Questions about the Early Jesuits

Tyler is reading *The Jesuits: A History*:

Here is one passage that for obvious reasons caught his eye:

The Jesuits invested the lion’s share of their bureaucratic efforts in personnel planning.  We have already encountered the Society’s obsession with the quality, education, and development of its members several times — this passion was translated into bureaucratic procedures to an astounding degree.  Every Jesuit’s mental, spiritual, intellectual, and physical capacity was routinely evaluated.  The Society devised elaborate procedures for conducting such examinations.  Even the wording of these assessments was prescribed.  A kind of grading system with standard content was devised that was then used to answer about a dozen questions from each member.  Every three years, local and provincial superiors were required to prepare interviews of the staff under their authority, whom they were required to assess in table form.  These catalogues have justly been celebrated as an outstanding example of the bureaucratization of the modern period.

The 17th and 18th century Jesuits seem like a miracle of human capital formation.

Last year I read three books on the Jesuits for quite similar reasons. My thought was how did such a small organization create a culture of excellence that pushed the bounds of science, sociology, and politics so well (or did it? Maybe Jesuit mythos and reality are quite separate?), and what mistakes caused it to be suppressed?

The bureaucratic excellence might be one such reason. I am almost disturbed by the level of obedience these men had to superiors. The intense cultivation of ability combined with the “state capacity” to aim member’s abilities towards all manner of problems. That combination does seem frightening to anyone without such organizational competence. Don’t compete with this superhuman foe, the king and lords of Spain thought, shoot for suppression.

How much internal dissension was there? How was it dealt with? What were the most politically unwise or impolitic moves the Jesuits made in the 18th century? Who were the Jesuits enemies and why? How can we compare Jesuit accomplishments to the secular accomplishments of the day? What was the Jesuit role in the wars between the enlightenment secularism and the Catholic Church? Which Jesuits engaged with John Locke or Montesquieu?

I am not satisfied with any of the answers I have found, though I now know a fair deal more about Jesuit education. I need more nuts and bolts of Jesuit organization in the 17th – 18th century. I lust for more details.

Jesuits: a Multibiography (1997)

St. Ignatius’ Idea of a Jesuit University (1957)

Jesuit Education in Light of Modern Educational Problems (1904)

Saint Louis as New Rome: the social science of building a catholic city.

[Transcript of a talk I gave at Communio, St. Louis Young Adults. Great crowd and conversation.]

Thank you for the introduction. Events like these are a public service to the community. Those who put them together do not get the rewards of their effects. So any value we get from each other’s company tonight, we have Adam at the bar, Garrison for the mic, and Father Rennier for the invite to thank. One weird way to summarize my talk would be as a call for a lot more creative conviviality.

I spend my time deliberately studying economics, writing philosophy and poetry, and practicing math. I see my role as being as informed as possible about the dismal science of institutions, education, policy, and urban growth as well as literature, arts, and science, so that I can use and share this information with others as a Proud Dilettante.

In addition to running JPII, teaching high school classes, and being a husband and dad, I dream of a St. Louis Renaissance. St. Louis has been called The Rome of the West, and it was once-upon-a-time a first-rate city. It is a good city today, and I love it. It could be even better.

Now a lot of these ideas I am testing out. And so what I offer is not a clear answer: do this and Saint Louis will become great, all problems will disappear, and you will feel happy and fulfilled and no longer have bad breath. I don’t have an answer like that. But I do have several useful tools for thinking about metropolitan life that I think will be most useful to you. And allow us to have a very good discussion afterwards.

To start let’s talk about the city. What is the modern city all about?

You want the simple answer? culture and dating markets. If you are not interested in either of those, then the city isn’t for you. If you win in the dating market and don’t care about culture you will likely leave the city, broadly conceived, when children start coming along.

And maybe that’s your plan. You come to Communio, you go to lots of other events, meet people, eventually a spouse, maybe find a better job, and then you leave for the deepest reaches of Lincoln County. There’s nothing wrong with that. But in this talk I am going to provide an alternative vision for Saint Louis that emphasizes the need for creating a thriving cultural zone across the metropolitan area.

So keeping in mind culture and dating markets, I will present three key ideas from social science, primarily economics, about how to make a culturally vibrant Catholic city.

Those three ideas are Culture First, Agglomeration Effects, and Signaling.

1.  Culture First

 Cities today are about people first and commerce second.

Many people think that cities exist for jobs by which they mean big employers, like Boeing, Barnes, and Mercy. This is a fundamental mistake: successful American cities are places where businesses get made or move to to take advantage of the high skilled people who are already there. Holding skills constant, businesses, especially factories, will move to places where the cost of land and labor is lowest. Most modern American businesses are not huge enterprises that require lots of workers, rather they are small firms that need a reliable supply of skilled workers, like skilled machinists, programmers, mapping experts, nurses, biotech researchers, office organizers, and interinstitution coordinators to name but a few in demand jobs in the Saint Louis area.

In the 19th century cities were built around transportation costs. Saint Louis is on the river, Detroit was on the lakes. But as transportation costs fell, and land and labor costs went up, the businesses left the cities, first moving to the suburbs, then leaving all together… this left cities quite vulnerable.

Ed Glaeser economist at Harvard has this to say in Triumph of the City: “Cities thrive when they have many small firms and skilled citizens. Detroit was once a buzzing beehive of small-scale interconnected inventors—Henry Ford was just one among many gifted entrepreneurs. But the extravagant success of Ford’s big idea destroyed that older, more innovative city. Detroit’s twentieth-century growth brought hundreds of thousands of less-well-educated workers to vast factories, which became fortresses apart from the city and the world. While industrial diversity, entrepreneurship, and education lead to innovation, the Detroit model led to urban decline. The age of the industrial city is over.”

Today, geography counts for very little. To quote Dune, “Place is only place.” People are everything. So the question becomes what induces people to gather in one place? I see it as culture, beauty, fun, weather, desirable social ties, and yes, dating opportunities. Or as Californian poet Robinson Jeffers says, “Music and religion, honor and mirth, // renew life’s lost enchantments.”

If you build these, you attract young, energetic, quirky, intelligent people, yourselves. Firms will follow in your wake. If I am right, then the causal arrow is from culture to economic growth, meaning that the core units that makes for a successful city are community and creativity: economic growth, career opportunities, and, most importantly, more cultural investment follow from them.

Cities are about people first and commerce second. This brings us to the second economic idea:

2.   Agglomeration effects. Agglomeration is a very ugly word; sounds like an ingredient in Jello, but it means the effect of having an increasing amount of something.

The idea of agglomeration effects in economics is that thirty people are not merely thirty times as productive as one person. They are often many more times as productive, because the thirty people learn from and are encouraged by one another. Take the example of prayer from Saint Louis de Montfort in The Secret of the Rosary: “Somebody who says his Rosary alone only gains the merit of one Rosary, but if he says it together with thirty other people, he gains the merit of thirty Rosaries. This is the law of public prayer.”

This idea that grace is greater in public gatherings is a distinctly Catholic one. But it is also found in economics in the guise of agglomeration effects.

Alfred Marshall’s 1890 Principles of Economics describes agglomeration in loving detail:

When a [community] has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same [mode of existence] get from near neighbourhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously. 

The idea is that creative communities beget a creative, community-minded atmosphere, and trying deliberately to improve ourselves and each other through acts of community will make a great and desirable city. I think we could be doing a lot on this front.

Community is the opposite of the atomization and excessive individualization, which plagues modern American society. Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone outlines how American civil institutions and groups of the sort we need have progressively declined since the 1950s. The cities that are doing well today are benefiting from agglomeration effects, and those that will do well in the future will do so because they have found ways to foster the sorts of communities that create these effects.

But it does not take an army to reverse trends or change trajectory. Nassim Taleb, the pugnacious philosopher of economic uncertainty offers this note in his book Skin in the Game: “The entire growth of society, whether economic or moral, comes from a small number of people… Society doesn’t evolve by consensus, voting, majority, committees, verbose meeting, academic conferences, and polling; only a few people suffice to disproportionately move the needle.”

Renaissance Florence had a population of only 50,000 people; it only took a couple of committed workshops to initiate something special.

These people, people who move the needle, will be part of a network stubbornly committed to sharing and building culture and solving problems that arise when trying build a more substantial, beautiful, and creative Saint Louis.

Agglomeration effects create exponential creativity, which brings us to idea three.

3.       Don’t “sell” people on your creative ideas, signal your ideals.

If you are at all like me, selling people on stuff can seem kind of banal, venal, or inauthentic. What could be worse than cold call telemarketing? Trying to convince people who do not want or need what you have to offer is a waste of your time and theirs.  However, everyone wants to be delighted and to find their niche, so the problem is how to connect people to those for whom they have an affinity but don’t know it yet?

The key is signaling and selection effects.

Signaling Theory for economists is all about sacramentals. Those outward signs that ought to positively correlate with inner dispositions. A yellow-banded poison dart frog is jet black with neon yellow stripes; it looks poisonous because it is poisonous. It is sending out nature’s amphibious “Leave me alone” signal. On the other hand, at Urban Chestnut the plain, wooden, distraction-free, mead-hall benches, practically sing out “come, sit down, and have a conversation with friends.”

Groucho Marx once said, “I don’t want to be part of any club that’d have a guy like me as a member.” Groucho’s acceptance into the club would signal low enough club quality that he himself wouldn’t want to join.  Whatever it is you are trying to build, whatever peers you are trying to attract, making sure you are sending out the signals which will attract your people is the first step to overcoming alienation and atomization, and the first step to leveraging the interconnected urban environment to attract the people who will like what you have to offer. So first comes the signal. We fire off the bat-signal into the night sky and see who shows up, having faith that those who arrive are the ones God wanted to show up. 

A selection effect means that the people who are attracted to you and your creative group are not random but rather people who are inclined to what you have to offer, people compatible with your mission who had been stumbling along the edge of your social network, seeking just such an environment before they saw your bat-signal.

There are many ways to signal. The choices of how we construct our physical environment signals community values. A park with filled with children playing games doesn’t exist without local children, a safe neighborhood, and people who devote resources to upkeep. The art in our house, the design of our streets, our choice of public music, and the tabs on our computer, signal our priorities and reveal of our preferences.

The best signals are not loud the way a commercial is, but they are discoverable. Like how a Decemberists album shirt says more about you than if you simply said you liked the Decemberists. Even a shirt can lead to people approaching you because the external signals an interior disposition.

Self-selection requires a discoverable signal.

Discoverability is a technical term in social science, but it is like the “light hidden under a bushel principle.” It is a measure of the possibility for others to discover what you have to offer. If one builds the signals alongside the community, one creates discoverability. By sending off the right signals people will know who we are and what we are about. When they search online or even see St. Louis in the media, the same signals of a rich inner core may start to bleed through.

And that’s idea number three. Good signaling allows for self-selection.

Once a subculture’s signal and substance properly rub together, lightning strikes the frozen mountain of creativity; a cascade of graceful snow begins to descend. Agglomeration effects create an accelerating avalanche, and thus the signal becomes even stronger, so that even from many miles away the sight and sound of this cascade resonates through the valleys.

And those are the first three ideas which I think we can take with us for envisioning St. Louis as New Rome: 1. Culture comes first, 2. Agglomeration effects create exponential productivity, and 3. Signals allow for self-selection. Perhaps, next time, we will discuss where gladiator fights fit in to this New Rome idea.

One last takeaway is that a vibrant, distinctively Catholic culture in Saint Louis requires intentional effort. And we’ll talk more about how to do it in Q&A, though, as you know, I’m working on the school and education front. Thank you very much.

January Reads

This year I want to record my reading in a way that matches how I read. So I am dividing books into three general categories Dip, Dive, Devour based on some combination of energy, insight, and follow through.

Absolutely Devoured:

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

No comment needed. It’s better written and faster paced than I expected, a classic for a reason. My contrary reading is that the Encyclopedia actually did save civilization, and though this is obvious throughout the novel, none of the characters know it.

Knowledge Spaces: Application in Education

This is the first step in getting much more serious in thinking about assessment and useful tools in education. Thanks to Jimmy Koppel for the pointer. I am going to test out Aleks with some students in a month or so.

Took a Dive into:

In the Service of the Republic: the Art and Science of Economic Policy by Vijay Kelkar. This book feels more like an outline of ideas than a book, but the ideas are important and serious. Public choice and the realization that incentives only increase in importance over time are crucial insights for government.

Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman. More nuanced than I was expecting and more balanced than his enemies give him credit for. No surprise there. He is not some laissez-faire zealot and acknowledges from the beginning the tenuous link between democracy and the free market.

Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture by Anthony Esolen. I actually share a lot of aesthetic values with Anthony. Yet despite the shared love of group singing, traditional church music, and kids running in the streets, I find this mode of cultural critique to be blind and useless. He has to paint with a broad brush to compensate for his ignorance of flourishing subcultures. In his view, the world is a monoculture of either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ culture. Furthermore, most of the book lacked any notion of the causal forces behind aesthetic and cultural change; my library copy dutifully supplied one with a neatly written anti-Jewish comment in the margins of the penultimate chapter. Not recommended except for the literary style, which is why Tanner Greer recommended it to me in the first place.

Keynes: a very brief introduction by Robert Skidelsky. I didn’t know Keynes was so lively and such a florid writer. Had I known this earlier, I would have started imitating him sooner. Like Antony above, his ability to write invective and turn a colorful phrase makes true writers green with envy and makes economists blush for shame.

Took a Dip in:

Aquinas – always dipping
Talmud – just keep dipping
Critique of Pure Reason by Kant – down this road lies madness?
Human Action by Ludwig Mises – intrigued

Book Dump 2021

I dived into a lot of books in 2021, more than ever. But finished only a few. Here are my favorite and most recommended books from the year, followed up by a fairly complete and ridiculously long list of books I spent a substantial amount time with.

My favorite and most recommended books of 2021.

Pity the Beautiful by Dana Gioia. Poetry, modern. Excellent.
The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. Fantasy, long. Worth it.
The Model Thinker by Scott E Page. Math and epistemology. Phenomenal.
An Aristotelian Realist Philosophy of Mathematics by James Franklin. Math and philosophy. Excellent.
Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century by Joel Kaye. Economics, medieval philosophy, history, and Latin. What could be better?
The Wars of the Roses by Gillingham. I checked out every book on The Wars of the Roses; this is one is clearly the best written, even if a little more out of date. When history is well written I fall in love again. Highly recommended.
The History of Chemistry by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Isabelle Stengers. This is the best history of chemistry in print, and there is no coincidence that it is a translation from French.
Talmud: from Classics of Western Spirituality Series. The Classics of Western Spirituality is hit or miss frequently, but I am enjoying the the selections from the Talmud here.

Below are all the books from 2021 by category.


  1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  2. The Napoleon of Nottinghill by G.K. Chesterton
  3. The Ship of Theseus by V. Straka
  4. Pity the Beautiful by Dana Gioia
  5. Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
  6. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson
  7. Cenodoxus by Jacob Bidermann
  8. The Golden Country by Shusako Endo
  9. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Philosophy and Social Science

  1. The Model Thinker by Scott E Page
  2. On Commerce, by David Hume
  3. The Use of Knowledge in Society, F. Hayek
  4. The Wealth of Nations Book I by Adam Smith
  5. Protagoras by Plato
  6. Charter schools and their Enemies by Thomas Sowell.
  7. Universal Economics by Armen Alchian (incomplete)
  8. An Aristotelian Realist Philosophy of Mathematics by James Franklin
  9. Saint Ignatius’ Idea of a Jesuit University by Ganss
  10. Economy and Nature in the 14th Century by Joel Kaye
  11. The Interests and the Passions: Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph by A. O. Hirschman
  12. Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman
  13. Open Borders: the Science and Ethics of Immigration by Bryan Caplan and Zach Wienersmith
  14. Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
  15. The Cult of Smart: How our Broken Education System Perpetuates Injustice by Frederick deBoeur
  16. The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money by Bryan Caplan
  17. Jesuit Education in Light of Modern Educational Problems by Shwikerath
  18. 10% Less Democracy, Why You Should Trust Elites a Little More and the Masses a Little Less By Garett Jones.


  1. Viking-age War Fleets: Ship-Building, Resource Management in Maritime Warfare in 11th century Denmark by Morten Raven
  2. Qumran in Context reassessing in the archaeological evidence by Yizhar Hirschfeld
  3. The Wars of the Roses by Gillingham
  4. Book Wars: the Digital Revolution in Publishing by John B. Thompson
  5. Battlegrounds by H. R. McMaster
  6. Keaton by Tom Dardis
  7. The Letters of Alcuin by Rolph Barrows 1909
  8. Kissinger: The Idealist by Niall Ferguson 


  1. The History of Chemistry by Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Isabelle Stengers
  2. Calculus for the Applied, Life, and Social Sciences
  3. Introduction to Chemistry by John D. Mays
  4. The Richness of Life the Selected Writings of Stephen J. Gould
  5. The Double Helix: a Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James D Watson.
  6. Biotechnology 101 by Brian Robert Shmaefsky
  7. Vectors and their Applications by Anthony Pettifrezzo
  8. The Molecular Biology of the Cell by various authors (sc. Not all)


  1. Jesuits: A Multibiography
  2. Decreation the End of all Things by Paul Griffiths
  3. The Life of Brother Jordan of Saxony by anonymous
  4. Super Boethius de Trinitate by Thomas Aquinas
  5. The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola
  6. A Rabbi Talks With Jesus by Jacob Neusner  (incomplete)
  7. Talmud Classics of Western Spirituality Series

Towards More Popsicle Catapults: Statistics as a Branch of Logic

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis and beyond.]

Dear Sebastian,

I really enjoyed our discussion. In particular I’ve been thinking a lot about what you called statistics by logic or perhaps verbal statistics. When we spoke I noted that I’ve been thinking a lot about how computation has expanded the pedagogical frontier by allowing “learning by doing” for math & stats via scripting. More specifically I think discretization is an incredibly promising path for teaching a much wider population of students the core concepts of statistical thinking (and calculus and derivation, with statistics as the “practical application”). I’m not the only one thinking this way, see eg. Think Bayes, and of course this is precipitated by realizing that a tremendous amount of real-world computation is done via discretization and simulation.

However our conversation push me to think more broadly, not just about what could be taught effectively if a student learns a little scripting, but also what a student can learn simply through language and imagery.

I’m really coming around to the idea that the core basic ideas of statistical reasoning can be taught through discrete and empirical concepts such as histograms and empirical cumulative density functions. Not just univariate statistics, but multivariate statistics, which are critical for thinking about “real world” statistical modeling. Much of statistical modeling is about capturing the joint and conditional distributions of data, and what I call “F(X), g(F(X)), and F(g(F(X)))” – that is, distributions, functions of distributions, and distributions of functions of distributions (much of inference is about how functions of distributions are themselves distributed).

The more I think about it, the more I think that the foundational concepts for practical real-world statistical reasoning can be effectively taught to students with even a fairly low level of mathematical background, say addition/subtraction and multiplication/division.

To be clear I have in mind laying conceptual foundations, not teaching students how to prove results. The key to thinking about the world in statistical terms is the think about the world as full of potential counterfactuals, realizing that any such counterfactuals are inherently noisy, and understanding that ‘random’ doesn’t mean ‘hopelessly unknowable’ – rather we can (and do!) know quite a lot about randomness. The world shifts into probabilities, and decision-making shifts into “how much probability is needed before a decision can be made?”

The goal of this “conceptual foundations” instruction would be to ‘start with the why’ – “you’re going to be learning probability at some point (perhaps integration and derivation as well) – why?” The math of probability can be dry, the goal of this conceptual foundation would be to provide the motivation / inspiration to learn these.

I have in mind that ‘conceptual foundations’ could be something like a sequence, perhaps following the “F, g(F), F(g(F))” path – first basic distributional qualities (what a RV is, shapes of distributions, and percentiles, and concepts such as mean, median, variance, correlation + multivariate distributions), then functions of distributions (revisit mean, var, cov – ‘think back and notice – these are all functions!’, methods for capturing joint and conditional distributions {OLS, ML methods}), and then distributions of functions of distributions (all via resampling – revisit mean, var, cov, OLS, ML – “look, these are random themselves! what should we do about that? Well, go back to the beginning…”). Also, this naturally introduces the idea of counterfactual reasoning, though that could be introduced earlier and point to here.)

I really do think that a lot of these things can be taught at a conceptual level with discrete distributions and pictures. Depending on the amount of time available, I think some of these things can be directly illustrated by exercises – for example, by playing games or having contests (even ‘against nature’). I think practical interesting projects where groups of students determine eg. which random process has greater mean than another could be run (eg. build little Popsicle-stick catapults, then measure repeatedly what their ranges are, then determine if their ranges can be told apart statistically – then have a game where you use the little catapults; nothing focuses the mind like a little competition! … or even simpler variations on this theme, see the Appendix below for even simpler ideas)

There are other practical experiences that could be incorporated – ‘eyeballing’ data and seeing if something looks strange; making forecasts, both informally (eg. as part of expected-value reasoning in real life) and formally (and assessing forecast errors for example). There are a number of things that can be illustrated visually, and broken down into discrete steps, such that it is accessible much earlier than usual.

Many of these ideas are taught at the college or graduate level (or beyond) – I think these key concepts can be taught at the elementary level.

To be clear, the goal is to teach the reasoning from elementary concepts, to give students a vision of what is possible, give them a ‘why’ for all the perhaps drier math and stats that they will learn in more detail in later courses. I personally find it much easier to learn a hard thing when I know why I’m learning it, when I’ve had some of the inspiration of seeing the power of a tool put to use – I’ve been able to plough through much more difficult material when I know why I’m doing it.

Beyond that however, I’ve found statistical and counterfactual reasoning to be incredibly powerful tools in making my own life decisions and learning about what is happening in the world. Statistics and data are increasingly the languages of knowledge, and this will only increase as we move towards the future. We also need leaders who can think in statistical terms, and the earlier we can teach the concepts the better.

Finally, I think these foundations can be extended – to return to my earlier idea that scripting can greatly extend ones learning ability, if what I have described above is “foundational statistical concepts”, a follow-up sequence could be something like “foundational statistical computation”, which uses textbooks such as Think Bayes, Cosma Shalizi’s Advanced Data Analysis from an Elementary Point of View, and Efron and Hastie’s Computer Age Statistical Inference to implement many of the concepts explored in the “foundational concepts” sequence (and may only require spreadsheets as a minimum). But that is conversation for another time…

Best, Nate

Appendix A – Some Ideas for Basic Concepts

I wanted to jot down some ideas about teaching basic concepts quickly.

I really do think that statistics can be “taught backwards” in a sense – start from higher-level concepts and and big pictures and trace out the major ideas first via illustration. For example I think that the concept of a distribution can be illustrated quite naturally with histograms (discrete distributions), and this can almost immediately be used to illustrate variance and correlations (for example a 2-D distribution of eg. age and height). Or even start simpler with extremely simple games played with dice before progressing to real-life data. Dice alone could illustrate a the ideas of randomness (one die), histograms (2 dice), mean, variance, covariance, and broad shapes of distributions (skew vs non-skewed). Those concepts could be taught first with things like dice and framed as a binary choices, “compare playing a game with a die that is normal, 1,2,3,4,5,6, vs an opponent who gets to use 2,3,4,5,6,7. Which would you choose?” Varying the mean could be made very explicit and varying the variance could be made very explicit, eg. comparing a game played with 1,2,3,4,5,6 vs 1,1,1,1,1,6 (lower variance not always better) vs 1,1,1,1,1,16 (“if all you care about was the average, which dice would you choose to play a game, or indifferent?” “If you liked a game with higher variance which would you choose?” …etc). Single and multiple dice would provide natural ways to talk about shapes of distributions (PMF of 2 regular dice is a symmetric distributions, vs eg. 1 regular die and a 1,1,1,1,1,6 die would produce a skewed distribution).

Depending on the ages of people taught and the time set aside for learning, students could actually play common games, but beforehand choose which of the dice or combination of dice they’d like to use – get a visceral experience of a “same mean but high variance” die vs a “regular” die, or skewed distributions vs symmetric distributions.

This could lead naturally to discussions about more real-world distributions – eg. population data, with marginal and joint distributions of height, weight, age for example. I’ve already been using histograms and demographic examples to causally teach basics of mean, variance, correlation, etc to friends and family, and it works quite well.

On more sophisticated modeling of joint distributions:

At the end of the day a lot of statistical modeling is about capturing joint and conditional distributions of data. When statistics was invented the profession had to use incredibly clever analytical tricks to do this; thus OLS regression is the BLUE of the conditional mean of a joint distribution. But with modern computation we can capture many of these things directly. Part of the success of machine learning has been through exploiting various ways computation can directly capture these joint distributions, and the construction of these estimators are often simpler to learn than the analytics and assumptions needed for understanding OLS. (For example K-nearest neighbors directly captures the idea of the conditional mean by simply taking a local average, rather than working through the tooling of OLS. Of course this requires big data and big computation, but we’re getting more an more of those every day.)

Again, I’m not the only one thinking this way – Cosma Shalizi’s Advanced Data Analysis from an Elementary Point of View points this out explicitly in the first chapter, and Efron and Hastie’s Computer Age Statistical Inference can be seen as the simulation-driven version of this idea for inference.

These kinds of “looks to the future” are important for illustrating an idea to an aspiring student – the “concepts” course wouldn’t endeavor to teach these things, but rather when the questions arises, “wait can we take the average in a way that incorporates many things at once?” – one can answer, ’yes, that’s what regression does, and that is what ML concepts do …quick illustration… and you’ll learn about that in a lot more detail in the future if you’re interested! Good question!”

But again, I think the main ideas of nearly all of commonly used statistics and inference can be taught with addition/subtraction and multiplication/division. The only other concept I’d add is “resampling” which is also I think very straightforward to describe.

Finally, one critical skill is being able to formulate an idea as implying prediction that can be measured, put down probabilities, and then measuring the outcome and checking your ‘forecast error’ – a major role of forecasting is imply framing your ideas in a way you can measure and learn from, an important skill to learn at any stage.

Ignore Ambition, Just do Good

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis and beyond.]

Dear CeltAtom,

You are curious about how to solve two problems. 1) What types of careers people should be encouraged towards and 2) How “ambitious” one’s career goals should be?

In the interest of first offering a more wholesome approach to the discussion, I think a discussion about “ambition” should come first. There is a perception around here that I am a super “ambitious” person. And from a certain perspective that is fair to say, but that is not how I frame the experience of my activities to myself. We could argue about Christian humility versus ambition, but I think this is a category mistake. We have talents, skills, insights that, having been freely given to us, ought to be freely and fearlessly used. If we begin by saying, how can I best use my current abilities and build my current strengths, then we have the right intention. When we are alert to opportunities to use these strengths, it is not ambition. It is looking for ways to conform ourselves to the Animating Spirit. Providence opens doors to us, and we have to choose whether to walk through them.

My friend Joe passed through St. Louis from Philadelphia last month. He was moving to Phoenix. And he told me the story of how he came into this job. He went down to a Benedictine Monastery in New Mexico for a week to pray and discern and seek peace after the current job he took turned out to be a disaster. He thought he was great at organizing and would be able to run this department despite the management issues. Instead, his boss gaslighted him, refused to delegate, and couldn’t be negotiated with. At the monastery, he and a monk repaired some broken down vehicles, the monk told him he should go to Phoenix and look for a job there. After his monastic stay, he drove a couple hours to Phoenix and applied for a few jobs, found a perfect fit for what he needed to develop himself more, and took it. It wasn’t a question of ambition, but of teachableness i,e, docility, the humility to drink the water offered.

I asked him the same question. Does he worry about ambition getting in the way of discernment? He said absolutely not. “Preparing oneself to do greater things is not pride; it’s preparation. God orders your path. If you try to force things to happen on your own, it is disaster.”

So, when I think about career and intellectual life. I think about moving along my current trajectory and making sure I grow the skills I can, so that I can put them to good use. By “good use,” I don’t mean career use either. Some things I do out an impulse of delight or exploration or familial duty, and those things are good use too.

One the one hand, “Be not anxious for your life, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink…” On the other hand, “There were ten virgins, five foolish, five wise…”. So be prepared to do what you are called to do, and you are called to do the great good you can see yourself doing. Does it help to be caught up in the question of whether some activity is “elite” or “ambitious” or not? These are socialized ways of thinking which are cover for the twin vices of vainglory or sloth.

If we try to do a great good thing and fail, we have still done right and should be willing to try again. If we are successful, it is not us that were successful, but rather things outside our control came together.

I find it intriguing that you both liked the advice in the two 80k articles but were repulsed by the conclusions they drew for what careers are appropriate. “This is a recruiting front for the California rationalists.” It seems to me that you agree with the principles of the two articles but find the general 80k implementation biased. You characterize this bias as being towards 1) expanding civilizational capacity and 2) elite concerns, as opposed to maintaining society and caring about local issues.

I think you are right that there are some important biases to notice here. Ryan Miller at University of Geneva recently wrote an article called “80,000 Hours for the Common Good: A Thomistic Appraisal of Effective Altruism.” In that article he cautioned that EA while it wants to be open to non-utilitarian ethical systems is also committed to a state-of-affairs analysis of ethics. But one can’t have both at the same time, he argues. And thus a Thomistic version of Effective Altruism will have divergent priorities from 80k. While I think that is basically true, I think the difference can be overstated, and what matters to me is the practical version of the question. In other words, what does a Thomistic Effective Altruism look like? Because as of right now, it’s only EA that’s systematically taking data and consequences seriously when thinking about career advice.

If we largely agree with the principles laid out in those articles, then we should still implement them.

But what are the practical implications for what careers people should be encouraged towards? You want to divide careers into two camps maintainer-careers and extender-careers. Let me offer a different framework, one that is more dynamic.

Skills get plugged into roles. Roles get plugged into industries. A person can move into the same role at a different industry, or a different role in the same industry. You do this throughout your career looking for the best good you can do. This process both maintains and extends civilization, and even if we get a few more people willing to switch jobs and think in this way, then will have a society where more people are flourishing. Different industries provide different value as do different roles, but it’s up to individuals to try and figure out where the value is and where their talents lie.

But, of course, people need guidance and culture to help inform them about what is valuable. The BLS tells you that words ending in “engineering” are valuable to society in the sense that they are well financially remunerated. However, the truth about most jobs that pay well is that everything is management. Technical skills get you hired, managerial skills get you promoted (or allow you to start something new). By intentionally trying to do good with one’s career, one is taking responsibility for his own life. Ben Franklin’s Junto or Leather Apron Club fulfilled this purpose in his Philadelphia. I think education (broadly conceived) must prepare people for freedom – and that means responsibility.

As a side note: this is also how an ideal polity works, people need to be able to both direct affairs and be directed for a democratic republic to function. Essential to freedom is responsibility.

There are more ideas to explore in this space. I’m out of steam for today.

Looking forward to more,

A Liberal Arts Approach to Economics

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis and beyond.]

Dear Nate,

Our conversation the other night provoked me to want to explain more how I teach economics. I have done two things this semester which make my economics class different from the run-of-the-mill class (not that the run-of-the-mill economics class is bad; even normie econ is pretty grand!).

Having a different approach, means more than having a different philosophy while following the old motions. It means truly different tactics. My overarching goal in teaching economics is not to teach students about financial flows, but to teach students about human choice. In this way, my outlook is broader, more humanistic, and less focused on the mathematics and more on the decision algorithms from which the mathematics is abstracted and given meaning. The math is important, but I care first and foremost about introducing the economic patterns which motivate the invention of mathematical insights.

Our standard curriculum consists of economics by McConnell, Brue, and Flynn and Marginal Revolution University videos and questions. But since we have academic freedom, we are not forcing ourselves in a speed run cram semester-long cram session to complete the entire AP curriculum. Instead, we have taken two high consequence detours. Likely a few more will follow.

The first is in expected value theory. What’s the value of this? Firstly, to think about just the simple application of algebra to normal life choices and situations. Secondly, to see that one can incorporate risk into one’s thinking about choices, and thirdly to pass on a surprisingly simple yet powerful and important mode for thinking through decisions. We calculated how many people you would want on a road trip to Juneau for cost sharing to be worth it, how to calculate the expected value of a military strike, and what the expected value of different driving habits are.

In morality, such a method is useful too. When deploying the principal of double-effect in moral decision-making after all the major hurdles have been crossed the governing issue of moral action remains prudence, to take proportional measures to achieve our goals in the face of uncertainty.  Expected value along with marginal thinking and causal diagrams (discussion for another day), I think should become standard equipment in the category of prudential thinking, which means I am also happily committed to a theory of virtue which requires using tools like these.

The second difference is the way I allow international trade to alter the course. From international trade we quickly run into issues of globalization and automation. MRU has a little curriculum on the topic called Globalization, Robots, and You, an essentially depressing look at how difficult it is to compete in a globalized and automated world. I noticed as the students worked through the ideas, they both made insights and at the same time felt somewhat powerless. As much as I like the lessons, they leave something to be desired: an idea of what civilization is for and how to offer a unique contribution. On uniqueness, we talked about the combinatorics. If there are 500 skills and you possess three without being the best at any one, you can still quite easily become the best person who has that set of three skills. (500*499*498).

I then offered the students another way of thinking: two articles from 80,000 Hours on high-impact careers and career stages. And then we close with a self-assessment “flower exercise” from What Color is Your Parachute which I think forces the students to engage with their own individual preferences in the context of trying to both do good (vis-à-vis culture) and do well (vis-à-vis civilization).

Then as we dive into discussions on labor economics, the students engage the questions from a place of curiosity and personal interest.

What I’ve outlined in brief is my liberal arts approach to economics education so far: an emphasis on passing on those habits of thought and intellectual tools which make for personally free and moral characters. Some people shy away from discussion of the moral import of education. I embrace it. Intelligence must meet action, and voluntary action must be directed towards good ends.

Avoiding Value Taxes

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis and beyond.]

Hi Gytis,

I haven’t forgotten you at all and remember our conversations fondly. At one point we discussed the role of role models in crafting our desires and whether different games prime us for different intellectual interests or whether it is the other way around.

Yes, I remember reading that essay by Paul Graham, but I also notice that Graham perhaps underestimates how many different cultures coexist within any city. I would say that the cultures he identifies within Cambridge, Silicon Valley, and New York are the most discoverable cultures, but the other cultures exist too (maybe in an embryonic stage) even if you don’t know how to find them. 

Nonetheless, I strongly agree with your characterization of living in a world that doesn’t quite get it. “Not subscribing to the culture of your region means having to reassert and re-explain your values and ideas to everyone you meet. It’s like a tax that you perpetually pay and that most just can’t afford.” Your strategy for rising above the wasteland through long-form conversation and small groups is exactly what I think one needs to escape the taxation.

I personally do this in three ways: through friends whom I can talk to at length either via phone or email or in person, through a small group whose purpose is to report on personal projects and act as accountability partners and healthy critics keeping each other on track, and through building up the context I want to see in the world through friendships and by educating in Saint Louis.

One thing the DC trip cemented for me was that this strategy will work especially well. The answer for me is evidently ‘No.’ Saint Louis affords me plenty of opportunity to build things and meet the right types of people, while at the same time I can have a house $800/month and can afford a family. If I need to go to NYC or DC, a $200 flight gets me there quickly to talk with the people I need to talk to. I have our online network of friends, builders, and intellectuals as further support for new ideas. And furthermore, there is a lot more opportunity to make a difference in a city which is not past its peak but is rather awaiting a renaissance.

Context, community, friendship – these are actions, not possessions. One either performs the actions related to them or not. Patiently build the working community with those you can and great things will happen.

Happy to discuss more!

Inspiration from Alcuin

We live at the crossroads: a time of great pains and anxiety, a time of great hope and possibility. It is a time of international tension and international commerce, a time of technological tyrannies and informational delights. It is a time of national distrust, imperial loneliness, and meaning crises; and it is a time of artistic creation, community formation, and personal renewal. In short, it is a great time, like all times are, to invest ourselves in firming the bulwark, countervailing the ills, and extending the capabilities of civilization and rejuvenating the heart of culture.

In 793, the Vikings first made landfall in Northumbria, Britain. It was the first of 250 years of Viking raids. In that same year, Baghdad became the chief financial center of the world, connecting the Arabic speaking world to China, using paper promissory notes. While the civilized worlds of Baghdad and China connected themselves to each other, the small glimmers of high literacy in Ireland, Britain, and Italy were threatened by a black dawn of incessant raids in both the Mediterranean and northern seas. The legacy of the Roman Empire was scattered about in error-ridden, half-readable, near-rotting texts. A ‘big’ library boasted 100 books. The copying practices were so bad that the next generation of books would be nearly useless.

In France, one warlord, Charlemagne, was creating a vast Frankish empire out of military might, but although his political accomplishment was short-lived, he left behind an important cultural legacy: the preservation of knowledge and an end to the heedless destruction and abandonment of texts which characterized the previous 400 years (Mulhall). There is no text that we know was around in 793 in Western Europe, that cannot still be read today. Literate civilization did not backslide any further. To what can we attribute this ancient accomplishment, this new foothold on solid ground from which European civilization would one day leap? It was the monk of York, Alcuin. Alcuin, and the monks of Charlemagne’s court, who reformed the clergy, refined texts, created textbooks, and both taught and inspired a new generation, a generation who in turn taught another generation, passing on the skills of administration, counsel, and moral formation to the next cohort, until a more civilized world could be born.

 This process is not over. This process has only just begun, and it is ours to treasure. In Alcuin’s day a most important task was preserving and transmitting information so that individuals and society would not lose sight of their purpose and potential. In today’s world, another most important task is to sort, structure, manage, and marshal information, so that individuals and society will not lose sight of their purpose and potential. But our task is deeper than that. It is not a matter of mere ‘information’ storage and retrieval mechanisms. It is a matter of maintaining a sacred contract to see to it that the next generations do not fall into tyranny, viciousness, destruction, and obliteration and that they equip themselves with those values, skills, and relationships that identify and promote what is good and make life a wonderful adventure. This sacred interpersonal contract, written in the stones of what we choose to build, determines the future.

Letter on Culture and Context

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis and beyond.]

Dear Nilay,

You asked about “Context is that which is scarce.”

In our last conversation you expressed mild shock when I said that none of my students and almost none of their parents know what a private equity market is. So, consider this example: I want to explain to a high school student what an equity market is. The student’s parents and family neither run businesses nor engage in any active investing, nor do their parents’ friends. From the student’s perspective there are jobs which pay money and there are places to which one goes to spend that money, and that little model, for them, is the economy. Notions like a funding round, shares, ownership, ROI, and public versus private markets are foreign concepts. But more importantly, even if they are explained, they are quickly forgotten because the concepts do not map onto the student’s experience of reality. To bring a student from ignorance to starting see how this works would require knowing one or several people whose picture of reality is formed by this other context. Such a personal network would then be adjacent to their own, and they could quickly add any new information I provided to their map of reality.

If I want to convince a student that starting their own business is something to seriously consider, their soul must grasp how this could work, but the soul can only with difficulty grasp what the senses haven’t experienced.

Consider another example found in “communities of practice.” What is the best way to become good at creating software back-end architecture? Reading a book? Certainly not, for a book cannot span all eventualities and quirks. For the most part, it seems, the best way to become good at something is to work on a problem and find people who have run into the same issues as you and talk with them or read their chats. Then, when you engage in conversation, they understand the context, or the context is shared enough that they grok the problem you describe.

A community engaged in similar practices encounters similar problems, but one cannot understand the problems or their possible solutions if one lacks the context to understand the problem in the first place.

When I dip into a work of philosophy, I can become gripped and absorbed into the text when the author is exploring a series of questions that I myself have contemplated. My “philosophical literacy” helps me see the point quickly about why a particular argument or line of inquiry matters. When I know what matters I am able to gain understanding. One needs cultural literacy to grasp the significance of any fact.

The point here is that knowledge is not a set of statements outside the mind but understanding within our intelligence about what matters and why.

We live in the information age, but it’s context that is scarce.

Here’s a trivial example. Let’s say I have had a fever for a few days, I text you, “I feel like Raskolnikov.” The information contained in that statement can only be unlocked if one has the cultural passkey, knowledge of Crime and Punishment. The most difficult part of this idea that the scarcity of context is so ubiquitous that we hardly notice the phenomenon, except by example or the experience of total confusion.

If I had to explain to my mom what I have been thinking about recently, it would take many hours of discussion before we were on the same page. The implication is that it is very hard to induct people into one’s own thought and problems unless they already share significant amounts of context with you. Nonetheless, my mother and I share other things, and so can connect on those.

There is a tragic loneliness in the scarcity of context. If I have something great to offer others, but they can’t understand it, then I will languish in obscurity. Sometimes I think about the people, the websites, the communities that I would love, that I know exist out there, but that I cannot find. I could wait for someone to link me there. But the human person is not a passive receptacle of experience, but rather a creator of context, a crafter of relationships and worlds. And so whenever we interact and build something together, we are creating context.

I hope some of that makes sense.

Yours sincerely,