Category: History

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.

*Missing: The Need for Closure after the Great War*

That is the new and excellent book by Richard Van Emden, and it covers how the British bureaucracy handled the reporting and identification of soldier corpses during and after the First World War.  Here is the author’s summary:

Here is the story of the army’s hunt for legions of missing men.  How were they sought?  How many were found and identified and what were the implications for families when that search was wound down?  tens of thousands of British people felt compelled to visit France and Belgium to see where their loved ones died; here we will explore what happened to the battlefields of Northern France and Belgium in the immediate post-war years…In telling the story of Britain’s military cemeteries on the western Front, this book will look at their design and horticulture, and examine the extraordinary lengths to which the gardeners of the Imperial War Graves Commission went to create an Eden for their dead comrades.

It turns out the British Army searched for remains for about three years, and after that the efforts pretty much dwindled to zero.  I also enjoyed reading about how these efforts, and the building of on-the-site graveyards, intersected with French and Belgium law and property rights.  And this:

An important question had been posed: to whom did the dead belong?  Did families own them?  Or did the bodies of servicemen and women remain in passive, eternal servitude to the army and, by extension, the government?  They were, after all, in military service and under military law when they died.  Did death release a body from continued service only to be automatically re-enlisted into the ritual of state-organised and state-controlled remembrance?

Among its other virtues, this book is also an interesting look at some of the efficiency properties of the earlier 20th bureaucracies.  The fact that they didn’t have the ability to make things too complicated often was a great virtue.

Recommended, you can order the book here.

Why was modernism for so long so inexhaustibly creative?

Piet Mondrian moved to Hampstead on 20 September and lived in a studio opposite Ben [Nicholson] and Barbara [Hepworth] for almost two years.  Mondrian’s studio in Paris had become a kind of pilgrimage site for modern artists across Europe in the 1930s.  With no means of viewing art unless it was exhibited, the way to see new work was to visit the artist.  Alexander Calder moved to Paris from New York in 1926, aged twenty-seven, and his visit to Mondrian’s studio gave him what he described as the ‘shock that started things’.  He likened it to being slapped like a baby to get its lungs working.

That is from Caroline Maclean’s new and noteworthy Circles & Squares: The Lives & Art of the Hampstead Modernists, a good book to read to think about the roots of artistic creativity.  Creators back then, by contemporary standards, had so few “means,” and yet they — perhaps unlike us?? — were quite capable of being shocked by new styles and thus revolutionized and awoken from their slumbers.  Is there any way to recreate those feelings?  Or will that happen only in tech areas and not so much in the arts?  What in music today could possibly shock you at this point?  Or in painting?

There is plenty of gossip in the book as well, in this case a plus.

That was then, this is now, micro-states and empires edition

Monaco was granted sovereignty in the 1860s by Emperor Napoleon III of France, deposed a few years later. San Marino received its independence from the Roman Empire in the 4th Century, while Andorra was split off from the long forgotten Kingdom of Aragon in the 13th century. None of these great potentates would ever have imagined that the tiny stubs of countries they took pity on would have legacies much longer than their own. Yet today, San Marino competes in Eurovision and the Roman Empire does not.

Here is more on Monaco by Ned Donovan, via Ben Southwood.

That was then, this is now, Chinese bond edition

In chess, new context empowers previously redundant pieces. And one such piece could turn out to be some $1tn-plus (when compound interest is accounted for) of yet-to-be-cancelled pre-People’s Republic of China debt ranging from the Hukuang Railways Sinking Fund Gold Loan of 1911 and the Reorganisation Gold Loan of 1913, to the so-called Liberty Bonds of 1937.

Long forgotten, these bearer bonds — denominated in sterling, Swiss francs, Russian roubles, Deutsche marks or US dollars — exist mostly in people’s private collections or attics. The most relevant were issued either by the former Republic of China or the preceding Imperial Chinese state to raise money for big development and infrastructure projects. Some were secured against revenues from Chinese natural assets like salt resources.

When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, its leaders broke with the tradition of maintaining the debt obligations of previous regimes. But they never formally de-recognised the debt. The bonds instead went into default, taking on mainly antique value.

Mitu Gulati, a professor of law at Duke University who has been studying the bonds, believes a legal argument could be made to revive some of the claims. Some of the old obligations include legal clauses that suggest new Chinese debt cannot be issued until old debt has been dealt with.

The 1912 and 1913 issues continued to trade speculatively on the London Stock Exchange until 1987, when some investor bets appeared to pay off…

George LaBarre, a specialist vintage financial paper dealer, says the price of the 1911 Hukuang bond has gone from $75-100 to about $450.

Here is more from the FT, via Malinga Fernando.

My Conversation with Nathan Nunn

Here is the transcript, audio, and video.  Here is part of the summary:

Nathan joined Tyler for a conversation about which African countries a theory of persistence would lead him to bet on, why so many Africans live in harder to settle areas, his predictions for the effects of Chinese development on East Africa, why genetic distance is a strong predictor of bilateral income differences and trade, the pleasant surprises of visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo, the role of the Catholic Church in the development of the West, why Canadian football is underrated, the unique commutes of Ottawans, the lack of Canadian brands, what’s missing from most economic graduate programs, the benefits of studying economics outside of the United States, how the plow shaped gender roles in the societies that used it, the cultural values behind South Korea’s success, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you try to think, say, within Africa, what would be some places that you would be modestly more optimistic about than, say, a hedge fund manager who didn’t understand persistence? What would a few of those countries be? Again, recognizing enormous noise, variance, and so on, as with smoking and lung cancer.

NUNN: If I’m true to exactly what I was just saying, then southern Africa or places where you have a larger population of societies that historically were more developed. South Africa, you have the Afrikaans, and they have a different descent than others. That’s if I’m true to what I was saying. But that’s ignoring that, also within Africa, you had a very large number of successful, well-developed states, and that was prior to European colonialism and the slave trade. So one could look at those cases.

One area that I worked at, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where you had the great Congo Kingdom, the Kuba Kingdom, a large number of other kingdoms, the Luba for example — that would probably be one country. That country today is pretty much as low as — in terms of per capita income — as you can be, right at subsistence. But if we’re predicting just based purely on persistence and historical state formation, that would be one to pick.

COWEN: What do you find to be the most convincing account of Botswana’s relative economic success?

NUNN: A few things. One is, Botswana is pretty small in terms of population. Anytime you have smaller countries, you can have more extreme outcomes. That’s one, that it’s small. But then related to that, it’s, in general, ethnically homogenous, particularly compared to other countries within Africa. The Tswana are the predominant ethnicity. They also have a historical social structure, and I think that was pretty well maintained and left intact. That’s a big part of the explanation.

And:

COWEN: Is it fun to visit Democratic Republic of Congo?

NUNN: Yeah, it’s great. Yeah.

COWEN: Tell us what’s fun. I need to go once I can.

NUNN: Yeah, it’s really, really great. The first time we went as a team — this is James Robinson, Sara Lowes, Jonathan Weigel in 2013 — we were pretty apprehensive. You hear a lot of stories about the DRC. It sounds like a very unsafe place, et cetera. But one thing we didn’t realize or weren’t expecting was just how lovely and wonderful the people are.

And it turns out it’s not unsafe in general. It depends on different locations. In the east, definitely near Goma, it’s obviously much, much less safe. But I think what, for me, is wonderful is the sense of community. Because the places we go are places that haven’t been touched, to a large extent, by foreign aid or NGOs or tourism, I think we are treated just like any other individual within the community.

And:

COWEN: What’s your favorite movie and why?

NUNN: Oh, favorite movie. [laughs] That’s a good question. Favorite movie — in the past it was Dazed and Confused. I must have watched that in university about a hundred times.

COWEN: A wonderful film.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

Ocean Grove, New Jersey travel notes

Having not visited the New Jersey shore since I was a kid (and then a very regular visitor), I realized you cannot actually swim there with any great facility.  Nor is there much to do, nor should one look forward to the food.

Nonetheless Ocean Grove is one of America’s finest collections of Victorian homes, and the town style is remarkably consistent and intact.  Most of all, it is an “only in America” kind of place:

Ocean Grove was founded in 1869 as an outgrowth of the camp meeting movement in the United States, when a group of Methodist clergymen, led by William B. Osborn and Ellwood H. Stokes, formed the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association to develop and operate a summer camp meeting site on the New Jersey seashore. By the early 20th century, the popular Christian meeting ground became known as the “Queen of Religious Resorts.” The community’s land is still owned by the camp meeting association and leased to individual homeowners and businesses. Ocean Grove remains the longest-active camp meeting site in the United States.

The pipe organ in the 19th century Auditorium is still one of the world’s twenty largest.

Ocean Grove, New Jersey - Wikipedia

The Auditorium is closed at the moment, but they still sing gospel music on the boardwalk several times a night.

The police department building is merged together with a Methodist church, separate entrances but both under the same roof.

Ocean Grove remains a fully dry city, for the purpose of “keeping the riff-raff out,” as one waitress explained to me.  To walk up the Ocean Grove boardwalk into nearby Asbury Park (Cuban and Puerto Rican and Haitian in addition to American black) remains a lesson in the economics of sudden segregation, deliberate and otherwise.

Based on my experience as a kid, I recall quite distinct “personae” for the adjacent beach towns of Asbury Park, Ocean Grove, Bradley Beach, Seaside Heights, Lavalette, Belmar, Spring Lake, and Point Pleasant.  This time around I did not see much cultural convergence.  That said, Ocean Grove now seems less the province of the elderly and more of a quiet upscale haunt, including for gay couples.  As an eight-year-old, it was my least favorite beach town on the strip.  Fifty years later, it is now striking to me how much the United States is refusing to be all smoothed over and homogenized.