Surviving the Darwinian process of being confronted with what happened in different parts of the world

June 23rd, 2021

Peter Turchin wrote War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires 17 years ago, but he feels it has aged surprisingly well:

For seven years before I even started writing it, I read voraciously through books and articles by historical sociologists, economists, archaeologists, cultural evolutionists, and — most important — historians. I read both historians who wrote “grand historical narratives,” such as William McNeill, and historians who attempted to view history at a more personal level, through the eyes of individuals. A great example of the latter is Barbara Tuchman, who in A Distant Mirror followed the fortunes of Sieur de Coucy as he tried to survive the Crisis of the Late Middle Ages.

Human brain is a wonderful inference engine. Like many before me, as I ploughed through this sea of information, I started seeing patterns. I remember that I went through a huge number of ideas and possible explanations, many proposed by others, a few that occurred to me. 99% of them were discarded almost as soon as they came up. But a few endured, surviving the Darwinian process of being confronted with what happened in different parts of the world and different historic eras. And so, I ended up writing my own “grand historical narrative.” War and Peace and War was the result.

Turchin finds the current book cover a bit bland and generic and really liked the cover of the first, hardcover edition, based on a detail from The Conquest of Siberia by Yermak (1895) by Vasily Surikov, which is a wonderful illustration of one of the central ideas in War and Peace and War, the metaethnic frontier.

Each kilo of bone supports up to five kilos of muscle

June 22nd, 2021

The skeleton you are bequeathed with, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), has a lot to do with whether you will ever pack on the weight you need for a particular sport:

In measurements of thousands of elite athletes from soccer to weight lifting, wrestling, boxing, judo, rugby, and more, Holway has found that each kilogram (2.2 pounds) of bone supports a maximum of five kilograms (11 pounds) of muscle. Five-to-one, then, is a general limit of the human muscle bookcase.

[...]

Male Olympic strength athletes whom Holway has measured, like discus throwers and shot putters, have skeletons that are only about 6.5 pounds heavier than those of average men, but that translates to more than 30 pounds of extra muscle that they can carry with the proper training.

Does the racial gap in arrests lessen as the crimes get more serious?

June 21st, 2021

Steve Sailer reviews Charles Murray’s short, lucid book Facing Reality: Two Truths about Race in America about the essential factors influencing society — intelligence and violence:

After The Bell Curve, the great and good made immense efforts to Close The Gap, if only to prove Murray wrong. For example, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, pushed by George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy, mandated the Lake Wobegonization of America: Every single public school student must score “proficient” by 2014.

That didn’t happen.

Similarly, Bill Gates poured huge sums into, first, the “small learning communities” fad of the 2000s and then the “Common Core” whoop-de-do of the 2010s. Neither accomplished anything noticeable.

Today, after 55 years of vast spending to eliminate the race gap on tests, the optimistic centrist education reformers of the “All We Have To Do Is Implement My Favorite Panacea” school are finally out of fashion, leaving Ibram X. Kendi and Charles Murray as the last men standing. One or the other must be right: either Murray (blacks, unfortunately, have problems because they tend to be less smart and more violent) or Kendi (any disparities demonstrate that whites are evil and therefore must pay).

[…]

But, The Establishment no longer really believes that race gaps can be reduced. Instead, the new conventional wisdom is Kendi’s: Tests must be abolished. This will make the problems caused by lower black intelligence go away for Underpants Gnomes reasons.

[…]

Murray, however, has uncovered newly available arrest statistics from the Open Data Initiative by race (with Hispanics usually broken out) and type of crime for thirteen cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

For property crime, Murray finds, Latinos were arrested 1.5 times as often as whites, a modest difference especially considering the disparity in average age.

[…]

Blacks in these thirteen cities were arrested for property offenses five times as often per capita as whites.

Are cops just racistly arresting blacks for ticky-tack property offenses like, say, taking an extra newspaper from the rack?

One way to get a clue about this is to look at more serious incidents, such as violent crimes. Does the racial gap in arrests lessen as the crimes get more serious?

No. Hispanics were arrested for violence about 2.7 times as often as whites, while blacks were arrested almost ten times as much.

How about murder, the most diligently investigated of all crimes?

Latinos are arrested for murder about five times more often per capita than whites, while blacks are about twenty times more likely than whites to be arrested for murder.

[…]

Whether Facing Reality will inspire a desperately needed national conversation on the reality of racial differences, or whether it will be deep-sixed like Human Diversity, remains to be seen.

But Murray has given it his best shot.

Students at high-achieving schools exhibit much higher rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse

June 20th, 2021

Students at high-achieving schools exhibit much higher rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse than those at lower achieving schools:

In the 1990s, [Suniya] Luthar was studying the effects of poverty on the mental health of teenagers. In research with inner-city youth from families well below the poverty level, she found high levels of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Then one of her graduate students challenged her by suggesting that these problems might not be limited to children in poverty, so she began conducting similar research with teens in affluent suburban areas. Remarkably, she found that levels of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse (including alcohol and hard drugs) were even higher among these presumably “privileged” young people than they were among the teens in poverty (Luthar & Latendresse, 2005).

In subsequent research, Luthar and her colleagues found that the most significant variable in predicting such problems is not family wealth per se but attendance at a high-achieving school (HAS). They found that the suffering among students at HASs is not limited to those from wealthy families (Ebbert et al., 2019). Students from families of more modest means at such schools also suffer. What matters is the degree to which the young people feel their self-worth depends on high academic achievement and success at the extracurricular activities, such as varsity sports, promoted and valued by the school.

In one study, encompassing nine high achieving schools, some private and some public, they found rates of clinically significant levels of anxiety and depression that were six to seven times the national average for people in that age range (Luthar, Kumar & Zillmer, 2020). They also found that the cause of these problems, for students at HASs, was very different from that for students in poverty. While students in poverty struggle for physical safety and survival, HAS students suffer from intense, unrelenting pressure to achieve (Luthar, Kumar & Zillmer, 2020).

Longitudinal research has revealed that the harmful effects of attending a high-achieving high school continue well beyond graduation. One study showed that rates of clinically significant alcohol and drug dependence, among graduates of HASs, were two to three times as high as the national average throughout college and for at least several years beyond (Luthar, Small, & Ciciolla, 2018). One very long-term study, begun in the 1960s, revealed that graduates of highly selective high schools were performing more poorly, at follow-ups 11 years and 50 years later, than were graduates of unselective schools matched for socioeconomic background of their family of origin (Gölner et al, 2018). Those who had gone to unselective high schools were not only psychologically healthier but were making more money and were more likely to be in high-status jobs than were those who had gone to selective schools.

All of the participants could learn how to echolocate

June 19th, 2021

For years, a small number of people who are blind have used echolocation, by making a clicking sound with their mouths and listening for the reflection of the sound to judge their surroundings:

Now, research published in PLOS ONE shows that people can learn click-based echolocation regardless of their age or ability to see, Alice Lipscombe-Southwell reports for BBC Science Focus magazine.

Researchers led by psychologist Lore Thaler at Durham University spent ten weeks teaching over two dozen people, some who were blind and some who were not, to observe and navigate their environments by echolocation. Participants attended two sessions per week for two to three hours each time.

After the training, the researchers compared the participants’ ability to use echolocation to seven people who had been using the technique for over a decade. The researchers also followed up with blind participants three months later to see how the echolocation affected them long-term.

“I cannot think of any other work with blind participants that has had such enthusiastic feedback,” says Thaler in a statement. “People who took part in our study reported that the training in click-based echolocation had a positive effect on their mobility, independence and well-being, attesting that the improvements we observed in the lab transcended into positive life benefits outside the lab.”

Participants were between 21 and 79 years old, and included 12 people who are blind and 14 people who are not blind. Over their ten weeks of echolocation training, they faced tasks like using clicking to figure out whether the pair of disks in front of them had a larger disk at the top or bottom or to identify how a rectangle plank was oriented. Participants also navigated obstacles virtually in the lab, and outside of the lab, they navigated using clicking and a long cane.

The results showed that all of the participants could learn how to echolocate, regardless of their age or whether they were blind. Some of the study participants even did better at their tasks when compared to the seven expert echolocators, who have more than a decade of experience using echolocation to navigate.

Athletes have become stunningly dissimilar

June 18th, 2021

David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene) that we’re seeing a Big Bang of body types in sports:

When Norton and Olds plotted the heights and weights of modern world-class high jumpers and shot putters, they saw that the athletes had become stunningly dissimilar. The average elite shot putter is now 2.5 inches taller and 130 pounds heavier than the average international high jumper.

[...]

Early in the twentieth century, the top athletes from every sport clustered around that “average” physique that coaches once favored and were grouped in a relatively tight nucleus on the graph, but they had since blasted apart in all directions.

[...]

Compared with all of humanity, elite distance runners are getting shorter. So are athletes who have to rotate in the air — divers, figure skaters, and gymnasts. In the last thirty years, elite female gymnasts have shrunk from 5’3″ on average to 4’9″.

[...]

Simultaneously, volleyball players, rowers, and football players are getting larger. (In most sports, height is prized. At the 1972 and ’76 Olympics, women at least 5’11″ were 191 times more likely to make an Olympic final than women under five feet.)

[...]

About 28 percent of men now have the height and weight combination that could fit in with professional soccer players; 23 percent with elite sprinters; 15 percent with professional hockey players; and 9.5 percent with Rugby Union forwards.

In the NFL, one extra centimeter of height or 6.5 extra pounds on average translates into about $45,000 of extra income.

[...]

Measurements of elite Croatian water polo players from 1980 to 1998 show that over two decades the players’ arm lengths increased more than an inch, five times as much as those of the Croatian population during the same period.

[...]

Elite players now have longer lower arms compared with their total arm length than do normal people, giving them a more efficient throwing whip.

[...]

Conversely, elite weight lifters have increasingly shorter arms — and particularly shorter forearms — relative to their height than normal people, giving them a substantial leverage advantage for heaving weights overhead

[...]

Bench press is much easier for men with shorter arms, but longer arms are better for everything on the actual football field. So a player who is drafted high because of his bench press strength may actually be getting a boost from the undesirable physical characteristic of short arms.

[...]

Top athletes in jumping sports — basketball, volleyball — now have short torsos and comparatively long legs, better for accelerating the lower limbs to get a more powerful liftoff.

[...]

Professional boxers come in an array of shapes and sizes, but many have the combination of long arms and short legs, giving greater reach but a lower and more stable center of gravity.

[...]

The world’s top competitors in the 60-meter sprint are almost always shorter than those in the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter sprints, because shorter legs and lower mass are advantageous for acceleration.

[...]

Perhaps the advantage of shortness for acceleration explains why NFL running backs and cornerbacks, who make their livings starting and stopping as quickly as possible, have gotten shorter on average over the last forty years, even while humanity has grown taller.

[...]

In just eight years after Fosbury’s innovation, the average height of elite high jumpers increased four inches.

[...]

One reason that marathon runners tend to be diminutive is because small humans have a larger skin surface area compared with the volume of their body. The greater one’s surface area compared with volume, the better the human radiator and the more quickly the body unloads heat. (Hence, short, skinny people get cold more easily than tall, hefty people.) Heat dissipation is critical for endurance performance, because the central nervous system forces a slowdown or complete stop of effort when the body’s core temperature passes about 104 degrees.

[...]

Nonathlete women who were measured as a control group for the study had, of course, wider pelvic bones than nonathlete men. But female swimmers had more narrow pelvic bones than the normal, control population of men. And female divers had more narrow pelvic bones than the female swimmers. And female sprinters more narrow than the female divers. (Slim hips make for efficient running.) And female gymnasts had slimmer hips still.

Female sprinters had much longer legs than the control population of women, and about as long as the control men. Male sprinters were around two inches taller than the control men, and 100 percent of that was in their legs, such that when they were seated the sprinters were the same height as the control men.

The male swimmers were, on average, more than 1.5 inches taller than the sprinters, but nonetheless had legs that were a half-inch shorter. Longer trunks and shorter legs make for greater surface area in contact with the water, the equivalent of a longer hull on a canoe, a boon for moving along the water at high speed. Michael Phelps, at 6’4″, reportedly buys pants with a 32-inch inseam, shorter than those worn by Hicham El Guerrouj, the Moroccan runner who is 5’9″ and holds the world record in the mile.

(Like other top swimmers, Phelps also has long arms and large hands and feet. That elongated body type can be indicative of a dangerous illness called Marfan syndrome.)

Our supposedly accidental taste for alcohol has not been eradicated by genetic or cultural evolution

June 17th, 2021

The fact that our supposedly accidental taste for alcohol has not been eradicated by genetic or cultural evolution means that the cost of indulging in alcohol must be offset by benefits, Edward Slingerland suggests (in Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization):

Evidence from archaeology, history, cognitive neuroscience, psychopharmacology, social psychology, literature and genetics suggests what some of these benefits might be. For instance, the ancient and cross-cultural view of alcohol as a muse is supported by modern psychology: Our ability to think outside the box is enhanced by one or two drinks.

This is why artists, poets and writers have long turned to drink. The name of the Anglo-Saxon god of artistic inspiration, Kvasir, literally means “strong ale.” This is also why some modern companies that rely upon innovation, like Google, judiciously mix work with alcohol—by, for instance, providing whiskey rooms where frustrated coders can relax and expand their minds when struggling with a challenging problem.

There is also wisdom in the Latin saying in vino veritas, “in wine there is truth.” Alcohol impairs our ability to think strategically and puts us firmly in the moment, which makes us less capable of lying. In the same way that we shake hands to show that we are not carrying a weapon, downing a few shots is a form of cognitive disarmament that makes you more trusting and more worthy of trust. This is why, throughout history and across the world, treaties and trade deals are seldom negotiated without copious quantities of liquid neurotoxin.

It’s also why the advent of Skype and other teleconferencing technologies had no measurable effect on business travel before the Covid-19 pandemic. For a business in London, Zooming with potential partners in Shanghai instead of flying there would mean a considerable savings in time and money. Yet people still endured long trips and jet lag in order to gain access to the subtle, crucial social cues that sitting around a table doing shots of sorghum liquor provides. Once the Covid-19 crisis passes, expect business travel to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels.

Consumed in moderation, alcohol also alleviates stress, enhances mood, makes us more sociable and provides a much-needed vacation from the burdens of consciousness. It is no accident that in the midst of the pandemic liquor stores have been classified as essential services almost everywhere.

But the long-term impact of the past year’s global lockdowns, which have rendered social drinking difficult, remains unclear. Studies show that people who have a “local” — a neighborhood establishment serving food and alcohol that they regularly frequent — enjoy better mental health and are more connected to their communities. In the wake of Prohibition in the U.S., the number of patent applications fell by 15%, suggesting that we might expect a decline in innovation and productivity over the next few years.

Overseas is not an issue for this technique

June 16th, 2021

The Wall Street Journal explains how the FBI got Colonial Pipeline’s ransom money back:

Colonial Pipeline provided investigators with the bitcoin address where it paid hackers on May 8, launching them on the trail, according to court records filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The hackers moved the funds through at least six more addresses by the following day, the records show.

On May 13, DarkSide told affiliates that its servers and other infrastructure had been seized, but didn’t specify where or how. On May 27, court records show, a sum including 63.7 bitcoins traced to the Colonial ransom landed at a final address, where the FBI this week seized that portion of the funds.

The FBI said in its request for a warrant Monday that its investigators had in their possession the private key for that address. Officials didn’t elaborate on how it obtained the information, and a spokesman didn’t offer further comment.

The sum recovered by the FBI likely represents a cut of the ransom shared with DarkSide’s affiliates, said Pamela Clegg, director of financial investigations and education at blockchain analytics firm CipherTrace. On May 13, the same day DarkSide claimed its servers had been seized, the remaining funds from Colonial that haven’t been recovered by the FBI were consolidated with other crypto tied to ransom payments in a wallet that now holds about 108 bitcoins, she added.

“Everyone has their eyes on it to see if those funds are transferred,” Ms. Clegg said of the wallet.

FBI officials say the techniques they used to recover some of Colonial’s funds can be used in future cases, including when hackers attempt to transfer cryptocurrency through unfriendly overseas jurisdictions.

“Overseas is not an issue for this technique,” said Mr. Chan of the FBI’s San Francisco field office.

He pounded through that dungeon with a ruthless efficiency

June 15th, 2021

Ben Espen reviews the D&D-inspired anime Goblin Slayer, whose main character is old school:

The Goblin Slayer, in his obsession with killing goblins, studies them relentlessly. He learns their ways, and schemes better and better ways to kill them. It reminds me very much of this Hill Cantons blog post about they way Chris Kutalik’s Vietnam veteran father played D&D like he was leading a patrol in ‘Nam. All the other adventurers find the Slayer kind of weird. And he is kind of weird. But he is really good at what he does, and he takes a real problem very seriously that no one else does. The metajoke here is of course that everyone else this fantasy world thinks they are playing the modern roleplaying game of improv theater with fantasy superpowers, while the Goblin Slayer lives in Fantasy F**king Vietnam.

Here’s how Chris Kutalik describes Fantasy F**king Vietnam:

My father was a Vietnam vet. Not a “I scrubbed B-52s on Guam” or “flew F-16s in the Texas National Guard” kind of vet, but a Purple-Hearted combat veteran of the First Cavalry. I always felt that he hated the war though, what it did to him body and soul — he still carries shrapnel in a shoulder to this day. It haunted him, but he spoke freely of it and even let it enter our play with him.

On long hikes he’d send me or my brother, stick in hand, to walk point — several yards in front so that the sudden blast of an imaginary mine or grenade didn’t wipe out the “squad”. Hike done we’d jog back to the car Jody-chanting: “I wanna be an Airborne Ranger, living my life full of danger.”

And I played D&D with the man.

Somewhere in the summer of 1981, I ran a few sessions as a DM where he played a first-level mook of a Fighting Man, fittingly called the Tunnel Rat, alongside my brother’s bland-by-comparison elf. He played the game with every bit of a rigor that phrase conjures up for latter-day REMFs.

He pored over the equipment tables, grilling me on the properties of this or that item. It took him about five seconds to grasp the killing power of the standard Molotov-like flask of oil. He bought 20. Grokking the need to travel light and mean he skimped on armor and the excess weapons so common in our summer camp D&D experience. He bought dogs instead.

Viet Cong Tunnel Complex

He pounded through that dungeon with a ruthless efficiency. At first my brother’s PC walked point. When that nearly ended with his death at the hands of a goblin ambush, he switched to running his dogs into rooms and closing the door before running in on the attack. When that stopped working, he doused the dogs with oil, set them on fire, and loosed them into the massed ranks of his opponents.

There wasn’t a trap in the place he didn’t find, and little in the way of anything hidden missed his eye.

The game was tense, adversarial even. It brought out a side of him that scared me a little. I think sometimes we forget that games — especially such demanding ones as the role-playing variety — aren’t always leisurely fun, sometimes they mix passion and a welter of emotions in them. Those sessions certainly did, but I treasure them because they taught me something about the man.

This is the flip side of Tucker’s Kobolds:

Tucker ran an incredibly dangerous dungeon in the days I was stationed at Ft. Bragg, N.C. This dungeon had corridors that changed all of your donkeys into huge flaming demons or dropped the whole party into acid baths, but the demons were wienies compared to the kobolds on Level One. These kobolds were just regular kobolds, with 1-4 hp and all that, but they were mean. When I say they were mean, I mean they were bad, Jim. They graduated magna cum laude from the Sauron Institute for the Criminally Vicious.

When I joined the gaming group, some of the PCs had already met Tucker’s kobolds, and they were not eager to repeat the experience. The party leader went over the penciled map of the dungeon and tried to find ways to avoid the little critters, but it was not possible. The group resigned itself to making a run for it through Level One to get to the elevators, where we could go down to Level Ten and fight “okay” monsters like huge flaming demons.

It didn’t work. The kobolds caught us about 60′ into the dungeon and locked the door behind us and barred it. Then they set the corridor on fire, while we were still in it.

“NOOOOOO!!!” screamed the party leader. “It’s THEM! Run!!!”

Thus encouraged, our party scrambled down a side passage, only to be ambushed by more kobolds firing with light crossbows through murder holes in the walls and ceilings. Kobolds with metal armor and shields flung Molotov cocktails at us from the other sides of huge piles of flaming debris, which other kobolds pushed ahead of their formation using long metal poles like broomsticks. There was no mistake about it. These kobolds were bad.

We turned to our group leader for advice.

“AAAAAAGH!!!” he cried, hands clasped over his face to shut out the tactical situation.

We abandoned most of our carried items and donkeys to speed our flight toward the elevators, but we were cut off by kobold snipers who could split-move and fire, ducking back behind stones and corners after launching steel-tipped bolts and arrows, javelins, hand axes, and more flaming oil bottles. We ran into an unexplored section of Level One, taking damage all the time. It was then we discovered that these kobolds had honeycombed the first level with small tunnels to speed their movements. Kobold commandos were everywhere. All of our hirelings died. Most of our henchmen followed. We were next.

I recall we had a 12th-level magic user with us, and we asked him to throw a spell or something. “Blast ‘em!” we yelled as we ran. “Fireball ‘em! Get those little @#+$%*&!!”

“What, in these narrow corridors? ” he yelled back. “You want I should burn us all up instead of them?”

Our panicked flight suddenly took us to a dead-end corridor, where a giant air shaft dropped straight down into unspeakable darkness, far past Level Ten. Here we hastily pounded spikes into the floors and walls, flung ropes over the ledge, and climbed straight down into that unspeakable darkness, because anything we met down there was sure to be better than those kobolds.

We escaped, met some huge flaming demons on Level Ten, and even managed to kill one after about an hour of combat and the lives of half the group. We felt pretty good — but the group leader could not be cheered up.

“We still have to go out the way we came in,” he said as he gloomily prepared to divide up the treasure.

Tucker’s kobolds were the worst things we could imagine. They ate all our donkeys and took our treasure and did everything they could to make us miserable, but they had style and brains and tenacity and courage. We respected them and loved them, sort of, because they were never boring.

At the end of the training, the subjects fell rather neatly into three groups

June 14th, 2021

Some endurance athletes have the talent of trainability when it comes to VO2max, and the same pattern holds when it comes to strength training, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene):

Sixty-six people of varying ages were put on a four-month strength training plan — squats, leg press, and leg lifts — all matched for effort level as a percentage of the maximum they could lift. (A typical set was eleven reps at 75 percent of the maximum that could be lifted for a single rep.) At the end of the training, the subjects fell rather neatly into three groups: those whose thigh muscle fibers grew 50 percent in size; those whose fibers grew 25 percent; and those who had no increase in muscle size at all.

[...]

In Miami’s GEAR study, the strength gains of 442 subjects in leg press and chest press ranged from under 50 percent to over 200 percent. A twelve-week study of 585 men and women, run by an international consortium of hospitals and universities, found that upper-arm strength gains ranged from zero to over 250 percent.

[...]

One of the genes that displayed much more activity in the extreme responders when they trained was IGF-IEa, which is related to the gene that H. Lee Sweeney used to make his Schwarzenegger mice. The other standouts were the MGF and myogenin genes, both involved in muscle function and growth.

The activity levels of the MGF and myogenin genes were turned up in the high responders by 126 percent and 65 percent, respectively; in the moderate responders by 73 percent and 41 percent; and not at all in the people who had no muscle growth.

The real currency of the professional elite

June 13th, 2021

The Class Ceiling combines an analysis of earnings data from the large-scale Labour Force Survey with findings from the Great British Class Survey (an online questionnaire hosted on the BBC website in 2011) to explain why it pays to be privileged:

In the case of the creative industries, being told that their employment practices are classist, racist and sexist would irritate and anger most senior staff, even when they implicitly accept the reality. Take their case study of one of the major TV companies, which they disguise as “6TV”, who, in the words of one self-employed — and underemployed — working-class actor, are “all these middle-class people making…working-class programme[s]”.

The creative industries’ diversity problem is obvious from the outset. It is partly about behaviour, an easy switch between the demotic and more rarefied. Senior commissioners at 6TV can put their boxfresh trainers up on the desk and swear freely, but only because they know how to do it at the right time and in the “right” context.

Friedman and Laurison’s interviews illustrate the power of “studied informality” — essentially the way in which working class ways of being have been ruthlessly appropriated by the upper middle-class as a way to make money and cachet from authenticity. 6TV’s commissioners pride themselves on programming that connects with “real people”, living “real lives” in “real places”. At the company’s gladiatorial commissioning meetings, where programme ideas get thrashed out, the most coveted skill is a kind of highbrow banter. You can proclaim, as one commissioner does, that “We’re talking about TV…it’s not Hegel!”, but you still have to know who Hegel is and to know how to get a laugh out of bringing up his name.

In other words, the authors highlight the multiplying effects of factors that privilege the already privileged. It’s not just that having rich parents makes your upbringing well resourced, which in turn makes you less risk-averse, secure in the knowledge that you have money to fall back on. It means being used to dinner settings with more than one fork. It means going to schools where the stock in trade is the cultivation not of passionate argument but of dispassionate debating skills — because none of it really matters, does it Boris? Wordplay, wit, highbrow references, and above all, the display of lightly worn intelligence deployed to raise a knowing chuckle, are the real currency of the professional elite.

They’re unlikely to function as effective team members in an organization that has to deal with everyday realities

June 12th, 2021

R.R. Reno is not inclined to hire graduates from America’s elite universities:

A decade ago I relished the opportunity to employ talented graduates of Princeton, Yale, Harvard and the rest. Today? Not so much.

As a graduate of Haverford College, a fancy school outside Philadelphia, I took interest in the campus uproar there last fall. It concerned “antiblackness” and the “erasure of marginalized voices.” A student strike culminated in an all-college Zoom meeting for undergraduates. The college president and other administrators promised to “listen.” During the meeting, many students displayed a stunning combination of thin-skinned narcissism and naked aggression. The college administrators responded with self-abasing apologies.

Haverford is a progressive hothouse. If students can be traumatized by “insensitivity” on that leafy campus, then they’re unlikely to function as effective team members in an organization that has to deal with everyday realities. And in any event, I don’t want to hire someone who makes inflammatory accusations at the drop of a hat.

Student activists don’t represent the majority of students. But I find myself wondering about the silent acquiescence of most students. They allow themselves to be cowed by charges of racism and other sins. I sympathize. The atmosphere of intimidation in elite higher education is intense. But I don’t want to hire a person well-practiced in remaining silent when it costs something to speak up.

Just ask Spock for his opinion, then do the opposite

June 11th, 2021

In The Scout Mindset Julia Galef argues that Star Trek’s Spock is a “Straw Vulcan” — a caricature of rationality designed to make rationality look foolish — but Tim Hartford sees him as a rather typical economist:

There is another way that we economists might learn from observing Spock’s mistakes. He is a truly terrible forecaster. Galef, rather delightfully, has gone through the full catalogue of Star Trek, finding every occurrence she could of Spock making a prediction.

“[There’s] only a very slight chance [this plan] would work,” Spock tells Captain James T Kirk at one stage. The plan works. “Intercepting all three ships is an impossibility,” he warns Kirk during another adventure. Kirk intercepts all three ships. The chance of a daring escape? “Difficult to be precise, Captain. I should say approximately 7,824.7 to one.” They escape.

[...]

Yet this sort of overconfident nonsense is common in real-world punditry. We seem to have an unslakable thirst for knowledge about the future. Sadly, knowledge about the future is not easy to acquire, so we satisfy ourselves with the pretence of knowledge. If you can’t be accurate, at least sound self-assured. Spock does, every time.

“My choice will be a logical one,” he upbraids a subordinate, shortly before making another fatal error, “arrived at through logical means.”

Well said. But his record is not so good. According to Galef’s tally, when Spock says something is “impossible” it happens 83 per cent of the time, and when he gives something more than a 99.5 per cent chance, it happens just 17 per cent of the time. (He does OK with his forecasts of “likely”.) This makes him a reliably contrarian indicator, as Kirk seems to have realised — just ask Spock for his opinion, then do the opposite.

Failing that, if you want to become a better forecaster, do what Galef did: look back at old forecasts and keep score.

Bouchard figured he would see some variation in VO2max improvement between people

June 10th, 2021

In 1992, a collective of five universities in Canada and the United States began recruiting subjects, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), for a seminal project known as the HERITAGE (HEalth, RIsk factors, exercise Training And GEnetics) Family Study:

The universities enlisted ninety-eight two-generation families to subject their members to five months of identical stationary-bicycle training regimens — three workouts per week of increasing intensity that would be strictly controlled in the lab.

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In the 1980s, Bouchard had put a group of thirty very sedentary subjects through identical training plans to see how much their aerobic capacities would increase.

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Bouchard figured he would see some variation in VO2max improvement between people, but “the range from 0 percent to 100 percent change, I did not expect,” he says. It piqued his interest enough that he decided to test identical twins in three different studies, each with a unique training protocol. Sure enough, there were high responders to training and low responders, “but within pairs of brothers, the resemblance was remarkable,” Bouchard says. “The range of response to training was six to nine times larger between pairs of brothers than within pairs, and it was very consistent.

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Despite the fact that every member of the study was on an identical exercise program, all four sites saw a vast and similar spectrum of aerobic capacity improvement, from about 15 percent of participants who showed little or no gain whatsoever after five months of training all the way up to the 15 percent of participants who improved dramatically, increasing the amount of oxygen their bodies could use by 50 percent or more.

Amazingly, the amount of improvement that any one person experienced had nothing to do with how good they were to start.

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Along the improvement curve, families tended to stick together.

David Epstein calls this the talent of trainability. He had it himself:

When I first started running track in high school, I had such trouble keeping up on longer runs that I went to a pulmonologist who tested my breathing and found that I was only expelling about 60 percent as much air as my peers with each breath.

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Each fall during college I would report to school having done the same exact, prescribed light summer training that all the half-milers did. And yet, I would invariably be in worse shape than the rest of the guys.

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But when the arduous training began, I would catch up, quickly. When I visited the pulmonologist in the winter, the results showed that I was miraculously transformed into a young man with the power to exhale as forcefully as my peers. Low baseline, quick responder.

The seeds of the sting were sown when law enforcement agencies took down a company called Phantom Secure

June 9th, 2021

The recent global sting is impressive:

More than 800 suspects were arrested and more than 32 tons of drugs seized, including cocaine, cannabis, amphetamines and methamphetamines. Police also seized 250 guns, 55 luxury cars and more than $148 million in cash and cryptocurrencies. An indictment unsealed Tuesday in San Diego named 17 foreign distributors charged with racketeering conspiracy.

The seeds of the sting were sown when law enforcement agencies took down a company called Phantom Secure that provided customized end-to-end encrypted devices to criminals, according to court papers.

Unlike typical cellphones, the devices do not make phone calls or browse the internet — but allow for secure messaging. As an outgrowth of the operation, the FBI recruited a collaborator who was developing a next-generation secure-messaging platform for the criminal underworld called ANOM. The collaborator engineered the system to give the agency access to any messages being sent.

ANOM didn’t take off immediately. But then other secure platforms used by criminals to organize drug-trafficking hits and money laundering were taken down by police, chiefly EncroChat and Sky ECC. That put gangs in the market for a new app, and the FBI’s platform was ready. Over the past 18 months, the agency provided phones via unsuspecting middlemen to gangs in more than 100 countries.

The flow of intelligence “enabled us to prevent murders. It led to the seizure of drugs that led to the seizure of weapons. And it helped prevent a number of crimes,” Calvin Shivers, assistant director of the FBI’s criminal investigative division, told a news conference in The Hague, Netherlands.