Category Archives: History

The Merits of “Meritocracy”

Source: The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2016

as historian Joseph F. Kett has shown, in a fascinating and subtle study of merit’s travails through three centuries of American history, there are at least two strikingly different ways in which merit has been understood in that history.4 The founding generation itself thought in terms of what Kett calls “essential merit,” by which he means merit that rests on specific and visible achievements by an individual that were thought, in turn, to reflect that individual’s estimable character, quite apart from his social “rank.” “Merit” was that quality in the person that propelled the achievements, his “essential character.” Those who did the achieving were known as “men of merit,”

over time, a different way of understanding merit began to emerge, an ideal Kett calls “institutional merit.” Rather than focusing on questions of character, this new form of merit concerned itself with the acquisition of specialized knowledge, the kind that is susceptible of being taught in schools, tested in written examinations, and certified by expert-staffed credentialing bodies.

We would do well to leave room for the Lincolns among us—especially if they are as raw and uncredentialed as the man who would become our sixteenth president was. Think of his great speech at the dedication of the cemetery in Gettysburg in November 1863.

As many know, there were two notable speeches that day. The first, and the longest and most learned and most florid, was given by the supremely well-pedigreed Edward Everett, former president of Harvard—and the first American to receive a German PhD. But it was the self-educated frontiersman president who gave the speech whose accents ring down through the ages. Perhaps there is a pattern here to learn from.

Evolution of Mathematical Thought

Source: MIT Tech Review, Apr 2016
<Original: Arxiv, Mar 2016>

mathematical evolution by no means consists of a gentle flow of ideas from one generation the next. Instead, it is a maelstrom in which ideas and practices emerge, thrive, and evolve, sometimes dying out completely. This maelstrom is characterized by tipping points in which fields change dramatically in just a few years.

… insight into the way new ideas emerge and become important to human minds.

Religion and the Rise and Fall of Islamic Science 

Source: Harvard website, Dec 2015


Why did the “Golden Age” of Islamic science end? To explore this question, I gather data on scientific production from Harvard’s library collection and a catalog of books from seventeenth century Istanbul.
I document that the proportion of books dedicated to scientific topics declined in the medieval period, noting that the empirical patterns weigh against explanations attributing the decline to external shocks such as the Crusades, Mongol invasions, or colonialism.
Instead, the results link the decline to institutional changes starting in the eleventh century that altered the relative payoffs to producing scientific knowledge.
I discuss the role religious leaders played in generating these developments, concluding that the available evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that an increase in the political power of these elites caused the observed decline in scientific output.
I provide qualitative evidence that these newly empowered elites worked to restrict the production of scientific knowledge because they believed that unrestrained scientific research led to deism and atheism.
 I argue that where religious elites are more powerful they will favor an institutional and educational framework that discourages human capital accumulation that could detract from their control over the population


Growth by Experimentation

Source: NY Post, Nov 2015

 Al Gore and Barack Obama brag that the government created it. The truth is that it wasn’t until government got out of the way that what was once the Arpanet, a Pentagon creation, evolved into the Internet. “If you really want to see the Arpanet as the origin of the Internet,” Ridley asks, “please explain why the government sat on it for 30 years and did almost nothing with it until it was effectively privatized in the 1990s, with explosive results.”

Until 1989, the government actually prohibited Arpanet from being used for private or commercial ends. Ridley quotes a handbook distributed to MIT users of the Arpanet that read, in the 1980s, “sending electronic messages over the Arpanet for commercial profit or political purposes is both antisocial and illegal.”

As for the involvement of Internet pioneers such as Paul Baran, Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee, what they devised was bound to be created by somebody because of the simultaneous nature of invention and innovation.

The reason the Internet became what it is now is its decentralized, non-hierarchical, almost unregulated character — the exact opposite of how governments usually operate.

Consider the divergence of South Korea and Ghana, two countries that had about the same per capita income as recently as 1950. One chose trade, the other picked aid. Aid creates lots of fun jobs for central planners who use people like chess pieces and figure out how to distribute the wealth from the top, whereas trade simply allows for wealth to rise up from the bottom. Aid, it turns out, is simply an unsustainable solution to poverty, and today South Korea has about 10 times the per-capita income of Ghana.

Babbage’s Difference Engine

Source: Computer History Museum, date indeterminate

In 1985 the Science Museum in London set out to construct a working Difference Engine No. 2 built faithfully to Babbage’s original designs dating from 1847-9.

The project took seventeen years to complete. The calculating section was finished in 1991 in time for the bicentenary of Babbage’s birth.

Related Reading: IEEExplore, Oct-Dec 2000

The engine performed its first automatic error free calculation on 29 November 1991, twenty-seven days before the 200th anniversary of Babbage’s birth, which had been the original target


Ada Lovelace – the 1st Programmer

Source: The New Yorker, Oct 2013

On January 5, 1841, she asked, “What is Imagination?” Two things, she thought. First, “the combining faculty,” which “seizes points in common, between subjects having no apparent connection,” and then, she wrote, “Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science.”

 Related Resource: PsychCentral, Oct 2014

“Mathematical science shows what is. It is the language of unseen relations between things… Imagination too shows what is … Hence she is or should be especially cultivated by the truly Scientific, those who wish to enter into the worlds around us!”

believed that intuition and imagination were critical to effectively applying mathematical and scientific concepts.


Steve Jobs: Contribute; it’s not just about passion …

Source: Business Insider, Mar 2015

“Yeah, we’re always talking about following your passion,” Jobs reportedly said, “but we’re all part of the flow of history.”

Jobs continued:

You’ve got to put something back into the flow of history that’s going to help your community, help other people …

so that 20, 30, 40 years from now … people will say, this person didn’t just have a passion, he cared about making something that other people could benefit from.