Whiners, in this case whiners about Airspace

We could call this strange geography created by technology “AirSpace.” It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet. The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless, a value that Silicon Valley prizes and cultural influencers like Schwarzmann take advantage of. Changing places can be as painless as reloading a website. You might not even realize you’re not where you started…

The profusion of generic cafes and Eames chairs and reclaimed wood tables might be a superficial meme of millennial interior decorating that will fade with time. But the anesthetized aesthetic of International Airbnb Style is the symptom of a deeper condition, I think.

Why is AirSpace happening? One answer is that the internet and its progeny — Foursquare, Facebook, Instagram, Airbnb — is to us today what television was in the last century…

That is all from Kyle Chayka at The Verge.  I found this article interesting, well-written, and making a valid point.  Still, is it not mostly your fault if you are stuck in “Airspace,” as it is called?  Northern Virginia has some of the wealthiest counties in the United States, yet most of the terrain still is not Airspace or anything close to it.  Nor is most of San Francisco this way, or most of Manhattan, much less the other boroughs.  (And might you not prefer Airspace for the NYC subway?)  Seoul is a city which has its share of Airspace, but again is hardly dominated by it — the dense, low-slung neighborhoods of small restaurants are fascinating and mostly retro.

I think of Airspace as a 2-3% of our living space condition, yet a 2-3% that you can immerse yourself in if you are so inclined.

Which I am not.

Via edmundogs.

Who will win the Nobel Prize in economics this year?

I’ve never once gotten it right, at least not for exact timing, so my apologies to anyone I pick (sorry Bill Baumol!).  Nonetheless this year I am in for Esther Duflo and Abihijit Banerjee, possibly with Michael Kremer, for randomized control trials in development economics.

Maybe they are too young, as Tim Harford points out, so my back-up pick remains an environmental prize for Bill Nordhaus, Partha Dasgupta, and Marty Weitzman.

What do you all predict?

Banksy is the Real Deal

Hyperallergic: A Banksy artwork “self-destructed” at a Friday night Sotheby’s auction in London.

“Girl with a Balloon” (2006) was the final lot of the evening sale at Sotheby’s and ended things off with an impressive final price of £953,829…

Robert Casterline of Casterline Goodman gallery was in attendance and told Hyperallergic what happened next. He explained there was “complete confusion” and an “alarm inside the frame started going off as the gavel went down.”

“[It] sold for over a million dollars and as we sat there…the painting started moving,” he said, and added that the painting’s frame, also made by Banksy, acted as a shredder and started to cut the canvas into strips. “[It was] all out confusion then complete excitement,” he explained.

Anny Shaw of the Art Newspaper spoke to Alex Branczik, the auction house’s head of contemporary art for Europe,  who seemed as surprised as anyone.

Banksy is a genius.

Saturday assorted links

1. Insect Allies.

2. Consider the Wombat: “Despite the fact that they do not look streamlined, a wombat can run at up to 25 miles an hour, and maintain that speed for 90 seconds. The fastest recorded human footspeed was Usain Bolt’s 100m sprint in 2009, in which he hit a speed of 27.8 mph but maintained it for just 1.61 seconds, suggesting that a wombat could readily outrun him. They can also fell a grown man, and have the capacity to attack backwards, crushing a predator against the walls of their dens with the hard cartilage of their rumps. The shattered skulls of foxes have been found in wombat burrows.”

3. NeanderCare.

4. Neil Gorsuch will be teaching at GMU Law.

5. “San Francisco Board of Supervisors Tuesday unanimously passed an ordinance requiring that women be depicted in at least 30 percent of the city-sponsored artwork contains non-fictional people.

6. Hacker News thread on the Bloomberg China chip hack storyQuora on the same.

Status goods change over time

In Scotland, you can buy a 16th-century castle for a little more than a million dollars.

On Wednesday, someone paid a similar amount for a 750-milliliter bottle of single malt whisky described as “the Holy Grail” of the dark alcoholic spirit: just over $1.1 million, a record.

The 60-year-old Macallan Valerio Adami 1926 is “one of the rarest and most desirable bottles ever produced,” according to a specialist at Bonhams, the auction house in Scotland that made the sale. The price included a bid of 700,000 pounds, or about $900,000, plus a £148,000 sales premium.

The identity of the private buyer was not revealed. But a Bonhams spokesman said on Wednesday that the person was from Asia and had made the bid over the phone.

That is from Anna Schaverien at The New York Times.  Do note that it is harder to steal a castle:

If the new buyer chooses to preserve the bottle untouched, the fate of the world’s most expensive bottle of vodka serves as a cautionary tale.

The gold and silver bottle, with its diamond-encrusted cap, which was said to be worth $1.3 million, was stolen from a bar in Copenhagen in January.

After days of searching, the police found the bottle dented — and empty.

Politics isn’t about policy don’t put Shetland in a box

New rules barring public bodies from putting Shetland in a box on official documents have come into force.

Islands MSP Tavish Scott had sought to change the law to ban the “geographical mistake” which “irks” locals, by amending the Islands (Scotland) Bill.

The bill’s “mapping requirement” has now come into force, although it does give bodies a get-out clause if they provide reasons why a box must be used.

Mapmakers argue that boxes help avoid “publishing maps which are mostly sea”.

The Islands Bill, which aims to offer greater protections and powers to Scotland’s island communities, was unanimously passed in May.

Here is the full story, via Glenn Mercer.  You can’t call it “racist,”or “sexist,” might someone coin a future term for the objectionable act of…”putting my islands into a box”?

The Sokal Squared hoax

Here is coverage from The Chronicle, the bottom line is that a number of humanities journals were trolled by phony submissions, and yes the journals accepted some absurd articles.

For varying perspectives, here is Henry, and here is Jonathan Rauch.  Here is Yascha Mounk.  Here is Bryan.

I would frame the matter somewhat differently, and perhaps more cynically.  Not every undergraduate major can have majors as smart and as rigorous as we find say in mathematics.  And yes I do mean some of the humanities majors.  In the resulting equilibrium, the rigor and smarts of associated faculty vary across fields as well.  The top people in quantum mechanics have passed through some pretty tough filters.  But again, we cannot usefully generalize those filters across all fields and majors to a country where such a high percentage of people attend college.  (Slow improvement can come from K-12 progress, of course, and we should fight for that.)  Some of the majors have to be easier than others, no names will be named.  By the way, don’t assume that basket-weaving is such an easy skill!

So simply calling for higher standards in the fields you object to begs the question.  Instead ask “what are those fields for?”  And “might I prefer a different kind of error process in those fields?”  And “Might I want those fields to be (partly) bad in a very different way?”  You probably have to compare bad against bad, not bad against “my personal sense of what clearly would be better.”

After such inquiries, you still will find that too much bogus work is being researched and published in journals.  The most rigorous fields in turn tend to have too much irrelevant or overspecialized work — is all of string theory or for that matter game theory so much to be envied?

Many of you will be inclined to call for fewer subsidies.  I won’t tackle that larger question right now, I’ll just note that any system-wide subsidies — especially egalitarian ones — also will boost the less rigorous fields and majors, and in some manner you need to be prepared to live with the not entirely rigorous consequences of that.

Overall I view bad pieces in the humanities as a potential profit opportunity, rather than something to just whine about.  You don’t like those troll-published pieces?  Get to work!

Addendum: You will note that the sociology journals were not fooled by the troll submissions.  By many outsiders sociology is a much-underrated field.

What is a good name for a trade deal?

When I see USMCA, I also think of “United States Marine Corps,” a connection Donald Trump himself has noted. Of course the Marines have nothing to do with international trade policy, but given the public’s longstanding confidence in the military, the association is unlikely to hurt politically. Other people may confuse USMCA with USCMA, or the United States Catholic Mission Association, another positive connotation.

This next point may sound slightly cynical, but here goes: Perhaps being so easy to say and remember has been part of Nafta’s problem. The sad reality is that voters do not love the idea of free trade once it is made concrete to them, and both Barack Obama and Trump campaigned against Nafta in its current form. So maybe every time people heard the name Nafta, they were reminded of how much they disliked it.

I recall, more than a decade ago, hearing talk of a supposed “Nafta superhighway,” a series of roads that would supposedly bring the three Nafta countries under some kind of joint, conspiratorial rule, enforced by the movement of vehicles on these connector roads and sometimes in league with Satan himself. The alternative phrase — “USMCA Superhighway” — doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily, so maybe it will be harder to drum up fake news about the new deal.

Here is the rest of my Bloomberg column on the topic.  And this:

Looking back, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) had a pretty good name for its time. It conveyed that there was in fact a general agreement, and that branding sold well enough in an earlier, more multilateral era. It might have sounded dull and technocratic, but that was OK for policies which were … dull and technocratic. Much worse, however, was the 1995 relabeling into the World Trade Organization, a name which to many people sounds globalist, faceless and sinister. They might as well have called it SPECTRE, the name of the criminal group in many James Bond novels and films.

I even quote a Canadian quoting Shakespeare…

Improving But Not Learning by Doing

In the excellent The Secret of Our Success Joe Henrich gives many examples of complex technological products and practices which were not the product of intelligence but rather of many, small, poorly understood improvements that were transmitted culturally down the generations. Derex et al. offer an ingenious experimental test of the cultural generation hypothesis.

Participants in the experiment were presented with a wheel with some weights that could be moved along four axis and they were asked to place the weights to maximize the speed at which the wheel moved down a track. The problem isn’t trivial since an optimal solution requires placing the weights in different spots to take advantage of both inertial and potential energy. Participants were organized into chains of five. Each participant was given 5 trials. The weight configuration and the results of the last two trials were passed on to the next person in the chain. Thus, people farther down the chain potentially “inherit” more cultural knowledge.

What were the results? First, the average wheel speed increased down the generations from an average of 123.6 m/h for the final trial of the first generation/participant to 145.7 m/h by the last trial of the fifth generation. The researchers also tested whether participants improved their understanding of the causes of wheel speed by asking them to predict which of a series of wheel configurations would spin the fastest. If the faster speed of the fifth generation reflected learning by doing we would expect the fifth generation to make better predictions. In fact, there was no learning over time. Technology improved, understanding did not.

The authors then did an especially clever test. They allowed each generation/participant to leave the next generation a “theory” of wheel speed. Did this “book learning” speed up the evolution of technology? It did not. Moreover, theory transmission didn’t even result in much learning! Indeed, in some respects theories actually reduced learning because people who inherited a theory tended to believe it to the exclusion of other theories and, as a result, they reduced their exploration of the design space.

Of the 56 participants who received a theory… 15 received an inertia-related theory, 17 received an energy-related theory, 6 received a full theory and 18 received diverse, irrelevant theories

…inherited theories strongly affected participant’s understanding of the wheel system. Participants who did not inherit any theory (“Configurations” treatment) scored similarly (and better than chance) on questions about inertia and questions about energy (Fig. 3I). In comparison, participants who inherited an inertia- or energy- related theory showed skewed understanding patterns. Inheriting an inertia-related theory increased their understanding of inertia, but decreased their understanding of energy; symmetrically, inheriting an energy-related theory increased their understanding of energy, but decreased their understanding about inertia. One explanation for this pattern is that inheriting a unidimensional theory makes individuals focus on the effect of one parameter while blinding them to the effects of others. However, participants’ understanding may also result from different exploration patterns. For instance, participants who received an inertia-related theory mainly produced balanced wheels (Fig. 3F), which could have prevented them from observing the effect of varying the position of the wheel’s center of mass.

…These results suggest that the understanding patterns observed in participants who received unidimensional theories is likely the result of the canalizing effect of theory transmission on exploration. Note that in the present case, this canalizing effect is performance-neutral: with our 2-dimensional problem, better understanding of one dimension and worse understanding of one dimension simply compensate each other. For a many-dimensional problem, though, better understanding of one dimension is unlikely to compensate for worse understanding of all the others.

One aspect of knowledge transmission which is more difficult to study is the role of the genius. Cultural generation can get stuck in local optima. Only the genius can see over the valley to the mountain. The occasional genius may have been important even in knowledge generation in the pre-science era. In addition, these kinds of cultural evolution processes work best when feedback is quick and clear. Lengthen the time between input and output and all bets are off. Still this peculiar experiment illustrates how much cultural transmission can achieve and how theory can so dominate our thinking that it reduces vital experimentation.

What I’ve been reading

1. Nate Chinen, Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century.  Chinen mounts a persuasive argument that the “golden age of jazz” is in fact today, and fills in the background knowledge you might need to grasp such a claim.  I’ve long suggested that if you enjoy live performance, the access/price/talent gradient is truly remarkable.  You can see virtually any world class performer, from an A+ quality seat, for a mere pittance.  Except in London.  The bottom line is that I will keep this book, hardly ever the case.

2. James Mustich, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List.  Paging through this book, from beginning to end, or just browsing it, and buying the attractive-sounding titles is in fact a good (but expensive) way to find new reading.  I see no reason why such volumes should be regarded as absurd.  Right now I am on “Bradley,” and while I don’t agree with all of the selections, they are unfailingly intelligent and at least plausible.

3. Can Xue, Love in the New Millennium.  Is she the Chinese writer most likely to next win a Nobel Prize?  “In this darkly comic novel, a group of women inhabits a world of constant surveillance, where informants lurk in the flowerbeds and false reports fly.”  Much of the story is set in a brothel, with a rotating cast of characters.  Parts remind me of The Dream of the Red Chamber, in any case this is definitely a new fictional work of note.  Here is an atypical excerpt: “He and Xiao Yuan had one thing in common: they both valued sensual pleasures.  His greatest wish was to sit in the darkened National Theater and listen to La Traviata with her.  He thought that after experiencing that atmosphere, their sex life would become satisfying.  His idea was naive; Xiao Yuan said he was “too practical.”  She added, “Sex is a black hole.  People can’t understand all of its implications within a lifetime.”

4. Thomas J. Bollyky, Plagues and the Paradox of Progress: Why the World is Getting Healthier in Worrisome Ways is a good history of public health advances, but also how they have led to what are now plague-prone poor megacities.  Here is the author’s piece in Foreign Affairs.

Publicly traded firms do not have an investment deficit

Using data from U.S. corporate tax returns, which provide a sample representative of the universe of U.S. corporations, we investigate the differential investment propensities of public and private firms. Re-weighting the data to generate observationally comparable sets of public and private firms, we find robust evidence that public firms invest more overall, particularly in R&D. Exploiting within-firm variation in public status, we find that firms dedicate more of their investment to R&D following IPO, and reduce these investments upon going private. Our findings suggest that public stock markets facilitate greater investment, on average, particularly in risky, uncollateralized investments.

That is by Naomi Feldman, et.al., from the Fed.  Via Andrew McAfee and Matt Yglesias.  Of course, this is very much the opposite of what you usually hear from other sources.