Category Archives: Weekly Links

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!

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.

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.



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!

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.


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!

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!



Saturday Links 22-Sep-2018: Ben Thompson on internet regulation, Apple reviews, micromobility, Kipchoge’s ridiculously fast marathon

1. Ben Thompson on Facebook/Google regulation. Ben Thompson argues in an excellent 3000 word piece the current EU approaches to Facebook/Google regulation are backfiring, and transparency is a better solution. I don’t think this will get many pageviews, but at a theory and explanation level it’s outstanding.

Old style consumer companies with physical goods tended to gain market power by dominating their distribution channel. So for Corn Flakes and Tide that meant controlling shelf space in stores. But with the internet, distribution is zero cost and digital goods are zero marginal cost. So for Facebook and Google, distribution is free. That pushed internet market power towards owning a direct relationship with the consumer. In this situation, creating privacy rules like the GDPR, which require complex compliance, ultimately favor already entrenched leaders. Why? Because the more complicated it is to comply, the harder it is for a new entrant to enter the market. Ben Thompson calls these internet companies aggregators, and his framework is Aggregation Theory (link). That means the leverage point for regulating the new internet giants has to come elsewhere, and the natural place is forced transparency. If people find out what’s going on and hate it, all the consumer market power these quasi-monopolies have may be lost. So Thompson talks about “a new way to regulate, one that works with the fundamental forces unleashed by the Internet, instead of against them.”


For Facebook, the Cambridge Analytica scandal was akin to the Surgeon General’s report on smoking: the threat was not that regulators would act, but that users would, and nothing could be more fatal. That is because:

The regulatory corollary of Aggregation Theory is that the ultimate form of regulation is user generated.

If regulators, EU or otherwise, truly want to constrain Facebook and Google — or, for that matter, all of the other ad networks and companies that in reality are far more of a threat to user privacy — then the ultimate force is user demand, and the lever is demanding transparency on exactly what these companies are doing.


This is the way to truly bring the market to bear on these giants: not regulatory fiat, but user sentiment. That is because it is an approach that understands the world as it is, not as it was, and which appreciates that bad PR — because it affects demand — is a far more effective instigator of change than a fine paid from monopoly profits.

2. Male Variability, a correction. In my Sep 8 post, I made a mistake in thinking a study on greater male variability got unpublished due to politics. Andrew Gelman dug into this a bit more, and changed my mind. Now I think it was just a rather hamfisted coincidence that two publications in turn both retracted the study. My bad. Also, as a side note, if you are into stats or the replication crisis in social science, I highly recommend Andrew Gelman’s blog. A careful and deep thinker. link

3. John Gruber on the new Apple phones and new Apple watch. These are the definitive reviews. Perhaps too much detail for most, as people should just buy the latest whenever their old phone breaks. A completely reasonable heuristic, given smartphone maturity level. But if you care about the details of Apple products, especially the changes year over year, these are the posts to read. In particular this is a good on Apple Watch: “If you want a one sentence summary of what I think of the Series 4 Apple Watch, it’s this: Series 4 is to Apple Watch what iPhone 4 was to iPhone — the model that takes the original design to a new level.”

  1. Thoughts and Observations on Apple’s iPhone XS/XR and Series 4 Apple Watch Introductory Event
  2. The iPhones XS
  3. Apple Watch Series 4

4. Horace Dediu podcast on micromobility. Dediu is very sharp, with a fine understanding of the nuances of tech disruption theory. To be honest, his podcast efforts have been very hit or miss. But the first four episodes of his new podcast series on micromobility (electric scooters and their offshoots) are really good. Recommended

5. Eliud Kipchoge’s ridiculously fast marathon time of 2:01:39. You probably have to be into running to appreciate this, but Kipchoge broke the world record in the marathon by an amazing 78 seconds. Now. Being 78 second faster over a race that lasts 2 hours doesn’t seem like a lot. But recently the record breaking runs have been cutting time by 5 or 10 seconds. This is an incredible jump. Perhaps it’s more obvious to talk about his pace, which was 4 minute 38 seconds for every mile. Crazy fast. And he ran 26.2 of them. Most people couldn’t keep up for over 100 yards at that speed. If you’re curious and a casual or non-runner, read the article at The Atlantic. If you are a running nerd, of course you’ll also want to read the more jargony one at LetsRun as well.

6. Saved you a click. I’ll finish with links to a few articles that can be summarized in a sentence or two, but that sentence is still interesting.

That’s all for this post. Have a good weekend.

Saturday links 8-Sep-2018: Kessler space junk, unsupervised play is good, white flight Asian edition

1. Kessler syndrome and space junk. Nature news has an article on the accumulation of space junk (dead satellites, rocket shards, etc) in low Earth orbit. The chart below is a nice visual. Of the 20,000 tracked objects, half come from two events: 1) Chinese government blew up a satellite in a missile test in 2007, and 2) Iridium–Cosmos satellite collision in 2009. Half of the debris coming from two events illustrates what’s known as Kessler syndrome, the risk of one collision causing more collisions in a growing cascade. You can think of space debris as a pollution externality, where on the margin nobody wants to pay the extra price to control debris (see the Nature piece on how that can be done), so it just keeps getting worse. Robin Hanson’s guess is that the Kessler scenario will eventually happen, with a runaway cascade creating millions of debris pieces in orbit. That led me to read this paper.  One one hand, after doing some reading, I agree with Hanson the political will is lacking to stop the debris problem. So some sort of future cascade will eventually happen. But there’s a wide range of scenarios, and tracking and avoidance are in an arms race against debris. Plus you can always launch into orbits at additional cost to avoid debris. Bottom line: enjoyed learning about this, believe it will happen, believe everyone will get super angry when it does because it’s been predicted since 1978(!), but only moderately worried compared to all the other world’s problems. Your mileage may vary.

image source: nature news

2. Kids should have more unstructured play time. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have a new book out The Coddling of the American Mind. Taken from their new book, they argue in a New York Times opinion piece this week that kids need far more unsupervised play to self-learn social skills than they get today. Here’s one bit:

But during the 1980s and 1990s, children became ever more supervised, and lost opportunities to learn to deal with risk and with one another. You can see the transformation by walking through almost any residential neighborhood. Gone is the “intricate sidewalk ballet” that the urbanist Jane Jacobs described in 1961 as she navigated around children playing in her Greenwich Village neighborhood. One of us lives in that same neighborhood today. His son, at the age of 9, was reluctant to go across the street to the supermarket on his own. “People look at me funny,” he said. “There are no other kids out there without a parent.”

A study by sociologists at the University of Michigan documented this change by comparing detailed records of how kids spent several days in 1981 and 1997. The researchers found that time spent in any kind of play decreased 16 percent, and much of the play had shifted indoors, often involving a computer and no other children.

3. White flight from Asians. This piece came out a couple of years ago but I just came across it. It documents how white flight from Asians happens, in a manner somewhat different than Hispanics or Blacks. For example Asian kids are seen as too competitive at school. And of course Asians have had higher incomes than whites for many decades. They use Johns Creek, a suburb outside Atlanta, and Cupertino, in the San Francisco Bay Area, as examples. As a white person who looked at schools while house shopping about 10 years ago in the bay area, the Cupertino example rang sadly true. I should note that Cupertino is quite wealthy, and votes solidly Democratic. That’s both before whites left, and after. I have an (Asian) friend on facebook who shared a picture of her daughter at a high school sport event this week, and having just read this article, it made me notice her daughter’s team was all Asian except for one white. And so it goes. link

4. Male variability paper gets unpublished. [Update Sep 17, 2018: turns out I was mistaken on what happened. Andrew Gelman dug into this, and turns out this is not a case of unpublishing due to political correctness. Rather just unpbulishing because editors decided too. My err in jumping to conclusions. I’ll leave the original note below just for the record.] From wikipedia the Greater Male Variability Hypothesis is that “males display greater variability in traits than females do.” It “has often been discussed in relation to cognitive ability, where it has been observed that human males are more likely than females to have very high or very low intelligence.” One of the leading hypothesis is with only one X chromosome, and a solitary Y chromosome, variability should be higher in males because they don’t have back up duplicate genes on their sex chromosomes. Which females have with two X’s. At one level unpublishing a paper on a fraught topic like this is no big deal. Yawn. Same old for decades. But in the internet age anyone can publish, so you can learn details on how these things go down. Which was new to me. So perhaps that’s the real story. Anyway. If you’re curious on how studies sometimes go down the memory hole, here’s the link.

5. Saved you a click. I’ll finish with links to stories that you can get nearly the full point in just a sentence. But click through for details if you want.


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








Sunday links 3-Sep-2018: the Cavalli-Sforza era, text editing methods, some excellent charts

1. Twilight of the Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza era. Cavalli-Sforza died on August 31. He helped create many of the modern techniques of population genetics, and his life’s work was an attempt to fit all of humanity into a single family tree. If you’re interested in an overview of his career, see this excellent post by John Hawks The man who tried to catalog humanity. So rather than an overview, I want to narrowly comment on a debate that spanned Cavalli-Sforza’s career, but now is drawing to a close.

Richard Lewontin’s highly influential paper from 1972 noted that 85% of the genetic variation of humans was within populations, and only 15% was between populations. Therefore: “racial classification is now seen to be of virtually no genetic or taxonomic significance either, no justification can be offered for its continuance.” The Lewontin argument against the biological concept of race immediately became the gold standard for discussing the subject. And has remained so ever since.

In 2000, A.W.F. Edwards pointed out that while no single gene can classify any human, the genome is large enough that correlations among genes can be used to classify populations. And of course that’s exactly how, 23andme, and all the other new DNA ancestry companies work. Razib Kahn did an interview with Cavalli-Sforza a while back, and asked him where he stood on this. That’s of interest because Cavalli-Sforza is someone both sides tended to claim as their own. Cavalli-Sforza answered:

Edwards and Lewontin are both right. Lewontin said that the between populations fraction of variance is very small in humans, and this is true, as it should be on the basis of present knowledge from archeology and genetics alike, that the human species is very young. It has in fact been shown later that it is one of the smallest among mammals. Lewontin probably hoped, for political reasons, that it is TRIVIALLY small, and he has never shown to my knowledge any interest for evolutionary trees, at least of humans, so he did not care about their reconstruction. In essence, Edwards has objected that it is NOT trivially small, because it is enough for reconstructing the tree of human evolution, as we did, and he is obviously right.

The reason Lewontin’s argument stood the test of time is because humans as a species really are closely related. And it’s reasonable to conclude those differences don’t matter. But that’s an argument subject to empirical scrutiny, albeit impossible to test until very recently. Now with the advent of whole genome sequencing and modern statistical techniques, we’ve entered the era of polygenic scores. These polygenic predictors score an individual’s genome against a trait of interest. For example, here’s a new paper using genomes to predict human height to within an inch.

What’s happening is the Lewontin framing is still holding for the moment, we’re in the dimming twilight of that era. The debate Cavalli-Sforza’s career successfully straddled has become empirically testable. No doubt the answers we discover will be far more complicated than were dreamt of in our philosophical youth, when we didn’t have actual data to grapple with.

2. Comparison of text editing methods. Interesting comparison of which way of creating text is fastest. Link. Here’s on bit:

Speaking wins by a large margin at a whopping 184 wpm. Typing is in second place at 40 wpm for the average typist. (I’m quite a bit faster—83 wpm—but I doubt you care about my specific stats. To measure your own wpm: Handwriting is roughly 13 wpm, just 1/3 the speed of average typing, 1/6 my typing speed, and 1/14 the speed of speaking.

3. Controlling for genetics in clinical trials. HDL cholesterol is the good kind. It is associated with good heart health. But it’s not clear if being healthy causes you to produce more HDL, or if putting extra HDL in your body makes your heart healthier. So to find out, pharma companies spent a lot of money creating drugs to elevate the level of HDL. Unfortunately those drugs were a flop. Now a new approach is to identify genes which elevate HDL cholesterol, and then see if having those genes help your heart. It’s a way to test the hypothesis without doing a drug trial. And it turns out, they do not! So pharma companies could have avoided the HDL fiasco if they had had genomic analysis to test the hypothesis out of the gate. link

4. Saved you a click stories. Here’s stories which have a couple of sentences of interest, but aren’t worth reading in full. But click through if one strikes your fancy.

5. Some excellent charts. Let me finish this week’s post by showing some charts. Click through to read associated article.

image source: China and Korea Crash the Party in the Global Knowledge Economy


image source: Uber’s Bundles by Ben Thompson


image source: Democrats and the White Working Class by Kevin Drum


image source: The massive popularity of esports, in charts


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