Context is that which is scarce

Sebastian Garren emails me the following:

“I have been meditating a lot recently on “Context is what is scarce.” The amazing and ironic thing about this statement is that it is extremely low context and yet offers a gateway into a whole view of reality. Consider this passage from Bernard Lonergan’s Insight:

A single book may be written from a moving viewpoint, and then it will contain, not a single set of coherent statements, but a sequence of related sets of coherent statements. Moreover, as is clear, a book designed to aid a development must be written from a moving viewpoint. It cannot begin by presupposing that a reader can assimilate at a stroke what can be attained only at the term of a prolonged and arduous effort. On the contrary, it must begin from a minimal viewpoint and a minimal context; it will exploit that minimum to raise a further question that enlarges the viewpoint and the context; it will proceed with the enlarged viewpoint and context only as long as is necessary to raise still deeper issues that again transform the basis and the terms of reference of the inquiry; and clearly, this device can be repeated not merely once or twice but as often as may be required to reach the universal viewpoint and the completely concrete context that embraces every aspect of reality.

He gets the context issue. Of course, this doesn’t only apply to books, but to networks of people. Networks create context. Movement along the network to subcategories or adjacent networks creates new insights out of new context, and importantly the person retains an ability to engage with the old context, while inculturating himself to a broader view.

Build the context adjacent to many other high energy networks and they will come.”

TC again: “Context is that which is scarce” is one of my recent favorite sayings.

Demographic Transitions Across Time and Space

The demographic transition –the move from a high fertility/high mortality regime into a low fertility/low mortality regime– is one of the most fundamental transformations that countries undertake. To study demographic transitions across time and space, we compile a data set of birth and death rates for 186 countries spanning more than 250 years. We document that (i) a demographic transition has been completed or is ongoing in nearly every country; (ii) the speed of transition has increased over time; and (iii) having more neighbors that have started the transition is associated with a higher probability of a country beginning its own transition. To account for these observations, we build a quantitative model in which parents choose child quantity and educational quality. Countries differ in geographic location, and improved production and medical technologies diffuse outward from Great Britain. Our framework replicates well the timing and increasing speed of transitions. It also produces a correlation between the speeds of fertility transition and increases in schooling similar to the one in the data.

That is from Matthew J. Delventhal, Jes´us Fernandez-Villaverde, and Nezih Guner.

Claims I can’t quite bring myself to believe

It doesn’t seem this is a partisan issue, but could this possibly be fake news?  It does not fit with my underlying model of the world, not even for British people:

A leading music teacher has said the popularity of the ukulele is threatening classical guitar playing.

More than one in ten musical schoolchildren now play the ukulele, the largest proportion ever, a study by the music exam board ABRSM found. It said the instrument’s popularity grew from 1 per cent of school music students in 1997 to 15 per cent last year.

The ukulele was cited as a cause of the decline of the recorder in schools but in a letter to The Times, Graham Wade, former head of guitar teaching at Leeds College of Music, said the popularity of the four-stringed ukulele was threatening its six-stringed uncle.

“The ukulele is more likely to oust the guitar (whether classical or otherwise) from early instrumental tuition than the recorder,” he said. “I have been a classical guitar teacher in schools and colleges for 50 years, and the subtext of your headline is the demise of a worthy musical tradition.”

There is perhaps more sanity on this side of the ocean:

The latest data from America suggests that demand has fallen, with sales of ukuleles declining 15 per cent between 2018 and 2020 — although the lockdown provided a boost to sales.

Here is more from the Times of London.

Friday assorted links

1.The world of “shadow foster care.” (NYT)

2. The dollar is rising.

3. Why movie dialogue has become more difficult to understand.

4. And how the Beatles used Indian music theory (video).

5. “A soft-spoken, self-effacing young man from Seoul may be the most listened-to living composer on the planet right now…”  A good piece.  And Korea seems to account for 20% of the world’s classical music sales.  Reason to be bullish on the country.

6. “Model this.”

7. “I had to wrap my head around the fact that close to nothing of what makes science actually work is published as text on the web.”  Excellent essay by Markus Strasser.

8. Further Omicron calculations.

52 things Tom Whitwell learned in 2021

Always a good list, here is this year’s edition, and an excerpt:

  1. Beauty livestreamer Li Jiaqi sold $1.9 billion worth of products in one twelve hour show on Taobao. That’s slightly less than the total sales from all four Selfridges stores during 2019. [Jinshan Hong]
  2. 10% of US electricity is generated from old Russian nuclear warheads. [Geoff Brumfiel]
  3. Some South African students sell school Wi-Fi passwords for lunch money. Residents walk up to 6km to connect to schools because 4G data is so expensive. [Kimberly Mutandiro]
  4. Productivity dysmorphia is the inability to see one’s own success, to acknowledge the volume of your own output. [Anna Codrea-Rado]

For the pointer I thank Nabeel.  And here is Whitwell on Get Back and the principles of creativity.

Claims about placebos

…the placebo effect in the United States has actually become quite a lot stronger over time, meaning that drugs that once would have been approved may not be now – because their performance relative to that of placebo is less convincing. This study makes the point clearly – by 2013, drugs produced 8.9% more pain relief than placebos, compared to 27.3% in 1996. In the charts above, it can be seen that the effect of placebo drugs has increased a lot, whereas the effectiveness of pain relief drugs has barely changed, meaning that the treatment advantage (the effectiveness of active drugs as opposed to placebos) has fallen dramatically. Weirdly, it seems like this is only happening in the United States, whereas other countries haven’t seen particularly large increases in the effect size of placebos.

That is from the Substack of Sam.  Hail Bruno M.!

*Where is My Flying Car?*

Engineer J. Storrs Hall is the author of this new Stripe Press book.  Let’s be honest: you might think this is just the usual blah blah blah, heard it a thousand times since 2011 kind of treatment.  But no, it is a detailed and nuanced and original treatment — at times obsessively so — of why various pending new physical technologies, such as nuclear power and nanotech, never really came to pass and transform our world as they might have.

Definitely recommended, worthy of the best non-fiction of the year list.  Here is the Stripe Press website for the book.

The expensive version of the flying car?

Blade Air Mobility, the helicopter shuttle company backed by Cathie Wood and David Zaslav, has struck a $12m deal with a Canadian helicopter operator, betting that a wider network will give it a lead if electric air taxis become a reality.

The New York-based group, which makes most of its money from trips to the city’s airports and the Hamptons, has acquired exclusive rights to the scheduled passenger business of Helijet, a Canadian company flying between Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo in British Columbia.

The deal is part of a land grab for helipads, routes and customers in expectation that a new generation of quieter, lower-emissions, short-hop aircraft will need to use constrained existing infrastructure, at least initially, according to executives.

JPMorgan predicted in September that the total market could be worth “hundreds of billions” of dollars by the 2030s, but cautioned that only a handful of EVA companies were on track for regulatory certification by 2025 and several planned to compete with Blade.

Here is the full FT story.  And I presume a private car picks you up after you land…

My Conversation with the excellent Ruth Scurr

A fine discourse all around, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

Ruth joined Tyler to discuss why she considers Danton the hero of the French Revolution, why the Jacobins were so male-obsessed, the wit behind Condorcet’s idea of a mechanical king, the influence of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments during and after the Reign of Terror, why 18th-century French thinkers were obsessed with finding forms of government that would fit with emerging market forces, whether Hayek’s critique of French Enlightenment theorists is correct, the relationship between the French Revolution and today’s woke culture, the truth about Napoleon’s diplomatic skills, the poor prospects for pitching biographies to publishers, why Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws would be her desert island read, why Cambridge is a better city than Oxford, why the Times Literary Supplement remains important today, what she loves about Elena Ferrante’s writing, how she stays open as a biographer, and more.

And an excerpt:

COWEN: Is there a counterfactual path where the French Revolution simply works out well as a liberal revolution? If so, what would have needed to have been different?

SCURR: In terms of counterfactuals, the one I thought most about was, What would have happened if Robespierre hadn’t fallen at Thermidor and the relationship between him and [Louis Antoine Léon de] Saint-Just had continued? But that’s not the triumph of the liberal revolution. That would have merely been a continuation of the point they had gotten to. For a triumph of the liberal revolution, that would have needed to be much, much earlier.

I think that it was almost impossible for them to get a liberal constitution in place in time to make that a possibility. What you have is 1789, the liberal aspirations, the hopes, the Declaration of Rights; and then there is almost a hiatus period in which they are struggling to design the institutions. And that is the period which, if it could have been compressed, if there could have been more quickly a stability introduced . . .

Some of the people I’m most interested in in that period were very interested in what has to be true about the society in order for it to have a stable constitution. Obviously when you’re in the middle of a revolution and you’re struggling to come up with those solutions, then there is the opening to chaos.

Definitely recommended.  And I am again happy to recommend Ruth’s new book Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows.

Wednesday assorted links

1. Researchers shrink camera to the size of a salt grain.

2. Paying teenagers six figures to quit high school for basketball (NYT).

3. Applied Divinity Studies on Stubborn Attachments.

4. It seems Biden has cut back on the drone war, big news if true.

5. Ross (NYT) is always worth pondering.

6. New form of robot reproduction? Sounds important, but can’t say I really understand it.

Why the New Pollution Literature is Credible

My recent post, Air Pollution Reduces Health and Wealth drew some pushback in the comments, some justified, some not, on whether the results of these studies are not subject to p-hacking, forking gardens and the replication crisis. Sure, of course, some of them are. Andrew Gelman, for example, has some justified doubt about the air filters and classroom study. Nevertheless, I don’t think that skepticism about the general thrust of the results is justified. Why not?

First, go back to my post Why Most Published Research Findings are False and note the list of credibility checks. For example, my rule is trust literatures not papers and the new pollution literature is showing consistent and significant negative effects of pollution on health and wealth. Some might respond that the entire literature is biased for reasons of political correctness or some such and sure, maybe. But then what evidence would be convincing? Is skepticism then justified or merely mood affiliation? And when it comes to action should we regard someone’s prior convictions (how were those formed?) as more accurate then a large, well-published scientific literature?

It’s not just that the literature is large, however, it’s that the literature is consistent in a way that many studies in say social psychology were not. In social psychology, for example, there were many tests of entirely different hypotheses–power posing, priming, stereotype threat–and most of these failed to replicate. But in the pollution literature we have many tests of the same hypotheses. We have, for example, studies showing that pollution reduces the quality of chess moves in high-stakes matches, that it reduces worker productivity in Chinese call-centers, and that it reduces test scores in American and in British schools. Note that these studies are from different researchers studying different times and places using different methods but they are all testing the same hypothesis, namely that pollution reduces cognitive ability. Thus, each of these studies is a kind of replication–like showing price controls led to shortages in many different times and places.

Another feature in favor of the air pollution literature is that the hypothesis that pollution can have negative effects on health and cognition wasn’t invented yesterday along with the test (we came up with a new theory and tested it and guess what, it works!). The Romans, for example, noted the negative effect of air pollution on health. There’s a reason why people with lung disease move to the countryside and always have.

I also noted in Why Most Published Research Findings are False that multiple sources and types of evidence are desirable. The pollution literature satisfies this desideratum. Aside from multiple empirical studies, the pollution hypothesis is also consistent with plausible mechanisms and it is consistent with the empirical and experimental literature on pollution and plants and pollution and animals. See also OpenPhilanthropy’s careful summary.

Moreover, there is a clear dose-response effect–so much so that when it comes to “extreme” pollution few people doubt the hypothesis. Does anyone doubt, for example, that an infant born in Delhi, India–one of the most polluted cities in the world–is more likely to die young than if the same infant grew up (all else equal) in Wellington, New Zealand–one of the least polluted cities in the world?  People accept that “extreme” pollution creates debilitating effects but they take extreme to mean ‘more than what I am used to’. That’s not scientific. In the future, people will think that the levels of pollution we experience today are extreme, just as we wonder how people could put up with London Fog.

What is new about the new pollution literature is more credible methods and bigger data and what the literature shows is that the effects of pollution are larger than we thought at lower levels than we thought. But we should expect to find smaller effects with better methods and bigger data.  (Note that this isn’t guaranteed, there could be positive effects of pollution at lower levels, but it isn’t surprising that what we are seeing so far is negative effects at levels previously considered acceptable.)

Thus, while I have no doubt that some of the papers in the new pollution literature are in error, I also think that the large number of high quality papers from different times and places which are broadly consistent with one another and also consistent with what we know about human physiology and particulate matter and also consistent with the literature on the effects of pollution on animals and plants and also consistent with a dose-response relationship suggest that we take this literature and its conclusion that air pollution has significant negative effects on health and wealth very seriously.