Friday, February 23, 2018

Kids These Days

The political gap between young voters (18 to 33) and people over 50 is bigger today than it ever was in the 1960s. (Based on data from here.) The Millennial generation is the most liberal in the history of polling, by a substantial margin.

Jorge Méndez Blake, "The Castle"

Brick wall distorted by a single book, a copy of Kafka's The Castle. Via My Modern Met.

Ground Broken for the World's Most Dangerous Pipeline

The world's latest experiment in "pipeline diplomacy" is finally underway in Afghanistan, more than twenty years after it was first proposed. Groundbreaking took place this morning in Herat for the TAPI gas pipeline, so-called because it crosses Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. This route was originally envisioned because Russia kept cutting off shipments of gas from Turkmenistan through its pipelines, and the obvious route across Iran had its own share of political difficulties. (Especially that it would open a big hole in the sanctions then in place against Iran because of its nuclear program.)

But if you're wondering how a pipeline across Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas could possibly be safer and more reliable than any other imaginable route anywhere, well, a lot of people agree with you. Pressure has continued to build this line because the world would really like Afghanistan to have some economic alternative to opium poppies, because people would really like to do something for Afghanistan besides drop bombs on it, because peace factions in Pakistan and India really like the idea, because Turkmenistan really hates depending on Russia, and because India's potential demand for natural gas is enormous. Whether all of this will be enough to see the line through to completion remains to be seen.

And if it is built, what will happen to the $400 million a year in transit fees this is expected to earn for Afghanistan? Seems likely to me it will disappear into a nexus of corrupt dealing. But maybe that would actually help; I mean, it seems better to me for Kabul and the Taliban to make a back room deal dividing that money than to keep shooting and bombing each other. In the longer term this could lead to the development of smaller gas fields in Afghanistan itself, since both the proximity of the pipeline and the evidence that the warring factions can be bribed into partial peace would encourage investment.

I'm not especially hopeful, but when it comes to Afghanistan any positive is worth cheering.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Ekaterina Lukasheva: Kusudamas

Ekaterina Lukasheva is a Russian paper artist with a math degree. She designs kusudamas, folded paper constructions with a long tradition in the country. More at This is Colossal.

Cock Fight Mosaic from Pompeii

Cryptocurrencies, Religion, States, and Corporations

Investment guru Paul Singer of Elliott Management recently wrote this about Bitcoin
FOMO (fear of missing out) has solidly trumped WTHIT (what the hell is this??). When the history is written, cryptocurrencies will likely be described as one of the most brilliant scams in history. . . .

We all laugh at primitive tribes which used large stones (or pigs) as currency. Well, laugh as you will, but a stone or a healthy pig is something. Cryptocurrencies are nothing except the marketing power of inventors, financiers and others who love the idea of buying a black box (which is obviously empty) for the price of a Kia and dreaming that it will turn into a Mercedes. There have been times recently when this dream has materialized within hours. This is not just a bubble. It is not just a fraud. It is perhaps the outer limit, the ultimate expression, of the ability of humans to seize upon ether and hope to ride it to the stars.
Which led Matt Levine to write this:
I mean look. If I told you "X is a scam," you probably wouldn't buy X, because you are a savvy Money Stuff reader and you don't buy into scams. But maybe you should! What if I told you "X is a really good scam, and it's just getting started"? The stereotypical pump-and-dump scheme starts with some fraudster hyping a stock, and ends with a bunch of retail investors holding the bag when that stock crashes. But in between there are usually savvy people who buy the stock on the hype, knowing that it's a scam, but believing correctly that they'll be able to sell it to someone else on the way up and get out before the crash. Sometimes the right trade is to short a scam, but often it's to go along with the scam for a while.

But cryptocurrencies, in Elliott's telling, are not just a scam, or a good scam. They are "one of the most brilliant scams in history." What else is on that list? I like Yuval Noah Harari's argument, in "Sapiens," that Homo sapiens's major advantage as a species is our ability to generate collective fictions . . .

Harari argues that fiction "has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively," and thus given us "the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers." Harari's list of powerful fictions includes religion, nation-states, human rights, money and the limited liability corporation. Laugh as you will, but the limited liability corporation is not a stone, or a healthy pig. It is just an example of the ability of humans to generate abstract concepts and use them to coordinate action, "to seize upon ether and hope to ride it to the stars." Viewed in a certain light the corporation, or money, or nation-states, or religion, are some "of the most brilliant scams in history." Being on that list augurs well for a scam's longevity, and for its real value. If Bitcoin lasts for 10,000 years and facilitates a freer and more productive economy, then it really will be one of the most brilliant scams in history. And you'll be glad you bought Bitcoins.

That doesn't mean that Elliott is right! What do I know? Maybe cryptocurrency is not one of the most brilliant scams in history, but just a regular scam. This is not investing advice. My point is only that it is not a good objection, to an innovation in human culture, to say that it has no basis in physical reality. That's the whole point of culture, the defining feature of humanity.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Systematic review of publication bias in studies on publication bias

Publication bias is a well known phenomenon in clinical literature, in which positive results have a better chance of being published, are published earlier, and are published in journals with higher impact factors. Conclusions exclusively based on published studies, therefore, can be misleading. Selective under-reporting of research might be more widespread and more likely to have adverse consequences for patients than publication of deliberately falsified data. We investigated whether there is preferential publication of positive papers on publication bias.
We found no evidence of publication bias in reports on publication bias.
Well, that's a relief.

Ancient Whale Hunts in Chilean Rock Art

Painted in the Atacama Desert, miles from the sea, are hundreds of paintings that show marine life. They are thought to be about 1500 years old. Most striking are the images of whale hunts. So far as we know these people actually hunted only small whales (those are the bones archaeologists find), so they have exaggerated the size of the whales to make the enterprise seem even more dangerous.


Since I had so much fun at Portsmouth on Friday despite the miserable weather, I opted on Saturday to do more exploration of colonial New England. I ended up in Marblehead, a seaside town with 200 colonial houses.

They just go on and on, each with a little sign bearing the date, many from before 1730. It should be said that many were enlarged later, so you can't tell how much of what you see is original, but in Marblehead "later" usually means 1760 or maybe 1810. Not much has happened there lately.

Town hall.

Charming folly built in the 1920s.

Amazing graveyard on a hill overlooking the town, with views of the harbor in the distance.

Four children of Captain Richard and Mrs. Elizabeth Stevens.

Monument to a famous privateer of the Revolution. Sailors were in the forefront of conflict between Britain and its colonies because many of the issues in dispute (such as impressment) touched them personally. Plus, they were just a cantankerous lot. So Marblehead, one of the foremost sailing towns in New England, sent many of its men to the Revolution both at sea and on land. Marblehead men rowed George Washington's army across the Delaware to attack Trenton, and Marblehead privateers were so active the town claimed to be the "birthplace of the US navy." The cost was high; by the end of the war there were 459 widows and 865 orphans in a population of less than 5,000.

Up the Revolution!

A delightful place.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Un-Gerrymandering Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania state supreme court ruled a month ago that the Congressional district map dreamed up by Republican state legislators was unfair and illegal. Since the legislature has not gotten around to making a map that would satisfy the court's demands, they court made its own map, above. Below is the previous map. CNN calculates that this will have a small effect on the election, perhaps helping the Democrats win one or two additional seats.

The Wage Gap is about Motherhood

In Denmark, at least. The data from a big new Danish survey:

Women who don't have children  continue on the same trajectory as men, and in fact earn a little more, I suppose because many women who don't have children are highly educated and/or strong careerists. But women who have children fall off that trajectory and never climb back. More detailed data shows that mothers work fewer hours than men or women without children, more of them leave the work force, and they get lower pay, and the sum of all these is the decline you see in the chart.

Via Kevin Drum.

Legal Pot Sellers Hate the Black Market

LA Times:
Six weeks after the state began licensing marijuana farming and sales, officials have received a flood of complaints about illegal pot operations and demands for a start to tough enforcement.

Many of the 304 complaints received in recent weeks are from newly licensed businesses that say they are being harmed financially by the continuing illegal market. . . .

"We really need enforcement in California given that the local licensees are really having to fight against the black market," Stephanie Hopper, a representative of the firm Canndescent, which grows and sells marijuana in California, told the panel.
So much for saving a lot of money in policing.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Gore Vidal, "Burr"

I wasn't sure how I would react to this book. Gore Vidal is a notorious cynic about America, and I was afraid his portrayal of the Founding Fathers would be too hostile for me to enjoy the story. But I loved it. It is cynical, yes, but there is always plenty in politics to be cynical about, and I didn't think Gore's Burr said anything for which a case couldn't be made. At times he is even generous, especially to George Washington as president.

Burr is set in the 1830s, in the years just before Burr's death. There are two narrators. One is a young clerk in Burr's law firm who wants to be a writer and sets out to write Burr's biography. The other is Burr himself, who decides to cooperate with his clerk and ends up narrating much of his life story. The elderly Burr is a terrific character. He is cynical and worldly wise and has many scores to settle, but he also has a sweetness that shows in things like his love of children, his enduring love for his long dead daughter, and the paternal way he helps and advises his clerk. The two biggest problems with the book are, first, the clerk, who bored me, and second a disconnect between Burr the elderly memoirist and Burr the young, ambitious politician. The older Burr is so sane, so wise, that it is hard to imagine him engaging in the savage political battles that marked the younger Burr's life. I could not imagine that he ever tried to conquer Mexico, or shot Alexander Hamilton.

That aside, the book is a delight. I will probably never again be able to imagine any of the Revolutionary leaders without hearing Vidal's descriptions of them. Here Burr meets Thomas Jefferson in 1791:
A rather large limp hand touched mine. I am not usually conscious of height but with Jefferson I always felt in danger of a crick in the neck as he obliged me — obliged everyone except those few who were at his eye level — to look up into that freckled fox face with the bright hazel eyes, and delicate thin-lipped smile.

"Colonel Burr, what an honour!" The voice was low but beguiling, particularly when he slipped into one of his reveries and words would flow beautifully, inexhaustibly, sometimes interminable, yet never entirely without interest for one always found good things even has he found them in that fine speculative torrent. He was the most charming man I have ever known, as well as the most deceitful.
Besides the writing, the most impressive thing to me was the way this 1973 book anticipated the whole direction of American history since then. Race and slavery loom in the background, and there is a whole section on Sally Hemmings and her descendants. The yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s are described in several scenes; these were completely omitted from my own education but my children all read a whole book about them in the 6th grade. Vidal does not portray eighteenth-century men as contemporaries in outlandish clothes, but makes an effort at what one might call historical ethnography, putting them in their own culture with its own assumptions.

If you like novels and American history, read it.

Can the Enlightenment Stand Alone?

Interesting comment from Tyler Cowen, in reference to Stephen Pinker's new book about the Enlightenment:
I believe there is a certain amount of irreducible “irrationality” (not my preferred term, but borrowing Pinker's schema for a moment) in people, and it has to be “put somewhere,” into some doctrine or belief system. That is what makes the whole bundle sustainable. It also means that a move toward greater “Enlightenment” is never without its problematic side, and that a “Counterenlightenment” can be more progressive than it might at first appear. In contrast, I read Pinker as believing that Enlightenment simply can beat ignorance more and more over time.
This is a common idea: that the decline of religion does not mean the decline of irrationality, but a shift of our irrational attachments from the church to the nation, the party, or even the local football team. Cowen's take seems to be that the success of science and democracy in the modern world was possible only because anti-Enlightenment ideas and institutions continued alongside it.

I suspect this is true. I get excited about science, democracy, and human rights and don't need anything else to keep my loyalty, but this does not seem to be true for most humans. The great danger of the post-Enlightenment world has been that with tradition banished our irrational attachments will become truly monstrous – Nazism, communism – leading to worlds worse that what the Enlightenment was supposed to free us from. In practice resistance to totalitarianism is always rooted as much in anti-Enlightenment ideas such as nationalism, love of tradition, religion, or plain cussedness as in devotion to freedom and human rights. We are creatures of emotion, and our politics must always be based there.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Good News about America

Barack Obama:
What’s remarkable is the way ‘nerd’ is such a badge of honor now. Growing up, I’m sure, I wasn’t the only kid who read Spider-Man comics and learned how to do the Vulcan salute, but it wasn’t like it is today. I think America’s a nerdier country than it was when I was a kid — and that’s a good thing!

Portsmouth in Gray

Spent some time Friday afternoon exploring Portsmouth, New Hampshire on an iron gray winter afternoon. St. John's Episcopal Church, 1807, viewed from my parking spot.

Crypts in the cemetery wall.

Street views.

One of the greatest bourgeois-bohemian firm names, Whole Wealth Management.

The old town has an amazing number of colonial houses, so many that some are decaying from want of attention. Here is one of the best-maintained, the Tobias Langdon House, 1710.

Lych gate to a little cemetery by the water.

Cemetery views.

Wentworth-Gardner House, 1760, said by some aesthete or another to be the most perfect Georgian house in America.

Tobias Lear House, c. 1750.

View across the Piscataqua River to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

The old Naval prison, built to house prisoners in the Spanish-American War, abandoned since 1974.

Sherburne House, 1695.

It was a splendid walk despite the clouds and the chill.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Existential Iliad

I have an idiosyncratic take on Book 9 of the Iliad. The Iliad is the story of Achilles is the great warrior on the Greek side in the Trojan War. He gets mad at some slight, and he goes back to his tent to sulk, and the Greeks start losing.

So then they send emissaries to his tent to say, “Please come back.” And he says, “No.” Then, the Greeks start losing some more.

Eventually, he comes back, and he gets killed. That’s basically the story of the Iliad. Book 9 is where they send the emissaries to say, “Please come back,” and he says, “No.”

He gives this speech, this response that is weird, where he says, effectively, “The prophecy is that if I go back to fight here, I will die here. My name will be immortal. If I don’t go back to fight, I’ll go home and live a long life and will be forgotten.” He chooses to go back and be forgotten. Then, later, he changes his mind because his friend gets killed.

I think the existential examination of this Greek warrior and this heroic culture that clearly valorizes heroism and deathless fame and everything, and who is, canonically, the most famous heroic warrior and the one with the most deathless fame, he’s the one who says, “Nah, I’d rather go back and live a long life on my farm.”

The forcing of that choice is the central point of the highest work of Greek art, sort of prefigures a lot of existentialist thought in the future, I think.

Merikins and Southern Rice

New World rice has long been a puzzle. Somehow eighteenth-century planters in the Carolina and Georgia Low Country raised huge crops of it, employing sophisticated systems of canals and dykes to control water flow. It became a staple of Low Country cooking, which most Americans know in the New Orleans version. But who knew how to raise it? Where did the seeds come from? Africans and Africa are the obvious answers, since many American slaves came from rice-growing regions. But this only changes the question to one of plantation sociology; who had the idea to grow wet-paddy rice in Carolina, and how did he convince someone with the necessary resources to make the investment? How was seed brought over? Who was in charge of the early operations? It certainly casts an interesting side light on low country plantation life. The variety of rice grown in the colonial south has lately made a comeback as Gold Rice, now often served by restaurants specializing in Southern food.

It seems that dry-land varieties of rice were also grown in the American, although information on this is very patchy. The one fact everyone agrees on is that Thomas Jefferson obtained a barrel of seed of African upland rice in 1790, grew some himself and sent packages to his horticultural friends; there are histories that make this the origin of all the upland rice raised in the South, although it might just be the only barrel of seed we happen to have a record of. Anyway that variety of rice was lost some time in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, driven out of African American gardens by cheap commercial rice and changing tastes.

Now, though, botanists think they have found the North American strain of upland rice in an interesting place, growing on hillsides in Trinidad. As to how it got there:
But how did the rice travel to that field in Trinidad? Dr. Shields has a theory.

It begins during the War of 1812, when British soldiers promised land and freedom to a small group of West African slaves along the Eastern Seaboard if they would take up arms against their masters. They did, and each was given 16 acres of undeveloped land in southern Trinidad. They came to be called the Merikins, a Creole rendering of the word American.

One group was the Fourth British Marine Company, from the Georgia Sea Islands. The rice, which Dr. Shields believes can be traced to Jefferson’s barrel of seed, was among the crops the group brought with them to Trinidad.
Not only that, but genetic studies show that this rice did not originate in Africa, but in East Asia; the best guess is that it was transported to West Africa by Spanish or Portuguese sailors in the 16th or 17th century, long enough before 1790 that by then it was thought of as indigenously African.

The many ways the world was tied together by wooden sailing ships never cease to amaze me.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Marriage and Fertility

Total fertility continues to decline in the US. And the reason is pretty clear:
Total fertility rates controlling for marital status have not changed very much over the last 15 years. But with marriage coming later, the share of women at peak childbearing ages (20 to 40) who are married has steadily fallen.
One of the biggest fertility declines across the US is taking place in Utah, because age at first marriage is rising for Mormons just like for other women.

The number of children women say they want is not declining; according to the government's "Social Survey", it has hovered around 2.5 since the 1970s, and right now it is 2.7. But the average woman in her 20s today is likely to have only 1.8 children, leaving a gap of 0.9 children per women, the largest ever measured.

I wonder, what does that gap measure? The hard reality of raising children in a two-career world? The physical hardships of older mothers? Or the myriad distractions of life in our 20s that keep people from focusing on marriage until they are too old for a third or even a second child?

Monday, February 12, 2018

Michael Lewis and Steve Bannon

I think Michael Lewis is the greatest writer working in journalism today. In his latest piece for Bloomberg he goes to Washington and ends up watching the State of the Union speech with Steve Bannon. A sample:
Steve Bannon lives in a brick town house on Capitol Hill, a stone’s throw from the Supreme Court. To discourage people from approaching his front door he’s strung a thin rope across the steps. A second door, hidden behind the steps, opens before I even get to it. A trim young man in a neat suit steps out. “I’m Bigz,” he says.

Bigz leads me into a waiting room. It’s sunny outside, but the blinds are drawn tight and the place is gloomy. One wall is decorated with a painting of Hillary Clinton taking cash from some African warlord, another with a poster of a snarling honey badger, the Breitbart News mascot. The tables are stacked, almost like a bookstore, with multiple copies of polemical works mostly aimed at the Clintons. Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” in which Bannon is quoted as saying that it was treasonous for Trump’s children to have met with the Russians, is nowhere to be seen. Bigz asks me to wait here, beside a pile of anti-Clinton books, while Bannon wraps up a meeting. “You can read a book if you want,” he suggests, gently.

I talk to Bigz instead. Bigz hails from Uganda. A few years ago he ran for Ugandan political office, and was beaten and jailed. When he learned that the Ugandan regime planned to kill him, he sought, and was granted, political asylum in the U.S. In Washington he set out to make a living tending people’s gardens. He’d knocked on Bannon’s door, and Bannon had hired him to clean up the small patches of green in front of his house. Apparently Bannon liked him so much that he brought him inside to -- well, what Bigz does remains unclear to me. The garden’s dead.

Unbuilt Designs for the Lincoln Memorial

Architect John Russell Pope really wanted to design the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. He came up with a bunch of designs, including a pyramid.

A giant altar with perpetual flame.

And more.

But none of these grabbed the design committee, which went for Henry Bacon's Doric temple.

And I find it fascinating to think how things we take for granted might have been different.