Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: scale (page 1 of 1)

Cassiodorus College

For a few years, starting around a decade ago, I blogged at The American Conservative. Sometime in the not-too-distant past, they memory-holed all my posts — without bothering to inform me that they’d be doing so. Classy move, folks! Anyway, I might occasionally re-post stuff I wrote there — assuming I can find the drafts on my hard drive. (If I were desperate to retrieve anything, which I’m not, I could of course eventually find it with the Wayback Machine.) Here’s one to accompany my School for Scale idea. 

I think the world needs a quirky and extremely rich venture capitalist to fund my great project, Cassiodorus College. Tag line: Where the New Liberal Arts Meet the Old. Foundational courses will include:

Memorization and Recitation. An introduction to mnemomics, both through modern techniques and history. Books assigned will include The Art of Memory by Frances Yates and The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan Spence. Attention will be given to memorizing long poems, long speeches, meaningful numerical sequences, and nonsense.

Reading: Natural and Formal Languages. An exploration of the very different skills required to read natural languages and formal languages, especially computer programming languages. A key question will be: Why is computer code easier to write than to read, while natural language is generally the other way around. Attention will be given to the neuroscience of reading but also to the conditions under which reading can be intensely pleasurable.

Composition: Natural and Formal Languages. A course devoted to the exploration of three compositional modes: writing English essays, writing computer code, and the mediating experience of writing English essays while using markup languages, primarily HTML and LaTeX. The first part of this course will begin by having students spend extended periods hand-writing memorable poetry and prose in commonplace books, alternating that with typing into a terminal code examples from Donald Knuth’s Art of Computer Programming. Only very gradually will they progress to writing their own essays and their own code.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Stolen directly from Edward Tufte, whose books will be our texts. However, we will also explore the ways in which the various software tools available for making graphs, charts, and the like constrain our organizational and display choices. We will also give attention to the principles of excellent design, including the design of text.

Mathematical Reasoning and Rhetoric. An introduction to mathematics as a mode of thinking and a subsequent exploration of how the best principles of mathematical reasoning are routinely defied when numbers are presented to the public. Tufte is useful here too, for example, on how faulty presentation of data can lead to disasters.

Care of Plants and Animals. An idea stolen from W. H. Auden, who said that in his “daydream College for Bards” every would-be poet should tend a vegetable garden and care for a domestic pet. A great idea not just for bards. 

Please get in touch if you’re filthy rich and want to bankroll this glorious endeavor. 


Effective altruism is an admirable movement, and I hope it spreads. But one of my chief concerns about the movement is how obsessively focused it is on financial matters. The question seems always to be “Where should I put my money?” This is not surprising, since the movement is so closely associated with wealthy engineers, and more specifically with Silicon Valley, where “scaling up” is often treated as a necessity. The EA emphasis is always on measurable goods, and on “maximizing utility,” with maximization primarily defined as “numbers of people helped.” If that’s how you orient yourself, then of course you end up with longtermism, because the future gives you the requisite scale. EA is thus the most perfect distillation yet of metaphysical capitalism

So: Imagine a person who is both chronically ill and desperately lonely.

An EAer committed to longtermism would be on principle opposed to paying for the medical treatment of one person living now: that doesn’t scale and therefore doesn’t maximize utility. (I don’t think any effective altruist would disagree with this; the movement places a premium on eschewing sentimentality.) 

The matter of loneliness is more interesting. It would probably be invisible to the EAer because nothing about loneliness or human connection is easily measurable, nor obviously addressable with money. (Not that people haven’t tried.) The ill and lonely person, if given a choice, might prefer illness within a loving community to rude good health in continued isolation; but that’s not something that the EAer can readily factor in. 

But EAers need to think about this. Perhaps their monetary gifts can contribute to a future world in which disease is unknown and lifespans are dramatically extended; but what if those magnificently healthy people are miserable? What if they despise their long lives? It is certainly true that “thousands have lived without love, not one without water” — but have the loveless ones lived well?

What would EA look like if it asked not just about physical well-being but about the human need to love and be loved? For one thing, it would be less tempted by the abstractions and airy speculations of longtermism; for another, it would have to reckon with the limited power of money to address human ills. It would call into question its commitment to what Dickens, in Bleak House, called “telescopic philanthropy.” It would have to consider the possibility that the best way to ensure human flourishing in the future would be to strengthen our bonds with one another today. 

This alternate-world EA might even take as its model someone I have mentioned in an earlier post, a character from that same novel, Esther Summerson. Esther is trying to avoid being recruited by Mrs. Pardiggle, a Victorian predecessor of EA perhaps, who has a “mechanical way of taking possession of people” and wants Esther to do the same.  

At first I tried to excuse myself for the present on the general ground of having occupations to attend to which I must not neglect. But as this was an ineffectual protest, I then said, more particularly, that I was not sure of my qualifications. That I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated, and addressing them from suitable points of view. That I had not that delicate knowledge of the heart which must be essential to such a work. That I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others, and that I could not confide in my good intentions alone. For these reasons I thought it best to be as useful as I could, and to render what kind services I could to those immediately about me, and to try to let that circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself. 

P.S. Maybe, given the clear correlation between religious commitment and happiness, even in the absence of robust physical health, the best thing the altruist who wants to be truly effective could do is support religious institutions. Making them stronger today would help them to be stronger in the future, so even the longtermist could sign on to such a project. Yay utilitarianism! 

scale again

Monday November 7 2022 – by Sasha Frere-Jones

Scale serves wealth. “Scale” is a polite way of saying “love of numbers” and the numbers are there only in the hope that the money will follow them. Very few people stay on Twitter for any length of time without thinking about income. “It is the thing I must do,” the hardcore user thinks, “because this will bring me more of more and that will improve my work situation.” I’ve had 50,000 followers on Twitter and 5,000, at different points and with different accounts. My life was better with 5,000 — the more recent stretch — but I ultimately have no proof that more people read my work or listened to my music in either instance. The exposure metric indicates only that I am being exposed; it does not prove the quality of any event or even correlation, any more than a song being on the radio proves that someone is listening to it carefully or is likely to buy it. If anything good happened, it was probably me goofing with the friends I already have chats with. 

Via Austin Kleon. See my School for Scale. And me on eyeballs and audiences. Interesting that so many people are thinking about these things as they’re reconsidering Twitter. 

Russell Moore

Today’s American evangelical Christianity seems to be more focused on hunting heretics internally than perhaps in any other generation. The difference, however, is that excommunications are happening not over theological views but over partisan politics or the latest social media debates.

I’ve always found it a bit disconcerting to see fellow evangelicals embrace Christian leaders who teach heretical views of the Trinity or embrace the prosperity gospel but seek exile for those who don’t vote the same way or fail to feign outrage over clickbait controversies.

But something more seems to be going on here — something involving an overall stealth secularization of conservative evangelicalism. What worries me isn’t so much that evangelical Christians can’t articulate Christian orthodoxy in a survey. It’s that, to many of them, Christian orthodoxy seems boring and irrelevant compared to claiming religious status for already-existing political, cultural, or ethnonational tribes. 

A strong and sad Amen to this. It is perfectly clear that there is a movement in America of people who call themselves evangelicals but have no properly theological commitments at all. But what’s not clear, to me anyway, is how many of them there are. Donald Trump can draw some big crowds, and those crowds often have a quasi-religious focus on him or anyway on what they believe he stands for — but those crowds are not large in the context of the entire American population. They’re very visible, because both Left and Right have reasons for wanting them to be visible, but how demographically significant are they really?  

I have similar questions about, for instance, the “national conservatism” movement. Is this actually a movement? Or is it just a few guys who follow one another on Twitter and subscribe to one another’s Substacks? 

Questions to be pursued at the School for Scale, if I can get it started. 

Can’t stop? Won’t stop.

It’s not just Wordle, the App Store is a total mess | Macworld:

It’s would be a trivially small amount of money for Apple to create an internal group dedicated to proactively finding and eliminating scam, copycat, infringing, exploitive apps. But every one it finds costs Apple money. And doing nothing isn’t hurting sales, not when it’s so much cheaper to just market the App Store as so secure and trustworthy. Apple seems to view App Store trust and quality as a marketing activity more than a real technical or service problem. 

Jason Cross is absolutely correct. Whenever you hear one of our tech megacompanies say “Our platform is simply too big — we can’t effectively fight abuse” (of whatever kind), what they mean is “Our platform is simply too big — we can’t effectively fight abuse without reducing our profit margins.”

an artifact of scale

David Spiegelhalter and Anthony Masters:

We tried this strategy [telling people about the incorrect interpretation before they catch it in the wild] back in June 2021 when Public Health England first published data showing that, among older people who had recently died with Covid-19, most had been vaccinated. We wrote an article pointing out that this did not mean the vaccine was ineffective – just that it was imperfect – and that the great majority of people had been vaccinated: in essence, a small proportion of a large number can be bigger than a larger proportion of a small number. Another useful analogy is with seatbelts: most people who die in car accidents are wearing seatbelts, but this does not mean that seatbelts are not effective – it’s just that nearly everyone wears one and they are not perfect.

The response to our “pre-bunking” was not encouraging. The Twitter link to our article included only its title, Why most people who now die with Covid in England have had a vaccination, and not the subhead, Don’t think of this as a bad sign, it’s exactly what’s expected from an effective but imperfect jab. As such, it was mistakenly interpreted as an anti-vaccination article (or worse) and circulated online. This, in turn, led to critical comments suggesting that we had encouraged vaccine scepticism and even an extraordinary tweet saying we (and the paper’s editors) were “genocidal” and should be “hunted down and destroyed”. We made light of this, saying this seemed a bit harsh, but we had had worse referees’ reports.

Morals of this story: People only read the headlines — at most — and no matter what opinion a public person has, someone on Twitter will demand his or her death. 

Also — and I think this is largely a matter of scale, with which I have been so concerned for a while now — it is virtually impossible to get people to understand that “a small proportion of a large number can be bigger than a larger proportion of a small number.” Long numbers rocket the mind

From a New York Times correction:

The article also misstated the number of Covid hospitalizations in U.S. children. It is more than 63,000 from August 2020 to October 2021, not 900,000 since the beginning of the pandemic.

Ah yes, the problem of scale again. I know I beat this drum all the time, but it’s so important. Imagine this correction from the Gray Lady: 

The article also misstated the typical speed limit on American Interstate highways. It is 70 miles per hour, not 1,000 miles per hour. 


The article also misstated the highest number of points ever scored by one player in an NBA game. It is 100, not 1,428. 

All three errors are proportionately the same. We can easily see that my imaginary examples are absurd, but how many Times readers doubted the claim of 900,000 children hospitalized for Covid? Not one in 63,000, I suspect. The scale of the phenomenon is just too big for us to have reliable intuitions about accuracy or inaccuracy.  


Paul Kingsnorth:

The impacts of a society predicated on boundless economic growth via boundless sensory stimulation are at least in some ways measurable. Visit this website, for example, and you can see a real-time counter which will tell you just how much waste has been dumped around the world this year as a result of this way of living. At the time of writing, the counter is reading 1.4 billion tonnes. It’s only September.

We can enjoy our little towns here in the richer bits of the world because the waste we generate through our excitable purchases of big-screen tellies, lego sets, foreign holidays, cheap clothes, cheap food and all the rest of it always ends up somewhere else. The dioxins and PCBs go into the water and soil, the plastic goes into the oceans, the carbon dioxide goes into the air. Fifty million tonnes of ‘e-waste’ is shipped every year to the poorest countries on Earth, which are least equipped to deal with it. But then they’re not really supposed to deal with it: they’re supposed to keep it away from us. We don’t know what else to do with all this crap, so we — for example — ship 4000 tonnes of toxic waste, containing carcinogenic chemicals, to Nigeria, and just dump it on the beaches. The same way we dumped 79,000 tonnes of asbestos on the beaches in Bangladesh, and 40 million tonnes of our poisonous waste in just one small part of Indonesia. The same way we run our old ships up onto the beaches in China and India, and leave them for the locals to break up — if they can. The same way we dump nine million tonnes of plastic into the oceans every year

I unequivocally support the point Kingsnorth is making here, but … I really dislike this kind of numerically bludgeoning rhetoric. The problem, as so often, involves scale. One point four billion metric tons of waste is obviously a lot … but is it, you know, a lot? How even to think about these matters? Wolfram Alpha tells me that the earth weighs 5.97×10^21 metric tons; in comparison to that 1.4 billion isn’t even a rounding error. The mind boggles at these digits, does it not? 

What would be a reasonable amount of waste for seven billion people to produce, an amount that would indicate ecologically appropriate living? Whatever the answer is, any number expressing it would still seem massive to us. If you cited it readers would be horrified. Or maybe just numbed, as they are by these numbers. 

Richard Wilbur was right to warn his imagined prophet against invoking “the long numbers that rocket the mind.” Similarly, Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito reflects on the ways our attention is naturally drawn to smaller rather than larger tragedies — this, he thinks, is the inevitable, the human, “arithmetic of compassion.” A few photographs would serve Kingsnorth’s point better than the incomprehensible numbers he cites. 

Now I’m wondering how many people read this and think, Yeah, but seven percent is a lot! In short, we still need the School for Scale. Also instruction in decimal points.

scale, cont’d.

The other day I published, at the Hedgehog Review site, a little dialogue on scale, and the common human inability to understand the scale at which many of the events that affect our lives happen.

Something happens almost every day to confirm the points I make there, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better illustration of the problem than the behavior of the people who assembled in anger at the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday. I heard an interview with one protestor who shouted that the protestors were there because they knew they were being lied to and cheated by the deep state, by the lamestream media, by the Democrats, by RINOs — and they knew it, he said, because of “what we’ve seen with our own eyes.”

What did he mean? I can’t be sure, but I suspect that there are two chief elements to his claim.

  1. He has almost certainly attended Trump rallies and seen massive crowds cheering the President on (something that Trump himself has often commented on, contrasting the large size of his crowds to the meager attendance at Joe Biden’s drive-in-movie-style rallies); likewise, I would bet that, wherever he might live, in his neighborhood the pro-Trump lawn signs stretch as far as the eye can see, with nary a pro-Biden sign to be found.
  2. He has almost certainly seen video clips which, their posters falsely claim, show voting fraud in action. Those clips have been tweeted and retweeted, shared and faved, held up as evidence again and again by people disinclined to do any fact-checking.

To him, then, it is simply not possible that President Trump lost the election. The evidence of his own eyes tells him that the President won in what Trump himself called, in a since-removed tweet, “a sacred landslide election victory.”

What that man does not understand is that everything he has seen — even under the wholly untenable assumption that the viral videos show actual fraud — amounts to no more than a drop in the American electoral lake. It’s statistically insignificant; it’s not even a rounding error. He simply does not understand how big his country is, how many people vote in its elections.

And the point of my post was: That kind of understanding is extremely difficult to achieve. We are simply not cognitively wired to think on that scale. Which is why my little dialogue raises the possibility of a “School for Scale” to teach us. Because if we, all of us, don’t get a grip on these matters, we, all of us, will continue to perpetuate massive and massively consequential misunderstandings of our country and our world.