Uncategorized

As a besotted worshiper of Sun Ra, Octavia Butler, and Afro-Futurism more generally, I have been anticipating this one for many months.  Since I wish that one-fifth of all movies had an Afro-Futurist background, and so few do, I suppose I shouldn’t complain.  Still, I was disappointed by just about everything except some of the visuals.

The male characters were weak and most of the scenes dull, and worst of all most of the humor is mediocre.  Furthermore, I found the movie uncomfortably prejudiced.  There is such a thing as racism directed mainly at Africans (as opposed to blacks), and it seems to me this was it.

So many spears and wild animals?  How about holding a referendum every now and then?  And there were so many “Africanist” tropes.  De facto, I thought the actual message was strongly pro-segregation, although wimpiness on that finally kicks in.  The visual references to Narnia and to various Star Wars installments were fine, but was it necessary to cite the colonialist Zulu?  The contrast with the resource-poor city of Busan, South Korea was almost Straussian in intent.  Is wealth based on human capital so impossible in Africa?

I would say the more you know about actual African cinema, the less you will appreciate this one.

Christopher Lebron in Boston Review has written the best review (via Hollis Robbins).

A significant part of a St. Louis block is devoted to the world of chess.  There is the Hall of Fame, the St. Louis Chess Club, and also a chess-themed restaurant, Kingside Diner, with a King on the men’s room door and a Queen on the women’s room.  The facilities are world class and very welcoming for the visitor; I am honored to have been given a personal tour (and to have eaten fish and chips there).

If you see a Slavic-looking face walking down this street, you simply assume it is a chess player.  In general, I am very interested in the idea of creating extreme mini-universes, a’la Robert Nozick’s concept of utopia.  This is what the chess utopia looks like, and it is in St. Louis.  In this world, rating matters more than race or gender or age.

Many of America’s best chess players now live in or near St. Louis, and the two best college teams — Webster and SLU — are both in or near St. Louis.

One lesson is the power of philanthropy in an otherwise under-supported domain.  I am instead used to seeing donations in “crowded” areas, such as economics or politics.  Rex Sinquefield, a former finance economist, and the developer of index investing, has been the major force behind the rise of St. Louis in chess.  The game is now played in more than one hundred of the local schools.

The strangest moment for me was reading through the plaques in the Hall.  I had known many of those individuals during the ages 13-16, but for the most part have not had contact with them since, or heard word of them.  All at once, I learned when each had died, and which of the few remained alive.

Saturday assorted links

by on February 17, 2018 at 11:04 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

Friday assorted links

by on February 16, 2018 at 2:03 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. The anti-pitch playbook.

2. Are driverless cars overrated?

3. What is it like to run someone over with a train?

4. The micro-sociology of planning mass killings.

5. “Ms. Brewer, 33, and her understudy, Edward Barbanell, 40, are thought to be the only known performers with Down syndrome to play the lead in an Off Broadway or Broadway theater production.”  NYT link here.

That is a new paper by Gjisbert Stoet and David C. Geary, here is the abstract, noting that the last sentence is perhaps the most important:

The underrepresentation of girls and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields is a continual concern for social scientists and policymakers. Using an international database on adolescent achievement in science, mathematics, and reading (N = 472,242), we showed that girls performed similarly to or better than boys in science in two of every three countries, and in nearly all countries, more girls appeared capable of college-level STEM study than had enrolled. Paradoxically, the sex differences in the magnitude of relative academic strengths and pursuit of STEM degrees rose with increases in national gender equality. The gap between boys’ science achievement and girls’ reading achievement relative to their mean academic performance was near universal. These sex differences in academic strengths and attitudes toward science correlated with the STEM graduation gap. A mediation analysis suggested that life-quality pressures in less gender-equal countries promote girls’ and women’s engagement with STEM subjects.

So what is the implied prediction for our future?

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Right-wing isn’t exactly the right word, but neither is conservative nor libertarian.  Let’s put it this way: in which American city is the principle of sexual dimorphism so pronounced and so accepted and so built into the city’s most fundamental sector (Hollywood)?  In which American city is risk-taking and the resultant income inequality so much a part of the founding culture, in this case the business of entertainment?  Entertainment is also relatively free of government interference and subsidy, and has been so from its beginnings in American history.  In which city are the market outcomes — the winners and losers — so accepted as the final verdict of relevance?

Dare I say Los Angeles (and environs) is the answer to all of these questions, or at least in the very top tier of answers?

Note that defense spending also has long been a foundational sector for much of southern California.

Of course I am well aware of the actual politics of L.A., and all the more of Santa Monica.  Sometimes I toy with a “portfolio” theory of politics, namely that if your city or region’s core sector is quite capitalistic, your city’s politics will be fairly left-wing as a kind of expressive recompense against daily life.

Which American city or region is most like Denmark?  How about the Washington, D.C. area?  Very well educated, a thick middle class, job stability through government, and not many billionaires.  It is easy enough to live here and feel like a libertarian!

Thursday assorted links

by on February 15, 2018 at 9:56 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Russ Roberts’s 12 Rules for Life.

2. The rise and fall of the waterbed.

3. Spy lizards? (speculative, very speculative)

4. The Posner-Weyl proposal for individual hosting of immigrants.

5. Small steps toward a much better world, Norwegian style: “The northern Norwegian city of Bodø has approved ambitious plans to literally move its airport just 900 meters, thereby opening up valuable new waterfront land for redevelopment. If also approved by Parliament, it will be the biggest land-based construction project ever undertaken in Northern Norway, and further boost a city that’s already blossoming.”

6. The fight over the Maldives.

7. What actually is the Trump infrastructure plan?

Wednesday assorted links

by on February 14, 2018 at 11:56 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

1. “A transcriber on the Isle of Man can decipher almost anything.

2. Why don’t skateboards get any cheaper?

3. Is the Cold War game of provocative street-naming coming back?

4. Can Washington be automated?

5. The Obama portraits are in fact excellent.  Here is praise from the NYT.  Quite good is Vinson Cunningham at The New Yorker.  Mood affiliation here prevents the correct outcome, which is that Obama skeptics should be more sympathetically inclined to the portraits, which (correctly or not) raise the possibility that his was in large part a presidency of hagiography.

6. The superb Scott Sumner on cinema in 2017.

Here is the transcript and audio, Matt was in great form.  We covered Uber, derivatives, crypto, Horace, Latin and the ancient world, neighborhoods of New York City, whether markets are volatile enough, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whether IPOs are mispriced, Nabokov and modernist literature, Achilles and Homer, and of course the Matt Levine production function (“panic”).

Here is one excerpt:

LEVINE:

…What I’d like the story to be is that financial markets have gotten smarter and they reacted less to news. So even though the news is noisier, they react less to that noisy news because it turns out not to affect asset prices in as noisy a way as you’d think by watching TV.

I think that there is something compelling to that because we actually have seen smart people build smart things that do a good job of making investing decisions. So you’d expect over time, as people build more rational investing tools, investing would become more rational.

The good counterargument to that is that investing is not a technological problem in the world that can be solved. It’s an interpersonal fight. Trading, in particular, is an attempt to be better than someone else. You can never make trading more rational because as you get better, someone else gets better. The residue will ultimately still be your human biases.

I’m biased towards the view that we have gotten smarter at decoupling our emotional reactions to the news from financial asset prices. Part of that is — whether or not that’s true globally — there’s a local sense in which the first day of Trump’s election everyone panicked. Then he said another crazy thing, and then he said another. Eventually you tune it out. That’s a form of this thing of financial assets reacting less to human reactions to the news.

Here is another:

COWEN: Do you have a single biggest worry [about asset markets], however tiny, tiny, tiny it may be?

LEVINE: I don’t think I do. I don’t think I do. The thing that I find weirdest is the lack of volatility in the face of a very strange and volatile world, but I’ve reconciled myself to that. This is my efficient markets optimism, where I assume that if something bad is happening, it would happen.

COWEN: But efficient markets is also a pessimism, right? It’s harder to make the world better than it already is because you can’t see past what others are seeing very easily.

LEVINE: Sure, it’s an efficient markets conservatism or something.

And finally:

LEVINE: I have an idiosyncratic take on Book 9 of the Iliad. The Iliad is the story of Achilles is the great warrior on the Greek side in the Trojan War. He gets mad at some slight, and he goes back to his tent to sulk, and the Greeks start losing.

So then they send emissaries to his tent to say, “Please come back.” And he says, “No.” Then, the Greeks start losing some more.

Eventually, he comes back, and he gets killed. That’s basically the story of the Iliad. Book 9 is where they send the emissaries to say, “Please come back,” and he says, “No.”

He gives this speech, this response that is weird, where he says, effectively, “The prophecy is that if I go back to fight here, I will die here. My name will be immortal. If I don’t go back to fight, I’ll go home and live a long life and will be forgotten.” He chooses to go back and be forgotten. Then, later, he changes his mind because his friend gets killed.

I think the existential examination of this Greek warrior and this heroic culture that clearly valorizes heroism and deathless fame and everything, and who is, canonically, the most famous heroic warrior and the one with the most deathless fame, he’s the one who says, “Nah, I’d rather go back and live a long life on my farm.”

The forcing of that choice is the central point of the highest work of Greek art, sort of prefigures a lot of existentialist thought in the future, I think.

Do read and listen to the whole thing

Tuesday assorted links

by on February 13, 2018 at 11:42 am in Uncategorized | Permalink

What I’ve been reading

by on February 13, 2018 at 12:10 am in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Kathryn Lomas, The Rise of Rome: From the Iron Age to the Punic Wars.  A very thorough, reasonable, and well-researched account and synthesis of what we know about the origins of the Roman empire.  By my standards it is insufficiently concerned with generalizations, but I do understand how many might consider that an advantage.

2. Michael E. Hobart, The Great Rift: Literacy, Numeracy, and the Religion-Science Divide.  I wanted to love this book, and I still think it is quite important and worthy, but I don’t love reading this book.  Yet here is the first and marvelous sentence of the preface: “This book uses the history of information technology — in particular, the shift from alphabetic literacy to modern numeracy — to narrate and explain the origins of the contemporary rift between science and religion.”  After that it is dense.

3. Robert Irwin, Ibn Khaldun: An Intellectual Biography.  The most interesting material concerns Khaldun’s history as a Sufi.  Which brings me to Alexander Knysh’s Sufism: A New History of Islamic Mysticism, which I enjoyed.  Overall I find this a fruitful area to study, and I benefited from some parts of Alexander Bevilacqua’s The Republic of Arabic Letters: Islam and the European Enlightenment.

4. David Hockney and Martin Gayford, A History of Pictures.  How artists have thought about space and light over the centuries, consistently interesting and insightful, wonderful color plates too.  I am not persuaded by all of Hockney’s claims about art history, but overall he is much underrated as a writer and thinker, including on the nature and import of photography.

5. Ran Abramitzky, The Mystery of the Kibbutz: Egalitarian Principles in a Capitalist World, covers the economics of the Kibbutz.

6. Jeffrey C. Stewart, The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke.  I don’t have the time to make my way through the details of this 900+pp. book, but upon browsing it appears to be a work of incredible quality, scope, and original research.

7. Matthew Restall, When Montezuma Met Cortés: The True Story of the Meeting that Changed History.  A radical revision of the usual story, based on a careful reexamination of Spanish and Nahuatl stories.  Restall seems to be mostly correct, but I will add two points: a) I never took the older account very seriously anyway, and b) I am more interested in the new macro-story than the micro-revisions of the march and the encounter and surrender and so on.  One big difference seems to be there was more early resistance to Cortés than the common accounts would have you believe.  And outright slaughter and starvation were more important for the war in the short run than we used to think, relative to smallpox and other maladies.  In any case, this is an important book for anyone who follows this area.

In today’s developed countries, cities are thus scattered across historically important agricultural areas; as a result, there is a relatively higher degree of spatial equality in the distribution of resources within these countries.  By contrast, in today’s developing countries, cities are concentrated more on the coast where transport conditions, compared to agricultural suitability, are more favorable.

That is from Henderson, Squires, Storeygard, and Weil in the January 2018 QJE, based on light data measured by satellites.  Overall, I view this regularity as a negative for the prospects for liberalism and democracy in emerging economies, as urban concentration can encourage too much rent-seeking and kleptocracy.  It also reflects the truly amazing wisdom of (some of) our Founding Fathers, who saw a connection between liberty and decentralized agrarianism.  It suggests a certain degree of pessimism about China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.  The development of the hinterland in the United States may not be a pattern that today’s emerging economies necessarily should or could be seeking to replicate.  Which makes urban economics and Henry George all the more important.

Monday assorted links

by on February 12, 2018 at 12:29 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink

In 1971 Irving Kristol said yes, today Ross Douthat says yes.  I am sympathetic with the notion that porn in the “I know it when I see it sense” is a net negative bad for society, even if it helps some people revitalize their sex lives (Alex differs).  That said, I cannot find an attractive way of censoring it.

Ross tweeted:

I think you start with the rules we have, and think about how they might be applied to ISPs.

Yet playing whack-a-mole with ISPs does not always go well, a truth to which a number of emotionally well-balanced MR commentators can attest.  And porn users and suppliers I think would be especially willing to find workarounds, including VPNs.  So I don’t think porn would end up all that ghettoized.  My fear is that the American internet would evolve rather rapidly toward Chinese-style institutions of control (though they would not used right now), without stopping porn very much, but leading to increasing calls to censor many other things too.

Keep in mind also that porn has been a major driver of innovation, not just for the VCR but for the internet too, including for means of payment, methods of streaming, and anti-piracy.  Might porn drive the demand to build networks of virtual reality?  So I’m not ready to ban it just yet.

Sunday assorted links

by on February 11, 2018 at 12:43 pm in Uncategorized | Permalink