Claims about British and American English

1. The word “cheerio” does not precede 1910, and furthermore it has been obsolete for some time now, and not because it was pushed out by an Americanism.

2. The Brits are correct to insist on “I couldn’t care less,” rather than the American “I could care less.”

3. Americans used to call an umbrella a “bumbershoot,” yet nowadays if they hear the word they often think it is a Britishism.  The British slang term is in fact “brolly.”

4. When Americans speak, they prefer “repetitious” over “repetitive,” even though the latter is nine times more common in American text.  Perhaps repetitious is more…repetitious.

5. “One-off” is a Britishism that largely has caught on in America.

6. How can they call it “rumpy-pumpy”?

7. “The British use sorry at the rate four times the Americans do.”

All that and more is from the new and fun book The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English, by Lynne Murphy.

Will AI blur the difference between private and public sectors?

…there are incredibly powerful non-state actors who are also competing furiously to develop this technology. All of the 7 most important technology companies in the world–Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu–are making huge investments in AI, from low level frameworks and silicon to consumer products.  It goes without saying that their expertise in machine learning leads any state actor at the moment.

As the applications of machine learning grow, the interactions between these companies and different nation states will grow in complexity. Consider for example road transportation, where we are gradually moving towards on demand, autonomous cars. This will increasingly blur the line between publicly funded mass transportation (e.g. a bus) and private transport (a shared Uber). If this leads to a new natural monopoly in road transportation should it be managed by the state (e.g. the call in London for “Khan’s Cars”) or by a British company, or by a multinational company like Uber?

As Mariana Mazzucato outlined in her fantastic book The Entrepreneurial State, states have historically played a crucial role in underwriting long term, high risk research in science and technology by funding either academic research or the military. These technologies are often then commercialised by private companies. With the rise of visionary and wealthy technology companies like Google we are seeing more high risk long term research being funded by the private sector. DeepMind is a prime example of this. This creates tension when the interests of a private company like Google and a state are not aligned. An example of this is the recent interactions between Google and the Pentagon where over 4000 Google employees protested against Google’s participation in “warfare technologies” and as a result Google decided to not renew its contract with the Pentagon. This is a rapidly evolving topic. Only a week earlier Sergey Brin had said that “he understood the controversy and had discussed the matter extensively with Mr. Page and Mr. Pichai. However, he said he thought that it was better for peace if the world’s militaries were intertwined with international organizations like Google rather than working solely with nationalistic defense contractors”.

Here is more of interest from Ian Hogarth, via…whoever it was that sent it to me!

Debating Space

Should there be more publicly funded space exploration? Noa Ovadia recently argued that money should be spent on more pressing needs than space travel. An expert from IBM smacked that argument down pretty convincingly:

It is very easy to say that there are more important things to spend money on, and I do not dispute this. No one is claiming that this is the only item on our expense list. But that is beside the point. As subsidizing space exploration would clearly benefit society, I maintain that this is something the government should pursue.

Oh, did I mention the expert was Dr. Watson?

Madagascar fact of the day

President Hery Rajaonarimampianina is weathering the latest in a series of political crises that have debilitated his nation since independence in 1960. In that period, Madagascar is the world’s only non-conflict country to have become poorer, according to the World Bank. Its income per head has nearly halved, to about $400.

That is from the excellent David Pilling at the FT.  According to one estimate, almost one out of two children is stunted through malnutrition.

Tuesday assorted links

1. Rich Lowry on separating families, a contrarian view.  Some good points on broader context, but in my view even if he is completely right this is still a major PR disaster for the United States.  Nor does the law have to be the way it is.  Here is more on the precedents of family separation.  This is a longstanding issue.

2. Daniel Klein criticizes Jordan Peterson’s PoMo bashing.

3. A meta-analysis on whether education improves intelligence.

4. Uber is hiring economists.

5. Canadian court recognizes three legal parents.

6. IBM debater (NYT).

*Empire of Guns*

The author is Priya Satia, and the subtitle is The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution.  Here is one good bit:

In fact, there were so many transitions between peace and war that it is difficult to establish what “normal” economic conditions were.  Eighteenth-century Europeans accepted war as “inevitable, an ordinary fact of human existence.”  It was an utterly unexceptional state of affairs.  For Britons in particular, war was something that happened abroad and that kept truly damaging disruption — invasion or rebellion — at bay.  Wars that were disruptive elsewhere were understood as preservationist in Britain…Adam Smith’s complaints about the costs of war, about the “ruinous expedient” of perpetual funding and high public debt in peacetime, staked out a contrarian position; The Wealth of Nations (1776) was a work of persuasion.  His and other voices in favor of pacific development grew louder from the margins.  By denormalizing war, liberal political economy raised the stakes of the century’s long final wars from 1793 to 1815, which could be stomached only as an exceptional, apocalyptic stage on the way to permanent peace.

In their wake, nineteenth-century Britain packaged their empire as a primarily civilian enterprise focused on liberty, forgetting the earlier collective investment in and profit from the wars that had produced it..

The book offers many points of interest.

Which technological advances have improved the working of autocracy?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

“What have been the really major advances of the past 20 years?” is one of the most common debated questions in my circles. The smartphone is probably nominated most often, while Google, Facebook and fracking have their advocates too. Yet we hardly ever talk about one of the most important developments, perhaps because it raises uncomfortable political issues: the governance technologies and strategies of authoritarian regimes have become much more efficient

The big innovation in authoritarian governance has been this: subsequent autocratic leaders, most of all in China, have found ways of both liberalizing and staying in power. The good news is that people living under authoritarian governments have much, much better lives than before. The corresponding bad news is that autocracy works better than it used to and thus it is more popular and probably also more enduring. The notion that autocratic government would fade away, either in practice or as an ideological competitor to Western liberalism, simply isn’t tenable any more…

A second development was when authoritarian leaders realized that absolute prohibitions on free speech were counterproductive, and they learned how to manage an intermediate solution.  Allowing partial speech rights is useful as a safety valve, it allows major dissidents to be identified and monitored, and absolute speech prohibitions tended to wreck the economy and discourage foreign investment, leading to unpopularity of the government. At the same time, an autocratic government could come down hard on the truly threatening ideas when needed.

Scientific public opinion polling has been another advance in authoritarian states. In 1987, the Economic System Reform Institute of China conducted the first Chinese public opinion survey, a breakthrough event. Under Chairman Mao in contrast, the incentive was to report only the good news. In the 1990s, however, Chinese public opinion surveys boomed and also became much more scientific.

There is much more at the link, one of my more interesting columns as of late.

American families shouldn’t be separated, either

That is the title of my Bloomberg column, here is my basic proposal:

Let’s take one-tenth of those women and move them from prison to house arrest, combined with electronic monitoring. That would allow for proximity to their children. If the U.S. isn’t plagued by a subsequent wave of violent crime — and I don’t think it will be — let us try the same for yet another tenth. Let’s keep on doing this until it’s obviously not working.


According to one 2010 study, more than 1.1 million men and 120,000 women in U.S. jails and prisons have children under the age of 17.


From 1991 to 2007, the number of children with a mother in prison more than doubled, rising 131 percent. About two-thirds of the women in state prisons are there for nonviolent offenses. Sixty percent of those women have children under the age of 18, and in one survey one-quarter of the prisoners’ children were under the age of 4. Forty-one percent of the women in state prison had more than one child…One estimate suggests that 11 percent of the children of imprisoned mothers end up in foster care.

We can do this.

Spatial Competition, the Industrial Revolution and the Great Divergence

There is a new NBER working paper on those topics by Klaus Desmet, Avner Greif, and Stephen Parente:

A market-size-only theory of industrialization cannot explain why England developed nearly two centuries before China. One shortcoming of such a theory is its exclusive focus on producers. We show that once we incorporate the incentives of factor suppliers’ organizations such as craft guilds, industrialization no longer depends on market size, but on spatial competition between the guilds’ jurisdictions. We substantiate our theory (i) by providing historical and empirical evidence on the relation between spatial competition, craft guilds and innovation, and (ii) by showing the calibrated model correctly predicts the timings of the Industrial Revolution and the Great Divergence.

From the body of the paper, I found these two sentences especially useful:

First, using city size and location data, we quantify how spatial competition increased in England between 1600 and 1800.  Using the same metric, we show that China at the end of the nineteenth century was about 200 years behind England.

Why consume the most recent news?

Here is another left-over question from my recent talk:

How do you think about when it makes sense for to consume the most-recent news, in light of Robin Hanson’s “news isn’t about info”?  How would you advise the rest of us?

I consume the news avidly for (at least) these reasons:

1. For professional reasons, I am required to do so.  That said, I am happy to note the endogeneity of that state of affairs.  Consuming the news is fun, though in a pinch more sports, games, and the arts could serve much of the same role.

2. I actually care what is happening.

3. Consuming the news is one of the best ways of testing your views about the past.  We are always revaluing what we thought we knew, in light of new data.  Brexit teaches us that the UK was never quite so well integrated into the EU.  The election of Trump may imply that certain late 19th century strands of American politics are enduring, and the evolution of the racial income gap will induce us to reassess various policies of the last few decades.

Under this theory, reading a lot of history books should raise the return to following the news.  For most people, they haven’t read so many books and at the margin they need more books rather than more news.  In this sense, following the news doesn’t make intellectual sense for most people, though they may need it for social bonding, signaling, and conversation purposes.

I would stress the concomitant point that following the news does not make one a much better predictor of the future, if at all.  It may even cause people to overweight the most recent trends, due to availability and recency bias.

4. I also use the news to make history more interesting to me.  It is easier to get “wrapped up” in the news, if only because of the social support and the element of dramatic suspense.  If somehow the Balkans no longer existed, I would find it hard to wish to understand that “…the medieval Serbian Orthodox Church had established a new see at Pec in Kosovo in 1297…”  As it stands, my interest in that event is sufficiently intense, and it remains important for understanding the current day.

5. It is perhaps addictive that the news comes every day.  But that is a useful discipline.  If you follow the news, you will work at it every day, more or less.  Better those compound returns than to do something else once every three months and a half.

In essence, the news is a good, cheap trick for getting yourself to care more about things you should care about anyway, but maybe don’t.

What I’ve been reading

1. Susan Napier, Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art.  A thorough and serious treatment of Miyazaki’s career, focusing on his creative works rather than biography per se.

2. Helen DeWitt, Some Trick.  Conceptual and informationally dense short stories for highly intelligent people.  Here is a good James Wood review.

3. Matthew Polly, Bruce Lee: A Life.  A quite good, serious, and well-researched biography of the master, especially good in setting up the context of the martial arts in Lee’s time.  I hadn’t known that James Coburn took 106 private lessons with Bruce, nor that Steve McQueen was another notable pupil.  Nor had I known how much Bruce studied the fights of Muhammad Ali for some of his film sequences.

4. James Crabtree, The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age.  Delivers on exactly what it promises, a strong look at India’s wealthy class.

5. Thomas Weber, Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi.  Perhaps you, like me, are totally sick of Hitler books.  But how exactly did his ideas morph into…what they became?  This book is detailed, well-documented, psychologically insightful, at times even brilliant.

Sunday assorted links

1. Classic Merkelism (16/16).  And a more worrying thread.

2. Harvard Asian-American ouch: “Harvard admissions evaluators — staffers who are likely under pressure to deliver a target mix of ethnicities — rate Asian-American applicants far lower on subjective personality traits than do Alumni interviewers who actually meet the applicants.”  And double ouch.

3. Robin Hanson praises being a dad.

Technology in Kubrick’s *2001: A Space Odyssey*

This post serves up some spoilers of detail, though no major spoilers of plot until the penultimate “you must go see it” paragraph.  Upon a re-viewing of this movie, I found the following striking:

1. There is a Skype-like service for phone calls, but it never occurs to anyone that something like sending an email might be possible or even desirable.  A lot of major and even apparently simple technological advances just aren’t that self-evident.  The cameras in the movie also remained quite primitive and clunky, even by pre-smart phone standards.  Maybe people expected a great stagnation in cameras back then.

2. At the time, Kubrick apparently thought it plausible that the audience would buy into common, widespread and indeed commercially viable space travel by 1992.  The film was released in 1968.

3. Pan American flies people into outer space, and apparently used this new market to avoid total bankruptcy.  Their stewardesses still have silly hats and costumes, and they act in a vaguely self-demeaning manner.

4. The film shows some signs of recognizing that Moore’s Law might happen.  Hal for instance is advanced AI, but he is not huge in size.  And the portrait of voice recognition technology is quite realistic.

5. Stars do not twinkle in outer space, however.

6. Hal 9000 would be less creepy with a female voice, and indeed Apple and Amazon figured that out some while ago.  Note to my tech friends: do not program your personal assistant bots with a resentful, quivering, paranoid, passive-aggressive male voice.

7. The movie seems to suggest that chess-playing computers are a major achievement, when in fact this was mastered relatively easily, compared to many other AI problems.  The movie shows this chess game, with Hal as Black.  It is the kind of game you might expect a strong computer to play against a human, namely with a finish based on visually counterintuitive tactics.

8. It is a truly dystopic vision to think that Howard Johnson’s will be serving us food in space.

9. The first time I saw the movie, which I believe was in the mid-1970s, I was more stunned by seeing Americans talking to Russians “as if they were normal people” than by any of the technology.

Here is a good Wikipedia page on technologies in the movie.  Now a few spoilers:

The movie, which I had not seen in many years, I found quite stunning.  It took so many chances, and with so much self-confidence that the originality could be pulled off.  Imagine opening a film with minutes of discordant Gyorgy Ligeti music, played against a dark screen, with no signal that this is even part of the movie.  Then you see a long scene with apes, no dialogue to speak of, and no explanation of how this might fit into a commercially viable product.  Finally the Solow residual is explained!  There is not only no love story, the film arguably has no characters, Hal aside.  Kubrick often expects ballet music to keep you interested, and various movements in space are stretched out to interminable length, yet almost always with striking aesthetic success.  You could generously describe the ending as “underexplained.”  Hardly anything happens in the movie, and yet at the same time it encapsulates the entire history of humanity with extra material on both sides, beginning and end, and a nod in the Hegelian direction.

Go see it on the large screen if you can — I can’t think of any film that is so much worse (or simply different) on TV as this one.  It is one of the better movies ever made, and it dates from a time near Hollywood’s peak.  It is sad that nearly two generations of Americans now do not know this creation as it was intended to be seen, and indeed must be seen.  On 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, the theatre had no more than twenty people in attendance.  When it comes to culture, salience usually matters more than you might think.

Economists in the Media

I am quoted on how economists are portrayed in the media:

It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. It is not uncommon, for example, to see critiques of economics in the media which are about as sophisticated as saying “look at those silly physicists who think that a bowling ball and a feather fall at the same rate.” Even people who should know better like David Suzuki say ridiculously, obtuse things when it comes to economics–perhaps for ideological reasons.

At the same time, the quality of the coverage of economics in the media is often excellent and has never been better. Greg Ip, David Leonhardt, Catherine Rampell, Adam Davidson, Stacey Vanek Smith, Cardiff Garcia, Megan McArdle all do superb economic commentary and reporting not just about the economy but about economics. And those are only the people off the top of my head, I could name many more.

The public also has access to top economists through the blogs and social media. I would count Paul Krugman, Tyler Cowen, John Cochrane, and Jeniffer Doleac in this category.

While some people claim that economics is out of touch or obsolete, economics passes the market test. Economists have never been more in demand. Designing new types of markets is a big part of the internet economy and computer scientists, followed by economists, are the leaders in this field. Google and Facebook run billions of dollars of auctions using what was once an obscure economic theory (Vickey-Clarke-Groves auctions). Google, Facebook, Uber and Airbnb all hire economists to better understand data and design new economic mechanisms. Even some online games like Eve Online are hiring economists to help to run virtual economies–one such economist, Yanis Varoufakis, went from a virtual economy to a real economy when he became Greece’s Minster of Finance.

If you want to understand the world and make it a better place there is no better degree than an economics degree because it is so versatile.