Category: History

*The Eastern Front: A History of the First World War*

That is the new book by Nick Lloyd, it will be making my best non-fiction of the year list.  Reviews are very strong, and you can either pre-order and wait, or order it from the UK, or buy it in the excellent Hedengrens bookshop in Stockholm.  Here is one short bit:

As always with the Russian army, squabbles between the generals quickly surfaced.

A bit later:

This lack of cooperation within the Russian high command would seriously undermine its operations throughout the war, preventing Russia from bringing all her strength to bear and forcing her commanders to spend precious time bickering amongst themselves.

About one-third of the way through the text of the book:

Tsar Nicholas II had come to a momentous decision: to take direct command of Russia’s armies.

How it started….how it’s going…

The Pentagon’s Anti-Vax Campaign

During the pandemic it was common for many Americans to discount or even disparage the Chinese vaccines. In fact, the Chinese vaccines such as Coronavac/Sinovac were made quickly and in large quantities and they were effective. The Chinese vaccines saved millions of lives. The vaccine portfolio model that the AHT team produced, as well as common sense, suggested the value of having a diversified portfolio. That’s why we recommended and I advocated for including a deactivated vaccine in the Operation Warp Speed mix or barring that for making an advance deal on vaccine capacity with China. At the time, I assumed that the disparaging of Chinese vaccines was simply an issue of national pride or bravado during a time of fear. But it turns out that in other countries, the Pentagon ran a disinformation campaign against the Chinese vaccines.

Reuters: At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. military launched a secret campaign to counter what it perceived as China’s growing influence in the Philippines, a nation hit especially hard by the deadly virus.

The clandestine operation has not been previously reported. It aimed to sow doubt about the safety and efficacy of vaccines and other life-saving aid that was being supplied by China, a Reuters investigation found. Through phony internet accounts meant to impersonate Filipinos, the military’s propaganda efforts morphed into an anti-vax campaign.

… Tailoring the propaganda campaign to local audiences across Central Asia and the Middle East, the Pentagon used a combination of fake social media accounts on multiple platforms to spread fear of China’s vaccines among Muslims at a time when the virus was killing tens of thousands of people each day. A key part of the strategy: amplify the disputed contention that, because vaccines sometimes contain pork gelatin, China’s shots could be considered forbidden under Islamic law.

…To implement the anti-vax campaign, the Defense Department overrode strong objections from top U.S. diplomats in Southeast Asia at the time, Reuters found. Sources involved in its planning and execution say the Pentagon, which ran the program through the military’s psychological operations center in Tampa, Florida, disregarded the collateral impact that such propaganda may have on innocent Filipinos.

“We weren’t looking at this from a public health perspective,” said a senior military officer involved in the program. “We were looking at how we could drag China through the mud.”

Frankly, this is sickening. The Pentagon’s anti-vax campaign has undermined U.S. credibility on the global stage and eroded trust in American institutions, and it will complicate future public health efforts. US intelligence agencies should be banned from interfering with or using public health as a front.

Moreover, there was a better model. It’s often forgotten but the elimination of smallpox from the planet, one of humanities greatest feats, was a global effort spearheaded by the United States and….the Soviet Union.

…even while engaged in a pitched battle for influence across the globe, the Soviet Union and the United States were able to harness their domestic and geopolitical self-interests and their mutual interest in using science and technology to advance human development and produce a remarkable public health achievement.

We could have taken a similar approach with China during the COVID pandemic.

More generally, we face global challenges, from pandemics to climate change to artificial intelligence. Addressing these challenges will require strategic international cooperation. This isn’t about idealism; it’s about escaping the prisoner’s dilemma. We can’t let small groups with narrow agendas and parochial visions undermine collaborations essential for our interests and security in an interconnected world.

*The Wrong Stuff: How the Soviet Space Program Crashed and Burned*

By John Strausbaugh, an excellent book.  Here is one good passage of many:

Putting dogs on top of rockets was nothing new.  Since so little was known about the effects that blasting off in a rocket might have on th ehuman body and brain — the g-force of acceleration, the disorientation of weightlessness, the impact of radiation, the g-force of deceleration — the Soviets and the Americans both had been using various species of animals to test conditions since the 1940s.  The Americans started sending up fruit flies aboard their White Sands V-2s in 1947.  An anesthetized rhesus monkey they named Albert II…went up eighty-three miles in a V-2 in 1949.  Unfortunately, his parachute failed to oepn on reentry and he was smashed to death on impact with the ground.  The Americans continued to send up primates in the 1940s and 1950s.  Something like two-thirds of them died.  They used many other species as well, maybe the oddest of which was black bears, who were strapped into a rocket-powered sled at a facility with the deceptively sweet name the Daisy Track to test the physical effects of ultra-rapid acceleration and deceleration.


Where are the female composers?

Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach, and Frederic Chopin are household names, but few will recognize Francesca Caccini, Elisabeth Lutyens or Amy M. Beach, who are among the top-10 female composers of all time. Why are female composers overshadowed by their male counterparts? Using novel data on over 17,000 composers who lived from the sixth to the twentieth centuries, we conduct the first quantitative exploration of the gender gap among classical composers. We use the length of a composer’s biographical entry in Grove Music Online to measure composer prominence, and shed light on the determinants of the gender gap with a focus on the development of composers’ human capital through families, teachers, and institutionalized music education. The evidence suggests that parental musical background matters for composers’ prominence, that the effects of teachers vary by the gender of the composer but the effects of parents do not, and while musician mothers and female teachers are important, they do not narrow the gender gap in composer prominence. We also find that the institutionalization of music education in conservatories increases the relative prominence of female composers.

That is from a new research paper by Karol Jan Borowiecki, Martin Hørlyk Kristensen, and Marc T. Law, via K.

My Conversation with Velina Tchakarova

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the episode summary:

Founder of the consultancy FACE, Velina is a geopolitical strategist guiding businesses and organizations to anticipate the outcomes of global conflicts, shifting alliances, and bleeding edge technologies on the world stage.

In a globe-trotting conversation, Tyler and Velina start in the Balkans and then head to Russia, China, North Korea, and finally circle back to Putin’s interest in the Baltics. She gives her take on whether the Balkan Wars still matter today, the future of Bulgarian nationalism, what predicts which Eastern European countries will remain closer to Russia, why China will not attack Taiwan, Putin’s next move after Ukraine, where a nuclear weapon is most likely to be used next, how she sources intel, her unique approach to scenario-planning, and more.

Here is one excerpt on a matter of great importance:

COWEN: Maybe we’ll come back to Bulgaria, but let me try some questions about the broader world. Why is it you think China will not attack Taiwan? They claim it as theirs, and arguably, in five to ten years, they’ll be able to neutralize our submarine advantage from the US with underwater drones and surveillance of our submarine presence. At that point, why don’t they just move on Taiwan and try to take it?

TCHAKAROVA: Well, I do understand that there is a lot of analysis coming out right now, especially on behalf of the military experts, not only in the United States but also in other parts of the world, pointing to this realistic scenario that we may see a military attack by China on Taiwan not later than 2027. And why 2027? Because it is being anticipated as the year when China will be able to catch up militarily with the United States.

I do not share this assessment. I just don’t see why China will have to take such a big risk in achieving something that it can achieve in a much smarter and more efficient way. What do I mean by that? I call this approach “death by a thousand cuts.” That would mean that China could spend a little bit longer in a slow but steady political, social, economic, and societal penetration of Taiwan. We could argue it’s the old Soviet playbook. It could be done in a more subtle way, using plausible deniability.

Taiwan is still the most successful democracy in the Indo-Pacific. That means, also, it is vulnerable to this kind of penetration, where you can practically use agents provocateurs on the ground. You can buy up a lot of institutional or individual players. You can start doing all this subversion process in a longer timeframe, but it could bring about bigger success than actually risking military intervention, which is not giving you, I would say, even a 50–50 chance of success.

The terrain of Taiwan, if we compare it with the most sophisticated war that’s going on right now, is much more difficult. You have a very, very limited window to attack. In the case of Taiwan, this window of opportunity is probably limited only to two periods in the whole year, which, of course, is also known by everyone in the region. That particularly means the defense of Taiwan. You have a window of opportunity in April and then in October, so you cannot attack at any time in the year.

It is a sophisticated military attack that cannot be conducted on the whole of the island. Even though China is catching up militarily right now, I think that the mindset of this Chinese leadership — the way the Chinese leadership is actually conducting strategy — does contradict such risky endeavor, again because time is on China’s side. China only needs to really prepare this sum of minor actions in a longer period of time. At least, this is what I would actually do as a strategist, which would promise a much better percentage of success than, like I said, an adventurous military attack.

Now, we may argue that under unanticipated circumstances for the political leadership — think of a situation where the political stability in China is shaken, where the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, is somehow put into a corner to take a very, let’s say, ad hoc decision on the matter because of certain circles of the hawks, of the military hawks. Of course, we have this possibility as well. It could be a black swan event, something that has happened in China, and this makes him take this decision in order to draw the attention away from internal problems.

Foreign policy adventures are always gathering public support. It’s not 100 percent to be excluded, but in my scenario, I would actually point to, as I explained, this death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach rather than a military attack on Taiwan.

COWEN: Are we now in a world where the laws of war are basically obsolete?

It is worth repeating that issues of foreign policy are very much the most important issues.  And here is Velina on Twitter.

South Africa and its history

Almost three years earlier, a sombre Paul Kruger had warned that Britain would find conquering the Boer states no easy matter.  In the sense that they were certainly not gained on the cheap, this was an accurate judgment.  By the end of the war, the British had been obliged to mobilise almost 450 000 imperial solders to defeat Boer forces, which had been able to field roughly 80 000 combatants at most.  Their extended resistance turned London’s South African campaign into the largest and most costly war fought by the British between 1815 and 1914.  This was a colonial war which Britain’s Treasury estimated in September 1899 would require the despatch of at most 75 000 troops and funding of about £10 million for a campaign of two to three months.  By the time the conflict finally ended, that cost had risen to £217 million.  What this balance sheet reflected was the enormous military investment that the British Empire required to defeat two of the world’s smallest agrarian states.

That is from New History of South Africa, by Hermann Giliomee, Bernard Mbenga, and Bill Nasson, a very excellent book.  I found it to be one of the best single-volume histories of any country I have read.  The other South Africa book I found especially helpful was Understanding South Africa, by Carien du Plessis and Martin Plaut.  One of the best things about travel is you understand a country — through books — much better than before you went there.  Everything is more vivid, and you retain much more of it.

*Cosmic Connections*

The author is Charles Taylor (yes, the Charles Taylor) and the subtitle is Poetry in the Age of Disenchantment.  This book is a very good introduction to romanticism, and also to the poetry of romanticism, noting that its degree of originality may depend on how much you already know.  I liked the chapters on Rilke and Mallarme best, here is one excerpt:

It follows that for Rilke, our full capacity to Praise can only be realized if we take account of the standpoint of the dead.  The medium of Preisen is Gesang [song].  thus the voice which most fully carries this song would have to be that of the gold Orpheus, who moves in both realms, that of the living and that of the dead.

And the sonnet is the medium.  As its name suggests, it is a poetic form which asks to be heard, and not only read on the page.  These two modes of reception are essential to all poetry, but in the sonnet the musical dimension becomes the most important avenue to the message.

So a praise-song from both sides, that of the dead, as well as the living.  They call on Orpheus, the singer-god who moves between the two realms.  Hence the Sonnets to Orpheus.

I am very glad to see that Taylor is still at it, and 640 pp. at that.  Furthermore, this book is (unintentionally?) a good means for thinking about just how much deculturation has taken place.

My Conversation with the excellent Michael Nielsen

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the episode summary:

Michael Nielsen is scientist who helped pioneer quantum computing and the modern open science movement. He’s worked at Y Combinator, co-authored on scientific progress with Patrick Collison, and is a prolific writer, reader, commentator, and mentor. 

He joined Tyler to discuss why the universe is so beautiful to human eyes (but not ears), how to find good collaborators, the influence of Simone Weil, where Olaf Stapledon’s understand of the social word went wrong, potential applications of quantum computing, the (rising) status of linear algebra, what makes for physicists who age well, finding young mentors, why some scientific fields have pre-print platforms and others don’t, how so many crummy journals survive, the threat of cheap nukes, the many unknowns of Mars colonization, techniques for paying closer attention, what you learn when visiting the USS Midway, why he changed his mind about Emergent Ventures, why he didn’t join OpenAI in 2015, what he’ll learn next, and more. 

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Now, you’ve written that in the first half of your life, you typically were the youngest person in your circle and that in the second half of your life, which is probably now, you’re typically the eldest person in your circle. How would you model that as a claim about you?

NIELSEN: I hope I’m in the first 5 percent of my life, but it’s sadly unlikely.

COWEN: Let’s say you’re 50 now, and you live to 100, which is plausible —

NIELSEN: Which is plausible.

COWEN: — and you would now be in the second half of your life.

NIELSEN: Yes. I can give shallow reasons. I can’t give good reasons. The good reason in the first half was, so much of the work I was doing was kind of new fields of science, and those tend to be dominated essentially, for almost sunk-cost reasons — people who don’t have any sunk costs tend to be younger. They go into these fields. These early days of quantum computing, early days of open science — they were dominated by people in their 20s. Then they’d go off and become faculty members. They’d be the youngest person on the faculty.

Now, maybe it’s just because I found San Francisco, and it’s such an interesting cultural institution or achievement of civilization. We’ve got this amplifier for 25-year-olds that lets them make dreams in the world. That’s, for me, anyway, for a person with my personality, very attractive for many of the same reasons.

COWEN: Let’s say you had a theory of your collaborators, and other than, yes, they’re smart; they work hard; but trying to pin down in as few dimensions as possible, who’s likely to become a collaborator of yours after taking into account the obvious? What’s your theory of your own collaborators?

NIELSEN: They’re all extremely open to experience. They’re all extremely curious. They’re all extremely parasocial. They’re all extremely ambitious. They’re all extremely imaginative.

Self-recommending throughout.

The decline in Native American wealth

I had not realized how negative were the effects of the 1887 Dawes Act, which broke up many Native American reservations.  Before 1912:

There was a nontrivial number of relatively wealthy superintendencies, which runs counter to the common perception of uniform poverty during this period.  In 1912, the wealthiest superintendency had total per capital wealth levels above $600,000 in 2019 real terms, while total per capital wealth was just $90 in the least wealthy superintendency…

Our results suggest that, on average, Indigenous Peoples in the early twentieth century had substantial levels of wealth per capita, although there was wide diversity in wealth levels.  Between 1912 and 1927, wealth per capita declined by nearly 50 percent.

Per capita indigenous wealth had been above white wealth at the beginning of the period.

Here is the AER version of the piece, by Donn. L. Feir, Maggie E.C. Jones, and Angela Redish, ungated here.

How important is “the scientific method”?

From a recently published paper by Alexander Krauss:

Using data on all major discoveries across science including all Nobel Prize and major non-Nobel Prize discoveries, we can address the question of the extent to which “the scientific method” is actually applied in making science’s groundbreaking research and whether we need to expand this central concept of science. This study reveals that 25% of all discoveries since 1900 did not apply the common scientific method (all three features)—with 6% of discoveries using no observation, 23% using no experimentation, and 17% not testing a hypothesis. Empirical evidence thus challenges the common view of the scientific method.

File under “In favor of methodological pluralism.”  Via Zhengdong Wang.

My excellent Conversation with Benjamin Moser

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the episode summary:

Benjamin Moser is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer celebrated for his in-depth studies of literary and cultural figures such as Susan Sontag and Clarice Lispector. His latest book, which details a twenty-year love affair with the Dutch masters, is one of Tyler’s favorite books on art criticism ever.

Benjamin joined Tyler to discuss why Vermeer was almost forgotten, how Rembrandt was so productive, what auctions of the old masters reveals about current approaches to painting, why Dutch art hangs best in houses, what makes the Kunstmuseum in the Hague so special, why Dutch students won’t read older books, Benjamin’s favorite Dutch movie, the tensions within Dutch social tolerance, the joys of living in Utrecht, why Latin Americans make for harder interview subjects, whether Brasilia works as a city, why modernism persisted in Brazil, how to appreciate Clarice Lispector, Susan Sontag’s (waning) influence, V.S. Naipaul’s mentorship, Houston’s intellectual culture, what he’s learning next, and more.


COWEN: You once wrote about Susan Sontag, and I quote, “So much of Sontag’s best work concerns the ways we try, and fail, to see.” Please explain.

MOSER: This is what On Photography is about. This is what Against Interpretation is about in Sontag’s work. Of course, in my new book, The Upside-Down World, I talk about how I’m not really great at seeing, particularly. I’m not that visual. I’m a reader. I’m a bookworm. Often, when I’ve looked at paintings, I’ve realized how little I actually see. Sometimes I do feel embarrassed by it. You’ll read the label and it’ll be three sentences, and it’ll say like, A Man with a Dog. You’re like, “Oh, I didn’t even see the dog.” You know what I mean?

On these very basic levels, I just think, “Oh, if someone doesn’t point it out to me, I really don’t see.” I think that that was one of the fascinating things about Sontag, that she was not really able to see. She was actually quite terrible at seeing, and this was especially true in her relationships. She was very bad at seeing what other people were thinking and feeling.

I think because she was aware of that, she tried very hard to remedy it, but it’s just not something you can force. You can’t force yourself to like certain music or to like certain tastes that you might not actually like.

COWEN: What was Sontag most right about or most insightful about?

MOSER: I think this question of images — what images do — and photography and how representations, metaphors can pervert things. She had a very deep repulsion to photography. She really hated photography, and this is why a lot of photographers hated her because they felt this, even though she didn’t really say it. She really didn’t trust it. She really thought it was wicked. At the same time, for somebody who had a deficit, I guess you could say, in seeing, she really relied on it to understand the world.

I think that tension is very instructive for us, because now, she already says 50 years ago, “There are all these images. We don’t know what to do with them. We don’t know how to process them.” Forget AI, forget Russian trolls on Twitter. She uses this word I really like, hygiene, a lot. She talks about mental hygiene and how you can clean the rusty pipes in your brain. That’s why I think reading her helped me at least to understand a lot of what I’m seeing in the world.

COWEN: Do you think she will simply end up forgotten?

Again, I am happy to recommend Benjamin’s latest book The Upside-Down World: Meetings with Dutch Masters.

The Screwworm

The Atlantic: Screwworms once killed millions of dollars’ worth of cattle a year in the southern U.S. Their range extended from Florida to California, and they infected any living, warm-blooded animal: not only cattle but deer, squirrels, pets, and even the occasional human. In fact, the screwworm’s scientific name is C. hominivorax or “man eater”—so named after a horrific outbreak among prisoners on Devil’s Island, an infamous 19th-century French penal colony in South America.

For untold millennia, screwworms were a grisly fact of life in the Americas. In the 1950s, however, U.S. ranchers began to envision a new status quo. They dared to dream of an entire country free of screwworms. At their urging, the United States Department of Agriculture undertook what would ultimately become an immense, multidecade effort to wipe out the screwworms, first in the U.S. and then in Mexico and Central America—all the way down to the narrow strip of land that is the Isthmus of Panama. The eradication was a resounding success. But the story does not end there. Containing a disease is one thing. Keeping it contained is another thing entirely, as the coronavirus pandemic is now so dramatically demonstrating.

To get the screwworms out, the USDA to this day maintains an international screwworm barrier along the Panama-Colombia border. The barrier is an invisible one, and it is kept in place by constant human effort. Every week, planes drop 14.7 million sterilized screwworms over the rainforest that divides the two countries. A screwworm-rearing plant operates 24/7 in Panama. Inspectors cover thousands of square miles by motorcycle, boat, and horseback, searching for stray screwworm infections north of the border. The slightest oversight could undo all the work that came before.

A reminder that civilization takes work. Excellent piece by Sarah Zhang. Read the whole thing.

Hat tip: Stone Age Herbalist.

Isaac Asimov predictions from 1981

1985 — World oil production will fall below world needs

1990 — North America will no longer be a reliable source for food export

1995 — The nations of the world will meet (unwillingly) in a Global Congress to tackle seriously the problems of population, food, and energy.

2000 — Under global sponsorship, the construction of solar power stations in orbit about the earth will have begun.

2005 — A mining station will be in operation on the moon.

2010 — World population will have peaked at something like 7 billion.

2015 — The dismantling of the military machines of the world will have made international war impractical.

2020– The flow of energy from solar-power space stations will have begun.  Nuclear fusion stations will be under construction.

2025 — The Global Congress will be recognized as a permanent institution.  The improvement in communications will have developed a world “lingua franca,” which will be taught in schools.

2030 — The use of microcomputers and electronic computers will have revolutionized education, produced a global village, and prepared humanity for the thorough exploration of the solar system and the plans for eventual moves toward the stars.

Two of those are really good!  They are from The Book of Predictions, by David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace, and Irving Wallace.

Did World War II pull America out of the Great Depression?

Maybe by less than people had thought, here is a new ReStat paper by Gillian Brunet:

I use newly-digitized contract data on U.S. war production spending over 1940-1945 to analyze the macroeconomic effects of U.S. military spending in World War II. I find personal income multipliers of 0.34 over two years and 0.49 over three years. Personal income multipliers may substantially understate GDP multipliers, perhaps by as much as 50%. Employment estimates imply costs per job-year over the same time horizons of $405,013 and $232,268 in 2015 dollars, suggesting job creation was limited. I also find evidence of negative scale effects: larger positive spending shocks are associated with systematically smaller multiplier estimates.

Via Alexander Berger.  The author’s title is “Stimulus on the Home Front: The State-Level Effects of WWII Spending.”

*Scarce and Valuable Economic Tracts*

Three big volumes, about 1800 pp., these books reprint the true classics behind the origins of economic thought.  These are the best works of economics published before Adam Smith, and essentially they founded economic science.  The originals were edited by the classical economist John Ramsay McCulloch, but they now have been reprinted by Classical Liberal Press.  I don’t know of any comparably easy way to read these works, or anything close.

Here is one volume, here is another, here is a third.  Each is priced below $20, definitely recommended.