Achievement And The Cognitive Time-Horizon

 At EconLog, Bryan Caplan has a great post on "unschooling," and specifically the fact that he thinks "unschooled" children ought to be required by the parent/instructor to do one or two hours of math a day, even though such a requirement violates the principle of "unschooling."

He thinks so because, in his experience, unschooled children are seldom strong in math. Here he is elaborating on the problem:

Won’t kids who would greatly benefit from math choose to learn math given the freedom to do so?  The answer, I fear, is: Rarely.  For two reasons:

First, math is extremely unfun for almost everyone.  Only a handful of nerds sincerely finds the subject engaging.  I’m a big nerd, and I’ve done piles of math, yet I’ve never really liked it.

Second, math is highly cumulative.  Each major stage of math builds on the foundation of the previous stages.  If you reach adulthood and then decide to learn math to pursue a newly-discovered ambition, I wish you good luck, because you’ll need it.

I think I'm less experienced than Caplan is, but for whatever it's worth, my experience has been this: The main difference between kids who become successful later in life and kids who don't is that the successful ones learn how to engage in "pain today" for "gain tomorrow." It's the ability to relate a current very unpleasant task to a handsome reward in a far-distant future. 

The kids I know and knew learned this skill from practicing either sports or music. Once they learned it, though, they were able to apply that skill to things like math, computer languages, foreign languages, and anything else that ended up giving them an advantage later in life. 

So, I like Caplan's keyhole solution here a lot; but I also wonder what the best way to teach this kind of perseverance is. As I said, the only way I really know how to teach this skill to somebody is by introducing them to a sport or musical instrument and helping him or her excel. The process of tirelessly practicing a thankless task like free-throws or etudes, followed by eventual success, imparts upon the child an indelible sense that hard practice over the course of weeks and months produces excellence. Once you've learned that, nothing in life can stop you.

But, what's your opinion? How do you think we can best teach this skill to children?


Virtue Signals

Here's another post I've been trying to write for a long time. This one's about letting other people know that you're a good person.

Ordinarily, we might call this kind of behavior "virtue signaling," but that, of course, is a loaded term these days. Nonetheless, there are ways that all of us try to demonstrate to other people that we are not fiendish knaves. 

After having spent decades of my life living among religious conservatives of different stripes, I've come to realize that, for many if not most religious adherents, the religion itself is less an expression of a person's metaphysical beliefs as it is an expression of the fact that a person wants to let other people know that he or she is good.

This is why "the one, true faith" is always the one you were born into. It's never the case that the great cosmic truth is the one that was taught to people on a different continent somewhere, it's always the one right there within your own community. There are plenty of people who study religion and come across one that profoundly speaks to them for various reasons, but for the average adherent, it's much more common that people follow the predominant faith because "that's what good people do." They want to be good people, so that's what they do: they go to church, they present themselves as god-fearing people, they wear the right clothes, say the right prayers, and use the right terminology. All of this is to let the people around them know that they are committed to being ethical by the standards of the surrounding community.

It is much more difficult to convince people that you are a good, ethical human being if you belong to a minority faith, or to no faith at all. Believe me, I've tried to explain to people the basis of my ethics and the fact that I live by good morals every day of my life. It's a tough sell to them, because what they know of good people is that good people are "good Christians," or "good Muslims," or whatever the case might be. To them, I have some explaining to do. It might not be fair, but it is what it is; whereas a person wearing a crucifix or a hijab has much less explaining to do within their own communities. Everyone can see that they are people of faith. Additional conclusions about their moral character naturally follow. 

And so it is that religion, especially nowadays, functions as a sort of social shorthand for "I'm a good person." 

I started thinking about this today because I discovered a newer kind of social signal that serves the same function. To a large extent, leftist politics are not so much a set of policy views as they are a signal to like-minded people that "I am a good person." Someone recently told me about his new favorite guitar player, and he was extremely excited to point out that she was also a woman, and a woman of color at that. We all listen to music with our ears, not with our implicit biases, so her gender and race identities were completely beside the point. Why even bring them up? Well, it's simple: he wanted to tell me that not only is this a great guitar player, but rest assured, he himself is also a trusted "ally" in the leftist cause. He didn't know that I didn't care about that, either. (Really, just tell me about the music, please.) But that's how it works.

Similarly, some people are very keen to tell me, when they learn that I used to live in Canada, that they themselves often dream of moving to Canada. I think the assumption there is that we are supposed to bond over the fact that Canada is more appropriately leftist than the savage United States. The information is presented as a signal to me, and I am suppose to use it to note that the person with whom I am speaking is a good person.

They are, in fact, just as much a good person as the other person I spoke to earlier, who might have said goodbye to me by saying, "Have a blessed day." 

It's easy for me, an atheist and a libertarian, to allow these kinds of comments to get on my nerves. Indeed, when I was very young and stuck in an incredibly closed religious conservative community, I considered it to be a kind of bullying. Over the years, however, I've grown to realize that the true purpose is simply to signal conformity to the idea of The Good. For the religious, it is the trappings of religion; for the left, it is the trappings of leftism. The point is not to spread or even to highlight either thing. The point is merely to present oneself as good.

Ever since I realized this, I've been interpreting these signals that way. It reduces a lot of conflict and confusion.


Dating Advice

I wanted to write this post years ago, but at the time I originally conceived it, I was in a relatively new relationship with my now-wife, and I had been having a lot of dating conversations with friends about their own situations. I worried that writing this post then would make people think that I was writing specifically about them, or specifically about me. In a way, I suppose I would have been, but that doesn't mean my advice would have been wrong.

In the ensuing years, my relationship blossomed into a successful marriage, while the situations of those friends of mine didn't ultimately pan out. Forgiving me the small sample size, it appears that my approach is the better one. I think it's finally time I wrote my post on how to search for and choose a life partner. In other words, this is my post on dating advice.


The approach most people take toward dating is that they meet someone "somehow." "Somehow" might be in school, or at work, or in a social club, or through a mutual friend, or at a party. The initial sparks fly, the connection is there, and so they agree to go on a date. From there, the two of them adopt "dating mentality," and it all goes downhill.

For people who have seemingly exhausted their potential for casual introductions, or for people who refuse to engage in them at all, there are options to skip the step where initial sparks fly and go straight to "dating mentality:" Tinder, Match.com, and so on. I don't have a problem with these platforms, since their main purpose is to introduce people who wouldn't otherwise have had the opportunity to meet. In my book, that's a good thing. But it's worth noting that it's not the only or best way to be introduced to a potential partner.

Dating Mentality

So, what is "dating mentality?" I compare this to the way some people choose to run when they want to get in shape. Caught up in images of things they have seen before, they hunch up their shoulders and scuffle down the sidewalk in bizarre display of "jogging." No one would ever run like that if they were being chased by a man-eating tiger. When you really need to run, you get the hell out of there. The human body knows how to run. So, why do people do that weird jogging motion? Because they think "that's how you jog."

"Dating mentality" is like that, only instead of running, it's dating. People engage in a bizarre set of behaviors that would come across as insane or rude in any other context. More to the point, no one would ever act like they date in a healthy marriage. So, why do people engage in "dating mentality?" Because they think "that's how you date."

What are some examples of "dating mentality?" Here are some, off the top of my head:

  • Endlessly shit-testing your date to find out if they can take the "real you," instead of presenting your true self as an open book and letting your date decide if that's what they want.
  • Concocting a complex set of rules about when you will and will not shake hands, hug, kiss, or have sex, rather than letting the relationship proceed organically and according to the desires of both participants.
  • Constructing a list of ideal character traits in a mate, and then pumping your date for information to determine whether they possess those traits. Another way of describing this is: Seeking out reasons to end the date and the relationship as early as possible, based on a pre-formed mental model.
  • Hastening the date and the relationship toward sex without letting the relationship proceed organically and according to the desires of both participants. This usually happens under the argument that "I'm just dating and having fun," or sometimes, "Hey, I have needs, and I'm looking for someone who can meet them."
Without a doubt, these are the kinds of behaviors that are sure to keep you single for a long time. If you want to stay single, by all means, do any and all things on this list. 
I can assure you that, so long as you continue to engage in "dating mentality," you will remain single until such time as you become exhausted by it. In fact, I suspect that a non-trivial number of marriages occur when two people who have been engaging in "dating mentality" become exhausted by it at the same time. There was nothing special about that particular relationship, they just both finally happened to reach a point where they couldn't take it anymore; and they happened to be dating each other at the time, so marriage was the next logical step. I do not think such marriages often end up happy.

Now that we know what not to do, let's think about what better thing to do instead.

Knowing What You Want Is The First Step Toward Actually Getting It

The first thing we should all do before we begin dating is develop a picture of what we want our lives to look like, say, twenty years into the future. Twenty years is long enough to overcome all the silly indecisive things like, "I'm not ready for kids," or "I want to be in a good place before I _______." Twenty years is the point after which you've figured all that stuff out, and you've proceeded to a life that reflects your true values. 

To wit, in twenty years, you'll either already have kids, because you want kids, or you definitely won't have kids, because you don't want them. In twenty years, you'll be living in your permanent dwelling, in your permanent location, be it the big city or the suburbs or the country. In twenty years, your career will be stable enough that you'll be able to make plans about the future. You'll likely have obtained the important things you need, such as a car or a house, or you will have paid off all or most of your student debt. None of those things will be top-of-mind in twenty years, and so what will remain is the kind of life you want to lead, according to your values.

This is important because it cuts straight to what you actually do value. We have a tendency to get caught up in things like, "I want my partner to be funny" or "I want my partner and I to be sexually compatible." That's all fine, as far as it goes, but what you really need to do is exclude all potential mates who aren't on the same life-path that you are. You're never going to be happy if you want to settle into a nice home, while your spouse wants to join the foreign service. You're never going to be happy if your spouse wants children, but you don't. You're never going to be happy if the two of you can't get the basic, fundamental vision of life more or less correct.

Don't Care About Anything That Doesn't Matter

The second step toward getting what you want is to stop caring about anything that doesn't speak directly to your vision of the future. In other words, if you've been carrying around the idea that your ideal mate comes from the same culture or religion as you, or that you'd never date an artist, or that you dislike people with long hair... just forget about all that

The right person for you is the one who can keep you satisfied in the long run. Superficial things like hair and hobbies won't matter to you in twenty years. Even supposedly significant things like culture are largely irrelevant. Honestly, in twenty years' time, it's going to matter a lot more that your spouse wants children than it will that she wants to raise them in the Jewish faith. And while you might object to Judaism (or Hinduism, or whatever it might be), none of those objections occupy your mind during the better part of any day. If you object so much to a person's cultural traditions that you can't let them do their thing for 20 minutes in the morning, or for two hours every Sunday, and that you're willing to give up something like children or sexual compatibility just so that you don't have to bear witness to an off-putting cultural quirk... I've got news for you: You're probably not going to make anyone happy and you should forget about the prospect of finding a life partner.

The lion's share of what you think you care about, in fact, doesn't matter. It won't matter in twenty years that your spouse is short, or bald, or black, or a "jock," or anything else. What matters is whether you've managed to build a life that looks like something you want to live in, a life you actually want to experience day in, day out. 

If your objection to a potential mate doesn't speak to that, then it simply isn't a credible objection.

Now That You Know What You Want, Be The Person Who Deserves It

The final bit of advice is the most important piece of the whole shebang. It's great that you want to date the hottest woman in your community; but if you don't take care of your looks, and you don't make much money, and you don't have a lot of talent... then it doesn't really matter. It's great that you have your heart set on a nice man who treats you gently, but firmly and who provides for you willingly and unconditionally; but if you spend most of your time eating snacks and binge-watching Netflix... then it doesn't really matter.

The point here is that the most attractive people to you are people that you are going to need to be attractive for. You can't just sit back and wait for the ideal person to discover you and decide of their own volition that, without having to make yourself into anything better than what you are, you're the best thing that ever happened to them. Get real. You're probably not even the best thing that happened to yourself.

All isn't lost, though. Like every other human being out there, you can be better than you are. If you're not fit, consider hitting the gym; it couldn't hurt. If you're not very good at making conversation with strangers, consider joining the Toastmasters or something; a first date is a series of conversations you have to make with a stranger. If you're not a very talented person, consider getting a new hobby and developing a knack for it; better to be dedicated to something interesting and attractive than to have to look your dreamgirl-or-guy straight in the eye and say, "Oh, you know, I just like hanging out."

If you want someone to love you, then be someone worth loving. Everyone has weaknesses and shortcomings to chip away at. You'll never be a different person, but it's painfully easy to make progress on your major shortcomings with minimal effort. Think of it this way, if you could guarantee yourself perpetual marital bliss for the rest of your life in exchange for $10,000, wouldn't you do it? It's a small price to pay for permanent bliss. If you could guarantee yourself a really good marriage by reading a few books, taking a coding bootcamp, or shedding 20 pounds permanently, wouldn't you do it?

In the grand scheme of things, making yourself into a much better person in order to win the heart of a worthy spouse is a very, very small price to pay for having a worthy spouse! Have you seen those couples who are the envy of everyone who sees them? Do you think they got there through dumb luck? Of course not. They worked hard to become the people they are today, and when they finally met each other, they were ready for the beautiful relationship they now get to have.

And it can happen to you. But you have to be ready for it. So, become the person your future spouse wants to date.


Edward Van Halen, Rest In Peace

In light of the untimely death of Edward Van Halen, I felt inspired to listen to all of the band's studio work in chronological order. It was such a wonderful experience! It really was the best way to come to terms with his passing, and to enjoy what he gave to the world, to honor his memory. 

I thought I would share some of my thoughts after having listened to the full catalog in this way. These are just the thoughts I have after having dived deeply into the wonderful music of Van Halen.

1 - I honestly don't think there's a weak album in the whole catalog. We can say a lot about personal preferences, and there's no accounting for taste, but in terms of the quality of the music, every album is, in my opinion, excellent.

2 - When you listen to the albums back-to-back in chronological order, you get a much better feel for the underlying cohesiveness of the whole catalog. It's tempting to say there was a change in musical direction when Hagar joined the band, but if you listen to the compositions, it's really hard to make that case. 5150 and OU812 are natural, logical progressions from 1984.

3 - In general, all of the Van Hagar albums are extremely underrated. They are consistently musically interesting throughout, and Sammy Hagar was truly an incredible singer.

4 - Anyone who listens to "A Different Kind of Truth" with their ears on can tell that Wolfgang Van Halen is an incredible musician. It's just obvious. I don't understand how anyone could say or think otherwise. He's the bee's knees.

5 - About the only real gripe I have across all their albums is the fact that they did something really strange to Gary Cherone's voice on VHIII. I think if they had produced the vocals better on that album, it would have been better-received. That said, it is a pretty "out there" album for Van Halen, in terms of compositions and the semi-acoustic, softer tones employed, so I'm not surprised that most VH fans dislike it.

6 - For me, the most pleasant surprise was "Balance." I really love the eastern influences and the mystical lyrics. I think it's not Sammy's best vocal album, but the music is really, really good.

7 - Edward Van Halen created a really unique sonic niche with his compositions. There are elements of contemporary jazz seamlessly blended with hard rock and pop rock, and that is such a quirky blend. I think the contemporary jazz elements are what really define the VH sound - sue me! You can hear it! I can even hear the Allan Holdsworth influence. EVH has that same "chord sclaes" approach to his riffs, and yes also to his solos. It's absolutely lovely.

Anyway, if you have the chance to go through all their albums like I did, I encourage you to do so. It's a great experience.


Texas: The Ups And The Downs

Over at Econlog, Bryan Caplan has written a post about his impressions of Texas, based on his recent trip/speaking tour of the state. He correctly identifies many of the multiplicitous positive aspects of Texas and life here. 

 Texas has a lot going for it, but there are a few downsides. The main downsides are:

(1) Sprawl: I'm all for new development, but a sea of identical-looking houses interspersed by the occasional fast food chicken restaurant does not make for very pleasant living.

(2) Antipathy for plants? The older areas of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex are very nice indeed, with enormous oak trees and beautiful parks. In the newer, sprawling areas, all trees are instantly mowed-down and replaced with lawn and concrete. This makes the landscape uglier, hotter, and more prone to flooding.

(3) Government corruption: Many of Texas' infrastructure projects are simply boondoggles, transfers of wealth from the taxpayers to the construction-company friends of politicians. Road construction is the classic example, in which miles of highway are torn up, and then rebuilt exactly as it was before. Rather than improving or widening the roads, they simply tear them up and rebuild them again, over and over, in an endless transfer of taxpayer money to construction companies.

There are a few other things I could point to that I dislike, but the simple fact of the matter is that no location is perfect-perfect. But, for a happy mix of good weather, fine people, excellent economic opportunities, and low cost of living, Texas circa-2020 is about as good a place as you're likely to find out there in the world. 

I think most of the people who dislike it here have what I would call niche criteria when it comes to choosing a place to live. You won't find purple mountain majesties or a large Lebanese diaspora here, for example. Most of what Texas is lacking consists of these sorts of niches. If someone were to say, "I'll never live in a place where I can't have a weasel as a pet!" or "I insist on paying a state-level income tax!" then, okay, Texas might not be for you.

Still, for the average Joe, Texas is a great place to be. No wonder people keep moving here.