”. That we have lost the skill of patience; that we cannot tolerate even something so simple as buffering in our favorite song. This affliction causes us to spend too muchfail at weight loss, and hurting relationships.

But is it simply the inability to wait? Long lines outside of an Apple store before the newest Iphone would beg to differ. Maybe it is not just impatience but a desire for ease. An actual microwave isn’t only fast, but microwaved food requires next to no preparation. Tim Wu writes in the NYT:

During the late 1990s, for example, technologies of music distribution like Napster made it possible to get music online at no cost, and lots of people availed themselves of the option. But though it remains easy to get music free, no one really does it anymore. Why? Because the introduction of the iTunes store in 2003 made buying music even more convenient than illegally downloading it. Convenient beat out free.

So is it this combination of easy and fast? Buying a song or an album from iTunes or Amazon or Google is now much easier and faster than Napster or Torrent sites ever were. But now, music sales are in rapid decline as streaming options like Spotify is taking over the music industry. What makes streaming services any easier than buying music? Streaming services admittedly provide access to a much larger library up front than one would get with purchases, and one also doesn’t have to worry about being left with albums that aren’t “hip” anymore. But none of this makes streaming “easier” or “faster”. Tim offers another example of supposed convenience winning out over even personal preferences:

Convenience seems to make our decisions for us, trumping what we like to imagine are our true preferences. (I prefer to brew my coffee, but Starbucks instant is so convenient I hardly ever do what I “prefer.”) Easy is better, easiest is best.

I’m not sure exactly how much easier or faster instant coffee is.  If I clocked the amount of time it takes for me to set my coffee machine to be prepared for the next day, it would probably be under 1 minute save for the pace of filtered water filling the pot. Setting a timer for following morning means I don’t even need to wait for when I actually want that first cup. Preparing a mug of hot water and the wait and stir for Starbucks instant would take approximately the same amount of time. So what’s the difference?

I would like to submit that, at least in part, what is really captured by appeals to convenience is the abdication of intentional living. The easy slippage into the unplanned path. It’s not that using a crockpot is harder than microwaving, it just requires thinking about the next meal hours before. It’s not that buying digital music is harder than streaming, but one must think about what music one really enjoys and would most like to listen to. It’s not that brewing coffee takes longer, but one must arrange for it in advance of when one wants to drink the coffee. In other words, one must live intentionally. Wu hits on this early in the piece but fails to make it the focus:

This kind of convenience is no longer about saving physical labor — many of us don’t do much of that anyway. It is about minimizing the mental resources, the mental exertion, required to choose among the options that express ourselves.

I’m not interested in providing a comprehensive definition for convenience, to do so is beyond my expertise. What I am interested in is analyzing cultural and sociological critiques (among other things). Wu suggests that convenience is stupifying and homogenizing, and proffers the idea of doing the slow and the difficult in rebellion, in part to reclaim our individuality.

Embracing inconvenience may sound odd, but we already do it without thinking of it as such. As if to mask the issue, we give other names to our inconvenient choices: We call them hobbies, avocations, callings, passions. These are the noninstrumental activities that help to define us. They reward us with character because they involve an encounter with meaningful resistance — with nature’s laws, with the limits of our own bodies — as in carving wood, melding raw ingredients, fixing a broken appliance, writing code, timing waves or facing the point when the runner’s legs and lungs begin to rebel against him.

Such activities take time, but they also give us time back. They expose us to the risk of frustration and failure, but they also can teach us something about the world and our place in it.

So let’s reflect on the tyranny of convenience, try more often to resist its stupefying power, and see what happens. We must never forget the joy of doing something slow and something difficult, the satisfaction of not doing what is easiest.

I would like to take issue with this characterization of cooking, thrift, exercise, and hobbies as “non-instrumental”, but that isn’t within the scope of this piece so I’ll let it go. Wu is also characterizing the “non-instrumental” as inherently inconvenient, and while I could also take issue with this, I would like to point out the implicit reason why, and it’s not the offered reasons of the risk of failure or frustration: When we engage in our passions, we do so intentionally. Third wave CBT engages this when treating many cases of depression, by helping clients identify their values, set value aligned goals, and then getting them engaged in activities that align with their values and goals. But this is not simply a rebellion against convenience; successful therapy isn’t predicated on getting people to start handwashing their clothes and mindful handwashing of dishes. Convenience can be used intentionally.

In short, bemoaning a tyranny of convenience is, I believe to misplace the blame. Convenience is provided by technological and societal evolution in so many tools, and not every tool is right for just any job. The solution to a life feeling empty is not to reduce useful convenience, but to be intentional about the conveniences used.