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.

Sunday Links 26-Aug-2018: Facebook and Nutella, Neanderthal Denisovan mix, infinite book scroll, Angry Angry Hippo

Below is my weekly summary of things I’ve enjoyed reading, with commentary.

1. Facebook and Nutella. The New York Times story Facebook Fueled Anti-Refugee Attacks in Germany was by far the most posted link in my twitter feed this week. Most quoted sentence: “Wherever per-person Facebook use rose to one standard deviation above the national average, attacks on refugees increased by about 50 percent.”

Felix Salmon, who I should add is a staunch liberal, if ornery at times, had this to say: “The idea here is that by looking at how many people are active on the Nutella Facebook page, you can get a good indication of how active the broader population is on social media.” Regarding whether the authors of the cited white paper support the Times’ claim of  refugee attacks increasing 50 percent, “The Times’ breathtaking claim, then, is not on the authors—it’s on the New York Times, which should have been much more careful and circumspect in this case. When the Times uses words like “landmark” and “breathtaking,” it starts making claims that would be very difficult for any white paper to stand up to.” Along the same lines, see a skeptical Tyler Cowen. And here is a good bit from Ben Thompsona filter bubble is not a choice, an unfortunate wrong turn on an intellectual journey towards the truth. It is, in fact, a place of comfort, and the issue at hand is not the social networks’ drive for engagement, but our own desire for an escape from day-to-day life.

Rather predictably I noticed very little overlap between people who posted the original NY Times story versus people posting the counter narrative. The irony here is the New York Times is doing exactly what it blames Facebook of doing. Spreading misleading viral stories with words like “breathtaking” and “landmark” to get clicks. Thompson’s line about filter bubbles sadly applies to us all. This doesn’t mean Facebook is doing a good job of keeping fake news off it’s site. Far from it. But it does mean the problem is far more subtle and difficult than just saying Facebook is really really really bad.

There’s a tech angle here worth noting as well. While it’s sexy to blame Trump on the new tech of social media, the data shows old people tuning into the old tech of radio and old tech of cable TV had a far bigger impact on the most recent presidential election. Of course social media does aggravate existing filter bubbles. That’s a real problem. But scapegoating Facebook isn’t the solution.

2. Mum’s a Neanderthal, Dad’s a Denisovan. Paper itself. Nature News article, with subtitle Genetic analysis uncovers a direct descendant of two different groups of early humans. Quote: “A female who died around 90,000 years ago was half Neanderthal and half Denisovan, according to genome analysis of a bone discovered in a Siberian cave. This is the first time scientists have identified an ancient individual whose parents belonged to distinct human groups.” This is very cool. The immediate question here is if those groups interbred, how did they remain distinct for ~300k years? It’s impossible to know. But we’ll find out with more ancient DNA. In the meantime, some possibilities: a) rare event, b) hybrids are less fit, c) population structure. Under c is the possibility that hybrids occurred regularly at the edges of hominin ranges, but these edge lands were population sinks. So gene flow never made it back into the core population. For now I’m guessing c.

3. Two articles by Tyler Cowen. Cowen argues the cohesiveness of the international liberal order was born out the blood shed during the second World War, and held together by a common enemy during the Cold War. Once the USSR collapsed, and the memory of WW2 faded, we went back to bickering amongst ourselves. Cowen: “This is not exactly reassuring. But if you look at the partisan, controversy-laden, personality-intense, and often stupid American politics of much of the 19th century, it seems plausible. Without the presence of strong external enemies, cooperation breaks down.” In a related post, Cowen argues Trump’s Politics Will Outlast Him because “The space for possible policy outcomes has opened up. This will have important implications for the future of our republic.” Ending “In the meantime, my advice: Buckle your seatbelts.” FWIW, I agree with both posts. There is a comforting illusion than once Trump is out of office, things will return to normal. But we are already in the new normal, and our new normal will continue with or without Trump.

4. Kindle infinite scroll reading is great. I just discovered that earlier this year Kindle introduced an infinite scrolling mode for book reading. So you scroll down instead flipping pages. To tun this on “tap the middle of your screen, and then tap Aa. From here, you can toggle Continuous Scrolling on/off.” Here’s my analogy. There’s a certain level of disorientation every time you click a link on a web page, because you relocate to a new place, and have to reorient yourself. That’s why social media scrolls smoothly down forever. Similarly, flipping a page in Kindle causes an unconscious momentary frisson while you relocate to the new book page. Infinite scroll book reading, on the other hand, is smoooooth and easy. The way nature intended books to be read. Recommended!

5. Save you a click. There’s a meme saying all books should be blog posts, and all blog posts should be tweets. Along those lines, here’s a set of posts for which I think the main idea is interesting, but the idea fits into a sentence. But click through if you want details:

6. Angry Angry Hippo. When humans spread out across the planet, they killed off nearly all the megafauna. But not in Africa. Why? Because African megafauna had more time to co-evolve to be nasty to humans. Hence the “hippopotamus is the world’s deadliest large land mammal, killing an estimated 500 people per year in Africa.” Don’t believe me? Watch this clip.


And that’s all for this week. Take care.

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

Here’s my weekly list of links and commentary.

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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










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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Twitter stuff I thought interesting.

Loitering autonomous cars. Heh.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s all for this week.