Month: July 2018

Theo asks, and I intersperse my answers

Dear Tyler,

Due to the asymmetry of fame I feel that I know you quite well so I am just going to bombard you with random questions and hope that you see fit to answer some of them.

You seem to value journalism very highly. Is it just out of necessity as a generalist, or does popular writing on a topic have important information that can’t be learned from the academic/scholarly side?

Journalists have to try to explain things that actually happened to other human beings, often educated ones but not specialists either.  It is hard to overrate the importance of that process to developing one’s thoughts and self, no matter what you may think of particular journalists in today’s MSM.

Related: Which elite profession or slice of society is most opaque to journalists and “book-learning” in general? (Oddly some of the categories that come to mind are those which are some of the most written-about – food, sex, friends, law, politics. But it’s probably maths.)

Making things.  Archaeology.  These days, tech.  Maths.  Journalism.

How much less interesting would it be to read Shakespeare if no-one else ever had? Does the answer differ much across top-tier “great” artists?

It would not be less interesting at all, maybe more interesting, because the shock of discovery would be all the greater.  Admittedly, many artists require lots of discussion with other people, maybe rock and roll most of all?  But not Shakespeare.

Overrated vs underrated: The New Yorker. How about Samin Nosrat?

The New Yorker has had a consistent voice and remarkable brand for more decades than I can remember (I recall Patrick Collison making a similar point, perhaps in a podcast?).  Since I am now above the median age for the United States, that makes them underrated.  The literariness of the historical New York and Northeast and the integration of American and European culture also have become underrated topic areas, and The New Yorker still does them, so that too makes the magazine underrated.

And who is Samin Nosrat?  She must therefore be underrated.

Does the world have too many writers, or not enough? What about comparative literature professors? How should we think about the future of literary culture when the written word is becoming so much more culturally dominant at the same time as books and journalism are falling apart?

What variable are we changing at the margin?  If people watch less TV and write more, that is probably a plus.  I also would favor fewer photographs and more writing.  But I wouldn’t cut back on charity to increase the quantity of writing.  If only comparative literature professors were people who simply loved books — at the margin a bit more like used book store owners and somewhat less like professors — and would compare them to each other…then I would want more of them.  Until then, I don’t know how to keep the extra ones busy.

Why does the USA not have open borders with Canada?

I believe America should have open borders with any nation that has a more generous welfare state than we do.  That covers Canada, even though Canadian insurance coverage for mental health and dentistry isn’t nearly as good as you might think.  As to why we don’t have open borders with Canada, I don’t think American voters would see that as solving any concrete problem (can’t we get many of the best Canadians anyway?), and it would feel a bit like giving up control, so why do it?

To what extent are Trump, Brexit, Orban, Erdogan, rising murder rates and stalling trade growth worldwide part of the same phenomenon? If they aren’t completely separate, which way does the contagion run?

Yes, no, and maybe so, get back to me in a few years’ time.

Have a great day…

You too!

Mobile money in Somaliland

Since its launch in 2009, Zaad, which means “to grow” in Somali, has swelled to 850,000 users—roughly one-quarter of the nation’s population. Locals use the platform on battered old cellphones and, less frequently, on smartphones and a designated app.

Without mobile money, cash has a hard time flowing through the country. No commercial banks really operate here, and hauling physical cash over rough roads is time-consuming. Companies use Zaad for their monthly payrolls, instead of handing wads of cash to their employees.

Today, each user on average makes 35 Zaad transactions a month, and Somalilanders say they try to use Zaad for most transactions. A rudimentary texting system makes it easy even for the many Somalilanders who are illiterate.

It seems to be a kind of free banking:

Apart from phone-to-phone transactions, users can top up their mobile wallets by handing cash—shillings [the Somaliland currency] or dollars—over to an official agent, who is often a single person in a shack on the side of the road.

“This service has been a driving force for the smooth operation of our economy,” said Abdikarim Dil, Telesom’s chief executive.

Since mobile-money services aren’t regulated by the central bank, they aren’t subject to the restrictions that traditional banks face, including requirements meant to block terror financing.

Here is the story (WSJ) by the consistently interesting Matina Stevis-Gridneff (there are few journalists better to read these days), via the excellent Samir Varma.

Informational autocrats

That is a new and important paper by Sergei M. Guriev and Daniel Treisman, here is the abstract:

In recent decades, dictatorships based on mass repression have largely given way to a new model based on the manipulation of information. Instead of terrorizing citizens into submission, “informational autocrats” artificially boost their popularity by convincing the public they are competent. To do so, they use propaganda and silence informed members of the elite by co-optation or censorship. Using several sources–including a newly created dataset of authoritarian control techniques–we document a range of trends in recent autocracies that fit the theory: a decline in violence, efforts to conceal state repression, rejection of official ideologies, imitation of democracy, a perceptions gap between masses and elite, and the adoption by leaders of a rhetoric of performance rather than one aimed at inspiring fear.

Again, here is my related Bloomberg column from June 18.

If technology has arrived everywhere, why has income diverged?

That is the topic of a new paper by Diego Comin and Martí Mestieri, published in AEJ: Macroeconomics, here is the abstract:

We study the cross-country evolution of technology diffusion over the last two centuries. We document that adoption lags between poor and rich countries have converged, while the intensity of use of adopted technologies of poor countries relative to rich countries has diverged. The evolution of aggregate productivity implied by these trends in technology diffusion resembles the actual evolution of the world income distribution in the last two centuries. Cross-country differences in adoption lags account for a significant part of the cross-country income divergence in the nineteenth century. The divergence in intensity of use accounts for the divergence during the twentieth century.

I am struck by the strength of the two major stylized facts in this paper.  The mean adoption lag for spindles, classified as a 1779 technology, was 130 years, or in other words that is how long it took for the technology to move to poorer countries.  For ships, listed as a 1788 technology, the mean lag is 110 years.  Synthetic fiber is a 1931 technology, with a mean adoption lag of 29 years.  For the internet, a 1983 technology (is that right?), the mean adoption lag is only 6 years.

But the overall story is not so simple.  The more advanced countries use more of these technologies, and use them more effectively (“intensity”), and that gap has been growing over time.  Yes, Ghana has the internet, but it is Silicon Valley that is working wonders with it.  Some technology use begs more technology use.

If you calibrate those parameters properly, it turns out you can explain about 3/4 of the evolution of income divergence across rich and poor countries.

*Three Identical Strangers*

Few movies serve up more social science.  Imagine three identical triplets, separated at a young age, and then reared separately in a poor family, in a middle class family, and in a well-off family.  I can’t say much more without spoiling it all, but I’ll offer these points: listen closely, don’t take the apparent conclusion at face value, ponder the Pareto principle throughout, read up on “the control premium,” solve for how niche strategies change with the comparative statics (don’t forget Girard), and are they still guinea pigs?  Excellent NYC cameos from the 1980s, and see Project Nim once you are done.

Definitely recommended, and I say don’t read any other reviews before going (they are mostly strongly positive).

Friday assorted links

1. What is wrong with Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid?

2. Excellent Jennifer Szalai review of the new Martha Nussbaum book (NYT).

3. How Michael Nielsen reads and records papers.  “Avoid orphan questions.”  Many of the best parts are later in the essay.

4. Differing opinions on whether behavioral economics is overrated or underrated.

5. Try giving up air conditioning.  In fact I did this for years (in Virginia), and on a reasonably high income.  I was fine with it, and regarded it as a healthier way to live.

6. AOC and the evolution of Thomas Mann.

And this story is a metaphor for what, what would Baudrillard say?

The US Postal Service has been ordered to pay $3.5m (£2.6m) for copyright infringement after mistakenly using the wrong Statue of Liberty on a stamp.

The Postal Service used the image of sculptor Robert Davidson’s Las Vegas replica on a 2010 stamp design instead of the New York original.

Mr Davidson called his replica “sexier”, and a judge ruled that the statues were indeed “unmistakably” different.

The Postal Service has not commented on the verdict.

In his original 2013 complaint, Mr Davidson said his work gave the American icon a more “fresh-faced, sultry and even sexier” look, US media reported.

Federal Judge Eric Bruggink ruled on 29 June that Mr Davidson was entitled to a share of the US Postal Service’s (USPS) earnings from the stamp.

USPS sold 4.9bn stamps with the Vegas Lady Liberty image, amounting to profits of $70m before it was retired in 2014, according to court documents.

Here is the link, via Michael Rosenwald, who now has a new history podcast series.

Spiders Can Fly!

Spiders can fly. Here’s the story from an excellent piece by Ed Yong in The Atlantic.

Spiders have no wings, but they can take to the air nonetheless. They’ll climb to an exposed point, raise their abdomens to the sky, extrude strands of silk, and float away. This behavior is called ballooning. It might carry spiders away from predators and competitors, or toward new lands with abundant resources. But whatever the reason for it, it’s clearly an effective means of travel. Spiders have been found two-and-a-half miles up in the air, and 1,000 miles out to sea.

That part has long been known (although it was news to me). What is new is evidence about how spiders fly, electrostatic energy!

Erica Morley and Daniel Robert have an explanation. The duo, who work at the University of Bristol, has shown that spiders can sense the Earth’s electric field, and use it to launch themselves into the air.

Every day, around 40,000 thunderstorms crackle around the world, collectively turning Earth’s atmosphere into a giant electrical circuit. The upper reaches of the atmosphere have a positive charge, and the planet’s surface has a negative one. Even on sunny days with cloudless skies, the air carries a voltage of around 100 volts for every meter above the ground. In foggy or stormy conditions, that gradient might increase to tens of thousands of volts per meter.

Ballooning spiders operate within this planetary electric field. When their silk leaves their bodies, it typically picks up a negative charge. This repels the similar negative charges on the surfaces on which the spiders sit, creating enough force to lift them into the air. And spiders can increase those forces by climbing onto twigs, leaves, or blades of grass. Plants, being earthed, have the same negative charge as the ground that they grow upon, but they protrude into the positively charged air. This creates substantial electric fields between the air around them and the tips of their leaves and branches—and the spiders ballooning from those tips.

…Morley and Robert have tested it with actual spiders.

First, they showed that spiders can detect electric fields. They put the arachnids on vertical strips of cardboard in the center of a plastic box, and then generated electric fields between the floor and ceiling of similar strengths to what the spiders would experience outdoors. These fields ruffled tiny sensory hairs on the spiders’ feet, known as trichobothria. “It’s like when you rub a balloon and hold it up to your hairs,” Morley says.

In response, the spiders performed a set of movements called tiptoeing—they stood on the ends of their legs and stuck their abdomens in the air. “That behavior is only ever seen before ballooning,” says Morley. Many of the spiders actually managed to take off, despite being in closed boxes with no airflow within them. And when Morley turned off the electric fields inside the boxes, the ballooning spiders dropped.

Amazing. Hat tip: The Browser. Here’s a cool video from a different research team showing a spider taking to the sky.

Lviv, Ukraine: a brief recent history

In the twentieth century, L’viv…, now a city in Ukraine, experienced war not just once but many times.  Between 1914 and 1947, the city went through seven regime changes and was shelled by Russian, Ukrainian, German, and Soviet artillery and bombed by German and Soviet planes.  In November 1918, Poles and Ukrainians fought one another for control of the city.  Twnety-five years later, both sides were prepared to battle it out again.  During the same period, the city’s Jewish population lived through several pogroms and experienced repeated bouts of anti-Semitic violence up until the time when almost all of Jews of L’viv were murdered by Nazi Germany.  After World War II, the Soviet government forced the Polish population to leave the city…In 1914 half of the city’s population was Roman Catholic (mostly Poles), 28 percent were Jewish, and 18 percent were Greek Catholic (about two-thirds of them Ruthenians/Ukrainians).  By 1947, L’viv had become an almost homogeneously Ukrainian city…Approximately 80 percent of the city’s’ inhabitants had arrived during or after the war.

That is all from p.1 of Christoph Mick’s study of L’viv.

U.S.A. facts of the day

In 2000, 55 percent of American playgrounds had seesaws, but only 7 percent did by 2004.

The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation claims it has not installed a new one, except by special request, in over thirty years.  There are now only a few seesaws left in the city.

(TC: As a child, I never had an interest in those infernal things, which seemed to me dangerous and not much fun.)

Most of the “monkey bars” in NYC had been installed by master builder Robert Moses, between 1934 and 1960.

Between 2001 and 2008, about two hundred thousand American children sustained playground injuries, 36 percent of them being broken bones.

That said, Helle Nebelong, a Danish landscape architect, argues that too much uniformity in the environment of children creates other risks, because they come to expect the whole world will be smooth and predictable.  Nature, in particular, is not.

In 1949, “junk” playgrounds were a trend.  They often had paint, nails, and many kinds of secondhand building materials.

The first edition of the Handbook for Public Playground Safety appeared in 1981.

That is all from the new and interesting The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, by Alexandra Lange.

How well is Germany dealing with the migration crisis?

Anna Sauerbrey offers an optimistic perspective on the actual outcomes (NYT):

For all its shortcomings, Europe has actually managed the crisis quite well, in practice. Its external borders are stronger, and better policed and managed. Cooperation with Libya’s border-patrol militias, however ethically suspect, has brought down the numbers crossing from that country to Italy. So has the agreement with Turkey to host migrants in return for financial aid. In 2015, more than 450,000 pleas for asylum were filed; in 2016, about 745,000. So far this year, there have been only 68,000.

According to figures by the German Federal Agency for Migration and Refugees, only about a quarter of those applying for asylum in Germany in 2018 are already registered in another European country. This means that the C.S.U. risked blowing up the government to push through a regulation that applies to about 100 individuals a day, scattered over all of Germany’s points of entry.

But she is pessimistic about the politics:

Whatever respite Germany may have gained this week is offset, and then some, by the arrival of a new and frightening political dynamic. Mr. Seehofer succeeded by going nuclear; chances are, he won’t be the last. The politics of fear and menace may be here to stay, undermining the foundations of democracy. In sound democracies, policies are the results of compromise between parties representing a majority of the voters. Through the politics of artificial crisis, minorities take the system hostage. They create policies redeeming fictional problems for fictional majorities.

Recommended, this is one of the better takes on the problem I have seen.

Friendship with telepathy

Imagine that people could read each other’s minds, at least once they knew each other and focused on each other’s presence in a common physical space.  They can’t do this perfectly or with full transparency, but still they have a much better idea what the other person is thinking and feeling than what they receive today from external signals.  They can even “feel” those thoughts from the other at some times, leading to potential embarrassment, positive and negative ways of course.  Still, some noise remains, so you are never sure just how intentional, explicit, or sincere a “sampled thought” might be.

Solve for the equilibrium:

1. Many people would develop thicker skins, as they would learn what others really thought of them.  They also would tolerate more evil thoughts from others, though at the margin most people still would try to look better rather than worse.

2. A large minority of people, for instance potential child molesters, could not go out in public very much.

3. Sometimes we would meet people and, before initiating a friendship, decide to “get everything out of the way.”  Think all the bad (and good?) thoughts up front, and acknowledge this mutually.  Make it clear that this is your standard practice with all your friends.  Then, if the person later on catches you having a particular thought, you can just say, or intuit, back to them: “Of course I am thinking of stealing a dollar from you.  I thought that on the very first day we met, right after wishing you didn’t get that big raise.  You’re simply sampling residual memories from all the intentional sins we committed together when initiating our friendship.  We did that so subsequent negative signals aren’t really new signals at all.”

And it’s not just thoughts: people preemptively might do everything they are afraid others might discover they are thinking.  Get it out of the way.  Restore that pooling equilibrium, as they say.  Make sure everyone has every thought, using action if need be.

4. A boss hiring a new worker may try to prevent the worker from going through this “mind clearing” process early on.  The worker may try to do it.  And trying to engage in “mind clearing” with your boss may not be such a negative signal if everyone has unacceptable thoughts of some kind or another.  We’re just trying to get back to an equilibrium where those thoughts don’t matter so much.  Is that so terrible?

What else?

5. You might keep special friends, with whom you don’t act out or think through all the possible suspicions in advance.  In essence they would be “surprise friends.”  We would call them surprise friends because you would sample their thoughts in real time and with some degree of surprise.  Those sampled thoughts actually would contain significant new information about what the person was thinking about you.  Having a surprise friend might be considered a sign of courage.

6. Alternatively, people might simply prefer dopey friends, namely those with weak telepathic abilities.

7. Other people will form vice groups, somewhat akin to current gangs.

8. Note that if you can interpret the bad thoughts of others in a truly Bayesian manner (“well, that may sound horrible, but most of the other people are thinking something much worse…”), it is harder for other people to engage in the signal-jamming equilibrium of transmitting all bad thoughts in advance.  You would take their signal-jamming as a very negative signal of what their true thoughts are like, and thus the better people would refrain from signal-jamming.  At the margin, thoughts would become relevant again, including bad thoughts.

Is there thus a positive or negative social value to an individual turning more Bayesian in this setting, and thus discouraging the signal-jamming in advance?

What else?

What I’ve been reading and browsing

The Bill of Rights did not become an essential feature of Supreme Court opinions until the justices needed a new justification for their authority to strike down legislation as unconstitutional.  In 1940, the Court began citing the Bill of Rights routinely and started building up the doctrine that the 1791 amendments were a linchpin of judicial review.

That is from Gerard N. Magliocca, The Heart of the Constitution: How the Bill of Rights Became the Bill of Rights.

Jesse Norman, Adam Smith: Father of Economics. Written by an MP, impressive, though I remain closer to a traditional classical liberal view of Smith.

Geoffrey B. Robinson, The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-66.  Hardcore excellent across both the factual and conceptual dimensions.  It is striking that as of 1965 Indonesia had the world’s largest non-governing communist party, until this episode that is.  At least half a million people were killed and “…the vast majority were felled with knives, sickles, machetes, swords, ice picks, bamboo spears, iron rods, and other everyday implements.”  Not so much high tech, not even by 1940 standards.  Yet most were highly organized rather than spontaneous.  Definitely recommended.

Elhanan Helpman, Globalization and Inequality.  A very well done survey of what we know about this issue, from a leader in the field.

Lincoln Ballard and Matthew Bengtson, with John Bell Young, The Alexander Scriabin Companion, the definitive treatment of its topic.  Bengston is also my favorite Scriabin pianist.

On herding and social influence, there is Michelle Baddeley, Copycats & Contrarians: Why We Follow Others…and When We Don’t.

Eric Rauchway, Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal considers Roosevelt’s early plans for the New Deal, before his election, and also how Hoover started laying the groundwork for opposition.

Ashoka Mody, Eurotragedy: A Drama in Nine Acts, has produced the best book yet on that “not quite yet in our rear view mirror” episode.