The medieval period really shaped Europeans

Wednesday, September 20th, 2017

In an old interview, HBD Chick describes some of the ideas she has popularized:

In the 1960s, John Hajnal noticed a curious feature in Europe populations and that is the fact that, compared to just about everybody else in the world, northwest Europeans have this history (going back to at least the 1500s) of marrying quite late (mid-20s+) and/or not marrying at all. The line divides eastern and western Europe, but some other areas — like southern Italy and Spain, Ireland, and parts of Finland — are also “outside” the Hajnal line.

I picked up on it from an historian of medieval Europe and family history, Michael Mitterauer.  In his book, Why Europe?, Mitterauer discusses at some length how the Hajnal line coincides in space with the extent of manorialism in medieval Europe, the connection being that, because young people often had to wait to take possession of a farm within the medieval manor system, they also had to wait to marry.  I suspect that, over time, this led to the selection for, as they call it, “low time preference” in northwestern Europeans — or, at least, that this was the start of it in Europe. In other words, those individuals who could “restrain themselves” were eventually rewarded with reproductive success in the form of having access to a dedicated piece of farmland on a manor.  These are (some of) the people who successfully reproduced in the Middle Ages (along with the aristocracy).

Interestingly, the Hajnal line seems to coincide with other curious features of northwestern European society, too, such as little or no cousin marriage. Mitterauer makes the (convincing, I think) argument that the various bans on cousin marriage across medieval Europe enabled the spread of manors eastwards across the continent out of the Frankish heartland in northeast France/Belgium, since the cousin marriage ban weakened European clans, and clans and manorialism did not go together, the manor system being based around nuclear families.  Mitterauer points out the eastern limit of manorialism in Europe coincides with the Hajnal line and with the earliest and strongest bans on cousin marriage. Cousin marriage was, eventually, banned in eastern Europe (Russia, for example), but much later than in western Europe. Also, extended families seem to be more important “outside” the Hajnal line, in eastern Europe for example. Even average IQs appear to be generally higher “inside” the line than out, so I suspect that Hajnal’s discovery is much more important biologically than folks have supposed up ’til now.  Population geneticists and evolutionary biologists really ought to take a very close look at it.

Most folks out there who are interested in human biodiversity and the differences we see in American society today have probably read Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, but I cannot recommend enough Mitterauer’s Why Europe? for really understanding where Europeans came from!  It should really be on everyone’s shelf next to Albion’s Seed (or also on their Kindles).  I think, taking a page out of The 10,000 Year Explosion, that the medieval period really shaped Europeans — even transformed them (us!) — especially northwest Europeans. And I think the population’s switch to regular outbreeding (i.e., the avoidance of cousin marriage) played a huge role in that transformation because it set the stage for a whole new range of selection pressures to act on the population. The loosening of genetic ties in medieval Europe led the population down a path towards greater individuality versus collectivity, greater feelings of universalism versus particularism, and less of an orientation towards the extended family and more of a focus on the commonweal. These are all really a very unique set of traits compared to most other human populations, and the roots of those traits are biological, and their origins not that old. At least that’s what I think!

Take a step toward civility

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

The virtues of humility and decency are timeless, Russ Roberts reminds us, even if they’re out of fashion. When the world is increasingly uncivilized, he suggests, take a step toward civility:

Don’t be part of the positive feedback problem. When someone yells at you on the internet or in an email or across the dinner table, turn the volume down rather than up. Don’t respond in kind to the troll. Stay calm. It’s not as much fun as yelling or humiliating your opponent with a clever insult, but it’s not worth it. It takes a toll on you and it’s bad for the state of debate. And you might actually change someone’s mind.

Be humble. Shakespeare had it right: There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. You’re inevitably a cherry-picker, ignoring the facts and evidence that might challenge the certainty of your views. The world is a complex place. Truth is elusive. Don’t be so confident. You shouldn’t be.

Imagine the possibility not just that you are wrong, but that the person you disagree with could be right. Try to imagine the best version of their views and not the straw man your side is constantly portraying. Imagine that it is possible that there is some virtue on the other side. We are all human beings, flawed, a mix of good and bad.

There’s a big difference between nothing and almost nothing

Monday, September 18th, 2017

The most valuable insights are both general and surprising, Paul Graham says:

F = ma for example. But general and surprising is a hard combination to achieve. That territory tends to be picked clean, precisely because those insights are so valuable.

Ordinarily, the best that people can do is one without the other: either surprising without being general (e.g. gossip), or general without being surprising (e.g. platitudes).

Where things get interesting is the moderately valuable insights. You get those from small additions of whichever quality was missing. The more common case is a small addition of generality: a piece of gossip that’s more than just gossip, because it teaches something interesting about the world. But another less common approach is to focus on the most general ideas and see if you can find something new to say about them. Because these start out so general, you only need a small delta of novelty to produce a useful insight.

A small delta of novelty is all you’ll be able to get most of the time. Which means if you take this route your ideas will seem a lot like ones that already exist. Sometimes you’ll find you’ve merely rediscovered an idea that did already exist. But don’t be discouraged. Remember the huge multiplier that kicks in when you do manage to think of something even a little new.


And of course, ideas beget ideas. (That sounds familiar.) An idea with a small amount of novelty could lead to one with more. But only if you keep going. So it’s doubly important not to let yourself be discouraged by people who say there’s not much new about something you’ve discovered. “Not much new” is a real achievement when you’re talking about the most general ideas. Maybe if you keep going, you’ll discover more.

It’s not true that there’s nothing new under the sun. There are some domains where there’s almost nothing new. But there’s a big difference between nothing and almost nothing, when it’s multiplied by the area under the sun.

Jerry Pournelle was an OR guy

Sunday, September 17th, 2017

Borepatch was right. Jerry Pournelle was quite the raconteur, as this interview with Leo Laporte from a few years ago demonstrates:

When he started talking about how the old Encyclopedia Britannica taught you how to do just about anything, I began to wonder if he was going where I thought he was going — and he was. (I grew up hearing a similar story…)

Surveillance capitalism fuels the Internet

Sunday, September 17th, 2017

In case you didn’t notice, Bruce Schneier reminds us, you’re not Equifax’s customer:

You’re its product.

This happened because your personal information is valuable, and Equifax is in the business of selling it. The company is much more than a credit reporting agency. It’s a data broker. It collects information about all of us, analyzes it all, and then sells those insights.

Its customers are people and organizations who want to buy information: banks looking to lend you money, landlords deciding whether to rent you an apartment, employers deciding whether to hire you, companies trying to figure out whether you’d be a profitable customer — everyone who wants to sell you something, even governments.

It’s not just Equifax. It might be one of the biggest, but there are 2,500 to 4,000 other data brokers that are collecting, storing, and selling information about you — almost all of them companies you’ve never heard of and have no business relationship with.

Surveillance capitalism fuels the Internet, and sometimes it seems that everyone is spying on you. You’re secretly tracked on pretty much every commercial website you visit. Facebook is the largest surveillance organization mankind has created; collecting data on you is its business model. I don’t have a Facebook account, but Facebook still keeps a surprisingly complete dossier on me and my associations — just in case I ever decide to join.

I also don’t have a Gmail account, because I don’t want Google storing my e-mail. But my guess is that it has about half of my e-mail anyway, because so many people I correspond with have accounts. I can’t even avoid it by choosing not to write to addresses, because I have no way of knowing if is hosted at Gmail.

And again, many companies that track us do so in secret, without our knowledge and consent. And most of the time we can’t opt out. Sometimes it’s a company like Equifax that doesn’t answer to us in any way. Sometimes it’s a company like Facebook, which is effectively a monopoly because of its sheer size. And sometimes it’s our cell phone provider. All of them have decided to track us and not compete by offering consumers privacy. Sure, you can tell people not to have an e-mail account or cell phone, but that’s not a realistic option for most people living in 21st-century America.

The companies that collect and sell our data don’t need to keep it secure in order to maintain their market share. They don’t have to answer to us, their products. They know it’s more profitable to save money on security and weather the occasional bout of bad press after a data loss. Yes, we are the ones who suffer when criminals get our data, or when our private information is exposed to the public, but ultimately why should Equifax care?

Yes, it’s a huge black eye for the company — this week. Soon, another company will have suffered a massive data breach and few will remember Equifax’s problem. Does anyone remember last year when Yahoo admitted that it exposed personal information of a billion users in 2013 and another half billion in 2014?

I’ll tell you a story about a virgin and a bull that you just wouldn’t believe!

Saturday, September 16th, 2017

The New York Times provides this obituary for Jerry Pournelle:

When Dr. Pournelle was a boy the family moved to rural Tennessee, where the school he attended was small, to say the least.

“We had two grades to a room and four teachers for the whole eighth-grade school system,” he recalled in a 2013 interview.

But he supplemented the schoolhouse learning by reading the family Encyclopaedia Britannica. Dr. Pournelle, taking advantage of the G.I. Bill after serving in the Army during the Korean War, would eventually receive multiple degrees from the University of Washington.

He spent years working in the aerospace industry, including at Boeing, on projects including studying heat tolerance for astronauts and their spacesuits. This side of his career also found him working on projections related to military tactics and probabilities. One report in which he had a hand became a basis for the Strategic Defense Initiative, the missile defense system proposed by President Ronald Reagan. A study he edited in 1964 involved projecting Air Force missile technology needs for 1975.

“I once told Mr. Heinlein” — the science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, an early mentor — “that once I got into advance plans at Boeing I probably wrote more science fiction than he did, and I didn’t have to put characters in mine,” Dr. Pournelle recalled in February in an interview with the podcaster Hank Garner.


Dr. Pournelle was an early adopter of personal computing. In 2011, when The Times published an article about an English professor, Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, who was hunting for the first writer to have written a novel on a word processor, Dr. Pournelle argued that he deserved those bragging rights for the 1981 book “Oath of Fealty,” which he wrote with Mr. Niven.


Though Dr. Pournelle wore many hats, he had a license plate that focused on the storytelling side, Phillip Pournelle said; it read, SCIBARD.

In the 2003 interview, Dr. Pournelle mused about the art of the science fiction writer.

“As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “we are not any different from the old storytellers, the old bards back in Bronze Age time who would go from campfire to campfire, and they’d see a warrior sitting there and say, ‘You fill my cup up with that wine you’ve got there and chop me a piece of that boar you’re roasting and I’ll tell you a story about a virgin and a bull that you just wouldn’t believe!’ ”

Yet crime went up, not down

Saturday, September 16th, 2017

The history of academic criminology is one of grand pronouncements that don’t prove out in the real world:

In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, criminologists demanded that public policy attack the “root causes” of crime, such as poverty and racism. Without solving these problems, they argued, we could not expect to fight crime effectively. On this thinking, billions of taxpayer dollars poured into ambitious social programs — yet crime went up, not down. In the 1970s and 1980s and into the 1990s, as crime rates continued to spike, criminologists proceeded to tell us that the police could do little to cut crime, and that locking up the felons, drug dealers, and gang leaders who committed much of the nation’s criminal violence wouldn’t work, either.

These views were shown to be false, too, but they were held so pervasively across the profession that, when political scientist James Q. Wilson called for selective incapacitation of violent repeat offenders, he found himself ostracized by his peers, who resorted to ad hominem attacks on his character and motivations. Wilson’s work was ignored by awards committees, and criminological reviews of his books, especially Thinking About Crime and Crime and Human Nature, were almost universally negative.


Evidence of the liberal tilt in criminology is widespread. Surveys show a 30:1 ratio of liberals to conservatives within the field, a spread comparable with that in other social sciences. The largest group of criminologists self-identify as radical or “critical.” These designations include many leftist intellectual orientations, from radical feminism to Marxism to postmodernism. Themes of injustice, oppression, disparity, marginalization, economic and social justice, racial discrimination, and state-sanctioned violence dominate criminological teaching and scholarship, as represented in books with titles like Search and Destroy: African American Males in the Criminal Justice System, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse.

A quick perusal of Presidential Awards for Distinguished Contributions to Justice, bestowed by the American Society of Criminology (ASC), shows that the winners were primarily rewarded for their left-wing advocacy. They included a judge in Massachusetts who advocated abolishing the state’s death penalty, an FBI agent who successfully sued the organization for ethnic discrimination, and a former director of juvenile corrections in Massachusetts who closed the state’s juvenile reformatories and wrote a book alleging that the system hunted down black men for sport. The society also honored Zaki Baruti, a radical black activist in St. Louis known for his hatred of police and support for leftist causes.


Liberal criminologists avoid discussing the lifestyles that criminal offenders typically lead. Almost all serious offenders are men, and they usually come from families with long histories of criminal involvement, often spanning generations. They show temperamental differences early in life, begin offending in childhood or early adolescence, and rack up dozens of arrests. Their lives are chaotic and hedonistic, including the constant pursuit of drugs and sex. They produce many children with different women and rarely have the means — or inclination — to support them. Active offenders exploit others for their own benefit, including women, children, churches, and the social-welfare system. They commit many crimes before getting arrested, and they move in and out of the criminal-justice system for decades. Many also report enjoying acts of violence; the social-media accounts of martyred gangsters shot by police often illuminate this subculture. Perhaps not surprisingly, they see the police as another competing tribe that has to be manipulated, controlled, and sometimes confronted. In sum, the lives of persistent criminal offenders are often shockingly pathological. The nature of this world is hard to grasp without witnessing it firsthand.


When it comes to disciplinary biases, however, none is so strong or as corrupting as liberal views on race. Disproportionate black involvement in violent crime represents the elephant in the room amid the current controversy over policing in the United States. Homicide numbers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation Supplementary Homicide Reports, 1976–2005 indicate that young African-American males account for homicide victims at levels that are ten to 20 times greater than their proportion of the population and account for homicide offenders at levels that are 15 to 35 times greater than their proportion of the population. The black-white gap in armed-robbery offending has historically ranged between ten to one and 15 to one. Even in forms of crime that are allegedly the province of white males — such as serial murder — blacks are overrepresented as offenders by a factor of two. For all racial groups, violent crime is strongly intraracial, and the intraracial dynamic is most pronounced among blacks. In more than 90 percent of cases, the killer of a black victim is a black perpetrator.


Reliable evidence tells us that the most effective strategies to reduce crime involve police focusing on crime hot spots, targeting active offenders for arrest, and helping to solve local problems surrounding disorder and incivility. Putting predatory, recidivistic offenders in jail or in prison remains the best way to protect the public — especially those who live in high-crime neighborhoods. Lower-level offenders can often be supervised in the community, and many benefit from programs that seek to modify drug and alcohol addictions that contribute to their criminal behavior. Despite our best efforts, though, most will re-offend and reenter the system at some point.

Arnold Kling notes that it was Robert Nozick who coined the term “normative sociology” as the study of what the causes of problems ought to be:

My fear about academic economics is that it will evolve in the direction of criminology. I foresee ever-increasing social pressure within the community of academic economists to undertake research that confirms left-wing biases.

Fact-based hope for our future

Friday, September 15th, 2017

Glenn Reynolds remembers how Jerry Pournelle offered fact-based hope for our future:

But Pournelle didn’t just write fiction. His 1970 book with Stefan Possony, The Strategy of Technology, outlined a strategy for winning the Cold War (with among other things, an emphasis on strategic missile defense) that was largely followed, and successfully, by the Reagan administration. He was a driving force behind the Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy in the 1980s that helped lay the groundwork for today’s booming civilian space launch industry. And, for me, his wide-ranging columns in Galaxy Magazine, back when it was edited by star editor James Baen, were particularly influential.

I was a kid in the 1970s, which was not a great era to be a kid. We had Vietnam and Watergate, the Apollo space program quit abruptly, oil prices skyrocketed and so did inflation. Even a hamburger was expensive.

And while that was going on, the voices in the media were all preaching gloom and doom. Stanford professor Paul R. Ehrlich, in his book The Population Bomb, was predicting food riots in America due to overpopulation. A group called The Club of Rome published a report titled The Limits to Growth that suggested it was all over for Western technological civilization. Bookstore displays were filled with books like The Late Great Planet Earth that announced the end times. And if that weren’t enough, most people figured we were heading for a global thermonuclear war with the Soviet Union. It looked like we were headed for some sort of apocalyptic future in which Charlton Heston would be the only survivor besides a few apes or mutants.

But Jerry Pournelle never bought it. In his Galaxy columns — eventually collected and published in book form, and still in print — he actually did the math. The fact was, he reported, we could not only survive but, in his words, survive with style.

Claims of resource limitations were bunk, easily disproved with available data. And beyond the resources of Earth, there were the effectively limitless resources of the solar system: Energy from the Sun, captured by orbiting power satellites that never had to shut down, materials from the asteroids, and an expansionary frontier that would prevent the growth of damaging zero-sum politics on Earth.

Some people found such claims outlandish in the 1970s, but we’re pretty much living in Pournelle’s world now. The 1970s “Energy Crisis” and its turn-of-the-millennium equivalent, “Peak Oil,” have been undone by technological advances in the form of fracking. Private companies are launching rockets into space at a furious rate — Elon Musk’s SpaceX is on track to launch more rockets than Russia this year — and there are even private companies (companies, plural) working on asteroid mining.

I suspect that a lot of the people working on these things were, like me, influenced by Pournelle’s writing. (I know that some of them were, because they’ve told me so, and I doubt those are the only ones.) At one of the gloomiest times in American history, Pournelle offered not only hope, but a plan. We should all be grateful for that. I certainly am.

Bulgaria with nuclear missiles

Thursday, September 14th, 2017

I had no idea that Steve Sailer was friends with Jerry Pournelle:

I didn’t meet Jerry until 1999, but I’d known his son Alex in high school. The Pournelle family asked me to go with them to Kansas City in August 1976 to the science-fiction convention at which Heinlein, the central American sci-fi writer of the 20th century, received his lifetime achievement award. (But I had to be at college that week.)

But Jerry, one of the great Southern California Cold Warriors, had a remarkable number of careers, starting as a teenage artillery officer during the Korean War, which deafened him in one ear. (At the lunch table, he’d choose his seat carefully to position his one remaining good ear next to his guest.)

He once recalled a question from the Army Officer Candidate School test:

Q. You are in charge of a detail of 11 men and a sergeant. There is a 25-foot flagpole lying on the sandy, brush-covered ground. You are to erect the pole. What is your first order?

The right answer is:

A. “Sergeant, erect that flagpole.”

In other words, if the sergeant knows how to do it, then there’s no need for you to risk your dignity as an officer and a gentleman by issuing some potentially ludicrous order about how to erect the flagpole. And if the sergeant doesn’t know either, well, he’ll probably order a corporal to do it, and so forth down the chain of command. But by the time the problem comes back up to you, it will be well established that nobody else has any more idea than you do.


Jerry once told me that if in early 1951 General MacArthur had said, “Boys, it’s time to clear out the nest of traitors in the White House. Who is going with me?” he would have been on the first flight to Washington with his hero.

After Korea, Pournelle went to West Point for a while, was a Communist briefly, and earned numerous advanced degrees in a variety of hard and soft subjects. He became an aerospace engineer at Boeing and several other companies and spent 1964 writing a Dr. Strangelove-style study for the Air Force on how a nuclear war would be fought in 1975.

He pored over satellite photos of the Soviet Union, counting the ratio of trucks to horse-drawn carts, eventually concluding that rather than the wave of the economic future, the U.S.S.R. represented “Bulgaria with nuclear missiles.” With his mentor, Viennese spymaster Stefan Possony of the Hoover Institution, Jerry wrote The Strategy of Technology, arguing that the way to win the Cold War was to turn it into a high-tech competition over who could innovate faster.

Read the whole thing.

Depression is a physical illness

Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

Depression is a physical illness, research suggests — one that could be treated with anti-inflammatory drugs:

A raft of recent papers, and unexpected results from clinical trials, have shown that treating inflammation seems to alleviate depression.

Likewise when doctors give drugs to boost the immune system to fight illness it is often accompanied by depressive mood — in the same way as how many people feel down after a vaccination.

Professor Ed Bullmore, Head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, believes a new field of ‘immuno-neurology’ is on the horizon.

“It’s pretty clear that inflammation can cause depression,” he told a briefing in London to coincide with this week’s Academy of Medical Sciences FORUM annual lecture which has brought together government the NHS and academics to discuss the issue.

“In relation to mood, beyond reasonable doubt, there is a very robust association between inflammation and depressive symptoms. We give people a vaccination and they will become depressed. Vaccine clinics could always predict it, but they could never explain it.

“The question is does the inflammation drive the depression or vice versa or is it just a coincidence?

“In experimental medicine studies if you treat a healthy individual with an inflammatory drug, like interferon, a substantial percentage of those people will become depressed. So we think there is good enough evidence for a causal effect.”


The immune system triggers an inflammatory response when it feels it is under threat, sparking wide-ranging changes in the body such as increasing red blood cells, in anticipation that it may need to heal a wound soon.

Scientists believe that associated depression may have brought an evolutionary benefit to our ancestors. If an ill or wounded tribal member became depressed and withdrawn it would prevent a disease being passed on.


Around 60 per cent of people referred to cardiologists with chest pain do not have a heart problem but are suffering from anxiety.

Figures also show that around 30 per cent of people suffering from inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis are depressed — more than four times higher than the normal population.

Likewise people who are depressed after a heart attack are much more likely to suffer a second one, while the lifespan for people with cancer is hugely reduced for people with mental illness.


One promising treatment for depression on the horizon is the use of electrical stimulation to change the signals between the brain and the immune system.

Prof Kevin Tracey, President and CEO, of the US Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, discovered that the brain controls production of a deadly inflammatory chemical called TNF, which if released in high doses can be fatal, causing people to, literally, die of shock.

He has recently developed a electrical device which reproduces the connection and switches off the chemical. Three quarters of patients with rheumatoid arthritis recovered following trials.

Cherry-picking the best students

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

Public-school supporters often claim that charter schools manage to “cherry pick” the best students:

Now a series of reports in California and elsewhere show the opposite is true. In one case, educators in the San Diego Unified School District have been counseling their students with low grade-point averages to transfer into charter schools, especially online charters, according to a Voice of San Diego report last month.

Students who were part of the district’s class of 2016 but transferred to a charter school “had a combined grade-point average of 1.75 at the time they transferred,” which is below the 2.0 average needed to graduate. This includes 919 students who left the school system and were “no longer factored into the district’s overall graduation rate,” the news site explained. The districts are able to “dump” students that drag down the overall graduation metrics, which are used to rate schools and influence funding decisions.


The impact often falls heavily on online charters, because brick-and-mortar charters have enrollment caps. Online charters have no such caps, and are an easy way to offload kids who might drag down district test scores and graduation rates.

The subsequent poor performance of some of these students has another benefit to teachers’ union leaders: it becomes a reason to clamp down on charters.

No training variable meaningfully predicted injury risk

Monday, September 11th, 2017

A recent survey of 1,900 powerlifters looked at injury rates:

Men were much more likely to have sustained an acute injury than women; roughly two-thirds of men had sustained at least one acute injury in their training career, whereas only about one-half of women had sustained at least one acute injury.  This held true even when controlling for training age and competitive success.

Unsurprisingly, people who’d been training longer were more likely to have sustained an acute injury than newer lifters.

Lifters who had sustained at least one acute injury were relatively stronger (assessed via allometric scaling), competed more frequently, and were more likely to have previously dealt with a chronic injury than lifters who had never sustained an acute injury.  All of those factors were also (unsurprisingly) associated with time spent training, but were still independently predictive of having experienced an acute injury, meaning stronger lifters and lifters who competed more often were more likely to have experienced an injury regardless of training experience.

The most surprising finding of this analysis was that no training variable meaningfully predicted injury risk, including weekly training volume, per-lift training frequency, or proportion of training with loads in excess of 85% of 1RM.

Borepatch won the “Who would you want to have to a dinner party?” game

Sunday, September 10th, 2017

I didn’t realize that Borepatch had already won the “Who would you want to have to a dinner party?” game:

I met Jerry Pournelle in the spring of 1995 when I installed a firewall at Chaos Manor. He and Mrs. Pournelle could not have been more gracious — they actually took me out to dinner.

Sometimes people play the “Who would you want to have to a dinner party” game, imagining the great wits and deep thinkers of the past and who would make the liveliest evening. I haven’t thought I needed to play that game because of that dinner with Dr. and Mrs. Pournelle. He had an unbelievably interesting life and was a great storyteller, and she kept right up with him. So I’ve already lived that game. It was truly an evening to remember.

And it was done casually — just a brilliant but astonishingly normal couple, entirely lacking in pretension. Who quite politely ignored how star-struck I was. Actually, who kind of helped me get over my star-struckness.

You see, I had read his books back in high school, and even had a first edition of Lucifer’s Hammer. I thought about taking it out to ask him to sign it, but my dog Jack had chewed it pretty badly when he was a puppy, so I didn’t. I still think that The Mote In God’s Eye is the finest space opera ever written, but what I enjoyed the most was his monthly columns in Byte Magazine, A Step Farther Out. His Science Fact writing was even more exciting than his science fiction to me.

And so to the dinner conversation that evening. It was one of the most interesting dinner conversations I’ve had.

Rest in peace, Dr. Pournelle. Thanks for the dinner, but even more thanks for sparking the imagination.

Gregory Cochran revisits Guns, Germs, and Steel

Sunday, September 10th, 2017

Gregory Cochran can be an extremely uncharitable critic, but the middle of his review of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel is measured:

Most significant domestic animals were domesticated somewhere in Eurasia or North Africa, only a couple in South America (llamas and vicuna), nothing in the rest of the world. Diamond argues that this wasn’t because populations varied in their interest in or aptitude for domestication. Instead, the explanation is that only a few large animals were suitable for domestication.

He’s unconvincing. Sure, there were places where this was true: what were the Maori in New Zealand going to domesticate — weta? And Australia didn’t have a lot of large mammals, at least not after people wiped out its megafauna. But there are plenty of large animals in Sub-Saharan Africa, yet none were domesticated. He argues that zebras were wilder, more untameable than horses — but people have tamed zebras, while the wild ancestors of horses (tarpans, which survived into the 19th century) were usually described as untameable. The wild ancestors of cows (aurochsen, which survived into the 17th century) were big and mean. They enjoyed impaling people on their horns and flinging them for distance. The eland is a large African antelope, and by Diamond’s argument it must be untameable, since the locals never tamed it. But in fact it’s rather easy to tame, and there’s now a domesticated version.

The key here is that one can select for disposition, for tameness, as well as obvious physical features, and an animal can go from totally wild to cuddly in ten generations — remember the selection experiment with Siberian foxes. In the long run disposition is not a big obstacle. Selection fixes it — selection applied to above-neck traits.

Diamond makes a similar argument about domesticating plants as crops: only a few plants were suitable for domestication, and part of the reason that some populations never developed crops was a lack of suitable plant species. I’ll give him Eskimos. but that’s about it.

Here his argument is far weaker: there are a buttload of plants that could be domesticated and might be quite useful, yet have not been. Enthusiastic agronomists keep trying to get funding for domestication of jojoba, or buffalo gourd, or guayule — usually government interest runs out well before success.

The reason that a few crops account for the great preponderance of modern agriculture is that a bird in the hand — an already-domesticated, already-optimized crop — feeds your family/makes money right now, while a potentially useful yet undomesticated crop doesn’t. One successful domestication tends to inhibit others that could flourish in the same niche. Several crops were domesticated in the eastern United States, but with the advent of maize and beans (from Mesoamerica) most were abandoned. Maybe if those Amerindians had continued to selectively breed sumpweed for a few thousand years, it could have been a contender: but nobody is quite that stubborn.

Teosinte was an unpromising weed: it’s hard to see why anyone bothered to try to domesticate it, and it took a long time to turn it into something like modern maize. If someone had brought wheat to Mexico six thousand years ago, likely the locals would have dropped maize like a hot potato. But maize ultimately had advantages: it’s a C4 plant, while wheat is C3: maize yields can be much higher.

Why didn’t people domesticate foxes, back in the day? Is it because foxes are solitary hunters, don’t have the right pack structure and thus can’t be domesticated, blah blah blah? No: they’re easy to domesticate. But we already had dogs: what was the point? You had to be crazy like a Russian.

One other factor has tended to suppress locally-domesticated plants — what you might call alien advantage. If you grow a crop near its origin, there will be local pests and pathogens that are adapted to it. It you try growing it in a distant land with a compatible climate, it often does very much better than in its own country. So… crops from Central and South America have done very well in Africa, or sometimes in Southeast Asia. Rubber tree plantations work fine in Malaysia and Liberia but fail in Brazil. Maize is the biggest crop in Africa, while manioc and peanuts are important. Most cocoa is grown in Africa: most coffee is grown in South America.

Sometimes, Diamond was wrong, but in a perfectly reasonable way, not in the devoted service of a flawed thesis, but just because the facts weren’t all in yet. We all need to worry about that.

He considered the disastrous impact of Eurasian and African diseases on the inhabitants of the New World, contrasted with a much smaller impact in the opposite direction, and concluded that a major factor had probably been transmission from domesticated animals. Eurasians domesticated quite a few animals, Amerindians not many — perhaps that was the explanation. In Guns, Germs, and Steel (p 207), he mentions measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, influenza, pertussis (whooping cough), and falciparum malaria as likely cases of transmission from domesticated animals.

We know a lot more about this we did twenty years ago, since we’ve been sequencing the genes of everything in sight — and it appears that Diamond was mistaken about the most important members of that list. TB appears to be ancient in humans, smallpox probably came from some East African rodent, while falciparum malaria seems to have derived from a form of malaria carried by gorillas. Measles really does descend from rinderpest, a cattle plague, but then rinderpest (and mumps) probably descend from bat viruses. Domesticated animals do play a role in influenza, along with wild birds. I don’t think we know the origins of pertussis.

So why then was the Old World such a fount of infectious disease? Well, it’s bigger. Civilization was older, had had more time to pick up crowd diseases. Humans have close relatives in the Old World that carried important pathogens (chimps and gorillas), while Sasquatches are germ-free. Important pathogens, especially those with insect vectors like malaria, maybe couldn’t make it to the New World through ice-age Beringia. Transportation and trade were more advanced in the Old World, and spread disease more efficiently.

I don’t think that Diamond was making excuses for Amerindians in this, as he was when talking about domestication: having lots of plagues isn’t usually considered an accomplishment. Origination in livestock seemed like a reasonable idea at the time, considering the state of the art. It seemed so to others as well, like William McNeill. It’s not totally wrong — definitely true for measles — but it’s not a huge part of the explanation.

Sometimes Diamond was right. He says that it’s a lot easier for crops to spread east and west than north and south, and he’s correct. Middle Eastern crops worked in much of Europe, especially southern Europe, and also were important in India and China. On the other hand maize had to adapt to shorter growing seasons as it spread into North America: this took time. Post-Columbian spread of maize in Africa was much faster.

Geographical barriers were major factors in slowing the spread of civilization. Although a few distressed mariners must have occasionally crossed the Pacific in ancient times, nothing significant (in terms of crops or ideas) seems to have made it across before Columbus. Amerindians had to develop everything themselves, while populations in the Old World were sharing seeds and ideas (and plagues). Having to invent everything from scratch is a disadvantage, no question.

The geography of the Americas greatly inhibited contact between Mesoamerica and the Andean civilization: even today the Pan-American highway doesn’t go all the way through. The Sahara was even worse, but most of the budding civilizations of Eurasia did manage some contact.

They send heat directly into space

Saturday, September 9th, 2017

Stanford researchers have developed a new radiative cooling system:

So Raman and electrical engineering professor Shanhui Fan made panels containing layers of silicon dioxide and hafnium oxide on top of a thin layer of silver. These radiate in a unique way: They send heat directly into space, bypassing the Earth’s atmosphere. The panels do this by emitting heat at infrared wavelengths between 8 and 13 micrometers. To these waves, the Earth’s atmosphere is transparent. What’s more, the panels reflect nearly all the sunlight falling on them.

For the new fluid-cooling system, the researchers made radiative panels that were each one-third of a square meter in area; they attached the panels to an aluminum heat exchanger plate with copper pipes embedded in it. The setup was enclosed in an acrylic box covered with a plastic sheet.

The team tested it on a rootop on the Stanford campus. Over three days of testing, they found that water temperatures went down by between 3- and 5 °C. The only electricity it requires is what’s needed to pump water through the copper pipes. Water that flowed more slowly was cooled more.

As a practical application for the system, the researchers built a model in which the radiative water-cooling panels cool the condenser coils of a building’s air-conditioning system, providing an assist to the system’s cooling fans. The circulating fluid helps siphon more heat from the condenser, increasing efficiency. Water that’s cooled by only a few degrees can make a big difference: In general, the electricity needed for a cooling system is reduced by 3 to 5 percent for every degree Celcius the condenser temperature drops.

The model showed that cooling a two-story commercial office building in Las Vegas with fluid-cooling panels—which covered 60 percent of the roof—cut the building’s electricity use by 21 percent compared with using only a traditional fan-based condenser during the hot summer months of May through August.