Month: September 2021

What I’ve been reading

1. Anne Enright, The Green Road.  Could Enright be the least heralded, English-language novelist in the United States today?  I also was a big fan of her last book Actress.  Her short pieces are wonderful as well.  Having won a Booker, she is hardly obscure, and yet I have never had anyone tell me that I absolutely must read Anne Enright?  Even after the very recent burst of interest in Irish writers…I will read more of her!

2. Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands.  My favorite Fermor book, the best sections were on Trinidad and Haiti, but you might have known I would think that.

3. Nadia Durbach, Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907.  Back then vaccines were quite often dangerous: “Victorian public vaccinators used a lancet (a surgical instrument) to cut lines into the flesh in a scored pattern.  This was usually done in at least four different places on the arm.  Vaccine matter, also called lymph, would then be smeared into the cuts…[often] vaccinators required infants to return eight days after the procedure to allow lymph to be harvested from their blisters, or “vesicles.”  This matter was then inserted directly into the arms of waiting infants…After 1871, a fine of up to 20 shillings could be imposed on parents who refused to allow lymph to be taken from their children for use in public vaccination.”  Oddly, or perhaps not, the arguments against vaccines haven’t changed much since that time.

4. Andrew G. Farrand, The Algerian Dream: Youth and the Quest for Dignity.  There should be more books like this!  Imagine a whole book directed at…not getting someone tenure, but rather helping you understand what it is actually like to be in Algeria.  Sadly I have never been, but this is the next best thing.  As I say repeatedly, there should be more country-specific books, simply flat out “about that country” in an explanatory sense.  As for Algeria, talk about a nation in decline…

Eswar S. Prasad, The Future of Money: How the Digital Revolution is Transforming Currencies and Finance is a useful overview of its source material.

Anna Della Subin, Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine, starts with the question of how Emperor Haile Selassie became a god to Rastafarians in Jamaica, and then broadens the question accordingly, moving on to General Douglas MacArthur, Annie Besant, and much more.  I expect we will be hearing more from this author.  At the very least she knows stuff that other people do not.

You can learn the policy views of Thomas Piketty if you read his Time for Socialism: Dispatches from a World on Fire, 2016-2021.  Oddly, or perhaps not, his socialism doesn’t seem to involve government spending any more than fifty percent of gdp, which would be a comedown for many European nations.

Kathleen Harward and Gabriella Sulbarán, The Shared Dog, for young children, teaching the economics of property rights through the tale of a dog.  From BrandyPie Books.

A simple, reductive account of my visit to the National Gallery, London

From the 15th through the 17th centuries, the most skilled physical producers in the West were also the best applied chemists and they had ample financial support and they were working out all visual permutations of expressing the best idea the West ever has taken up.

Pretty amazing when you think of it in those terms.

Saturday assorted links

1. Malcolm Gladwell on Norm MacDonald.

2. Knausgaard cultural recommendations.

3. Rawls on caste and eugenics.

4. Very good interview with Amia Srinivasan.

5. Callard on the Bergman remake and the nature of marital loneliness (New Yorker).

6. Good Steven van Zandt piece on management, his life, and The Sopranos (FT).  “As Dante became Tony Soprano’s consigliere, “I was able to use my real-life dynamics with Bruce Springsteen as the basis of that relationship. I knew what those dynamics were — the one guy who didn’t want to be the boss, the one guy who he could trust, the one guy who wasn’t afraid of him.””

7. Elena Ferrante talks to Marina Abramovic (FT).

Guardianship, in practice, is often worse than you might think: the surveillance of Britney Spears

Britney Spears’s father and the security firm he hired to protect her ran an intense surveillance apparatus that monitored her communications and secretly captured audio recordings from her bedroom, including her interactions and conversations with her boyfriend and children, according to a former employee of the security firm.

Alex Vlasov, the employee, supported his claims with emails, text messages and audio recordings he was privy to in his nine years as an executive assistant and operations and cybersecurity manager for Black Box, the security firm. He came forward for a new documentary by The New York Times, “Controlling Britney Spears,” which was released on Friday.

Recording conversations in a private place and mirroring text messages without the consent of both parties can be a violation of the law. It is unclear if the court overseeing Ms. Spears’s conservatorship was aware of or had approved the surveillance.

Mr. Vlasov’s account, and his trove of materials, create the most detailed portrait yet of what Ms. Spears’s life has been like under the conservatorship for the past 13 years. Mr. Vlasov said the relentless surveillance operation had helped several people linked to the conservatorship — primarily her father, James P. Spears — control nearly every aspect of her life…

Mr. Vlasov said that Ms. Spears’s phone had been monitored using a clever tech setup: The iCloud account on her phone was mirrored on an iPad and later on an iPod. Mr. Yemini would have Mr. Vlasov encrypt Ms. Spears’s digital communications captured on the iPad and the iPod to send to Mr. Spears and Robin Greenhill, an employee of Tri Star Sports & Entertainment Group, the former business manager for the singer’s estate.

This arrangement allowed them to monitor all text messages, FaceTime calls, notes, browser history and photographs.

Here is the full NYT story by Liz Day.  And by the way, there also was extensive surveillance of people in the “Free Britney!” movement, paid for ultimately by Britney herself.  Hi guys!

Is “wrestled” the right word here?

The advisers also wrestled with the practicalities of endorsing a booster shot for only Pfizer-BioNTech recipients, when close to half of vaccinated Americans have received Moderna or J. & J. vaccines.

“I just don’t understand how, later this afternoon, we can say to people 65 and older, ‘You’re at risk for severe disease and death, but only half of you can protect yourselves right now,’” said Dr. Sarah Long, a pediatrician and infectious diseases expert at Drexel University College of Medicine in Pennsylvania.

I feel I do understand how, though of course I do not approve.  Here is more from the NYT.  And for a further multi-cocktail blitz of what I can only call immoral insanity:

Committee members also expressed concern on Thursday that some recommendations — particularly that certain younger Americans be allowed booster shots after an assessment of individual risks — would mean that only the wealthy and educated would gain access to additional shots.

Better that no one get such doses?  Maybe so, just read further:

Some experts seemed to suggest on Wednesday that it might be better to hold off on recommending any booster shots until recipients of all three vaccines could qualify for them.

Still a train wreck, the whole thing.  At least the CDC head has had the guts to override the vaccine panel.  Of course there is no single way to get it right with a few rules, so how about injecting a greater dose of individual choice?  Or do they need to make a special rule letting people in vaccine-shy Kentucky get boosters too?

A few observations on my latest podcast with Amia Srinivasan

I am reluctant to do this, as I have never offered ex post commentary on a Conversations with Tyler before.  It seems unfair to the guest (who may or may not have comparable platforms), and perhaps it is the guest who deserves the last word?  Still, I think I can at least try to clear up a few misunderstandings about the episode, as I see a number of important points at stake here.  So here goes, with some trepidation:

1. The number, frequency, and extremity of reactions to the episode, both on Twitter and in the MR comments section, I think shows that women simply have a much, much tougher time in the public sphere.  There is a much smaller intellectual and emotional space they are allowed to inhabit comfortably and without condemnation or excess judgment.  Had the episode been with a man, and had been comprised of the exact same words, it would not have received nearly the same attention or criticism.  But people don’t like women who argue back.  I realize that is a kind of cliche, but it is largely true.

In this regard, even if you largely disagree with Amia Srinivasan, you should take the strength of the reaction to the episode as a sign she might have a valid point after all.

And to put it bluntly, if said female guest plausibly can be perceived as attractive, the reaction will be all the more disproportionate.

2. Some listeners are teed off about “disabled individuals” vs. “disabled men.”  I’ve committed numerous tongue and memory slips in my time, and they are hardly ever pointed out.  Now you might be upset that she insisted I said “men” (when I didn’t), but in fact my interior monologue at the time was something like this: “We all know this is mostly about men.  But if I just say “men,” she will react to that word and drive the conversation in a different direction.  So I will say “individuals.””  Maybe she gets points for insight?

3. If I challenge a guest directly, it is typically a sign of intellectual respect for said guest or person (just ask Bryan Caplan, though perhaps by this point he has suffered too much?).  And if the guest comes back at me forcefully, I usually (and consistently) take that as a sign of respect.  If I don’t seem frustrated, it is because I am not.

4. If a guest challenges my questions (or indeed anyone’s questions) for having sexist premises, I don’t consider this an illegitimate response.  I may or may not agree, but I don’t think it should upset me (or you).  I think a lot of people’s questions have for instance highly statist or collectivist premises (and should not).  I may or may not be right, but surely that too is a response deserving of consideration, should I decide to raise it.

5. To be fully forthright, if you wish to hear my “negative take” on her responses, I don’t think she was very good at handling empirical evidence in the context of a discussion, and furthermore this is a major shortcoming.  I find this to be common amongst philosophers, if I may be allowed to continue my moment of condescension.  I also had the feeling she is not challenged sufficiently often with said evidence, and that may partly be the fault of Oxford.  This is exactly the point where I feel bad/uncertain offering ex post commentary on the episode, but still leaving off this opinion would not be offering my honest assessment of what happened.

6. I have studied her work carefully, including reading her doctoral dissertation and some undergraduate work, and I then and still now fully believe she will be one of the more important philosophers over the next few decades.  As I mentioned before, super-impressive in terms of combining intellect, depth, breadth, determination, and relevance, plus has the all-important “willing to put oneself out there.”  And if you don’t trust me as talent-spotter, dare I point out that Oxford University has a not too shabby history choosing and developing philosophical talent?  But to return a bit to boasting, I think my relatively strong ability to differentiate emotional response from the talent judgment is in fact one reason to trust my talent judgments.

7. You have to learn to learn from people who bother, annoy, or frustrate you.  If you do, they will not in fact bother, annoy, or frustrate you.  One central point under consideration is her view that even today in the Western or also Nordic countries, the treatment of women (among other groups) could plausibly be much, much better, and with general emancipatory effects for many other groups as well.  You may or may not agree, but is that such a crazy question to ponder and think through?  No.

So I thought it was a good episode.  I would gladly do another one with her someday, and I hope the feeling is mutual.

What is *the best* time zone for global work and Zoom?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, and my answer is Ireland and the UK (Portugal too).  Excerpt:

West Coast meetings are trickier. But if you don’t take any past 2 p.m., they’re still manageable. Keep in mind that a lot of technology types start their day at 7 a.m. or earlier, precisely because they are trying to more closely match East Coast hours. So the nominal time difference might be eight hours, but due to work norms you get about an hour and a half of that back, leading to what is in effect a six-and-a-half-hour time difference between your Cotswolds chateau and that conference room in Seattle.

And:

I, for one, prefer to be working in the British time zone, even though most of my commitments are on U.S. East Coast time. For one thing, I have mornings largely to myself. Emails have accumulated while I slept, but there is little pressure to answer most of them right away. Americans on the East Coast are sleeping; if they’re on the West Coast, they will soon be preparing for bed.

Call it an illusion if you wish. But sitting in Dublin with my computer, it feels like I am several hours ahead of everybody else. By the time the email and meeting onslaughts arrive, I’ve already gotten a lot done.

And if you believe in “money illusion,” you might not like that half hour trick they pull in India.  As a side note, you might wish to consider the times global chess tournaments are held (often starting 10 or 11 a.m. EST), or for that matter when pre-written MR posts pop up in the morning, namely between midnight and three a.m. EST.  You will again see a lot of catering to what I view as “the dominant time zone,” that of London.

Herding, Warfare, and a Culture of Honor

That is the title of a new and important paper by Yiming Cao, Benjamin Enke, Armin Falk, Paula Giuliano, and Nathan Nunn, here is the abstract:

According to the widely known ‘culture of honor’ hypothesis from social psychology, traditional herding practices are believed to have generated a value system that is conducive to revenge-taking and violence. We test this idea at a global scale using a combination of ethnographic records, historical folklore information, global data on contemporary conflict events, and large-scale surveys. The data show systematic links between traditional herding practices and a culture of honor. First, the culture of pre-industrial societies that relied on animal herding emphasizes violence, punishment, and revenge-taking. Second, contemporary ethnolinguistic groups that historically subsisted more strongly on herding have more frequent and severe conflict today. Third, the contemporary descendants of herders report being more willing to take revenge and punish unfair behavior in the globally representative Global Preferences Survey. In all, the evidence supports the idea that this form of economic subsistence generated a functional psychology that has persisted until today and plays a role in shaping conflict across the globe.

The appendices, figures, and the like are much longer than the paper itself.

Thursday assorted links

1. Douglas Irwin on South Korean economic growth and its origins.

2. Interview with a Michelin restaurant inspector.

3. “How Does the World Bank Influence the Development Policy Priorities of Low-Income and Lower-Middle-Income Countries?

4. Birds took advantage of the lockdown.

5. Sensible take on China and Evergrande.

6. A skeptical take on lab-grown meat.  I have myself long been a skeptic on this one.

7. Does San Francisco need to design its own trash cans?

Saloons of Invention

I was taken aback by the bottom line of Mike Andrews new working paper Bar Talk: closing the saloons during prohibition reduced patenting by ~15%. At first, I thought that seemed like a very large decline but bear in mind that saloons were the coffeehouses of the day devoted not just to drinking but to meeting, talking and learning. Indeed, they were much more common than coffeehouses today:

Saloons were once everywhere in America, from urban alleys to rural crossroads. They were about more than drinking; from the 1860s through 1920, they dominated social life for the laboring majority building a new industrial nation. By 1897 there were roughly a quarter of a million saloons, or 23 for every Starbucks franchise today.

…Saloons became salons, where survivors of the Industrial Revolution could drink and debate, politick and speechify.

The saloons also often combined social aspects with a mailbox depot, telegraph or telephone, and a payday lender so they were good places to talk shop.

Andrew’s compares countries that were forced dry by state prohibition laws with previously dry counties, so the estimates are local and from across the country. He has significant patent data including the location of inventors and a variety of important robustness tests. Women, for example, didn’t typically patronize the saloons but also continued to patent at similar rates in wet and dry counties. After taking it all in the results are large but plausible! Here’s the abstract to the paper:

To understand the importance of informal social interactions for invention, I examine a massive and involuntary disruption of informal social networks from U.S. history: alcohol prohibition. The enactment of state-level prohibition laws differentially treated counties depending on whether those counties were wet or dry prior to prohibition. After the imposition of state-level prohibition, previously wet counties had 8-18% fewer patents per year relative to consistently dry counties. The effect was largest in the first three years after the imposition of prohibition and rebounds thereafter. The effect was smaller for groups that were less likely to frequent saloons, namely women and particular ethnic groups. Next, I use the imposition of prohibition to document the sensitivity of collaboration patterns to shocks to the informal social network. As individuals rebuilt their networks following prohibition, they connected with new individuals and patented in new technology classes. Thus, while prohibition had only a temporary effect on the rate of invention, it had a lasting effect on the direction of inventive activity. Finally, I exploit the imposition of prohibition to show that informal and formal interactions are complements in the invention production function.

How the game of *Life* evolved

The game underwent numerous updates over the years. The early emphasis on money to determine the winner had been “indicative of what sold in that era,” George Burtch, the former vice president of marketing for Hasbro, which acquired Milton Bradley in 1984, said in a phone interview.

As times changed, so did the game, with players encountering midlife crises and being rewarded for good deeds, like recycling the trash and helping homeless people.

“Reuben was very receptive to the changes — in fact he was often the impetus for them — because he was a businessman,” Mr. Burtch said.

“He understood that the Game of Life was not just the game that he invented; it was a brand,” he added. “And for a brand to remain viable, it has to evolve. It has to reflect the market conditions of the time.”

But as Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker in 2007, the redesign teams always had a hard time addressing the fundamental criticism of the game — that the only way to reward a player for virtuous acts was with money: “Save an Endangered Species: Collect $200,000. Solution to Pollution: $250,000. Open Health-Food Chain: $100,000.”

And so the company’s 2007 overhaul, the Game of Life: Twists & Turns, was almost existential. Instead of putting players on a fixed path, it provided multiple ways to start out in life — but nowhere to finish. “This is actually the game’s selling point; it has no goal,” Ms. Lepore wrote. “Life is … aimless.”

That is from an excellent NYT obituary of Reuben Klamer, who invented the game of Life, in addition to numerous other achievements.