European paintings show a rise in trustworthiness

Building on recent advances in social cognition, we design an algorithm to automatically generate trustworthiness evaluations for the facial action units (smile, eye brows, etc.) of European portraits in large historical databases. Our results show that trustworthiness in portraits increased over the period 1500–2000 paralleling the decline of interpersonal violence and the rise of democratic values observed in Western Europe. Further analyses suggest that this rise of trustworthiness displays is associated with increased living standards.

That is from a new paper by Lou Safra, in Nature.  Scroll down a few pages for some good photos, basically the people in the paintings look less pissed off over time.  Via Lionel Page.

Crypto art markets in everything

Christie’s is set to sell its first nonfungible token in an upcoming auction of what has been characterized as “the largest artwork” in the history of Bitcoin (BTC).

Art historian turned blockchain artist Robert Alice has created “Portrait of a Mind” — a monumental series of 40 paintings stretching over 50 meters in length.

Drawing on the history of 20th century conceptualism as well as the founding myth of Bitcoin’s creation, “Portrait of a Mind” is a complete hand-painted transcription of the 12.3 million digits of the code that launched the cryptocurrency.

By scattering the codebase into 40 globally distributed fragments, the project will “draw up a global network of 40 collectors where no one individual will hold all the code,” Alice said.

He explained: “In each work, an algorithm has found a set of hex digits that together are highlighted in gold. These read a set of coordinates that are unique to each painting. 40 locations across 40 paintings – each location is of particular significance to the history of Bitcoin.”

Speaking to Cointelegraph, Alice said he remains curious as to why much of the commemoration of Bitcoin emphasizes the publication of the whitepaper over and above the codebase itself, which, for him, is “the real historical document.”

Christie’s will sell one painting from the series, “Block 21 (42.36433° N, -71.26189° E),” as part of its “Post-War and Contemporary Day Auction” on Oct. 7, at the end of a week-long exhibition of auctioned works in New York.

The piece includes a unique fungible token as an integral part of the work and will be offered at an estimated price of $12–18,000.

Here is the full story, via Shaffin Shariff.

Solve for the Seattle equilibrium

Seattle now has on its payroll a convicted pimp who once vowed to “go to war” with the city — a $150,000 “street czar” whose mission is to come up with “alternatives to policing,” reports said.

Andre Taylor — who appeared in the documentary “American Pimp” about his life as “Gorgeous Dre” — is getting $12,500 per month for a year, along with an office in Seattle’s Municipal Tower, according to the contract published by PubliCola.

It comes just a year after his organization, Not This Time, was paid $100,000 to sponsor a speaker series that was called “Conversations with the Streets.”

Here is the full story, which has further points of interest, via JK.

Thursday assorted links

The game theory of SCOTUS nominations

Despite the conventional wisdom that Trump would surely nominate a judge to secure a conservative majority that would ultimately overturn Roe v. Wade, getting that judge successfully confirmed would diminish Trump’s reelection prospects (by energizing the Democratic base to vote for leaders who would pack the court or ratify PR and DC as states). But Trump doesn’t care a whit about abortion, much less ideology. He only cares about his power and his reelection. His incentive, it seems to me, is to choose a weak nominee who will surely fail confirmation or a nominee whose confirmation will be deferred post-election. If the nomination is rejected, the Democrats will be seen as obstructionists and the Republican base will be energized. A deferred confirmation, in contrast, will act as a carrot that Trump can dangle in front of congressional Republicans, who will more strongly campaign for him. In either case, an unsuccessful confirmation will work in Trump’s favor, while a confirmed conservative will act against his reelection interests. Such a maneuver by the Trump campaign can, of course, only happen surreptitiously, because it would anger both Democratic and Republican leadership to be manipulated this way.

That is from Shiran Pasternak in my email.

Wednesday assorted links

My Conversation with Alex Ross


ROSS: …conducting is so mysterious in terms of what is actually happening between the conductor and the orchestra. There are explicit messages being sent. There’re instructions being given, but there’s also this slightly mystical side to it, where once you get to a figure like Klemperer, or today, Bernard Haitink, who just retired, or Herbert Blomstedt, who is incredibly vital and active in his 90s.

COWEN: Coming back at age 93 in Switzerland.

ROSS: Yeah. Even before they say anything, just the mere fact, when [they] arrive at the podium, there is a level of respect. There is a level of attentiveness and readiness in the orchestra. They don’t have to be won over when Herbert Blomstedt is in front of them. His reputation . . .

Blomstedt — someone like this can just skip all the preliminaries and just go for fine-tuning these points, and everyone plays better because they’re in the presence of this celebrated, legendary older musician. It’s almost as if they don’t even need to do anything anymore. They do, of course. They are working very hard, and Blomstedt is delivering very particular instructions to the orchestra.

But there’s that psychological dimension. The musicians are excited to be having this opportunity, and they think this might be the last time, so they give something more. So that’s the mystery of conducting.

I always think of that anecdote about Furtwängler — I think it was Walter Legge who told this story — watching the orchestra rehearse with a different conductor, and they were playing all right, nothing too inspired. He’s looking straight ahead and looking at the orchestra, and suddenly something changes. Suddenly the playing is electrified, transformed. The conductor seems to have done nothing different. And so, “What is going on? How did that change take place?”

Then he happens to look over his shoulder. Furtwängler is standing by the door, watching. In the few minutes that he’s entered the hall and has been standing at the back, the orchestra noticed him there, and their playing changed completely. So that’s the weird, the slightly occult power that the conductors can have. Just their mere presence transforms the playing.

And I start with this:

COWEN: I have so many questions about Wagner. Let me start with one. Why is it I have the perception that the truly great Wagner recordings come from the 1950s or the 1960s? If I think even of the talk you gave for the New Yorker — well, you talked about Keilberth and Solti and Furtwängler. Those are ancient recordings. Clemens Krauss, that was what, 1953? What has happened to the recording quality of Wagner?


Cases vs. deaths in the Covid debates

Once upon a time, there were some herd immunity theorists.  They claimed that once a certain percentage of the population had been infected, the R for Covid would fall below one and the disease would become far less common and less significant.  Since these analysts were especially aware of heterogeneity issues (though common in the broader scholarly literature), these same herd immunity theorists tended to be less pessimistic than many of the mainstream forecasts.

To be clear, everyone knew that herd immunity was a general and universally accepted concept in the literature.  But these particular herd immunity theorists were the ones saying it really would matter, and they did so in the bold and fearless manner.  As I mentioned earlier, the NYT didn’t really start covering this issue until this August, a kind of unbelievable (and appalling) communications failure from public health experts who didn’t want to say anything that might be construed as minimizing expected risk.

Now, I don’t recall many of those theorists early on making a prediction about a specific number required for the herd immunity threshold to be reached.  Nonetheless, when deaths and hospitalizations collapsed in Sweden, London, and New York at about 20 percent seroprevalence, obviously it seemed that might be the critical level for herd immunity to kick in. (Higher measured levels of seroprevalence, such as for the slums of Mumbai might just come from the speed of ripping through a very dense and exposed community.)  And a lot of the observed later waves were in fact coming in other parts of these countries or regions, such as Barcelona following Madrid, or Arizona following New York.

These herd immunity theorists were correct in predicting an “earlier than the mainstream is telling you” collapse in deaths and hospitalizations in the hard hit regions.  And that is very much to their credit.

You will note that part of their prediction or implied prediction was that past the herd immunity point cases should fall, not just deaths.  Transmission just would not be very effective or speedy any more, so cases should be low whether or not people die in the hospitals or the hospitals can save them.  I’ll be coming back to this.

Then things started to go askew in the last few weeks.  First, it seems like a bad second wave came to an already fairly hard hit Madrid.  OK, you could say Madrid was never had 20% seroprevalence to begin with.  And then what appears to be a second wave has started coming to Israel, with rising hospitalizations.  Finally, it is believed that in Britian R equals about 1.7, and that a second wave of cases is on the verge of hitting London and Southeast England.  That hasn’t quite happened yet, but the informed authorities greatly fear it, and the numbers so far seem to indicate that as the trend.

Added all up, those data points are not decisive in rejecting the claims of these herd immunity theorists.  But they do make the herd immunity theorists look less correct than they did say three weeks ago.  Those “partial second waves,” or whatever they turn out to be, seem more active than one might have expected.  Again, though, the story is still unfolding and we should not rush to final conclusions.  But in the meantime we should update!

In response, many of the herd immunity theorists strike back and ask “where are the deaths“?  But that is not the right question for testing herd immunity claims.  Those claims were about transmission slowing down, and those claims should be true about Covid-19 cases whether or not more people are surviving in the hospital.  (Imagine for instance a perfect antiviral that saved everybody — would that mean herd immunity was true a priori?  Nope.)

Another claim from some of the less careful herd immunity theorists is that cases are rising again because testing is rising.  That doesn’t seem to explain observed patterns in Israel, Spain, or England, where in all instances actual Covid cases are rising above and beyond what is going on with testing policy, and by some considerable margin.  It probably does explain some parts of America, however.

It is very likely that death rates will be much lower this time around, because of better procedures, younger victims, lower doses, and possible (speculative!) variolation through mask use over time, exposing people to lower doses repeatedly and boosting their immune responses.

There is a temptation to say “few deaths, we don’t need lockdowns!”  Indeed, the more partisan of the herd immunity theorists are obsessed with the lockdown issue.  Lockdowns are important questions, but don’t let your lockdown views skew your interpretation of the numbers, and furthermore there are many other important Covid questions of interest, for instance:

1. How much more should we invest in better hospital procedures?  Better biomedical fixes?  And how much should we hurry?  If transmission is mostly over, you can relax much more, but ongoing cases both will bring some long-term damages (short of death) and also some ongoing panic, whether rational or not.

2. How do we deal with the fact that case numbers per se will scare people for a long time to come?  Again, if transmission is winding down, you don’t need as big a long-term plan here.

3. Should you let large swarms of tourists into your currently semi-protected region, say it is Venice, Italy or the less infested parts of Hawaii?

4. To the extent there is current herd immunity or semi-herd immunity as I call it, how fragile is that arrangement with respect to a possible rotation of potential super-spreaders?  And what might set off those fragilities?

For those questions, and indeed many others, it matters a great deal whether the original herd immunity prediction about “permanently low cases past the herd immunity threshold” is correct, or not.  Whether the death rate is high or low.  You really do need to understand about the cases in their own right, once you see this broader spectrum of issues at stake.

The more partisan herd immunity theorists wish to debate “how terrible will this be and will that justify a lockdown?”, and then they seek to talk you into a mood of not being so terrified, because frequently they are lockdown skeptics.  Again, that is a super-important question.  But don’t let it distract you from the other important questions at hand.

And for those other questions, as I’ve already stated above, the trajectory caseload predictions of the herd immunity theorists are looking worse than they did a few weeks ago.

Of course I will be giving you updates on this matter as time passes.  But this is the very latest, namely that some of the herd immunity theorists are on the precipice of being dogmatically wrong about matters of real import, just as were some of the most pessimistic mainstream predictions from March and April.

Gangs, Labor Mobility and Development

We study how two of the world’s largest gangs—MS-13 and 18th Street—affect economic development in El Salvador. We exploit the fact that the emergence of these gangs was the consequence of an exogenous shift in American immigration policy that led to the deportation of gang leaders from the United States to El Salvador. Using a spatial regression discontinuity design, we find that individuals living under gang control have significantly less education, material wellbeing, and income than individuals living only 50 meters away but outside of gang territory. None of these discontinuities existed before the emergence of the gangs. The results are confirmed by a difference-in-differences analysis: after the gangs’ arrival, locations under their control started experiencing lower growth in nighttime light density compared to areas without gang presence. A key mechanism behind the results is that, in order to maintain territorial control, gangs restrict individuals’ freedom of movement, affecting their labor market options. The results are not determined by exposure to violence or selective migration from gang locations. We also find no differences in public goods provision.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Nikita Melnikov, Carlos Schmidt-Padilla, and Maria Micaela Sviatschi.

How should America regulate TikTok and other Chinese tech companies?

I say focus on data protection but let them keep the algorithm.  From my new Bloomberg column here is one excerpt:

A second principle for good policy is that the U.S. government should not cut off the U.S. — including of course Chinese Americans and visiting Chinese — from the Chinese internet. Let’s say TikTok and WeChat are banned altogether, along the lines of the (now court-halted) Trump executive order banning WeChat. Are all Chinese apps to be kept out of the country? How about clicking on Chinese links, which also could compromise security? Would Chinese newspapers (including from Hong Kong) be allowed?

The costs of these restrictions would be very high, most of all for Hong Kong, but for America too. Americans would become more ignorant about China, and China would fall out of touch with America. Chinese students and tourists would find it much more difficult to come to the U.S. and stay in touch with home, and as a result many of them would avoid the U.S. altogether. America’s world knowledge and soft power would decline. These too are major national security disadvantages, in addition to their economic costs.

More generally, China is America’s No. 1 trading partner. Can it really make sense to cut off the flow of so much information across the internet? For how long?

There is also a problem of enforcement. The rest of the world is unlikely to take a comparably harsh approach to Chinese technology. Will the U.S. also have to stop Americans from downloading an app from a privately owned joint Cambodian/Chinese company? Where exactly will these lines be drawn?

Regulating the algorithm won’t work, so the deal on the table, despite its ugly, politicized origins, is perhaps the best we can do at this point.  There is much more at the link, and here is more from Elaine Ou at Bloomberg.

Unintended Consequences of Criminalizing Sex Work

We examine the impact of criminalizing sex work, exploiting an event in which local officials unexpectedly criminalized sex work in one district in East Java, Indonesia, but not in neighboring districts. We collect data from female sex workers and their clients before and after the change. We find that criminalization increases sexually transmitted infections among female sex workers by 58 percent, measured by biological tests. This is driven by decreased condom access and use. We also find evidence that criminalization decreases earnings among women who left sex work due to criminalization, and decreases their ability to meet their children’s school expenses while increasing the likelihood that children begin working to supplement household income. While criminalization has the potential to improve population STI outcomes if the market shrinks permanently, we show that five years post-criminalization the market has rebounded and the probability of STI transmission within the general population is likely to have increased.

That is from a new NBER working paper by Lisa Cameron, Jennifer Seager, and Manisha Shah.

Monday assorted links

1. More detail on the Venus phosphine discovery.

2. Wes Pegden on herd immunity and transmission rates.

3. Ross Douthat on the Ginsburg seat (NYT).

4. “In short, academic institutions systemically promote exactly the sort of short-term optimization of which, ironically, the private sector is often accused. Is entrepreneurship a trap? No; right now, it’s one of the only ways to avoid being trapped.”  Link here.

5. Rethinking the roots of Chinese civilization we know so little about the ancient world.

6. Expanding the Measurement of Culture with a Sample of Two Billion Humans.

America, meet India

Tata group has received approval from the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) for the commercial launch of the country’s first CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) coronavirus test ‘Feluda’, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) said on Saturday. This test uses an indigenously developed, cutting-edge CRISPR technology for detection of the genomic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 virus, CSIR said in a statement.

The Tata CRISPR test achieves accuracy levels of traditional RT-PCR tests with quicker turnaround time, less expensive equipment and better ease of use.

Here is the full story, via Alex HR.