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March 23, 2007

The Dismal Science

Lee Emmerich Jamison

Mark Twain said that there were..."lies, damned lies, and statistics." Oh, that his wit could have been applied to some of the modern world's notions of the sciences. When I was a student at Centenary College of Louisiana Economics was "the dismal science". "Political Science" was a punch line. Both statements remain true today. Unfortunately society has since been indoctrinated to speaking these course names with a straight face.

These disciplines comprise the waggly end of the scientific dog. Even briefly addressing the perversity of the two of them would require more space than a paper is likely to publish, so for today let us take a glance only at the dismal science. We will leave the abysmal one for another day.

Webster's II New Riverside Desk Dictionary defines economics as "The science dealing with the production, distribution, and consumption of commodities". The worst thing that can happen to a course of study is that it be ill-defined. This fairly accurate description of the courses I took reveals why economics stands with Twain's assessment of statistics as a means of obscuring truth.

It is fun to watch magicians fool our eyes, even when we know they are doing so. They use the psychology of physical emphasis to hide what is really happening until the result is revealed. We then draw the wrong conclusion. A dollar bill is healed, a coin is pulled from our ear. Wow!

By entraining two things we think we understand in the discussion of the economy, namely stuff and money, the dismal science plays a sleight-of-hand with what we really should be seeing; how much of our labor really does something useful.

Imagine that on some island there are three people. Two produce food and clothing and the other is a thief who manages to steal half of the fruits of the others' labor. One of the laborers could reasonably conclude that one could live better by being a thief. Were he to change job descriptions would the standard of living on the island go up or down? Modern economics is deeply confused on this issue. Thievery is, in this example, a high-income job. The statistics would indicate a trending upward. (Wink, wink.)

Our conflicted producer decides he is an "honorable" man and can't abide the idea of becoming a thief. Instead he becomes a chief, which permits him to possess the island's gun, seize half of what the still productive producer makes for himself, and apportion only a third of what remains to the former thief, who has now been relabeled an invalid. That seems fair, does it not? The producer is a "rich" man. He needs to "give back" to the community that made him that way...

This is a cartoon version of the modern world. Those who honorably accomplish nothing live well without working in the dirt. They permit those who labor the privilege of keeping a portion of what they create, claiming all the while to be protecting their effort, while insisting the producer is cruel to expect one who has not worked not to eat. Modern economics sleight-of-hand! Those with a little foresight might be seen to raise a hand in the back of the class and ask a foolish question. "Why produce?"

The political reality of our island example is, of course, that the status quo has two of the three votes. Were the producer to convince the invalid to become a producer the island might live much better, but the chief would be out of a job, and might be forced to- oh, our hearts are all a-flutter- WORK. Naturally he finds very clever ways to vilify the producer in the eyes of the invalid. If the invalid occasionally snatches something out of frustration that the producer has so much more than he has all the better! Why have a chief if bad things don't happen? The invalid's poverty and frustration both serve to provide a rationale for the stability of the status quo.

In this illustration one can see why economics as defined by Webster's Dictionary and my professors is defined improperly. Most of the economic activity, that is to say, most of the activity for which people are provided the work product of the producer, revolves around jockeying for an advantage in a contest over who gets the work product of the producer! Economics should be "The science of the distribution of purposeful human activity". Some will quibble about how to shoehorn productivity, value, or consumption into the definition but I stand by my wording.

The fact of the matter is hard work is hard work. Clever people will find ways to put a patina of glory on a lack of accomplishment and convince society to provide well for them for what they have not done.  The I.R.S. does not produce anything.  Neither do the people who protect us from the I.R.S.  Lawyers argue.  The lawyers who protect us from the other lawyers also argue, and we feed them both for the priviledge of having them do that to, and for, us.  Bureaucrats pile us over with paperwork, and we feed them for what they make us do.

Interesting island we're on.

The chiefs and kings of the ancient world loved to keep wizards and magicians in their courts. Mark Twain, in his assessment of statistics, was merely taking note of how the tools of the crafts of obfuscation and misdirection had changed by the late 19th century. Little could he have imagined how, in the increased majesty of our modern world, something could have exceeded even statistics for a grandeur of misdirection.

And, gee whiz, that's only the DISMAL science!

Lee Jamison may be reached for comment at lee@leejamison.com

March 19, 2007

Conception Precedes Comprehension

Lee Emmerich jamison

Go to: http://aimath.org/E8/

Here is described in the sort of unrevealing lay terms we can at least begin to grasp difficult ideas in the results of a pioneering study of very abstract multidimensional spaces in mathematics. 
This is important because one must have an idea what one is looking at before one can really SEE it.

Several among the ancient Greeks proposed that the Earth revolved around the sun.  At the time this idea was rejected because of the concept of the dome of the sky, that is, the notion that the stars were actually on the surface of a sphere.  If the Earth revolved around the sun, they reasoned, the circle it described in space would be so huge that there would be a detectable parallax effect in the measure of the most distant planet (then known to be Neptune) as it progressed against the background of the sphere of the heavens.  Because there was no parallax detectable to the human eye with the instruments available then the sphere of the sky would have had to have been unimaginably huge.

With more modern instruments in the last century we have, in fact, been able to detect the parallax of more than fifty stars.  Gallileo, though, had long since shown that the Earth orbited the sun.  In so doing he obliterated the dome of the sky.

That dome drew a fence around what it was possible for us to know.  The solidity of the concept prevented us from seeing stars as suns.  The dome had to be conceptually destroyed before we could comprehend suns like our own sun in numbers beyond comprehension.

That is how concepts work.  We muddle along with vague interpretations of phenomena so that our conceptual space is not dominated by the blank spaces of vertiginous perception, but those interpretations are just placeholders for real comprehension.  Then an idea comes along that makes sense of what we see, that allows us to know something in more than one dimension.  Replacing the dome of the sky with myriad suns literally expanded the scope of human consciousness.

The description of the E8 structure is a step forward in the description of mathematical spaces.  We live in a mathematical space.  The better science understands the logic of such spaces the better chance we have of comprehending the space in which we live.  The concept must exist before we can truly see what we see.

March 16, 2007

Diseducation and Congress

I would put this in the humor category, but then, it's really not that funny.  Media bigotry has never been more in evidence in the coverage of recent American politics than it is in the current flap over the firing of a handful of federal prosecutors by the Bush administration.  Democrats in charge in Congress and their flagrant allies in the news media are out to use these firings as a whip to drive Karl Rove out of office.

Do these people have a leg to stand on?

No.

President Clinton, over the course of his administration, fired over one hundred and twenty federal prosecutors.  Ninety-three of them were fired at one time for no cause at all, an unprecedented political toll in recent presidential politics.  This, interestingly, raised no hackles in the press who scream so loudly today.

Were these Bush administration firings illegal?  No one is saying they were.  They are merely being used as a pretext for congressional hearings, jeering, and saber-rattling.  The coverage, though is accomplished with the same breathless tone that would accompany a terrorist bombing in Washington, D.C.

Why?

Simple.  The Press know that most of us DON'T know what the president's powers are.  They are willing to keep us ignorant of such things and use that ignorance as a nose-ring to lead us to the conclusion that the administration has been following a corrupt course.  Were we to make such a conclusion and then compare history with the Clinton administration it would be clear that they were vastly more corrupt, but the press will not volunteer that information for us, will they?

This is actually the fault of the president.  He should be up front and come out in as many venues as possible to say he fired these people for political purposes, period.  They serve at his pleasure.  If he doesn't like the cut of their collars he can fire them for fashion insensitivity if he so desires.  President Bush must not allow the congress to intimidate him into running the administration by their proxy.

Keep Karl Rove.  Keep Alberto Gonzales.  Stick it in the press's eye.  Tell the American people what powers the president has over the offices he runs.  An educated public is not the Democrats' friend.  They will shut up to eliminate the controversy that threatens to educate us.

March 08, 2007

The Talent Myth

Lee Emmerich Jamison

(I was talking to a musician today who had seen this column in the Huntsville Item.  It is an important message we would do well to learn for any field, not just the arts.)

To most of us, even most artists, the arts look like magic. Hence the myth of "talent" in the arts. It is easiest in the face of that general misconception to go with the flow and treat art as a form of mystical enlightenment most people will never have access to.

That 's a mistake.

Art (or any of the arts) is neither mysticism nor magic. Like learning a language it is a mastery, one by one, of a withering fog of skills.

As anyone who has ever attempted to learn a second language can attest what seems second nature as an accomplishment of childhood can be like hoeing a garden out of a parking lot as an adult. So it is with the arts. Learning the language of communicating ideas and emotions with images, movements, sounds, or all of the above is hard, but can be manageable with the help of wise guides.

Very early in my art career I had the chance to meet landscape artist Dalhart Windberg. Encouragingly, he was more than politely enthusiastic about my work. At the same time, though, he gave me some brief, very keen insights into what I needed to do to get better. In the course of just a few minutes he showed me how he laid out his palette, premixing graded piles of colors so that he could move deftly and subtly from one shade of color to another.

My painting Windberg had critiqued and found a little lacking had won a regional art competition in Dallas. Defensively thinking to myself that I didn't want to paint like Windberg I resisted his advice.

Three years later, as a member of the stable of a nationally recognized gallery of Western art, I met Wilson Hurley. Hurley is, by any measure, a brilliant man. He was a fighter pilot, engineer, and successful corporate lawyer who, as an adult, taught himself to be perhaps America's finest landscape painter. I DID want to paint like him so I listened hard.

Very politely, he let me know I had a lot to learn. I relied too much on photographs, didn't plan paintings particularly well, poorly understood the use of grays to bring out the depths I wanted to show and, um hmm, needed to master the use of the palette. Otherwise he liked my work.

Windberg had been right.

The truth is at that stage in my life I, too, had fallen into the trap of thinking I was really "talented". How I succeeded was something of a mystery to me, as was why I so often failed. I worked hard, but my skills had reached a plateau. This is the problem with the talent myth. A lack of understanding obscures the path to success, then talent mythology steps in either to hold out a lottery ticket’s hope or an excuse for accepting failure. When the going is difficult we say we aren’t talented. When someone has slaved to master skills we don’t understand we belittle their accomplishment by saying how blessed they are to have been "given" (!) such talent.

As with any other form of mysticism seeing the world through the lens of talent blurs opportunities to perceive order on the way to one’s goals.

No single lesson has been worth more to me artistically than conquering the palette. It is an inconvenient process and it causes me to "waste" what seems a lot of paint. However, the thirty minutes or so spent on prepping a palette make some otherwise impossible effects accessible. The depth and subtlety in a painting of a big sky or the atmospheric perspective of a mountain pass are not magic. They are the result of skill taking advantage of an orderly process.

Combined with hard-earned observation skills and brush techniques this tool for carefully marshalling the properties of paint has helped make me a pretty good landscape painter. But now I understand how it does so. When the going gets tough I have a clue how to move forward from the seeming impasse. Sure, it’s not science. But it’s also not magic.

Accepting the myth of talent permitted me to excuse a lazy painting process. The lazy process delayed my learning a set of necessary skills. Look around and you will see this is a scenario not limited to the arts.

All around us kids who are permitted to believe they are not "talented" in writing, or science, or math join those who think they are not talented in the arts in being undereducated in areas that could be enriching their lives (and even their pocketbooks).

Lately I’ve had the experience of watching my 47-year-old brother, a solid "B" student his first time through college in business, decide that he was going to pursue a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry. That has meant graduating with honors as a Chemistry undergrad and learning mathematics that leave my physicist Dad scratching his head. There’s no way he should be that "talented". But by hard work he will achieve his goal, going after it one step, one skill, at a time.

Hard work… I’m not holding my breath ‘till that’s as popular as talent.

Lee Jamison can be reached for comment at lee@leejamison.com

March 06, 2007

The Libby Travesty

Well, it's over. 

The result of a ridiculous trial after a fraudulent witchhunt investigation is that a man freely acknowledged by every person directly involved in the publication of the identity of Valerie Plame for NOT having been the source of the leak, INCLUDING THE ACTUAL LEAKER, has been convicted for crimes for which he would never have been investigated if Washington D.C. were run by anything other than power-mad mafiosi.

Patrick Fitzgerald, who would be under indictment himself for pursuing a fraudulent investigation and for official oppression in a sane world, gets political cover and the chance to prosper.

Scooter Libby loses his standing in the world and goes to jail.

It is a dark, dark time in America.  And this?  This is only the beginning.

March 05, 2007

Sorcerers in Dark Robes

Lee Emmerich Jamison

In Shakespeare's "MacBeth" the play opens with a scene in which the "weird sisters", darkly robed witches in beards, ruminate over their cauldron of magic. In the process they take the fate of a kingdom out of the hands of men and kings to play caprice on the flawed soul of the title character. Of course we know today such things never happen, don't we?

Well, don't we?

Think hard and your conviction might waver some. A couple of years ago we found that the cauldron doth still boil and bubble. Once again a weird group in dark robes gathered ‘round to take fate from the hands of a nation's sovereigns. In "Macbeth"the tale told is a bloody, twisted path. Victory goes to the right man but the witches alone are left unscathed. The case of which I speak is the Supreme Court's decision to eliminate the death penalty for juvenile offenders. The characters in robes wrote the plot, and played out the twisted path they alone defined. Did we, as the terminally weak MacBeth did not, fight for the proper sovereigns' right to control a nation's fate? Not so far.

It makes no matter whether we agree or disagree with the decision of the Court on its face. The danger is in making right by incantation.

In MacBeth Shakespeare’s hero, MacDuff, is in no way a poor choice for King, but the magic by which the office arrives in his hands disrespects him and every other character in the play. So it is with the Supreme Court. What they did was to say of each and every character who might hope to share the worldly stage on which they have set themselves so lofty a perch that there is no point in their, in our, being there. Of these nine five knew better than all the rest of us combined. By the weight of a spell cast by a single hand they silenced us all and set us "right". Their inscrutable power set strings on us and played us all like puppets.

What wisdom can puppets have? How dare we disagree!

Such decisions by usurping wizards solve nothing. They dazzle as sparkling visions of the imagination but they have none of the weight of the words of real law wrought by the smiths of that craft who were chosen by real people to do the real work of making hard choices. No, these better wizards, so much wiser in their own eyes than the whole difficult process of bringing law to life by natural means, have chosen to make a prettier law by unnatural processes.

What such wizardry discounts is that in the wretchedness of the process these empowered ones so despise for its results there lies the long difficult path by which peoples entrusted with the making of their own laws educate themselves and their cultures to a kind of civility sustainable over eons. People learn the making of law by living under the laws they make. Living under the Court’s magical laws teaches us nothing but the weight of the boot, the chafing of the chain. They feel like political nullification. They sound like the march of conquerors. They breed fear, resentment, and hatred.

Years after another such hideously "pretty" decision most of us look at a piece of courtly wizardry that kills as many complete innocents in five days as it saves (in somewhat less "innocents") in a year and shake our heads. Roe v. Wade sounds like a bad trade, a grisly trade, a trade the likes of which left Lady MacBeth unable to wash her hands clean of the stubborn stain. A nation that has more and ever more difficulty sleeping with its legacy of carnage stands at the brink of once again forcing this law of the sorcerers back into the realm of real people. Are the heirs of the men so unwisely wise more than thirty years ago a better brand of conjurer than were they? You cannot make me believe they are.

With the stroke of a magical pen two years ago the Supreme Court’s weird sisters and their coven brethren set the most essential element of democratic government on its ear. They tossed the consent of the governed aside as an irrelevance.

It is difficult enough to bear the chains of law modern government imposes on us when its links are forged by the people we elect. When the people seek, by the shape they demand that their laws take, to have law acknowledge the value of innocent life even at the expense of young life they are making a hard choice. It is their choice reflecting their values, though. To have that hard choice and all it means swept aside by the work of a single legal sorcerer in dark robes is not merely bizarre. It means the fundamental promise that this is a land of, by, and for the people is a sham. We are really just the playthings of the magicians of the Supreme Court.

Smell that smoke? See the dark robes huddled ‘round that fire? Bubble, bubble, toil, and trouble, indeed!

Lee Jamison may be contacted for comment at lee@leejamison.com

March 02, 2007

Texas

On this day in 1836, as the Mexican Army under Generalissimo Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna lay seige to the beleagered men of the Alamo in San Antonio, leaders of the unruly colony met in a town aptly named Independence.  There, in an unfinished hall near the banks of the river named after the arms of God (Brazos de Dios) they signed a Declaration of Independence and established a provisional government.

Then, on the forty-third birthday of one of the most famous-and infamous-people in America, they made him "General of the Army".  With that combination of laurel and albatross thrown about his shoulders Houston set out for his army's encampment at Gonzales, on a donkey.

March 01, 2007

Non-brilliant Science

Sometimes you just have to shake your head.  The link below tells of a science experiment revealing that people see what they believe to be true.  Duh.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/livescience/20070228/sc_livescience/therichseewhattheybelieve;_ylt=AttHhYvp0VV31i3xXmxZDVXMWM0F

It is called "prejudice".  You may have heard of it.  It is how we all work, even the poor, but revealing that would not have gotten you noticed on Yahoo! news.

Proof that an advanced degree is not a hedge against stupidity.


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