How to Read a Book for Understanding: in a World which Publishes as Though Every Book is Purely Entertainment

Or “What Andy Matuschak missed in Why Books Don’t Work is the lost knowledge of how to read a book.”

Song by Alexis
  1. The Multiple Uses of the Book Medium
  2. Informative Titles
  3. The 20 Minute Speed Read
  4. Climbing the Ladder of Understanding
  5. On Tables of Contents Including Many Asides About the Abusive Tables we are now Nearly Always Subjected to
  6. The First Full Read and Types of Notetaking
  7. How the Uses of Books Should Inform the Writing of Books

The Multiple Uses of the Book Medium

Books have been on the defensive since the first batch of Kindles sold out in 2007. Since then audiobooks and podcasts have exploded in popularity, and the internet not only provides millions of archived and public domain books ripe for download, but also creates opportunities for literary experiments and experiences which could not have happened otherwise. Text adventures, web serials, blogs on every subject under the sun – costs couldn’t be lower and opportunities to write have never been cheaper. Nonetheless the old codex format of pages between two covers still has much to recommend it. Traditional books are not obsolete, but I do believe we have forgotten how to approach books in particular amidst the information proliferation. And since we have forgotten how to approach books, publishers have stopped publishing books that are approachable. In the past dozen years, codex technology has not only failed to advance, but the knowledge of how to read and write a book has backslid.

One of the interesting things about physical books is their versatility. The form of a book lends itself to many different readings and interactions. For example, sometimes I read a book to quote mine or find an author’s opinion on a certain topic, other times to introduce myself to a new field, other times to read deeper in a field I’m already familiar with. Each of these goals means I will interact with the book in a different way. I can skim, flip through, read forward linearly, or even backwards – from a conclusion back towards the premises. I can single out tables and diagrams and read those, or jump right to the bibliography for a list of more works to read, or flip to the end-notes to discover a citation for some dubious claim. The Table of Contents should offer an outline of the book in miniature and a short study of the contents, should prime me for the meat of the work coming later. And, of course, the thickness of the sections provides quick intuitive information about how much I am missing when I skip around. The physical interaction encourages active reading and the static pages of the book allow the user to choose a reading style which fits best with his/her purpose. Today, in fact, I even read an index to get a handle on what the core vocabulary I need to master is. If I get lost in a sea of terms, I can refer to the index again to help guide me to the light. Okay that’s a big laundry list of things, but I will revisit and explain more fully in a moment.

Now admittedly, a digital book is better for quote mining and is equivalent to a physical book in a variety of ways, and superior to it in a variety of others. One disadvantage of the digital book, is how much harder to remember where in a work a particular argument was laid out or curious diagram printed. But the lightweight portable nature of the digital might offset those costs. If you would never engage with the work or have it on hand when needed otherwise, more power to the medium! There are trade-offs both ways, and I am not trying to convince anyone that physical books are better in every circumstance. Instead I am trying to recover a sense of what the medium of the physical book has to offer in a world of other options so that readers (and even writers) can decide what medium aligns best with their goals.

The principal problem, as I see it, is not the internet or audiobooks or the unwashed masses not appreciating the aesthetics of books, but the problem is how to read a book for understanding in a world which publishes as though every book is for entertainment. It may not be obvious that I am indicating any real problem, but I think I can demonstrate the issue with a simple test and some comparisons. Pick up a book that will challenge you, that you want to learn something from, the type of book you would read to develop a deeper understanding. Tell me what can you learn about a given book in 20 minutes? And how would that book be formatted if it were designed to maximize the knowledge gained in 20 minutes of interaction?

Informative Titles

The title should be informative enough to let you know the subject matter. Honestly, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life may not be the greatest title, but at least it tells you that this work concerns psychology or neurology and “something no one is thinking or speaking about” with practical applications for life – not bad for just a simple title. It would be a shame if it were misleading.

The 20 Minute Speed Read

The Table of Contents should then outline the structure of the argument of the book. Mortimer Adler provides an excellent synopsis of the table of contents in his highly recommended How to Read a Book:

Study the Table of Contents to obtain a general sense of the book’s structure; use it as you would a road map before taking a trip. It is astonishing how many people never even look at a book’s table of contents unless they wish to look something up in it. In fact, many authors spend a considerable amount of time in creating the table of contents, and it is sad to think their efforts are often wasted.

It used to be a common practice especially in expository works, but sometimes even in novels and poems, to write very full tables of contents, with the chapters or parts broken down into many subtitles indicative of the topics covered… Such summaries are no longer common although sometimes you do come across an analytical table of contents. One reason for the decline of the practice may be that people are less likely to read the table of contents than they once were. Also, publishers have come to feel that a less revealing table of contents is more seductive than a completely frank an open one. Readers, they feel, will be attracted to books with more or less mysterious chapter titles—they will want to read the book to find out what the chapters are about. Even so, a table of contents can be valuable, and you should read it carefully before going on to the rest of the book.

How to read a book

I have been following Adler’s advice faithfully for years, and it has helped me learn more and retain more from my reading, as well as help me quickly go back and benefit more fully from having my memory jogged.

Perhaps at this point we are at minute 2 – 4 of our 20 minute tour of the book-to-be-understood. Now we read the preface, where the subject, general scope, and purpose are laid out. Read this quickly or even skim it if it is especially long. I find reading the first and last sentences of paragraphs to be a fast way to find the paragraphs which are crucial to me.

We are at minute 12-15 now. Flip through the book and sample some paragraphs or even a few consecutive pages to get a flavor the work, its density, its style, the challenges, and sensibility you will have to develop to appreciate it.

In the last few minutes, go for the total spoiler and read the final pages. Adler recommends that if there is an Epilogue, go to the pages right before the Epilogue. Usually an author cannot stop himself from summarizing what he believes to be the big takeaways at the end of the work. In any case, it is good to see where you are going to end up at the end so that the unity of the work can become clearer.

With that we come to the end of our 20 minutes and we should know a lot about our book. We should now know clearly the topic, the scope, and the basic skeleton of the work (think “head, shoulders, knees and toes” not “clavicle, acromion, coracoid”), the flavor of the text, and where the author wishes to take us. To some people, this might be a foreign and unromantic way to read, but it is rather a very involved and dedicated way to read. Yes, it is superficial. That’s sort of the point. To achieve this superficial overview required effort and attention, not merely glazed eyes scrolling over the pages. And the ultimate goal is an intimate knowledge of the book. Sometimes, even this superficial reading of a book, disabuses the reader of the notion that the book in question is worthy of deep reading. Perhaps the book contains only one core insight and several hundred poorly told anecdotes (On Grand Strategy likely qualifies). Sometimes a superficial reading reveals a superficial book.

Climbing the Ladder of Understanding

I remember in high school, we read at least one Shakespeare play a year. I wanted to like them, because I liked being challenged and I like language. My teacher recommended I read a summary of every play before reading it. So I purchased Shakespeare A to Z and read the summary of every Shakespeare play before I read the text. Then before each scene I would reread that scene’s overview from Shakespeare A to Z. I noticed my comprehension went up when reading the actual text, and Shakespeare became more and more enjoyable, until one day I could comprehend large swathes of unseen Elizabethan writing without need of a summary. This is an example of climbing a ladder of challenge toward understanding.

On Tables of Contents Including Many Asides About the Abusive Tables we are now Nearly Always Subjected to

One impediment to developing a deeper understanding and keeping clear memories of a work are the abysmal tables of contents produced today. Like Adler, I have noticed a seriously sad state in TOCs (Tables of Contents).

For example, the TOC for Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction goes as such*:*

When I compare Tetlock’s TOC to my copy of Aristotle’s Politics… call me a clock — I am ticked about this TOC. Tetlock’s TOC is not useless, but it is a far cry from Adler’s ideal of a useful road map. In Tetlock’s defense, I’m sure this was an editorial decision—all popular science books are written this way now. Furthermore, while there were subheadings to each of Superforecasting’s chapters, they were not included in the TOC. I imagine this was not Tetlock’s fault. I don’t know, but my guess is that clean, minimal TOCs of exactly one page are publishers’ choice right now.

With this Table of Contents, I can tell you Chapter 1 is about Tetlock’s position. Chapter 2 is about uncertainty… no, wait, it’s about experts and his previous book Expert Political Judgement. Chapter 3 is how a scoring system works. You get the idea, but the problem with this, is that each of these chapters actually contains far more than I can quickly recall from seeing the chapter title. The subsections of each chapter would help immensely.

Benjamin Jowett’s TOC for Aristotle’s Politics stretches an immense eleven pages. Here’s the table of contents of just a part of Book 5. (For those who don’t know, in most editions of ancient works ‘Book’ is used in a way we might use Chapter, and chapters are just a few pages.)


Chapters 5—12. Revolutions in particular States, and how revolutions may be avoided.

5. (a) In Democracies revolutions may arise from a persecution of the rich; or when a demagogue becomes a general, or when politicians compete for the favor of the mob.

6. (b) In Oligarchies the people may rebel against oppression; ambitious oligarchs may conspire, or appeal to the people, or set up a tyrant. Oligarchies are seldom destroyed except by the feuds of their own members; unless they employ a mercenary captain who may become a tyrant.

7. (c) In Aristocracies and Polities the injustice of the ruling class may lead to revolution, but less often in Polities. Aristocracies may also be ruined by an underprivileged class, or an ambitious man of talent. Aristocracies tend to become Oligarchies. Also they are liable to gradual dissolution; which is true of Polities as well.

8. The best precautions against sedition are these: to avoid illegality and frauds upon the unprivileged; to maintain good feeling between rulers and ruled; to watch destructive agencies; to alter property qualifications from time to time; to let no individual or class become too powerful; not to let magistracies to be a source of gain; to beware of class-oppression.

Okay. Now this might be a bit excessive, but it is both useful before reading the work, and as a reference while in the weeds to see where the current section is going. A quick bird’s eye review of the table of contents gives the reader a context for understanding, for example, Aristotle describes Hiero of Syracuse use of secret police in Chapter 11. The TOC for 5.11 tells us that “Tyranny may rely on the traditional expedients of demoralizing and dividing its subjects” and here Hiero is an example one such tyrant, who kept his adversaries from coordinating by keeping them in fear. Astute readers easily see then how this example fits into the larger work of Book V, and even the larger vision of Politics.

Besides terse chapter titles with no subheaders, another problem one runs across in TOCs are totally coy titles. As one friend told me, “Often, even after I’ve read a modern nonfiction book, I can’t recall what a given chapter is about from the table of contents because they all have titles like ‘The Mouse and the Octopus’ or ‘How to Play Cribbage in a Boiler Room’.” I didn’t ask, but I think he had Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder in mind:

I appreciate that Antifragile has all of its subheadings included in the TOC. Some of them are quite useful, and I remember some of the sections therein quite well. Why do I remember some of these sections quite well, but not others? I suspect that the common cause, besides the punchiness of the writing which sometimes sticks, is their descriptive quality. Some of these subheadings, however, I just have no idea about. What was “France is Messier Than You Think” about? I vaguely recall the phrase “protesting as a national sport”. (In fact, I only remember the protesting as national sport thing, because I went to look up the book or article he was referencing and couldn’t access it.) Despite a less than perfect score on the table of contents, Taleb has the redeeming quality of plainly stating the thesis of his book at the beginning and again at the end in two different formats–verbal and mathematical. That he does this clearly improves an otherwise droll book sevenfold. A clear thesis provides a framework to his soup of spiteful words, amusing descriptions, and insightful lessons.

Douglas Hofstadter, known for his tyrannical control over each aspect in the production of his books, provides a very pleasant six page Overview immediately after the two page Table of Contents in Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. For those who have read it they will know, GEB is not really a book with a thesis, it’s an experimental work. The Overview, I think, makes that clear.

Take my word for it, though, most authors are not Douglas Hofstadter and will not try to maximize the information available to the reader for the purpose of the learning journey. So what can we do given the state of TOCs? Because most publishers prefer mystique, and the general public is willing to endure nearly useless Tables of Contents, one has an opportunity to engage with the book deeply and create your own Table of Contents at the beginning of the book on the blank page and in all that white space publisher left for you. Maybe something like this for Chapter 3 of Superforecasting:

3. Keeping Score

Ballmer’s Forecast on the iPhone – imprecise predictions can’t be assessed

a. “A Holocaust…Will Occur”

Predictions about Chernenko’s successor – hindsight bias rife among experts

b. Judging Judgments

Imprecise phrases like “very likely” and “serious possibility” – Sherman Kent’s Solution to numericize language – it was never adopted – The wrong-side-of-maybe fallacy – what calibration means — overconfidence and underconfidence – Brier Scores

c. Meaning of The Math

Brier Score Meaning depends on the Difficulty of Predictions

d. Expert Political Judgement

EPJ Program to assess expert predictions 5- 10 years out

e. And The Results…

Ideologues did worse – hedgehog and fox distinction – prototypical hedgehog Larry Kudlow and his recession denial – Foxes are more boring than hedgehogs

f. Dragonfly Eye

Sir Francis Galton and The Wisdom of Crowds – why crowds work – foxes simulate a crowd – Richard Thaler’s Guess the Number Game – using different perspectives yields more accurate guesses – Seeing poker through the perspective of the opponent – the dichotomy is a simplification, a mere model

Obviously, you can’t make a new table of contents off of the 20 minute fling we discussed earlier. You need to have read the work at least once. But if you do choose to make your own Table of Contents after you have read the book, then you are probably well on your way to a deep understanding of its material. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. We should talk about the first full reading of a work.

The First Full Read and Types of Notetaking

Through your first reading of a difficult text it makes sense to keep a brisk pace. Your goal should be to read all the parts you can understand *at your current level of knowledge.* Even though the work may be in your native language officially, if it is the type of work which is challenging you, then you need to read it as though it is a foreign language. Look for the key repeated terms and don’t worry if you do not understand something. Don’t slow down to work out the math section which is above your level, or to look up that arcane word which has something to do with naval batteries; read everything that is in the 75% comprehensible range and above. Slow down a bit when you have to, but avoid getting bogged down. This first reading, though still superficial, should provoke you to ask all the questions you need answered to make total sense of the text next time around. At this point you can go back and build your personal table of contents and then either embark on a closer, analytical reading to make sense of the work, or do whatever it is you need to do with the text.

Perhaps the most common way for a reader to take control of a text is through note-taking. The theory of note-taking, however, is a swamp of preferences and methods. Ideally each person uses a method which fits their context. What type of notes a reader takes should depend upon the reader’s expertise in the field AND on their purpose. This is why interactive learning platforms are so hard to create. Learners have disparate purposes and come in to a topic with different holes in their knowledge and understanding. For these same reasons, it is nonsense to say that there is a right or wrong way of taking notes in the abstract. Furthermore, some scream sacrilege about writing in books, others feel it is essential to making the book their own possession. Some prefer typing for its speed, others love baroque note-taking systems, like the Cornell method. Despite the diversity of methods and the idiosyncrasies of users, it is worth surveying five purposes of note taking and methods for going about it, so that readers can choose the method which suits their purpose best.

  1. Structural notes outline the sequence of topics covered by the work. This can be done in the margin or in a notebook. One can make a “key word outline” or key phrases. Seeing the structure should facilitate understanding the purpose of the arguments and descriptions.
  2. Substantial notes summarize the key arguments, descriptions, and examples in order. For this, one would want to identify important sentences or sections. Rewrite them, highlight them, or indicate them with a vertical line in the margin. The examples, descriptions, and specific arguments put flesh on the airy concepts and add meat to the otherwise bony structure.
  3. Conceptual notes paraphrase several takeaway ideas from the work in your own words. These are probably not written in the work itself but in a separate document.
  4. Critical notes include your emotional and intellectual responses to the key sections, core arguments, and general ideas of the work. This really should be done last. Of course, our temptation as intelligent readers is to prejudge based on what we already know. Understanding the author on his own terms is an essential goal. I have no fleshed out strategy for balancing the competing need to be both a discerning reader and a lenient judge (at least at first). More ideas welcome.
  5. Dialectical notes cross-reference passages from the work with similar or contradictory passages from other works you have read and even can cross reference previous ideas from the book in question. These notes are crucial when overviewing a broad topic and seeking to understand the shape of a wider conversation and not merely one author’s voice in it.

Note taking, I think, for most people is an annoying exercise. It requires much attention and effort and crucially takes longer than reading. Paradoxically, patience with note-taking takes time to develop, especially because it takes a long time to bear fruit. A decent rule of thumb is that the more invested a person is in mastery, the more time will be spent note-taking. While the conscientious may go overboard for fear of missing something, most need only assess to what extent they are reading for enjoyment, and then what type of notes to take becomes clear.

Marking enjoyable sentences, difficult passages, crucial arguments, and genuine insights is something one can do even when reading mostly for pleasure. Fun notes offer a sense of completion and something to show for your time.

How the Uses of Books Should Inform the Writing of Books

Books lend themselves well to use by people of all levels of expertise, from professionals to novices to dilettantes. A professional who is clued in to the larger conversation can mine through a book quickly and discover the interesting and unique insights, a novice can read slowly and digest each element of the work making notes and outlines and summaries, the dilettante can sample and read superficially, reading for pleasure sometimes and at others for a deep understanding. No group is slowed down by interspersed flashcards or interactive elements, which may be useful for some, but for others superfluous. As a medium, standard books offer significant optionality to readers, a freedom to choose when to slow down, speed up, when to stop to take notes, when to skip a section. These decisions can be be made quickly, easily, and sometimes even subconsciously. While audiobooks whisk listeners onwards for hours, books progress only at the rate of your processing. Studies on eye movement reveal the advantage of a medium which does not assume the manner in which a reader will engage with the information. Assuming we are not vetting readers for expertise, book design should offer accessibility to both professional and novice readers though they read differently. Experts navigate across the page differently and chunk information more efficiently. Despite these differences, a difficult book still should offer a gateway into a subject for the novice (learnability) and seamless navigation for the expert (discoverability).

I have formulated a few ideas explaining what publishers already do and what they should do to improve the medium further. Some of these ideas transfer to long form online articles as well, and if I put together a website this year I am now on the hook to practice what I preach, otherwise you have permission to harangue me with strongly worded emails.

Authorship 101 says that a book needs a definite and discoverable structure. We’ve already talked about this with tables of contents. However, it is important to remember as well, that reading even a detailed skeleton of a work is not the work itself. If a work is all skeleton, then there will be too much room for abstract misinterpretation or the evaporation of the ideas into meaningless platitudes; there needs to be some meat, specific arguments and examples and anecdotes. However, the ratio needs to be right. Too much meat and we rightly call it fat.

Books require cues which remind readers of their location within the conceptual territory of the work. The chapter titles and or section titles restated at the top of the page, page numbers in the bottom, or even paragraph numbers at the beginning of paragraphs (which make citing nonfiction way more convenient across platforms. This is one of the pleasant things about ancient classical works for example, Republic 514a always refers to the allegory of the cave paragraph in Plato.) these all serve to contextualize the page. Footnotes give the reader assurances while reading, and can help readers generate further inquiries quickly. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies lacks footnotes and has such lackluster citations in the endnotes that I found myself growing more and more suspicious of the narratives as I read.

The Landmark History Series does everything in its power to make old historical works accessible to novice readers of classical history as well as experts. Here is the explanation of the method from the series editor, consider this whole block as though it were bold and italicized. It’s that worthy of emphasis:

Text features in Landmark editions are designed to assist the reader including side notes which are found on the outside page margin at the beginning of the chapters into which the ancient text was divided long ago by Alexandrian scholars. Normally, the first two lines of the side note display the book and chapter number and the date (if known or applicable). The third line shows the location of where the action takes place (or in some cases, a topical title). Finally, there is a summary description of the contents of the chapter. Each chapter contains section numbers in square brackets, such as [2] to mark the divisions into which scholars have traditionally divided the text for ease of search, analysis, and discussion. Running heads are placed on the top of each page of the book which at a glance provide date and place and a brief summary of the action of the first complete chapter on the page. Footnotes not only refer place-names in the text to nearby maps, as mentioned above, but they may serve to connect certain points in the text to other relevant sections, or to the work of other ancient writers and poets. They also cite particular paragraphs in the Introduction or in one or more of the appendices where the reader will find discussion of the topics or events footnoted. On occasion, they provide background information that does not appear in any of the appendices. They may also point out and briefly describe some of the major scholarly controversies over interpretation, translation, or corruption of the text. A few explanatory footnotes are quite long and detailed, but they contain important information which could not be further condensed. Footnotes and map data are repeated throughout the work to assist those who will read only selections from it, or whose reading of the text is discontinuous.

The result of this editorial care is a historical series which is deeply informative. Twenty minutes with any book in this series always lends itself to progress in understanding. And this should be our goal when putting together written works – to make our medium serve as many readers as possible.

Other innovations can and should be developed, especially for presenting long essays online. Gwern’s long essays are probably the best I have seen formatting wise. Wikipedia is acceptable. The New Yorker’s website does a poor job providing a sense of place to the reader. Audiobooks are necessarily abysmal (frequently Audible does not even include the subsections or chapter titles in their navigation pane). But when it comes to the physical book the Landmark Series is the best I know.

Realist history in one beautiful volume

A beautiful volume inviting the reader to master it.

Shaw on Physical Hardihood and Spiritual Cowardice

“If there are dangerous precipices about, it is much easier and cheaper to forbid people to walk near the edge than to put up an effective fence: that is why both legislators and parents and the paid deputies of parents are always inhibiting and prohibiting and punishing and scolding and laming and cramping and delaying progress and growth instead of making the dangerous places as safe as possible and then boldly taking and allowing others to take the irreducible minimum of risk.

“It is easier to convert most people to the need for allowing their children to run physical risks than moral ones. I can remember a relative of mine who, when I was a small child, unused to horses and very much afraid of them, insisted on putting me on a rather rumbustious pony with little spurs on my heels (knowing that in my agitation I would use them unconsciously), and being enormously amused at my terrors. Yet when that same lady discovered that I had found a copy of The Arabian Nights and was devouring it with avidity, she was horrified, and hid it away from me lest it should break my soul as the pony might have broken my neck. This way of producing hardy bodies and timid souls is so common in country houses that you may spend hours in them listening to stories of broken collar bones, broken backs, and broken necks without coming upon a single spiritual adventure or daring thought.”

A Treatise on Parents and CHildren

It’s better to teach someone to swim, chainsaw, and parachute through practice and explanation and practice rather than deadly Darwinian experience. The same goes for the moral and intellectual hazards of life.

Resources on The Content and Method of Classical Tutoring

Henrik the Great asked me to dust off what I know about the curriculum and practice of private tutoring. While I don’t know much, I do know the basics and the big names.

I assume you read my excerpts from Jesuit educational ideals already. which offers some pointers.

For a detailed example of an entire curriculum see Jesuit Education: Its History and Principles (1904) which, while a lackluster book for several reasons, does include a detailed course of study which would be fairly standard not just among Catholic but also Anglican and Lutheran teachers during the 17th – 19th century. For example, John Stuart Mill’s early education was very much in the same vein.

Here are the big works on pedagogy and curriculum:

Aristotle (all, but especially)

On Rhetoric


Cicero, Ad Herrenium, which lays out the entire course rhetoric and persuasion for the next 1800 years. It is also the first place that the use of deep memory techniques is briefly discussed. 

Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, which reviews Cicero’s course and extends the ideas and practice.

Marcus Aurelius mentions in his meditations mentions the quality of teaching of many of his tutors, especially the method of writing dialogues on alternate positions. This method was popular enough that many early Christian writings are in dialogue form as well. 

Cassiodorus, Institutes of Secular Learning


Peter Lombard’s Sentences were the standard method and textbook for 400 years.

Aquinas On the Teacher. Of course, Aquinas’s Summae tried to make a replacement for the sentences, but was not successful until well after his death (three centuries!).

John Buridan’s Summulae de Dialectica was a standard textbook on Logic and logical method for a couple hundred years.

I do not know of any medieval source who discussed and presented scholastic pedagogical method explicitly, although it was very influential. I need to check what would have been the standard reference.


Petrus Paulus Vergilius, De Ingenuis Moribus frequently translated as The New Education. Refocuses education on service to civic life.

Aeneas Silvius, On Education 

Erasmus De Ratione Studii, On the Method of Study, and Ciceronianus, which covers how he thinks schooling can excel beyond mere memorization and imitation.

I think it is easy to underestimate how much sway these older authors had on 17th-19th century education. They were giants.

I have some takeaways from these readings and my own experience being classically educated but am not yet able to fully articulate them.


I am not well aware how tutoring curricula changed in the Enlightenment. I wouldn’t count the differences in method to be great, although the content certainly shifted to include more mathematics. The personal libraries of the great thinkers reflect remarkably little change from the interests of the Renaissance Humanists, as far as I know. Though, I am happy to be corrected.

Agency vs. Ambition: MothMinds

Here’s nice quote from the mothminds website. It is worth keeping.

From the outside, agency is often misinterpreted as ambition, but I learned through observing these two types of people that they are actually quite different. Ambition means you’re motivated to play games that others have already created in the world, while agency means you’re driven to play a game of your own. It quickly became clear to me that our world desperately needs more niche moth-like perspectives and in turn, interesting, actualized visions of the future.  What’s more, a moth’s natural inclination to camouflage is core to its success, but it also makes it illegible to the world — which means there’s no clear path to become a moth.


Quotes from Jesuit Educational Ideals

The following notes are from the book Ignatius’ Idea of a Jesuit University by Ganss 1957 without amendment, comment, or much formatting.

“Now we shall take up the advantages for the Society herself, for the extern students and for the nation or province where the college is situated. This is the utility which has been found through experience in colleges of this type. Even though part of this can be gathered from what has already been said:

  1. First of all, in the case of our own numbers, those who lecture gain profit for themselves and learn much by teaching others and become more confidently the masters of what they know.
  2. Our own members who hear their lectures gain profit to the care and continuous diligence which the teachers display in fulfilling their office.
  3. They profit not merely in regard to letters, but generally also in preaching, and the teaching of Christian doctrine. And they exercise themselves in the use of the means by which they must help their neighbors later on. And they are encouraged through seeing the fruit, which God our Lord allows them to see.
  4. Although no one may induce the students, especially when they are young to enter the Society. Nevertheless, they can win esteem for themselves by good example, conversation, and the Latin declamations about the virtues, which are delivered on Sundays, and they can gain many laborers in the vineyard of Christ, our Lord. These advantages are for the society itself.

The benefits for the extern students who come to profit from the lectures are the following:

  1. They’re occupied to a sufficient extent with their lessons. much care is taken that all learn through lectures disputations and compositions. Thus provisions are made for them to reap great fruit of letters.
  2. The poor who lack the means to pay the ordinary teachers or private tutors in the homes here find free, what they can only get with great cost and difficulty in their desire to become educated men.
  3. They provide profit in spiritual matters, through learning Christian doctrine and grasping from the sermons and customary exhortations, that which is conducive to their eternal salvation.
  4. They make progress in purity of conscience and consequently in all virtue, through confession every month and through the care taken, that they be decent in their speech and virtuous in their entire lives.
  5. In their studies, they draw much greater merit and fruits, since they’re accustomed to bring all persons to the service of God from the time when they begin to learn just as they are taught.

There are also the following benefits for the inhabitants of the country or province where these colleges are established.

  1. In temporal matters, parents relieved of the expensive of having teachers to instruct their children in letters and virtues.
  2. They keep their consciences free in the matter of instructing their children. Those who only with difficulty will find someone to whom they can entrust their children, even at their own expense. Will with all security find instructors in these colleges
  3. In addition to learning, they also have in the colleges, someone who can preach both among the people and within the monasteries, and who through administering the sacraments can very fruitfully supply great help, as is evident.
  4. They themselves and the members of their household will devote themselves to spiritual matters, with good example to their children. Likewise, they will grow fond of confessing more frequently and of living as Christians.
  5. They will have in our own members inhabitants of the country to inspire and aid them towards undertaking good works, such as hospitals, houses of reformed women, and such like matters. Their bestowing charity upon our members also entails their having a care of such good works.
  6. From among those who are at present merely students, in time, some will depart to play diverse roles, one to preach and carry on the care of souls, another to the government in the land and the administration of justice, and others to other occupations.
  7. Finally, since young boys become grown men, their good education in life and doctrine will be beneficial to many others, with the fruit expanding more widely every day.

I could elaborate this further, but this will suffice to set forth what is perceived here in regard to colleges of this common.

May Christ, the Eternal Life, guide us to serve him better. Amen.”

St. Ignatius to Father Antonio Araoz from Rome, December 1, 1551.

Pages 25 and 26.

The result which Ignatius aimed to produce in the students was manifestly, a carefully reasoned and therefore scientifically grounded Catholic outlook on life, which would enable and inspire them to contribute intelligently and effectively to the welfare of society. That outlook was the focal point towards which Ignatius directed all the branches in the curriculum, and all the elements his school contained. Since theology imparts whatever can be known from divine revelation about God and His creatures, especially man and his duties and destiny, it is the foremost indispensable source of this outlook. But obviously, it must be studied thoroughly and scientifically. So the student grasps the integration of its major sections and its subsidiary branches. Quite as one who has had a college major in physics must know all the principal phases of his subject.

PAGE 54.

Since schools have always been an extension of the home throughout their history, they too, no less than parents, have been concerned to teach something helpful towards a livelihood and towards satisfying intellectual curiosity. Their professors have noticed that their students are more strongly and spontaneously motivated to study hard a subject, which while being truly cultural, was simultaneously useful for living in a way characteristically and satisfyingly human and even for earning a livelihood.

PAGE 127.

Enthusiasm for Plato and for Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian, and his successors, in whom many of his ideas reappeared with various modifications, was high among the Christian educators of the early Renaissance, such as Petrus Paulus Vergilius, Vittorino da Feltre, and Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini. Hence, they revived the ancient ideal of liberal education, Christianized it, and adapted it to their own age.

They conceived the aim of education to be that of producing the perfect man fitted to participate well in the activities of his day. As a means to train him, they worked into their theories of liberal education, numerous elements, the physical, the intellectual, the aesthetic, the literary with stress upon eloquence, the moral, the religious, and the social. As will be shown in greater detail, the ideals or models of education took the forms of the complete citizen and Christian gentlemen of Vitorrino da Feltre, the perfection of the man as a Christian citizen of Vagarius, the courtier of Castiglione, and in the northern countries of the Christian scholar of Erasmus. Other noteworthy ideals more or less outside the Christian current of the Renaissance were the prince of Machiavelli, the gentleman scholar of Thomas Eliot, Montaigne, and later on, after Ignatius’ death, of John Locke, still another ideal was the experimental scientist of Francis Bacon.

PAGE 140.

The means to produce this developed citizen are the liberal studies, which Vagarius defines as follows.

“We call those studies liberal which are worthy of a free man, those studies by which we attain and practice virtue in wisdom, that education which calls forth, trains, and develops those highest gifts of body and mind, which ennoble men and which are rightly judged to rank next in dignity to virtue only. For to the vulgar temper gain and pleasure are the one aim of existence, to the lofty nature, moral worth and fame.”

Vagarius lists the subjects which he thinks can properly be classified as liberal.

“Amongst these I record the first place to history, on grounds both of its attractiveness and of its utility. Qualities which appeal equally to the scholar and to the statesman. Next, in importance ranks moral philosophy, which indeed in a peculiar sense is a liberal art, in that its purpose is to teach men the secret of true freedom. History then gives us the concrete examples of the precepts inculcated by philosophy. The one shows what men should do. The other what men have said and done in the past, and what practical lessons may draw therefrom for the present day. I would indicate as the third main branch of study, eloquence, which indeed holds a place of distinction among the refined arts. By philosophy, we learn the essential truth of things, which by eloquence we saw exhibit in orderly adornment as to bring conviction to differing minds. And history provides the light of experience, a cumulative wisdom, but to supplement the force of reason, and the persuasion of eloquence. For we allow that soundness of judgment, wisdom of speech, integrity of conduct, are the marks of a truly liberal temper.”

Other studies which he regarded as liberal are letters, especially poetic art and rhetoric, which lead to eloquence, disputation, or logical argument, gymnastics, music, arithmetic and astronomy.

PAGE 141.

Although it may seem at first a paradox or even a contradiction, it is now certain that during the Renaissance, the humanists as a body regarded classical and liberal studies as eminently practical. These subjects were indeed cultural, but they were simultaneously as practical as curricula in engineering, journalism or commerce are today. The humanists went to the ancient authors to find guidance for practical everyday life. Vagarius envisaged a practical objective, the citizen taking capable part in the affairs of the day, training for practical life was the leading purpose of Vittorino da Feltre, who approved Cicero’s statement, Virtutis laus omnis in actione consistit. Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini. himself, a practical man of action and affairs, approvingly quoted the same statement, and pointed out from the examples of Demosthenes, Aristotle, Caesar and Pliny that the study of literature develops administrative capacity. The study of antiquity, completed by its final course of ancient philosophy, was regarded as the finest preparation for law, medicine, or theology.

The Latin language too was learned primarily for utilitarian purposes, as it was during the Middle Ages. Further even skill in producing stylistic elegance in Latin had its utilitarian and economic values for two functions, the handling of official correspondence and the writing of speeches on solemn occasions. The humanists are indispensable as Latin secretaries to the multitudinous princes, nobles and civil officials and republics, and to bishops, Cardinals and Popes. Hence proficiency in Latin was the means enabling anyone, no matter how poor or from how lowly a social class to obtain the most coveted, honored and lucrative employments of the day. As we saw above, on page 39, the highest salaries in the Papal University of Rome paid to the professors of medicine and of rhetoric, subjects then studied only in Latin. Also, the humanists of Florence deemed the learning of literature, the best preparation for a career as a merchant or banker.

Page 164.

We shall spare ourselves much time and useless twinges of conscience by a resolution which would run somewhat as follows. There is no possibility of completely divorcing a liberal education from material considerations. In the light of a record which goes back to antiquity, it would be undesirable to make the attempt, for if it succeeded, it would result in a dilettantism, which would be denial of what a liberal education aims to do.

From James Marshall Campbell, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences of the Catholic University of America

PAGE 171

The whole of the thought of the earlier humanistic educators is this that the people should be developed into the complete man those faculties trained to excellence or virtue in order that he may capably benefit the society of his day. The same central thought is present in Ignatius’ constitutions and procedures There is concern for the bodily health (this is gymnastic, at least in germ). There is training of the intellect through the whole curriculum of grammar, the arts, and theology. There is constant exercise in self-expression or eloquence and in disputation to meet the tastes and needs of the age. There is training of the aesthetic faculties and emotions through the study of ancient literature, including rhetoric, poetry, and history. If training in the vernacular languages and literatures had been part of the educational systems of the day from which Ignatius drew, he would no doubt have approved this training along with his other borrowings. It was not merely training of mind concomitantly acquired through mastering these studies but also through the crowning courses in philosophy and theology, the imparting of extensive body of knowledge which makes up a scientifically grounded theistic philosophy of life, a philosophy which gives true significance and worthwhile meaning to the life of man both in this world and the next.

There is constant encouragement of the student not only to moral and sacramental living, but also to the exercise of all the supernatural virtues which lead to the highest union with God. There’s constant insistence on the social purposes of education. There’s the equipping of the man not only to live as a Christian gentlemen, but also to earn his living in a way satisfying to himself and beneficial to society. For as we have seen the subjects taught in Ignatius’ curriculum in his day the surest road for a poor boy to achieve economic security and without such security even a highly trained man is little likely to function as a leader.

Page 176.

In this curriculum he made theology the most important and crowning branch and philosophy an aid to it, and the languages an aid to the learning and use of both. This last point was particularly true of Latin, but some attention was also given to Greek, Hebrew, and the vernaculars. Since the educated men of this period at a high admiration for Ciceronian Latin, Ignatius stressed practice and Ciceronian style. Since he wished the students to form their personal convictions, through much self-activity rather than through a passive absorbing of the professor’s views, and since his times were filled with public disputations in Latin, which Catholics held either with Protestants or among themselves, Ignatius stressed practice in declamation, disputations, and “circles” in which small groups of students held “repetitions.” Also in his curriculum, Ignatius did not limit the interests of his students in one area such as classical antiquity, or medieval culture, or the speculative genius of scholasticism, or the Renaissance, with its preoccupation with style and form. Rather, he widened the student’s vision to take in the hole of Christian culture. In his curriculum, there were not only Latin and Greek, and Aristotelian philosophy and Scholastic theology, but also scripture and positive theology, which included the Fathers of the Church. Hence his schools were a home in which the whole heritage of Christian culture was made an object of study, and was transmitted to future generations, with at least as much efficiency as in any other schools of the era. He was indeed eminently a practical organizer, choosing what was particularly useful to his end in his own times. All the elements in his system conspired to prepare the students to be and to do what they should to live well throughout this life and the next.

Page 178

  1. He regarded education as a means of attaining the end of his society, the salvation and perfection of the students in order that might promote the salvation and perfection of their fellow man, unless vigorously and intelligently loving the society with the spirit of the Kingdom of Christ. He hoped that students will learn how to live well, in this life and the next.
  2. In intellectual order, the end towards which Ignatius wished his curriculum to lead was a scientifically reasoned Catholic outlook on life. That is one which the student has thought through to his own personal conviction, in contrast to the memorized knowledge, which is characteristic of a child. That outlook was the focus of integration of all other elements in his system. It was what would enable as well as inspire the students to perfect themselves to contribute intelligently and effectively to the welfare of society.

Page 182

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)

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,

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!