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Monday Links 26-Nov-2018: embryo selection is a bigger deal than CRISPR, China panopticon, Saudi relations, software eats photography

Here’s links and commentary on what I read this week. Chinese CRISPR babies tops the list. So let’s get started.

1. Embryo selection is a bigger deal than CRISPR. In a surprise announcement yesterday (Nov 25), Chinese researcher He Jiankui claimed to have created the first gene edited babies. He used CRISPR-Cas9 to disable a single gene CCR5 in IVF embryos, which when disabled makes someone less susceptible to HIV. Then he implanted the modified embryos, and the mother gave birth to twins. People were skeptical, but Harvard biologist George Church said the claims were “probably accurate. I’ve been in contact with the Shenzhen team and have seen the data”.

So will gene editing lead to super babies soon? No. CRISPR is an amazing tool to edit genes, but it’s reliability is moderate. This means it should be useful for parents who carry diseases caused by very few genes, such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s, BRCA1, sickle cell disease. Editing a single gene or two is feasible. But traits that people might panic about, such as height, athleticism or IQ, are driven by thousands and thousands of genes, each of tiny affect. And nobody can reliably edit thousands of genes. That’s at least a decade out. Perhaps longer.

Hence this was to some extent a proof of concept publicity and technology stunt. If the point was healthy babies, the gene selected for therapy should have been one causing something like cystic fibrosis. And not disabling a correctly functioning gene, even if that gene might potentially be used by HIV as a vector. Ed Yong has a good piece up quoting ethicists and geneticists who are outraged. And it appears He Jiankui’s university in Shenzhen was unaware of his research and is conducting an investigation. With that said, it’s obvious to everyone who follows this research that China is far more open to it than the US and Europe. So in that sense it’s unsurprising China is where this is happening, and where it will continue to happen in the future.

But if CRISPR is not (yet) a big deal for super babies, what’s feasible today? Answer: Embryo selection. Which was also in the news this week. Recall that thousands of genes impact things like health, disease risk, etc. You can’t edit all those genes, but you can roll them up into a single polygenic risk score. PGS scores can assess risk of diabetes, heart disease, and yes, IQ. PGS scores are not perfect predictors, since the randomness of development still drives much of the variance. But they can give an edge. There’s nothing really new to invent. Genetic testing of IVF embryos for disease is already a thing. And if you’re choosing embryos already, why not get PGS score info to help make your choice? Your intuition here should be if a parent could magically see probabilities of say, 25 potential children, and dimly forsee their height, IQ, disease risk, and then could pick the one whose odds are best. They’d still be your kids. But their chances in life would be better than random genetics. Thus the Guardian article this week: Super-smart designer babies could be on offer soon. But is that ethical? Note this article is not about CRISPR. But about PGS scoring against a set of IVF embryos, and selecting as per the parent’s preferences. To be clear, right now the focus is on preventing disease, so picking embryo’s which score well for not having health problems like diabetes or heart disease. But the approach is amenable to selecting any polygenic trait.

Bottom line: I think embryo selection will be the single most socially disruptive technology over the next decade. AI will have to wait its turn. And yes, CRISPR is looming in the wings, possibly useful now for mendelian diseases, or maybe even traits with simple genetics such as skin or eye color. But still not yet able to create super babies. This means using IVF to select for height, athleticism, IQ is what’s most impactful now. It pushes all the right buttons. Just imagine your reaction if the politician you hate the most (or one of their adult children) takes a genetic tourism trip to China to make sure their kids have that extra special IVF selection IQ edge. People will be incredibly angry. And this anger will slice deeper into the existing political realignment going on in the US right now. On both the left and right. The babies won’t disrupt directly, but the second order effects of elites using technology to cement their children’s position at the top will make people flip out. It’s coming. And in fact is here already.

2. China continues making progress on the panopticon. This is an incremental thing. Computers will watch us all the time. It will happen everywhere. But in authoritarian countries it will be the government who watches. In US and Europe it will be regulated tech companies, which hopefully will work out better. In any case, from this story:

China’s plan to judge each of its 1.3 billion people based on their social behavior is moving a step closer to reality, with Beijing set to adopt a lifelong points program by 2021 that assigns personalized ratings for each resident.

The capital city will pool data from several departments to reward and punish some 22 million citizens based on their actions and reputations by the end of 2020, according to a plan posted on the Beijing municipal government’s website on Monday. Those with better so-called social credit will get “green channel” benefits while those who violate laws will find life more difficult.

3. Tanner Greer speaks out for ending the US-Saudi relationship. His piece is titled: The Khashoggi’s Death is the Crisis We Have Been Waiting For. Here’s one bit:

The Middle East is a distraction. America will soon be a net energy exporter. The region’s oil holds no power over us any longer.


Let us have no illusions: Riyadh has more actual American blood on their hands than any other sitting regime in the world (with the exception perhaps of the military machine run out of Rawalpindi). This was all true before the Saudis more recent and more brazen attempts to break down the rules and norms of a civilized international order—kidnapping prime ministers, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians in unnecessary wars, and so forth. If the Saudis are our ‘vital’ friends, we do not need even lukewarm enemies.

Greer sees geopolitical conflict with China as where things are headed, and the sooner the US gets out of the Middle East the better. I found his piece convincing. Worth reading.

4. The future of photography is code. Excellent piece on how capturing the real time data stream coming in from the lens allows software based image creation to exceed what you can do with just better lenses. Excerpt:

Similarly the idea of combining five, 10, or 100 images into a single HDR image seems absurd, but the truth is that in photography, more information is almost always better. If the cost of these computational acrobatics is negligible and the results measurable, why shouldn’t our devices be performing these calculations? In a few years they too will seem ordinary.

If the result is a better product, the computational power and engineering ability has been deployed with success; just as Leica or Canon might spend millions to eke fractional performance improvements out of a stable optical system like a $2,000 zoom lens, Apple and others are spending money where they can create value: not in glass, but in silicon.

Also see this related piece on how Google’s Pixel 3 is able to do amazing dim light photography based on machine learning combined with software based image synthesis. If you’re interested in photography I’d recommend both links above. If you want more, I’d suggest also reading Google’s post here as well.

5. Benedict Evans – The End of the Beginning. Slide shows and video of Evans discussing what the past 20 years of internet tech has done, and what the next 20 years will likely do. I thought it was quite good.


And that’s all for this week. Thanks for reading!





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Saturday Links 17-Nov-2018: Stagnant science, Chinese fan economy, Qualtrics, best burgers no more

Pleasantly surprised to find a lot of good things to read this week. Here’s my commentary on what I read.

1. Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck. Excellent piece by Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen arguing science has reached diminishing returns. More people and more money are going into it. But less progress. Some didn’t like the methodology of using Nobel Prize winners. And of course it’s quite reasonable to disagree. But often what makes an argument important is it frames a question properly. In particular I liked this bit:

If it’s true that science is becoming harder, why is that the case?

Suppose we think of science—the exploration of nature—as similar to the exploration of a new continent. In the early days, little is known. Explorers set out and discover major new features with ease. But gradually they fill in knowledge of the new continent. To make significant discoveries explorers must go to ever-more-remote areas, under ever-more-difficult conditions. Exploration gets harder. In this view, science is a limited frontier, requiring ever more effort to “fill in the map.” One day the map will be near complete, and science will largely be exhausted. In this view, any increase in the difficulty of discovery is intrinsic to the structure of scientific knowledge itself.

An archetype for this point of view comes from fundamental physics, where many people have been entranced by the search for a “theory of everything,” a theory explaining all the fundamental particles and forces we see in the world. We can only discover such a theory once. And if you think that’s the primary goal of science, then it is indeed a limited frontier.

But there’s a different point of view, a point of view in which science is an endless frontier, where there are always new phenomena to be discovered, and major new questions to be answered. The possibility of an endless frontier is a consequence of an idea known as emergence. Consider, for example, water. It’s one thing to have equations describing the way a single molecule of water behaves. It’s quite another to understand why rainbows form in the sky, or the crashing of ocean waves, or the origins of the dirty snowballs in space that we call comets. All these are “water,” but at different levels of complexity. Each emerges out of the basic equations describing water, but who would ever have suspected from those equations something so intricate as a rainbow or the crashing of waves?

Sean Carroll has often pointed out that since about 50 years ago, the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood. Which supports the analogy of exploring a continent above. What’s great about that last paragraph above is it shows the argument one is forced to make to argue science progress is still rapid. There must be enough emergent phenomena to explore. Collison and Nielsen cite computer science and genomics as examples. Overall I agree. Though to be clear, if science is getting harder, arguably the right response is investing more, not less. Which seems to be what’s happening. Read it here.

2. China’s internet fan economy. Surprisingly, a Chinese pop star, Kris Wu, beat out American pop star Ariana Grande in the iTunes charts this week. How’d that happen? Here’s Adam Minter:

For years, Chinese fans have gone beyond simply buying the music of their favorite stars and engaged in organized mass efforts to boost their chart positions and brand equity, and to influence their artistic decisions. Fans of the Chinese boy band TFboys have, among other activities, bought up an entire run (120,000 copies) of Harper’s Bazaar featuring a member on the cover, purchased billboards in Times Square to wish happy birthday to another member, and prepared custom textbooks for yet another member when he was prepping for China’s college entrance exam.

The success of this multibillion-dollar “fan economy” has been so profound that Chinese brands are now actively trying to profit from it. Western companies looking to break into the mainland market would be wise to pay heed.

The underlying point here is the fan economy model now common in China could well spread everywhere else. Worth paying attention to. link

3. James Allworth on the experience economy. Allworth walks through why SAP bought Qualtrics for $8 billion. Qualtrics captures and measures customer experience, and that’s a better model for retaining customers than traditional enterprise software tools, which measure income and spend. He uses the example of Uber, where users rate their drivers (and drivers rate their customers). While traditional taxi service just measure the money. That’s why Uber and Lyft provide a better experience, becuase they actually measure it, and so can manage it. Companies will adapt if they want to continue to compete. link

4. Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis. Long, deeply researched feature story in the New York Times on how Facebook fought off critics of how it handled fake news and Russia. There were plenty responses. Of those, I liked Benedict Evan’s point: “The one lesson giant tech companies never learn from their predecessors: believing you’re doing the right thing, actually doing the right thing, and everyone else believing you’re doing the right thing are three different things. And often only the third one matters.” And Christopher Mims: “Having been a reporter and also a human for a long time I find it entirely credible both that Sheryl Sandberg’s underlings genuinely thought she stymied their efforts to investigate Russia interference *and* that she has no memory of ever doing that and might not have intended to”. If you follow tech/Facebook/social media, this story is worth reading since it will frame things for Facebook going forward. link

5. Why do some Amazonians appear to have Australiasian ancentry? Back in 2015, it was found that some Amazonians appear to have ancestry which most closely matches  Papua New Guineans and Aboriginal Australians. A very odd result. Last week some new papers using ancient DNA found similar results. There seem to be roughly four possibilities: 1) it’s an untrue artifact created by flawed models, 2) undetected population stratification in the original people who populated the Americas, 3) a first wave into the Americas was then almost completely overrun leaving no trace in North America, 4) Australiasians reached South America by boat and were mostly overrun. Just for fun, I’ll go on record as saying #4. Australiasians made it to Indonesia and Australia. Some Australiasian group made it to South America, either from the east or the west, who knows. They had a culture highly adapted to coastal living, so perhaps mostly settled there, before they got overrun. With more ancient DNA, this will get eventually resolved. I’m looking forward to that happening.

6. I Found the Best Burger Place in America. And Then I Killed It. An excellent essay on how naming a mom and pop place the best burger in America wound up shutting it down. Reflective, a bit sad, discusses how the internet era works. Recommended. link

And that’s all for this week.








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Saturday Links 10-Nov-2018: Amazon HQ2 as farce, American aDNA, Head Start, do not summon the doxxing demon

Here’s links and commentary on what I found most interesting to read this week.

1. Amazon HQ2 enters the realm of farce. Since September 2017, Amazon has held an ongoing contest to decide which city would get their new second headquarters. Now it turns out there won’t be a second headquarters. Instead Amazon will open two smaller office complexes, one in Queens and the other in Crystal City, just outside of Washington D.C. In January I said:

Amazon’s new HQ location debate is a brilliant marketing move, especially with rising tech reg risks. It’s American Idol for pundits, with Amazon as the idol…. In my view the Amazon HQ2 show was and has always been a long game to grow Amazon’s soft power over federal tech regulators. An investment that will pay off handsomely as tech monopoly concerns continue to grow over the next decade. I’ll claim victory for my cynicism on the HQ2 contest if any D.C. area location is chosen. And really. You have to hand it to Jeff Bezos regardless of where HQ2 is finally winds up. It’s been an absolutely brilliant and successful marketing campaign already. Genius.

Crystal City is a DC location, so I’ll claim my prediction came true. In some ways I think Amazon played people so badly there may be a backlash. New York Times: In Superstar Cities, the Rich Get Richer, and They Get Amazon. Vox: The tragedy of Amazon’s HQ2 selections, explained.  Recode: Amazon’s HQ2 was a con, not a contest. Slate’s Will Oremus: the reason Amazon’s HQ2 was a farce…. What’s a little more clear now than in January is why the media was so clueless. In January I thought the overblown amount of press was driven by it being such an easy horse race story to write. So many cities prostrating themselves with tax breaks! Who will win? But now it’s more clear why (some) journalists got it wrong. They imposed their own view on how Amazon worked, assuming it was similar to a news organization. One built around consensus based teams, who value saying you aren’t in it to win it, and aren’t in it for the money. It’s about giving back. Think the culture of academia. But Amazon is a lean, laser focused, hyper competitive tech monopoly winner. They believe they hired smarter than anyone else. They play for keeps. Every move around HQ2 was precisely calculated to maximize Amazon PR. The only surprise is how many people were surprised.

2. Ancient DNA from the Americas. Prior to this week, 6 people from the Americas had their ancient DNA sequenced. With two new papers this week (1 and 2), now there’s 64 more, for a total of 71. With dates ranging from 500 to 10,900 year ago. There’s nothing shockingly new here in the broadest strokes, but plenty of new details. In particular once people made it across into Alaska, the Americas were populated rapidly.  On the order of 100s of years for North America, and a few 1000 years for South America.

image credit: Reconstructing the Deep Population History of Central and South America

The oddest question still not resolved is why some ancient Amazonians seem to have a trace of Australasian ancestry, which is quite distinct from the Siberian source populations which peopled the Americas. This trace has been found before, and was confirmed again in one (but not both) of the new papers. It’s possible this is a signal from an earlier group of humans who migrated into the Americans but then were mostly replaced. Or it could be just a subtle model artifact. Or maybe we should  blame Doctor Who’s TARDIS.

With more aDNA coming online, this mystery will eventually get solved. Those how soon is unclear. I’d recommend Lizzie Wade’s article as the best to read if you want to learn more: Ancient DNA confirms Native Americans’ deep roots in North and South America.

3. Head Start preschool programs seem to help, but not academically. From the start of Kelsey Piper’s article:

There’s a bizarre-seeming paradox sitting at the heart of research into early childhood education. On the one hand, there’s a sizable body of research suggesting that kids who go through intensive education at the ages of 3 and 4 don’t really come out ahead in terms of academic abilities. By kindergarten much of their advantage has receded, and by second grade researchers typically can’t detect it at all.

On the other hand, there’s an equally substantive body of research suggesting that early childhood education produces a profound, lifelong advantage. Kids who enter intensive preschool programs are less likely to be arrested, more likely to graduate, and less likely to struggle with substance abuse as adults. One study with a followup when the students were in their mid-30s found that they were likelier to have eventually attended and completed college.

then later the possible explanation:

In other words, early childhood education may change children’s lives not by teaching them things they’ll retain in elementary school, but simply by being in a safe, predictable, and consistent environment for them to play in — and by providing their parents with the stability to get and keep better jobs.

Here’s Piper’s article, plus also see Scott Alexander’s post for a slightly more skeptical look. If you only follow this casually, the main take away is preschool improves your life outcome by helping you socially, not (as one might assume) academically.

4. Do not summon the doxxing demon. Every tech wave births both new opportunities and new demons. Cheaper printing launched great newspapers and gossip tabloids. Movies begat Charlie Chaplin and The Birth of a Nation. Automobiles led to middle class mobility and the chance of owning your own home, but also to air pollution and drunk driving. The internet tech wave has been especially great for infovores (yep, that’s me). But also birthed doxxing, giving out someone’s personal information to incite retaliation. Of this tech wave’s new demons, doxxing is perhaps the most seductively evil.

Why? Well we could notice how Christine Blasey Ford, since the Kavanaugh hearings, has moved four times due to harassment, and can’t return to her job. The idea that Ford testified for personal gain is ridiculous.

But what I think exemplifies the seductive evil of doxxing best is what happened with Fox News host Tucker Carlson, and then in turn to Matt Yglesias. Protesters targeted Carlson’s home, demonstrating and knocking on his door, chanting “Tucker Carlson, we will fight. We know where you sleep at night”, and spray painting his driveway. Then on twitter Matt Yglesias said “I honestly cannot empathize with Tucker Carlson’s wife at all – I agree that protesting at her house was tactically unwise and shouldn’t be done – but I am utterly unable to identify with her plight on any level.” I’ve read Yglesias for years. So at one level, I get it. As a progressive, Yglesias believes Trump is destroying the institutions of our country. So by supporting him, Carlson is hurting millions. I can feel the temptation of bringing home to the evildoer a taste of the pain they’ve wrought. And as a side bonus, yes, pleasing my ingroup followers on twitter.

Here’s a ThinkPogress story (former employer of Yglesias) arguing the protest was no big deal. But that is wrong wrong wrong! Banging on the door of your political opponent’s home is playing with fire. It should be declared completely off limits by all sides. Only a fool believes this tactic, once unleashed, won’t be used and abused by enemies. And so Yglesias became a target. His home address was doxxed on twitter, along with threats of violence. Yglesias deleted all his tweets. Unsurprisingly, twitter was slow in taking down the doxxing tweet. Read Will Oremus for details.

What’s even more terrible is I don’t think we’ve bottomed out. The more the doxxing demon is summoned, the more your own side feels tempted by its power.

5. Jurassic Art. I listened to this 99% Invisible podcast a while ago, but it stuck in my mind. It’s about how dinosaurs were originally thought to be sluggish, primitive beasts. So were drawn that way. I remember having an old T-Rex plastic toy when I was a kid. The T-Rex stood nearly straight up. So it could plod along.

But Bob Bakker and a few others came to believe dinosaurs were far more active and birdlike. Running positioned more like a road runner. The watershed change in view happened when Jon Ostrom used an illustration from Bakker in his 1969 paper defining the new species Deinonychus. That illustration became iconic, and was instrumental in changing our views of what dinosaurs were.

image credit: Ostrum’s 1969 Deinonychus paper

It’s a fun an interesting story. All about the power of an image to persuade. Recommended.

And that’s all for this week! Thank you for reading.

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Monday Links 5-Nov-2018: Printing and Populism, Psychologists and free speech, new Apple maps

Here’s my weekly list of links and commentary.

1. Printing, Populism and Social Media. Razib Khan has a scathing take down on the ahistorical belief that the populism unleashed by social media is sui generis. I often think of what’s happening now with US politics as a return to normalcy. The post World War 2 era, with mass media gatekeepers and an agreed cold war enemy, was odd. Populism and tribalism were kept under check. Now the internet has once again pushed on the margin, continuing a 500 year historical trend, of making it easier to bypass gatekeepers. And with no currently agreed outside enemy, we’re back to normal. Fractious and tribal.

Khan writes with a rather dense prose style, but I greatly enjoyed this particular rant. Here’s the first two paragraphs:

The media needs clicks and people are rather myopic. This explains patently false pieces such as this in Buzzfeed, This Is How We Radicalized The World. It is a rather unorganized list of facts, but they are assembled in a way to convince and persuade the reading audience that modern information technology has facilitated the rise of political radicalism, as if it is something new and notable. So wrong it hurts.

Anyone who knows history will realize this is patently false. Anyone who is aware of the Taiping Rebellion, the October Revolution, or the unrest of 1848. Of course, that “anyone” is a small set of individuals because most people don’t know history. Their minds are devoid of most facts not having to do with the Khardashians. And journalists are not much better. Many of them are in the game of creating stories rather than interpreting the world. If public relations operatives are well paid propagandists on a short leash, many journalists are poorly paid propagandists compensated with the freedom to be fabulists.

You get the idea. Read the whole thing here.

2. Psychologists and free speech. Tanner Greer argues Psychologists fight for free speech because they are under threat in academia by proponents of critical theory (power makes truth), but not yet influenced by it so heavily they can’t fight back. Greer’s piece is Why Is the Fight for Free Speech Led by the Psychologists? Here’s one bit:

Haidt et. al. are confident they can win the debate if they are allowed to debate. For the heterodox anthropologist or sociologist the game is already over: their discipline has already been conquered. For the economist, the threat is too remote to take seriously. Behavioral science exists in that rare in-between: methodologically, it has the tools to fight back against the excesses of the activist. Socially, it provides a compelling reason for its practitioners to use them.

If you missed it, this week I wrote a related post, influenced by Greer, Why the new hoax papers on cultural studies merely confirmed everyone’s priors.

3. Shopping While Black: Past, Present and Future? Alex Tabarrok looks at how discrimination has sometimes been mitigated by new technology. Sears catalog, Uber, Amazon Go. It’s an economist’s take, so uses econ jargon. Read it here. The message is positive and I quite liked it. Especially the last sentence of this bit:

The moment a shopper enters the Amazon Go store, Amazon knows their name, address, entire shopping history, credit history and potentially much more. Moreover, a shopper’s every movement within the store is tracked to a level of detail that no store detective could ever hope to match. To the customer, especially the black customer, it may feel like they are no longer being watched but in fact they are watched more than ever before–the costs of technological monitoring, however, are mostly fixed which means that everyone is monitored equally. No need for statistical discrimination in the panopticon.


4. Life expectancy gains are mostly driven by end of child mortality. Max Roser’s charts are excellent. This is a good visualization of how most of the gains in life expectancy come from ending child mortality. Note how in 1851, >20% of children didn’t make it past 2 years of age. But that part of the curve is nearly horizontal in more recent years.

image credit: Our World in Data


5. Review of new Apple Maps. A deep dive by Justin O’Beirne into a recent upgrade to Apple Maps. O’Beirne does an outstanding job. If you are curious about what goes into the maps used on your phone, this is the post to read. It’s filled with side by side compares of old versus new Apple maps, plus compares Apple to Google. Especially interesting is O’Beirne argues Apple is using a very human intensive method of creating maps compared to Google. Which means Apple’s results are sometimes better, but far less consistent. link

And that’s all for this week!

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Sunday Links 28-Oct-2018: Spotify playbook, Ben Thompson on tech regulation, exponential overdoses, Hilary Greaves on consequentialism

Here’s links with commentary on what I thought interesting this week.

1. Mark Mulligan on the Spotify playbook to become its own music label. I’ve slowly come around to the idea that Spotify is on the cusp of becoming its own music label, and thus will commodtize the existing labels. Here’s Mulligan:

If Spotify is able to become more competitive (and therefore threatening) to labels and keep hold of them, it will all be down to market share. The less market share the big labels have on Spotify, the more negotiating power Spotify has. It is a classic case of divide and rule. If Spotify really wants to play the role of market disruptor (and so far we have strong hints rather than outright statements), it will need to whittle down the power of the majors before they call it and pull their content. Here’s a scenario for how Spotify could achieve that.

On the prisoners dilemma of the three major labels:

  • WMG and SME probably couldn’t afford to remove their content from Spotify but would be watching UMG, the only one that probably feel confident enough to do so
  • However, UMG would be thinking if it jumps first and removes its content, each of the other two majors would benefit from it not being there (and would probably be secretly hoping for that outcome)
  • Each other major would be thinking the same, and regulatory restrictions prevent the majors from discussing strategy to formulate a combined response

The ending

Maybe, just maybe, the labels have already missed their chance to prevent Spotify from becoming their fiercest competitor. The TV networks left it too late with Netflix…history may be about to repeat itself.

2. Ben Thompson on Platforms, Aggregation Theory and Tech Regulation. I link to Thompson often, and pay for his excellent subscription newsletter. But the video below is different in that it summarizes his thoughts on tech regulation in a single 20 minute video. It’s good!

Though not mentioned, Spotify becoming it’s own label by controlling the end user experience is right up Thompson’s alley. Thompson calls his framework Aggregation Theory.

While my blog is about tech and society, and not about topical news, there’s a tech regs angle to the recent domestic violence I want to mention. Cesar Sayoc is the suspect arrested for sending explosive devices through the mail to critics of Donald Trump. It turns out he was abusive and made death threats on twitter, but twitter ignored this. Though they later apologized. The point here is tech regs are coming for social media one way or the other. That’s why it’s important to have good frameworks for understanding why social media businesses do what they do. Otherwise we’ll wind up with regulations that backfire or misfire. It’s a hard problem, recently become far more pressing.

3. Three charts: drug overdoses, housing prices, TV audience aging.

Drug overdoses are on an exponential curve. Chart from recent paper Changing dynamics of the drug overdose epidemic in the United States from 1979 through 2016.

image credit: link to paper


Experts and economists believe the housing crisis is caused by building regulations and rent control preventing the natural increase in housing supply where people want to live. That is, build more houses to bring prices down. Not that complicated. The public believes, well, let’s just say they have it backwards. Story from the LA Times.

image credit: LA Times


Only olds are watching sports on TV. The shift is rapid.

sport age
image credit: Sports Business Journal


4. Philosopher Hilary Greaves on global priorities, consequentialism, and effective altruism. I really enjoyed this 80,000 hours podcast with Hilary Greaves. But you have to be interested in philosophy, consequentialism, and wonder what’s the most effective way to optimize for happiness in long term future. So it’s quite nerdy. But for what it is, it’s excellent throughout. Host Robert Wiblin does a good job keeping the interview on track, and Greaves is clear and articulate. So not for everyone. But if that subject piques your interest, click to look at the transcript or listen to the podcast.

That’s all for this week. Thank you for reading.

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Monday Links 22-Oct-2018: Warren and genetic testing, Polygenic scores and racism, Wealth increases gender differences

The over arching theme of my blog is how technology trends drive social change. And since genomics is on a Moore’s law price curve, no surprise it’s mentioned several times below. Genomics is a technology lurking in the background, growing exponentially more powerful, which will leap into prominence. First slowly, then all at once. And with that intro, here’s what I found interesting this week, and why.

1. Elizabeth Warren gets a DNA ancestry test. Elizabeth Warren is the front runner to capture the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. She has claimed Native American ancestry, which some disputed, so got DNA tested. Despite news to the contrary, the test showed she does indeed have such ancestry 6 to 10 generations back. Here’s Ross Douthat, who thinks the DNA test was a political mistake:

The DNA test thus simultaneously gives Trump an obvious way to keep the story going on his terms — just pick the lowest end of the genetic estimate and make sport of a “Pocahontas” who’s only one-1,000th Indian — while also annoying Indian groups and anyone on the left (including the actual minority candidates against whom Warren may run) invested in a vision of affirmative action as a righter of historic wrongs rather than just a means to elite self-congratulation.

My take is different. With DNA ancestry testing becoming commonplace, any random angry 2nd or 3rd cousin of Warren’s could take such a test, and out Warren in the process. So better to do it her way.

Furthermore, there’s a rather disturbing metalesson here. No matter what anyone says or does, people gravitate towards believing DNA is more real than cultural identity. It has an air of inevitability. Both those opposed to DNA identity, and those who lust after it, hasten the process. From a 2007 New York Times article by Amy Harmon:

Race, many sociologists and anthropologists have argued for decades, is a social invention historically used to justify prejudice and persecution. But when Samuel M. Richards gave his students at Pennsylvania State University genetic ancestry tests to establish the imprecision of socially constructed racial categories, he found the exercise reinforced them instead.

One white-skinned student, told she was 9 percent West African, went to a Kwanzaa celebration, for instance, but would not dream of going to an Asian cultural event because her DNA did not match, Dr. Richards said. Preconceived notions of race seemed all the more authentic when quantified by DNA.

“Before, it was, ‘I’m white because I have white skin and grew up in white culture,’ ” Dr. Richards said. “Now it’s, ‘I really know I’m white, so white is this big neon sign hanging over my head.’ It’s like, oh, no, come on. That wasn’t the point.”

The future is coming.

2. Amy Harmon on the racist use of polygenic scores. The same Amy Harmon quoted above from 2007 has a new piece this week Why White Supremacists Are Chugging Milk (and Why Geneticists Are Alarmed). The lactose tolerance angle is a good hook. Harmon’s thesis is DNA polygenic scores, which can now predict the probability of complex traits like educational attainment and IQ, are being used, or rather misused, by racists. Which is true of course. Racists use any tool at hand. So this is happening. Harmon’s piece got enough traction she had two follow ups here and here.

That said, if it were 1994, Harmon could simply quote Stephen J Gould to assert the “claim that racial differences in IQ are mostly determined by genetic causes….is as old as the study of race, and is most surely fallacious.” And be done with it. But instead she quotes Harvard geneticist David Reich’s 2018 op-ed, where he says “arguing that no substantial differences among human populations are possible will only invite the racist misuse of genetics that we wish to avoid.” It’s clear Harmon did a lot of background work before writing. But I suspect she found the quotes she got from today’s experts weak tea.

Let’s finish with this bit from Harmon, which captures our moment:

But another reason some scientists avoid engaging on this topic, I came to understand, was that they do not have definitive answers about whether there are average differences in biological traits across populations. And they have increasingly powerful tools to try to detect how natural selection may have acted differently on the genes that contribute to assorted traits in various populations.

What’s more, some believe substantial differences will be found. Others think it may not be feasible to ever entirely disentangle an immutable genetic contribution to a behavior from its specific cultural and environmental influences. Yet all of them agree that there is no evidence that any differences which may be found will line up with the prejudices of white supremacists.

3. More wealth means greater gender differences. New paper. Here’s the abstract:

What contributes to gender-associated differences in preferences such as the willingness to take risks, patience, altruism, positive and negative reciprocity, and trust? Falk and Hermle studied 80,000 individuals in 76 countries who participated in a Global Preference Survey and compared the data with country-level variables such as gross domestic product and indices of gender inequality. They observed that the more that women have equal opportunities, the more they differ from men in their preferences.

For example if everyone is very poor, everyone is a subsistence farmer. Few gender differences. But as society gets richer, people have more options, so do what they prefer. This means even slight differences in gender preference are amplified in wealthy societies. Wealth drives gender gaps. This idea has been around for a while. But it’s becoming more mainstream. Here’s a figure from the paper:


4. Sub-Saharan African population. French President Emmanuel Macron has been talking about African fertility and population. He’s concerned it will create a long term immigration problems for Europe. So now everyone else has chimed in. Here’s Bill Gates talking to Ezra Klein, The Economist, and Ross Douthat, to name a few.

But the essence can be gleaned from just two charts. First, the UN population forecast by continent:

pop forecast
image source: UN population forecast from world bank

The second is women’s educational attainment versus fertility. Most people are aware increased wealth per capita means lower fertility, but fewer are aware social scientists consider woman’s education to be the primary driver of this effect.

our world
image source: our world in data

So the question is whether Africa can get rich fast enough, with the increase in woman’s education attainment that implies, for fertility to decline gracefully.

5. Saved you a click. This is where I summarize a post in a sentence or two, so you don’t need to click through to read the whole thing. Unless you want to.

Let me finish with two last links. The first is an excellent podcast of Ezra Klein interviewing Jay Rosen on where media is headed. Recommended. The second is a powerful essay by Tom Scocca, on having children and time passing, Your Real Biological Clock Is You’re Going to Die. I thought it was wonderful.

That’s all for this week.



Link post

Saturday Links 13-Oct-2018: Khashoggi murder and crude oil, IPCC climate economics, Harvard as elite finishing school

Here’s my list of links for this week, with commentary.

1. Khashoggi murder and Crude Oil. Michael Brendan Dougherty notes: “Saudi Arabia is partly a country, partly an organized-crime family, and partly an institution of radical religious entrepreneurism.” Saudi’s are starving 7 million people in Yemen, and have been exporting jihadism for decades. So why has the Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, complete with audio recording, drawn so much attention? Partly it’s due to a quote attributed to Stalin: A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. But the structural aspect seems neglected. The US-Saudi alliance was built on two foundations: guns and oil. With the end of the cold war, then the failure of two gulf wars, the value of having Saudi Arabia as a military ally has greatly declined. As for oil? Let’s go to the charts.

US crude oil production (blue line) flipped up around 2010, as fracking kicked into gear. The US is now producing more crude oil than it imports for the first time since the mid-1990s.

image source: wikipedia

And the just this year, the US is now producing more crude oil than Saudi Arabia:

image source: US Energy Information Administration

The point here is a key driver for a military ally in the Middle East was oil. But fracking removed that driver. And longer term, climate change should make us more aligned to anything that reduces our consumption of  fossil fuels. Which a break in Saudi relations won’t hurt.

This seems like a political opportunity. Whichever US political party flips on the Saudi’s first may gain from it, though it’ll probably induce the other party to dig in. Though one may hope they both flip. Either way, the larger context around Khashoggi’s murder seems under reported. We seem overdue for a strategic break with Saudi Arabia.

2. IPCC report and economics. The IPCC released a new report on climate change. Here’s a pretty good article:

We have just 12 years to make massive and unprecedented changes to global energy infrastructure to limit global warming to moderate levels, the United Nation’s climate science body said in a monumental new report released Sunday.

“There is no documented historic precedent” for the action needed at this moment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) wrote in its 700-page report on the impacts of global warming of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1.5 degrees Celsius.

From rising sea levels to more devastating droughts to more damaging storms, the report makes brutally clear that warming will make the world worse for us in the forms of famine, disease, economic tolls, and refugee crises. And there is a vast gulf between the devastation from 1.5°C, what’s considered the moderate level of average warming, and 2°C.

Two things can simultaneously be true: 1) climate change is an environmental catastrophe of the first order, 2) the economic impact of climate change will be moderate. Point #1 is clear. Here’s Bjorn Lomborg on point #2:

The European Union promises to cut emissions 80% by 2050. With realistic assumptions about technology, and the optimistic assumption that the EU’s climate policy is very well designed and coordinated, the average of seven leading peer-reviewed models finds EU annual costs will reach €2.9 trillion ($3.3 trillion), more than twice what EU governments spend today on health, education, recreation, housing, environment, police and defense combined. In reality, it is likely to cost much more because EU climate legislation has been an inefficient patchwork. If that continues, the policy will make the EU 24% poorer in 2050.

Trying to do more, as the IPCC urges, would be phenomenally expensive. It is important to keep things in perspective, challenging as that is given the hysterical tone of the reaction to the panel’s latest offering. In its latest full report, the IPCC estimated that in 60 years unmitigated global warming would cost the planet between 0.2% and 2% of gross domestic product. That’s simply not the end of the world.

As context, world economic growth is running about 3-4% a year. So as Tyler Cowen notes “If climate change cost ‘only’ 4 percent of GDP on a one-time basis, then the world economy could make up those costs with less than a year’s worth of economic growth. In essence, the world economy would arrive at a given level of wealth about a year later than otherwise would have been the case.” And to be fair to Cowen, he immediately adds “Unfortunately, that is not the right way to conceptualize the problem.” And “is it so crazy to think that climate change might erode international cooperation all the more? The true potential costs of climate change are just beginning to come into view.”

My point here is the economics of climate change are under discussed, partly because a moral cause like climate change doesn’t want to frame things in terms of dollars and economics. But also because the economic story itself is not all that bad. At least in isolation. Furthermore I’m not sure the tactic of avoiding the econ conversation is helping to convert those in denial.

And lest I be misunderstood, I’m very strongly in favor of the same policy solution as other good econ policy wonks, very large carbon taxes immediately! The environmental catastrophe is more than enough justification. Also, as Cowen points out, reaction to climate change may be politically destabilizing, even if the economics alone are not.

3. Yascha Mounk on political correctness. Mounk dives into some survey data showing 80 percent of the US believe “political correctness is a problem in our country.” I found it worth a read. Also see his twitter thread. As a counter, Matt Yglesias has a solid reply. Yglesias argues political correctness is a loaded negative term, so everyone says they dislike it, even when they agree with particular policies that might be labelled as politically correct. This debate will continue. Every now and then it’s worth catching up on it. And Yascha Mounk post is done well enough it’s worth a read.

4. Harvard as elite finishing school. Harvard is getting sued for discriminating against Asians. Razib Khan has a post framing Harvard admissions as a proxy war for who enters the elite political ruling class. Looking at it from a purely power dynamics point of view, Khan concludes: 1) “Harvard and the other Ivies will find a way to continue to cap the number of Asian American students”, and 2) “the alienation of the successor to the ‘Eastern Establishment’ from the large numbers of moderate and conservative whites will be a long-term problem in terms of the maintenance of its grip on power.” Khan’s point #1 about capping the number of Asians strikes me as obviously true. His point #2 is that if “diversity” means excluding admission of most white conservatives, then Harvard risks losing it’s broader legitimacy as the foremost elite finishing school. Less sure of #2, but the point is well made. link

5. Juanita Broaddrick’s rape accusation against Bill Clinton from 1998. What’s striking is Broaddrick telling her story on a podcast in 2018 is far more convincing than she was when she told the exact same story in 1998. Broaddrick had physical evidence of Bill Clinton’s rape, and told several friends about it at the time. When Hillary Clinton met her later (from wikipedia):

Broaddrick says Bill Clinton did not speak to her at the event, but Hillary Clinton approached her, took her hand, and said “I just want you to know how much Bill and I appreciate what you do for him.” When Broaddrick moved her hand away, she says, Hillary Clinton held on to her and said, “Do you understand? Everything that you do.” Broaddrick says she felt nauseated and left the gathering. Broaddrick says she interpreted the incident as Hillary Clinton thanking her for keeping quiet.

You can take this as progress of a kind. Something that in 1998 wasn’t disqualifying for a president, or for his spouse for that matter, is now disqualifying. Or you can be dissatisfied this incident didn’t receive it’s due. Either way, times have changed. I believe for the better.

6. Saved you a click. This is where I put one sentence summaries of posts which are interesting, though perhaps not working worth clicking through to read in full. But click away as you like.


And that’s all for this week. Thank you for reading!

Link post

Monday Links 8-Oct-2018: Tyler Cowen Straussianism explained, Banksy shreds, China v English prose

Each week I do a post with links/commentary. Here’s what I liked this week, and why.

1. Tyler Cowen’s Straussianism — explained. Tyler Cowen comments on his podcast interview with David C. Wright: “It starts with an extended discussion of Tyrone and more or less ends with a take on the meaning of Straussianism and the Straussian reading of my own books.” This is the single best interview of Tyler Cowen I’ve seen. For context let me add Cowen’s widely read blog is one of the most interesting things I read on a regular basis.

The podcast transcript is clearly machine created, which is better than nothing, but hard to parse. So rather than quote the transcript, let me summarize/paraphrase what I liked best.

  • What does Straussian mean? Cowen says that’s the single most often emailed question he gets. The colloquial meaning of Strausianism (also see wikipedia) is there are hidden meanings in great works, and great authors can be read at both a surface and an esoteric (hidden) level of meaning. For example Spinoza writes as a Deist, but if you read closely you can tell he’s really an atheist. But Cowen says Strausianism is more than just finding the hidden meaning. It is a method. To assume there’s a single hidden meaning presupposes there’s a single “right” answer. Our minds are not capable of understanding the universe in its full complexity. So there’s always another deeper level or new (Straussian) perspective to find. As a recent example, I noticed many people I follow commenting favorably on Cowen’s recent piece on global warming. He says it’s bad and our reaction to it is making it worse. But I suspect there’s (at least) another level to his post, which is our overreaction to global warming may turn out to be worse than global warming itself. But you won’t pick this up unless you look for it. Or maybe it’s not there and my reading discovered it. Who knows? This is one reason so many people like reading Cowen. He’s a fine prose writer, who also has a playful way of layering meaning. Each piece a micro-tutorial on Straussianism.
  • Later Cowen does a Straussian reading on his entire set of books. He says “they raise the question of whether commercialization and capitalism create sufficient mythology or religion to be self-sustaining.” Cowen believes the best future from a utilitarian framework is one where economic growth is maximized, as this compounding wealth allows the greatest possibilities. So he suggests we need to create a mythology around growth to inspire people, or it won’t persist. Then he says “And it’s all part of this big long story but I’m not allowed to say that anywhere else only on your podcast. I’ll never say it again.” Which is a very Cowen statement of course.
  • Regarding the internet: “there will be 10 to 15 people seen as essential behind the development of the Internet.” And these internet founders will be historically famous, more so than academics, because: “They’re smarter than we are. They’re playing with real stakes. They understand more different things, they’re better at judging people, they’ve created better for the world in most cases, and so we should feel ashamed of ourselves if we sit down with venture capitalists.” He names Mike Moritz, Marc Andreessen, and Sam Altman as examples.
  • I found the Tyrone discussion overrated.
  • I was surprised David C. Wright re-listened several times to the painful Ezra Klein/Sam Harris podcast. Yet it strangely made me fond of Wright. As an aside, here’s my post on it: Attempting a constructive take on the Sam Harris/Ezra Klein/IQ disagreement. The Nerd and the Manager.
  • Some other tidbits. One out of twenty deaths in the world are due to alcohol, and it’s negative effect is underrated. He doesn’t drink. Religion is generally undervalued. He believes utilitarianism, to be self-consistent, implies zero time preference, so a death today is as bad as a death 1000 years from now. Hence the best social policy is one which maximizes economic growth and future possibility. He also says the “devalue and dismiss” style of argument is a common and pernicious err. You learn far more by using the Straussian method of trying to see things from different perspectives. Especially those that seem obviously wrong.
  • And of course this is just my paraphrase. If you go to the source you may find your own layers of meaning.
  • link to podcast

2. More Kavanaugh. My personal preoccupation with Kavanaugh is as a trigger for domestic violence. So what caught my eye this week is the chart below. You’ll note Democratic hate for Republicans jumped after Bush became president over Gore in 2000, and the Republican hate for Democrats jumped when a black man won the presidency in 2008. Of course Kavanaugh will escalate hate to new heights.

source: Hetherington and Weiler

Peter Turchin discusses the three phases towards political violence. Phase 1 – days of rage. Much verbal anger but little actual violence. That’s now. Phase 2 – triggers. This is a specific and highly symbolic event, typically a sacrificial victim, which justifies violence. Hard to tell if Kavanaugh/Ford is this event or not. We’ll see. Phase 3 – spiral of violence. This is where the victim is avenged with violence, by a radicalized domestic terrorist group. Phase 4 – burn-out. Eventually violence burns itself out. The example Turchin uses in this post is the Weather Underground. Phase 1 Vietnam war, draft, oppression of African Americans, corporate greed. Phase 2 trigger was murder of Fred Hampton, when the FBI/police killed a popular Black Panther. Phase 3 was Weather Underground bombings. Phase 4 was when the violence burned itself out by the late 1970s.

Here’s three quotes that made me think:

  • “The Right is angry because they have near-total political power, but little cultural power. The Left is angry because they have near-total cultural power, but little political power. Each covets what the other has and feels is rightfully theirs.” link
  • “The Democrats will have to answer for their sins, the Republicans for theirs, and the ‘both sides’ journalists for theirs.” This is Jay Rosen pointing out that the “both sides” school of journalism is failing everyone. Each side has their own sins, but they are different. Saying both sides are the same and both are bad is a cop out. link
  • “But one final thought: the only way out of awful times like this is to come together as a nation over things that matter. Things that express shared values, and unite us in a good cause. Like hating the Red Sox, and rooting for them to lose. E pluribus unum. Red Sox delenda est.” That of course is from the excellent Megan McArdle. Though I must disagree about that last bit. Red Sox fans are fine. As for Yankee fans. Well. Enough said. link

3. Banksy Shredder Prank. This is so great. If you missed it, a piece sold by Banksy sold at auction for $1.3M, and the moment the gavel went down a shredder built into the frame sliced the art to shreds. Of course, a few people at Sotheby’s auction house may have been in on the prank, since it was the last piece sold and was hung on the wall off to the side rather than on a stand as is typical. Nonetheless a brilliant stunt. story here. Banksy’s instagram video below.

4. Flowery prose in Chinese. As for English? Not so much. An interesting thread on how written Chinese, with over 3000 years of literacy, your prose should allude to historical poetry. Someone who moved from China back to the US had to adjust her style accordingly. Quote: “For example, someone might use “梨花带雨“ or pear blossoms carrying rain to describe a woman crying just as a normal thing. No big, I just quoted some poetry and expected you to know it. AND I expected you to know PRECISELY what I’m trying to convey. Pear blossoms are pale, fragile, and they droop under the weight of rain and can even be batter/crushed by rain. So 梨花带雨 is meant to imply feminine fragility in the face of sorrow and crushing fate.” link

Of course writers in English such as Lincoln used to allude to the Bible and Shakespeare as canonical texts in exactly this way. But no current politician would. So perhaps it’s best the Chinese have retained their flowery style. Let me quote the last few lines from Lincoln’s second inaugural as a reminder:

Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” 
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

And that’s all for this week. Thank you for reading.


Link post

Saturday Links 29-Sep-2018 Flashbulb memories and Kavanaugh, China-US trade, Facebook and mob violence, climate change

1. Flashbulb memories and Kavanaugh. The best way to make your tribe hate someone is to attack their motives. It’s not enough to show the evildoer is mistaken, or disagrees, or has different values. No. The evildoer must desire evil. Then we can hate with relish. The flip side of this point is claims of evil motives set off my alarm bells. With the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh this week, there’s plenty of motive questioning going around. Ford had to open her testimony saying she didn’t have partisan motives. And of course Brett Kavanaugh motives are questioned as well.

I don’t want to argue for or against Ford or Kavanaugh here. But I do want to argue it’s plausible both Ford and Kavanaugh are telling the truth about the sexual assault, as far as they remember it. How? Memory researchers know memory gets overwritten and laid down again each time you recall an event. So with each recollection, memories shift. Traumatic memories are sometimes called “flashbulb memories”, and our confidence in them remains high despite this process. For example regarding 9/11:

Despite their memory confidence, when the details of their memories were compared to the initial survey taken within 10 days of 9/11, there were significant inconsistencies. A year after the event, only about 2/3 of what people remembered was accurate. This accuracy did not dip much lower after that, and by 10 years after 9/11, people were still about 60% accurate.

And in terms of your memory being self serving:

Our findings suggest that when people’s actions fall short of their own personal standards, they may misremember the extent of their selfishness, thereby warding off negative emotions and threats to their moral self-image.

[Update Sep 30: via James Thompson, I learned a bit more about traumatic memory: “So to conclude, yes memory is faulty, but certain details of emotional memories are predictably faulty, others more accurate. If the attacker in these cases is known, that detail is both rehearsed & less likely to be subject to interference =among the most accurate.” This is of course support for Ford being more accurate than Kavanaugh. And  time may provide more conclusive evidence. Given this, I want to make more clear what my central point is. I’m not arguing Ford and Kavanaugh are the same, or that Kavanaugh in particular is completely truthful. My central point is not about them, but about our fellow citizens. My central point is we should not jump to the conclusion our fellow citizens who disagree about Ford/Kavanaugh do so in bad faith with bad motives.]

Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Peter Turchin, but it seems we’re on a path to where our current conflicts will escalate until we get domestic political violence. So I read those I disagree with, not to change my mind, but to understand my fellow citizens. It’s an attempt to avoid questioning motives. If you want to give it a try, first assume neither Ford nor Kavanaugh are lying about their memory. Then if liberal, try reading Rod Dreher. Or if conservative, read The Unbearable Dishonesty of Brett Kavanaugh. You’ll probably hate hate hate the experience. But it may be a small step towards binding our countries wounds.

2. New Era of US-China relations. Despite the headlines for Ford/Kavanaugh, I think the biggest strategic news this week is the continuing breakdown of US-China relations. Here’s Bill Bishop:

Regular readers know that I have been saying that Xi and his team had made a fundamental shift in their views of the trade war by August, from thinking it was a manageable dispute to now believing it is part of a broader American plan to keep China down.

Now that Xi and the CCP system have decided that America’s real goal in the trade war is to “thwart China’s rise” we are starting to see a rollout of official reactions, with self-reliance as a key theme. We should expect the PRC under Xi to use all means at its disposal as it pursues that goal, however impossible it may be in today’s global economy.

Even in the unlikely event there is a U.S.-China trade deal over the next few months, the Chinese side will only view that as a useful delaying action while they work increasingly hard to wean themselves from as much dependence and reliance on the U.S. as possible.

The bottom line: The fundamental assumptions around the U.S.-China relationship look to have been irreparably shattered.

Related, here’s an interesting piece on how the trade war is impacting China’s Skynet mass surveillance system (yes, they really do call it that).

3. Facebook, WhatsApp and mob violence. In July the New York Times wrote about How WhatsApp Leads Mobs to Murder in India. Then this week, John Oliver had a segment on Facebook and mob violence as well, which was pretty good as well as funny.

That said, I believe the correct take here is from Alexis Madrigal, who points out:

This year has been presented as an epidemic of violence, aided and abetted, even caused, by WhatsApp. The narrative slotted neatly into the broader discussion of Big Tech’s failuresthe corrosiveness of social media, and the crises of misinformation across the world. After all, WhatsApp usage has exploded in India over the past few years, across city and country, rich and poor. Two hundred million Indians now use WhatsApp. Communal violence has been on the rise, going from 751 incidents resulting in 97 deaths in 2015 to 822 incidents and 111 deaths in 2017. Surely one had something to do with the other, given all the reports of violence, not to mention troubles with vaccination misinformation and all manner of hoaxes.

But that’s where the grand narrative starts to break down. Extend the time horizon back further and the number of incidents was larger in 2013, 2009, and 2008, when communal violence peaked in India in the past decade. There’s no evidence that higher levels of communication-technology penetration has led to higher levels of communal violence.


WhatsApp may be a common factor in the reports of violence, but perhaps not in the way that people have intimated. As more people get smartphones and the ability to record video, preexisting nasty behaviors now generate media that circulates. As with police brutality in the U.S., there may be more reports of violence in the media not because there is more violence, but because there is more video of that violence.

4. Global warming will be expensive, and humanity’s irrational reaction may make it even more so. This is by Tyler Cowen. The careful reader will note there is a surface understanding of Cowen’s piece, which is climate change is really bad, and will be made worse because we’ll react badly to it. There’s also a more Straussian take, in which one might question whether the overreaction is nearly as bad as the problem itself. How closely you read is up to you. link

And that’s all for this week. Thank you for your time!

Link post

Tuesday Links 25-Sep-2018: Dickinsonia is an animal!, demography of poverty, China US rivalry, Insitome and Ezra Klein podcasts

I accidentally sent out a blank version of this post earlier today. Sorry if you subscribe by email. Below is the intended post. Also, I usually post on Saturdays. But skipped a weekend due to travel. Hence I’m sharing the good links below with a catch up, mid-week post. On to it!

image source: Dickensonia from wikipedia

1. Dickinsonia is an animal. Based on wikipedia dates, below I created a timeline for life on Earth. Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago. And by 4 billion years ago Earth cooled down enough to form solid rocks, with liquid water. And immediately we get microbes. Then for 3.5 billion years it’s…..microbes, different microbes, other microbes, some microbes that sort of hang out as a single organism but are still very primitive and small, blah blah blah microbes microbes microbes microbes. Eons of lonely microbes. And yes, during those eons the microbes had interesting biochemistry and evolution going on. Bacteria, archea, photosynthesis, prokaryotes, great oxidation event, eukaryotes (hurrah, that’s us). But let’s face it, if you went back in time and looked around, for 3.5 billion years all you’d notice is slime. Lots of lonely slime. There’s a Fermi Paradox hint here of course. The default for alien life is to stagnate at the slime stage until their sun burns out.

earth timeline life dickensonia.jpg

In any case, starting 580 million years ago we see Edicarian life. These are weird sort of plantlike looking things with bilateral symmetry. See picture of Dickinsonia above. They could get big, think 4 feet in length. Shortly after that we get the Cambrian explosion, the start of more familiar looking life: arthropods, worms, sponges, chordates (us). So the mystery has always been whether Edicarian life was a dead end that got overrun, or a precursor/cousin to Cambrian forms.

And now you can see why this new paper is so cool: Ancient steroids establish the Ediacaran fossil Dickinsonia as one of the earliest animals. They took a 558m year old fossil and looked for cholesteroids which only exist in animal life. And they found them! Amazing. First that these steroids could last over 500m years without completely breaking down, and second they could be detected at all. Ed Yong has a good write up. For a more technical discussion, see Jerry Coyn’s post.

2. Demography of poverty. The most important change in the demographics of poverty over the past 50 years has been the rise out of poverty of China and East Asia (orange below), now being followed by India and South Asia (blue below). Here’s an excellent chart by the world bank.

image source: world bank

I also came across this cartogram by Max Roser this week as well, which scales country size by population. You are correct. China and India are big. And Indonesia is way bigger than Australia.

image source: Max Roser Our World in Data

Finally, the Economist weighed as well, noting that sub-Saharan Africa has a rapidly growing population, with the number in poverty still growing (see yellow in the poverty chart above). For more, see these links: World Bank poverty, Max Roser cartogram, Economist on world poverty, Economist on sub-Saharan African poverty.

3. China Is Not America’s Next Great Enemy. Tyler Cowen argues:

If the lack of an external enemy since the end of the Cold War has made America weak and feckless, as some argue, then can the rise of China give America a newfound vigor and sense of purpose? Probably not.

That’s because “[t]he Chinese just aren’t as threatening to Americans as the Soviets were.” I have a slightly more pessimistic view of what’s going to happen. In my view, country cohesion ultimately requires an outside enemy. In this view, China is not that threatening an enemy today. But if American cohesion continues to falter, at some point that internal conflict will seek a scapegoat. And the natural scapegoat is a rising China. So my fear is elite-elite conflict will get so bad we blunder into forcing China into an enemy role. Hopefully we manage to avoid direct war, as during the Soviet era. In any case, Cowen has a point about China not being a existential enemy today. And I hope he continues to be right in the future. link

4. Podcast recommendations. If you are interested in genomics and history, Razib Khan and Spencer Wells are on a roll with their Insitome podcast. I especially liked the latest episode on “arguably one of the greatest human journeys of humankind, the expansion of the Polynesians across the Pacific.” link

I also liked Ezra Klein’s podcast discussion with conservative David French. We need more understanding across the political divides of America, and this episode did a good job explaining each side to the other in a civil discussion. I found a few moments where I got annoyed, feeling my in-group was mischaracterized. But on reflection realized this was a feature, not a bug. link

And that’s all for this mid-week post. Enjoy your week!