Category: Learning

The Nerds Were Right. Math Makes Life Beautiful.

Math has long been the language of science, engineering, and finance, but can math help you feel calm on a turbulent flight? Get a date? Make better decisions? Here are some heroic ways math shows up in our everyday life.

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Sounds intellectually sophisticated, doesn’t it? Other than sounding really smart at after-work cocktails, what could be the benefit of understanding where math and physics permeate your life?

Well, what if I told you that math and physics can help you make better decisions by aligning with how the world works? What if I told you that math can help you get a date? Help you solve problems? What if I told you that knowing the basics of math and physics can help make you less afraid and confused? And, perhaps most important, they can help make life more beautiful. Seriously.

If you’ve ever been on a plane when turbulence has hit, you know how unnerving that can be. Most people get freaked out by it, and no matter how much we fly, most of us have a turbulence threshold. When the sides of the plane are shaking, noisily holding themselves together, and the people beside us are white with fear, hands clenched on their armrests, even the calmest of us will ponder the wisdom of jetting 38,000 feet above the ground in a metal tube moving at 1,000 km an hour.

Considering that most planes don’t fall from the sky on account of turbulence isn’t that comforting in the moment. Aren’t there always exceptions to the rule? But what if you understood why, or could explain the physics involved to the freaked-out person beside you? That might help.

In Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life, Helen Czerski spends a chapter describing the gas laws. Covering subjects from the making of popcorn to the deep dives of sperm whales, her amazingly accessible prose describes how the movement of gas is fundamental to the functioning of pretty much everything on earth, including our lungs. She reveals air to be not the static clear thing that we perceive when we bother to look, but rivers of molecules in constant collision, pushing and moving, giving us both storms and cloudless skies.

So when you appreciate air this way, as a continually flowing and changing collection of particles, turbulence is suddenly less scary. Planes are moving through a substance that is far from uniform. Of course, there are going to be pockets of more or less dense air molecules. Of course, they will have minor impacts on the plane as it moves through these slightly different pressure areas. Given that the movement of air can create hurricanes, it’s amazing that most flights are as smooth as they are.

You know what else is really scary? Approaching someone for a date or a job. Rejection sucks. It makes us feel awful, and therefore the threat of it often stops us from taking risks. You know the scene. You’re out at a bar with some friends. A group of potential dates is across the way. Do you risk the cringingly icky feeling of rejection and approach the person you find most attractive, or do you just throw out a lot of eye contact and hope that person approaches you?

Most men go with the former, as difficult as it is. Women will often opt for the latter. We could discuss social conditioning, with the roles that our culture expects each of us to follow. But this post is about math and physics, which actually turn out to be a lot better in providing guidance to optimize our chances of success in the intimidating bar situation.

In The Mathematics of Love, Hannah Fry explains the Gale-Shapley matching algorithm, which essentially proves that “If you put yourself out there, start at the top of the list, and work your way down, you’ll always end up with the best possible person who’ll have you. If you sit around and wait for people to talk to you, you’ll end up with the least bad person who approaches you. Regardless of the type of relationship you’re after, it pays to take the initiative.”

The math may be complicated, but the principle isn’t. Your chances of ending up with what you want — say, the guy with the amazing smile or that lab director job in California — dramatically increase if you make the first move. Fry says, “aim high, and aim frequently. The math says so.” Why argue with that?

Understanding more physics can also free us from the panic-inducing, heart-pounding fear that we are making the wrong decisions. Not because physics always points out the right decision, but because it can lead us away from this unproductive, subjective, binary thinking. How? By giving us the tools to ask better questions.

Consider this illuminating passage from Czerski:

We live in the middle of the timescales, and sometimes it’s hard to take the rest of time seriously. It’s not just the difference between now and then, it’s the vertigo you get when you think about what “now” actually is. It could be a millionth of a second, or a year. Your perspective is completely different when you’re looking at incredibly fast events or glacially slow ones. But the difference hasn’t got anything to do with how things are changing; it’s just a question of how long they take to get there. And where is “there”? It is equilibrium, a state of balance. Left to itself, nothing will ever shift from this final position because it has no reason to do so. At the end, there are no forces to move anything, because they’re all balanced. They physical world, all of it, only ever has one destination: equilibrium.

How can this change your decision-making process?

You might start to consider whether you are speeding up the goal of equilibrium (working with force) or trying to prevent equilibrium (working against force).  One option isn’t necessarily worse than the other. But the second one is significantly more work.

So then you will understand how much effort is going to be required on your part. Love that house with the period Georgian windows? Great. But know that you will have to spend more money fighting to counteract the desire of the molecules on both sides of the window to achieve equilibrium in varying temperatures than you will if you go with the modern bungalow with the double-paned windows.

And finally, curiosity. Being curious about the world helps us find solutions to problems by bringing new knowledge to bear on old challenges. Math and physics are actually powerful tools for investigating the possibilities of what is out there.

Fry writes that “Mathematics is about abstracting away from reality, not replicating it. And it offers real value in the process. By allowing yourself to view the world from an abstract perspective, you create a language that is uniquely able to capture and describe the patterns and mechanisms that would otherwise remain hidden.”

Physics is very similar. Czerski says, “Seeing what makes the world tick changes your perspective. The world is a mosaic of physical patterns, and once you’re familiar with the basics, you start to see how those patterns fit together.”

Math and physics enhance your curiosity. These subjects allow us to dive into the unknown without being waylaid by charlatans or sidetracked by the impossible. They allow us to tackle the mysteries of life one at a time, opening up the possibilities of the universe.

As Czerski says, “Knowing about some basics bits of physics [and math!] turns the world into a toybox.” A toybox full of powerful and beautiful things.

The Terror of Totalitarianism Explained

We all hope totalitarianism — a form of government in which the state has no limits in authority and does whatever it wants — is a thing of the past.

Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia showed what the end of humanity would look like, and it terrified us. But it's important to understand that totalitarianism didn't just spring up out of a mystical vacuum. As Hannah Arendt explains in The Origins of Totalitarianism, it is, rather, just one possibility along a path that most countries are on at one time or another. And that is why it is so important to understand what it is.

The People

One of the most disturbing things about Nazism in Germany is how quickly the country changed. They went from democracy to concentration camps in fewer than ten years.

Most of us assume that the Germans of the time were different from us — we’d never fall for the kind of propaganda that Hitler spewed. And our democracy is too strong to be so easily dismantled. Right?

Wrong.

Arendt writes that “the success of totalitarian movements … meant the end of two illusions of democratically ruled countries….” One illusion was that most citizens were politically active and were part of a political party. However,

… the [totalitarian] movements showed that the politically neutral and indifferent masses could easily be the majority in a democratically ruled country, [and] that therefore a democracy could function according to rules which are actively recognized by only a minority. The second democratic illusion exploded by the totalitarian movements was that these politically indifferent masses did not matter, that they were truly neutral and constituted no more than the inarticulate backward setting for the political life of the nation.

In many modern democracies, we can see evidence of indifference and pervasive feelings of helplessness. There is low voter turnout and an assumption that things will be the way they are no matter what an individual does.

There is pent-up energy in apathy. Arendt suggests that the desire to be more than indifferent is what totalitarian movements initially manipulate until the individual is totally subsumed.

The disturbing factor in the success of totalitarianism is … the true selflessness of its adherents: it may be understandable that a Nazi or Bolshevik will not be shaken in his conviction by crimes against people who do not belong to the movement…; but the amazing fact is that neither is he likely to waver when the monster begins to devour its own children and not even if he becomes a victim of persecution himself….

How does totalitarianism incite this kind of fanaticism? How does a political organization “succeed in extinguishing individual identity permanently and not just for the moment of collective heroic action”?

As Arendt demonstrates, both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia capitalized on tensions already present in society. There was essentially a massive rejection of the existing political system as ineffectual and self-serving.

The fall of protecting class walls transformed the slumbering majorities behind all parties into one great unorganized, structureless mass of furious individuals who had nothing in common except their vague apprehension that the hopes of party members were doomed, that, consequently, the most respected, articulate and representative members of the community were fools and that all the powers that be were not so much evil as they were equally stupid and fraudulent.

How does a totalitarian government harness this attitude of the masses? By completely isolating individuals through random “liquidating” (mass murder) so that “the most elementary caution demands that one avoid all intimate contacts, if possible – not in order to prevent discovery of one's secret thoughts, but rather to eliminate, in the almost certain case of future trouble, all persons who might have not only an ordinary cheap interest in your denunciation but an irresistible need to bring about your ruin simply because they are in danger [in] their own lives.”

It's important to understand that it is simple to isolate people who already feel isolated. When you feel disconnected from the system around you and the leaders it has, when you believe that neither your vote nor your opinion matters, it's not a huge leap to feel that your very self has no importance. This feeling is what totalitarianism figured out how to manipulate by random terror that severed any form of connection with other human beings.

Totalitarianism “demand[s] total, unrestricted, unconditional, and unalterable loyalty of the individual member. … Such loyalty can be expected only from the completely isolated human being who, without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades, or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement.”

The Politics and Propaganda

Totalitarianism does not have an end goal in the usual political sense. Its only real goal is to perpetuate its own existence. There is no one party line that, if you stick to it, will save you from persecution. Remember the random mass murders. Stalin repeatedly purged whole sections of his government — just because. The fear is a requirement. The fear is what keeps the movement going.

And how do they get there? How do they get this power?

Arendt argues that there is a “possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition.”

This battle with truth is something we see today. Opinions are being given the same weight as facts, leading to endless debates and the assumption that nothing can be known anyway.

It is this turning away from knowledge that opens the doors to totalitarianism. “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”

These fabrications form the basis of the propaganda, with different messages crafted for different audiences. Arendt makes the point that “the necessities for propaganda are always dictated by the outside world and that the movements themselves do not actually propagate but indoctrinate.” Thus, propaganda can be understood as directed to those who are out of the control of the totalitarian movement, and it is used to convince them of its legitimacy. Then, once you are on the inside, it's about breaking down the individuality of the citizens until there is nothing but a “subdued population.”

The success of the propaganda directed internally demonstrated that “the audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.”

The Power

What does totalitarian rule look like? These states are not run by cliques or gangs. There is no protected group getting rich from this control of the masses. And no one is outside the message. For example, “Stalin … shot almost everybody who could claim to belong to the ruling clique and … moved the members of the Politburo back and forth whenever a clique was on the point of consolidating itself.”

Why no clique? One reason is that the goal of totalitarianism is not the welfare of the state. It is not economic prosperity or social advancement.

The reason why the ingenious devices of totalitarian rule, with their absolute and unsurpassed concentration of power in the hands of a single man, were never tried before is that no ordinary tyrant was ever mad enough to discard all limited and local interests — economic, national, human, military — in favor of a purely fictitious reality in some indefinite distant future.

Since independent thinkers are a threat, they are among the first to be purged. Bureaucratic functions are duplicated and layered, with people being shifted all the time.

This regular violent turnover of the whole gigantic administrative machine, while it prevents the development of competence, has many advantages: it assures the relative youth of officials and prevents a stabilization of conditions which, at least in time of peace, are fraught with danger for totalitarian rule….

Any chances of discontent and questioning of the status quo are eliminated by this perpetual rising of the newly indoctrinated.

The humiliation implicit in owing a job to the unjust elimination of one's predecessor has the same demoralizing effect that the elimination of the Jews had upon the German professions: it makes every jobholder a conscious accomplice in the crimes of the government….

Totalitarianism in power is about keeping itself in power. By preemptively removing large groups of people, the system neutralizes all those who might question it.

Possibly the one ray of hope in these systems is that because they pay no attention to actually governing, they are not likely to be sustainable in the long run.

The incredibility of the horrors is closely bound up with their economic uselessness. The Nazis carried this uselessness to the point of open anti-utility when in the midst of the war, despite the shortage of building material and rolling stock, they set up enormous, costly extermination factories and transported millions of people back and forth. In the eyes of a strictly utilitarian world the obvious contradiction between these acts and military expediency gave the whole enterprise an air of mad unreality.

But in the meantime, what these regimes create is so devastating to humanity that it would be naive to assume that humanity will always bounce back. “They have corrupted all human solidarity. Here the night has fallen on the future. When no witnesses are left, there can be no testimony.”

Even though totalitarianism doesn't produce countries with a variety of strengths and a robustness to fight off significant challenges, they should not be easily dismissed. The carnage they create tears apart all social fabric. And we must not assume that they exist only in the past. Thus, from Hannah Arendt, a final word of caution: “Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.”

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The Narratives of History: Applying Lessons from the Past

“History is written by the winners” is the popular view. But your winner may not be my winner. A lot depends on the narrative you are trying to build.

History is rewritten all the time.

Sometimes it is rewritten because new information has come to light, perhaps from an archeological find or previously classified documents. When this happens, it is exciting. We joyfully anticipate that more information will deepen our understanding.

But rewriting frequently happens in the service of building a cultural or national narrative. We highlight bits of the past that support our perceived identities and willfully ignore the details that don’t fit. We like our history uncomplicated. It’s hard for us to understand our groups or our countries, and by extension ourselves, as both good and not-good at the same time.

Culture is collective memory. It’s the interwoven stories that we use to explain who we are as nations, organizations, or just loosely formed groups.

Many of us belong to multiple cultural groups, but only one national group. Margaret MacMillan, in The Uses and Abuses of History, explains that “Collective memory is more about the present than the past because it is integral to how the group sees itself.” And “while collective memory is usually grounded in fact, it need not be.”

We have seen how people justify all kinds of mistakes to preserve the personal narratives they are invested in, and groups also engage in this behavior. Countries rewrite their histories, from the textbook up, to support how they see themselves now. Instinctively we may recoil from this idea, believing that it’s better to turn over all the rocks and confront what is lurking underneath. However, as MacMillan writes, “It can be dangerous to question the stories people tell about themselves because so much of our identity is both shaped by and bound up with our history. That is why dealing with the past, in deciding on which version we want, or on what we want to remember and to forget, can become so politically charged.”

For example, when Canada’s new war museum opened, controversy immediately ensued because part of the World War II exhibit called attention “to the continuing debate over both the efficacy and the morality of the strategy of the Royal Air Force’s bomber command, which sought to destroy Germany’s capacity to fight on by massive bombing of German industrial and civilian targets.” RAF veterans were outraged that their actions were considered morally ambiguous. Critics of the exhibit charged that the veterans should have the final say because, after all, “they were there.”

We can see that this rationale makes no sense. Galilean relativity shows that the pilots who flew the bombing campaigns are actually the least likely to have an objective understanding of the events. And the ends don’t always justify the means. It is possible to do bad things in the pursuit of morally justified outcomes.

MacMillan warns that the danger of abusing history is that it “flattens out the complexity of human experience and leaves no room for different interpretations of the past.”

Which leaves us asking, What do we want from history? Do we want to learn from it, with the hopes that in doing so we will avoid mistakes by understanding the experiences of others? Or do we want to practice self-justification on a national level, reinforcing what we already believe about ourselves in order to justify what we did and what we are doing? After all, “you could almost always find a basis for your claims in the past if you looked hard enough.”

As with medicine, there is a certain fallibility to history. Our propensity to fool ourselves with self-justified narratives is hard to overcome. If we selectively use the past only to reinforce our claims in the present, then the situation becomes precarious when there is pressure to change. Instead of looking as objectively as possible at history, welcoming historians who challenge us, we succumb to confirmation bias, allowing only those interpretations that are consistent with the narrative we are invested in.

Consider what MacMillan writes about nationalism, which “is a very late development indeed in terms of human history.”

It all started so quietly in the nineteenth century. Scholars worked on languages, classifying them into different families and trying to determine how far back into history they went. They discovered rules to explain changes in language and were able to establish, at least to their own satisfaction, that texts centuries old were written in early forms of, for example, German or French. Ethnographers like the Grimm brothers collected German folk tales as a way of showing that there was something called the German nation in the Middle Ages. Historians worked assiduously to recover old stories and pieced together the history of what they chose to call their nation as though it had an unbroken existence since antiquity. Archaeologists claimed to have found evidence that showed where such nations had once lived, and where they had moved to during the great waves of migrations.

The cumulative result was to create an unreal yet influential version of how nations formed. While it could not be denied that different peoples, from Goths to Slavs, had moved into and across Europe, mingling as they did so with peoples already there, such a view assumed that at some point, generally in the Middle Ages, the music had stopped. The dancing pieces had fallen into their chairs, one for the French, another for the Germans and yet another for the Poles. And there history had fixed them as “nations.” German historians, for example, could depict an ancient German nation whose ancestors had lived happily in their forests from before the time of the Roman Empire and which at some time, probably in the first century A.D., had become recognisably “German.” So — and this was the dangerous question — what was properly the German nation’s land? Or the land of any other “nation”? Was it where the people now lived, where they had lived at the time of their emergence in history, or both?

Would the scholars have gone on with their speculations if they could have seen what they were preparing the way for? The bloody wars that created Italy and Germany? The passions and hatred that tore apart the old multinational Austria-Hungary? The claims, on historical grounds, by new and old nations after World War I for the same pieces of territory? The hideous regimes of Hitler and Mussolini with their elevation of the nation and the race to the supreme good and their breathtaking demands for the lands of others?

When we selectively reach back into the past to justify claims in the present, we reduce the complexity of history and of humanity. This puts us in an awkward position because the situations we are confronted with are inherently complex. If we cut ourselves off from the full scope of history because it makes us uncomfortable, or doesn’t fit with the cultural narrative in which we live, we reduce our ability to learn from the past and apply those lessons to the situations we are facing today.

MacMillan says, “There are also many lessons and much advice offered by history, and it is easy to pick and choose what you want. The past can be used for almost anything you want to do in the present. We abuse it when we create lies about the past or write histories that show only one perspective. We can draw our lessons carefully or badly. That does not mean we should not look to history for understanding, support and help; it does mean that we should do so with care.”

We need to accept that people can do great things while still having flaws. Our heroes don’t have to be perfect, and we can learn just as much from their imperfections as from their achievements.

We have to allow that there are at least two sides to every story, and we have to be willing to listen to both. There are no conflicts in which one side doesn’t feel morally justified in their actions; that’s why your terrorist can be my freedom fighter. History can be an important part of bridging this divide only if we are willing to lift up all the rocks and shine our lights on what is lurking underneath.

The Art of Having an Informed Opinion

“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”

— Joseph Tussman

The first thing they always do is tell you what they think. When someone has an opinion about everything, they want to share it with you. They often tout stats and research as if they had an imaginary checklist of facts they need to be able to rattle off to establish themselves as an expert in a field they actually know very little about. Because they have an opinion on everything, they are quick to judge others – for their lack of opinions, for their lack of knowledge, for their lack of outrage … the list goes on.

I'm a firm believer that you can learn something from everyone. Sometimes that effort is more time-consuming than others. People who have opinions about everything barf so much noise that it's hard to find the signal. Your brain has to work overtime to figure out if they did the work to come up with their opinions themselves or if they're simply regurgitating some op-ed in a newspaper. Over time, opinionated people also end up in their own prisons and they try to take you with them.

The problem comes from how we see the world. Our opinions are often rooted in how we think the world should work, according to our morals, values, and principles. If we see the world through the lens of our opinions, much of what happens will not agree with us. This is feedback, and how we respond to this feedback is key.

The world never tells you that you're wrong; it only gives you outcomes.

When an outcome is not what you want it to be, things get tough. You can ignore the result and continue to think that you're right. This protects your ego. It also carries the risk of your continuing to believe something that isn't true. Alternatively, you can calibrate your believability on the subject at hand by lowering the odds that you're right. For example, maybe you gave yourself an 85 out of 100 for the ability to hold a firm opinion on this subject, and now you lower your score to 75. If the world continues to provide undesirable outcomes, eventually you get the hint and change your beliefs. Finally, you can give up your opinions and just respond to the world as it is. This option is the hardest.

People who can't change their minds never move forward. Worse still, they see themselves as heroes. And I mean “heroes” in the Hollywood sense. They hold opinions that have been proven wrong over and over again. And they pay a dear price.

They stop getting promoted. Their work colleagues avoid them. Their friends call less often. Their disagreeable dispositions mean that people don't want them around. They are prisoners of their beliefs. They want everyone to see that they're right. If they persist long enough, the only people they have in their circles are people who have the same (incorrect) worldview.

If you insist on having an opinion, carry a mental scorecard. Start it with 50/50 on all subjects and adjust it based on outcomes. Use a decision journal. When you're right – and “right” means that you're right for the right reasons – you raise your score. When you're wrong, lower the score. Over time, you'll calibrate your circle of competence.

If that sounds like a lot of work, just say, “I don't have an opinion on that; why don't you tell me how you got to have such a firm one? It sounds like I could learn something.”

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Finding Truth in History

If we are to learn from the past, does the account of it have to be true? One would like to think so. Otherwise you might be preparing for the wrong battle. There you are, geared up for mountains, and instead you find swamps. You've done a bunch of reading, trying to understand the terrain you are about to enter, only to find it useless. The books must have been written by crazy people. You are upset and confused. Surely there must be some reliable, objective account of the past. How are you supposed to prepare for the possibilities of the future if you can't trust the accuracy of the reports on anything that has come before?

For why do we study history, anyway? Why keep a record of things that have happened? We fear that if we don't, we are doomed to repeat history; but often that doesn't seem to stop us from repeating it. And we have an annoying tendency to remember only the things which don't really challenge or upset us. But still we try to capture what we can, through museums and ceremonies and study, because somehow we believe that eventually we will come to learn something about why things happen the way they do. And armed with this knowledge, we might even be able to shape our future.

This “problem of historical truth” is explored by Isaiah Berlin in The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History. He explains that Tolstoy was driven by a “desire to penetrate to first causes, to understand how and why things happen as they do and not otherwise.” We can understand this goal – because if we know how the world really works, we know everything.

Of course, it's not that simple, and — spoiler alert — Tolstoy never figured it out. But Berlin's analysis can illuminate the challenges we face with history and help us find something to learn from.

Tolstoy's main problem with historical efforts at the time was that they were “nothing but a collection of fables and useless trifles. … History does not reveal causes; it presents only a blank succession of unexplained events.” Seen like this, the study of history is a waste of time, other than for trivia games or pub quizzes. Being able to recite what happened is supremely uninteresting if you can't begin to understand why it happened in the first place.

But Tolstoy was also an expert at tearing down the theories of anyone who attempted to make sense of history and provide the why. He thought that they “must be imposters, since no theories can possibly fit the immense variety of possible human behavior, the vast multiplicity of minute, undiscoverable causes and effects which form that interplay of men and nature which history purports to record.”

History is more than just factoids, but its complexity makes it difficult for us to learn exactly why things happened the way they did.

And therein lies the spectrum of the problem for Tolstoy. History is more than just factoids, but its complexity makes it difficult for us to learn exactly why things happened the way they did. A battle is more than dates and times, but trying to trace the real impact of the decisions of Napoleon or Churchill is a fool's errand. There is too much going on – too many decisions and interactions happening in every moment – for us to be able to conclude cause and effect with any certainty. After leaving an ice cube to melt on a table, you can't untangle exactly what happened with each molecule from the puddle. That doesn't mean we can't learn from history; it means only that we need to be careful with the lessons we draw and the confidence we have in them.

Berlin explains:

There is a particularly vivid simile [in War and Peace] in which the great man is likened to the ram whom the shepherd is fattening for slaughter. Because the ram duly grows fatter, and perhaps is used as a bellwether for the rest of the flock, he may easily imagine that he is the leader of the flock, and that the other sheep go where they go solely in obedience to his will. He thinks this and the flock may think it too. Nevertheless the purpose of his selection is not the role he believes himself to play, but slaughter – a purpose conceived by beings whose aims neither he nor the other sheep can fathom. For Tolstoy, Napoleon is just such a ram, and so to some degree is Alexander, and indeed all the great men of history.

Arguing against this view of history was N. I. Kareev, who said:

…it is men, doubtless, who make social forms, but these forms – the ways in which men live – in their turn affect those born into them; individual wills may not be all-powerful, but neither are they totally impotent, and some are more effective than others. Napoleon may not be a demigod, but neither is he a mere epiphenomenon of a process which would have occurred unaltered without him.

This means that studying the past is important for making better decisions in the future. If we can't always follow the course of cause and effect, we can at least discover some very strong correlations and act accordingly.

We have a choice between these two perspectives: Either we can treat history as an impenetrable fog, or we can figure out how to use history while accepting that each day might reveal more and we may have to update our thinking.

Sound familiar? Sounds a lot like the scientific method to me – a preference for updating the foundation of knowledge versus being adrift in chaos or attached to a raft that cannot be added to.

Berlin argues that Tolstoy spent his life trying to find a theory strong enough to unify everything. A way to build a foundation so strong that all arguments would crumble against it. Although that endeavor was ambitious, we don't need to fully understand the why of history in order to be able to learn from it. We don't need the foundation of the past to be solid and fixed in order to gain some insight into our future. We can still find some truth in history.

How?

Funnily enough, Berlin clarifies that Tolstoy “believed that only by patient empirical observation could any knowledge be obtained.” But he also believed “that simple people often know the truth better than learned men, because their observation of men and nature is less clouded by empty theories.”

Unhelpfully, Tolstoy's position amounts to “the more you know, the less you learn.”

The answer to finding truth in history is not to be found in Tolstoy's writing. He was looking for “something too indivisibly simple and remote from normal intellectual processes to be assailable by the instruments of reason, and therefore, perhaps, offering a path to peace and salvation.” He never was able to conclude what that might be.

But there might be an answer in how Berlin interprets Tolstoy's major dissonance in life, the discrepancy that drove him and was never resolved. Tolstoy “tried to resolve the glaring contradiction between what he believed about men and events, and what he thought he believed, or ought to believe.”

Finding truth in history is about understanding that this truth is not absolute. In this sense, truth is based on perspective. The perspective of the person who captured it and the person interpreting it. And the perspective of the translators and editors and primary sources. We don't get to be invisible observers of moments in the past, and we don't get to go into other minds. The best we can do is keep our eyes open and keep our biases in check. And what history can teach us is found not just in the moments it tries to describe, but also in what we choose to look at and how we choose to represent it.

Loops of Progress, or How Modern Are You?

On your way to work, you grab breakfast from one of the dozen coffee shops you pass. Most of the goods you buy get delivered right to your door. If you live in a large city and have a car, you barely use it, preferring Uber or ride-sharing services. You feel modern. Your parents didn’t do any of this. Most of their meals were consumed at home, and they took their cars everywhere, in particular to purchase all the stuff they needed.

You think of your life as being so different from theirs. It is. You think of this as progress. It isn’t.

We tend to consider social development as occurring in a straight line: we progressed from A to B to C, with each step being more advanced and, we assume, better than the one before. This perception isn’t always accurate, though. Part of learning from the past is appreciating that we humans have tried many different ways to organize ourselves, with lots of repetitions. If we want success now, we need to understand our past efforts in order to see what changes might be needed this time around.

Would you be surprised to learn that in Victorian London (the nineteenth century), the vast majority of people ate their food on the run? That ride sharing was common? Or that you could purchase everything you needed without ever leaving your house?

To be fair, these situations didn’t exist in the exact instantiations that they do today. Obviously, there was no amazon.com back then. But while the parallels are not exact, they are worth exploring, if only to remind us that no matter the array of pressures we face as a society, there are only so many ways we can organize ourselves.

To start with, street food was the norm. All classes except the very wealthy (thus, essentially, anyone who worked) ate on the run. At outdoor stalls or indoor counters. Food purchased from street vendors or chophouses (the Victorian equivalent of fast-food outlets). Food was purchased and consumed outside of the home, on the commute to or from work.

Why? Why would everyone from the middle classes to the working poor eat out?

Unlike today, eating out was cheaper then. As Judith Flanders explains in The Victorian City:

Today, eating out is more expensive than cooking at home, but in the nineteenth century the situation was reversed. Most of the working class lived in rooms, not houses. They might have had access to a communal kitchen, but more often they cooked in their own fireplace: to boil a kettle before going to work, leaving the fire to burn when there was no one home, was costly, time-consuming and wasteful. … Several factors — the lack of storage space, routine infestations of vermin and being able, because of the cost, to buy food only in tiny quantities — meant that storing any foodstuff, even tea, overnight was unusual.

Even food delivery isn’t new.

Every eating place expected to deliver meals, complete with cutlery, dishes and even condiments, which were brought by waiters who then stayed on, if wanted, to serve. Endless processions of meals passed through the streets daily. … Large sums of money were not necessary for this service.

People need to eat. It’s fundamental. No matter what living conditions we find ourselves in, the drive away from starvation means that we are willing to experiment in how we organize to get our food.

Public transportation took hold in Victorian London and is another interesting point of comparison. Then, its use was not due to a sense of civic responsibility or concerns about the environment. Public transportation succeeded because it was faster. Most cities had grown organically, and streets were not designed for the volume they had to carry in the nineteenth century. There was no flow, and there were no traffic rules. The population was swelling and road surfaces would be devastating to today’s SUVs. It was simply painful to get anywhere.

Thus the options exploded. Buses and cabs to get about the city. Stagecoaches and the railroad for longer excursions (and commutes!). And the Underground. Buses “increased the average speed of travel to nearly six miles an hour; with the railway this figure rose to over twelve, sometimes double that.” Public transportation allowed people to move faster, and “therefore, areas that had traditionally been on the edges of London now housed commuters.”

As a direct consequence of the comparable efficiency of the public transportation system, “most people could not imagine ever owning a private carriage. It was not just the cost of the carriage itself, of the horse and its accoutrements — harnesses and so on — but the running costs: the feed and care of the horse, the stabling, as well as the taxes that were imposed on carriages throughout the century.” As well as the staff. A driver, footmen, their salaries and uniforms.

A form of ride-sharing was also common then. For travel outside of the city, one could hire a post-chaise. “A post-chaise was always hired privately, to the passenger’s own schedule, but the chaise, horses, driver and postboys all belonged to the coaching inn or a local proprietor.”

Aside from the cost of owning your own transportation, neither the work day nor the city infrastructure was designed for reliance on individual transport. London in the nineteenth century (and to a large extent today) functioned better with an extensive public transport system.

There was no social safety net. You worked or you died.

Finally, living in London in the nineteenth century was very much about survival. There was no social safety net. You worked or you died. And given the concentration of wealth in the top tier of society, there was a lot of competition among the working poor for a slight edge that would mean the difference between living another day and starvation.

This situation is likely part of the reason that sellers went to buyers, rather than the other way around. Unlike today, when so many bookstores are owned by the same company or when a conglomerate makes multiple brands of “unique” luxury goods, a watercress girl owned and sold only the watercress she could carry. And this watercress was no different from the bundles the girl one street over had. The competition to sell was fierce.

And so, as Flanders describes, in the first half of the nineteenth century, street vendors in all neighborhoods sold an astonishing array of goods and services. First chimney sweeps, then milkmaids; “the next sellers were the watercress girls, followed by the costermongers, then the fishmongers’, the butchers’ and the bakers’ boys to take the daily orders.” Next came the guy selling horsemeat.

Other goods regularly available from itinerant sellers in the suburbs included: footstools; embroidery frames; clothes horses, clothes-pegs and clothes line; sponges, chamois leathers, brushes and brooms; kitchen skewers, toasting-forks and other tinware; razors and penknives; trays, keyrings, and small items of jewellery; candlesticks, tools, trivets, pots and pans; bandboxes and hatboxes; blackleading for kitchen ranges and grates, matches and glue; china ornaments and crockery; sheets, shirts, laces, thread, ribbons, artificial flowers, buttons, studs, handkerchiefs; pipes, tobacco, snuff, cigars; spectacles, hats, combs and hairbrushes; firewood and sawdust.

You didn’t have to leave your house to purchase items for meeting your daily needs.

This is not to say that Victorian London had everything figured out or that progress is always a loop. For example, there is no time in history in which it was better to be a woman than it is now, and modern medicine and the scientific method are significant steps up over what has come before. But reading these accounts of how London functioned almost two hundred years ago hints that a lot of what we consider modern innovations have been tried before.

Maybe ways of organizing come and go depending on time and place. When things are useful, they appear; as needs change, those things disappear. There really is no new way of doing business.

But we can look at the impact of social progress, how it shapes communities, and what contributes to its ebb and flow. Flanders notes that in the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a shift to going out to shop in stores. What changes did this give rise to? And how did those changes contribute to the loop we are experiencing and to our current desire to have everything brought to us?