Monday assorted links

by on May 29, 2017 at 12:06 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Is Japan suffering from a ninja shortage?

2. Complacent Class on PBS.

3. Is China on the cutting edge of AI? (NYT)

4. Some snakes hunt in packs.

5. Cyprus reunification talks have collapsed.  As I’ve said before, the relative absence of size-expanding political unions is a significant feature of our time, reflecting the power of vested interests and the inability to see through major changes.

6. Eagle swoops on drone the drone wars continue.

7. Finland fact of the day.

Sunday assorted links

by on May 28, 2017 at 1:14 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

That is the new NBER working paper by Alberto Alesina, Bryony Reich, Alessandro Riboni, here is the abstract:

The increase in army size observed in early modern times changed the way states conducted wars. Starting in the late 18th century, states switched from mercenaries to a mass army by conscription. In order for the population to accept to fight and endure war, the government elites began to provide public goods, reduced rent extraction and adopted policies to homogenize the population with nation-building. This paper explores a variety of ways in which nation-building can be implemented and studies its effects as a function of technological innovation in warfare.

That is related to some recent work by Ferejohn and Rosenbluth.

Switzerland has taken in a high portion of foreign-borns, yet without losing its identity or sense of order.  Over 24 percent of the population is foreign-born, noting that almost half come from France, Germany, Italy, or Portugal.  The country recently imposed restrictions on migrants from Romania and Bulgaria.

German as a second language in Switzerland is declining, as the migrant workers in the service sector do not command it with much fluency if at all.  In Lugano, for instance, English now seems to be of more value.

In so many parts of the country unemployment is below two percent, with a national average of 3.3 percent.  And the Swiss manage this with an “overvalued” exchange rate, at least by purchasing power parity standards.  It is worth pondering how this is possible.

Probably the Swiss have never seen a better time.  Their countryside is gorgeous and intact, and their major cities are creative and flourishing, yet many Swiss remain deeply unhappy about inward migration.

The Swiss are no “snowflakes;” they impose and enforce stiff penalties on those who don’t meet the insurance mandate, and they are on the verge of deporting an ethnically Spanish man who was born and raised in Switzerland, and who never has lived in Spain, for his repeated criminal offenses.  Furthermore “Voters in Bern on Sunday rejected a proposed 105 million franc funding boost to help asylum seekers in the canton, primarily unaccompanied minors.”

It is striking how much the theory of comparative advantage has operated on Switzerland over the last thirty years, as the country has moved to a true economic integration with the EU.

I see Swiss cuisine as declining in relative value, as quality ingredients have spread to many other countries, including the United States (and Ireland!), but Swiss cooking has grown only marginally more imaginative.  And food prices here can be 2x or more typical developed country levels.

Bern feels much freer and less provincial than it did thirty years ago, the last time I visited.  Living here now seems imaginable.  And in Bern you still can see a working public phone booth.  Nor, from casual observation, do people here seem as cell-phone obsessed as their American demographic contemporaries.

As for Lugano, nothing seems to happen there.

Switzerland, an extreme country, and an extremely successful country, is always worth pondering.  And visiting, even at 2x prices for the food.

Saturday assorted links

by on May 27, 2017 at 1:16 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

Is this a good idea?  A whole station devoted to Beatles music and Beatles music-derived products, plus a few early musical inspirations?  I ask as a fan, not a critic.  Based on about a week of listening, here are my impressions:

1. No Beatles songs were better live.  Paul McCartney had a few gems in concert, most notably the 1976 Wings over AmericaMaybe I’m Amazed.”  Oddly, “Magneto and Titanium Man” is also better live, perhaps because it was silly to begin with.

2. There are too many extant versions of “Here Comes the Sun,” though Nina Simone had a good one.

3. Ringo songs from the early 1970s, while you would never listen to them voluntarily, hold up OK in this context.

4. The worst feature of the channel is how they use short bursts of Beatle songs to advertise the channel itself.  To play only the first few chords of “Getting Better” is an abuse of the ear and maltreatment of the art, like seeing Mondrian designs on shopping bags.  Why can’t the station just advertise itself by…playing Beatle and Beatle-derived songs?  In their entirety.

5. The last sequence of “Rain” still seem to me their finest moment.  “Let it Be” remains the most overrated major Beatles song.

6. The early solo songs are what are most welcome to hear, at the margin.

7. The way this station operates doesn’t mesh well with the rest of satellite radio.  No single station on satellite radio is that good, except for the classical music station.  Yet the medium as a whole works because you can always switch to another station, especially with voice activation.  Yet one is reluctant to switch away from the Beatles station.  Even if the current song is bad, you feel something wonderful always might be coming up, and besides most of the songs are pretty short and so they will be over soon.  But if it’s just the Beatles you want to hear, you don’t need satellite radio to achieve that end.  So a funny kind of intransitivity kicks in, and maybe the Beatles satellite radio channel can nudge you away from satellite radio altogether, precisely because it is better than all the other channels, and it thus pushes you away from an approach based on a diverse menu of DJ-driven choice.

8. Would it hurt to play more Dylan, a major influence on the Beatles?

Friday assorted links

by on May 26, 2017 at 12:15 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

Thursday assorted links

by on May 25, 2017 at 12:04 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

R., a Catholic and loyal MR reader, emails me:

I would be interested in a post explaining why you *don’t* believe in (some form of) God.

Not long ago I outlined what I considered to be the best argument for God, and how origin accounts inevitably seem strange to us; I also argued against some of the presumptive force behind scientific atheism.  Yet still I do not believe, so why not?  I have a few reasons:

1. We can distinguish between “strange and remain truly strange” possibilities for origins, and “strange and then somewhat anthropomorphized” origin stories.  Most religions fall into the latter category, all the more so for Western religions.  I see plenty of evidence that human beings anthropomorphize to an excessive degree, and also place too much weight on social information (just look at how worked up they get over social media), so I stick with the “strange and remain truly strange” options.  I don’t see those as ruling out theism, but at the end of the day it is more descriptively apt to say I do not believe, rather than asserting belief.

2. The true nature of reality is so strange, I’m not sure “God” or “theism” is well-defined, at least as can be discussed by human beings.  That fact should not lead you to militant atheism (I also can’t define subatomic particles), but still it pushes me toward an “I don’t believe” attitude more than belief.  I find it hard to say I believe in something that I feel in principle I cannot define, nor can anyone else.

2b. In general, I am opposed to the term “atheist.”  It suggests a direct rejection of some specific beliefs, whereas I simply would say I do not hold those beliefs.  I call myself a “non-believer,” to reference a kind of hovering, and uncertainty about what actually is being debated.  Increasingly I see atheism as another form of religion.

3. Religious belief has a significant heritable aspect, as does atheism.  That should make us all more skeptical about what we think we know about religious truth (the same is true for politics, by the way).  I am not sure this perspective favors “atheist” over “theist,” but I do think it favors “I don’t believe” over “I believe.”  At the very least, it whittles down the specificity of what I might say I believe in.

4. I am struck by the frequency with which people believe in the dominant religions of their society or the religion of their family upbringing, perhaps with some modification.  (If you meet a Wiccan, don’t you jump to the conclusion that they are strange?  Or how about a person who believes in an older religion that doesn’t have any modern cult presence at all?  How many such people are there?)

This narrows my confidence in the judgment of those who believe, since I see them as social conformists to a considerable extent.  Again, I am not sure this helps “atheism” either (contemporary atheists also slot into some pretty standard categories, and are not generally “free thinkers”), but it is yet another net nudge away from “I believe” and toward “I do not believe.”  I’m just not that swayed by a phenomenon based on social conformity so strongly.

That all said I do accept that religion has net practical benefits for both individuals and societies, albeit with some variance.  That is partly where the pressures for social conformity come from.  I am a strong Straussian when it comes to religion, and overall wish to stick up for the presence of religion in social debate, thus some of my affinities with say Ross Douthat and David Brooks on many issues.

5. I am frustrated by the lack of Bayesianism in most of the religious belief I observe.  I’ve never met a believer who asserted: “I’m really not sure here.  But I think Lutheranism is true with p = .018, and the next strongest contender comes in only at .014, so call me Lutheran.”  The religious people I’ve known rebel against that manner of framing, even though during times of conversion they may act on such a basis.

I don’t expect all or even most religious believers to present their views this way, but hardly any of them do.  That in turn inclines me to think they are using belief for psychological, self-support, and social functions.  Nothing wrong with that, says the strong Straussian!  But again, it won’t get me to belief.

6. I do take the William James arguments about personal experience of God seriously, and I recommend his The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature to everybody — it’s one of the best books period.  But these personal accounts contradict each other in many cases, we know at least some of them are wrong or delusional, and overall I think the capacity of human beings to believe things — some would call it self-deception but that term assumes a neutral, objective base more than is warranted here — is quite strong.  Presumably a Christian believes that pagan accounts of the gods are incorrect, and vice versa; I say they are probably both right in their criticisms of the other.

7. I see the entire matter of origins as so strange that the “transcendental argument” carries little weight with me — “if there is no God, then everything is permitted!”  We don’t have enough understanding of God, or the absence of God, to deal with such claims.  In any case, the existence of God is no guarantee that such problems are overcome, or if it were such a guarantee, you wouldn’t be able to know that.

Add all that up and I just don’t believe.  Furthermore, I find it easy not to believe.  It doesn’t stress me, and I don’t feel a resulting gap or absence in my life.  That I strongly suspect is for genetic reasons, not because of some intellectual argument I or others have come up with.  But there you go, the deconstruction of my own belief actually pushes me somewhat further into it.

To sum it all up, agnosticism is pretty easy to argue for, and it gets you a lot closer to “not believing” than “believing.”

Heaven forbid that people of means should pay for their own health care, what a sensible idea this was:

Last week, she [Theresa May] came up with a flawed but constructive answer to the crisis of funding in social care. The elderly would finance their care out of their own estate upon death. The upper limit on their contribution would go but they could keep £100,000 for their children. In the mixed metaphors that proliferate in politics, a floor would replace a cap.

The idea turned old age into a high-stakes game of chance — die suddenly and your estate would go untouched, contract dementia and it would shrivel over time — but it confronted voters with the principle that things must be paid for and challenged the Conservative cult of inheritance. Mrs May made it central to her election manifesto. Her self-image as a firm leader hinged on her fidelity to this brave, contentious idea.

A few days of popular disquiet and the cap is back.

That is from Janan Ganesh at the FT.  Solve for the fiscal equilibrium!

Tuesday assorted links

by on May 23, 2017 at 12:18 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

Monday assorted links

by on May 22, 2017 at 11:35 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

I’ve been guilty of this too, and I apologize.  It strikes me that it has become politically acceptable among some of the high status people in my Twitter feed to make fun — if only implicitly — of the ugly, idiosyncratic, puzzled, sweaty, or otherwise mockable images sometimes presented by members of the Trump administration.

I’ve also seen a tendency to use images to play on some of the ruling Saudis as fitting stereotypes of sinister or perhaps comical, or some combination of the two.  At the very least, “orientalism” is making a comeback, and with some of the people who have been objecting to Trump’s own stereotypes.

I do not see these as positive developments.  It is inevitable that, to some extent, we judge people by their looks, and in some instances it may be practical and indeed necessary as well.  That said, I doubt if it is a good idea to publicly mock the ugly and the mockable for being ugly and mockable.  Even if they are evil, or doing the world harm.

Many people (rightly) criticized Trump’s campaign imitation and mockery of what seemed to be a spastic individual.  Let’s say Trump had done the same imitation of a spastic who had been convinced of robbery and murder.  Would that have been better?  Well, maybe better but still not good.  Don’t mock the looks, even of wrongdoers, even if those are looks of stupidity or boorishness, and of course members of the Trump administration have not been so convicted.

What if there are some people born looking sinister (by our standards), but are perfectly nice and friendly?  Or say there were witches, and witches were bad, and most witches had long, crooked noses, but some other people did too.  Should we caricature/criticize witches for this appearance?

Furthermore, the standards for ugly and mockable are in fact not always so clear, and trying to cement them in with our mockery is problematic.

This also should be a lesson as to how easily people can slip into enjoying racist, sexist, and otherwise objectionable memes.  Returning to the Saudis, it is especially easy to use this particular photo because stereotypes of Arabs still are permissible in some parts of American discourse:

Would that photo have been retweeted so many times if it simply had looked like a normal Western bureaucratic meeting?  And yes, you can use this photo to show Trump is a hypocrite, relative to his earlier pronouncements about the Saudis, but of course the picture communicates much more, namely that the Saudis have a very different and sometimes strange-looking (to us) culture.

We should not hesitate to criticize what we think is wrong.  But criticizing the appearance of various wrongs, as embodied in the looks of various people, is going a step further.  Don’t let the wrongdoers distract you from the reality that your use of images may be promoting an unjust generalization, or in fact mocking people for non-objectionable cultural elements.  In other words, the use of images may be promoting “lookism.”

This is one of the most serious problems with photos on Twitter, namely that we are not good enough to use them carefully.  Right now, the unjust philosophy of lookism is on a rampage, bigly.

Uber seems to be moving to a system where some rides cost more than others, even in the absence of surge pricing:

An Uber spokesperson assured Axios that pricing has nothing to do with a rider’s perceived level of income, past rides, or any individual characteristics.

So far only for UberPool in limited locations, I also am interested in this as a test of whether social media can strike down price discrimination.  What will the prices be contingent upon?  Traveling to a starred Michelin restaurant?  Why then use UberPool?  Here is further (but still incomplete) information, and yet more here.  How long will it take people to figure out the implied rules for contingent prices?  Are we these days capable of accepting any such rules as fair?

The pointer is from Matthew Kahn.

Sunday assorted links

by on May 21, 2017 at 11:44 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. The Saudi monarchy as private firm.

2. Noah on YIMBY vs. NIMBY.

3. Obit of Hegelian Duncan Forbes, one of the best I’ve read, from 1994.

4. What kinds of secrets does the average person admit to keeping?

5. How fake are nature documentaries?

6. The culture that is Northwestern:

Student protesters shut down a sociology class at Northwestern University on Tuesday, after a professor invited an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) public relations officer to be a guest speaker.

The protesters, chanting and waving banners, argued that the officer’s presence on campus represented a threat to undocumented students. But the professor — who canceled the class during the protest because she was concerned for the speaker’s safety — said she had been hoping to start a dialogue.

“The goal was to bring in somebody who was familiar with how that agency is structured,” Beth Redbird, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology…

Addendum: The same professor wrote #7 here.

7. I thought Tower was a superb and original movie, documenting the shooting episode from UT Austin in 1966; here is one good review.