On Nebraska (from the comments)

Seven-year Nebraskan here: Nebraksa is a well-governed semi-socialist polity effectively managed by competent antihero big businesses). This is all largely based out of business-Mecca Omaha. Business/govt relations are rather close. Governor Ricketts is brother to TDAmeritrade founder Joe Ricketts, Warren Buffet weighs in on the Omaha mayoral elections [1], real-estate taxes go to schools, [2] etc. There’s a tremendous amount of business/professional culture to match, and also a hometown/togetherness ensuring academia and healthcare are well-provisioned. CWT guest Ben Sasse best demonstrates these qualities. This comes at a cost of stopping taxation arbitrage -> eventual taxing of the burbs (Omaha annexing the wealthy Elkhorn suburb was the most notable political fight), the gradual Omaha-ization of Nebraska. Smaller counties struggle, and indeed some younger friends tell stories of their county struggling to keep the lights on when Bass Pro Shop dropped the store there. But one thing is certain – Omaha marches on.

Omaha has an effective moat (a business-only, low-arts town w/ awful weather) against a more radical political activist crowd that might ruin the flow of Omaha. Other companies are taking note – Google is building a new data center here, for instance.

This is all deliberate. Put yourself in enough fancy enough Nebraskan rooms and you will hear about how this is done – scholarships, targeting double-income-no-kids (DINKs) with things like dog parks, regular hosting of brief entertainment to draw crowds (CWS and Olympic trials) but not enough to draw the worst types of audience (drunk NFL fans). Omahans accordingly have an eagle eye for their city – ask them about Conagra’s HQ move and they will spend half an hour explaining to you how they were wronged.

Alas, the signs of Omaha experiencing larger business-town problems are sort-of on the way. For one thing, Omaha businesses were notably less woke when Trump was elected, and far more woke now, reflecting a greater influence of federal politics/topics, although it is hard to tell whether our businesses influence politics or our politicians influence our businesses. For another, the typical issues of more prominent cities are here – WestO, NorthO and SouthO are three different entirely towns divided by race/income pretty clearly. First National Bank of Omaha holds the original copy of the Louisiana Purchase, which ought to be visible to the public at a museum if you could ensure that BLM rioters wouldn’t destroy it. (Un)fortunately, the LP is hidden at the top of the building in a high-security office…

The real problem that Omaha faces is that while SF’s top guns are in their early thirties-fifties, Omaha’s leaders are in their early seventies to late nineties, and there is no guarantee that the next generation is up to the task. Culture changes when new people come in with new ideas, and there is no guarantee that Omaha’s next generation doesn’t ruin it for everyone.

I do find it odd, and perhaps a little too prescient, that some Omaha employers fitted their employees with emergency preparedness plans/WFH gear shortly before the pandemic, but this isn’t the point. The point is that Nebraska is an extremely intriguing place. The fact that there are only this many comments suggests MR audience does not take Nebraska seriously enough.

[1] https://jeanstothert.com/warren-buffett-endorses-mayor-stothert/
[2] https://omaha.com/news/state-and-regional/govt-and-politics/effort-to-revamp-nebraska-school-aid-ease-property-taxes-ends-for-now/article_98379cde-8b68-11ec-be12-affd05439f05.html

That is from Harvey Bungus.

Friston’s theory of everything

Bayesian Brain theory flips this idea around again so that cognition is a cybernetic or autopoietic loop. The brain instead attempts to predict its inputs. The output kind of comes first. The brain anticipates the likely states of its environment to allow it to react with fast, unthinking, habit. The shortcut basal ganglia level of processing. It is only when there is a significant prediction error—some kind of surprise encountered—that the brain has to stop and attend, and spend time forming a more considered response. So output leads the way. The brain maps the world not as it is, but as it is about to unfold. And more importantly, how it is going to unfold in terms of the actions and intentions we are just about to impose on it. Cognition is embodied or enactive…

Friston is largely a modest person, but he is not afraid to bang the table a little more these days. At the 2021 Brain Connectivity Workshop, Friston asserted he has done nothing less than found a fourth branch of physics. You have Newtonian mechanics, quantum mechanics, and statistical mechanics (that is, thermodynamics), and now you can have Bayesian mechanics—the physics of systems which can exert a predictive control over their worlds. We can debate the truth of this claim. However, I applaud the ambition. Neuroscience establishing its own deep mathematical foundation at last. This is why I pitch the Bayesian Brain as the big thing of the past 20 years.

That is John McCrone summarizing Friston in a short piece.  And if you wish to read further, here is one famous paper by Friston.  I do not have an opinion of my own here, but am always happy to pass along (relatively) new ideas.  And here is Friston (with co-authors) applying his framework to autism.

Via Michelle Dawson.

Emergent Ventures winners, 19th cohort

Avi Schiffman, Harvard University. a second award to Avi, for his Ukraine Take Shelter project.

Carol Vieria de Magelhaes, Brazil and Northwestern University, to support a visiting research internship at Harvard Medical School.

BioDojo House, “A 3 month long co-living community in the Boston/Cambridge area from June-Aug, hosting 6-10 next generation builders & young emerging scientists between 18-25 years old.”

Serene Han, a free speech project, to expand Tor/Snowflake for Russian and other access to the uncensored internet.

Hector Alberto Diaz Gomez, Peru, Amazonas, general career development and travel, and for research into multilingual search engines.

Louise Perry and Fiona Mackenzie, London area, The Other Half, “a feminist think tank with a post-liberal agenda.”

Bridget Pegg, St. Louis and Mizzou, for general career development, and intellectual and policy outreach for Missouri and the broader Midwest.

Marius Hobbhahn, Tübingen, AI safety and for writings on many other topics as well.

Zeel Patel, Harvard and Broad Institute of MIT, applying machine learning to health care through AI.

Dwarkesh Patel, Austin, podcasting and general career support.

Tim Farrelly, Dublin, working on AI and vision issues and for general career development and conference travel.

Yang Zheng, North Hollywood, a project to crowdsource AI problems.

Ben Smith, University of Oregon, from New Zealand.  For his project on “multi-objective reinforcement learning with an exponential-log function.”

Paulina M Paiz, San Francisco/Toronto, travel grant to attend scientific conferences, and to continue with her work using DeepChem.


The equilibrium

The South African drugmaker Aspen Pharmacare earlier this year finalized a deal to bottle and market the Johnson & Johnson vaccine across Africa, a contract that was billed as an early step toward Africa’s development of a robust vaccine production industry. Aspen geared up for production, but no buyers, including the African Union and Covax, have placed orders yet, said Stephen Saad, Aspen’s chief executive.

The Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine maker, stopped its production of Covid shots in December last year, when its stockpile grew to 200 million doses; Bharat Biotech, another Indian firm that was a major producer, also stopped making vaccines in the face of low demand. The companies say they have no further orders since their contracts with the Indian government ended in March.

Here is more from The New York Times.

Sunday assorted links

1. Economic factors behind the demise of footbinding.

2. Paul McCartney plays bass for an obscure Malawian group.

3. Effective pandemic policy reduces fear.

4. Hadza hunter-gatherers are not deontologists and do not prefer deontologists as social partners.

5. The global median income has doubled in 17 years from 2000 to 2017.

6. Liberty Institute at UT Austin.

7. Social media better than many people think.

Why are skyscrapers so short?

Brian Potter has a delightful primer on the physical, economic and regulatory barriers to building height beginning with the Great Pyramid of Giza and running to today. He concludes that the limit today isn’t technological–we could build much higher–but regulatory:

…we can estimate the magnitude of building height restrictions by comparing the cost of rent to the marginal cost of adding an additional floor. When Glaeser et al. 2005 did this for Manhattan, they found that the cost of rent was approximately twice the marginal cost of an additional floor, concluding, “the best explanation for why [developers] do not take advantage of this opportunity is the reason they tell us themselves: New York’s maze of building regulations effectively cap their building heights.” Cheshire et al. 2007 found similar magnitudes of rent-to-cost ratios in a variety of major European cities. When Glaeser et al. tried to estimate the size of building height externalities in New York, they concluded it was nowhere near the magnitude of the rent/construction cost difference, suggesting current height limits are far stricter than necessary.

These building height restrictions make us all poorer – not only do they cause a deadweight loss by artificially restricting the supply of available building space where it’s needed the most, but they also screen off the potential agglomeration benefits that accrue from increased density. This makes workers and businesses less productive and innovative than they could be, which not only hurts them, but everyone else who would benefit from cheaper and better goods and services.

The upshot is that there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in building taller buildings. We don’t need to invent any new technology for pushing the boundaries of what’s possible to build, we just need to stop getting in our own way.

I concluded the same thing when I looked at building height in Mumbai, India. This video also contains a very nice explanation of the Floor Space Index also known as the Floor Area Ratio.

What drives people to extremist YouTube videos?

There is a new and very interesting paper on this topic by Annie Y. Chen, Brendan Nyhan, Jason Reifler, Ronald E. Robertson and Christo Wilson.  Here is the abstract:

Do online platforms facilitate the consumption of potentially harmful content? Despite widespread concerns that YouTube’s algorithms send people down “rabbit holes” with recommendations to extremist videos, little systematic evidence exists to support this conjecture. Using paired behavioral and survey data provided by participants recruited from a representative sample (n=1,181), we show that exposure to alternative and extremist channel videos on YouTube is heavily concentrated among a small group of people with high prior levels of gender and racial resentment. These viewers typically subscribe to these channels (causing YouTube to recommend their videos more often) and often follow external links to them. Contrary to the “rabbit holes” narrative, non-subscribers are rarely recommended videos from alternative and extremist channels and seldom follow such recommendations when offered.

I am traveling and have not had the chance to read this paper, but I do know the authors are very able.  I am not saying this is the final word, but I would make the following observation: there are many claims made about social media, and many of them might be true, but for the most part they are still largely unfounded.

Local changes in intergenerational mobility

We study changes in intergenerational income mobility over time at the local level in the U.S., using data on individuals born in the 1980s. Previous research has found no change in mobility at the national level during this time period, but we show that this hides substantial increases and decreases in mobility at the local level. For children from low-income families, there is convergence in mobility over time, and average differences by region become much smaller. For children from high-income families, the geographic variation in mobility becomes much larger. Our results suggest caution in treating mobility as a fixed characteristic of a place.

Here is the published piece by Christopher Hnady and Katharine L. Shester.  As for a few concrete results:

1. Mobility in the southeast has been rising.

2. Mobility in the northeast has been declining.

3. There is more mobility from rural than urban areas, and this gap has been rising.

4. For wealthier families, mobility depends more on where you live.

For most of these claims, the data are from cohorts born in the 1980s.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

*Graveyard Clay* [Cré na Cille]

The author is Máirtín Ó Cadhain, and I am surprised how compelling I am finding this novel, translated from the Irish.  The premise is that the dead inhabitants of a graveyard complain and bicker about their lot, most of all about the new arrivals sent their way.  Dear reader, these are NIMBY dead people.  Imagine Dante’s Inferno, but instead of the elegant circles of hell it resembles the kind of squabbling and black humor you might find in a cranky Irish pub.


I wonder what sort of funeral I had?  I won’t know until the next corpse I’m acquainted with arrives.  It’s high time now for someone to come.

This is a well-known novel, especially in Ireland, and often it is considered the best Irish-language novel of all time.  But I’ve never heard people telling other people they ought to read it, and in that sense it doesn’t seem so very well known in the United States at all.  This is the translation I have been enjoying.

The pull of the equilibrium?

Man who never wanted to ride in fighter jet accidentally ejects himself

A man who was terrified by his retirement gift from co-workers — a ride in a fighter jet — grabbed the ejector handle in a panic and was launched through the skies 2,500 feet above the ground, says the official government report on the incident.

The ride on March 20, 2019, had been arranged as a surprise gift to the 64-year-old man, who was leaving his job at a French defense contractor. His co-workers took him to the Saint-Dizier air base, 100 miles east of Paris, and announced he would be flying in a Dassault Rafale B.

The man had never expressed any desire to fly in a fighter jet and had no military aviation experience, said the report  by investigators for France’s aviation safety agency…

Safety checks were apparently lax, and he was allowed to adjust his own gear. His helmet strap was unfastened, his  oxygen mask unattached, his visor was up, and his seat  harness was loose.

On takeoff, the pilot and passenger were subjected to 4 Gs. Leveling off around 2,500 feet, that dropped to negative 0.6 Gs, a feeling of weightlessness. At that point, said a translated version of the report, “the insufficiently strapped and totally surprised passenger” grabbed for the nearest handle — which turned out to activate the ejector seat.

He landed in a field near the German border with only minor injuries.  Here is the full story.

New developments in the economics of fertility

The economics of fertility has entered a new era because these stylized facts no longer universally hold. In high-income countries, the income-fertility relationship has flattened and in some cases reversed, and the cross-country relationship between women’s labor force participation and fertility is now positive. We summarize these new facts and describe new models that are designed to address them.

That is from a new NBER paper by Matthias Doepke, Anne Hannusch, Fabian Kindermann, and Michèle Tertilt . Another result is that quality vs. quantity tradeoff models for children no longer perform very well.  And fertility-education relationships are greatly weakened, just as the income-fertility relationships are.  The marketization of childcare is likely an important cause of this shift.

Italy and Spain are two countries where the income-fertility relationship is not being reversed.

Father contribution rates to child-raising are growing in importance for fertility.  Fathers seem most interested in their children in Norway, and least interested in Russia, of the countries sampled.

If a couple disagrees on having another kid, the chance they do is relatively small.

In Denmark in 2015, six percent of all births occurred with some kind of medical help related to conception.

There are now positive correlations between public childcare provision, though I do not in this paper see any reliable causal estimate.

The paper has a section on social norms, but it oddly fails to consider religion.

There is some evidence for peer effects mattering for fertility, for instance in a workplace.

98 pp. of text, perhaps no huge revelations, but interesting throughout.

A devil may care attitude?

A Pennsylvania school district has voted against a parent’s request to launch a satanic group’s After School Satan Club at an elementary school for students who want to participate in an extracurricular program that is non-religious.

In an 8-1 vote Tuesday, the Northern York County School Board based in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, rejected the request to establish an “After School Satan Club” at the district’s Northern Elementary School.

The agenda for Tuesday’s meeting indicates that Samantha Groome sought to establish the club on a “probationary basis.” A video clip of the school board meeting, obtained by the York Daily Record, shows parents and others gathered in the crowd standing up and erupting into applause after the effort to create the satanic club was defeated.

Groome said she wanted her children to be able to participate in extracurricular activities, but sought a secular alternative to the Joy El Christian club, which operates at nine of the 16 school districts in the county and offers off-campus activities.


The flyer touted some of the activities participants would engage in, including “science projects,” “puzzles games,” and “arts and crafts projects,” and listed “benevolence and empathy,” “critical thinking,” “problem solving,” “creative expression” and “personal sovereignty” as concepts children will learn there. It also asserted that the United States Constitution protects the After School Satan Club’s right to distribute flyers on public school grounds.

Here is the full story, via a loyal MR reader.