This is desperate instinct for self-preservation

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018

Jordan Peterson spoke with Quillette about his newly influential ideas:

Classical liberalism is not an ideology because its reflective of something that is deep and that is real. The books that I have written, both Maps of Meaning and 12 Rules for Life are an amalgam of a Jungian psychoanalytic approach to narrative and evolutionary biology. And so they are also an amalgam, in some sense of theology and evolutionary biology. But that’s sort of via the psychoanalytic interpretation of literature.

The reason for that in part is that I think that our religious preconceptions evolved. They are deeper than rationality, by a large margin. They reflect a reality that’s deeper than that which we have been able to apprehend rationally so far.


I think the one advantage that I have is that the material I have on YouTube is being watched and is being understood. And it’s not easy material, so the people who are supporting me that have put the time in, actually understand with reasonable depth what it is I am trying to do and why.

That’s makes [the fan group] more solid than it might be. I think I have evidence for that and the evidence is that I have had my reputation attacked, probably as brutally as it can be attacked short of actual physical violence over the last year and a half. And what’s stopped that from having a lasting effect is the fact that four hundred hours of what I have said have already been online and that people know it very deeply.


Part of the humility that’s necessary to make this sort of thing work is the proper terror of making a mistake. I have been far more terrified of making a fatal error in the last eighteen months than I have been thrilled about my newfound notoriety. I have been walking a very thin tightrope. I only have to say one thing, in all the things that I have said since September, and I have come close!


Outside of my immediate family, I have a circle of advisers who are not the sort of people who are swayed by fame. Not because they don’t understand its utility, not because they are contemptuous of it, none of that. But because some of them have had their fame, and some of them have had the kind of power in the world that is sufficient so they are no longer star-struck by that sort of thing and they can see the dangers. I talk to them and I say, “OK, here is what I said, what did I do wrong? Where did I go overboard? Where wasn’t I clear? Where did I wander into egotism?” And they are brutal, they tell me, “Here is what you did wrong, don’t do this again”. There are five of them. And plus I pay attention to the social media comments. Not obsessively, but if I have made a video that doesn’t get fifty-to-one likes to dislikes I have made a mistake. Because that seems to be about the [right] ratio.

This isn’t a moral virtue on my part. This is desperate instinct for self-preservation. It’s like if you’re in a piranha tank you don’t want to get a speck of something delicious on you, how would that be?

A malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete

Wednesday, January 31st, 2018

After 45 years, Matthew Parris returned to the country that he knew as Nyasaland. It’s now Malawi. There he concluded that Africa needs God — even though he’s an atheist:

In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding — as you can — the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing. First, then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world — a directness in their dealings with others — that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.


Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers — in some ways less so — but more open.

This time in Malawi it was the same. I met no missionaries. You do not encounter missionaries in the lobbies of expensive hotels discussing development strategy documents, as you do with the big NGOs. But instead I noticed that a handful of the most impressive African members of the Pump Aid team (largely from Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians. ”Privately” because the charity is entirely secular and I never heard any of its team so much as mention religion while working in the villages. But I picked up the Christian references in our conversations. One, I saw, was studying a devotional textbook in the car. One, on Sunday, went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service. It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work were unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man’s place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.

There’s long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: “theirs” and therefore best for “them”; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours. I don’t follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.

Anxiety — fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things — strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won’t take the initiative, won’t take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.

He tries to explain the philosophical difference between Christian Africans and non-Christians with Sir Edmund Hillary’s famous answer to why he climbed Mount Everest: “Because it’s there.”

To the rural African mind, this is an explanation of why one would not climb the mountain. It’s… well, there. Just there. Why interfere? Nothing to be done about it, or with it. Hillary’s further explanation — that nobody else had climbed it — would stand as a second reason for passivity. Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and insubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosophical/spiritual framework I’ve just described. It offers something to hold on to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted. And I’m afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.

By the way, it wasn’t Hillary who said that after he successfully summited Everest; it was George Mallory who said it after he’d failed and before his last attempt — where he failed.

(Hat tip to commenter Charles W. Abbott.)

Good guys battle bad guys for the moral future of society

Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

Virtually all our mass-culture narratives based on folklore have the same structure, Marina Benjamin argues — good guys battle bad guys for the moral future of society:

In Marvel comics, Thor has to be worthy of his hammer, and he proves his worth with moral qualities. But in ancient myth, Thor is a god with powers and motives beyond any such idea as ‘worthiness’.

In old folktales, no one fights for values. Individual stories might show the virtues of honesty or hospitality, but there’s no agreement among folktales about which actions are good or bad. When characters get their comeuppance for disobeying advice, for example, there is likely another similar story in which the protagonist survives only because he disobeys advice. Defending a consistent set of values is so central to the logic of newer plots that the stories themselves are often reshaped to create values for characters such as Thor and Loki — who in the 16th-century Icelandic Edda had personalities rather than consistent moral orientations.

Stories from an oral tradition never have anything like a modern good guy or bad guy in them, despite their reputation for being moralising. In stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Sleeping Beauty, just who is the good guy? Jack is the protagonist we’re meant to root for, yet he has no ethical justification for stealing the giant’s things. Does Sleeping Beauty care about goodness? Does anyone fight crime? Even tales that can be made to seem like they are about good versus evil, such as the story of Cinderella, do not hinge on so simple a moral dichotomy. In traditional oral versions, Cinderella merely needs to be beautiful to make the story work. In the Three Little Pigs, neither pigs nor wolf deploy tactics that the other side wouldn’t stoop to. It’s just a question of who gets dinner first, not good versus evil.

The situation is more complex in epics such as The Iliad, which does have two ‘teams’, as well as characters who wrestle with moral meanings. But the teams don’t represent the clash of two sets of values in the same way that modern good guys and bad guys do. Neither Achilles nor Hector stands for values that the other side cannot abide, nor are they fighting to protect the world from the other team. They don’t symbolise anything but themselves and, though they talk about war often, they never cite their values as the reason to fight the good fight. The ostensibly moral face-off between good and evil is a recent invention that evolved in concert with modern nationalism — and, ultimately, it gives voice to a political vision not an ethical one.

We have to be able to talk about cars, too

Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

Cars, not subways, seem to be what the people need — in most of the US, at least:

A 2011 Brookings Institute study (PDF) found that in the 100 largest U.S. metro areas, only 22% of low- and middle-skill jobs were accessible by public transit in under 90 minutes, suggesting that today’s working-class riders cannot access needed opportunities. And a new study (PDF) released in March 2014 by the Urban Institute found that public transit access had little effect on economic outcomes. While tracking households that had participated in two federal housing voucher programs, it found that car owners were twice as likely as transit users to find jobs and four times likelier to retain them. Car-owning households were also able to locate near better neighborhoods and schools. This reaffirmed previous work by the Progressive Policy Institute arguing that car ownership plants the seeds for upward mobility.


“In the academic research, the dominant ideas have been about improving and investing in transit,” [one of the Urban Institute study’s authors, Rolf Pendall] told the Washington Post. “But I think we have to be able to talk about cars, too.”


Another idea might be subsidizing actual car ownership, something raised as a thought experiment last decade by transportation consultant Wendell Cox. He argued that providing cars to every American transit user would cost $10 billion, compared to the $25 billion spent annually on transit subsidies, and would increase people’s mobility. Cox didn’t go so far as to suggest actually giving away cars, but a minor subsidy program could mirror the voucher-based model of other government services. This would enable poor people to shop the private car market, rather than being consigned to government transit, and would be cheaper, he argued, even when accounting for road expansions needed for the extra traffic.

Of course, increasing car use wouldn’t be feasible in some places. If New York City, San Francisco, or one of America’s few other dense cities started encouraging everyone to drive, they’d be wracked with even worse gridlock than they have now. But most cities — especially ones with populations below 100,000 — don’t have nearly these traffic levels. Their transportation problems are defined less by over-driving, than by the fact that they even attempt to sustain comprehensive public transit.

My hometown of Charlottesville, VA, is a great example. The 43,000-person, 10-square-mile city currently operates a $6 million bus system. Its daily ridership averages under 7,000, and runs along 10 routes. Like elsewhere, the system includes full-size buses, salaried drivers, a fancy central terminal, and a morning-through-night schedule. Also like other systems, it serves a city where most housing is suburban in style, and where increasing density is discouraged politically.

Together, these factors make it wildly inefficient.

That emphasis is mine, and I think the emboldened factoid deserves repeating: providing cars to every American transit user would cost $10 billion, compared to the $25 billion spent annually on transit subsidies.

Who’s afraid of Jordan Peterson?

Monday, January 29th, 2018

Who’s afraid of Jordan Peterson?” Peggy Noonan asks:

This flashed through my mind when I saw the interview this week between British television journalist Cathy Newman and clinical psychologist and social philosopher Jordan Peterson. It burned through the internet, in part because she was remarkably hostile and badgering: “What gives you the right to say that?” “You’re making vast generalizations.” He seemed mildly taken aback, then rallied and wouldn’t be pushed around. It was also interesting because she, the fiery, flame-haired aggressor, was so boring — her thinking reflected all the predictable, force-fed assumptions — while he, saying nothing revolutionary or even particularly fiery, was so interesting. When it was over, you wanted to hear more from him and less from her.


He is of the tough school: Know life’s limits, see and analyze your own, build on what you’ve got and can create.

And be brave. Everything else is boring and won’t work.

Deeper in, you understand the reasons he might be targeted for annihilation. First, he is an intellectual who shows a warm, scholarly respect for the stories and insights into human behavior — into the meaning of things — in the Old and New Testaments. (He’d like more attention paid to the Old.) Their stories exist for a reason, he says, and have lasted for a reason: They are powerful indicators of reality, and their great figures point to pathways. He respects the great thinkers of the West and the Christian tradition.

More undermining of the modernist project, Mr. Peterson states clearly more than once that grasping at political ideology is not the answer when your life goes wrong. There’s no refuge there, it’s a way of avoiding the real problem: “Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city?”

That is a dangerous thing to say in an ideological age.

What should we do instead? Admit life ain’t for sissies. You will die and on the way to death you will suffer; throughout you will be harassed by evil, both in the world and in your heart: “Earthquakes, floods, poverty, cancer — we’re tough enough to take on all of that. But human evil adds a whole new dimension of misery to the world.”

The only appropriate stance: “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” and “accept the terrible responsibility of life with eyes wide open.” Literally: “Quit drooping and hunching around. Speak your mind.” Competitors and predators will start to assume you’re competent and able. Moreover, it will “encourage the serotonin to flow plentifully through the neural pathways desperate for its calming influence.”

“Aim up. Pay attention. Fix what you can fix.” Respect yourself, take part, keep “the machinery of the world running.”

Don’t be arrogant. “Become aware of your own insufficiency…. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. And above all, don’t lie. Don’t lie about anything, ever. Lying leads to Hell. It was the great and the small lies of the Nazi and Communist states that produced the death of millions of people.”

He’s suggesting here the personal is political, but not in the way that phrase is usually meant.


When people, especially those in a position of authority, like broadcasters, try so hard to shut a writer up, that writer must have something to say.

When cultural arbiters try to silence a thinker, you have to assume he is saying something valuable.

So I bought and read the book. A small thing, but it improved my morale.

Nobody knew where this power was coming from

Monday, January 29th, 2018

I’ve been meaning to read The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (or listen to the audiobook) for some time. That book was published in 1974. Since then, Robert Caro has been working on his five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. The 82-year-old Caro is working on the fifth volume now:

Between January and July of 1965, he’s passed the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, twelve different education bills, a liberalized immigration law and much of the War on Poverty. What he’s done is a great drama of legislative genius, almost without precedent. The Voting Rights Act: I wonder if we’d have it today — and what we have is still significant, even after the 2014 Supreme Court decision to strike down Section 5 — if there hadn’t been a Lyndon Johnson to seize that moment.

And at the same time that he was passing this legislation, he was secretly planning to escalate the Vietnam War.

It’s fascinating. I don’t know if I can write it well enough. But it’s almost unbelievable. You can see these great ambitions, which Johnson is on the way to realizing, get swallowed up by Vietnam. You can follow it almost minute by minute.

I don’t know if “a great drama of legislative genius” is how I’d describe it, but I take his point. He doesn’t regard his books as biographies, by the way:

I’ve never had the slightest interest in writing a book to tell the life of a great man. I started The Power Broker because I realized that there was this man, Robert Moses, who had all this power and he had shaped New York for forty-four years. And nobody knew where this power was coming from, and neither did I. I regarded the book as a study of power in cities.

After I finished that, I wanted to do national power. I felt I could learn about how power worked on a national level by studying Lyndon Johnson. Rightly or wrongly, I regard all these books as studies in political power, not biography.

Most people aren’t shoplifters

Sunday, January 28th, 2018

TechCrunch looks inside Amazon’s surveillance-powered no-checkout convenience store, which should work just fine as long as all the customers are Amazon employees:

In addition to the cameras, there are weight sensors in the shelves, and the system is aware of every item’s exact weight — so no trying to grab two yogurts at once and palm the second, as I considered trying. You might be able to do it Indiana Jones style, with a suitable amount of sand in a sack, but that’s more effort than most shoplifters are willing to put out.

And, as Kumar noted to me, most people aren’t shoplifters, and the system is designed around most people. Building a system that assumes ill intent rather than merely detecting discrepancies is not always a good design choice.

The Naples Soldier and Disease 11

Sunday, January 28th, 2018

This year marks the centenary of Spanish flu, the most deadly pandemic in human history:

It is estimated that five hundred million people contracted it — a third of the global population in 1918 — and that between fifty and a hundred million of them died. Asians were thirty times more likely to die than Europeans.


The spread of Spanish flu was quickened by the railway and steamer lines that girdled the planet, starkly illuminating global inequalities in security, nutrition and access to medical care. In India 6 per cent of the population died; in Fiji 5 per cent; in Tonga 10 per cent. In Western Samoa, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, more than 20 per cent of the population died. Even harder hit were the Alaskan Inuit, with a death rate between 25 and 50 per cent: in some small Alaskan communities everybody died. Koreans and Japanese were infected at the same rate, but the Koreans, subject to chronic malnutrition, were twice as likely to die. In the US, Italian immigrants died at twice the background rate (the Italian neighbourhoods of New York had a density of five hundred per acre, ten to a room), while black populations were the least affected.


The flu wasn’t Spanish at all. The name stuck when in May 1918 the Spanish king, the prime minister and his entire cabinet all came down with it. In Madrid, it was known as the Naples Soldier after a catchy tune then in circulation, while French military doctors called it Disease 11. In Senegal it was Brazilian flu; in Brazil it was German flu. Poles called it the Bolshevik Disease and the Persians thought the British were responsible.


The first case of Spanish flu was recorded on 4 March 1918, when a military mess cook called Albert Gitchell in Camp Funston, Kansas, reported sick with a headache and fever. By the following day a hundred others had reported the same symptoms. A hangar was requisitioned to house the men, but flu has an incubation period of a couple of days, and had already moved on, aided by the war machine. By mid-April it had reached the Western Front, where three-quarters of French troops and half the British fell ill; 900,000 German soldiers were taken out of action. In April it also surfaced in South-East Asia, and in May, as the Spanish cabinet took to their beds, it was spreading through North Africa. On 1 June the New York Times reported it spreading through China (possibly for the second time), and later that summer it reached Australia. That was the first wave; through the summer of 1918 the pandemic seemed to be on the wane.

But in August a second and more deadly wave struck all at once in Sierra Leone, Boston and Brest. The virus seems to have mutated, making it more transmissible and provoking a more florid inflammatory reaction. Ten thousand died in Addis Ababa; Haile Selassie said that he fell ‘gravely ill’, but ‘was spared from death by God’s goodness’. In Prague Kafka became ill; in Dublin Yeats’s pregnant wife, Georgie, was stricken, as was Ezra Pound in London. In Zamora in north-west Spain the bishop ordered a novena — the community was to gather for nine consecutive evenings to pray to St Rocco, patron saint of pestilence, and to kiss his relics. Observant locals noted that afterwards ‘Zamoranos seemed to be dying in higher numbers than the residents of other provincial capitals.’


When Charlie Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms came to New York in October, Harold Edel, the manager of the Strand Theatre, wrote: ‘We think it a most wonderful appreciation of Shoulder Arms that people should veritably take their lives in their hands to see it.’ Edel was dead within a week, of flu.

Although there was no effective treatment for the virus, aspirin was taken by the tonne (its German manufacturer, Bayer, was suspected of spreading flu through its pills); aspirin poisoning possibly killed some who would otherwise have survived.


The structure of the flu virus was first seen in 1943, when effective electron microscopes became available. They are just 0.1 microns across, between a tenth and a twentieth of the size of the bacilli most often associated with pneumonia. It’s moot whether they are even alive: viruses are simply packets of protein and fat, together with some nucleic acids to encode proteins. The flu virus carries just eight strands of RNA, with which it creates copies of itself. Two kinds of protein jut out from its surface: Haemagglutinin is the skeleton key that allows the flu virus to slip into living cells; Neuraminidase is the battering-ram that bursts its progeny out. These antigens can be recognised by our immune system and used to destroy the virus; we name flu strains according to which H and N subtypes they carry.


Animal ‘reservoirs’ allow flu strains to recombine until a new pandemic strain breaks out again — which it will. Every flu pandemic of the 20th century followed the emergence of a new Haemagglutinin antigen: H1 in 1918, H2 in 1957 and H3 in 1968.


In 1951 a Swedish-Iowan pathologist, Johan Hultin, travelled to Alaska and sampled lung tissue from graves at Brevig Mission, one of the Inuit communities badly affected by Spanish flu. The graves were relatively well preserved in permafrost, but even so Hultin didn’t manage to get enough samples of the virus to reproduce it. In 1997 the virologists Ann Reid and Jeffery Taubenberger worked with a scrap of lung from a 1918 flu victim, preserved for seventy years in formaldehyde. They succeeded in extracting some damaged RNA, but again too little to reconstitute the virus. Hultin read of Reid and Taubenberger’s research and returned to Brevig Mission: he was again given permission to dig, and this time exhumed an obese woman whose lungs had been preserved in fat. Enough flu virus was recovered from the lungs to be sequenced, and the results, published in Nature in 2005, suggested that the 1918 virus was avian in origin, but that a mutation had rendered it fatally adept at infecting mammals. When the reconstituted virus was given to mice under barrier conditions the mice lost 13 per cent of their body weight and produced forty thousand times more infectious particles than mice with ordinary seasonal flu. Six days after infection, all the mice were dead. The virus is currently held in a high-security facility in Atlanta, Georgia. In 2016, around 1.7 million people died from tuberculosis, around a million from HIV/Aids, and around half a million from malaria. Computer modelling suggests that if the 1918 H1N1 virus were to break out of the facility in Atlanta it would cause around thirty million deaths.

Can I get a flu shot against that strain of H1N1, please?

Jordan Peterson talks with Geen Stijl

Saturday, January 27th, 2018

I briefly mentioned this long-form interview Jordan Peterson had with Geen Stijl, but, if you have the time, do listen to the whole thing:

It’s the polar opposite of his interview with Channel 4.

An endearing antelope with a bulbous nose

Saturday, January 27th, 2018

The saiga is “an endearing antelope” that roams Central Asia. Its “bulbous nose gives it the comedic air of a Dr. Seuss character,” Ed Yong says:

It typically wanders over large tracts of Central Asian grassland, but every spring, tens of thousands of them gather in the same place to give birth. These calving aggregations should be joyous events, but the gathering in May 2015 became something far more sinister when 200,000 saiga just dropped dead. They did so without warning, over a matter of days, in gathering sites spread across 65,000 square miles — an area the size of Florida. Whatever killed them was thorough and merciless: Across a vast area, every last saiga perished.

Saiga calf

At first, the team suspected that a new infectious disease had spread through the population, but the pattern of deaths just didn’t fit. The saiga were dying too synchronously and too quickly. Also, all of them had died. “In biology, there’s certain rules, you know?” says Kock. “We accept that sometimes microbes can cause us harm, but not like this. Even very severe viral diseases or anthrax don’t do this. A good proportion of the animals would be fine.”

News of the die-off sparked outlandish explanations about Russian rocket fuel, radiation, and even aliens. But while conspiracy theories raged, a huge international team of scientists, led by Kock, got to work. Vets autopsied as many saigas as they could. Ecologists sampled the soil. Botanists checked the local plants. They couldn’t find any signs of toxins that might have killed the saiga. Instead, the actual culprit turned out to be a bacterium, one that’s usually harmless.

Pasteurella multocida normally lives in the saiga’s respiratory tract, but Kock’s team found that the microbe had found its way into the animals’ blood, and invaded their livers, kidneys, and spleens. Wherever it went, it produced toxins that destroyed the local cells, causing massive internal bleeding. Blood pooled around their organs, beneath their skin, and around their lungs. The saigas drowned in their own bodily fluids.

But that answer just led to more questions. Pasteurella is common and typically harmless part of the saiga’s microbiome. In livestock, it can cause disease when animals are stressed, as sometimes happens when they’re shipped over long distances in bad conditions. But it has never been linked to a mass die-off of the type that afflicted the saigas. What could have possibly turned this docile Jekyll into such a murderous Hyde?

The team considered a list of possible explanations that runs to 13 pages. They wondered if some environmental chemical or dietary change had set the microbe off. They checked if biting insects had transmitted a new infection that interacted with Pasteurella. They considered that Pasteurella might have gone rogue because of an accompanying viral infection, in the same way that Streptococcus bacteria can bloom during a cold, leading to strep throat. “We tested for everything and we couldn’t find anything,” says Eleanor Milner-Gulland from the University of Oxford.

Only one factor fit the bill: climate. The places where the saigas died in May 2015 were extremely warm and humid. In fact, humidity levels were the highest ever seen the region since records began in 1948. The same pattern held for two earlier, and much smaller, die-offs from 1981 and 1988. When the temperature gets really hot, and the air gets really wet, saiga die. Climate is the trigger, Pasteurella is the bullet.

It’s still unclear how heat and humidity turn Pasteurella into a killer, and the team is planning to sequence the bacterium’s genome to find out more.

The perfect antidote to the cocktail of coddling and accusation

Friday, January 26th, 2018

David Brooks calls this the Jordan Peterson moment. Dr. Peterson has a new book out, 12 Rules for Living, and his YouTube videos have accumulated 40 million views.

But Brooks isn’t exactly a fan:

At some level Peterson is offering assertiveness training to men whom society is trying to turn into emasculated snowflakes.

Peterson gives them a chance to be strong. He inspires their idealism by telling them that life is hard. His worldview begins with the belief that life is essentially a series of ruthless dominance competitions. The strong get the spoils and the weak become meek, defeated, unknown and unloved.

I immediately spotted something wrong there, and Peterson himself called it out on Twitter:

Not dominance competitions. Competence competitions. Not the same thing at all….

I can almost hear him saying “Bucko” at the end there.

“Much of Peterson’s advice sounds,” to Brooks, “like vague exhortatory banality,” but Brooks did enjoy Peterson’s dissection of Channel 4′s Cathy Newman:

Instead of actually listening to Peterson, she just distorted, simplified and restated his views to make them appear offensive and cartoonish.

Peterson calmly and comprehensibly corrected and rebutted her. It is the most devastatingly one-sided media confrontation you will ever see. He reminded me of a young William F. Buckley.

The Peterson way is a harsh way, but it is an idealistic way — and for millions of young men, it turns out to be the perfect antidote to the cocktail of coddling and accusation in which they are raised.

Modern universities are an exercise in insanity

Friday, January 26th, 2018

Modern universities are an exercise in insanity, T. Greer reminds us — even if we ignore all the other problems and look at just the cost:

How can you possibly justify a $200,000+ college expense? How can you justify a $100,000+ college expense?

This is not necessary.

The average tenure track professor makes $40 an hour. If you were to employ her as a private tutor at the cost of $60 an hour, and had four hours with her a week, and did that for 14 weeks (that’s the length of an average college course folks) that is about $3,400.

Were you to employ three such professor-tutors, that would be about $10,200, or a bit over $20,000 a year. In four years you would have racked up $80,000 in costs. But this is still $30,000 less than the total for the ‘cost conscious’ universities. It is a quarter of what you would pay for Trinity.

Remember: this $80,000 is for private tutoring, where individual attention would give you far and away a better and more thorough education than the 300-kids-in-a-lecture-hall style of classes that dominate undergraduate education today.

But it can get even cheaper. Let’s say you take the general principle of group classes from the university. Say you can find four other people to take all of these other classes with you. Just four. Well that equals out to $680 per class, or $16,000 a person for four years of classes.

To be fair, add in $1000 for textbooks and a subscription to JSTOR, for a total of about 17,000 to 18,000 for four years.

Modern universities are insane.

For the vast majority of human history universities as we conceive of them did not exist. The modern university system did not produce the Mahabharata, The Aeneid, or The Tale of Genji. The modern university system did not produce Ibn Khaldun, Thomas Aquinas, or Alexis de Tocqueville. The universities John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison attended looked or functioned very little like Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton do today. Men like Abraham Lincoln are evidence that a deep reading and appreciation for the liberal arts do not require formal education at all. Make no mistake about it: the humanities existed before the modern university department was conceived; they will exist long after the modern university department has been destroyed.

I would like to see something along the lines of a “liberal education” preserved. But do the math. The important elements — the students, the books, the teachers — can be provided for at under $20,000 a year, and that is with paying the teachers $20 more an hour than they are currently earning. Any attempt to reform the current university system must take this fact as its foundation.

None more black

Thursday, January 25th, 2018

Blackbirds, Ed Yong explains, aren’t actually all that black:

Their feathers absorb most of the visible light that hits them, but still reflect between 3 and 5 percent of it. For really black plumage, you need to travel to Papua New Guinea and track down the birds of paradise.

Although these birds are best known for their gaudy, kaleidoscopic colors, some species also have profoundly black feathers. The feathers ruthlessly swallow light and, with it, all hints of edge or contour. They make body parts seem less like parts of an actual animal and more like gaping voids in reality. They’re blacker than black. None more black.

By analyzing museum specimens, Dakota McCoy, from Harvard University, has discovered exactly how the birds achieving such deep blacks. It’s all in their feathers’ microscopic structure.

A typical bird feather has a central shaft called a rachis. Thin branches, or barbs, sprout from the rachis, and even thinner branches—barbules—sprout from the barbs. The whole arrangement is flat, with the rachis, barbs, and barbules all lying on the same plane. The super-black feathers of birds of paradise, meanwhile, look very different. Their barbules, instead of lying flat, curve upward. And instead of being smooth cylinders, they are studded in minuscule spikes. “It’s hard to describe,” says McCoy. “It’s like a little bottle brush or a piece of coral.”

Bird of Paradise Ultra-Black

These unique structures excel at capturing light. When light hits a normal feather, it finds a series of horizontal surfaces, and can easily bounce off. But when light hits a super-black feather, it finds a tangled mess of mostly vertical surfaces. Instead of being reflected away, it bounces repeatedly between the barbules and their spikes. With each bounce, a little more of it gets absorbed. Light loses itself within the feathers.

McCoy and her colleagues, including Teresa Feo from the National Museum of Natural History, showed that this light-trapping nanotechnology can absorb up to 99.95 percent of incoming light. That’s between 10 and 100 times better than the feathers of most other black birds, like crows or blackbirds. It’s also only just short of the blackest materials that humans have designed. Vantablack, an eerily black substance produced by the British company Surrey Nanosystems, can absorb 99.965 percent of incoming light. It consists of a forest of vertical carbon nanotubes that are “grown” at more than 750 degrees Fahrenheit. The birds of paradise mass-produce similar forests, using only biological materials, at body temperature.

Fanta was created for Nazi Germany

Thursday, January 25th, 2018

In April 1955, Coca-Cola reintroduced Fanta with a new, orange-flavored recipe. The original version was rather different — and developed in Nazi Germany:

The drink was technically fruit-flavored, but limited wartime resources made that descriptor not wholly accurate. Its ingredients were less than appetizing: leftover apple fibers, mash from cider presses, and whey, a cheese by-product. “[Fanta] was made from the leftovers of the leftovers,” says Mark Pendergrast, who, as the author of For God, Country, and Coca-Cola, revealed this hidden past. “I don’t imagine it tasted very good.”


In 1895, Coca-Cola’s CEO boasted of its presence in every American state and territory. In 1920, the company’s first European bottling plant opened in France, and by 1929, Coca-Cola was being bottled and drunk in Germany.

In 1933, right when Hitler and the Nazi Party were assuming power, German-born Max Keith (pronounced “Kite”) took over the company’s German subsidiary, Coca-Cola GmbH. Keith was an imposing figure: tall, intimidating, possessing a “little whisk-broom mustache” (not unlike Hitler’s), charming but quick-tempered, and utterly devoted to Coca-Cola. “[Keith] valued his allegiance to the drink and to the company more than his allegiance to his own country,” says Pendergrast. For that reason, he saw no quarrel with boosting sales by tying Coca-Cola to every aspect of German life and, increasingly, Nazi rule.


The U.S.’s entrance into World War II meant that American companies had to immediately stop all business activities with the enemy. In addition, the German government was threatening to seize “enemy-owned” businesses. General Motors pulled out of Germany (though, Opal, a fully owned subsidiary of GM, still operated there). IBM’s operations were seized by the Third Reich, though controversy exists on how much they contributed to the German war effort. Coca-Cola HQ in Atlanta also cut off communications with Keith in Germany and halted the export of Coca-Cola’s 7X flavoring (the long-mythicized, top secret formula for Coca-Cola syrup).


Working with his chemists, Keith patched together a recipe within the limitations imposed by wartime rationing. It was basically made from the leftovers of other food industries: fruit shavings, apple fibers and pulp, beet sugar, and whey, the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained during cheese production. To name this concoction, Keith told his team to use their imagination. Joe Knipp, a salesman, pitched “Fanta,” shorthand for the German word for “fantasy.” It stuck.

Fanta saved Coca-Cola GmbH. Sales rose gradually during the war, particularly as other choices became harder and harder to find. It wasn’t simply drunk either. Fanta was popular as a sweetener for soups due to severe sugar rationing, since the drink’s renown earned it an exemption from the rationing after 1941 (though Keith had to use beet sugar). It was likely used for a variety of other cooking and baking needs as well.

“It was Fanta or nothing,” says Tristan Donovan, author of the book Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World. “It had pretty much market dominance during war time.” By 1943, sales had reached nearly three million cases.

Damore vs Google Class Action Lawsuit

Wednesday, January 24th, 2018

If you haven’t read the Damore vs Google Class Action Lawsuit, you really should. It’s pretty disturbing — yet perfectly believable.