All posts by Nathan Taylor (praxtime)

About Nathan Taylor (praxtime)

I blog at on tech and the near future. The next 5-20 years. Follow @ntaylor963 for me the person. Follow @praxtime for my blog posts.

Saturday Links 18-Aug-2018: Turchin’s model for social crisis, feudal California taxes, PGS for disease, Elephant genes

Here’s my weekly list of links and commentary.

1. Peter Turchin’s model says US violence will peak in 2020. This Nature News article from 2012 summarizes Turchin’s work:

To Peter Turchin, who studies population dynamics at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, the appearance of three peaks of political instability at roughly 50-year intervals is not a coincidence. For the past 15 years, Turchin has been taking the mathematical techniques that once allowed him to track predator–prey cycles in forest ecosystems, and applying them to human history. He has analysed historical records on economic activity, demographic trends and outbursts of violence in the United States, and has come to the conclusion that a new wave of internal strife is already on its way. The peak should occur in about 2020, he says, and will probably be at least as high as the one in around 1970. “I hope it won’t be as bad as 1870,” he adds.

That summary also notes Turchin’s approach “is viewed with deep scepticism by most academic historians.” That said, here’s one of Turchin’s charts on cycles of violence. Note the 2020 on the right with a “?”:


I’ve read Turchin’s blog for years, but was on the fence. This week I read his most recent post. He’s becoming more pessimistic:

What I found remarkable as we have lived through the past two years (indeed, the past eight years since I made my prediction of the impending crisis), is how precisely we today are following the trajectory into crisis that my colleagues and I saw in the historical societies we have studied.


We saw all those mechanisms operating in our current crisis. Immiseration of large swaths of the American population was what fueled the successful campaign of a counter-elite presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Intra-elite conflict has reached unprecedented heights (since the First American Civil War), as the established elites are using various means at their disposal to get rid of the counter-elite chief of state. At the same time, a weird coalition of Trump and the established elites (remember, laws must be approved by the Congress) legislates deep cuts into the taxes the elites will pay, bringing the fiscal crisis of the state much sooner. Political violence has also reached new heights, although thankfully mostly demonstrators and counter-demonstrators are beaten up, not killed (a major exception was Charlottesville a year ago).

Until last year I thought that we collectively have a decent chance of avoiding the crisis, but I now have abandoned this hope. A major reason for my pessimism is the resolute refusal by our ruling class (including its both Liberal and Conservative wings) to see the real causes of the crisis. They are internal, not external. As a result, the mid-term elections will be completely free of (largely mythical) Russian influence, but no attempt is made to address the deep structural-demographic causes. All these pressures continue to increase.

Turchin says the underlying causes of violence are: 1) oversupply of labor, and 2) elite overproduction and competition. I remain skeptical of the economics behind oversupply of labor. But now in 2018 am on board with elite overproduction and competition. That’s clearly tearing at the fabric of our society. I’d add that reading Turchin also reminded me of how violent the 1970s really were, which makes me less skeptical on whether violence may return. See his post on Days of Rage. In summary, I’ve moved my judgement of Turchin’s forecasts for violence from properly rated to underrated over the past year. Turchin is not a great prose stylist, but in the end ideas are what matter. So I just bought his two most recent books on kindle. My kindle pile is pretty deep, but once I’m through I’ll post something.

2. Like Feudal lords, California mansion owners pass low property taxes on to their princelings. California allows children to inherit the historic tax rates of their parent’s homes. So for example actors Jeff and Beau Bridges inherited their parent’s mansion in 2009, yet pay the same tax their squire Lloyd Bridges paid in 1975. They pay $48k a year in taxes, but would pay $348k if taxed at market rates. This is all a crazy outgrowth of Proposition 13 tax laws, passed long ago in California. On twitter, one of the reporters for the piece noted that U.S. Supreme Court justices say it’s like “medieval feudalism.” link

3. Genomic Prediction of disease risk using polygenic scores. New paper. Stephen Hsu comments: “It seems to me we are just at the tipping point — soon it will be widely understood that with large enough data sets we can predict complex traits and complex disease risk from genotype, capturing most of the estimated heritable variance. People will forget that many “experts” doubted this was possible — the term missing heritability will gradually disappear. In just a few years genotyping will start to become “standard of care” in many health systems. In 5 years there will be ~100M genotypes in storage (vs ~20M now), a large fraction available for scientific analysis.

4. Genetics of Elephants avoiding cancer. Naively one would think with more cells, elephants should be more cancer prone. But from an evolutionary point of view, we should expect elephants would evolve more protections from cancer in lockstep with their increasing size. Those protections may have a cost, but it’s better than dying of cancer. And that’s just what happened. The details are interesting, in that one of the genes involved lay dormant, but in the elephant lineage got turned back on. So when elephant cells detect genetic damage, they are more aggressive in committing cell suicide. Carl Zimmer has the story. link

5. Pew survey on Education and Religion. This came across my feed this week, even though it’s from 2016. What jumped out was the contrast between religion and educational attainment globally (left chart below), compared to the US (right chart below). link


6. One line updates on interesting stuff. There’s a twitter account called Saved You A Click which takes stories that raise a question in their title, and answers them in the tweet itself so you don’t have to click through. It’s great. In that spirit, here’s stories which have one interesting fact or idea, but may not be worth reading in full. But click through if your heart so desires:

7. Current podcast and book. My favorite podcast this week was this episode of Sinica, an interview with former China diplomat Chas Freeman. Wide ranging and interesting. My favorite book was The Enigma of Reason, which argues reason evolved as an adaptation to socially justify ourselves. Rationalizations all the way down. I’m about halfway through. So far it’s rather convincing.

And that’s it for this week. Thank you for reading all the way to the end!










Sunday Links 12-Aug-2018: most don’t shop with Alexa, Loss Aversion, workplace wellness RCT, Arambourgiania, Colima volcano

Here’s what I found interesting this week. Plus commentary.

1. Amazon Alexa only rarely used for shopping. The Amazon Alexa voice interface device is primarily used to “answer simple questions about the weather, set timers and play music and radio stations.”  Via Charles Arthur on twitter, of the 1 million who’ve tried shopping with Alexa, 900k didn’t try again. The news here is analysts believed that the number was higher. It’s a success, but not a common way to buy stuff. At least for now. Related, Fred Wilson says he uses voice interface for finding shows on AppleTV, and in his car to text or call someone. He ends: “So while voice imput has not taken hold in our life where text input works reliably and conveniently, it has taken hold where text input is not reliable, convenient, or safe. What this tells me is the path forward for voice input technology, which has gotten very good, is in applications that are not mainstream yet but can get mainstream by solving the data input problem.”

2. New paper says Loss Aversion is a fallacy. Link to paper. Here’s one of the authors, explaining the paper:

Loss aversion, the idea that losses are more psychologically impactful than gains, is widely considered the most important idea of behavioral decision-making and its sister field of behavioral economics. To illustrate the importance loss aversion is accorded, Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, wrote in his 2011 best-selling book, Thinking Fast and Slow, that “the concept of loss aversion is certainly the most significant contribution of psychology to behavioral economics.”


However, as documented in a recent critical review of loss aversion by Derek Rucker of Northwestern University and myself, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, loss aversion is essentially a fallacy. That is, there is no general cognitive bias that leads people to avoid losses more vigorously than to pursue gains. Contrary to claims based on loss aversion, price increases (ie, losses for consumers) do not impact consumer behavior more than price decreases (ie, gains for consumers). Messages that frame an appeal in terms of a loss (eg, “you will lose out by not buying our product”) are no more persuasive than messages that frame an appeal in terms of a gain (eg, “you will gain by buying our product”).

People do not rate the pain of losing $10 to be more intense than the pleasure of gaining $10. People do not report their favorite sports team losing a game will be more impactful than their favorite sports team winning a game. And people are not particularly likely to sell a stock they believe has even odds of going up or down in price (in fact, in one study I performed, over 80 percent of participants said they would hold on to it).

To be sure it is true that big financial losses can be more impactful than big financial gains, but this is not a cognitive bias that requires a loss aversion explanation, but perfectly rational behavior.

Overall I found the write up convincing. But I’m leery when a single paper claims a field of research is bunk. So I would’ve liked to see more commentary on the paper. For now it’s in the “big, if true” category.

3. Workplace wellness programs don’t work. This one is solid, if unsurprising. Corporate wellness programs that encourage you to go to the gym, exercise, eat well, etc don’t work. That is, they don’t make you healthier. The best bit is they analyzed the data using a randomized controlled trial, and nada. No effect. But when they re-analyzed it like an observational trial (which is far more common and cheaper), voila, they did get an effect. Quote:

If we look only at the intervention group as an observational trial, it appears that people who didn’t make use of the program went to the campus gym 3.8 days per year, and those who participated in it went 7.4 times per year. Based on that, the program appears to be a success. But when the intervention group is compared with the control group as a randomized controlled trial, the differences disappear. Those in the control group went 5.9 times per year, and those in the intervention group went 5.8 times per year.

Of course this begs the question. Maybe the goal of wellness programs is not to make people healthier. Instead it’s to make people loyal to their employer. If so, these programs might be working great. Expect more in the future.

4. Twitter stuff I thought interesting.

Loitering autonomous cars. Heh.

China’s national museum has removed Deng Xiaoping in good old fashioned Orwellian style. Click through if you want to see the entire thread, it’s pretty good.

John Gruber’s take on the latest Magic Leap news is entertaining.

Mark Witton is a big fan of the pterosaur Arambourgiania. Link to BBC articleMark Witton on twitter,  his blog, his patreon. Since I’m not sure about image rights, I saw that Witton retweeted the tweet below. So I’ll embed to show you Witton’s image. Love this pic.

Colima volcano. Similarly, this was retweeted by Sergio Tapiro. So I’ll embed. Incredible photo. Translation of the tweet: For 14 years, photographer Sergio Tapiro took more than 300.000 photos of the Colima volcano. Then he finally erupted. “This image is a gift that nature has given me. When I saw the camera screen I was surprised, I didn’t believe it.”

Finally, let’s end with the always excellent xkcd. On his site, Randall Munroe says it’s ok to embed if you link back, so here you go. And that’s all for this week.


Sunday Links 5-Aug-2018: Shifting language of racism, two kinds of YIMBY, Island Dwafism, Wildfires and Houses

Here’s 5 links, with commentary, on what I enjoyed reading this week.

1. The shifting language of racism. If you spend time on twitter (guilty), it was impossible to miss the kerfuffle around the New York Times hiring Sarah Jeong to its editorial board. People looked into her twitter history, and dug up tweets like:

Tribal culture war triggered in 3, 2, 1….  More examples here. If you want the full story see the Vox explainer. Who is good and who is bad in the culture war is not my thing. I don’t care about Sarah Jeong. But I do care about human psychology, and what’s behind tribal culture war. So at a meta level, this is my thing. And one aspect from this go round was particularly striking: how the language of racism has shifted. So that’s the meta story I want to focus on.

Start with Andrew Sullivan, conservative, saying Jeong is racist:

Is the newest member of the New York Times editorial board, Sarah Jeong, a racist?

From one perspective — that commonly held by people outside the confines of the political left — she obviously is. A series of tweets from 2013 to 2015 reveal a vicious hatred of an entire group of people based only on their skin color. 


But the alternative view — that of today’s political left — is that Jeong definitionally cannot be racist, because she’s both a woman and a racial minority. Racism against whites, in this neo-Marxist view, just “isn’t a thing” — just as misandry literally cannot exist at all. And this is because, in this paradigm, racism has nothing to do with a person’s willingness to pre-judge people by the color of their skin, or to make broad, ugly generalizations about whole groups of people, based on hoary stereotypes. Rather, racism is entirely institutional and systemic, a function of power, and therefore it can only be expressed by the powerful — i.e., primarily white, straight men. For a nonwhite female, like Sarah Jeong, it is simply impossible. In the religion of social constructionism, Jeong, by virtue of being an Asian woman, is one of the elect, incapable of the sin of racism or group prejudice. All she is doing is resisting whiteness and maleness, which indeed require resistance every second of the day.


Yes, we all live on campus now. The neo-Marxist analysis of society, in which we are all mere appendages of various groups of oppressors and oppressed, and in which the oppressed definitionally cannot be at fault, is now the governing philosophy of almost all liberal media.

First a quibble, which I suspect Sullivan would agree with. The left’s definition of structural racism is not that Jeong can’t be racist. Rather that Jeong’s racism, or anyone’s for that matter, can only be against the oppressed. So if Jeong hated black people, she’d be racist. But hating on those in power (white men) can’t be racist. Because racism is about power. Sullivan thinks this new definition of racism is bad. He wants the old definition of racism: judging people by the color of their skin is racist, no matter which skin group has the most power.

With that clarification, what I found surprising was progressive agreement with Sullivan’s thesis.  Here’s Zack Beauchamp:

What makes these quasi-satirical generalizations about “white people” different from actual racism is, yes, the underlying power structure in American society. There is no sense of threat associated with Jeong making a joke about how white people have dog-like opinions. But when white people have said the same about minorities, it has historically been a pretext for violence or justification for exclusionary politics.

To be clear, Beauchamp also says that “white people” is a sort of jokey shorthand slang for the subset of white people who are racist. He has a good analogy with how “men” and “not all men” is used by feminists:

The feminists won this argument; today, feminists still complain about “men,” and “not all men” is mostly used as a punchline rather than a serious argument. But the conservative responses to Jeong boil down, essentially, to the same thing: They’re saying “not all white people” are bad and Jeong is a racist for implying that they are.

My guess is, a few years down the road, we’ll remember the Jeong episode in roughly the same way we remember the #NotAllMen controversy today.

Kevin Drum from Mother Jones had a similar clarification as mine about Sullivan’s intended thesis. But then goes on to say Sullivan’s progressive definition of racism is correct. Quote:Anybody can be racist. This is so obvious that I hardly feel like wasting words explaining it. However, you can only really be racist toward nonwhites.¹ Within limits, you can say just about anything you want about whites—and especially white men—and it’s not racist. It’s just mockery of the ruling elite, the second-oldest pastime of the human race.”

Normally in culture war both sides claim the outgroup is evil, has bad motives, and twists the meaning of the ingroup’s words. In this case, both sides claim the outgroup is evil and has bad motives. Check and check. But they surprisingly agree 100% on the words. This dispute is about which definition of racism is correct. Conservatives want the old, let’s call is circa 1964, definition of racism. Progressives want the new definition, believing (correctly in my view) the progressive definition of racism is already a fait accompli. Agreeing on what we’re arguing about is progress, at least of a sort.

2. Computer productivity is not mismeasured. There’s a widely held belief in the technology world that productivity gains from computers are not fully captured, and this explains why standard measures of productivity growth have declined. Greg Ip reports on a new study from Brent Moulton claiming the computer productivity measurement problem is not large. Example paragraph:

Mr. Moulton estimates the shift from shopping in brick-and-mortar stores to online has driven prices down—the so-called Amazon effect—by more than the official data capture. But he estimates this effect is smaller than when consumers shifted to big box and warehouse stores decades ago, which similarly wasn’t captured in the data.

To be clear, I believe the mismeasurement issue is real. But the way I like to think about is through the lens of child mortality, in particular the impact of vaccines, over the last 100 years. I just did a quick search from Max Roser’s excellent Our World in Data website, which has lots of econ data from world history. Here’s a chart on child mortality:


You can see in the US, 40% of kids died before reaching age 5 until around 1900. By 1990 it was 1%. Vaccines are a large part of that story. Vaccines are pretty cheap. Here’s the thing. The econ productivity metrics went up because fewer children died, with only small costs incurred. But the emotional gain in going from child death being commonplace throughout world history and prehistory, to suddenly being extremely rare is not captured. Mismeasurement.

The larger point here is econ productivity stats have always greatly mismeasured societal gains. So if you want to argue measured computer/internet econ productivity gains don’t completely capture benefits, I’m 100% on board. But you have to go beyond that, and claim today’s mismeasurement problems are worse than those in the past. And the canonical example for me is child mortality. So you must argue that smartphones make you happier and better off than avoiding half your kids dying before age 5. A far harder sell.

3. Two rationals for being YIMBY. Not in my backyard is NIMBY. A derogatory term for those who resist building more housing in cities with high rents and booming economies. Yes in my backyard is YIMBY, a movement supporting more such building. Full disclosure, I’m team YIMBY. But there are two rationals for being YIMBY. From Devon Zuegel:

There’s a distinction within the YIMBY cause that’s mostly unspoken, but it’s important. Two of the key goals the movement aims to address are (1) to lower housing prices and (2) to unlock economic, cultural, and social potential. These are often described in similar ways and are in many cases complementary, but they are not the same.
On one hand, there’s a lot of talk about how building more will decrease prices because of the models of basic supply and demand curves from Econ 101. We’ll call this goal the affordability objective: let’s make housing affordable in key metro areas, both for residents who are already there and for those who’d like to come. Another related but different goal is about how much is lost as a result of locking people out of opportunities in the most productive regions. We’ll call this the opportunity objective: let’s make it possible for people to to participate in the economic and cultural dynamism in places that they’re locked out of right now.


This is a useful distinction. In particular, it’s possible that building more housing will just attract more people. Think of the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live. It’s great! More people should live here. But if it’s so great, maybe the affordability objective is hard to meet, as people move into the area as quickly as more housing gets built. Anyway. I thought this was a useful and important distinction. I’m YIMBY, but mostly for opportunity objective reasons. It would be good for our country if people who lacked opportunity could afford to move to where the economy is booming. It would be good economically and culturally, probably politically as well. I think the affordability objective is also likely to be met if we built more, but perhaps we should be careful in hard selling that angle.

4. Island Dwarfism. Carl Zimmer has a nice piece in the New York Times. Subtitle is The Indonesian island of Flores has given rise to smaller hominins, humans and even elephants. Couple of quotes: “When there is selection on stature, the response is driven by variants in many genes, not just a single gene.” And: “One leading hypothesis for the evolution of the pygmy body type is a shortage of food. A smaller body demands fewer calories and may offer a survival advantage.”

5. Making houses fireproof is more effective than fighting wildfires. With the Carr fire in California still burning hot (see this map), this is a timely 99% Invisible Podcast on Jack Cohen’s work. Quote:

In other words, if structures near fire-prone areas were designed and maintained to withstand fire, we might not need to fight some wildfires at all. If the only goal was to save houses, that ruled out fighting a lot of forest fires.

Cohen thought he had come up with a way to save houses and to let fires burn naturally — he thought it was a win-win. And so in 1999, he presented a paper about his findings at a fire conference in front of people from the Forest Service and state fire agencies. These were people who were in a position to change policies. But Cohen says they were totally uninterested. Cohen’s research implied that basically everything about how the Forest Service dealt with wildfires was wrong.

The 99% Invisible podcast is very well done. Recommended. Or if you want to read it instead of listen, their transcript is also excellent, with plenty of visuals. link

And that’s all for this week.





Sunday Links 29-Jul-2018: Genetics of education, Big tech economics, MOOC middlemen get the $, Underground water on Mars

Here’s comments on what I most enjoyed reading this week. And yes, a lot of this post is on educational attainment genomics paper number three (nickname EA3). Point #1 below. But plenty of other good stuff too!

1. Genomic prediction of educational attainment. New paper analyzes DNA of 1.1M people of European descent to find 1271 genetic variants associated with educational attainment. From these variants they built a polygenic score, which creates a single predictive scoring number for each individual using their DNA. The paper’s polygenic score explains 11% of the population wide variation in years of schooling. I don’t have the chops to dissect the paper, but read quite a few commentaries. So here’s my bullet points:

  • The predictor explains 11% of variation. 11% seems low. True! But as a compare, that low 11% number is similar to the college entrance SAT test. In other words, the polygenic score has the same predictive power of you finishing college as taking the SAT.
  • Household income explains 7% of variation of educational attainment, which is worse than the polygenic score.
  • Parental educational level is a slightly better predictor than the polygenic score
  • Since the predictor was built from those of European descent, it does not work when tried against different ancestries (in particular African-Americans) as they may have different genetic variants.
  • People scoring in top polygenic quintile are 5x more likely to complete college than those in lowest quintile
  • quote: But for any given score, there are huge variations in years of schooling. “Should we use the score to put some people into more advanced classes and others into more remedial classes?” says Benjamin. “That’s a total nonstarter because of the low predictive power for any given individual.” 
  • Going to larger sample sizes beyond 1 million people will enable building better predictors. But won’t gain a lot more in terms of predictive power. Why? Because the max may be around 15% of variation explained (I took that max number from this podcast). Again why? Because that’s the max predictive value you get when using test scores and grade transcripts. That is to say, directly measuring how well people did in high school and taking the SAT test is better than looking at genes. This is more obvious if you think about height. What’s a better predictor of height? Your genes or simply measuring how tall you are? Life has a random edge. And within limits, free will. Genes have statistical predictive power, but are not fate.
  • Many of the genetic variants involve neurons and synapses. Probably best understood by noting if this were not the case, it would call into question the entire paper.
  • Useful side point. The number of humans alive was on the order of 250k during most of Homo sapiens existence as hunter gatherers. That number is too small for the methods in this paper to work. So it’s not possible to do this analysis on other primates. For example the total chimpanzee population is estimated at 170-300k. Just not enough of them. But nowadays we’ve got lots of humans. This puts some perspective of just how small the effect size is for any individual gene. Tiny tiny tiny. You need huge sample sizes to get the statistical power necessary to discover what’s going on.
  • The idea of many genes of very small effect for complex traits is an expectation set in Fisher’s 1930 book. This is not a new idea.

I think this study is both more and less than it seems. It’s less because the amount of variation explained is roughly what you get by taking an SAT test. And while polygenic scoring will continue to improve, it’s already relatively close to the expected max. Yet it’s more as well. Because the genomic data revolution in biology is continuing apace, and is starting to create tectonic shifts in how society thinks about genetic luck. The dystopia of Brave New World was and is wrong, but it’s less impossible than it appeared to be just a few decades back.

More reading. Ed Yong: “The team is essentially studying genes so they can more thoroughly ignore them.” Carl Zimmer: “Indeed, the latest study is just the newest in what promises to be a tide of huge genetic studies.” Steve Hsu: “Years ago I predicted….” Kathryn Paige Harden: “Why Progressives Should Embrace the Genetics of Education” Razib Khan and Spencer Wells podcast: Good podcast explainer on the study, interviewing one of the lead authors James Lee.

2. Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft invest in their own proprietary tech, moving them farther and farther ahead. Nice write up by Christopher Mims on the work of economist James Bessen. Sample sentences: “When new technologies were developed in the past, they would diffuse to other firms fast enough so that productivity rose across entire industries.” “But imagine instead of power looms, someone is trying to copy and reproduce Google’s cloud infrastructure itself. ” And what we see now is “a slowdown in what we call the ‘diffusion machine.’ ” link.

Also see Robin Hanson’s post on whether compulsory licensing is the solution. I think not, but Hanson is always interesting and original.

3. Most revenue from web degrees goes not to their providers but to middlemen. I have a rule of thumb that the subtitle of articles tends to be less clickbaity and more informative than the title. The title of that Economist piece is Universities withstood MOOCs but risk being outwitted by OPMs. Yawn. So I used subtitle in bold above for this point #3. The middlemen are OPMs (online program managers). Here’s my favorite paragraph:

When the web started to shake up higher education a decade or more ago, it was widely expected that the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) it spawned would disrupt universities in the same way that digital media undermined newspapers and music firms. But that assumption rested on a misunderstanding of what students are paying for. They are not buying education for its own sake, but rather a certificate from a respected institution.

Credentials. Universities naively assumed the story they like to tell themselves is true. People go to college to learn. Not to get credentials so employers know who is smart and willing to follow orders. So universities gave all their online profits to middlemen who now determine who gets a credential. This is not a stable equilibrium. People giving out credentials have market power. Eventually they should wise up and take their money. But who knows how long that might take? Or perhaps the OPMs will innovate their online credential system fast enough to hit escape velocity, since they own the invaluable customer relationship. One last good quote: “a third of graduate education in America is now online.”

4. Housing Costs Reduce the Return to Education. Here’s my tweet summarizing Alex Tabarrok’s excellent post.

5. Great interactive map to drill down into 2016 voting of US presidential election. What I liked is how this map allows you drill down level after level, and see how the pattern remains fractal. Higher population density votes Democratic, lower density Republican. At all levels. Bill Bishop’s 2004 book has unfortunately been proven more prophetic than one might wish The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded American is Tearing Us Apart.

6. Underground water detected on Mars. Of course the subtitle (not the title) of Lee Billings’ piece captures it: Radar observations have revealed what appears to be a buried lake on Mars, the first-ever stable reservoir of liquid water found on the Red Planet. What’s not to like? Cool data analysis of years worth of radar data from the European Space Agency spacecraft Mars Express, reveals liquid water under the polar ice caps of Mars. Lots of good details in the Lee Billings piece, or try the shorter New York Times version.

image source: European Space Agency

And that’s all for this week.

Sunday Links 22-Jul-2018: Voice computing, Netflix, Quantum gravity, blueberry Earth

1. Voice Computing. Benedict Evans has long been skeptical of voice as a computing interface. I’ve generally been bullish. In the end I think everyone agrees voice would be great, but it’s unclear on when it will become good enough to be truly useful. It’s a matter of timing, always the hardest thing to know in tech. So recently I’ve become a bit more skeptical, and as a result have re-read Evans just to get a refresher on an opposing point of view. So if skepticism on voice is your thing, here’s some reading material. Let me start with this tweet:

Which led me to the tweet below from last year. Note that NLP is Natural Language Processing, jargon for voice interface for computers.

I’ve always liked that analogy of primitive voice interface being similar to the command line. I like it because it cuts both two ways. As a criticism it works (which is Evans’ point here). But the command line was also one of the most successful interfaces ever developed for computers. Unix is command line to this day. So I could see a command line style voice interface (really what Alexa is trying to do now) being successful. Basically what the Star Trek computer did. For more of Evans on voice, also read Chat bots, conversation and AI as an interface and Voice and the uncanny valley of AI.

2. Netflix customer acquisition costs going up. Netflx was spending $60 in advertising/marketing per new customer acquired in 2013. Now it’s $100 per customer. So Netflix’s stock tanked this week. But of course as you grow into more marginal customers, the cost of acquiring each next customer will be higher. So it’s unclear what the correct reaction is here. Ben Bajarin pointed out that cable spends $400 per customer, so if that’s the compare Netflix has plenty of room to grow. If you subscribe to Ben Thompson’s newsletter ($), he had a balanced run down of the numbers, ending by saying “Perhaps it’s as simple as that: Netflix didn’t have a hit, so it didn’t grow as much as expected.”

3. 27% of apparel now purchased online. Nothing deep here. Just that slightly over 1/4 of apparel being bought online was a higher percentage than I would have guessed. link

4. This Simple Thought Experiment Shows Why We Need Quantum Gravity. Nice post by Ethan Siegal. He walks through the double slit interface pattern experiment, and points out that the quantum interference pattern leads to a problem with gravity. If an electron wave is probabilistic in crossing that double slit, then the (yes, very very very tiny) gravity field from that quantum superimposed electron must somehow follow quantum mechanics as well. link

5. Sean Carroll has a new podcast. Physicist and popular science writer Sean Carroll has a new podcast. I liked his last book The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself.  And his new podcast runs in a similar vein, interviewing a wide range of people. Some of the guests I didn’t like as much as others, given my interests run sciencey. So my favorites were episode 2 with Carlo Rovelli on quantum mechanics and spacetime, and episode 5 with Geoffrey West on scaling laws in biology. But overall I like Carroll’s ambition and breadth, so I’ve been enjoying listening and can recommend it.

6. Blueberry Earth. The question: “Supposing that the entire Earth was instantaneously replaced with an equal volume of closely packed, but uncompressed blueberries, what would happen from the perspective of a person on the surface?” Anders Sandberg is up to the challenge! A fun post that takes a silly question seriously. And if you like that, or have kids who might, I recommend along those lines Randall Munroe’s book What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. And yes, it’s that Randall Munroe, author of the webcomic xkcd.

And that’s all for this week!







Saturday Links 14-Jul-2018: Genomic Prediction of Social Mobility, Alzheimer Virus, Mind as prediction, Sonos teardown

1. Genomic Prediction of Social Mobility. New paper using 20k individuals predicts SES mobility with genomic scoring. In English this means that by looking at your genes, you can predict, at least to some extent, who is going to rise and fall in socioeconomic status. The study included predictions of siblings (since children have different mixes of their parent’s genes) and they were still able to do predictions. This is a powerful test, as siblings share home environment. Stephen Hsu is saying “game over“. But it’s probably more accurate to say game started. See for example Eric Turkheimer pointing out the fraction of change predicted is small. But these kinds of studies will get more powerful as sample sizes go from tens of thousands, to hundreds of thousands, to millions. The train has left the station. Though it will take time for all the implications to sink in.

2. More Links Between Alzheimer’s and Herpes Virus. Old theory: amyloid beta plaques in the brain cause Alzheimer’s. New theory: amyloid beta is the body’s response to viral infection, and the real cause of Alzheimer’s is a virus, in particular Herpes simplex virus. Worth noting nearly everyone carries some form of the Herpes simplex virus, for example HSV-1 is the variant that causes cold sores. So just as not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer, not everyone who has HSV gets Alzheimer’s. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the cause. The battle over whether Alzheimer’s is a viral disease is not over by the way. It’s still being actively argued. But at this point the argument reminds me of how for decades doctors fought the idea H. pylori bacteria caused ulcers, because they were so invested in the old paradigm of spicy food and stress. Good article by Ed Yong on the latest.

3. Apple combines machine learning and Siri teams under John Giannandrea. Here’s the story in TechCrunch. And why would anyone care about this particular Apple re-org? Because it means Apple is moving away from a purely functional organizational structure, since Giannandrea reports directly to CEO Tim Cook. Moving to a more divisional structure is a huge change for Apple. And a necessary step if Apple is ever to produce services (maps, Siri) which can compete with Google. Ben Thompson argued back in 2016 why Apple needed to change their org structure, and his article holds up well. It’s worth re-reading Thompson to understand why this is important.

4. Mind as prediction. It is a trope to say nobody understands how the brain works. This is true of course. But I would argue that before you can understand in detail how the brain works, you need some kind of overarching theory of what a mind is and what is does. One framework is the mind constantly predicts what happens next, updating its model as sensory feedback floods in. So mind is constant prediction, updated against reality. And not just passive prediction, but actively predicting what will happen if you do particular actions. This is a fairly old idea. I first came across it in Jeff Hawkins’ 2007 book On Intelligence, and it was a revelation (at least to me). Because it seems so obviously correct. And over the past decade I’ve seen this framework slowly gaining ground. In particular machine learning has hastened the trend. To that end, here’s a new article arguing for the mind as prediction framework: To Make Sense of the Present, Brains May Predict the Future. If you like it, you should also consider Scott Alexander’s post on the same idea It’s Bayes All the Way Up.

5. African multiregionalism. Good piece by Ed Yong. Here’s one bit:

She and others argue that humans originated from several diverse populations that lived across Africa. Separated from each other by geographical barriers, they mostly evolved in isolation, and each group developed some of our hallmark traits, but not others. But their separation wasn’t constant: As a changing climate remodeled the African landscape, greening deserts and drying out forests, those early humans were repeatedly drawn together and pulled apart. Whenever they met, they mated and mingled, exchanging genes and ideas in a continent-wide melting pot that eventually coalesced into the full bingo of features that you or I might recognize.

This theory, known as “African multiregionalism,” is a fundamentally different view of how we came to be. It’s saying that no single place or population gave rise to us. It’s saying that the cradle of humankind was the entirety of Africa.

6. Teardown of Sonos One compared to Amazon Echo. Ben Einstein tears apart a Sonos One and an Amazon Echo Plus, comparing the two. No surprise, Einstein predicts Sonos is in deep trouble. Lots of good pictures in the teardown, and Einstein clearly knows his way around a soldering iron. Here’s the key bit:

It is always tricky to estimate BOM cost without diligently researching each custom part and purchased component, but my suspicion is that despite the 25% lower price tag, the Echo Plus is about 15–20% more expensive than the more premium Sonos One.

Because of Amazon’s platform advantage, it’s selling more expensive hardware at a lower price. Hard to compete with that. link

And that’s all my links for this week. Hope you have a good weekend!




Saturday Links 7-Jul-2018: Free Speech and power, Tribal nations, Imperceptibly changing minds, flying electric spiders

1. Free Speech is a signal showing who has power. On June 20 Wendy Kaminer, former board member of the ACLU, accused the ACLU of backing away from their longstanding defense of free speech. She based this on a leaked internal ACLU memo, which, to be fair, tries to have it both ways. First saying “As human rights, these rights extend to all, even to the most repugnant speakers—including white supremacists—and pursuant to ACLU policy, we will continue our longstanding practice of representing such groups.” Then flip-flopping to say the ACLU should take into account “the extent to which the speech may assist in advancing the goals of white supremacists or others whose views are contrary to our values.”

Later on June 30 Adam Liptak wrote in the New York Times How Conservatives Weaponized the First Amendment. So of course conservatives tried to take the ACLU and the NY Times to task, for example here and here.

But I think this kerfuffle misses the bigger picture. In particular see how Liptak’s piece favorably quotes Catharine A. MacKinnon: “Once a defense of the powerless, the First Amendment over the last hundred years has mainly become a weapon of the powerful. Legally, what was, toward the beginning of the 20th century, a shield for radicals, artists and activists, socialists and pacifists, the excluded and the dispossessed, has become a sword for authoritarians, racists and misogynists, Nazis and Klansmen, pornographers and corporations buying elections.” This is true and reveals perhaps more than intended. MacKinnon is exactly correct — free speech is about protecting those without power. But this is a tell. Yes, those with power want to suppress the speech of those they find offensive. But now boomers who were once “radicals, artists and activists, socialists and pacifists” have ascended the ranks of power. They want to suppress those they detest, even if that detest is deserved. The politics of free speech are eternal. Power hates it. And by showing their hate, those in power expose it, whether cultural or financial, just so.

2. The Tribal Mind and the Nation State. Some good points by Jonah Goldberg on international cosmopolitanism. Made me realize when an internationalist tribe arises, for whatever reason, it needs an enemy to coalesce. Like all tribes. Hence an internationalist tribe induces a nationalist tribe as backlash. In particular I liked this bit:

It seems to me that the only current contender for anything like a global tribe requiring anything like global solidarity would be a resurgent old religion or some kind of new one. But even then, one reason I think a global sense of ethical or tribal solidarity is very difficult to achieve is that one of the key ingredients of tribal solidarity is opposition to an “other.” Global religions still define themselves — in practical terms — as opposed to some other religious view or group. Johnson’s point about cosmopolitanism is a good one, but it overlooks the fact that many of the cosmopolitans, or “globalists,” very much act like a tribe pitted against what they consider to be the populist rubes beneath them. As Ross Douthat notes, the cosmopolitans are a tribe, too.

3. Denmark enacts laws for ghetto immigrants. People in the US are riled up about immigrants. But in the end America has always been one of the most immigrant friendly societies. Which I expect (or at least hope) will continue. So perhaps it’s better to grade everyone on a curve. Thus it’s sad, but not too surprising to learn:

When Rokhaia Naassan gives birth in the coming days, she and her baby boy will enter a new category in the eyes of Danish law. Because she lives in a low-income immigrant neighborhood described by the government as a “ghetto,” Rokhaia will be what the Danish newspapers call a “ghetto parent” and he will be a “ghetto child.”

Starting at the age of 1, “ghetto children” must be separated from their families for at least 25 hours a week, not including nap time, for mandatory instruction in “Danish values,” including the traditions of Christmas and Easter, and Danish language. Noncompliance could result in a stoppage of welfare payments. Other Danish citizens are free to choose whether to enroll children in preschool up to the age of six.

4. Imperceptibly changing your mind one step at a time. Using the great novelist Thomas Mann as a example, an excellent essay by Corey Robin, on how views shift imperceptibly over time to match your current group. Here’s one bit: “As the climate of opinion changed during the war, he changed with it. And then at the onset of the Cold War, he changed again. But watching how his positions changed—within a very short period of time—without him even realizing it, without him even remembering what he had said, a mere three years prior, was eerie and unsettling. And heart-breaking, as I said.”

5. Real versus hypothetical trolley problems. New paper showing what people say they’ll do about the trolley problem is different than what they really do. Turns out people are more consequentialist than they claim. Paper: Of Mice, Men, and Trolleys: Hypothetical Judgment Versus Real-Life Behavior in Trolley-Style Moral Dilemmas. Or if you prefer the short version, news article.

6. Flying electric spiders. Let’s finish with this fun piece by Ed Yong on how spiders balloon (float/fly) using static electricity.
image source wikipedia


Saturday Links 30-Jun-2018: Next gen Apple maps, WEIRD Cousin Marriage, Fermi Paradox, Dunbar limits on places

1. Next gen Apple Maps coming in iOS12. In his story, Matthew Panzarino unsurprisingly hits the Apple PR privacy talking point (Apple is not bad bad bad like Google) rather hard. But that’s expected since he’s getting an exclusive from Apple. Main points: Apple built their next gen mapping data up from scratch (no external partners) by driving their own custom vans everywhere to collect street level GPS, LIDAR, imagery data. The new maps come out for the San Francisco Bay Area in iOS12 beta this week, then Northern California this fall. They didn’t give a timeline beyond that, but say they’ve been collecting data globally for four years, including “cities like Berlin, Paris, Singapore, Beijing, Malmö, Hyderabad.” iPhone data is also being collected, though anonymized. The speculation is Apple’s dataset won’t just support driving directions, but is laying the groundwork for Augmented Reality (AR), autonomous cars, and drones. The deeper product issue is whether Apple is culturally capable of doing services like maps or Siri well, since they require a different kind of organization than one optimized for hardware. See Ben Thompson here, or my older post (still valid) here. I suspect a slow rollout, since it will also be hard to for Apple to scale up their map data collection, especially in places like China. This is an important strategic tech story for 2018. Panzarino’s original post. Plus his Q&A follow up, which I found more concise.

2. The Origins of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) Psychology. New preprint. The core argument is the Catholic Church dissolved many of the earlier kin-based institutions in Europe, contributing to the noticeably different psychology and institutions for WEIRD societies. This wasn’t necessarily the goal of the Catholic Church, but by outlawing cousin marriage, it made parts of Europe a global outlier in being far less tribal/kin focused. Tyler Cowen said “Object all you want, but there is some chance that this is one of the half dozen most important social science and/or history papers ever written. So maybe a few of you should read it.” I agree. Both on it’s importance, as well as the “some chance” qualifier.

Sample paragraph:

A growing body of research suggests that populations around the globe vary substantially along several important psychological dimensions, and that people from societies characterized as Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) are particularly unusual (1–6). Often at the extremes of global distributions, people from WEIRD populations tend to be more individualistic, independent, analytically-minded and impersonally prosocial (e.g., trusting strangers) while revealing less conformity, obedience, in-group loyalty and nepotism (3, 5–13). While these patterns are now well documented, efforts to explain this variation from a cultural evolutionary and historical perspective have just begun (13–20). Here, we develop and test a cultural evolutionary theory that aims to explain a substantial portion of this psychological variation, both within and across nations. Not only does our approach contribute to explaining global variation and address why WEIRD societies so often occupy the tail ends of global distributions, but it also helps explain the psychological variation within Europe—among countries, across regions within countries and between individuals with different cultural backgrounds within the same country and region.

As a side note, in terms of the origin of this idea, Cowen notes “I don’t think there is any citation to Steve Sailer, who has been pushing a version of this idea for many years.” When I checked, Steve Sailer in turn cites HBD Chick saying “Some guys in human evolutionary biology and economics write-up HBD Chick’s main theory.” HBD Chick herself asked for a paper citation on twitter, correctly noting that some of the co-authors on the paper had cited her previously. Joseph Henrich, who wrote one of my favorite recent books The Secret of Our Success, is a co-author on the new paper. Henrich replied “Non-sense” and “No credit for no contribution.” I think Henrich is outstanding. This is a great paper. But believe he’s incorrect on this particular point. Given how sensitive the topic can be, the odds of attribution being given to an anonymous blogger named HBD Chick, or someone like Steve Sailer, are of course zero. It is what it is. So as I said, a side note.

3. Dissolving the Fermi Paradox. The Fermi Paradox is the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence for extraterrestrial civilizations, and their high estimated probability. A new paper argues the Fermi Paradox is a mistake based on incorrectly calculating the odds for aliens. As an example, calculate the odds of aliens = (odds of earthlike planets forming) x (odds of life forming on earthlike planets) x (odds of that life becoming intelligent) etc. Just multiply constants. But the paper points out that you should use probability distributions for each of these odds, not constants. Then mathematically combine the distributions. When you do this, due to the massive orders-of-magnitude in uncertainty ranges, the final odds (also a distribution) go way down. I’ve seen this idea before in preprints, and talks by the authors Anders Sandberg, Eric Drexler, Toby Ord. Seems exactly right. Though the underlying problem remains. We don’t know these odds, or more correctly their distributions. What’s the probability distribution for life developing on an earthlike planet? Ummm. But it’s still an advance. At least when these unknown distributions (whatever you choose them to be) are correctly combined, the answer popping out is not aliens aliens aliens everywhere. I found the best presentation of the argument are these slides Sandberg et al presented a couple of years ago. Sandberg has an explainer post here. And finally the paper itself is here.

4. More links. I’m already running long, so let me do the rest of my links (this was a pretty good week!) in bullet form. Click through if you find something of interest.

  • Another cold case solved using public DNA databases. Public DNA databases hold relatives of yours, even if distant ones. And that’s good enough. Leave your DNA somewhere and the police can find you, if they’re willing to look hard enough. link
  • Facebook referrals to news sites are way down from the January 2017 peak. Has a few good charts. link
  • John Hawks on increasing likelihood of finding more hobbits (Homo floresiensis), especially in the Philippines. link
  • Speculative. But interesting. One quote: “in my view, the long arc of the moral universe bends towards endless grinding culture war without clear winners or resolution.” Argues that liberals win most arguments, but in the long long term lose on demographics. Here’s the last bit: “The culture war is perhaps most centrally about who is born and who is not, about who becomes parents and who does not. Freedom from parenthood is in some ways a source of cultural strength these days- there’s a reason pretty much all the heads of state running Western Europe right now don’t have any kids- but the future as is often said belongs to those who show up.” link
  • Similar to the Dunbar effect on a natural cognitive limit of ~150 for number of friends, there appears to be a limit of number of places to which people regularly go. So if you add a new place you often return to (like adding a new acquaintance), an old one drops off the list. Perhaps that’s true of blogs like this one as well. link

Thanks for reading!


Saturday Links 23-Jun-2018: Disability is down, German immigrants, Patrilineal kin groups, Paul McCartney carpool karaoke

Here are links/commentary on what I found most interesting to read recently.

1. Asian discrimination lawsuit against Harvard won’t change anything, except damage their claims to meritocracy. Not much new if you’ve been paying attention to the lawsuit. By now it’s clear Harvard and the Ivy League capped admissions for Asians at about 17% at least since the 1990s. If you haven’t seen the data, it’s worth seeing, so I pulled together notes in this post.

2. Disability Applications Plunge as the Economy Strengthens. New York Times story found via Adam Ozimek. Who also linked to a piece from March with the chart below. If you follow these kinds of stats, you’ll know that rising disability has been (mostly) interpreted as a sign of people giving up hope of finding a job. That is to say the unending rise in disability has been one of the most depressing stats to watch. A stand in for despair. So it’s important news this has turned around. New story. Plus the story from March.

image source

3. Matthew Yglesias and Garret Jones on immigrant’s effect on crime in Germany. I wanted to link to this because it’s the kind of thing that should happen more often than it does. So it makes me happy. People being civil to each other and changing their minds. Yglesias wrote a post Trump just tweeted that “crime in Germany is way up.” It’s actually at its lowest level since 1992. Jones responded by noting that yes overall crime is down, but violent crime is still up and the shift is partly driven by immigrants. He makes the point saying “10% fewer bike thefts. 10% more murders.” What’s surprising is Yglesias thanked Jones for pointing this out. Excellent!

If you’re wondering how this happens, I’ll note that everyone is linking to the exact same data source here (in German), extract in English here. And the extract itself says crime is down! But if you dig into the details, you’ll see violent crime is up, and the violent crime change is driven in part by immigrants. Hence this very similar New York Times story Fact Check: Trump’s False and Misleading Claims About Germany’s Crime and Immigration. When I read it (after being tipped off by Jones and Yglesias), I realized that every single sentence in the New York Times story is true, but the central point about violent crime being up is unmentioned. Related is that Merkel’s risk of losing power has been partly driven by this dynamic.

Probably worth mentioning at this point that I agree with the larger sentiment. Immigrants are great for the US. And Trump’s behavior is appalling. But it helps to keep the facts straight. So you won’t be shocked if Merkel loses power.

4. Jason Collins tutorial post on polygenic scores, and recent wealth and genes study. Collins wrote a post about a recent wealth and genes paper. What I really liked is it’s mostly a well written tutorial on genes, GWAS and polygenic scoring. And it finishes with a nice sentence “Examining intergenerational outcomes while ignoring genetic effects is generally a waste of time.” If you are new to this subject and find it of interest, recommended. link

5. Patrilineal Kin Groups are not getting enough media love. A couple of recent papers (1, 2) have shown star shaped Y chromosome phylogenies are important to understanding cultural and genetic shifts starting around 7000 years ago in Europe, Asia, Africa. This topic seems like perfect media fodder. But I never saw that much in mainstream news or pop culture. Here’s a good write up, with lead paragraphs:

Around 7,000 years ago – all the way back in the Neolithic – something really peculiar happened to human genetic diversity. Over the next 2,000 years, and seen across Africa, Europe and Asia, the genetic diversity of the Y chromosome collapsed, becoming as though there was only one man for every 17 women.

Now, through computer modelling, researchers believe they have found the cause of this mysterious phenomenon: fighting between patrilineal clans.

Since Razib Khan has written some good explainer posts (1, 2) on the papers, I asked him why nobody picked up on it. He cited C. P. Snow’s point about the two cultures of science and humanities talking past one another. Which makes sense.

Let me explain why I thought this is perfect media fodder. [start rant voice1]. Science has shown the battle axe people created havoc in Europe and Asia, killing off the local men and raping the women. Founding patrilineal kin groups that dominate to this day. This is the foundation of greatness. The evidence is right there in ancient DNA. Patrimony rules! The alt-right is vindicated by science! Yeah! [rant voice2] No no no! Patrilineal kin groups taking over was the worst disaster for human kind ever, and we need to move away from that perversion as fast as possible. It led to war after war after war after war after war. Progressives are vindicated by science! Yeah! [back to me] Hmm…. on second thought, best to let sleeping patriarchies lie. 🙂

6. Marc Maron interviews Dave Itzkoff about his book on Robin Williams, followed by Maron’s 2010 interview with Williams. Enjoyed this podcast. If you’re interested in Robin Williams and like the podcast format, recommended. link

7. Paul McCartney does carpool karaoke with James Corden. Yes at times this is a bit contrived. But it’s extremely well done, and I enjoyed every bit from start to finish. So let’s end on this positive note.




The Asian discrimination lawsuit against Harvard won’t change admission rates. But it damages claims to meritocracy.

The lawsuit filed by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard has produced enough evidence to prove Asian discrimination and quotas. Though perhaps not legally. This may not be obvious unless you’ve been following it. So I want to consolidate and reblog what I found convincing. Then discuss how this impacts meritocracy.

Stephen Hsu has taken the time to post key charts from the legal documents. So I’ll pull from and recommend Hsu’s blog, which focuses mostly on genomics and physics.

From this post, note the sudden change in Asian admission trend in 1993.

harvard rate1

The chart below is from Ron Unz writing in the New York Times in 2013. The tell is the collapse in variation of Asian enrollment rates across the Ivy League. In the 1990s Asian enrollment rates varied widely. Starting around 1995, this variation collapsed towards a ~17% rate, as the Ivy League rolled out a common Asian quota target. Caltech (purple line) is a compare because they have a race blind, test score based admissions process. Pure meritocracy. The dotted line shows the steady increase in college aged Asians.


Again via Stephen Hsu, below is how Asians rate for admissions compared to whites. What jumps out are the negative personal ratings. They were introduced by Harvard in the 1920s to stop Jews from overwhelming enrollment. Been around ever since.

personality harvard

Finally, to get a bit more technical, again via Hsu, a chart comparing four different models attempting to predict admission rates. Model 1 fits using academics only. Model 2 adds legacy/athletics to academics. Model 3 adds extracurricular and personality on top of Model 2. This means Model 3 includes the bad Asian personal rating scores! And yet model 3 still can’t match the actuals (far right column). Finally. Model 4 adds that special factor, race and ethnicity. Only Model 4 can correctly fit outcomes. Captain Louis Renault is shocked! Shocked I tell you.

model 4.png

The question of course is why. Here’s Tyler Cowen:

My take is simple.  Harvard is risk-averse with respect to the stream of future donations, as are many other schools.  Asian-American admissions don’t have the same donating track record as the white students traditionally cultivated by Harvard and other top universities.  Either Asian-Americans may seek out “diaspora philanthropy,” or they simply may have a more cynical attitude toward top institutions that they basically have never had any control over.

Furthermore, there is a common fear — repugnant to me I should add — that if a student body becomes “too Asian,” many white students will be less interested in going there.  I taught at UC Irvine for several years and found it to be a delightful experience, but this is exactly what many schools are afraid of (the UCI student body is disproportionately Asian, and the honors class I taught in my first year had only one non-Asian student in it).

And so they come up with every excuse possible — sometimes cemented in by self-deception — for maintaining a “balanced” student body.


Nonetheless, I predict ultimately the status quo will not change very much.  I just don’t see a strong enough popular or judicial constituency for righting the wrongs done to Asian-Americans.  Some kind of partial concession will be made, various terms and standards will be somewhat redefined, and we’ll be back to “rinse and repeat.”  Meritocracy: can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

I have no doubt Cowen is correct nothing major will change in the racial makeup students admitted to Harvard. Despite the lawsuit.

Let me pull one more tweet from a Hsu post. Stuyvesant is an elite New York high school where admission is based purely on a single entrance test. About 30,000 kids take the test each year and about 900 are admitted. Here’s a Stuyvesant teacher being interviewed about Harvard admissions and the lawsuit, realizing mid-interview Harvard discriminates against Asian students from Stuyvesant.

What the lawsuit changes is it makes the Ivy League Asian quota system more visible. It’s gradually becoming common knowledge, and the lawsuit is nudging that process along. And really, that’s the main thrust of this post, making something not visible enough just a bit more so.

As for Stuvesant? It was mostly Jewish until the 1970s. Now it’s 72% Asian. Which is completely unsurprising. So of course, from a recent New York Times story “Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Saturday a proposal that would change how students are admitted to eight of the city’s specialized high schools, a group of highly sought-after institutions where students gain entry based on a single test.” And “Mr. de Blasio said that if both reforms were enacted, 45 percent of students at the eight specialized schools would be black or Latino.”

I want to end with a plea for less hypocrisy. Even if done only for Harvard’s self interest. It is perfectly ok for Harvard to try to get their student bodies to match the demographics of the country. This is a laudable goal. But doing that means racial quotas, even if hidden behind “character assessments” to make them legal. And perhaps most colleges in America should do the same. But they should do it openly, since in an internet age the data will get out there one way or another. Continuing a pretense of a race blind meritocracy damages Harvard, and by extension it’s graduates. In particular governmental leaders, who draw overwhelmingly from Harvard and Yale. Hypocrisy fuels resentment and partisanship. It is the friend of those who claim the game is rigged.

And lastly, we should allow at least a little bit of diversity in how schools admit students. It should not be illegal to have a few schools here and there using a pure test based admission system. We don’t need many purely meritocratic schools, but America should be big enough to tolerate a few. Caltech is 43% Asian, and no doubt that rate will continue to climb as it tracks demographics. As long as they stay the course. And hopefully Stuyvesant won’t change either, though it probably will.


more reading:

In the nineteen-eighties, when Harvard was accused of enforcing a secret quota on Asian admissions, its defense was that once you adjusted for the preferences given to the children of alumni and for the preferences given to athletes, Asians really weren’t being discriminated against. But you could sense Harvard’s exasperation that the issue was being raised at all. If Harvard had too many Asians, it wouldn’t be Harvard, just as Harvard wouldn’t be Harvard with too many Jews or pansies or parlor pinks or shy types or short people with big ears.