Mark Lutter on Hong Kong in Ireland

This is from my email, I shall not impose any further indentation:

“Thanks for sharing the article about the Victoria Harbor Group. We, me being Chief Strategy Officer, are in discussions with Ireland. However, it is important to note that the information mentioned is dated. As any early stage company, our ideas have rapidly evolved. While the term we are using is ‘International Charter City’, we are not pursuing full scale autonomy. Our priority is to acquire land and build political support in the host country to build a city for the Hong Kong people with the target population being 50% HKers and 50% citizens of the host country. Of course, we wouldn’t say no to tax and regulatory relief, but that is not our focus.

Our key assumptions are as follows

1. The next 10-15 years will see 1m to 2m Hong Kongers migrate, the first mass migration of high skilled labor in the last 40 or so years.
2. There is value from coordinating this migration, keeping network effects, ensuring housing supply, etc
3. We see this as an opportunity to build the city of the future, cutting edge urban design, welcoming of new technology, self-driving cars, drone delivery, etc.
4. We are in discussions with several countries, not just Ireland, which we will make public when possible. We prefer English speaking countries with common law traditions, but are open to considering others.
5. Our goal is to acquire 50,000+ acres within 2 hours of an airport to build a new city for several hundred thousand residents. Obviously this depends on the political support in the host country. Smaller countries like Ireland would have smaller developments.
6. Political support from the host country is crucial. We are not asking for independence or autonomy. Of course, we wouldn’t say no to tax and regulatory relief, but that is less important than land availability and domestic buy in.
7. The city will fit in the national plans of the host country. The Hong Kongers excel in finance and manufacturing, as well as education and healthcare. While little manufacturing is done in Hong Kong, Hong Kongers own many factories in the Guangdong province. Any country looking to revive their manufacturing base could do so by attracting a bunch of talented HKers. Additionally, a good location could become a top 10 global financial center in 10 years by attracting HK financial talent.
8. We believe this is a great opportunity for any country which wants to attract a talented, hardworking, entrepreneurial population.
9. I have seen a lot of charter city projects and this is the first one I wanted to become part of the leadership team of.

For more information please see my podcast with Ivan Ko, the CEO. Our website will be launching soon.”

Fungus fact of the day

Fungi are prodigious decomposers, but of their many biochemical achievements, one of the most impressive is this ability of white rot fungi to break down the lignin in wood.  Based on their ability to release free radicals, the peroxidases produced b white rot fungi perform what is technically known as “radical chemistry.”  “Radical” has it right.  These enzymes have forever changed the way that carbon journeys through its earthly cycles.  Today, fungal decomposition — much of it of woody plant matter — is one of the largest sources of carbon emissions, emitting about eighty-five gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere every year.  In 2018, the combustion of fossil fuels by humans emitted around ten gigatons.

That is from the new and excellent book by Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures.

Moghul Express, Edison, New Jersey

It is the best biryani I have had outside of South Asia, plus the arrangement for outside dining is both spacious and nicely done and offers protection against rain.  Here is their web site.  Just get the biryani, but yes everything there is good it seems.  It is very close to where the Turnpike and Parkway intersect, and thus close to both — what more could you ask for in New Jersey?

How do you shop for books in a bookstore?

Jason emails me:

I would be interested to read on your blog about how you would shop for books in Daunt (or any good bookstore, but Daunt since you mentioned it). Is there method to your browsing/do you ask for recommendations, etc. Is there a person there who you particularly rate? It sounds basic but I think readers would be interested in knowing your approach. I live in London and too often walk out of a bookstore with books I have already heard about rather than taking a chance on something new.

Daunt has about seven or eight main “pressure points” near the very front of the store, and they are easy to find, and that is where you should look for your books. My key advice for Daunt is simply to have a basket, and/or an arrangement with the front desk that you can rest your accumulating pile of books there while you continue to look for more.

The basement floor of Daunt is organized by country, rather than by genre of book, and each visit you should scour at least two country sections for new (or older) items of interest.  Overall I find that “by country” is a better to organize the back titles than what any other bookstore does.  So, for instance, Chinese fiction is put next to Chinese history, not next to other fiction.

What makes the Marylebone branch of Daunt the best bookstore is how they organize the store, and the quality of selections they put on the front tables, not the overall number of titles.

Making random purchases of featured fiction, if it looks vaguely intelligent, is not crazy in Daunt, yet it would be in literally any American bookstore, or even in Waterstone’s in London (another superb store, go to the Piccadilly branch, but use it for history and biography not fiction).

If you are in a Barnes and Noble, mostly focus on finding the “new non-fiction” section, which these days is increasingly difficult to come across and ever-smaller.

*Buying Gay*

…what I found as I traveled around the country researching was that the notion of a “gay market” was already enjoying wide currency nearly a decade before Stonewall.  It was most clearly visible on the nation’s newsstands.  A social scientist who examined the largest newsstand in Dayton, Ohio, in 1964 found twenty-five magazines targeting a gay audience — so many that the salesperson had established a special section for what he called his “homosexual magazines.  He mixed the magazines of the homophile political organizations, ONE and Mattachine Review, with the far larger cache of physiques.  With twenty or more “little queer magazines” on American newsstands, each selling between twenty thousand and forty thousand copies, physique magazines represented a major industry.

…Editors of tabloid and mainstream magazines realized the extent of this market whenever they published an article on homosexuality and saw their sales soar.  Homophile leaders, too, saw how putting the words “the Homosexual Magazine” on their otherwise demurely titled ONE magazine increased sales.

That is from the recent and quite interesting book by David K. Johnson, Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs sparked a Movement.  Remind me again, this earlier media landscape was a) worse than the internet, or b) better than the internet.  Which one was it again…?  In any case, this book is an excellent reminder of just how much the early gay political movement was tied to markets and consumer capitalism.

Saturday assorted links

A Hong Kong enclave in Ireland?

Six locations in Ireland were discussed by government officials as possible sites for a new autonomous city named Nextpolis proposed by a wealthy Hong Kong businessman, The Times can reveal.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has been in contact with the Victoria Harbour Group (VHG), an international charter city investment company, since December about a plan to create a city from scratch that would be home to tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents…

The proposed city was referred to as Sim City in its early stages, after the computer game in which players create their own city. Over time its name changed to Nextpolis.

Here is the full story (Times of London, gated).  This article (same source) suggests the Irish citizenry is unlikely to favor the plan.

Global quieting of high-frequency seismic noise due to COVID-19 lockdowns

Human activity causes vibrations that propagate into the ground as high-frequency seismic waves. Measures to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic caused widespread changes in human activity, leading to a months-long reduction in seismic noise of up to 50%. The 2020 seismic noise quiet period is the longest and most prominent global anthropogenic seismic noise reduction on record. While the reduction is strongest at surface seismometers in populated areas, this seismic quiescence extends for many kilometers radially and hundreds of meters in depth. This provides an opportunity to detect subtle signals from subsurface seismic sources that would have been concealed in noisier times and to benchmark sources of anthropogenic noise. A strong correlation between seismic noise and independent measurements of human mobility suggests that seismology provides an absolute, real-time estimate of population dynamics.

Here is the paper by Thomas Lecocq,, Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

From the comments, on coronaviruses

I am still waiting for the new conventional wisdom about what is happening to emerge, and I believe it will be as follows.

A particular ancestral betacoronavirus emerged in bats several decades ago with a special superpower, different from but conceptually not too distinct from HIV’s ability to rapidly mutate. This virus had the ability to easily spread out among many animal species and evolve among them through a standard slow process of mutation subject to selection pressures, but then to occasionally co-infect a single host and recombine to create a radically different variant (a “chimera,” although I think it’s better thought of as an “offspring.”). These offspring would occasionally be very deadly because they combined well-developed abilities that had evolved in separate lineages from the original ancestor evolving in separate species.

Eventually I think we will categorize all the recent betacoronavirus outbreaks (Sars-1, Sars-2, MERS) as part of this broader process, and require a vaccination strategy that can be quickly deployed against new recombinations from this original ancestral betacoronavirus as they randomly emerge from the primordial stew across many animal species, including ours. The evidence thus far points to recombinations resulting in the emergence of a distinct dangerous variant with some regularity.

This story also explains the existence of some preexisting immunity in much of the population to Sars-Cov-2, but substantial variation in what feature of Sars-Cov-2’s genetic code the immune system reacts to depending on whether the individual is known to have had SARS, MERS, or neither. In all likelihood, possibly many relatively nonlethal or even asymptomatic variants of the same betacoronavirus ancestor have been circulating undetected among human populations during this same 10-20 years, resulting in people people who have been exposed to different random bits of genetic material present in Sars-Cov-2.

Here is the link.  By the way, it turns out that smallpox is much older than we had thought (NYT).  Betting on origins being longer and deeper than other people expect is often the bet to make.

United Kingdom fact of the day

Britain recorded 65,000 more deaths than usual in the past three months as the coronavirus ravaged the country but numbers are now returning to normal, new data showed Tuesday.

In the week to June 19, so-called excess deaths in England and Wales fell below the five-year average for the first time since mid-March, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

There were 0.7 percent fewer deaths overall than would be expected for that period.

Here is the full story.

What should we infer from a much older migration to the New World?

This news is important in its own right:

Surprisingly old stone points found in a Mexican cave are the latest intriguing discovery among many to raise questions about when humans really arrived in the Americas.

For most of the 20th century archaeologists generally agreed that humans who had crossed the Beringia land bridge from Siberia to North America only ventured further into the continent only when retreating ice sheets opened a migration corridor, about 13,000 years ago. But a few decades ago, researchers began discovering sites across the Americas that were older, pushing back the first Americans’ arrival by a few thousand years. Now, the authors of a new study at Mexico’s Chiquihuite cave suggest that human history in the Americas may be twice that long. Put forth by Ciprian Ardelean, an archaeologist at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas (Mexico), and his colleagues, the new paper suggests people were living in central Mexico at least 26,500 years ago.

Ardelean’s work was published in Nature and paired with another study that presented a broader look at 42 known early human sites across North America from the Bering Strait to Virginia. Data from those sites were used to model a much earlier peopling of the Americas, and help scientists reimagine not only when but how the first people reached and populated the New World. The model features a number of archaeological sites, including Chiquihuite cave, which are intriguing but controversial enough, as experts disagree whether the sites actually evidence human occupation.

Here is the Smithsonian article.  Of course I also wonder what is the rational Bayesian update?  That it takes longer to build a civilization than we had thought?  That people are more mobile than we had thought?  How much mobility precedes civilization?  All seem to be true.  Perhaps the truly scarce input in human history is “conceptual categories, understood properly in the relevant context.”  If those categories are very difficult to come by, it would help explain why the flowering of civilizations indeed did not follow immediately from these migrations, or indeed from the origin of mankind.  So this is partly a victory for Paul Romer’s theories, noting that the necessity of context may mean these ideas are not pure public goods in any simple sense.  You can’t just drop into Mexico, circa B.C. 3000 and bark out “here’s what the Mayans and Aztecs did!”.  Arguably the context as the scarce part is more important than the idea proper.

Frequent, Fast, and Cheap is Better than Sensitive

A number of firms have developed cheap, paper-strip tests for coronavirus that report results at-home in about 15 minutes but they have yet to be approved for use by the FDA because the FDA appears to be demanding that all tests reach accuracy levels similar to the PCR test. This is another deadly FDA mistake.

NPR: Highly accurate at-home tests are probably many months away. But Mina argues they could be here sooner if the FDA would not demand that tests for the coronavirus meet really high accuracy standards of 80 percent or better.

A Massachusetts-based startup called E25Bio has developed this sort of rapid test. Founder and Chief Technology Officer Irene Bosch says her firm has field-tested it in hospitals. “What we learned is that the test is able to be very efficient for people who have a lot of virus,” she says.

The PCR tests can discover virus at significantly lower concentration levels than the cheap tests but that extra sensitivity doesn’t matter much in practice. Why not? First, at the lowest levels that the PCR test can detect, the person tested probably isn’t infectious. The cheap test is better at telling whether you are infectious than whether you are infected but the former is what we need to know to open schools and workplaces. Second, the virus grows so quickly that the time period in which the PCR tests outperforms the cheap test is as little as a day or two. Third, the PCR tests are taking days or even a week or more to report which means the results are significantly outdated and less actionable by the time they are reported.

The fundamental issue is this: if a test is cheap and fast we shouldn’t compare it head to head against the PCR test. Instead, we should compare test regimes. A strip test could cost $5 which means you can do one per day for the same price as a PCR test (say $35). Thus, the right comparison is seven cheap tests with one PCR test. So considered a stylized example. If a person gets infected on Sunday and is tested on Sunday then both tests will likely show negative. With the PCR test the infected person then goes to work, infecting other people throughout the week before being the person is tested again next Sunday. With the cheap test the person gets tested again on Monday and again comes up negative and they go to work but probably aren’t infectious. They are then tested again on Tuesday and this time there is enough virus in the person’s system to show positive so on Tuesday the infected person stops going to work and doesn’t infect anyone else. Score one for cheap tests. Now consider what happens if the person gets tested on another day, say Tuesday? In this case, both tests will show positive but the person doesn’t get the results of the PCR test until next Tuesday and so again goes to work and infects other people throughout the week. With the cheap test the infected person learns they are infected and again stops going to work and infecting other people. Score two for cheap tests.

Indeed, when you compare testing regimes it’s hard to come up with a scenario in which infrequent, slow, and expensive but very sensitive is better than frequent, fast, and cheap but less sensitive.

More details in this paper.

The demise of the happy two-parent family

Here is new work by Rachel Sheffield and Scott Winship, I will not impose further indentation:

“-          We argue, against conventional wisdom on the right, that the decades of research on the effects of single parenthood on children amounts to fairly weak evidence that kids would do better if their actual parents got or stayed married. That is not to say that that we think single parenthood isn’t important–it’s a claim about how persuasive we ought to find the research on a question that is extremely difficult to answer persuasively. But even if it’s hard to determine whether kids would do better if their unhappy parents stay together, it is close to self-evident (and uncontroversial?) that kids do better being raised by two parents, happily married.

–          We spend some time exploring the question of whether men have become less “marriageable” over time. We argue that the case they have is also weak. The pay of young men fell over the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. But it has fully recovered since. You can come up with other criteria for marriageability–and we show several trends using different criteria–but the story has to be more complicated to work. Plus, if cultural change has caused men to feel less pressure to provide for their kids, then we’d expect that to CAUSE worse outcomes in the labor market for men over time. The direction of causality could go the other way.

–          Rather than economic problems causing the increase in family instability, we argue that rising affluence is a better explanation. Our story is about declining co-dependence, increasing individualism and self-fulfillment, technological advances, expanded opportunities, and the loosening of moral constraints. We discuss the paradox that associational and family life has been more resilient among the more affluent. It’s an argument we advance admittedly speculatively, but it has the virtue of being a consistent explanation for broader associational declines too. We hope it inspires research hypotheses that will garner the kind of attention that marriageability has received.

–          The explanation section closes with a look at whether the expansion of the federal safety net has affected family instability. We acknowledge that the research on select safety net program generosity doesn’t really support a link. But we also show that focusing on this or that program (typically AFDC or TANF) misses the forest. We present new estimates showing that the increase in safety net generosity has been on the same order of magnitude as the increase in nonmarital birth rates.

–          Finally, we describe a variety of policy approaches to address the increase in family stability. These fall into four broad buckets: messaging, social programs, financial incentives, and other approaches. We discuss 16 and Pregnant, marriage promotion programs, marriage penalties, safety net reforms, child support enforcement, Career Academies, and other ideas. We try to be hard-headed about the evidence for these proposals, which often is not encouraging. But the issue is so important that policymakers should keep trying to find effective solutions.”