Owl markets in everything

A U.K. photographer said a newlywed couple has no regrets about choosing an owl to be their ring bearer, even though it flew at a member of the wedding party during their ceremony.

Mark Wood and Jeni Arrowsmith wed at Peckforton Castle in Cheshire, England, on March 17.

Unbeknownst to their guests, the couple hired an owl named Bobby to bring the rings down the aisle.

Here is the CBC story, and for the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

The economics of Proposition 13

In 1978 California passed Proposition 13, which lowered property tax rates and restricted future property tax increases. We find that the introduction of Proposition 13 leads to a 15 percent increase in house prices and a 3.3 percent decrease in the moving rates. The elimination of Proposition 13, however, leads to modest changes in house prices and mobility but sizable welfare gains.

Here is the paper by Ayse İmrohoroğlu, Kyle Matoba and Şelale Tüzel.  Here are ungated copies.

Blockchain vs. European privacy law (GDPR)

Under the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, companies will be required to completely erase the personal data of any citizen who requests that they do so. For businesses that use blockchain, specifically applications with publicly available data trails such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, truly purging that information could be impossible. “Some blockchains, as currently designed, are incompatible with the GDPR,” says Michèle Finck, a lecturer in EU law at the University of Oxford. EU regulators, she says, will need to decide whether the technology must be barred from the region or reconfigure the new rules to permit an uneasy coexistence.

Here is more from Olga Kharif at Bloomberg.

*Who We Are and How We Got Here*, by David Reich

This is a truly excellent work, readable and informative at A to A+ quality, and the subtitle is Ancient DNA and the new Science of the Human Past.  It has occasioned some public controversy for its discussion of race and genetics, but most of all this is a book about how science is done.  For instance, the page and a half discussion of how researchers try to ensure that human DNA does not contaminate Neanderthal DNA is just beautiful.

Here is one good summary passage:

The case of the Ancient North Eurasians showed that while a tree is a good analogy for the relationships among species — because species rarely interbreed and so like real tree limbs are not expected to grow back together after they branch — it is a dangerous analogy for human populations.  The genome revolution has taught us that great mixtures of highly divergent populations have occurred repeatedly.  Instead of a tree, a better metaphor may be a trellis, branching and remixing far back into the past.

Here is another excerpt of note:

Analyzing our data, he [Iosif Lazaridis] found that about ten thousand years ago there were at least four major populations in West Eurasia — the farmers of the Fertile Crescent, the farmers of Iran, the hunter-gatherers of central and western Europe, and the hunter-gatherers of eastern Europe.  All these populations differed from one another as much as Europeans differ from East Asians today.

The concept of “ghost populations” will enter your mental conceptual vocabulary.  And:

The extraordinary fact that emerges from ancient DNA is that just five thousand years ago, the people who are now the primary ancestors of all extant northern Europeans had not yet arrived.

Most of all, this is a science book, not a “race book.”  (“Having been immersed in the ancient DNA revolution for the past 10 years, I am confident that anyone who pays attention to what it is finding cannot come away feeling affirmed in racist beliefs.”)  You may know that Reich is a Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School.

Here is his earlier NYT essay (though I think the very first link in this post is the best place to start, do read that carefully), well done but not quite representative of the book either.  You can buy it here, this is definitely one of the books of the year and one of the best popular science books of any year.

*The Away Game: The Epic Search for Soccer’s Next Superstars*

I found this book by Sebastian Abbot very stimulating, though I wished for a more social-scientific treatment.  The focus is on Africa, here is one bit on the more conceptual side:

But focusing on a young player’s technique still tells a scout relatively little about whether the kid will reach the top level, even when the observations are paired with physical measures of speed and agility.  A study published in 2016 looked at the results from a battery of five tests conducted by the German soccer federation on over 20,000 of the top Under-12 players in the country.  The tests measured speed, agility, dribbling, passing, and shooting.  The researchers assessed the utility of the tests in determining how high the kids would progress once they reached the Under-16 to Under-19 level.  The study found that players who scored in the 99th percentile or higher in the tests still only had a 6 percent chance of making the youth national team.

So what else might you look to?:

They assessed the game intelligence of players by freezing match footage at different moments and asking players to predict what would happen next or what decision a player on the field should make.  Elite players were faster and more accurate in their ability to scan the field, pick up cues from an opponent’s position, and recognize, recall, and predict patterns of play.

And:

Researchers have found that the key ingredient is not how much formal practice or how many official games players had as kids, but how much pickup soccer they played in informal settings like the street or schoolyard.

The implications for economics study and speed chess are obvious.  Finally:

Researchers found that athletes have a 25 percent larger attention window than nonathletes.

Is that true for successful CEOs as well?  By the way, I hope to blog  soon about why human talent is in so many endeavors the truly binding constraint.

This is an interesting Africa book, too.

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.

The slow reservations restaurant culture that is Maine

Erin French’s aptly named Lost Kitchen is an exceptionally remote eatery that the Boston Globe’s food critic once declared the “best Maine restaurant you may never be able to eat at.” It was already difficult to eat there, in other words, and it may soon get more difficult because the restaurant is going full neo-Luddite with its reservations. You can’t make one by phone anymore. Or via email. Or on any app. Your sole option: snail-mailing them a letter with your name and contact info. If your letter randomly gets drawn from the pot, they’ll be in touch.

Here is more, by Clint Rainey, via Steve Rossi.

Friday assorted links

*Cognitive Gadgets*

The author is Cecilia Heyes, and the subtitle is The Cultural Evolution of Thinking, published by Harvard/Belknap.  It is not always a transparent read, but this is an important book and likely the most thoughtful of the year in the social sciences.

From the book’s home page:

…adult humans have impressive pieces of cognitive equipment. In her framing, however, these cognitive gadgets are not instincts programmed in the genes but are constructed in the course of childhood through social interaction. Cognitive gadgets are products of cultural evolution, rather than genetic evolution. At birth, the minds of human babies are only subtly different from the minds of newborn chimpanzees. We are friendlier, our attention is drawn to different things, and we have a capacity to learn and remember that outstrips the abilities of newborn chimpanzees. Yet when these subtle differences are exposed to culture-soaked human environments, they have enormous effects. They enable us to upload distinctively human ways of thinking from the social world around us.

The key substantive points from this are malleability and speed of evolution, and overall in her theory there is a much lower reliance on cognitive instincts and thus a fundamentally different account of social evolution: “In contrast, the cognitive gadgets theory applies cultural evolutionary theory to the mechanisms of thought — the mental processes that generate and control behavior.”

And “…social interaction in infancy and childhood produces new cognitive mechanisms; it changes the way we think.”

The chapter on imitation is the best appendage to Girard on memesis I know.  One interesting point is that most people find it quite hard to imitate how they look to others when say they tell a joke or make love.  To imitate successfully, you need to develop particular sensorimotor capacities.  Otherwise, you can be thwarted by a kind of “correspondence” problem, not knowing how the objective and subjective experiences of imitation match up properly.  This too we learn through cultural gadgets.

Mindreading is also a mental gadget, it must be learned, and it is surprisingly similar to print reading.  In an odd twist on Julian Jaynes, Heyes suggests that humans five or six thousand years ago may not have had this capacity very strongly.  And as with print reading, there is cross-cultural diversity in mindreading.  There is no mindreading instinct and we all must learn it, autistics too.

What about language?  Rather than Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, there are instead “domain-general processes of sequence learning.”  This in turn leads to a complex and quite interesting take on how, while non-human animals do also have language, it is quite different from ours (p.187).

Most generally, if someone is trying to explain X, maybe both genetic/instinct and cultural evolution accounts of X are wrong — try a cultural gadget approach!  And think of this book as perhaps the best attempt so far to explain the weirdness of humans, relative to other animals.

Note also that in this view, humanity is relatively vulnerable to cultural catastrophes, as we cannot simply bounce back using enduring instincts.  Furthermore, social media may indeed matter a great deal, and in revisionist terms some parts of Marx are not as crazy as they may seem (my point this latter one, not hers).

I need more time (years?) to digest the contents of this book, and decide how much I agree.  It is somehow neither hard nor easy reading, but most MR readers should be able to make their way through it.  Highly recommended, it is likely to prove one of the most thought-provoking books of the year.

Buy it on Amazon here.  Here is a Heyes lecture on related ideas, also click through to part II.

Solve for the China jaywalking equilibrium

Jaywalkers in China are to be named, shamed and slapped with an instant SMS fine.

And it’s all thanks to cutting-edge artificial intelligence.

In the southeastern city of Shenzhen, police have set up AI-powered boards by crossings.

If you jaywalk, a CCTV camera will scan your face and flash it up on the huge screens for all to see, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, there are now plans to ping offenders’ phones with quick-fire fines as soon as they violate the grim rule.

The AI company behind the billboards, Intellifusion, is in talks with mobile phone networks and local social media platforms to enforce the new system.

To be clear, I consider this report speculative.  But not impossible.

Who’s complacent, Charlie?

In 1910, just 5% of American babies named “Charlie” were girls. Over 100 years later, girl Charlies took over their male counterparts for the first time in 2016—making up 51% of the share.

With little fuss or fanfare, Charlie has gone gender-neutral…

Quartz analyzed the Social Security Administration’s public data on baby names to find out whether what happened with “Charlie” is an exception, or part of a wider trend. Our results show that, on average, the country is slowly moving toward using more gender-neutral names.

Here is the full story by Nikhil Sonnad, with good graphs too.  It lists all sorts of names and tells you how gender-neutral they are.  Some of the less gender-specific names these days are “Jerry,” “Aden,” and “Orion.”  Not to mention “Finley,” “Justice,” and “Armani.”  Don’t ask about “Lennon” or “Emerson.”  Marion slowly has been switching from a girl’s name to a boy’s name.  Blake is now one-quarter female.  I did not know that Ashton is now mainly a boy’s name.

Thursday assorted links

Suicide attackers, the drone wars, and self-driving vehicles

To remind you of the Tempe story:

Police say a video from the Uber self-driving car that struck and killed a woman on [the prior] Sunday shows her moving in front of it suddenly…”The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them,” Moir said, referring to the backup driver who was behind the wheel but not operating the vehicle. “His first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision.”

From other sources I have read, the chance this was an actual intentional suicide seems to be low.  But I wonder if that is an angle to self-driving cars which we haven’t thought through yet, namely they could become a target for suicidal Luddites, intent on changing the course of history (they don’t like cars or social control).  It may indeed be the case that only a small number of pedestrian deaths will significantly slow down the progress of these vehicles, and thus they may be targeted.  Let’s turn to the sunny state of California:

So far in 2018, there have been only six reported traffic incidents involving self-driving vehicles in California, according to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. But of those six incidents, two involved angry, violent Californians going up to the futuristic cars on San Francisco streets and attacking.

This is just a speculative thought…