Category: History

What should I ask Elisa New?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is part of her Wikipedia entry:

Elisa New…is a Professor of English at Harvard University. She holds a B.A. from Brandeis University (1980), as well as a M.A. and a Ph.D from Columbia University (1982 and 1988, respectively). Her interests include American poetry, American Literature-1900, Religion and Literature, and Jewish literature. Before moving to Harvard, she taught at the University of Pennsylvania.

Here is her Harvard page.  She also hosts the new PBS show Poetry in America.

So what should I ask her?

The symphony orchestra and the Industrial Revolution

I heard Mozart’s 39th symphony in concert last night, and it occurred to me (once again) that I also was witnessing one of mankind’s greatest technological achievements.  Think about what went into the activity: each instrument, developed eventually to perfection and coordinated with the other instruments.  The system of tuning and the underlying principles of the music.  The acoustics of the music hall.  The sheet music on paper and the musical notation.  All of those features extremely well coordinated with the kind of compositional talent being produced in Central and Western Europe from say 1710 to 1920.  And by the mid-18th century most of the key features of this system were in place and by the early 19th century they were more or less perfected.

Sometimes I think of the Industrial Revolution as fundamentally a Cultural Revolution.  The first instantiation of this Cultural Revolution maybe was the rise of early Renaissance Art in Italy and in the Low Countries.  That too was based on a series of technological developments, including improved quality tempera paint, the development of oil painting, the resumption of bronze and marble techniques for sculpture, and the reintroduction of paper into Europe, which enabled artists’ sketches and drawings.

As with classical music, this unfolding of quality production was all based on extreme experimentation, a kind of scientific method, urbanization, and competing city-states.  There was also the rediscovery of knowledge from antiquity, and the importation or reimportation of science from China and the Arabic world, including the afore-mentioned knowledge of paper-making.

The creation of a book culture, and a culture of experimental science, could be cited as well.

Perhaps the only [sic] difference with the Industrial Revolution proper is that it came to sectors — energy, transport, and textiles — that boosted living standards immensely.  But arguably it was just another of a series of Cultural Revolutions that had their roots in late medieval times, with even classical music deriving ultimately from Franco-Flemish polyphony.  One of these Cultural Revolutions just happened to be Industrial.

Of course the earliest parts of Revolutions are often the best, as we’ve surpassed the steam engines of the 19th century but Mozart and Leonardo are still with us.

A history of randomized assignment in the social sciences

Although the concept of randomized assignment to control for extraneous factors reaches back hundreds of years, the first empirical use appears to have been in an 1835 trial of homeopathic medicine. Throughout the 19th century, there was primarily a growing awareness of the need for careful comparison groups, albeit often without the realization that randomization could be a particularly clean method to achieve that goal. In the second and more crucial phase of this history, four separate but related disciplines introduced randomized control trials within a few years of one another in the 1920s: agricultural science, clinical medicine, educational psychology, and social policy (specifically political science). Randomized control trials brought more rigor to fields that were in the process of expanding their purviews and focusing more on causal relationships. In the third phase, the 1950s through the 1970s saw a surge of interest in more applied randomized experiments in economics and elsewhere, in the lab and especially in the field.

That is from a Julian C. Jamison paper done at the World Bank, via various people in my Twitter feed.

Indian population bottlenecks

…we found that West Eurasian-related mixture in India ranges from as low as 20 percent to as high as 80 percent…

Groups of traditionally higher social status in the Indian caste system typically have a higher proportion of ANI [Ancestral North Indians] ancestry than those of traditionally lower social status, even within the same state of India where everyone speaks the same language.  For example, Brahmins, the priestly caste, tend to have more ANI ancestry than the groups they live among, even those speaking the same language.

It also seems that a disproportionate share of the ANI genetic input came from males.  Furthermore:

Around a third of Indian groups experienced population bottlenecks as strong or stronger than the ones that occurred among Finns or Ashkenazi Jews.

Many of the population bottlenecks in India were also exceedingly old.  One of the most striking we discovered was in the Vysya of the souther Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, a middle caste group of approximately five million people whose population bottleneck we could date…to betweenthree thousand and two thousand years ago.

The observation of such a strong population bottleneck among the ancestors of the Vysya was shocking.  It meant after the population bottleneck, the ancestors of the Vysya had maintained strict endogamy, allowing essentially no genetic mixing into their group for thousands of years.

And the Vysya were not unique.  A third of the groups we analyzed gave similar signals, implying thousands of groups in India like this…long-term endogamy as embodied in India today in the institution of caste has been overwhelming important for millennia.

…The truth is that India is composed of a large number of small populations.

That is all from David Reich’s superb Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past.  Here is my earlier post on the book.

The Middle East and Syria right now

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Some historical events are relatively easy to model with game theory: the Cuban Missile crisis, many of the Cold War proxy wars, the crisis over North Korean nuclear weapons. In those conflicts, the number of relevant parties is small and each typically has some degree of internal cohesion.

To find a situation comparable to the Middle East today, with so many involved countries, and so many interrelationships between internal and external political issues, one has to go back to the First World War, not an entirely comforting thought.

The situation right before that war had many distinct yet related moving parts, including the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the imperialist scramble for colonies, the prior Balkan Wars, a rising Germany seeking parity or superiority with Great Britain, an unstable alliance system, an unworkable Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the complex internal politics of Russia, which eventually led to the Bolshevik Revolution.

What do we learn from the history of that time? Well, even if the chance of war was high by early 1914, it was far from obvious that the Central Powers attack on France, Belgium and Russia would be set off by a political assassination in the Balkans.

Nonetheless, in sufficiently complex situations, chain reactions can cause small events to cascade into big changes. In World War I, one goal behind the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand was to break off parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a new Yugoslavia. The empire responded by making some demands on Serbia, which were not heeded, a declaration of war followed, and the alliance system activated broader conflicts across Europe.

If you don’t quite follow how a single assassination, which was not even seen as so important the day it occurred, triggered the death of so many millions, and the destruction of so much of Europe, that is exactly the point. When there is no clear way for observers to model the situation, a single bad event can take on a very large significance and for reasons that are not entirely explicable.

Do read the whole thing.

*Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism*

That is the new book by Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall:


Their main point is that social tactics used in interventions abroad tend to come back and haunt us at home.  I am not nearly as non-interventionist in foreign policy questions as they are, but still I wish their perspective would receive a much broader hearing.  You can buy the book here.  Here is the book’s home page.  Here is a video related to the book.

U.S.A. (Holocaust) fact of the day

But a survey released Thursday, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, found that many adults lack basic knowledge of what happened — and this lack of knowledge is more pronounced among millennials, whom the survey defined as people ages 18 to 34.

Thirty-one percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust; the actual number is around six million. Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. Only 39 percent of Americans know that Hitler was democratically elected.

Here is the full Maggie Astor NYT story.  The last error is a little tricky, since Hitler was elected into a coalition government, but he wasn’t really elected to be “Hitler as head honcho.”  His later ascent resulted from political machinations of a not entirely democratic nature.  Still, I doubt if that confusion is what is steering most Americans wrong.

My Conversation with Agnes Callard

She is a philosopher at the University of Chicago, here is the transcript and audio.  We covered Plato and Socrates, what Plato is on about at all, the virtues of dialog and refutation, whether immortality would be boring, Elena Ferrante, parents vs. gangsters and Beethoven vs. Mozart, my two Straussian readings of her book, Jordan Peterson, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the best defense of reading the classics, and the Agnes Callard production function (physics to classics to philosophy), all in suitably informationally dense fashion.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: I have a friend who’s interested in longevity research…and he tells me there’s maybe a 10 percent chance that I actually will live forever due to possible scientific advances. I’m skeptical, but let’s just say I were to live forever. How bored would I end up, and how do you think about this question?

CALLARD: [laughs] I think it depends on how good of a person you are.

COWEN: And the good people are more or less bored?

CALLARD: Oh, they’re less bored. One thing is that you’re kind of having to live with yourself for a very long time if you’re immortal, or even just live for a couple thousand years, and a bad self, I think, is hard to live with. By bad, I don’t just mean sort of, let’s say, cruel to people or unjust. I also mean not attuned to things of eternal significance.

I think you can get by in a 100-year life not being too much attuned to things of eternal significance because there’s so much fascinating stuff out there, and one can go from one thing to the next and not get bored. But if we’re talking about eternity, or even thousands of years, you’d better find something to occupy you that is really riveting in the way that I think only eternal things are.

I think that what you’re really asking is something like, “Could I be a god?” And I think, “Well, if you became godlike, you could, and then it would be OK.”

COWEN: Let me give you a hypothesis. You can react to it. That which is cultural, say, listening to music, I would get bored with, even though wonderful music maybe continually will be created. But those activities which are more primeval, more biological — parenting, sex, food, sleep, maybe taking a wonderful shower — that are quite brute, in a way, maybe I would substitute more into those as an immortal? Yes?

CALLARD: I don’t see why you wouldn’t get just as bored of bodily pleasures.

COWEN: You’re programmed for those to be so immediate and riveting, right? You evolve to be maybe an 80-year-old being, or perhaps even a 33-year-old being, so you are riveted on things like reproduction and getting enough sleep. And that stays riveting, even when you’re on this program to live 80,000 years.

CALLARD: I think that at least some of those activities stay riveting for us over the course of our lives because their meaning changes…


COWEN: Let’s turn now to your new book, Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming. There’s a sentence from the book. Let me read it, and maybe you can explain it. “Proleptic reasons allow you to be rational even when you know that your reasons aren’t exactly the right ones.” What’s a proleptic reason?

This was my favorite part, though perhaps few of you will get the joke:

COWEN: On aspiration, what do you think of Jordan Peterson?

CALLARD: I had this odd feeling. He only became known to me quite recently, in the past couple of weeks. I was listening to him talk, and I was thinking he sounds a little bit like Socrates, but not Socrates. I was like, “Who is that? Who is he reminding me of?” And it’s Xenophon’s Socrates.

Here you can buy her just-published book Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming.  You cannot follow her on Twitter.

The value of a statistical human life under Stalin

We examine the value of a statistical life (VSL) in interwar Soviet Union. Our approach requires to address the preferences of Stalin. We model these on the basis of the policy of statistical repression, which was an integral part of the Great Terror. We use regional variation in the victims generated by this policy to structurally estimate the value that Stalin would have been willing to accept for a reduction in citizens’ fatality risk. Our estimate of this value is $43,151, roughly 6% of the VSL estimate in 1940’s US and 29% of the VSL estimate in modern India.

That is from a new paper by Paul Castañeda Dower, Andrei Markevich, and Shlomo Weber.  For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

*Neruda: The Poet’s Calling*

That is the new and excellent biography by Mark Eisner, here is one good bit:

“The antagonism toward Borges may exist in an intellectual or cultural form because of our different orientation,” Neruda answered. “One can fight peacefully. But I have other enemies — not writers. For me the enemy is imperialism, and my enemies are the capitalists and those who drop napalm on Vietnam. But Borges is not my enemy…He understands nothing of what’s going on in the contemporary world; he thinks that I understand nothing either. Therefore, we are in agreement.”


After [Juan Ramón] Jiménez’s “great bad poet remark, Neruda and his friends started to prank call Jiménez’s house, hanging up the phone as soon as he answered.

This book is remarkably well-constructed and easy to read, the best treatment of one of the 20th century’s greatest poets.

Interview with MbS

There are many excellent bits in this Jeffrey Goldberg exchange, here is one:

MbS: Saudi Arabia is a network of thousands of absolute monarchies, and then has a large absolute monarchy. We have tribal monarchies, town monarchies. Moving against this structure would create huge problems in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi fabric is much more complicated than you think.

Jean Bodin would be proud.  And this:

Goldberg: Do you believe in women’s equality?

MbS: I support Saudi Arabia, and half of Saudi Arabia is women. So I support women.

MbS does seek to do away with Saudi guardianship laws, and he also seems to fully support Israel’s right to exist.  This is one of the best interviews you will read this year.

Could John McCain have been elected president?

If the supply of mortgage credit had not contracted from 2004 to 2008, McCain would have received half the votes needed in nine crucial swing states to reverse the outcome of the election. The effect on voting in these swing states from local contractions in mortgage credit supply was five times as important as the increase in the unemployment rate; if unemployment had not increased from 2004 to 2008, that improvement in local labor markets would only have given McCain only 9% of the votes needed to win the nine crucial swing states.

Here is more from Alexis Antoniades and Charles W. Calomiris.

Sentences about dairy

But there has never been a culture more dependent on milk than the desert nomads known as the Bedouins.

And originally, ice cream was only for aristocrats.

Others [in 18th century France] called ice cream fromage.

Jefferson liked to serve ice cream on sponge cake with a lightly baked meringue on top.

The United States became the ice cream country.

Fidel Castro took a personal interest in developing Cuban ice cream, and he was determined that Cuba would make better ice cream than the United States.

Ice cream is in general more profitable than milk, but ice cream cones are one of the more profitable ways to sell ice cream.

Those are all from the newly forthcoming and entertaining Mark Kurlansky book Milk: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas.

Those old service sector jobs (Ansichten eines Clowns)

At first they came for the clowns, and I said nothing:

Then McDonald’s terminated its regional Ronald McDonald program at the end of last year, though it’s vague about the reasons for the move…

One former Ronald, who believes their number was as high as 300 nationally, said he earned $64,000 in 2016, plus a $2,000 expense account, a car, and health and dental insurance, a fortune in clowning.

Now, that sort of income and security may be disappearing.

“Young people have not been excited by clowns,” says Richard “Junior” Snowberg, a World Clown Association founder and a retired professor [sic]. “They’re more excited by entertainment on screens.”

The World Clown Association has 2,400 members, about half its peak membership in the 1990s.

I believe roboclowns are not to blame, nor is it trade with China:

“I’ve been told that ‘you can’t come to the hospital. You’ll scare people.’ That was really heartbreaking,” says veteran Tricia “Pricilla Mooseburger” Manuel, 56, of Maple Lake, Minn. “It’s diminished my income. The damage is done in so many respects. There’s a whole generation that, when they think of a clown, they think of something scary.”

Though, Manuel adds, “people still love us in nursing homes.”

That is from Karen Heller at The Washington Post, via Michael Rosenwald and Mark Thorson.

Bruno Macaes on Trump on Europe

Trump the businessman has been operating in a global economy where, for the past thirty years, Europe has produced a single company that deserves to be called a world leader: the Spanish Zara. For the first time, an American President believes that Europe is a has-been. The secret of Trump’s approach to Europe is this: he will not allow the United States to be dragged down with Europe, even if that means bringing about a new schism in the transatlantic alliance…

Posed with the existential question of its own diminishing global influence, Europeans seem happy to settle for a world where their civilization and their values are protected from outside influence, even if that means renouncing the old “civilizing mission” to export them. The United States could of course reach for a similar bargain, in which case transatlantic ties would be strengthened. This seems unlikely because it would be tantamount to sacrificing its role as global leader and giving China a free hand in all those regions uncommitted to any of the two poles of the new Eurasian world. The alternative is for Washington to insert itself between Europe and Asia, drawing on the strengths of both and appealing to a global public from the position of what could become a common denominator.

…If the West ever falters, America will want to become less Western. As the fulcrum of world power moves away from the West, so does America. That—insofar as there is a doctrine—is the core of the Trump doctrine.

Interesting throughout, as you might expect, read more here.