Review – How Children Learn

How Children Learn

by John Holt, published 1995

John Holt says the essence of his book can be boiled down to two words: “Trust children.” We hear echoes Magda Gerber’s RIE philosophy motto (“slow down”) and Maria Montessori’s “secret of childhood.” If we trust children, what are we trusting they will do and on what basis is the trust being given?

We trust that children will make not only good choices, but the right choices with regards to where they are in their personal development, that they will engage in behaviors and follow curiosities that maximize their ability to learn about themselves and the world around them and how it works. And the basis of this trust is that children are fundamentally competent to be themselves without any additional input, guidance or motivation from parents or other adults, who at best can merely replace the child’s ego with their own.

In reading Holt, I was constantly reminded of my friend’s book, A Theory Of Objectivist Parenting, which asks the reader to consider the philosophical dilemma of how an individual who is treated as incapable and irresponsible for most of their developmental life can suddenly be expected to be a functioning adult with the snap of two fingers. Where lies the magic such that an “animal” child is transformed into a “human” man without the benefit of practice or routine in these modes of thought and action?

Holt believes that children want to learn, and that their behaviors and choices are fundamentally aimed at learning about the important functional relationships of the world around them. They choose their own goals based on their own interests and then determine what preceding knowledge they must obtain to secure their goals. The schooling method, of which Holt is skeptical, involves sequential learning from the basic to the complex, with no object for the instruction other than to master the material. But this is not interesting to most children, because the learning is divorced from a meaningful context (ie, a problem they personally want to solve) and the structuring of the learning often serves to highlight to a child how little he knows about a given field, an unnecessary bruise to a young person’s self-esteem. The result is that children often invest a lot of energy in avoiding learning, rather than engaging with the material, and what they practice is denying their own values and interests rather than gaining competence in knowledge and systems they have no desire to learn.

The ego is so central to Holt’s understanding of how children learn that it almost defies explanation how absent this concern is from most other pedagogical methods! Where did people come up with the idea that the student’s own fascination with the subject (or lack thereof) is irrelevant to the problem of learning? Why should we think it is optimal to follow any path of instruction which ignores this fundamental element? And who is truly being served by such an approach when it clearly can not be the child himself?

A related danger that Holt discusses is attempts to trick children into learning things, by teaching them without them noticing they’re being taught. If the idea is to teach people even if they don’t want to be taught, and if doing so creates resistance to learning, then it does seem logical to try to sneak and cheat the information into children’s minds. But is that respectful, and should we imagine anything else but more failure from continuing to build on such flawed premises?

Holt’s warning is again startling. Children are not aliens who think completely differently from adults. They are simply differently capable people, and their human capacity for reasoning makes it obvious to them, even when they’re very young, when they’re not being treated on the level. How disrespectful to treat another human being this way, with so little concern for their own values and well-being! Imagine trying to “trick” an adult into learning something without their permission or interest, by asking questions one already knows the answers to, or insinuating that something they don’t consider important is actually quite so. Such a person would consider it demeaning to imply they can’t figure out for themselves what deserves their attention and what does not, or that they’re not sharp enough to know they’re being fooled with, and so it is with children.

This is a rich and dense work with many pithy observations I wish I had highlighted the first time through. The author clearly admires children for their potential and their capability alike, and he helps the reader to see children not as helpless, but as empiricists, experimenters and practitioners. The hardest thing for parents and teachers to internalize from this work is the need for them to exercise self-control in light of their penchant for thinking their interventions in the life of children are so critical to the children’s thriving. It appears to be just the opposite!

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Silicon Valley’s Incoherent Idealism

A friend linked me to Why does Silicon Valley seem to love Democrats and dismiss the GOP? A Q&A with journalist Greg Ferenstein which contains an interesting summary of the philosophy of many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with regards to an ideal society and the role that government can play in bringing it about:

The high level elevator pitch is that Silicon Valley and, broadly, urbanized professionals, represent an entirely new political category — not libertarian, not Democrat, and not Republican. I argue that they are pro-capitalism and pro-government and their belief is that the government should be an investor in citizens to make them more educated, entrepreneurial and civic, rather than act as a regulator of the two parties.

[T]he internet was created by a government lab. Much of Silicon Valley is based on government funding, whether it be basic research or education or outreach for free trade the internet requires pretty substantial government involvement.

[T]hey are not fans of libertarians. Libertarians have threatened to cut funding for economic studies, basic research in the sciences, education. These things are absolutely crucial to emerging industries and governments roll [sic] in it.

[C]rucial to what is distinct between libertarians and valley folk that Silicon Valley’s ideology is pro-market but it is not pro-liberty. Liberty is not a value. They are highly, highly, collectivist. They believe that every single person has a positive obligation to society and the government can help people or coerce people or incentive into making a unique contribution.

Silicon Valley is all about inequity and unpredictability. They really believe that some people are much more productive or inventive than others. One of the ways in which this manifests itself is performance based funding, where they will encourage competition among schools and will give some schools more money than other.

If anyone wants to make best friends immediately with Silicon Valley, say you’re going to fix housing. It is a crisis out here; we’re talking about median rents over $4,000, people are getting evicted left and right, and it’s because the super-left progressive wing in San Francisco has basically made it impossible to build anything but single family homes, and it can take years to get anything approved. It is a regulation jungle.

What they want to do is they basically want everyone to live like they lived in college, where you get to play all day long, discover new things, you don’t have to work much, maybe you have a part time job and you just get to chill. The working phrase for this is automated luxury communism. And the way for automated luxury communism to work, and this is a real thing that could be happening within our lifetimes, is that robots replace most work and you just get a check from the government every month that allows you to spend as you want. And it comes from a very, very high tax on the relatively few workers who do have economic value.

When the Atlantic’s James Bennet asked Zuckerberg what his political ideology was, “are you a conservative or a Democrat”, he said, no I’m pro-knowledge economy. And the knowledge economy is a distinctly different beast. Boeing and the other things are also technology companies — missiles and planes. The act of creating information, and believing that information alone can be a solution is a distinct ideology. Most companies will not be information technology companies, and that is why it will remain a distinct way of life.

I will attempt to summarize this into a few key stances, the Silicon Valley philosophy is described by:

  • Pro-capitalism; competition will provide the best solution
  • Pro-government; government can improve people and outcomes by subsidizing the right activities rather than trying to control interactions and exchanges
  • Anti-libertarian; libertarians want to restrict the size and role of government which they see as critical to building the infrastructure and knowledge networks they view as critically important to society’s well-being
  • Anti-liberty; individuals have positive obligations to society to make it better and should not have the freedom to shirk their responsibility
  • Pro-collectivism; “We’re all in this together, play as a team”
  • Anti-egalitarian/pro-elitism; recognize the inherent differences in ability and talent and let competition raise society on the coat tails of the winner
  • Anti-scarcity; they believe economic scarcity is an artifact of technological constraints which are being removed by the march of progress
  • Pro-taxation; high levels of taxation are a leveler and generate resources for government to use to promote the well-being of society as a whole
  • Pro-housing; affordable housing is a fundamental human right and government should assist in providing it

Let’s look at some of these principles and the fundamental contradictions they represent.

First, pro-capitalism and pro-government are antagonistic ideas. Capitalism is a voluntary, competitive market resting on the institution of private property. Government is an involuntary, monopolistic institution resting on the institution of public property. If capitalism produces a competitive outcome where the best idea wins, government handicaps it by taking resources from these competitive winners and using them to subsidize the runners-up.

Libertarians are pro-capitalism. Libertarians believe in individual freedom derived from individual property rights. To be anti-libertarian is to be pro-government and anti-capitalism. Libertarians aren’t against infrastructure and knowledge networks– they’re against provisioning these things via government, that is, taxation and monopoly force. Why does it require violence to build a road, or a telecom network? What does it say about the true value of these things if that really were the only way to build them?

Anti-liberty means to be anti-capitalism. The competition of capitalism entails allowing people the liberty to pick their own valued ends and then to select the most efficient means they can think of to achieve those ends. If you are anti-liberty, then you are into telling people what ends they may or may not value and quest after. It also means you are for taking the resources, the scarce means, that they’d employ to chase those ends and forcing them to be happy watching them get used for something else.

Pro-collectivism is anti-capitalism. Competition entails differences amongst individuals, if “we’re all in this together” then there is no value to competition and no one to provide it. If everyone is on team A, there is no team B to face off against. You can have cooperation and competition existing simultaneously, but you can not have collectivism and competition existing simultaneously.

Anti-egalitarian/pro-elitism is pro-libertarian, anti-collectivist and pro-capitalist. If the best are allowed to shine, it means the worst are allowed to suffer what they will. Libertarians don’t believe in handicapping society’s most able or serving the “least common denominator”; they do not believe in sawing off the legs of the tall to create fairness for the midgets. If the midgets want to get stilts that’s fine, but let the tall slam dunk as much as they want. Being pro-elite and anti-egalitarian is decidedly not pro-collectivist because recognizing differences implies there is no “team” on which we all play.

Anti-scarcity is anti-capitalism. Capitalism doesn’t CREATE scarcity, it is a method of dealing with the reality of it. If scarcity doesn’t exist, there is no need for exchange or competition because everyone can have all they need without the help of anyone else. Anti-scarcity is actually anti-physics, too, because it implies that discrete material matter can occupy multiple segments of space-time simultaneously.

Pro-taxation is anti-capitalism and anti-elite/pro-egalitarian. “Leveling” social outcomes is another word for denying competition and the existence of meaningful differences between people, which is implied in anti-egalitarianism. Using taxation to steal what the most able create under the competitive dynamics of capitalism is to destroy the process of capital accumulation which leads to higher productivity economy-wide. Accumulated capital is a time saver, and saving time means doing more work and thus having more goods in the same amount of time. Being pro-taxation is pro-poverty because you’re making society poorer than it otherwise would be if capital could accumulate according to capitalist outcomes.

Pro-housing is actually pro-scarcity. If goods and services aren’t scarce, there is no need for government to subsidize their production or distribution, now is there?

This “ideology” is completely incoherent. It is so bafflingly confused, it almost makes you wonder if it is intentionally so to hide the real ideology. This ideology also isn’t new. What the Silicon Valley folks are advocating is crony capitalism, the vaunted “middle way” the eternal quest of social philosopher charlatans since time immemorial. What Silicon Valley wants is the right to innovate, compete and become wealthy for themselves, but then once they’ve gotten some for themselves, to put in place restrictions, controls and limits for everyone else that will protect their gains. Government is a tool for restricting competition and buying off people who might upset the apple cart, while using resources you’ve taken from other people to do it.

I think the Silicon Valley ideologues have innovated a non-solution to many non-problems. Here is a quick summary of what I think is a real solution to some of their perceived problems, which I will refer to simply as “the private property society”.

Democrats and Republicans claim to be on different sides of the issues, but the place where they align strongly is their shared belief in the necessity of violent interference in social affairs, that is, using government (a monopoly on violence) to achieve desired social ends. Anyone who shares the philosophy that government is a reasonable tool for solving social problems, especially economic problems, is ideologically aligned with the Democrats and the Republicans. The truly radical position is to recognize violent interference in social affairs as a moral and practical non-starter. You can not make people better by force.

For government to invest in one person, it must de-invest (tax) another. This is a zero sum game and in fact it’s likely worse because by definition every time the government takes from the original owner of a resource by taxation and gives to an arbitrary recipient it has selected a less-valued state of affairs; if this were not true, it would mean individuals were routinely engaging in exchanges they perceived to make them worse off and getting poorer and poorer each time they did so.

It is not the role of the government to build the internet, to provide education, to fund basic research in science, etc. The government has no objective way of knowing which of the many projects it might support are actually more valuable than the projects which would’ve been supported by freely chosen, voluntary exchanges amongst the individuals who would be taxed to provide what the government hands out.

Liberty IS a value, although not a value unto itself. Liberty is valuable specifically because of what liberty allows, for each person to pursue those plans he deems most beneficial to his well-being. Without liberty, individuals are forced to accede to the demands and the plans of government, and these demands and plans may not only be worse than the ones they had in mind, but against their very values and ideas of right and wrong.

It is true that people are unequal– unequal in their starting position in life and unequal in their ending position, for every person will die at a different time and place and under different circumstances. People have different abilities, and different means, and their abilities and means will change continually over the course of their lives. The question is not “How can we make people more equal?” but rather “Will people be allowed to be the primary determinant of those inevitable changes, or will they be forced to change according to the pattern of a will other than their own?” The inequality of life provides all the incentive, encouragement and reward necessary for the best to strive to be better, and the worst to do what they must. Nothing can be added to that equation without inadvertently taking something else away.

Housing is a particular problem in San Francisco and Silicon Valley because that part of the country is particularly in love with the promise and power of government. In a competitive market environment, scarcity results in higher prices; this is the “housing shortage” the Silicon Valley crowd is witnessing and experiencing. Normally, higher prices would incentivize an increased supply. Is it not profitable to build housing in the Bay Area? If it is profitable, why aren’t more investors/business people trying to take advantage by increasing the supply of housing? The fact that a problem that is normally solved by investor activity chasing profits is not only occurring, but getting worse and worse every day in the midst of one of the densest communities of super-investor/business people in the entire country suggests that housing in the Bay Area is not controlled by market forces but political forces. The solution is simple– get the political forces out of the way. Eliminate zoning restrictions, eliminate permitting, eliminate taxes on the sale of land and housing, etc. Let markets work.

Information and knowledge are not new to the economy. And knowledge is not valuable without the liberty to pursue what one has learned. Silicon Valley should be strongly aligned with the private property society and the liberty to employ valuable knowledge that comes with it. The fact that they are not raises my suspicion and concern.

Supporting Causes With Integrity

Introduction

I am a skeptic when it comes to charity– I believe most charity efforts are inefficient ways to make the desired impact, misunderstand the nature of the problem they seek to address and are doomed to treat symptoms rather than causes or, at worst, create more problems than they solve. I believe that this is partly due to the incentivizes and mechanisms of philanthropic activities versus monetary/commercial exchange activities, and partly (mostly) due to the fact that most people interested in charity do not spend much time thinking philosophically about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it and why they’re doing it.

As I do intend to contribute to (or even create) some philanthropic entities over the course of my life and I do not wish to be a hypocrite, I have attempted to identify and outline some important tradeoffs which must be considered before engaging in charitable activities.

Spectra of tradeoffs

Short-term vision vs. Long-term vision

This tradeoff involves the consideration of looking at problems which are immediate, present or developed in nature versus looking at problems which are distant, in the future and developing or potentially could develop based on a particular trend playing out. This tradeoff also has implications for questions of fund-raising and financing methodology and the construction of a strategy to meet the problem (ie, building a strategy which is active in the coming year versus a strategy which may only become active many years from now). This tradeoff has a generational component– looking at one’s own generation or the immediately following generation, the generation of one’s grandchildren or even more distant successors, or looking at the general inheritance of mankind for all time.

Physical issues vs. World of ideas

This tradeoff involves considering problems related to things that affect the material well-being versus predominant ideas, values, culture, etc. An example would be providing books to schools, versus influencing what is in the books in schools.

Treat symptoms vs. Prevent problems

This tradeoff is one of both urgency and quantity. It implies a certain metaphysical reality for the tradeoff to exist, that is, that a smaller good can be had now at the expense of a larger good later. The tradeoff demands that we consider which is more important: ending present suffering or ending the the cause of suffering. An example is providing malaria medication, versus providing mosquito nets.

Act locally vs. Act globally

This tradeoff involves the radius of impact and the desire to improve one’s own community versus the potential to affect a more desperate community further afield. An example would be trying to end homelessness in your own city, versus trying to provide clean drinking water to everyone on the planet.

General application vs. Specific application

This tradeoff is similar to the impact radius consideration but the question asked is more precise: “Given that resources are limited, do you seek to relieve the problem as it affects one specific group, or as it affects all groups?” A person may choose a specific group far away or a specific group they know familiarly, that is why this is not a question of acting locally or globally. An example might be seeking cures for childhood cancer, versus seeking cures for all cancers.

Verifiable impact vs. Difficult to measure

This tradeoff involves considerations of the empirical measurement of philanthropic influence. You may decide only to support a cause which has a clear and objective metric to indicate the influence your contribution is making, or you may decide to support a cause where the impact is subjective, mixed up with other independent variables or is simply on too vast of a scale to easily measure. An example is delivering computers to third world classrooms, versus improving the happiness of a community.

DIY vs. Pay to fund others

This tradeoff is a question of agency and considers whether one will serve as the agent of change himself, or whether he will hire others to do the work for him. It is not just a question of leveraging the efforts of others through the division of labor– it is about whether it is personally desirable to be involved as an agent oneself or whether it is preferable to provide things like ideas, organization and money while leaving others to actually execute on the plan. An example is going on a mission trip and building houses for the poor, versus making a donation to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Change the system vs. Work within it

This tradeoff involves an analysis of the contribution the social system (rules, laws, cultural customs, traditions, economy, etc.) makes to the existence of the problem in question. You might see the problem as a necessary outcome of the system itself, necessitating a “revolution” to resolve it, or you might see the system as largely disinterested in or detached from the problem meaning it’s possible to use the system, or channel its energy differently, to resolve the problem. An example is abolishing the tax code, versus seeking a privileged status within it such as 501(c)3 designation.

For-profit vs. Non-profit (Self-sustaining vs. Dependency)

This tradeoff examines the proper method of financing a charitable activity. It signifies an awareness of the way that the existence of a charitable resource might influence the supply or stickiness of a social problem. It also provides consideration for the likelihood of strategically resolving a social problem with a potentially uncertain, inconsistent or mismatched method of finance. It understands that the design of economic systems and the consideration of incentives is often background for the existence of certain social problems. An example is a business that purposefully hires various “at risk” demographics to keep them out of trouble, versus a charity which spends significant time and energy ensuring its continued financing by others; a corrolary example is a charity with a substantial endowment which is intelligently invested over a long-period of time allowing it to grow, versus a charity which comes hat in hand every year asking for new donations to continue its operations.

Individuals vs. Families/communities

This tradeoff involves the philosophy of “If you can change the life of just one person, you’ve made a difference” as opposed to “It takes a village” or “Only together may we truly prosper.” It asks one to focus their consideration on whether the problem is truly being solved if only some are relieved or whether a wholesale solution must be put into affect to feel a sense of accomplishment. An example is a scholarship for a talented student, versus constructing a school for an “underserved” community.

One causes vs. Many causes

This tradeoff considers whether one can do the most good by having many plates spinning and doing a little good in a lot of places, or if it’s better to dig deeply and do a lot of good on just one issue. An example is putting all your effort and resources into diabetes research, versus supporting the local children’s hospital, a charity sports league, providing scholarships to handicapped students and funding a legal defense fund.

One project vs. Many projects

This tradeoff is similar to the one immediately preceding it. The difference is simply that one could have one project at each of many causes, or many projects at one and only one cause, or some other combination of the two. It is partly a question of finishing what you started before going on to something else. An example is just feeding the poor, versus feeding the poor, providing job training for the poor and organizing community awareness seminars about the challenges of the poor.

Mankind vs. Other Organisms

This tradeoff is self-explanatory– do you seek to resolve human issues, or ecological issues (including issues related to the state of the environment, the welfare of non-human animals, the prevalence of plant species, etc.) An example is building a church, versus saving a species of river smelt from extinction.

Conclusion

When it comes to philanthropy, I believe the most important epistemic principle is that you should have a rational, deeply contemplated answer to the question, “How do you know you aren’t making it worse?”

Review – Dressing The Man

Dressing The Man: Mastering The Art Of Permanent Fashion

by Alan Flusser, published 2002

Why do some men look debonair while others look disheveled or worse? What role do clothes play in making a handsome man look plain, and a plain man handsome? According to Alan Flusser, the secret lies in the man’s face itself– do his clothes direct the eye confidently and purposefully to the face, or do they beg the viewer to stare anywhere but there?

Dressing well rests on two pillars– color and proportion… Fashion should be accountable to a specific set of physical trademarks.

For Flusser, successful sartorial pursuits play within known boundaries of taste, structure and purpose, but within those broad confines the greatest spoils go to the most individual:

The best dressed men consistently demonstrate the greatest degree of self-knowledge… a superior understanding of their physical manner and appearance.

This self-aware approach to menswear starts and ends with a man’s face.

The face is the destination to which one’s attire should escort the beholder’s attention… the colors of any given ensemble should exhibit the same degree of contrast as that manifested by one’s skin and hair tones, a person’s two primary color signposts… highlighting each face by repeating one or more of its natural pigments in the colors worn below.

While there is infinite variance to men’s faces, all men happily fit into one of two primary categories of complexion:

If your hair is dark and your skin light, you have a contrast complexion. If your hair and skin tone are similar, your complexion would be considered muted, or tonal.

For example, Southern Europeans and Slavs, as well as Africans and Asians, are clear contrast-type complexions. Northern Europeans, Scandinavians, the Irish and other “norse” blooded peoples are classic muted/tonal complexions. Of special note is the “light, bright and blond”, for whom “at least one item in each ensemble reflects his gold toned complexion.”

For contrast complexions, contrasting colors help to brighten the face and draw attention to it. Conversely, tonal complexions are best shown against complementary, typically warm, colors as their complexion can be easily over-powered by a surfeit of dark tones. The idea is to find combinations that help the face to “pop”, almost as if one is walking around with a low-powered spotlight directing attention to one’s face.

If the man can master this one element of permanent style, he has accomplished at least 80% of the job. The rest of the book involves classic style recommendations on how to wear and match the different elements of mens’ formal clothing such as the suit, jacket, slacks, dress shirt (including collars and cuffs), ties, hosiery, shoes and accessories, as well as how to think about patterns and colors. As I found these sections immensely helpful, I am recreating the most essential advice in list form below:

Navigating the body

While style must be matched to the individual characteristics of each man to succeed, Flusser cautions against simply making up the rules.

Genuine innovation has always taken place with an awareness, rather than an ignorance, of restraints.

The primary restraints beyond complexion are the “five major intersections” of menswear: the neck, shoulder, waist, wrist and ankle. Each provides an opportunity to choose complementary lines, angles and colors which can either greatly enhance or greatly diminish the effect of drawing the viewer’s eye toward the man’s face.

The suit jacket

  • Since the jacket’s shoulders frame the head, if they are too narrow, the head will appear larger than actual size; conversely, if cut too wide, the head will appear disproportionately small
  • Length: long enough to cover the curvature of the buttocks while giving the leg as long a line as possible (relative to torso, divide in half the distance from the collar’s seam to the floor)
  • Bottom line: should line up with the thumb knuckle
  • Waist button: when fastened, should divide the body so that the torso and legs appear at maximum length; should be placed 1/2 inch below the natural waist (place your hands around the smallest part of your torso and then press down at the sides into the hollow above the hipbone)
  • Lapels: width should harmonize with the necktie; single-breasted should cover between 2/5 and 3/5 of the distance between the chest and shoulder line
  • Sleeve: full at the top and tapering down to the wrist bone; the converging lines should conform to the broad shoulder and narrowing waist of the jacket; the band of linen between the jacket sleeve and hand is yet another stylistic gesture associated with the well-turned out man
  • The sine qua non of tailoring sophistication is a suit that brackets the wearer’s head with gently sloped, natural-looking but defined shoulders
  • Side vents lead the observer’s eye up either side of the coat’s back, subliminally imbuing the wearer with an illusion of greater height
  • Four buttons (working!) on a suit jacket’s sleeve convey superior sartorial breeding
  • The waistcoat adds gravitas to the single-breasted suit; it is a remembrance of things past and accessible only to those able to afford one custom-made

The suit trouser

  • Suit trousers should extend the line of the jacket; fuller-chested jackets require fuller-cut trousers, just as more fitted jackets mandate slimmer-fitting trousers
  • Trousers should be worn on the waist, not on the hip

The dress shirt

  • The choice of the dress shirt should be guided first and foremost by the appropriateness of its collar shape to that of the wearer’s face
  • If its collar is too small, the head will appear large; if the collar sits too low on the neck, it will make the neck look longer than it is; broadly spaced points of a spread collar will counterbalance a long and narrow face; long-pointed collars that are either pinned or buttoned down will help to countermand faces with angular features and strong lines
  • With top button closed, two fingers should be able to slide comfortably between the neck and collar of a new shirt; if it fits perfectly on first wear it may strangle after repeated washings
  • It should be cut full enough to allow the wearer to sit without concern for whether its front will gape open; lengthwise, it should be such that you can raise your arms without it pulling out of the trouser top; the collar’s points ought to be able to remain in touch with the shirt’s body
  • The shirt must fit snugly around the wrist so that the additional length required to keep the cuff from pulling back when the arm is extended does not force it down the hand; if the hand can slide through the cuff opening without first unfastening it, the cuff’s circumference is too large
  • A shirt’s formality begins at the collar, its most prominent and defining feature; stiffer collars are more formal; more open points are more dressy; the cuff also contributes to the overall effect; fabric is the next indicator of formality, smoother or more lustrous materials are dressier; finally, the amount of white in the design’s ground add to dressiness
  • While pure white has been the traditional color of choice, medium-blue flatters more men’s faces; at least half a dozen or so dress shirts in one’s wardrobe should ideally be in some shade of solid blue or in a predominantly blue pattern; the trick is to find the deepest shade of blue that highlights the face without distraction
  • A mane with strong contrast in his complexion can enjoy a larger range of colors; fair-haired men with muted complexions can balance their lighter tones with soft-hued blues such as end-on-ends, oxfords and mini-checks whose weaves use white to reduce the blue’s intensity
  • Gold is frequently used as an accent color in many patterned neckties, so if a man has flecks of blond hair, echoing it under the chin is an opportune way to illuminate the face
  • While the matching french cuff is always acceptable, a button cuff has no place at the end of a sleeve attached to a shirt with a contrasting white collar
  • To fully exploit the french cuff link’s decorative potential, each side should bear a design and connect with a chain or link
  • Sooner or later, every well-dressed man should acquire an antique set of studs

The necktie and neckwear

  • The necktie’s correct width has always been determined by the jacket’s lapel (not what is fashionable at the time!)
  • The knot should be compressed so that it dovetails high up into the inverted “V” of the collar’s converging sides; a dimple or inverted pleat should emerge from the middle of the knot
  • Because of the move toward business casual in the professional world, the appearance of a necktie will more than ever signify the wearer’s desire to embrace a dressier, more authoritative image
  • A necktie should be agreeable to the touch, silk is undeniably the fabric of choice
  • Some standard woven types: Macclesfield, Spitalsfield, regimental stripes (proper direction is high left to low right; these ties have a slimming effect), plaid, solid (a more sophisticated look), wool (best for cool-weather); should a man want to acquire a necktie with a reasonable probability of aesthetic longevity, the woven design tie would generally be the safer bet
  • Polka-dot ties enliven all kinds of menswear ensembles but they are on particularly friendly terms with stripes
  • Bow ties can be worn on both formal and informal occasions, day or evening, and are correct with either single- or double-breasted jackets; its width should not extend beyond the outer edge of a man’s face and definitely not beyond the breadth of his collar; the hand-tied bow’s moody loops and unpredictable swirls give you that subtle insouciance; bow ties work best for the over-fifty set
  • The manner in which a tie is knotted offers the only true means of imposing one’s individual stamp on it; over time this male rite should evolve into another manifestation of one’s personal style
  • The widest point just above the tip of the tie should coincide with the belt’s upper edge
  • The tie should arch out from the collar, the dimple extending downward, projecting a subliminal authority

The pocket handkerchief/square

  • No man can consider himself an elegante without knowing how to rig out the simple white pocket square; angle the hank outward toward the shoulder, with its point irregularly arranged
  • Without some form of pocket rigging, an outside breast pocket appears superfluous and the outfit incomplete; it is the quickest and least expensive way to lend a mediocre suit a more expensive look
  • Its deportment should appear unstudied, effortlessly contributing to the overall aplomb
  • Overtly coordinating, or worse, matching a tie and handkerchief is not only a sign of an unsure dresser but also a sure way to lead the eye across the body and away from the face; solid handkerchief with patterned necktie, and should not be of the same color as the ground shade of the necktie
  • A tie’s silken luster calls for a matte pocket square like linen or cotton; wool or linen neckties with a dulled surface requires the upbeat luster of a silk foulard
  • A solid pocket hank should echo a color in the necktie, shirt or jacket

The dress belt

  • The choice should be dictated first by the shoe’s color and then by the hue of the jacket and trouser
  • Should be an equal or darker shade than the suit; darker imparts a dressier look, the more contrast between the belt and trouser, the sportier the look
  • Long enough to finish through the trouser’s first belt loop without running past the second
  • Buckles should be simple in design, in either silver or gold, depending on the color of accompanying jewelry

The tailored ankle

  • The trouser bottom should cover about two-thirds of the shoe
  • The round or slightly-square-toed oxford, or blucher lace-up with a welt-constructed sole, ranks as the ideally proportioned shoe for suit-driven attire

Hosiery

  • By reiterating at floor level a color or pattern found near the face, the silhouette’s upper and lower zones begin to network with each other
  • Should match the trouser rather than the shoe; when shoe and hosiery are perceived as a unit, they separate themselves from the trouser which is not desirable
  • Black hose should be avoided any time one is not engaged in formal wear or swathed head to toe in black
  • The more formal the ensemble, the finer or more sheer the hose
  • The bulkier the outfit, the more one must step up the sock’s thickness
  • After the necktie, the hose’s most frequent stage partner is none other than the dress shirt

Footwear

  • A well-made and properly looked after pair of leather dress shoes can provide several decades of fine service; uppers should be made from skins no more than twelve weeks old and have a fine grain that takes a high polish; the sole can be removed and repaired repeatedly with minimal damage to the shoe’s upper; it’s impossible to spend too much on a finely crafted, perfectly fitting pair of shoes which will improve with age
  • Top quality brown leather shoes invest all fabrics with an intangible richness
  • The plain cap-toe oxford lace-up is the basic shoe style for smart, though not strictly formal, town wear
  • The wing tip takes its name from its toe cap shaped like the spread wings of a bird, pointed in the center and extending toward the rear with heavily perforated side seams
  • The blucher is a step down in dressiness from the oxford
  • The monk-step shoe has intermediate formality, registering somewhere between that of a slip-on and a lace-up shoe
  • The brown suede shoe happens to be suitable for all seasons
  • Crocodile leather in a dark honey tone affords versatility
  • The Weejun-style slip-on became the year-round workhorse of many men’s casual shoe wardrobe

Suit colors and patterns

  • When it comes to starter suits, the dark grey, two-piece charcoal gets the professional’s nod; it has the highest color and function versatility
  • More enriching than stark black, more ceremonial than charcoal, whether in twill or plain weave, 12 ounces or 8, a navy suit shows off the average man to best advantage
  • Of all men’s suitings, none has ever matched the glamour and popularity of the striped suit; it’s innate appeal derives from the vertical lines which lengthen the wearer
  • The window-pane is the anti-prole
  • The classic gray flannel suit remains a paragon of cool-weather stylishness
  • The brown suit provides special charisma to the chocolate-, blond-, red-, or sandy-haired man who are continually encouraged to consider brown as one of their staple wardrobe themes; the dark brown worsted jacket and the medium-blue dress shirt attract considerable acclaim
  • In medium blue, brown or gray and white oxford stripe, single- or double-breasted, worn with a necktie or polo shirt, the seersucker suit offers a heat-beater stylishness transcending both low and high fashion
  • For business casual, the easiest way to pull together unmatched separates is through the medium of color; when harmonizing three different separates keep two pieces in the same color family
  • Accessorizing a suit in a monotone palette imbues it with instant sleekness and modernity
  • Psychologists consider black and white the most authoritarian of all color combinations
  • Darker trousers will make sport jackets appear dressier
  • For business casual, the buttons of most sport jackets often come in a complementary contrast shade, so it’s a fair guess that trousers chosen in the same tonality will match the jacket pretty well; if the jacket and trouser are in a similar hue, the shirt can be in a contrast or tonal relationship to both, dictated by complexion and personal taste; if the shirt is multi-colored, one of its colors should echo that of the jacket and trouser

Pattern matching

  • When combining two patterns of the same design, the size of each should be as different from the other as possible
  • When matching two checks, specifically, there should be a healthy dose of contrast between the scale of each player
  • When coordinating two different patterns, such as a striped suit and a check dress shirt, or a plaid jacket and a figured necktie, the patterns should be kept close in size; when in doubt, choose a larger rather than a smaller design; placing two smaller patterns near each other, whether similar or not, will wreak havoc on the eye of the beholder
  • When mixing three patterns where two are the same, separating the two like designs in size while selecting an unlike pattern that is visually compatible with both is the trick; the odd one out should take its cue from the more prominent of the similar partners; for neckties, the open-ground, large-spaced motif affords the greatest possibilities for textural harmony
  • When mixing three patterns of the same design, graduating in size from small out to large, beginning closest to the body and going up as clothing layers outward (ie, shirt smallest, jacket medium, tie or pocket square largest)
  • When mixing four patterns, the more imagination and taste one puts into his appearance, the more subtle the results should be

Conclusion

This book is an incredible resource and fun to read, to boot. It feels like having a conversation with a thoughtful but playful personal clotheshorse. The number of synonyms for different pieces of menswear and style are unbelievable and luckily there is a thorough glossary at the back of the book. There’s so much more here than what I chose to make notes about.

On Stirner: The False Principle Of Our Education

Max Stirner (1806-1856) was a proponent of philosophical egoism, which states that there is no “right and wrong” in a moral sense but only “right and wrong” in the sense of a given means being appropriate to a stated end. In this way, he sought to create a value-free philosophy, just as Ludwig von Mises claimed that economics was a value-free social science in that economics did not say whether a given economic end was “good or bad”, only whether the economic means chosen for obtaining it was appropriate or not.

Stirner was also a contemporary of the Young Hegelians, and a student and fierce critic of Hegel himself. Whereas he could foresee that the intellectual project of the Hegelian “moderns” was nothing but a new religion and a reformation of the thinking of the “ancients” of Greece and Rome which would ultimately end in a total state and an orgiastic ruination of the individual, Stirner instead tried to create something entirely different by reclaiming the idea of individual as owner of his own life. This he set out to accomplish in The Ego and His Own.

A few years before he published his primary work on the subject, however, Stirner wrote a pamphlet on the nature of the modern European debate over educational systems, entitled “The False Principle of Our Education“, in which he declared “The school-question is a life-question.”

Why is the school-question a life-question? Because, Stirner says, we are in school in “the time of our plasticity.” The various factions in society fight over the schools because they understand this is the moment when individuals are most malleable, moldable, shapeable– control the fate of an individual in his schooling of youth and you can potentially control him for his entire life.

Historically,

Until the Enlightenment… higher education lay without protest in the hands of the humanists… based almost solely on the understanding of the old classics… they selected the best education of the world of antiquity… the people were supposed to remain in the laity opposite of the learned gentlemen, were only supposed to gaze in astonishment at the strange splendor and venerate it

This is so because people have a tendency to respect and admire the past just as they respect and admire their parents and ancestors. By setting the educational model in the past, a period which is so far from recent human experience that its iniquities can be forgotten while its triumphs can be lauded and envied, the humanists created an educational system that played to people’s traditionalist bias, making it ripe for automatic respect and veneration. Then, by restricting such education to the elite of society, they managed to transfer this veneration to the elites who held such educations. They came to represent the old, respectable past and so were respected and granted authority themselves.

This was the educational system of the humanists of the European Middle Ages. The system of the “moderns” post-Enlightenment, the realists, would not replace but reform it:

To eliminate the priesthood of the scholars and the laity of the people is the endeavor of realism and therefore it must surpass humanism… the essential advantage of scholars, universal education, should be beneficial to everyone… “to be able to talk about everything”… therefore familiarity with the things and situations of the present… because it satisfied the common need of everyone to find themselves in their world and time

But the aims of the humanists and the realists were short-sighted:

to grasp the past as humanism teaches and to seize the present, which is the aim of realism, leads both only to power over the transitory

Humanists offered a materialist education– to know of things. Realists offered a formal education– to know of categories, classes, and shapes, but not the value of them to anybody. Stirner himself offers an entirely different alternative, which he calls personalism— to know the self. In this failing, Stirner sees that,

knowledge is not brought to completion and perspicuity, that it remains a material and formal, a positive thing, without rising to the absolute, that it loads us down like a burden

The false principle of education, to Stirner, is that education has never been given to others or taken philosophically to its total end, the enabling of the creation of the self, or ego. It was stopped short by both the humanists and the realists in order to serve other needs, other egos. Instead, a foundation on true principle would imply,

the final goal of education… is: the personal or free man. Truth itself consists in nothing other than man’s revelation of himself… such thoroughly true men are not supplied by school; if they are nevertheless there, they are there in spite of school… No knowledge, however thorough and extensive, no brilliance and perspicuity, no dialectic sophistication, will preserve us from the commonness of thought and will

The true purpose of education should not be to fill people’s minds with stuff (facts, figures, events, people, places) or with implications (what to think of the stuff); the purpose of education should be to enable individuals to find themselves. Everything short of this does not serve the individual, but someone else:

Only a formal and material training is being aimed at and only scholars come out of the menageries of the humanists, only “useful citizens” out of those of the realists, both of whom are indeed nothing but subservient people… If one awakens in men the idea of freedom then the free men will incessantly go on to free themselves; if, on the contrary, one only educates them, then they will at all times accommodate themselves to circumstances in the most highly educated and elegant manner and degenerate into subservient cringing souls

Educational philosophy, then, can be boiled down into three primary alternatives: to educate and create masters, to educate and create slaves, or to educate and create individuals (who are neither slave nor master).

The present state of education, based off humanist and realist principles, is one of disarray and pathetic. College students,

trained in the most excellent manner, they go on training; drilled, they continue drilling… it is not knowledge that should be taught, rather, the individual should come to self-development… we do not hinder man’s quest for knowledge; why should we intimidate his free will?

Why, but only to control him.

Stirner crushes mercilessly the lie that we educate within the current paradigm so as to civilize people, and thereby make them safe co-habitants of our society, that without education these “free egos” would turn to chaos and “anarchy” and tear society apart in violent blunder:

I oppose him with the strength of my own freedom; thus the spite of the child will break up by itself. Whoever is a complete person does not need to be an authority.

“Free egos” are only threats to those who seek control over others (for they pose a form of opposition to their own ego) or those who are in a position of subservience, control and dependence upon an authority and are thereby not free to resist the aggressions of another themselves.

Instead,

school is to be life and there, as outside of it, the self-revelation of the individual is to be the task… only freedom is equality… we need from now on a personal education (not the impressing of convictions)… knowledge must die and rise again as will and create itself anew each day as a free person.

Beware those who would argue otherwise; aware of it or not, they’re attempting to set up a trap by which to control you.

Ron Paul’s Ten Principles Of A Free Society

I thought this deserved a separate post from my recent review of Ron Paul’s Liberty Defined.

At the end of the book, Ron Paul listed “ten principles of a free society” and I have slightly edited them below:

  1. Rights belong to individuals, not groups; they’re derived from nature, not political agreements
  2. Consent is the basis of social order; any arrangements built on voluntary consent are permissible
  3. Private property is owned by individuals and their voluntary organizations; it is not rented or permitted by political organizations
  4. Government is not a tool for redistributing wealth or granting special social privileges to certain individuals or groups
  5. Individuals are responsible for their own actions and can not be protected from their consequences without shifting the cost to others
  6. Money should be determined by the market and not monopolized and counterfeited by government fiat
  7. Aggressive and preventive wars are incompatible with the voluntary social order of the free society; embargoes are a form of warfare
  8. Juries may nullify (judge the laws, not just the facts) at will
  9. Involuntary servitude is not permissible, this includes: slavery, conscription, forced association, and forced welfare distribution (ie, taxation and “deputizing” private businesses and their resources to perform regulatory functions such as tax collection, immigration enforcement, etc.)
  10. Government agents must obey the same laws and moral codes as private citizens

I think this is a pretty good list. It definitely could get a conversation going. However, I wonder about some of the items on this list being redundant. I think the list might be able to be further circumscribed. I also think that the list goes back and forth between prohibitions, and declarations of principles or conditions or reality (thankfully, it doesn’t contain any positive obligations!) While the list seems fairly complete, I wonder if it captures all essential issues of a free society.

Review – The King Of Oil

The King of Oil: The Secret Lives of Marc Rich

by Daniel Ammann, published 2010

The Story of Marc Rich

The popular telling of the myth of the crimes of Marc Rich almost perfectly captures the modern American zeitgeist– a businessman, the most evil and exploitative kind of villain that can plague a nation of honest and earnest people, sought to earn a profit via oil trades with the enemy (post-Revolution Iran) during a time of national crisis and embargo (the embarrassingly stupid hostage situation in Tehran circa 1979), evaded his tax obligations and then had the sheer nerve (or perhaps deep well of pure, black hatred within his heart) to refuse to stand trial for his crimes by fleeing to neutral Switzerland, using his enormous, illegally-acquired and not to mention positively unsightly personal wealth to buy himself immunity — and eventually a full pardon — from a criminal justice system to which lesser mortals must pay heed.

But if we peer a little closer (and trust the retelling of Rich’s story in Daniel Ammann’s biographic to be honest and accurate), we begin to see Marc Rich in an entirely different light– if not immediately heroic, then certainly victimized by a benighted American public and tormented by a vengeful “limited” government with ulterior motives. Yes, in this new light, Marc Rich casts long shadows, and standing hunched over in the shadows we see the plotting, manipulative forms of then-US Attorney Rudy Giuliani and then-US Federal prosecutor Sandy Weinberg, as representatives of themselves but also as representatives of the disaster of unbridled ego, political pragmatism and the twisted logic of the State that has nowadays become so popular.

The man’s accomplishments are legend and long-form: single-handedly creating the world market for spot-price oil; circumventing blockades, trade barriers and hare-brained foreign policy situations to move commodities from the conflict-ridden pieces of earth where they lay, wasted, into the hands of producers all over the world who value them most; organizing a billion-dollar-a-year commodity trading company with his partner Pincus Green, whose reach spanned the globe; and evading the vagabonds and plunderers calling themselves the US federal government and the US Marshal Service for over a decade.

And the man’s crime? Libertarians, steady yourselves– doing business in certain places and in a certain fashion without the express permission of the United States federal government to do so. In other words, Marc Rich was guilty of minding his own business.

Enemy of the State

That’s the reality of Marc Rich’s crimes, but that was not the story fed to journalists by U.S. attorney Rudy Giuliani on September 19th, 1983. On that day, the public learned of Rich’s “fifty-one counts of fraud, racketeering” and “tax evasion” (pg. 116). “It was ‘the largest tax evasion indictment ever,’ Giuliani said.”

The defendants engaged in this scheme as a part of a pattern of racketeering activity in which they concealed in excess of $100 million in taxable income of the defendant Marc Rich International, most of which income was illegally generated through the defendants’ violations of federal energy laws and regulations. This scheme, and pattern of racketeering activity, enabled the defendant Marc Rich International to evade taxes in excess of $48 million in United States taxes for the 1980 and 1981 tax years.

Giuliani, however, held back the most serious charge until the end of the press conference.

The most serious charge:

Marc Rich + Co. AG [Rich’s Swiss trading corporation and mother-company to MRI] ‘entered into contracts with the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) to purchase Iranian crude and fuel oil.’ ….Trading with the enemy– the gravest of accusations” (pg. 117)

This is how Marc Rich’s crimes became famous, and Marc Rich himself infamous. Prior to these allegations, Rich had been a quiet genius, an unknown billionaire. For a man who would later become the detested scoundrel of a nation who had, until that time, been quite familiar with its many antiheroes (Billy the Kid, Al Capone, Charles Manson), the initial reaction of Sandy Weinberg to allegations against Marc Rich was telling.

“Marc who?” Weinberg asked. “I’ve never heard of a Marc Rich.” (105)

Yet, this “accidental discovery” (117) of Weinberg and Giuliani’s (trading with the enemy) would provide the political impetus to eventually charge Rich and partner Pincus Green with the nation’s toughest “RICO” (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) laws, the “prosecutor’s equivalent of nuclear weaponry” (122). For a man whose entire indictment contained not one crime of actual fraud or extortion, the traditional definition of racketeering, it’s hard to imagine how racketeering charges could be justified. Actually, it’s hard to imagine how any charges could be justified because, remember, Rich’s crimes were not against actual, existing individuals but rather against the positive corporate mandates of the United States federal government and its immense regulatory and tax bureaucracies.

True crimes

The real racket being run was that of the US tax authorities, the real crime Rich — a literal world citizen with passports issued by Spain, Switzerland and Israel and whose main business was incorporated in Switzerland — was guilty of was not paying his protection money and furthermore being so bold as to trade with a rival gang in Iran.

And this is really the most instructive moral of the many morals of the Marc Rich saga. Forget the struggle of fleeing Europe’s Holocaust and losing everything in the process. Forget the hard work and determination of an immigrant family that allowed them to overcome language barriers and their immediate poverty to ultimately realize an ‘American Dream’ of their own. Forget the sheer talent and raw force of will necessary to forge a world commodities empire and create an entirely new way to trade oil, a new market that directly challenged the oligopoly of the Seven Sisters oil cartel.

No, Marc Rich’s story is significant and telling because it reveals the true nature of government in practice, and especially government as practiced in America, where it is nothing but politics and egos that decides men’s fates, and not some phony, childish striving for the “common good.” It shows us that government is fundamentally anti-competitive, anti-business and anti-individual.

Political vendetta embodied

The crusade against Marc Rich was over the top and beyond any reasonable idea of the pursuit of justice in a free country. With rampant politicization of the process and the prosecution and defense alike, its use of the most formidable federal charges possible (RICO) and the wanton collateral damage caused to Rich’s company, employees, trading partners and even world markets, it was akin to an all-out totalitarian war.

“It was phenomenal,” Sandy Weinberg told me with glee. “We tied up all U.S. assets, including 20th Century Fox. We shut ’em down completely. We shut the company down for a year. They couldn’t operate in the U.S. It cost them dearly. I assume it cost them probably a billion dollars.” (123)

Ask yourself, what is this prosecutor gloating over? What is he gloating over besides his own pride in his personal power to destroy a man’s business, business partners and reputation? What is he thrilling over but the loss of value, to many millions of people the world over, that the “billion dollars” in lost revenue represents? Rich was never charged with a crime that represented stealing from others or extorting his trading partners… all money he made, he made on the basis of voluntary, wealth-producing transactions from the viewpoint of his trading partners.

This is the stark reality of government, that it destroys wealth. That it tears society down. That it hobbles trade. And all for what? For the egos of ambitious politicians. Who benefited from Marc Rich’s downfall? Not the people of the United States, and not the people of the rest of the world. But for Giuliani, it was “another feather in his cap” (123).

“U.S. Attorney Giuliani knew that the case would serve as a springboard for his political career– a career that would lead him to become the mayor of New York and later to make an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. presidency. One could go so far as to say that Giuliani’s political and very public career actually began with this case. As history has shown, the fact that the case escalated rapidly before virtually exploding as a media event was not exactly to Giuliani’s disadvantage. In all likelihood, this escalation was even desired.” (142)

Ultimately, Marc Rich ran afoul of the political process. He sought to trade around arbitrary regulations and restrictions on oil exchange established by the political Department of Energy. He maintained multiple passports and was not beholden to the ever-changing nationalistic political winds of any land or time period. He exploited tax loopholes to avoid paying as much protection money as he could, protection fees which are, again, established arbitrarily and politically by the respective governments involved on he basis of what is expedient, not what is right or necessary. And finally, he traded with unpopular foreign regimes without respect for outstanding bans and embargoes and did so without the nauseating moral hypocrisy of the politician who makes claim that he is transacting with rights-violators for the Greater Good.

The moral: the individual stands alone

No, Marc Rich only traded for profit, nothing more, nothing less, and a value that is truly non-partial and non-political.