7 Quick Takes (3/22/13)

7 Quick Takes (3/22/13) March 22, 2013

— 1 —

It’s March!  That month when people care particularly intensely about sports I am indifferent to, but make brackets about all kinds of things that do catch my fancy.  Like this Shakespeare Showdown bracket, which has prompted a number of fights about the rankings to the point where we might soon to say “Oh, what a falling off was there!”


— 2 —

Passover starts this week, and the Maccabeats have a delightful new song which is also a Les Mis medley.  Too bad it’s still about a week before I’m allowed to say Alleluia again, because the vid merits it.

— 3 —

Also in the genre of totally delightful, Jesse Galef of Measure of Doubt put together bookshelves themed by the four Hogwarts Houses.

In the Harry Potter world, Ravenclaws are known for being the smart ones. That’s their thing. In fact, that was really all they were known for. In the books, each house could be boiled down to one or two words: Gryffindors are brave, Ravenclaws are smart, Slytherins are evil and/or racist, and Hufflepuffs are pathetic loyal. (Giving rise to this hilarious Second City mockery.)

But while reading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, I realized that there’s actually quite a lot of potential for interesting reading in each house. Ravenclaws would be interested in philosophy of mind, cognitive science, and mathematics; Gryffindors in combat, ethics, and democracy; Slytherins in persuasion, rhetoric, and political machination; and Hufflepuffs in productivity, happiness, and the game theory of cooperation.

Over at Less Wrong, people (me included) suggested additions to Jesse’s lists.  Also, I had fun checking what percentage of each shelf I’d read.  Turns out it’s:  34% Ravenclaw. 34% Gryffindor, 24% Slytherin, 21% Hufflepuff. (Directed Studies was the cause of a good chuck of my Gryffindor points).

— 4 —

Many of you have probably seen the xkcd about applied vs theoretical fields of study, but believe you me, you want to click through to see Abstruse Goose’s take on the question.

— 5 —

Want some awesome applied work to read about?  One of my college debate friends has coauthored a polisci paper that has Ezra Klein swooning.

Last year, a group of political scientists took a random sample of state legislators and asked them a slew of questions, most of which boiled down to: “What do your constituents think about policy?” Do they support gay marriage? Do they support Obamacare? Do they support action to combat global warming?

Broockman and Skovron find that legislators consistently believe their constituents are more conservative than they actually are. This includes Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. But conservative legislators generally overestimate the conservatism of their constituents by 20 points. “This difference is so large that nearly half of conservative politicians appear to believe that they represent a district that is more conservative on these issues than is the most conservative district in the entire country,” Broockman and Skovron write. This finding held up across a range of issues.

Is it just that legislators don’t talk to their constituents? Nope. Broockman and Skovron tried and failed to find any relationship between the amount of time legislators spend in their districts, going to community events, and so forth, and the accuracy of their reads on their districts.

— 6 —

The charts for Broockman’s paper are at the link above, and are well designed.  But many are the foes of good data visualization, and Junk Charts has a great explanation of why bubble charts are pernicious.

— 7 —

Finally, I haven’t talked about my job very much, but, to give you a more vivid picture, here’s an illustration I drew while teaching yesterday:

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  • What is the creature eating the plans?

    • leahlibresco

      An unholy amalgam of the planning fallacy, vagueness, and Murphy’s law

      • Mike

        That’s cute.

    • Ben L

      Demon(s): planning fallacy, vagueness, Murphy.

  • I’ve got a few titles on all the Hogwarts houses, but I skew way strongly Ravenclaw–I’d say it’s about 50-30-10-10 for Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, Slytherin, and Hufflepuff, respectively (not allowing for crossovers such as Plato’s Republic that are on more than one shelf.

    • deiseach

      I have a couple from Ravenclaw, a couple from Slytherin, nothing at all from Gryffindor and the most from Hufflepuff, which pretty much confirms my own estimation and preference for which House I’d be in (badgers are not cuddly or cute; when we sink our jaws in and hold on, nothing will loosen our bite) 🙂

      Though it also confirms I’m not a rationalist, as the vast majority of any of the bookshelves I not alone have not read, I have no interest in reading.

      I think, though, that there could stand to be a few more books about law or the likes on the Hufflepuff shelves, since it seems to me that that House is not just about loyalty but justice. If you map the Four Cardinal Virtues onto the houses, that would align Fortitude with Gryffindor, Temperance with Ravenclaw, Justice with Hufflepuff and Prudence with Slytherin.

      I agree that thinking of Slytherin as the ‘bad’ or ‘villain’ house is wrong; they are ambitious and worldly, but that does not mean they are all or even mostly bad. I think we see the effects of ‘give a dog a bad name and hang him’ with them; there was the necessity for antagonists (after all, what is a school story without bullies or snobs or sneaks amongst their fellow pupils for the heroes and heroines to overcome?) and so the Slytherins got dumped in that role.

      • leahlibresco

        If you map the Four Cardinal Virtues onto the houses, that would align Fortitude with Gryffindor, Temperance with Ravenclaw, Justice with Hufflepuff and Prudence with Slytherin.

        It is times like this that I am gladdest to have a blog.

        • grok

          I like Deiseach’s idea that the 4 Houses can be identified with the Cardinal (or other) Virtues. I think though perhaps Ravenclaw’s virtue might be prudence rather than temperance.. See this link for example:
          “St. Thomas Aquinas ranked prudence as the first cardinal virtue, because it is concerned with the intellect. Aristotle defined prudence as recta ratio agibilium, ‘right reason applied to practice.'”

          I agree with Fortitude for Gryffindor. I think one might make a case for Temperance for Hufflepuff and that would leave Justice for Slytherin, which I think might make sense (the most political of the virtues?)

      • Like you, Deiseach (and how is that pronounced? I’ve been wondering), I had little interest in most of the titles. But the presence of math books, The Phantom Tollbooth, and The Secret of NIMH confirmed that I am a Ravenclaw at heart.

  • Grok87

    Great set of quicktakes-I enjoyed all 7.
    Re the poli sci one, I suspect politicians are skewed by money/lobbyists etc. “money” is probably biased conservative for both democrats and republicans. Politicians are implicitly taking not a straight average of their constituents views but a weighted average with money being the weights and lobbyists being the intermediaries that supply the weighting function…

  • Skittle

    If I might be permitted to get worked up about something that doesn’t matter at all to anyone, that’s not how the Hogwarts houses work.

    Students are not sorted by ability, but by personality and interest. Ravenclaws aren’t smarter than everyone else, they just value knowledge above the other options. Gryffindors value courage and bravery above the other options. Slytherins are ambitious: they value success and power above the other options. Hufflepuff aren’t necessarily more loyal and hardworking, but they value people/relationships above the other options. Everything else falls out from sorting them this way, sticking them in the groups, and telling them that these are their basic qualities.

    I mean, we’re shown enough examples of characters, in the books, who don’t have the skills that are supposed to be basic to their houses. They just wish they had those skills.

    Not that any of this is terribly important.

    • I think it’s a reasonably important distinction. What you say dovetails well with the division of the four houses into the virtues, as dieseach explains, if we think of virtues as values rather than the etymological sense of virtue (ie. a property or power of a thing).

  • Jacob

    So… when are you going to write a book?

  • Joe

    Hey Leah,
    What ever happened to the Divine name reading club posts. If I remember correctly you were going to do that in Feb but then you moved.

    • Grok87

      +1 on the naming infinity

  • João Tavares

    Leah Libresco,

    I wanted to share this article bu Andrew Ferguson about Thomas Nagel’s new book. It’s very interesting. A small sample:

    (…) He admits that he finds the evident failure of materialism as a worldview alarming—precisely because the alternative is, for a secular intellectual, unthinkable. He calls this intellectual tic “fear of religion.”

    “I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear,” he wrote not long ago in an essay called “Evolutionary Naturalism and the Fear of Religion.” “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

    • Theodore Seeber

      I need to read that book. I don’t think I’ve ever met an atheist as honest as that, and I respect that honesty.

  • João Tavares
    • Grok87

      Thanks very much for the link to the Nagel book. It looks very interesting.

      • João Tavares

        You’re welcome.

    • Mike

      Thanks, very interesting. Reminded me of Chrit. Hitchens at an Oxford God debate accusing the atheists of simply not wanting there to be a God and warning the audience that people who badly don’t want God to exist are hiding something. I actually liked his position as I can relate to it. When I didn’t think about God I thought alot more about myself and what I wanted and sometimes thought screw everyone else.

      • Darren

        Oh, I wouldn’t mind so much if a jolly fat many really did sneak into my house once a year and left me toys (even if I had to be Good to earn it).

        I would very much mind if there was a not-so-jolly man who stuffed me into a sack once a year and had his African slaves give me a severe beating…

    • Darren

      Thanks for the article, very nice.

      Ah, the fear of reductionism and the God-longing atheist, two entertaining categories that are entertaining together.

      I do wonder at the fear of reductionism, though, even among those who one would presume to be immune (materialist non-theists). This was a current in Leah’s thought, I believe, pre-conversion.

      Perhaps I have my particular flavor of Protestantism to thank? I have noticed, in my education about the wonders of Catholicism, the degree of attachment that my Catholic colleagues, and especially my Natural Law Catholic colleagues, have for the human form. This would have been quite foreign to me as a Protestant. In my Christian days, my body (including my brain) was nothing more than a meat-suit. A waldo, allowing the true Darren, my soul, purchase upon this physical realm. I was housed within, and experienced and interacted with the world through it, but it had no more connection to my actual identity than did my clothing, my car, the house I lived in, my high-school locker.

      I recall wishing to meet my demise as close-to ground zero of a nuclear blast as could be managed (this was, after all, during the last, tense, decades of the Cold War, and living within spitting distance of high-priority targets made such contemplations perfectly plausible). My reasoning being that at a sufficiently close range, my body would evaporate too quickly for the sensations to register. If the bomb caught me unawares, would my soul at first realized that it was now unclothed? How bright would it be in the Daniel’ian oven of a hydrogen bomb? What sensation would a million degrees impart to a glorified Darren? Certainly not pain, but what then? The scientist in me wanted to know, and what a shame to just die of a heart attack or something so mundane.

      When at last my Theism departed, I lost the concept of the soul. I peeked behind the curtain and found… nothing: No soul of Darren, no abstract Darren pulling the strings from Platonic essence land, no Cartesian second element to be a Dual to. Just me, just the old meat-suit. That was quite a blow, for a short time, but life went on, and the amazing thing was… nothing changed. Good was still Good. Bad was still Bad. I felt, and hoped, and worked, and slacked, and everything else exactly as I had before.

      Perhaps it is easier for me, never having had quit the connection to my physical shell, that now I have no particular longing for this mystical “me”. Perhaps it is easier for me to gaze upon the supposed horrors of reductive materialism with barely a smirk. My days as a luminous being, and my days as a moist robot feel exactly the same. Here I sit, just me, a meat puppet all along.

      • Darren

        Oops, messed up the last analogy. I was _before_ a meat puppet, now I am the meat.

        • Theodore Seeber

          In Catholic terms the meat and the soul are consubstantial. They are the same substance, different relativistic viewpoint, but one and the same.

          • Darren

            Ah, there is the word, thank you!

            A neat definition from the top of the Google pile:

            Consubstantial with the Father

            And that is a very key difference, from my perspective, between the Catholic and Protestant.

  • Maiki

    Yeah, I would say Slytherin is not supposed to be characterized by valuing being evil or racist but by valuing ambition. I do think to some extent Rowling was trying to highlight the inherent racism (or xenophobia towards muggles, more accurately, maybe?) in magical society rewarding even half-bloods who were ambitious to pretend and buy into the ideology based on the power it got them in return.

    You see it even in the comments made by non-Slytherins about Hermione, that she is “just as much of a wizard/witch” not because she can do magic at all, or she is committed and loyal to the new society she has been “naturalized” into, but because she has technical skill above her peers. I’d hate to be a mediocre muggleborn in that society.

  • Niemand

    I agree with the people who have been pointing out that the cardinal characteristic of Slytherin is supposed to be ambition, not racism or sliminess. But ambition above all else leads to some pretty slimy behavior. If you want to win more than you want anything else, you look for any advantage you can get. If you happen to be the right race/gender/sexual orientation/family magic status/coolness/whatever else you can think of then you might use that fact to make yourself look better than your not right race/etc rival. It’s the sort of thing an ambitious person might be tempted to do.

    But any of the houses’ major characteristics could lead to bad outcomes. A society full of Gryffindors might go extinct because they were all so brave that they never backed down in front of danger…and sometimes they’d lose the gamble. Loyalty, especially group loyalty as the Hufflepuffs are said to demonstrate might lead to something quite like the world in the books as the HPs followed their leaders, even when they don’t necessarily like their views. A society full of Ravenclaws…well, let’s just say that the only Ravenclaw who was a major character wasn’t the most practical person, even if she was pretty smart. It would depend on loyal and hard working house elves to do the practical and/or dirty work. And that leads to another type of evil, the evil of good people ignoring what their actions are producing.

    • Darren

      One of the best parts of HPMoR is, IMO, the massively better handling of Slytherin House and Draco than in the JKR cannon.

  • grok

    Re 7) the destruction of our plans, I’m watching “Shadowlands” tonite and decided to track down Lewis’s talk at the beginning:
    “Good evening. The subject of my talk tonight is love, pain and suffering. Of course, as a comfortably situated middle-aged bachelor I must be quite an authority on pain and love, wouldn’t you have thought?…”
    So what if it is God himself destroying our plans? An apt thought perhaps on the eve of Holy Thursday…

    • Yes, in CS Lewis’ case God ate all his plans by bringing a woman into his life and having them fall in love. Love is all about letting someone mess with your plans.

      • grok

        agree. It’s a moving story. It appears that Lewis’s love deepened/came alive as his wife developed cancer. One might speculate that he thus relived/re-experienced his mother’s death from cancer when he was aged 10. The ways of the Lord are mysterious…

  • Inquiring Mind

    Hey Leah,
    Are you still getting baptized on Saturday?