Category: History

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, et.al. 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.

My Conversation with Alex Ross

And:

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?

Recommended.

The durability of violent revolution

…regimes founded in violent social revolution are especially durable. Revolutionary regimes, such as those in Russia, China, Cuba, and Vietnam, endured for more than half a century in the face of strong external pressure, poor economic performance, and large-scale policy failures. The authors develop and test a theory that accounts for such durability using a novel data set of revolutionary regimes since 1900. The authors contend that autocracies that emerge out of violent social revolution tend to confront extraordinary military threats, which lead to the development of cohesive ruling parties and powerful and loyal security apparatuses, as well as to the destruction of alternative power centers. These characteristics account for revolutionary regimes’ unusual longevity.

That is from a new paper by Jean Lachapelle, Steven Levitsky, Lucan A. Way, and Adam E. Casey.  For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Toots Hibbert, RIP

Possibly a Covid death (NYT), he was leader of Toots and the Maytals, and along with Desmond Dekker a favorite figure from the earlier period of reggae music.  “Sweet and Dandy” and “Pressure Drop” and “Monkey Man” I still listen to frequently, among others.  I was lucky to see him in concert twice, once as recently as two years ago, the other time in the late 1990s…

The Washington Consensus Works: Causal Effects of Reform, 1970-2015

Sustained economic reform significantly raises real GDP per capita over a 5- to 10-year horizon.

Despite the unpopularity of the Washington Consensus, its policies reliably raise average incomes.

Countries that had sustained reform were 16% richer 10 years later.

As for the method:

In this paper, we define generalized reform as a discrete, sustained jump in an index of economic freedom, whose components map well onto the points of the old consensus. We identify 49 cases of generalized reform in our dataset that spans 141 countries from 1970 to 2015. The average treatment effect associated with these reforms is positive, sizeable, and significant over 5- and 10- year windows. The result is robust to different thresholds for defining reform and different estimation methods.

There are dozens of books trying to tell you this is not true, but…it is true, at least as best we know.

That is all from the new paper by Kevin and Robin Grier, did you know by the way that I helped to fix them up, leading to their later marriage and also coauthorships?

*Where is my flying car?: A memoir of future past*, by J. Storrs Hall

Who is this guy?  How come no one told me about this book until Adam Ozimek asked about it?

One of the main arguments of the book is that we could have had major technological advances in multiple areas if only we had put in another fifty years of hard work on them.  Flying cars could have been a thing some time ago!

The author estimates that if quality nanotechnology were up and running, it would take only about a week to rebuild the entire United States.  Just imagine how silly the current building permit system would seem then.

The anecdotes on the history of helicopters are interesting and obsessive in a good way.

One of the arguments is simply that we have not much succeeded in boosting our aggregate use of energy.  Hall also argues we do not face sufficient challenges, in part because nuclear deterrence has worked so well.

An editor would not approve of the organization and rambling structure of this book, including the lengthy digressions on technologies of the author’s choice and fascination.  It does not bother me.

Here is one short bit, not actually representative of the basic style, but I enjoyed it anyway:

If you are a technologist working on some new, clean, abundant form of energy, I wish you all the luck in the world.  But you must not labor under the illusion that should you succeed, your efforts will be justly rewarded by the gratitude of the people you have lifted from poverty and enabled to have a bright and growing future.  You will be attacked, your work will be lied about by activists, demonized by ignorant journalists, and strangled by regulation.

But only if it works.

You can buy it here, Kindle only for $3.14, note it is a full-length book with all the proper trappings.  It’s one of the best and most interesting books on technology in some time, either ignore or enjoy the organizational infelicities, first published in 2018.

One of those boring yet fascinating innovation articles

Physicians who also have extensive training in scientific methods, often a Ph.D., are ideally suited to learn from the unusual clinical manifestations of Covid-19, such as strokes in young adults and autoimmune Kawasaki syndrome in children. Physician-scientists, however, are becoming extinct in the United States, comprising only about 1% of all physicians today, and with few young clinician researchers joining their ranks.

A solution to this crisis might be found in a quiet research program at the National Institutes of Health that flourished in the shadow of the Vietnam War. It may well have been the greatest medical research program in modern history. The two-year program, officially known as the NIH Associates Training Program, was started in 1953 as a way to bring newly minted physicians to the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md., so they could do research for two to three years under the guidance of senior NIH investigators…

Nine physicians who trained at the NIH during this period went on to win Nobel Prizes. From the class of 1968 alone, Robert Lefkowitz discovered a family of cellular receptors that one-third of all approved drugs target; Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein discovered a cholesterol receptor that led to the development of cholesterol-lowering statin medications; and Harold Varmus discovered some of the fundamental mechanisms of cancer.

Here is the full StatNews article by Haider J. Warraich.

*The Rise of the G.I. Army, 1940-1941*

The author is Paul Dickson, and the subtitle is The Forgotten Story of How America Forged a Powerful Army Before Pearl Harbor.

For one thing, I enjoyed the examples of “fast action” in this book.  For instance, the U.S. passed draft registration Sept.16, 1940. All men between 21 and 45 are supposed to register, and on a single date, Oct.16. Almost all of them do, including people in mental hospitals. Some stragglers register over the next five days, but the overwhelming majority pull it off on day one, and with very little preexisting infrastructure to draw upon, as draft institutions had been abolished right after the end of WWI.

I had not realized how instrumental George Marshall had been, before Pearl Harbor, in investing in building up America’s officer corps.

The famous movie star, Jimmy Stewart, was drafted but then rejected for being ten pounds too light at 6’3″ and 138 lbs.  He then put on ten pounds so he could join the service.

The tales of poor morale, mental illness, and prostitution camps (no antibiotics!) in 1940 are harrowing.

Recommended.

The rise and fall of the corporate R&D lab

Of course, Bell Labs itself later grew to be one of the marquees of commercial labs—in the late 1960s it employed 15,000 people including 1,200 PhDs, who between them made too many important inventions to list, from the transistor and the photovoltaic cell to the first digitally scrambled voice audio (in 1943) and the first complex number calculator (in 1939). Fourteen of its staff went on to win Nobel Prizes and five to win Turing Awards.

That is from Ben Southwood’s new essay on that topic, on the new and important on-line publication Works in progress.

From Christianity to liberalism

Daniel Klein sets the record straight:

Olsson: But was it Christianity in particular, or monotheism more generally, that opened up the road to liberalism? Don’t other religious traditions and civilizations also have ideas on individuals, moral agency, and the conscience?

Klein: Monotheism is necessary but not sufficient. Other monotheistic religions didn’t have moral agency, moral equality, and the conscience in quite the same way. Siedentop says that Christianity was quite exceptional in the dignity it accorded the individual. That individual was a votary of the Christ with responsibility to figure out how to advance the well-being of the widest whole of humankind.

Siedentop speaks a lot about moral equality, and I think that one aspect of what he means is that everyone, no matter how depraved or religiously misguided, even an enemy, has the potential for upward vitality, and everyone, no matter how saintly and accomplished up to the present moment, has the potential for downward moral movement. Each of us faces a same sort of moral challenge all the time. Siedentop would associate this image of the individual with Augustine. The implication is that everyone is with or potentially with God, and as an individual. It isn’t about abiding by a set of ritualistic practices. It is a very individual affair.

Siedentop argues that liberalism emerged from, and best prevails today, in what was once thought of as Christendom. If you look at a map of economic freedom today, you will see that the “most free” countries generally correlate to Christendom circa 1300, plus areas (North America, Australia and New Zealand, arguably Japan) that have since been developed by or influenced by the Christian West. In a sense his book is a theory of that correlation, an explanation. Christianity made liberalism possible—which is not say that, within a country, Christianity is sufficient for, or will necessarily produce, liberalism.

Here is the full interview, recommended.  And here is a related tweet.

How bad was the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918?

Yes it was a terrible tragedy, but many locales had much worse events fairly recently:

Between 1917 and 1918 New York City’s crude mortality rate increased by 3.173 deaths per 1000 persons.  While tragic, the hollow circles in Figure 1 depict 12 other years where the year-over-year increase in mortality exceeded the magnitude of the 1917 to 1918 change.  During the cholera epidemics of 1832, 1834, 1849, and 1854 the year-over-year increase in mortality was 3 to 5 times larger in magnitude than what occurred in 1918. As another comparison, the mortality rate in New York City was higher in nearly every year between 1800 and 1905 than the mortality rate in 1918.

The same is true for many other American cities, but here is a picture for NYC:

And this:

During the first half of the 20th century, Black Americans in urban areas died from infectious disease at a rate that was greater than what urban whites experienced during the 1918 flu pandemic every single year.

On a different but related topic:

…the evidence suggests that the 1918 pandemic was not a major determinant of U.S. stock market volatility.

That is all from the new and very interesting NBER paper by Brian Beach, Karen Clay, and Martin H. Saavedra, “The 1918 Influenza Pandemic and its Lessons for Covid-19.”

The lost colony of Roanoke was never lost, rather it integrated with Native Americans

The English colonists who settled the so-called Lost Colony before disappearing from history simply went to live with their native friends — the Croatoans of Hatteras, according to a new book.

“They were never lost,” said Scott Dawson, who has researched records and dug up artifacts where the colonists lived with the Indians in the 16th century. “It was made up. The mystery is over.”

…The evidence shows the colony left Roanoke Island with the friendly Croatoans to settle on Hatteras Island. They thrived, ate well, had mixed families and endured for generations. More than a century later, explorer John Lawson found natives with blue eyes who recounted they had ancestors who could “speak out of a book,” Lawson wrote.

The two cultures adapted English earrings into fishhooks and gun barrels into sharp-ended tubes to tap tar from trees.

Here is the full article, with other interesting details.  Rising in status: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Robert Axelrod, Marx/Engels, theorists of agricultural productivity.  Falling in status: Earlier colonial historians.

Via Ilya Novak.

Claims about Richard Wagner

The truth is that Wagner’s popularity was already in relative decline during the Weimar Republic and simply fell further, more quickly, under the Nazis.  During the last years of the Kaiser’s Germany (and despite the cost and privation of the First World War), the Master’s works were still hugely popular, accounting for over eighteen per cent of all opera performances, a share no other composer came to matching.  By the mid-1920s, though, the figure had dropped to around fourteen per cent.

After Hitler took power, Wagner’s share plunged to well below ten percent.

The truth is that many Nazis, in high and low places, were bored to tears by Wagner.

That is all from Jonathan Carr’s excellent book The Wagner Clan.

Three areas where you never run out of great books to read

Those three areas are:

1. The history of the British Isles

2. The history of the Jews, and

3. The history of World War II

Each area has attracted remarkable talent, mostly in English I should add, and you can always read yet another great book in these areas, even if you already have consumed many stellar offerings.

Whether you should double down in these areas, or strike out and diversify into the many other areas with lower quality expected return, is in fact a key question when it comes to how to read.

(Of course, a small number of books cover all three areas, though I would not suggest that they get triple credit.)

Are there any other such areas I am missing?  Somehow American history does not do it for me — too much stupidity, repetition, and needlessly “clampdown patriotic” perspectives.

Claims about Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir

Viking society wasn’t homogeneous. They had dealings with many different cultures and they lived in varied environments, from Danish and Swedish pasture to the sub-Arctic tundra of Norway and Iceland. In the early 11th century the best-travelled woman in the world must have been Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir, whose remarkable journeys demonstrate the great distances the Vikings covered. She gave birth to a child in North America, met people of the First Nations and ate grapes in Vinland, made a pilgrimage to Rome and drank wine in Italy, and died as a nun in Iceland. Vikings lived in close contact with the Sámi people, whom they called Finns. In his earlier book, The Viking Way, Price pointed out that Norwegians and Swedes, at least, might be regarded as in some ways similar to the ‘circumpolar’ cultures which stretch from Greenland to Siberia, notably in what looks like shamanistic behaviour.

That is from Tom Shippey’s excellent LRB Vikings book review, interesting throughout.