On the Usefulness of Poetry for Learning

There was a time when people realized
That poetry was easy to remember
And people wrote in verse — yes, essays too —
Because the rhythms and the lines which were
The same length as their short-term memory
Allowed them to remember what was written.
That’s also why so many plays were written
In verse, to help the actors memorize
The plays more easily. As we have moved
Away from rhythmic verse, we’ve also heard
Complaints about our students’ memories,
How they don’t seem to know a thing, it seems.
Perhaps if we were teaching everything
In blank verse lines so that our rhythmic brains
Could map the rhythmic lines more easily
Onto themselves, then we could memorize
Far more than we do now. The science is
Most certainly behind me on this thesis.

There was a kind of poetry intended
To teach the reader, which has fallen out
Of fashion. Once didactic poetry
Was well-respected. Alexander Pope
Wrote his Essay on Man not in dull prose
But rather in heroic couplets. Just
Consider these few lines of his knowledge:
“Say first, of God above or Man below
What can we reason but from what we know?”
Epistemology has never been
More clearly stated, or more beautifully.
We have as models of this kind of verse
The likes of Hesiod and Ovid, Virgil
And Shelley. Why have we rejected use
And information as an aim of verse?
It seems the very worst that Modernism
Contributed was the idea that
All art — and even the humanities —
Should be completely useless. Art for art’s
Sake, nothing more. Indeed, this freed
The arts, allowed proliferations of
Such forms as we had never seen in such
A short time period. And yet one has
To wonder why the usefulness of some
Art could not be retained. The structure of
Our brains allow the regularities
Of poetry to easily deliver
The information and ideas which
Bombard us in high qualities today,
So much of which we need to know to do
The complex jobs we have, to understand
The world in its complexity, which we
Did not evolve to really deal with. Yet
We have a tool — a tool which we discarded —
Which lets us learn so much so fast that we
Could even understand this world we live
In better and in much more depth than we
Do now. Can you imagine what we could
Learn more than we now think is possible?

Perhaps you don’t believe the things I say.
Well, let me ask you this: how many lines
Of prose can you recite? How many songs?
A song indeed is poetry, and you
No doubt can sing a couple dozen songs
Without a note to prompt you. Why is this?
Perhaps it is because all that I said
Is true. The rhythms and the rhymes of songs
And formal poetry get stuck and play
Themselves on your brain’s rhythmic circuitry.
When we get earworms, it is never prose,
But always songs which we hear in our heads.
Our memories are rhythmic and work best
With rhythms when we want to memorize
For quick recall. Imagine too the new
Ideas which our brains could formulate
If we in fact made use of what our brains
Could really do by taking full advantage
Of how it works. It is too bad that we
Don’t take advantage of the usefulness
Of poetry to learn about the world.
The sciences and the humanities
Could all be easily accessible,
Could easily be learned if we could just
Present it to our students in blank verse.

Alan Turing Chemistry

If you know the name Alan Turing, computers will immediately leap to mind. However, it turns out that Turing made some predictions about chemistry as well.

Many chemical reactions end up going to completion, with all the possible reactants doing their thing and producing a product that’s distributed uniformly within the reaction chamber. But under the right conditions, some chemical reactions don’t reach equilibrium. These reactions are what interested Turing, since they could generate complex patterns.

Turing’s paper on the topic focused on a reaction that could be controlled by the addition of two chemicals: an activator that promotes it and an inhibitor that slows it down. If you simply mix the two into a reaction, the outcome will simply depend on the balance between these two chemicals. But as Turing showed, interesting things can happen if you diffuse them into a reaction from different locations. And if the two chemicals diffuse at different rates, you can get complex patterns or reaction products like spots or tiger stripes.

Turing’s insight is that a combination of positive and negative feedback would result in complex patterns. This is basically an anticipation of Hector Sabelli’s bios theory.

The linked article is about the first practical application of Turing chemistry in the creation of a desalinization membrane. As simple physics is starting to reach the point of diminishing returns–resulting in a slowdown in technological innovations–we are needing to transition to complexity science and technology. This may be an important first step in that direction for the field of chemistry.

Theory of Mind and Expectations of Generosity

The theory of mind is essentially the belief that others have the same kind of mind as you have. While this can help us understand others’ motivations more often than not, it can also result in misunderstandings of others. It’s particularly pernicious with autism vs. neurotypical people, but it extends beyond that.

For example, consider the following scenarios:

I am a generous person
Therefore, other people are generous
Thus, I do not need to be forced to be generous
Thus, I oppose government programs that take money from me to give to other people

I am not a generous person
Therefore, other people are not generous
Thus, I need to be forced to be generous
Thus, I support government programs that take money from me to give to other people

I’m not saying this is how it necessarily always happens. But to what extent are each of these two scenarios true?

Of course, there’s a third option, which is that different people are generous to different degrees, and people should be free to do with their money as they wish, because it’s theirs. Which doesn’t prevent you from shaming others into being more generous. But then that would mean having to put effort into persuading others rather than forcing others.

What You Think, I Don’t Think

One of the benefits of learning I am on the autism spectrum has been the realization–the very deep realization–that practically nobody thinks like me. I don’t think most people really realize that others don’t think like them. At least, not in such a way that it affects their world view.

Most people think that other people are exactly like them. If someone acts in a way different from them, that difference is seen as a flaw or fault (the social justice warriors only invert this and declare that Western differences are flaws). Many men see women as flawed men; many women see men as flawed women. They’re both wrong.

The social sciences and the humanities are a complete mess because of this. Academics think everyone else thinks like them–like academics. Practically every stupid thing Marx thought can be traced to this fact. He looked upon the working masses with pity that they have to work at jobs they did not inherently enjoy, not realizing that only a few people thought that any work at all could or would be inherently enjoyable. The academic, the scientist, the artist, the inventor, the entrepreneur all find their work inherently pleasurable to do. Them, and nobody else. 20% of the population at best. The other 80% would rather be watching TV or browsing the internet. There is no work out there they would find inherently enjoyable. They work only because they must, and if they didn’t have to, they wouldn’t do a thing.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. I recently had some middle school kids tell me they thought the reading and writing I love was boring. Well, of course they did. Almost everyone on earth agrees with them. Very few love to read, and fewer still love to write. I decided to tease them by telling them I didn’t like sports because I find sports to be boring. They couldn’t even begin to imagine such a thing. They couldn’t imagine me finding sports boring any more than they could imagine finding reading and writing interesting, let alone a great joy.

So long as social scientists think everyone is really just like them, they are going to get practically everything in the social sciences wrong. There are a few who manage to have a great enough connection with non-academics, with that other 80%, to have non-stupid ideas in the social sciences, but they are very few indeed. Even those who come from working class backgrounds seem utterly oblivious–they likely spent most of their own childhoods with their nose in a book, and didn’t realize nobody else around them did or thought the things they did. And when they got into college, let alone grad school, that was the last they set eyes on any non-academic outside their own parents, who they called less and less often as the years went on.

And think about this: the people who most love learning and academics are the ones who are trying to reform education for the 80% who don’t.

The Euphemism Treadmill

In The Stuff of Thought Steven Pinker talks about the use of metaphor in politics, leading him to discussing George Lakoff’s recommendations to the Left on how to come up with metaphors to support their ideology. For example, Lakoff recommends that “taxes” be reframed “as “membership fees” that are necessary to maintain the services and infrastructure of the society to which we belong” (246). Let me suggest why this won’t work by referring you to another of Pinker’s works, The Blank Slate. In it he talks about something he calls the “euphemism treadmill.” That is where “People invent new words for emotionally charged referents, but soon the euphemism becomes tainted by association, and a new word must be found, which soon acquires its own connotations, and so on” (212). He then points out that we went from “water closet” to “toilet” to bathroom” to “restroom” to “lavatory.” He then observes that “The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are primary in people’s minds. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name, at least not for long” (213).

In other words, no matter what name we give taxes, it remains a fact that when you are taxed, that means that someone with more power than you is taking money that you earned and using it for projects that either directly or indirectly benefit them and which my or may not benefit you and which you may or may not agree with, and threatening to do you harm unless you hand over the money. When a private citizen does it, we call it being mugged. It is theft, plain and simple. Calling it a “membership fee” isn’t going to change that. It’s just putting lipstick on a pig.

Altruistic Racist Warriors vs. Selfish Tolerant Pacifists

In the Vol. 318, 26 Oct. 2007 issue of Science there is a fascinating article on pg. 636-640 titled “The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War” by Jung-Kyoo Choi and Samuel Bowles, with an accompanying review article on pg. 581-2 by Holly Arrow titled “The Sharp End of Altruism.”

Using computer simulations, Choi and Bowles show that if you create beings with the following traits: either altruistic (A) or non-altruistic (N) and either tolerant (T) or parochial, or anti-stranger (P), you end up with two stable populations, depending on the conditions. Under peacetime conditions, you get “a society of selfish but tolerant freetraders” (Arrow, 581), but under wartime conditions, you get “a warrior society in which people help one another but are hostile to outsiders” (581). The other two combinations — selfless, tolerant people and selfish racists — seem to be unstable combinations, though more stable under peacetime conditions than under times of war. The researchers observe that one doesn’t even need war to be that common for the PA combination to quickly dominate.

These conclusions make a lot of evolutionary sense. Without making the mistake of thinking of behavior as simply a choice between P and T genes, as behavior is more complex than that from both a genetic point of view and from a social point of view, by treating them as overarching behaviors that can be selected, we can see, nonetheless, that certain behaviors are more adaptive than others. Part of this has to do with territorialism. All land vertebrates are territorial to varying degrees. This allows individuals and groups to have enough food and water to continue to live. Protecting territory protects food. So we should expect species to protect their territory — which they do. Now, if a species is going to protect its territory, it must confront those who wish to intrude on or take that territory. Various rituals have evolved that allow many confrontations to end without violence. But sometimes that breaks down. And more, in chimpanzees, we see an outright preference for attacking and killing members of other groups when the balance is in favor of the attacking group. This assumption was used by the researchers, and it led to the creation of a preference for racist altruists — those that will sacrifice to protect family and tribe, but who hate and will attack those not in the tribe. Tolerant groups are less likely to attack first, meaning the racist groups are more likely to both attack first, killing the tolerant people of other groups. The end result is that the human race has evolved to be racist altruists.

Now, the fact that we evolved to be racist altruists who love war in no way excuses such behavior. But it seems that this combination is the most stable one under conditions of periodic war. The other combination is predominant under periods of peace: the TN individual. These people are tolerant of others and are willing to engage in interactions with people from different groups, yet are selfish. This is the paring most associated with Americans — and it is no doubt because America’s isolation from the rest of the world, keeping us out of constant wars, encourages the development of TN behavior. Does this mean PA is completely replaced? The authors don’t say, but let me expand on their research a little with some thoughts on my own. It seems likely that wars may have resulted in natural selection for genetic PA’s, though behavior, being complex, can still have other kinds of attributes built on it by society. So in the U.S., for example, while people may be more likely to be genetic PA’s, we have adopted the TN meme, and use it more often than we do the AP genetic tendencies we’re born with. But as the Japanese learned in WWII, it is not difficult to awaken the “sleeping dragon” of PA behavior latent in people.

It seems, though, that so long as there are wars, the PA genes-memes will continue to dominate. However, the bad news for many of the peace activists on the Left who are TA’s is that peace will not produce more of them. Rather, it appears that it will be more likely to produce more TN’s — people who are more and more likely to believe in and engage in free market economics. My guess is that Ayn Rand would be one of the few not surprised by this outcome.

1st Amendment and Churches

I encourage everyone to read the following article: Church Free Speech. It is an editorial on the way our government restricts political speech in the U.S. It turns out it was one of the many mad ideas of LBJ made law.This is perhaps not surprising, given the role of the churches in the civil rights movement. LBJ did what was politically expedient, and he said the right things in public, but the fact that many of his policies ended up having very racist outcomes, despite the War on Poverty rhetoric, should say everything about who he really was.

The First Amendment of the Constitution says that Congress shall make NO LAW either restricting the freedom of speech or setting up a state religion. This means that the government cannot tell people what they can or cannot say, particularly those in religious positions. It absolutely does not mean that religious leaders are not allowed to engage in political speech.

The tax-exempt status was a sinister way of shutting down political speech in our churches by first offering them something, and then threatening to take it away from them. Had it been in place, they would have been able to silence Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. before he even got started. Which, of course, is the intention of the law. The intention of the law is that it is and can be used to intimidate people to not engage in political speech. And that is outright illegal. It is time churches got together and brought this to the Supreme Court so we can get rid of this illegal law.

There’s an Open Door–What Do You Do?

A creator opens a door. He may be a creator of a new technology, a creator of a new work of art or literature, a creator of new values, a creator of new virtues, a creator of new ideas.

What do you do?

Do you ignore the open door?

Do you cower in fear that a door’s been opened?

Do you slam the door shut?

Do you murder the man who dared to open a previously unopened door?

Or do you go through the door?

And why do you do these things? If you do any but the last, what do you fear? How many would have the door shut because it’s not fair to already-open doors? How many would have the door shut because it opens into the unknown? How are either of these (left and right, respectively) different from the other in outcome?

How many who have opened doors have been denigrated, maligned, condemned, even as a few went through and, reporting back how beautiful the world is on the other side, get more to cross over, and the more who cross over, the more cross over, until the creator is celebrated as one of the great benefactors of humankind (though the more he may have profited from his success, the less great he’s perceived to be)?

Why do you envy the creators? Why do you fear them? Why do you punish them for being creators, for benefiting humankind? Without creators we would have no more–no more wealth, no more morality, no more art and literature, etc–than the chimpanzees. If you have more than a chimpanzee, it’s not because of wise governance (though truly wise governance helps), it’s not because of workers (though employees are necessary to mass produce the creator’s creations), but rather, it’s because of creators–creators who often had to create despite all your efforts against them.

And what do the creators want from you? Do they want accolades? Worship? Money? Actually, they don’t want any of those things–not really (though mutually beneficial exchange and/or a good reputation signals the general value of their creations). No, what they really want is just to be left alone, to be allowed to keep creating. To not be imposed upon, punished, denigrated, expected to do more and more and more and more and more, expected to “give back” when all they have ever done is give.

Each and every creator offers a gift to the world. And too often, the world throws their gifts to the ground and says, “How dare you!” That is why it took so long for wealth to be created. But when the cultural conditions changed, albeit all too briefly, to a celebration of creativity, there was an explosion of wealth unlike the world had ever seen.

More and more, though, we are returning to the old attitude of “How dare you!” True wealth creation is flattening out (yes, there are increasing wealth disparities, but don’t confuse wealth with riches–the “wealthy” are getting “wealthier” in no small part because governments are increasingly protecting the already-rich from competition and thus from losing their riches), the arts and sciences have mostly stagnated, philosophy is busy counting the number of (secular) angels that can dance on the head of a pin, and philanthropy seems to be positively withering as government replace private philanthropy with far less effective government programs. And all of this comes from a combination of fear of change and protection of cronies from competition–both of which ask for the same results and use the same methods.

If you want to kill the contemporary increasingly global society–and a few billion people–I strongly recommend staying the course and despising creators. Anyone who isn’t a misanthropist, though, should celebrate the world’s creators, and work to create the conditions for their continued success in order to encourage even more creative people to create more and more and thus to increase the cultural, material, and spiritual wealth of the world.

On the Origin of Law

Laws (all laws in general, including laws of the universe) emerge from the interactions of the elements of the system. With humans, it is interactions within a social system that first give rise to custom-laws, which then develop into government-laws. Government laws are written down codes that have developed in the society at large. Nobody is actually inventing new laws ex nihilo, but rather observe laws emerging, then give then a name. I think if we truly understand the origins of laws, we will be able to more fully understand their role (and what their role should be) in our lives. Should every custom-law be turned into a government-law? Which custom-laws should be? Which should not? Are there some laws that are created in order to create new custom-laws? Are bottom-up laws better (or always, or necessarily better, if they are better) than top-down laws? (My own opinion: they are. Why? Because of the nature of complex systems. Though this does not mean that we don’t need the occasional top-down corrective of bad bottom-up custom-laws.)

What does it mean for the understanding of law and justice if we take a complex systems approach to understanding the origins and consequences of law?


Discipline and disciple (which means “pupil”) have the same roots for a reason. Without discipline, you cannot be a pupil, you cannot be a student, you cannot learn. Proper discipline, especially self-discipline, is what gives us true freedom. Liberty is not libertinage. Freedom is not chaos. Freedom is the golden mean between order and chaos — it is arrived at through discipline.