The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Introduction to the Black Swan

  • It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans.
  • First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact (unlike the bird). Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
  • Someone who took too many philosophy classes in college (or perhaps not enough) might object that the sighting of a Black Swan does not invalidate the theory that all swans are white since such a black bird is not technically a swan since whiteness to him may be the essential property of a swan.
  • In general, positive Black Swans take time to show their effect while negative ones happen very quickly—it is much easier and much faster to destroy than to build.
  • A life saved is a statistic; a person hurt is an anecdote. Statistics are invisible; anecdotes are salient. Likewise, the risk of a Black Swan is invisible.
  • The Black Swan has three attributes: unpredictability, consequences, and retrospective explainability.
  • We will have fewer but more severe crises. The rarer the event, the less we know about its odds. It means that we know less and less about the possibility of a crisis.
  • Of course the September 11 attack was a Black Swan to those victims who died in it; otherwise, they would not have exposed themselves to the risk. But it was certainly not a Black Swan to the terrorists who planned and carried out the attack. I have spent considerable time away from the weight-lifting room repeating that a Black Swan for the turkey is not a Black Swan for the butcher.

Important Terminologies

  • Platonicity is what makes us think that we understand more than we actually do.
  • The Platonic fold is the explosive boundary where the Platonic mind-set enters in contact with messy reality, where the gap between what you know and what you think you know becomes dangerously wide. It is here that the Black Swan is produced.
  • Naïve empiricism—successions of anecdotes selected to fit a story do not constitute evidence.
  • Mediocristan: When your sample is large, no single instance will significantly change the aggregate or the total. The largest observation will remain impressive, but eventually insignificant, to the sum.
  • In Extremistan, inequalities are such that one single observation can disproportionately impact the aggregate, or the total.
  • Mediocristan is where we must endure the tyranny of the collective, the routine, the obvious, and the predicted; Extremistan is where we are subjected to the tyranny of the singular, the accidental, the unseen, and the unpredicted.
  • Law of iterated knowledge – to understand the future to the point of being able to predict it, you need to incorporate elements from this future itself. [Hence] We do not know what we will know.
  • We overestimate the effects of both kinds of future events on our lives. We seem to be in a psychological predicament that makes us do so. This predicament is called “anticipated utility” by Danny Kahneman and “affective forecasting” by Dan Gilbert. The point is not so much that we tend to mispredict our future happiness, but rather that we do not learn recursively from past experiences.
  • Epistemic arrogance: Measure the difference between what someone actually knows and how much he thinks he knows. An excess will imply arrogance, a deficit humility. An epistemocrat is someone of epistemic humility, who holds his own knowledge in greatest suspicion.

Three facets of the Black Swan problem:

  1. The error of confirmation, or how we are likely to undeservedly scorn the virgin part of the library – the tendency to look at what confirms our knowledge, not our ignorance
  2. the narrative fallacy, or how we fool ourselves with stories and anecdotes
  3. How emotions get in the way of our inference
  4. the problem of silent evidence, or the tricks history uses to hide Black Swans from us.

Black Swans in Market World

  • So I disagree with the followers of Marx and those of Adam Smith: the reason free markets work is because they allow people to be lucky, thanks to aggressive trial and error, not by giving rewards or “incentives” for skill.
  • Stability and absence of crises encourage risk taking, complacency, and lowered awareness of the possibility of problems. Then a crisis occurs, resulting in people being shell-shocked and scared of investing their resources.
  • Capitalism is, among other things, the revitalization of the world thanks to the opportunity to be lucky. Luck is the grand equalizer, because almost everyone can benefit from it. The socialist governments protected their monsters and, by doing so, killed potential newcomers in the womb.
  • The inequality among the superrich is the same as the inequality among the simply rich—it does not slow down.

On Blurred Histories

  • History is opaque. You see what comes out, not the script that produces events, the generator of history. There is a fundamental incompleteness in your grasp of such events, since you do not see what’s inside the box, how the mechanisms work.
  • Much of what took place would have been deemed completely crazy with respect to the past. Yet it did not seem that crazy after the events. This retrospective plausibility causes a discounting of the rarity and conceivability of the event.
  • Events present themselves to us in a distorted way. Consider the nature of information: of the millions, maybe even trillions, of small facts that prevail before an event occurs, only a few will turn out to be relevant later to your understanding of what happened. Because your memory is limited and filtered, you will be inclined to remember those data that subsequently match the facts
  • While we have a highly unstable memory, a diary provides indelible facts recorded more or less immediately; it thus allows the fixation of an unrevised perception and enables us to later study events in their own context.
  • Another fallacy in the way we understand events is that of silent evidence. History hides both Black Swans and its Black Swan–generating ability from us.
  • The problems in projecting from the past can be even worse than what we have already learned, because the same past data can confirm a theory and also its exact opposite! If you survive until tomorrow, it could mean that either a) you are more likely to be immortal or b) that you are closer to death. Both conclusions rely on the exact same data.
  • There is a blind spot: when we think of tomorrow we do not frame it in terms of what we thought about yesterday on the day before yesterday. Because of this introspective defect we fail to learn about the difference between our past predictions and the subsequent outcomes. When we think of tomorrow, we just project it as another yesterday.

On Globalization

  • I separated the “idea” person, who sells an intellectual product in the form of a transaction or a piece of work, from the “labor” person, who sells you his work.
  • If you are an idea person, you do not have to work hard, only think intensely. You do the same work whether you produce a hundred units or a thousand.
  • And globalization has allowed the United States to specialize in the creative aspect of things, the production of concepts and ideas, that is, the scalable part of the products, and, increasingly, by exporting jobs, separate the less scalable components and assign them to those happy to be paid by the hour. There is more money in designing a shoe than in actually making it: Nike, Dell, and Boeing can get paid for just thinking, organizing, and leveraging their know-how and ideas while subcontracted factories in developing countries do the grunt work and engineers in cultured and mathematical states do the noncreative technical grind.
  • I spoke about globalization…it is here, but it is not all for the good: it creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse.

Black Swans of Emotions

  • Your happiness depends far more on the number of instances of positive feelings, what psychologists call “positive affect,” than on their intensity when they hit.
  • The same property in reverse applies to our unhappiness. It is better to lump all your pain into a brief period rather than have it spread out over a longer one.
  • The hippocampus takes the insult of chronic stress seriously, incurring irreversible atrophy. Contrary to popular belief, these small, seemingly harmless stressors do not strengthen you; they can amputate part of your self.
  • It is much easier to signal self-confidence if you are exceedingly polite and friendly; you can control people without having to offend their sensitivity.

On Randomness of Information

  • Randomness is fundamentally incomplete information.
  • You subsequently derive solely from past data a few conclusions concerning the properties of the pattern with projections for the next thousand, even five thousand, days. On the one thousand and first day—boom! A big change takes place that is completely unprepared for by the past.
  • We can get closer to the truth by negative instances, not by verification! It is misleading to build a general rule from observed facts. Contrary to conventional wisdom, our body of knowledge does not increase from a series of confirmatory observations,
  • You know what is wrong with a lot more confidence than you know what is right. All pieces of information are not equal in importance.
  • The more random information is, the greater the dimensionality, and thus the more difficult to summarize. The more you summarize, the more order you put in, the less randomness. Hence the same condition that makes us simplify pushes us to think that the world is less random than it actually is.
  • Memory is more of a self-serving dynamic revision machine: you remember the last time you remembered the event and, without realizing it, change the story at every subsequent remembrance.
  • I came out of the meeting realizing that only military people deal with randomness with genuine, introspective intellectual honesty—unlike academics and corporate executives using other people’s money.
  • For many people, knowledge has the remarkable power of producing confidence instead of measurable aptitude. Another problem: the focus on the (inconsequential) regular, the Platonification that makes the forecasting “inside the box.”

On Randomness of Events

  • Just as we tend to underestimate the role of luck in life in general, we tend to overestimate it in games of chance.
  • When you are employed, hence dependent on other people’s judgment, looking busy can help you claim responsibility for the results in a random environment.
  • We humans are the victims of an asymmetry in the perception of random events. We attribute our successes to our skills, and our failures to external events outside our control, namely to randomness.
  • The policies we need to make decisions on should depend far more on the range of possible outcomes than on the expected final number.
  • There is actually a law in statistics called the law of iterated expectations, which I outline here in its strong form: if I expect to expect something at some date in the future, then I already expect that something at present.
  • As the initial imprecision in the angle is multiplied, every additional bounce will be further magnified. This causes a severe multiplicative effect where the error grows out disproportionately.

Key Takeaways

On the Nature of Biases Towards Survival

  • There is a vicious attribute to the bias: it can hide best when its impact is largest.
  • This brings us to gravest of all manifestations of silent evidence, the illusion of stability. The bias lowers our perception of the risks we incurred in the past, particularly for those of us who were lucky to have survived them. Your life came under a serious threat but, having survived it, you retrospectively underestimate how risky the situation actually was.
  • This bias causes the survivor to be an unqualified witness of the process. Unsettling? The fact that you survived is a condition that may weaken your interpretation of the properties of the survival, including the shallow notion of “cause.”
  • Whenever your survival is in play, don’t immediately look for causes and effects. The main identifiable reason for our survival of such diseases might simply be inaccessible to us: we are here since, Casanova-style, the “rosy” scenario played out, and if it seems too hard to understand it is because we are too brainwashed by notions of causality and we think that it is smarter to say because than to accept randomness.

On Domain-Specificity

  • By domain-specific I mean that our reactions, our mode of thinking, our intuitions, depend on the context in which the matter is presented, what evolutionary psychologists call the “domain” of the object or the event.
  • We react to a piece of information not on its logical merit, but on the basis of which framework surrounds it, and how it registers with our social-emotional system.
  • But modern reality rarely gives us the privilege of a satisfying, linear, positive progression: you may think about a problem for a year and learn nothing; then, unless you are disheartened by the emptiness of the results and give up, something will come to you in a flash.

A Few Lessons by the Author

  • The way to avoid the ills of the narrative fallacy is to favor experimentation over storytelling, experience over history, and clinical knowledge over theories.
  • The lesson for the small is: be human! Accept that being human involves some amount of epistemic arrogance in running your affairs. Do not be ashamed of that. Do not try to always withhold judgment—opinions are the stuff of life. Do not try to avoid predicting—yes, after this diatribe about prediction I am not urging you to stop being a fool. Just be a fool in the right places.
  • The bottom line: be prepared! Narrow-minded prediction has an analgesic or therapeutic effect. Be aware of the numbing effect of magic numbers. Be prepared for all relevant eventualities.
  • First, make a distinction between positive contingencies and negative ones. Learn to distinguish between those human undertakings in which the lack of predictability can be (or has been) extremely beneficial and those where the failure to understand the future caused harm. There are both positive and negative Black Swans.
  • Do not try to predict precise Black Swans—it tends to make you more vulnerable to the ones you did not predict.
  • Invest in preparedness, not in prediction.
  • You cannot go from books to problems, but the reverse, from problems to books. This approach incapacitates much of that career-building verbiage. A scholar should not be a library’s tool for making another library,

On Truths about Mother Nature

  • Mother Nature does not like anything too big…a certain class of unforeseen errors and random shocks hurts large organisms vastly more than smaller ones.
  • Mother Nature does not like too much connectivity and globalization—(biological, cultural, or economic)…larger environments are more scalable than smaller ones—allowing the biggest to get even bigger, at the expense of the smallest, through the mechanism of preferential attachment
  • regular events can predict regular events, but that extreme events, perhaps because they are more acute when people are unprepared, are almost never predicted from narrow reliance on the past.

Principles for a Black-Swan-Robust Society

  1. What is fragile should break early, while it’s still small. Nothing should ever become too big to fail.
  2. No socialization of losses and privatization of gains. Whatever may need to be bailed out should be nationalized; whatever does not need a bailout should be free, small, and risk-bearing.
  3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus.
  4. Don’t let someone making an “incentive” bonus manage a nuclear plant—or your financial risks…Odds are he would cut every corner on safety to show “profits” from these savings
  5. Compensate complexity with simplicity. Complexity from globalization and highly networked economic life needs to be countered by simplicity in financial products…Complex systems survive thanks to slack and redundancy, not debt and optimization.
  6. Do not give children dynamite sticks, even if they come with a warning label. Complex financial products need to be banned because nobody understands them, and few are rational enough to know it.
  7. Only Ponzi schemes should depend on confidence. Governments should never need to “restore confidence.”
  8. Do not give an addict more drugs if he has withdrawal pains…The debt crisis is not a temporary problem, it’s a structural one.
  9. Citizens should not depend on financial assets as a repository of value and should not rely on fallible “expert” advice for their retirement. Economic life should be definancialized. We should learn not to use markets as warehouses of value: they do not harbor the certainties that normal citizens can require, in spite of “expert” opinions. Investments should be for entertainment.

Points to Contemplate

  • We do not spontaneously learn that we don’t learn that we don’t learn. The problem lies in the structure of our minds: we don’t learn rules, just facts, and only facts. Metarules (such as the rule that we have a tendency to not learn rules) we don’t seem to be good at getting. We scorn the abstract; we scorn it with passion.
  • Evidence shows that we do much less thinking than we believe we do—except, of course, when we think about it.
  • Nobody knew anything, but elite thinkers thought that they knew more than the rest because they were elite thinkers, and if you’re a member of the elite, you automatically know more than the nonelite.
  • An acronym used in the medical literature is NED, which stands for No Evidence of Disease. There is no such thing as END, Evidence of No Disease.
  • This nationality business helps you make a great story and satisfies your hunger for ascription of causes. It seems to be the dump site where all explanations go until one can ferret out a more obvious one (such as, say, some evolutionary argument that “makes sense”).
  • The überpsychologist Danny Kahneman has given us evidence that we generally take risks not out of bravado but out of ignorance and blindness to probability!
  • The problem is that our ideas are sticky: once we produce a theory, we are not likely to change our minds—so those who delay developing their theories are better off. When you develop your opinions on the basis of weak evidence, you will have difficulty interpreting subsequent information that contradicts these opinions, even if this new information is obviously more accurate.
  • No philosophy could be effective unless it took into account our deeply ingrained imperfections, the limitations of our rationality, the flaws that make us human.
  • Book reviewers anchor on other reviews and reveals powerful mutual influence, even in their wording.
  • The more you use a word, the less effortful you will find it to use that word again, so you borrow words from your private dictionary in proportion to their past use. This explains why out of the sixty thousand main words in English, only a few hundred constitute the bulk of what is used in writings, and even fewer appear regularly in conversation.
  • I have said that nobody is safe in Extremistan. This has a converse: nobody is threatened with complete extinction either. Our current environment allows the little guy to bide his time in the antechamber of success—as long as there is life, there is hope.
  • If I told you that two authors sold a total of a million copies of their books, the most likely combination is 993,000 copies sold for one and 7,000 for the other. This is far more likely than that the books each sold 500,000 copies. For any large total, the breakdown will be more and more asymmetric.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • I feared a Pyrrhic victory: I had been vindicated intellectually, but I was afraid of being too right and seeing the system crumble under my feet. I did not really want to be that right.
  • “Writing well” seemed to mean obeying arbitrary rules that had grown into gospel, with the confirmatory reinforcement of what we call “experience.” The writers she met were learning to retrofit what was deemed successful
  • To be genuinely empirical is to reflect reality as faithfully as possible; to be honorable implies not fearing the appearance and consequences of being outlandish.
  • Erudition is important to me. It signals genuine intellectual curiosity. It accompanies an open mind and the desire to probe the ideas of others. Above all, an erudite can be dissatisfied with his own knowledge, and such dissatisfaction is a wonderful shield against Platonicity, the simplifications of the five-minute manager, or the philistinism of the overspecialized scholar. Indeed, scholarship without erudition can lead to disasters.
  • The French have a word for this, flambeur, which means a mixture of extravagant bon vivant, wild speculator, and risk taker, all the while bearing considerable personal charm; a word that does not seem to be available in Anglo-Saxon cultures.
  • We can already see the difference between “know-how” and “know-what.” The Greeks made a distinction between technē and epistēmē. The empirical school of medicine of Menodotus of Nicomedia and Heraclites of Tarentum wanted its practitioners to stay closest to technē (i.e., “craft”), and away from epistēmē (i.e., “knowledge,” “science”).
  • We are quick to forget that just being alive is an extraordinary piece of good luck, a remote event, a chance occurrence of monstrous proportions.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

  • “Please stop inviting your ‘artiste’ friends over,” Tim says tiredly. “I’m sick of being the only one at dinner who hasn’t talked to an extraterrestrial.” “It was only that once,” Evelyn says, inspecting a lip, lost is her own placid beauty.
  • “Jesus Christ, Price, lighten up,” McDermott whines. “What’s your problem? Those girls were very hot.” “Yeah, if you speak Farsi,” Price says, handing McDermott a couple of drink tickets as if to placate him. “What?” Van Patten says. “They didn’t look Spanish to me.”
  • Whatever happens, the useless fact remains: Patricia will stay alive, and this victory requires no skill, no leaps of the imagination, no ingenuity on anyone’s part. This is simply how the world, my world, moves.
  • As usual this fails to soothe my fear, and it fills me with a nameless dread that someone out there has wasted the energy and time to think this up: to fake a photograph (and do a half-assed job at that, the thing looks like a fucking Big Mac) and send the photograph in to the Post, then for the Post to decide to run the story (meetings, debates, last-minute temptations to cancel the whole thing?), to print the photograph, to have someone write about the photo and interview the experts, finally to run this story on page three in today’s edition and have it discussed over hundreds of thousands of lunches in the city this afternoon. I close the paper and lie back, exhausted.
  • But she’s still talking; she doesn’t hear a word; nothing registers. She does not fully grasp a word I’m saying. My essence is eluding her. She stops her onslaught and breathes in and looks at me in a way that can only be described as dewy-eyed.
  • “So have either of you been abroad?” It hits me almost immediately what the sentence sounds like, how it could be misinterpreted. “I mean to Europe?”
  • And though it has been in no way a romantic evening, she embraces me and this time emanates a warmth I’m not familiar with. I am so used to imagining everything happening the way it occurs in movies, visualizing things falling somehow into the shape of events on a screen, that I almost hear the swelling of an orchestra, can almost hallucinate the camera panning low around us, fireworks bursting in slow motion overhead, the seventy-millimeter image of her lips parting and the subsequent murmur of “I want you” in Dolby sound.
  • Without even beginning to understand, I imagine, what a speck Paul Owen was in the overall enormity of things.
  • There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being– flesh, blood, skin, hair– but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.
  • “Patrick you are being a lunatic,” she says, shaking her head, now looking over the wine list. “Goddamnit, Evelyn. What do you mean, being?” I say. “I fucking am one.” “Must you be so militant about it?” she asks.
  • I’ve gone so far as to ask people– dates, business acquaintances– over dinners, in the halls of Pierce & Pierce, if anyone has heard about two mutilated prostitutes found in Paul Owen’s apartment. But like in some movie, no one has heard anything, has any idea of what I’m talking about. There are other things to worry over: the shocking amount of laxative and speed that the cocaine in Manhattan is now being cut with, Asia in the 1990s, the virtual impossibility of landing an eight o’clock reservation at PR, the new Tony McManus restaurant on Liberty Island, crack.
  • …where there was nature and earth, life and water, I saw a desert landscape that was unending, resembling some sort of crater, so devoid of reason and light and spirit that the mind could not grasp it on any sort of conscious level and if you came close the mind would reel backward, unable to take it in. It was a vision so clear and real and vital to me that in its purity it was almost abstract. This was what I could understand, this was how I lived my life, what I constructed my movement around, how I dealt with the tangible. This was the geography around which my reality revolved: it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, of receiving another person’s love or kindness.
  • Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in… this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged…
  • The conversation follows its own rolling accord– no real structure or topic or internal logic or feeling; except, of course, for its own hidden, conspiratorial one. Just words, and like in a movie, but one that has been transcribed improperly, most of it overlaps.

Daisy Miller by Henry James

A selection of my favourite passages from each story

Daisy Miller

★★★★☆ (4/5)

  • In this region, in the month of June, American travellers are extremely numerous, it may be said indeed, that Vevey assumes at this period some of the characteristics of an American watering-place.
  • There had not been the slightest alteration in her charming complexion; she was evidently neither offended nor fluttered. If she looked another way when he spoke to her, and seemed not particularly to hear him, this was simply her habit, her manner. Yet, as he talked a little more, and pointed out some of the objects of interest in the view, with which she appeared quite unacquainted, she gradually gave him more of the benefit of her glance; and then he saw that this glance was perfectly direct and unshrinking. It was not, however, what would have been called an immodest glance, for the young girl’s eyes were singularly honest and fresh.
  • He had a great relish for feminine beauty; he was addicted to observing and analysing it; and as regards this young lady’s face he made several observations. It was not at all insipid, but it was not exactly expressive; and though it was eminently delicate, Winterbourne mentally accused it — very forgivingly — of a want of finish.
  • Poor Winterbourne was amused, perplexed, and decidedly charmed. He had never yet heard a young girl express herself in just this fashion; never, at least, save in cases where to say such things seemed a kind of demonstrative evidence of a certain laxity of deportment.
  • Winterbourne wondered whether she was seriously wounded, and for a moment almost wished that her sense of injury might be such as to make it becoming in him to attempt to reassure and comfort her. He had a pleasant sense that she would be very approachable for consolatory purposes. He felt then, for the instant, quite ready to sacrifice his aunt, conversationally, to admit that she was a proud, rude woman, and to declare that they needn’t mind her.
  • ‘I myself shall make a fuss if you don’t go,’ said Winterbourne. ‘That’s all I want — a little fuss!’ And the young girl began to laugh again. ‘Mr. Randolph has gone to bed!’ the courier announced, frigidly. ‘Oh, Daisy, now we can go!’ said Mrs.. Miller. Daisy turned away from Winterbourne, looking at him, smiling and fanning herself. ‘Good-night,’ she said; ‘I hope you are disappointed, or disgusted, or something!’
  • He remembered that a cynical compatriot had once told him that American women — the pretty ones and this gave a largeness to the axiom — were at once the most exacting in the world and the least endowed with a sense of indebtedness.
  • Walker was one of those American ladies who, while residing abroad, make a point, in their own phrase, of studying European society; and she had on this occasion collected several specimens of her diversely-born fellow-mortals to serve, as it were, as textbooks.
  • Daisy gave a delighted laugh. ‘If I could have the sweet hope of making you angry, I would say it again.’
  • ‘Though you may be flirting, Mr. Giovanelli is not; he means something else.’ ‘He isn’t preaching, at any rate,’ said Daisy, with vivacity.
  • ‘It has never occurred to Mr. Winterbourne to offer me any tea,’ she said, with her little tormenting manner. ‘I have offered you advice,’ Winterbourne rejoined. ‘I prefer weak tea!’ cried Daisy

Four Meetings

★★★★☆ (4/5)

  • ‘I am not so sure. I don’t think of anything else. I am always thinking of it. It prevents me from thinking of things that are nearer home — things that I ought to attend to. That is a kind of craziness.’
  • ‘I know more about them than you might think,’ she said, with her shy, neat little smile. ‘I mean by reading; I have read a great deal. I have not only read Byron; I have read histories and guide-books. I know I shall like it!’ ‘I understand your case,’ I rejoined. ‘you have the native American passion — the passion for the picturesque. With us, I think it is primordial — antecedent to experience. Experience comes and only shows us something we have dreamt of.’
  • ‘I’m not afraid of running short,’ she said gaily, still looking at the opposite houses. ‘I could sit here all day, saying to myself that here I am at last. It’s so dark, and old, and different.’
  • She was extremely observant; there was something touching in it. She noticed everything that the movement of the street brought before us — peculiarities of costume, the shapes of vehicles, the big Norman horses, the fat priests, the shaven poodles. We talked of these things, and there was something charming in her freshness of perception and the way her book-nourished fancy recognised and welcomed everything.
  • She hesitated again a moment, but her glance, meanwhile, was pleading. ‘I gave him what I had.’ I have always remembered the accent of those words as the most angelic bit of human utterance I had ever listened to; but then, almost with a sense of personal outrage, I jumped up. ‘Good heavens!’ I said, ‘do you call that getting it honestly?’
  • ‘And here you have remained ever since?’ ‘Oh yes!’ she said, gently. ‘When are you going to Europe again?’ This question seemed brutal; but there was something that irritated me in the softness of her resignation, and I wished to extort from her some expression of impatience.

Longstaff’s Marriage

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

  • They had come from honourable and amiable men, and it was not her suitors in themselves that she contemned; it was simply the idea of marrying. She found it insupportable; a fact which completes her analogy with the mythic divinity to whom I have likened her. She was passionately single, fiercely virginal; and in the straight-glancing gray eye which provoked men to admire, there was a certain silvery ray which forbade them to hope
  • and they kept a diary in common, at which they ‘collaborated,’ like French playwrights, and which was studded with quotations from the authors I have mentioned. This lasted a year, at the end of which they found themselves a trifle weary. A snug posting-carriage was a delightful habitation, but looking at miles of pictures was very fatiguing to the back. Buying souvenirs and trinkets under foreign arcades was a most absorbing occupation; but inns were dreadfully apt to be draughty, and bottles of hot water for application to the feet, had a disagreeable way of growing lukewarm
  • For the rest, Agatha contented herself with spinning suppositions about the people she never spoke to. She framed a great deal of hypothetic gossip, invented theories and explanations — generally of the most charitable quality. Her companion took no part in these harmless devisings, except to listen to them with an indolent smile
  • But, slowly, her look of proud compulsion, of mechanical compliance, was exchanged for something more patient and pitying. The young Englishman’s face expressed a kind of spiritual ecstasy which, it was impossible not to feel, gave a peculiar sanctity to the occasion.

Benvolio

★★☆☆☆ (2/5)

  • Benvolio was slim and fair, with clustering locks, remarkably fine eyes, and such a frank, expressive smile, that on the journey through life it was almost as serviceable to its owner as the magic key, or the enchanted ring, or the wishing-cap, or any other bauble of necromantic properties.
  • It was here that his happiest thoughts came to him — that inspiration (as we may say, speaking of a man of the poetic temperament) descended upon him in silence, and for certain divine, appreciable moments, stood poised along the course of his scratching quill.
  • He became conscious of an intellectual condition similar to that of a palate which has lost its relish. To a man with a disordered appetite all things taste alike, and so it seemed to Benvolio that the gustatory faculty of his mind was losing its keenness. It had still its savoury moments, its feasts and its holidays; but, on the whole, the spectacle of human life was growing flat and stale. This is simply a wordy way of expressing that comprehensive fact — Benvolio was blasé. He knew it, he knew it betimes, and he regretted it acutely
  • If a man were a revolutionist, you would reconcile him to society. You are a divine embodiment of all the amenities, the refinements, the complexities of life! You are the flower of urbanity, of culture, of tradition! You are the product of so many influences that it widens one’s horizon to know you; of you too, it is true, that to admire you is a liberal education! Your charm is irresistible, I assure you I don’t resist it!’
  • He had, as we know, his moods of expansion and of contraction; he had been tolerably inflated for many months past, and now he had begun to take in sail.
  • I don’t know that he had ever devoted a formula to the idea that men of imagination are not bound to be consistent, but he certainly conformed to its spirit. We are not, however, by any means at the end of his inconsistencies
  • Benvolio at this season declared that study and science were the only game in life worth the candle, and wondered how he could ever for an instant have cared for more vulgar exercises.
  • When Benvolio liked a thing he liked it as a whole — it appealed to all his senses. He relished its accidents, its accessories, its material envelope
  • Benvolio perceived that she was not in the least a woman of genius. The passion for knowledge, of its own motion, would never have carried her far. But she had a perfect understanding — a mind as clear and still and natural as a woodland pool, giving back an exact and definite image of everything that was presented to it And then she was so teachable, so diligent, so indefatigable
  • He fell asleep again, and in one of those brief but vivid dreams that sometimes occur in the morning hours, he had a brilliant vision of the Countess. She was human beyond a doubt, and duly familiar with headaches and heartaches. He felt an irresistible desire to see her and to tell her that he adored her. This satisfaction was not unattainable, and before the day was over he was well on his way toward enjoying it.
  • Her answer was very simple. ‘I believe you are a poet.’ ‘And a poet oughtn’t to run the risk of turning pedant?”No,’ she answered; ‘a poet ought to run all risks — even that one which for a poet is perhaps most cruel. But he ought to escape them all!’
  • In the middle of the winter she announced to him that she was going to spend ten days in the country: she had received the most attractive accounts of the state of things on her domain. There had been great snow-falls, and the sleighing was magnificent; the lakes and streams were solidly frozen, there was an unclouded moon, and the resident gentry were skating, half the night, by torch-light
  • They parted on terms which it would be hard to define — full of mutual resentment and devotion, at once adoring and hating each other. All this was deep and stirring emotion, and Benvolio, as an artist, always in one way or another found his profit in emotion, even when it lacerated or suffocated him. There was, moreover, a sort of elation in having burnt his ships behind him, and vowed to seek his fortune, his intellectual fortune, in the tumult of life and action

The Plague by Albert Camus

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favorite passages from the book

What the Plague Did

  • “So you haven’t understood yet?” Rambert shrugged his shoulders almost scornfully. “Understood what?” “The plague.” “Ah!” Rieux exclaimed. “No, you haven’t understood that it means exactly that—the same thing over and over and over again.”
  • None of us was capable any longer of an exalted emotion; all had trite, monotonous feelings. “It’s high time it stopped,” people would say, because in time of calamity the obvious thing is to desire its end, and in fact they wanted it to end. But when making such remarks, we felt none of the passionate yearning or fierce resentment of the early phase; we merely voiced one of the few clear ideas that lingered in the twilight of our minds. The furious revolt of the first weeks had given place to a vast despondency, not to be taken for resignation, though it was none the less a sort of passive and provisional acquiescence.
  • They had ceased to choose for themselves; plague had leveled out discrimination. This could be seen by the way nobody troubled about the quality of the clothes or food he bought. Everything was taken as it came.
  • Cottard and Tarrou, who had merely risen from their seats, gazed down at what was a dramatic picture of their life in those days: plague on the stage in the guise of a disarticulated mummer, and in the auditorium the toys of luxury, so futile now, forgotten fans and lace shawls derelict on the red plush seats.
  • Thus, whereas plague by its impartial ministrations should have promoted equality among our townsfolk, it now had the opposite effect and, thanks to the habitual conflict of cupidities, exacerbated the sense of injustice rankling in men’s hearts. They were assured, of course, of the inerrable equality of death, but nobody wanted that kind of equality. Poor people who were feeling the pinch thought still more nostalgically of towns and villages in the near-by countryside, where bread was cheap and life without restrictions.
  • That’s why everybody in the world today looks so tired; everyone is more or less sick of plague. But that is also why some of us, those who want to get the plague out of their systems, feel such desperate weariness, a weariness from which nothing remains to set us free except death.
  • Calmly they denied, in the teeth of the evidence, that we had ever known a crazy world in which men were killed off like flies, or that precise savagery, that calculated frenzy of the plague, which instilled an odious freedom as to all that was not the here and now; or those charnel-house stenches which stupefied whom they did not kill. In short, they denied that we had ever been that hag-ridden populace a part of which was daily fed into a furnace and went up in oily fumes, while the rest, in shackled impotence, waited their turn.

Human Nature

  • The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits. Our citizens word hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, “doing business.” Naturally they don’t eschew such simpler pleasures as love-making, sea-bathing, going to the pictures. But, very sensibly, they reserve these pastimes for Saturday afternoons and Sundays and employ the rest of the week in making money, as much as possible.
  • In a certain sense it might well be said that his was an exemplary life. He was one of those rare people, rare in our town as elsewhere, who have the courage of their good feelings.
  • “I was very fond of you, but now I’m so tired. I’m not happy to go, but one needn’t be happy to make another start.”
  • Oh, I know it’s an absurd situation, but we’re all involved in it, and we’ve got to accept it as it is.
  • And from the ends of the earth, across thousands of miles of land and sea, kindly, well-meaning speakers tried to voice their fellow-feeling, and indeed did so, but at the same time proved the utter incapacity of every man truly to share in suffering that he cannot see.
  • He knew that, over a period whose end he could not glimpse, his task was no longer to cure but to diagnose. To detect, to see, to describe, to register, and then condemn—that was his present function.
  • Indeed, for Rieux his exhaustion was a blessing in disguise. Had he been less tired, his senses more alert, that all-pervading odor of death might have made him sentimental. But when a man has had only four hours’ sleep, he isn’t sentimental. He sees things as they are; that is to say, he sees them in the garish light of justice—hideous, witless justice.
  • There was no question of not taking precautions or failing to comply with the orders wisely promulgated for the public weal in the disorders of a pestilence. Nor should we listen to certain moralists who told us to sink on our knees and give up the struggle. No, we should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at times, and try to do what good lay in our power. As for the rest, we must hold fast, trusting in the divine goodness, even as to the deaths of little children, and not seeking personal respite.
  • Cottard, Tarrou, the men and the woman Rieux had loved and lost—all alike, dead or guilty, were forgotten. Yes, the old fellow had been right; these people were “just the same as ever.” But this was at once their strength and their innocence, and it was on this level, beyond all grief, that Rieux could feel himself at one with them.

Societal Truths

  • Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.
  • When a war breaks out, people say: “It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.” But though a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.
  • Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.
  • He realized how absurd it was, but he simply couldn’t believe that a pestilence on the great scale could befall a town where people like Grand were to be found, obscure functionaries cultivating harmless eccentricities.
  • In conversation with Dr. Rieux, Rambert classified the people whom he had approached in various categories. Those who used the arguments mentioned above he called the sticklers. Besides these there were the consolers, who assured him that the present state of things couldn’t possibly last and, when asked for definite suggestions, fobbed him off by telling him he was making too much fuss about a passing inconvenience. Then there were the very important persons who asked the visitor to leave a brief note of his case and informed him they would decide on it in due course; the triflers, who offered him billeting warrants or gave the addresses of lodgings; the red-tape merchants, who made him fill up a form and promptly interred it in a file; overworked officials, who raised their arms to heaven, and much-harassed officials who simply looked away; and, finally, the traditionalists—these were by far the greatest number—who referred Rambert to another office or recommended some new method of approach.
  • Few of the workers thus made available were qualified for administrative posts, but the recruiting of men for the “rough work” became much easier. From now on, indeed, poverty showed itself a stronger stimulus than fear, especially as, owing to its risks, such work was highly paid.
  • But I was told that these few deaths were inevitable for the building up of a new world in which murder would cease to be. That also was true up to a point—and maybe I’m not capable of standing fast where that order of truths is concerned.

On Love

  • At Oran, as elsewhere, for lack of time and thinking, people have to love one another without knowing much about it.
  • And since, in practice, the phrases one can use in a telegram are quickly exhausted, long lives passed side by side, or passionate yearnings, soon declined to the exchange of such trite formulas as: “Am well. Always thinking of you. Love.”
  • In normal times all of us know, whether consciously or not, that there is no love which can’t be bettered; nevertheless, we reconcile ourselves more or less easily to the fact that ours has never risen above the average. But memory is less disposed to compromise. And, in a very definite way, this misfortune which had come from outside and befallen a whole town did more than inflict on us an unmerited distress with which we might well be indignant. It also incited us to create our own suffering and thus to accept frustration as a natural state. This was one of the tricks the pestilence had of diverting attention and confounding issues.
  • For at the precise moment when the residents of the town began to panic, their thoughts were wholly fixed on the person whom they longed to meet again. The egoism of love made them immune to the general distress and, if they thought of the plague, it was only in so far as it might threaten to make their separation eternal. Thus in the very heart of the epidemic they maintained a saving indifference, which one was tempted to take for composure. Their despair saved them from panic, thus their misfortune had a good side.
  • Thus, while during the first weeks they were apt to complain that only shadows remained to them of what their love had been and meant, they now came to learn that even shadows can waste away, losing the faint hues of life that memory may give. And by the end of their long sundering they had also lost the power of imagining the intimacy that once was theirs or understanding what it can be to live with someone whose life is wrapped up in yours.
  • No doubt our love persisted, but in practice it served nothing; it was an inert mass within us, sterile as crime or a life sentence. It had declined on a patience that led nowhere, a dogged expectation.
  • A loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.
  • The lovers, indeed, were wholly wrapped up in their fixed idea, and for them one thing only had changed. Whereas during those months of separation time had never gone quickly enough for their liking and they were always wanting to speed its flight, now that they were in sight of the town they would have liked to slow it down and hold each moment in suspense, once the brakes went on and the train was entering the station. For the sensation, confused perhaps, but none the less poignant for that, of all those days and weeks and months of life lost to their love made them vaguely feel they were entitled to some compensation; this present hour of joy should run at half the speed of those long hours of waiting.

On Faith

  • But every country priest who visits his parishioners and has heard a man gasping for breath on his deathbed thinks as I do. He’d try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its excellence.
  • Moreover, most people, assuming they had not altogether abandoned religious observances, or did not combine them naïvely with a thoroughly immoral way of living, had replaced normal religious practice by more or less extravagant superstitions. Thus they were readier to wear prophylactic medals of St. Roch than to go to Mass.
  • The difficulty began when we looked into the nature of evil, and among things evil he included human suffering. Thus we had apparently needful pain, and apparently needless pain; we had Don Juan cast into hell, and a child’s death. For while it is right that a libertine should be struck down, we see no reason for a child’s suffering.
  • But religion in a time of plague could not be the religion of every day. While God might accept and even desire that the soul should take its ease and rejoice in happier times, in periods of extreme calamity He laid extreme demands on it. Thus today God had vouchsafed to His creatures an ordeal such that they must acquire and practice the greatest of all virtues: that of the All or Nothing.
  • It was wrong to say: “This I understand, but that I cannot accept”; we must go straight to the heart of that which is unacceptable, precisely because it is thus that we are constrained to make our choice. The sufferings of children were our bread of affliction, but without this bread our souls would die of spiritual hunger.

On Memories

  • But the plague forced inactivity on them, limiting their movements to the same dull round inside the town, and throwing them, day after day, on the illusive solace of their memories. For in their aimless walks they kept on coming back to the same streets and usually, owing to the smallness of the town, these were streets in which, in happier days, they had walked with those who now were absent.
  • For while he himself spoke from the depths of long days of brooding upon his personal distress, and the image he had tried to impart had been slowly shaped and proved in the fires of passion and regret, this meant nothing to the man to whom he was speaking, who pictured a conventional emotion, a grief that is traded on the marketplace, mass-produced. Whether friendly or hostile, the reply always missed fire, and the attempt to communicate had to be given up.
  • So all a man could win in the conflict between plague and life was knowledge and memories.

On Exile

  • This drastic, clean-cut deprivation and our complete ignorance of what the future held in store had taken us unawares; we were unable to react against the mute appeal of presences, still so near and already so far, which haunted us daylong. In fact, our suffering was twofold; our own to start with, and then the imagined suffering of the absent one, son, mother, wife, or mistress.
  • It was undoubtedly the feeling of exile—that sensation of a void within which never left us, that irrational longing to hark back to the past or else to speed up the march of time, and those keen shafts of memory that stung like fire.
  • The plague had swallowed up everything and everyone. No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all. Strongest of these emotions was the sense of exile and of deprivation, with all the crosscurrents of revolt and fear set up by these.

Wise Gems

  • “I’ve no use for statements in which something is kept back,” he added. “That is why I shall not furnish information in support of yours.”
  • “Query: How contrive not to waste one’s time? Answer: By being fully aware of it all the while.
  • “The important thing,” Castel replied, “isn’t the soundness or otherwise of the argument, but for it to make you think.”
  • But he knew, too, that abstraction sometimes proves itself stronger than happiness; and then, if only then, it has to be taken into account.
  • Nevertheless, many continued hoping that the epidemic would soon die out and they and their families be spared. Thus they felt under no obligation to make any change in their habits as yet. Plague was for them an unwelcome visitant, bound to take its leave one day as unexpectedly as it had come. Alarmed, but far from desperate, they hadn’t yet reached the phase when plague would seem to them the very tissue of their existence; when they forgot the lives that until now it had been given them to lead.
  • The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill.
  • In fact, it comes to this: nobody is capable of really thinking about anyone, even in the worst calamity.
  • My reply to this was that if you gave in once, there was no reason for not continuing to give in.
  • And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him. What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest—health, integrity, purity (if you like)—is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention. And it needs tremendous will-power, a never ending tension of the mind, to avoid such lapses.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194– at Oran. Everyone agreed that considering their somewhat extraordinary character, they were out of place there.
  • Nevertheless there still exist towns and countries where people have now and then an inkling of something different. In general it doesn’t change their lives. Still, they have had an intimation, and that’s so much to the good. Oran, however, seems to be a town without intimations; in other words, completely modern.
  • People out at night would often feel underfoot the squelchy roundness of a still-warm body. It was as if the earth on which our houses stood were being purged of its secreted humors; thrusting up to the surface the abscesses and pus-clots that had been forming in its entrails.
  • The brief, intermittent sibilance of a machine-saw came from a near-by workshop. Rieux pulled himself together. There lay certitude; there, in the daily round. All the rest hung on mere threads and trivial contingencies; you couldn’t waste your time on it. The thing was to do your job as it should be done.
  • Looking at them, you had an impression that for the first time in their lives they were becoming, as some would say, weather-conscious. A burst of sunshine was enough to make them seem delighted with the world, while rainy days gave a dark cast to their faces and their mood. A few weeks before, they had been free of this absurd subservience to the weather, because they had not to face life alone; the person they were living with held, to some extent, the foreground of their little world. But from now on it was different; they seemed at the mercy of the sky’s caprices—in other words, suffered and hoped irrationally.
  • Patient and watchful, ineluctable as the order of the scheme of things, it bides its time. No earthly power, nay, not even—mark me well—the vaunted might of human science can avail you to avert that hand once it is stretched toward you.
  • They had lost the golden spell of happier summers. Plague had killed all colors, vetoed pleasure.
  • The silent city was no more than an assemblage of huge, inert cubes, between which only the mute effigies of great men, carapaced in bronze, with their blank stone or metal faces, conjured up a sorry semblance of what the man had been. In lifeless squares and avenues these tawdry idols lorded it under the lowering sky; stolid monsters that might have personified the rule of immobility imposed on us, or, anyhow, its final aspect, that of a defunct city in which plague, stone, and darkness had effectively silenced every voice.
  • He was the type of man for whom one has an affection of the mild but steady order—which is the kind that wears best.
  • It happened eight years ago; but I can’t say she died. She only effaced herself a trifle more than usual, and when I looked round she was no longer there.
  • This human form, his friend’s, lacerated by the spear-thrusts of the plague, consumed by searing, superhuman fires, buffeted by all the raging winds of heaven, was foundering under his eyes in the dark flood of the pestilence, and he could do nothing to avert the wreck.
  • And when the train stopped, all those interminable-seeming separations which often had begun on this same platform came to an end in one ecstatic moment, when arms closed with hungry possessiveness on bodies whose living shape they had forgotten.

The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money by Bryan Caplan

★★★★☆ (4/5)

Think about all the school time you burned studying irrelevancies. Notice how often you asked yourself, “What do I need to graduate?” instead of “How can I maximize my learning?” Recall all the ways you gamed the system: cramming for exams, seeking lax instructors, skipping assignments because “I already have an A.” Count the times your peers asked, “Will this be on the test?”—but never “Will this be on the job?” Picture all the overqualified graduates you’ve encountered waiting tables and working in bookstores. You’ve seen a world of academic oddities with your own eyes.

Bryan Caplan’s book is a perfect admixture of contrarian views and incisive adventure into ideas that seem far too radical for any layman to digest.

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To even simply posit statements suggesting that the world needs less education and not more, or that government subsidies to education sector do more harm than good or (and my favorite) that education must be separated from the state, much like religion – at the face of it they might seem extremist approaches and considering the fact that the author is a self-proclaimed libertarian – well one might just give a deep sigh and throw the book away.

The amount of education you need to get a job really has risen more than the amount of education you need to do a job.

But, hold on. You take a breather and peel the onion, much like the author does, only to find out that the foundational realities of much what he argues for and against are grounded in universal scholastic experience of each and every individual in the modern era. Boredom and monotony are cornerstones of early education, and this is further exasperated by failure of true transfer of learning which would either mold character or teach essential life/job skills that one might utilize in the future.

Give an individual more education, and they get better offers so they’re more likely to want a job. Give everyone more education, and you ignite credential inflation.

However, I must confess. I did not agree wholly with a lot of the author’s claims. His contentions no matter how realistic were complemented by policy directives that one can’t help but label as ‘overtly idealistic’, requiring an overhaul of the entire state system and political ideologies around the world. Add to that a heavy load of statistics which Caplan used to reinforce his points, that mostly went over my head. But perhaps this in itself is proof of where education lacks – in inculcating learning that could be of use later on (case in point: my lack of statistical understanding).

Unfortunately, we have an innocuous yet infamous label for kids learning job skills on the job: “child labor.” Civilized adults recoil at the name. Children with joy in their hearts don’t belong in gray workshops, toiling all day long, cogs in the machine. They’re kids, not robots! Well, unless the gray workshop is called a “school” and the cogs earn zero wages.

The book largely delves into the education sector of United States but perhaps the gist of it could be applied anywhere in the world too. Lack of vocational training, failure to teach essential job skills, compulsory superfluous subjects that have little to no bearing on future quality of life (either through career prospects, family or social life, or individual life). These problems mar the intrinsic value placed on education, which in turn makes education itself just another conduit to churn disillusioned humans, working away mindlessly to serve and build profit for their employers, individuals who neither serve the society at large nor themselves.

Educational psychologists have also discovered that much of our knowledge is “inert.” Students who excel on exams frequently fail to apply their knowledge to the real world.

Modern day education is replete with stacked courses, rat race for grades and pursuance of meaningless degrees with the collective end-goal of appealing to employers. Caplan goes to great lengths to show how degrees just give abstract credibility to credentials alone instead of enriching lives. The credentials of education only signal intelligence, conscientiousness and conformity to the employers – and to my limited understanding this equates to modern day serfdom of the mind and soul.

Education signals not just intelligence, but conscientiousness—the student’s discipline, work ethic, commitment to quality, and so forth…education also signals conformity—the worker’s grasp of and submission to social expectations.

With plausible arguments the author shows how the inherent inertia of education is more detrimental to society at large, even if individuals can reap a few benefits on some level. When selfish gains outnumber and overpower societal gains, one must be compelled to think if priorities of any given state are set straight or not.

Rhetoric aside, educators are as narrow-minded as kids. Most of the items on the academic tasting menu have the same stale flavor—unsurprising since teachers typically teach whatever they were taught. When schools decry “narrow-mindedness,” their real goal is to replace students’ narrowness with their own.

Caplan seeks to resolve this stark difference through a mode of education which is largely frowned upon in the current era, either due to misunderstanding of the concept itself or social desirability bias. He is a great proponent of vocational education which builds upon essentials of literacy and numeracy with critical thinking, practical hands-on approach for skill-building and completion of transfer of learning which enables an individual to apply that which they’ve learnt to real life problems.

If education boosts compensation solely by raising worker productivity, society’s gain equals the worker’s gain. If education boosts compensation solely by revealing worker productivity, society gains far less.

To sum it up, enlightenment promised by education is pseudo, half-baked indoctrination at best. The true cultivation of human mind and soul need not rely on outmoded, syllabus-based, book-reliant, tests and grading systems all of which is leading to costly losses to humanity. And rather than upending the entire system of education, the author proposes a few major tweaks here and there to not only contextualize the intrinsic value of education and knowledge transfer but to increase productivity and worth of individual life in order to improve lives on a collective level.

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Author’s Assertions

  • What I see as our educational system’s supreme defect: there’s way too much education. Typical students burn thousands of hours studying material that neither raises their productivity nor enriches their lives. And of course, students can’t waste time without experts to show them how.
  • The answer is a single word I seek to burn into your mind: signaling. Even if what a student learned in school is utterly useless, employers will happily pay extra if their scholastic achievement provides information about their productivity.
  • Ultimately, I believe the best education policy is no education policy at all: the separation of school and state.
  • Signaling models have three basic elements. First, there must be different types of people. Types could differ in intelligence, conscientiousness, conformity, whatever. Second, an individual’s type must be nonobvious. You can’t discover a person’s true work ethic with a glance. You certainly can’t ask, “How good is your work ethic?” and expect candor. Third, types must visibly differ on average; in technical terms, “send a different signal.” Deviations from average are okay. A signal doesn’t have to be definitive, just better than nothing.
  • It does not suffice to give everyone a test and hire people with the highest scores. . . . Doing well on a test is no guarantee of perseverance. The signal must be costly and grueling, otherwise it fails to sort out the best job candidates.
  • Keep the school library open so studious and intellectually curious kids have a tranquil place for free reading. Until college, every school I ever attended had a well-stocked library that was almost never open to the student body. Free play takes many forms. Why not turn the library into a bookworms’ sanctuary?
  • All things considered, I favor full separation of school and state. Government should stop using tax dollars to fund education of any kind. Schools—primary, secondary, and tertiary alike—should be funded solely by fees and private charity.

Education, Credentials, Job Skills and Signaling

  • As a result, labor economists bypass the crucial question: Is education, on net, a victim or a thief? Do intelligence, personality, and so on steal more credit from education than education steals from them?
  • The skillful do a good job. The successful have a good job. Despite its weak effect on skill, education remains the modern economy’s surest stairway to prosperity.
  • In our society, credentials define you in broad strokes, but years of education add valuable details.
  • How does cost shifting raise education’s social return? Supply and demand. Raising the price of school reduces attendance. The more attendance falls, the scarcer educated labor becomes, and the pricier it gets. Owing to signaling, the social benefit rises less than the selfish benefit, but social and selfish benefits still move in tandem. At some point, the education premium gets high enough to transform the marginal student into a good social investment.
  • Education is not a bubble, but stable waste. As long as traditional education receives hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars every year, the status quo will stand. Online education will slowly carve out a niche, but that is all.
  • Education signals more than brains and work ethic. It also signals conformity—submission to social expectations. This traps students in a catch-22: trying to unconventionally signal conformity signals nonconformity. In our society, you’re supposed to go to college if you value success.
  • Raising tuition doesn’t just make the workforce less skilled. It amplifies the inequality of skill: The poorer you are, the less you learn and the less you earn.
  • When education raises your income, economists call that “the education premium.” Part of the premium exists because school makes you more productive. That’s the human capital share. The rest of the premium exists because school makes you look more productive. That’s the signaling share.
  • A moderate reform is to stop requiring useless coursework. Make history, social studies, art, music, and foreign language optional. The main problem with this moderation: pursuing material you’re allowed to skip sends a favorable signal.

Some Harsh Truths

  • Despite the chasm between what students learn and what workers do, academic success is a strong signal of worker productivity. The labor market doesn’t pay you for the useless subjects you master; it pays you for the preexisting traits you reveal by mastering them.
  • When you skip class, your relative performance suffers. When your teacher cancels class, everyone learns less, leaving your relative performance unimpaired. When you skip class, your relative performance suffers. When your teacher cancels class, everyone learns less, leaving your relative performance unimpaired.
  • College science teaches students what to think about topics on the syllabus, not how to think about the world.
  • The discovery of wasteful spending does not magically reveal constructive alternatives. Prudence dictates a two-step response. Step 1: Stop wasting the resources. Step 2: Save those resources until you discover a good way to spend them. Not wasting resources is simple and speedy. Don’t just stand there; do it. Finding good ways to use resources is complex and slow. Don’t just do it; think it through. Remember: you can apply saved resources anywhere.
  • Longer school days do serve one socially useful function: they warehouse kids so both their parents can work. But more hours in school needn’t mean more hours of school.
  • The average student intellectually regresses roughly one full month during a three-month summer vacation. The older the students, the steeper their decline.
  • The final story appeals to global elite culture. Non-Western elites straddle two worlds: Western elite culture, and their own traditional cultures. After Western elites fell in love with education in the nineteenth century, they won over Western masses and non-Western elites. Non-Western elites, in turn, gradually spread the gospel of education to their own cultures.
  • The rise of the Internet has two unsettling lessons for them. First: the humanist case for education subsidies is flimsy today because the Internet makes enlightenment practically free. Second: the humanist case for education subsidies was flimsy all along because the Internet proves low consumption of ideas and culture stems from apathy, not poverty or inconvenience. Behold: when the price of enlightenment drops to zero, enlightenment remains embarrassingly scarce.
  • There’s a catch-22. Online education won’t escape the nonconformist stigma until it dominates the market, but it won’t dominate the market until it escapes the nonconformists stigma.

Points to Ponder

  • Higher education is the only product where the consumer tries to get as little out of it as possible.
  • Preparation inflates measured intelligence without raising genuine intelligence.
  • Imagine this stark dilemma: you can have either a Princeton education without a diploma, or a Princeton diploma without an education. Which gets you further on the job market?
  • On the popular Rate My Professors website, students grade their professors’ “easiness,” “helpfulness,” “clarity,” and “hotness,” not “marketable skills taught” or “real-world relevance.” If human capital purists are right, why do students struggle to get into the best schools, then struggle to avoid acquiring skills once they arrive?
  • Economists are so eager to argue education is underrated they neglect a strong reason to think education is overrated: reverse causation. Instead of “When countries invest more in schooling, they get richer,” the real story could be, “When countries get richer, they consume more schooling.”
  • Education that builds job skills is more socially valuable than education that merely impresses employers—even if both forms of education are equally profitable for the students themselves.
  • Ordering resentful kids to shut up and do their work may provide useful training for their future. Without students who hunger for knowledge, though, education lacks intrinsic value. In the real world, such students are sadly rare.
  • As education rises, workers—including the poor—need more education to get the same job. Where’s the social justice in that?
  • The rise of the Internet also undercuts the Machiavellian line that intellectual force-feeding ultimately blossoms into sincere appreciation.

On Vocational Training

  • All vocational education teaches specific job skills, and all vocational education revolves around learning-by-doing, not learning-by-listening.
  • Critics fear that vocational education bears a stigma. Specializing in auto shop tarnishes your image because society infers you “lack the talent for anything better.” Restated in the language of signaling: the vocational path sends bad signals about raw ability. In this scenario, vocational education enriches society more than it enriches vocational students. Society gains the extra productivity, but students capture the extra productivity less the stigma.
  • What makes vocational ed’s social return so ample? Status is zero-sum; skill is not. Conventional education mostly helps students by raising their status, but average status cannot rise. Vocational education mostly helps students by building their skills—and average skill can rise. Why are social returns especially ample for Poor Students? Because vocational ed trains these crime-prone students for productive work without igniting severe credential inflation.
  • In the for-profit sector, the U.S. Department of Labor allows unpaid internships only if “the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.” A bizarre rule. Why would a for-profit firm bother hiring workers from whom it derives zero immediate advantage?

Wise Gems

  • The Master said, “In ancient times, men learned with a view to their own improvement. Now-a-days, men learn with a view to the approbation of others.”—Confucius, The Analects 4
  • If a ninth-grader asks for educational advice, you should give a straight-up answer. Otherwise they won’t listen. Yet this is no excuse for intellectual laziness on your part. A quality advisor carefully weighs complexities and subtleties on the advisee’s behalf. That way, the counsel is not only digestible, but insightful.
  • The second ingredient: skillful pedagogy. Learning from enthusiastic teachers who have mastered their subjects uplifts the soul. Learning from uninspired teachers who parrot the textbook, not so much. Mediocre instruction is tolerable for practical training, but worthless for intellectual or artistic inspiration.
  • It’s called the Drake Equation. To simplify, the equation says the mind-boggling requirements for life must offset the mind-boggling opportunities for life.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • By analogy, both sculptors and appraisers have the power to raise the market value of a piece of stone. The sculptor raises the market value of a piece of stone by shaping it. The appraiser raises the market value of a piece of stone by judging it. Teachers need to ask ourselves, “How much of what we do is sculpting, and how much is appraising?” And if we won’t ask ourselves, our alumni need to ask for us.
  • In politics, critical thinking is an act of charity. Objective truth has to beg for spare change to survive. Owing to these perverse incentives, almost any political idea that becomes popular tends to remain popular. Even if it’s false. Even if it’s always been false.
  • Such a double standard. When kids feel bored and resentful at work, we pity them as victims and call for regulation. When kids feel bored and resentful in school, we roll our eyes and tell them to suck it up.