It’s not right to want others to believe wrong thoughts, is it?

Sunday, October 14th, 2018

The new San Francisco school board president has dispensed with the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of board meetings and has substituted the new tradition of reading from Maya Angelou. This reminded Travis Corcoran (The Powers of the Earth) of The Children’s Story, by James Clavell:

That’s the one where the US loses a war and the “new teacher” helps the children cut up the American flag so they can each have pieces as a “new tradition”.

You can find the full text of the story easily enough, and it’s a quick, breezy read.

The story of how it came to be is almost as interesting as the story itself:

Children's Story 1
Children's Story 2
Children's Story 3

There’s also a short movie version:

Far more catechized by popular culture than by the church

Saturday, October 13th, 2018

Rod Dreher addresses Handle’s critique of his Benedict Option:

I have had an open tab on my browser for almost three weeks now, trying to figure out how to engage with this massive, massive post about The Benedict Option from a blogger named Handle. It might be the longest single post anyone has ever written about the book. He likes parts of it, and he doesn’t like parts of it. Most of his commentary is really interesting, and I’ve been struggling with how to engage it without giving myself over to a 7,000-word reply that few people will read.

[...]

To be clear: my Ben Op argument has always been that conservative Christians already are in very bad shape. Political power is holding up a façade that won’t remain much longer, precisely because politics is a lagging indicator of culture. Christians in America today — even those who identify as conservative — are far more catechized by popular culture than by the church. It’s not even close. The statistics are clear (I present them in my book.)

Why Paul Romer and William Nordhaus won the Nobel Prize in economics

Monday, October 8th, 2018

Tyler Cowen explains why Paul Romer won the Nobel Prize in economics and why William Nordhaus won the Nobel Prize in economics:

These are excellent Nobel Prize selections, Romer for economic growth and Nordhaus for environmental economics. The two picks are brought together by the emphasis on wealth, the true nature of wealth, and how nations and societies fare at the macro level. These are two highly relevant picks. Think of Romer as having outlined the logic behind how ideas leverage productivity into ongoing spurts of growth, as for instance we have seen in Silicon Valley. Think of Nordhaus as explaining how economic growth interacts with the value of the environment.

Did China use a tiny chip to infiltrate U.S. companies?

Saturday, October 6th, 2018

Bloomberg claims that China used a tiny chip to infiltrate U.S. companies:

A Chinese military unit designed and manufactured microchips as small as a sharpened pencil tip. Some of the chips were built to look like signal conditioning couplers, and they incorporated memory, networking capability, and sufficient processing power for an attack.

The microchips were inserted at Chinese factories that supplied Supermicro, one of the world’s biggest sellers of server motherboards.

The compromised motherboards were built into servers assembled by Supermicro.

The sabotaged servers made their way inside data centers operated by dozens of companies.

When a server was installed and switched on, the microchip altered the operating system’s core so it could accept modifications. The chip could also contact computers controlled by the attackers in search of further instructions and code.

The claims are… incredible:

In emailed statements, Amazon (which announced its acquisition of Elemental in September 2015), Apple, and Supermicro disputed summaries of Bloomberg Businessweek’s reporting. “It’s untrue that AWS knew about a supply chain compromise, an issue with malicious chips, or hardware modifications when acquiring Elemental,” Amazon wrote. “On this we can be very clear: Apple has never found malicious chips, ‘hardware manipulations’ or vulnerabilities purposely planted in any server,” Apple wrote. “We remain unaware of any such investigation,” wrote a spokesman for Supermicro, Perry Hayes. The Chinese government didn’t directly address questions about manipulation of Supermicro servers, issuing a statement that read, in part, “Supply chain safety in cyberspace is an issue of common concern, and China is also a victim.” The FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, representing the CIA and NSA, declined to comment.

We are willing to suffer more to keep what we have now

Thursday, October 4th, 2018

T. Greer reviews two books by Kenneth Payne on the psychology of strategy — The Psychology of Strategy: Exploring Rationality in the Vietnam War and Strategy, Evolution, and War: From Apes to Artificial Intelligence:

Payne isolates several aspects of human psychology that are especially relevant to strategic decision making. Payne divides these aspects into three broader themes: unconscious biases that affect strategic decision making, interaction between emotions and strategic action, and the critical role that social esteem plays in the psychology of strategy.

[...]

For example, there is strong evidence humans become more certain in our beliefs and in our decisions when angry; the strategic calculations of an angry decision maker will be fundamentally different from a sorrowful one. One of the more intriguing ideas in Payne’s catalog of biases is his interpretation of Clausewitz’s dictum that the defense is stronger than the offense. This is true, Payne argues, because humans are loss averse. We are willing to suffer more to keep what we have now than we are to earn something new. If humans think about territory or international prestige this way, then commanders will be bolder when trying to recover lost ground, and their soldiers will be more determined in defense than on the attack.

The most interesting part of this discussion is Payne’s analysis of honor and esteem. Humans are social animals. The need for the esteem of other humans seems deeply ingrained in human psychology, and statesmen and strategists are not immune to this. In The Psychology of Strategy Payne provides scores of examples of strategic decisions made by Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and other officials that were made more to bolster the social esteem of the decision maker than to defeat the enemy. For Johnson and his officials, esteem and reputation were often explicitly described as the most important objective in the war — one administration official estimated in a memo that 70% of the reason the U.S. was escalating in Vietnam was to avoid humiliation; the other 30% was divided between the need to keep Vietnam out of Chinese hands and to help the people of South Vietnam live a freer life.

[...]

Esteem, emotion, and cognitive biases are human phenomena. If wars were fought by non-humans they would be fought differently. This is exactly what Payne imagines for the future of war. Artificial intelligence will be a revolution in warfare, Payne claims, because for the first time in man’s evolutionary history, strategy will be freed from the limits of human psychology: “Rather than creating a danger from AI acting strategically against humans, the main effects of AI are likely to be felt from AI acting in our interests.”

They need to wake up in the morning and pray for a mission to go kill enemies

Monday, October 1st, 2018

Secretary Mattis recently gave a speech at the Virginia Military Institute and was then asked about women in combat:

Yeah. It’s a very, very tough issue because it goes from some people’s perspective of what kind of society do we want, you know?

In the event of trouble, you’re sleeping at night in your family home and you’re the dad, mom, whatever. And you hear glass break downstairs, who grabs a baseball bat and gets between the kids’ door and whoever broke in, and who reaches for the phone to call 9-1-1?

In other words, it goes to the most almost primitive needs of a society to look out for its most vulnerable.

This is an issue right now that we have Army, Navy, Marine all looking at as we speak, and that is the close quarters fight being what it is. You know, is it a strength or a weakness to have women in that circumstance?

Right now, what my job is is to make certain that as the chief of staff of the Army or commandant of the Marine Corps or chief of Naval Operations, bring problems to me — chief of staff of the Air Force — and I help them solve them.

Today, because so few women have signed up along these lines, we don’t even have data at this time that I can answer your question, OK?

You make a very valid question, I might add, because I was never under any illusions at what level of respect my marines would have for me if I couldn’t run with the fastest of them and — and look like it didn’t bother me. If I couldn’t do as many pull-ups as the strongest of them.

It would just — it was the unfairness of the infantry. How did the infantry get its name? Infant soldier. Young soldier. Very young soldier. They’re cocky, they’re rambunctious, they’re necessarily macho and it’s the most primitive — I would say even evil environment. You can’t even explain it.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a Civil War veteran, as you know, who became one of our most noted articulate Supreme Court associate justices, talking to veterans themselves decades after the war, he looked at them.

And here’s the most articulate justice you could come up with. And he says, “We have shared the incommunicable experience of war.” And he meant close combat.

This is an area we’re going to have to resolve as a nation. And the military has got to have officers who look at this with a great deal of objectivity and at the same time remember our natural inclination to have this open to all.

But we cannot do something that militarily doesn’t make sense, and I’ve got this being looked at right now by the chief of staff of the Army, commandant of the Marine Corps and all.

This is a policy that I inherited, and so far the cadre is so small we have no data on it. We’re hoping to get data soon. There are a few stalwart young ladies who are charging into this, but they are too few. Right now it’s not even dozens; it’s that few. So when we get a little more data I’ll give you a much more objective answer. Clearly the jury is out on it but what we’re trying to do is give it every opportunity to succeed if it can.

The other nations that have had this for 20 years still have too few women in the infantry ranks to even draw a conclusion. So I can’t give you a good answer right now. I’m open to it and I’ll be working with the Chief of Staff of the Army and the others to sort it out.

Michael Yon is a bit more direct, calling it the dumbest thing ever:

I served in the Army during peacetime, and then later spent more combat time with infantry troops than just about any war correspondent you ever have heard of. That top 1% of 1%, I was there. Just like Joe Galloway and very few others.

Been in more firefights bombings and just general mayhem than even I can remember. Looking back on my own photos and videos, made by my own hands, I have been in so many fights that even I do not remember until seeing my own work.

Yes. That much. It is a miracle to be alive.

There often were women in combat on the ground with infantry Soldiers. Not just in trucks or in the skies, but really on the ground. They were medics, intelligence, civil affairs, female engagement teams and sorts. They got into a lot of firefights. So many. And so many bombings.

How many photos from Iraq and Afghanistan have you seen of women in ground combat firing their weapons or carrying dead or wounded Soldiers IN COMBAT. (Not off the helicopter back on base, but in combat when bullets were flying.) I never saw women really fighting other than excellent pilots who are just as good as the men.

[...]

Our women in Iraq and Afghanistan saw loads of combat up close. But they are not fit for infantry work. Not even close. They are no more fit for infantry work than for playing as linemen in the NFL.

This is amazingly stupid. And not due to fraternization. That is trivial when bullets or are flying, people are dying, and brute strength is paramount.

Another thing that even the most physically courageous and fit women typically lack is sheer homicidal will to impose death upon enemies even if they must stab them in the throat or strangle them to death.

Infantry is brutal. Evil. The worst job in the world. Effective infantry troops are killers. Total killers. They need killer instinct that is nurtured. They need to wake up in the morning and pray for a mission to go kill enemies.

Nature has won

Sunday, September 30th, 2018

In reviewing Robert Plomin’s Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, Gregory Cochran says, forget Nature versus Nurture. Nature has won:

Assuming that this work is correct, what does it mean? What are the implications?

It means that we have to completely rethink and rebuild the social sciences. Steven Pinker said: “For most of the twentieth century it was assumed that psychological traits were caused by environmental factors, called nurture.” This was completely wrong. Problems like p-value fishing and the current ‘replication crisis’ are nothing compared to the tsunami that’s coming.

Indeed, social scientists have done such a terrible job that it’s hard to see how the field can be repaired. They wanted the false results they got, and they still do. I’m sure their descendants will as well. Isn’t heritability grand?

We need a different kind of social science researcher, smarter, less emotional, and more curiosity-driven. Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic. But where will we find them?

Tribalism is the new American norm

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

Americans keep dividing into two hostile camps, Victor Davis Hanson says:

It seems the country is back to 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, rather than in 2018, during the greatest age of affluence, leisure, and freedom in the history of civilization.

The ancient historian Thucydides called the civil discord that tore apart the fifth-century b.c. Greek city-states “stasis.” He saw stasis as a bitter civil war between the revolutionary masses and the traditionalist middle and upper classes.

Something like that ancient divide is now infecting every aspect of American life.

Americans increasingly are either proud of past U.S. traditions, ongoing reform, and current American exceptionalism, or they insist that the country was hopelessly flawed at its birth and must be radically reinvented to rectify its original sins.

No sphere of life is immune to the subsequent politicization: not movies, television, professional sports, late-night comedy, or colleges. Even hurricanes are typically leveraged to advance political agendas.

What is causing America to turn differences into these bitter hatreds — and why now?

The internet and social media often descend into an electronic lynch mob. In a nanosecond, an insignificant local news story goes viral. Immediately, hundreds of millions of people use it to drum up the evils or virtues of either progressivism or conservatism.

Anonymity is a force multiplier of these tensions. Fake online identities provide cover for ever greater extremism — on the logic that no one is ever called to account for his or her words.

Speed is also the enemy of common sense and restraint. Millions of bloggers rush to be the first to post their take on a news event, without much worry about whether it soon becomes a “fake news” moment of unsubstantiated gossip and fiction.

Globalization has both enriched and impoverished — and also further divided — America. Those whose muscular labor could be outsourced abroad to less expensive, less regulated countries were liable to lose their jobs or find their wages slashed. They were written off as “losers.” Americans whose professional expertise profited from vast new world markets became even richer and preened as “winners.”

Geography — history’s intensifier of civil strife — further fueled the growing economic and cultural divide. Americans are increasingly self-selecting as red and blue states.

Liberals gravitate to urban coastal-corridor communities of hip culture, progressive lifestyles, and lots of government services.

Conservatives increasingly move to the lower-tax, smaller-government, and more traditional heartland.

Lifestyles in San Francisco and Toledo are so different that it’s almost as if they’re on two different planets.

Legal, diverse, meritocratic, and measured immigration has always been America’s great strength. Assimilation, integration, and intermarriage within the melting pot used to turn new arrivals into grateful Americans in a generation or two.

But when immigration is often illegal, not diverse, and massive, then balkanization follows. Currently, the country hosts 60 million non-natives — the largest number of immigrants in America’s history.

Yet unlike the past, America often does not ask new immigrants to learn English and assimilate as quickly as possible. Immigration is instead politicized. Newcomers are seen as potentially useful voting blocs.

Tribalism is the new American norm. Gender, sexual orientation, religion, race, and ethnicity are now essential, not incidental, to who we are.

Americans scramble to divide into victimized blocs. Hyphenated and newly accented names serve as advertisements that particular groups have unique affiliations beyond their shared Americanism.

America is often the target of unrealistic criticism — as if it is suddenly toxic because it is not perfect. Few appreciate that the far worse alternatives abroad are rife with racism, sexism, civil strife, corruption, and poverty unimaginable in the U.S.

The last few elections added to the growing abyss.

What “neoreaction” ought to mean

Monday, September 24th, 2018

Handle is definitely not the worst candidate to provide some insight into what “neoreaction” ought to mean:

In the case of the French Revolution the bloody results were terrifying and horrific, and it is from that event that we get the terms for three different types of anti-progressive op positional responses: Right, Conservative, and Reactionary.

This is really oversimplifying, but very roughly, ‘Right’ was in favor of changes, just different changes and for different reasons that those of the leftists. ‘Conservative’ was more pragmatic and intuitive than ideological, and favored keeping the traditions and institutions that remained, and stability for its own sake, having seen the awful consequences of implementing all those recent radical reforms. A ‘Reactionary’ says that conservatism is just yesterday’s progressivism (thus today’s left is just tomorrow’s right), and contains the seed of the same problem which will inevitably bloom into exactly the noxious weed it claims to want to prevent. A reactionary then is in favor of radical change to reestablish and restore the status quo ante. Instead of just being yesterday’s conservatism, reactionaries seek to ideologically justify and explain the practical basis for the wisdom undergirding the prior regime. And what naturally accompanies that project is the attempt to explain the root causes of what went wrong with the new system and why it resulted in such atrocious excesses and led to political and economic catastrophes. Filmer, de Maistre, and Chateaubriand are typical examples of classic reactionary thinkers. Many later counter-revolutionaries and anti-Socialists shared similar ideas.

Ok, now fast forward to the political and ideological context of late 20th and early 21st century America. The dominant ideology of the elites and the state is an updated form of progressivism combined with New Left identity politics, and we see not three, but two kinds of anti-progressive opposition. The ‘Right’ (not really, but let’s roll with my somewhat inaccurate framework here) in this case might be the classical liberals and libertarians, who are ok with plenty of rapid, radical changes, but often different changes that what the progressives want, and on the basis of a very different set of principles. The conservative movement is numerically dominant, but intellectually vapid and incoherent and generally ineffective, and again is often merely ‘slower progressivism’, getting dragged along the same ride. I’m glossing over lots of subtleties and cross-fertilizations here, but let’s keep going.

Now, yes, there are plenty of conservatives that might seem ‘reactionary’ in that they want to roll things back to some prior point, but the numbers of these follow a diminishing decay curve with a half life period between every right-wing heyday. Some want to go back to 1994 , some fewer to 1985, a fraction to 1963, some to 1953, and perhaps there are still a few who would go all the way back to 1931 or 1912. Maybe even one or two dozen to 1860.

But you won’t find hardly anyone who go all the way to 1760, that is, to the pre-revolutionary regime, like the French Reactionaries argued for. There is no #ThomasHutchinsonWasRight hashtag. That’s because the revolution and democracy and, yes, the progressive aspects of the national origin story and evolution, are baked into the cake of American Conservatism.

But, with a few noteworthy (though probably temporary) exceptions, American Conservatism had been failing for a long, long time, and during the freewheeling heyday of unmoderated and high-quality political discussion on this new-ish thing called the internet, anti-progressives were ‘reacting’ not just to the excesses of the progressives, but of the apparent inability and often unwillingness of the American right to do anything about it, even when they enjoyed majority support and formal political power.

And one of the plausible conclusions was that the fault lies in democracy itself. Now, even the founders knew that, being familiar with the history of classical antiquity, and they tried to establish a system to contain democracy running amok in various predictable ways. The vast majority of American conservatives like to believe the founders generally succeeded with the Constitution enshrining a vision of limited government and a society of free individuals, and that if people continued to revere and obey that document in good faith, things would be fine. That’s what 99.99% of the American right still believes.

But the other point of view is that the Constitution failed, and was doomed to fail, because a document cannot enforce itself if the people who matter don’t want to obey. What they will want to obey instead is the dominant social ideology, the tenets of which are incompatible with the Constitutional structure, which will be circumvented with whatever hand-waving is required, whenever it stands in the way. If one really wanted to address the root of the problem, one would have to accept some very unpopular ideas about human nature and political reality, and give those pre-enlightenment political theories and structures another look and a fair hearing. And one would do so from the perspective enlightened, as it were, by all the latest advances in the study of human social psychology, economics, political science, and so forth.

This is a species of Reaction, but it’s also different because new. Hence, neoreaction.

The Communist Manifesto: A Graphic Novel

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018

Gord Doctorow reviews British graphic novelist Martin Rowson’s illustrated adaptation of The Communist Manifesto:

The preface describes how the middle-aged Rowson became smitten by Marx and Engels’ exciting prose when he was only 16. Aside from expressing his great admiration for Marx’s writing, as well as his own critical stance, he furnishes the reader with some historical backdrop to the completion of The Manifesto. Marx had been commissioned to write it by a socialist group in the summer of 1847, but, under pressure, succeeded in producing it at the beginning of 1848. Significantly, that was before the outbreak of revolutionary movements in Europe later on in 1848. Rowson goes on to explain that the initial publication failed to attract the attention of many people. Only after the events of the Paris Commune in 1871 did the pamphlet receive a wide audience and a publication renewal.

The illustrations create an atmospheric accompaniment to the Marx figures whose speaking balloons relay the text of The Manifesto. The graphics pair nicely with the text with dense images that impart the feeling of the clashes of historical forces (classes) or with the dramatic rendering of the first lines of The Manifesto in which a spectre appears, so Hamlet-like in two dark and foreboding images to haunt the reader’s mind. There is plenty of theatricality too: images of Marx interacting from a stage with a hostile audience (Rowson’s added flourishes added to enhance the exposition in a stimulating theatrical way).

The Communist Manifesto A Graphic Novel

As a literary work, the illustrations do justice to the marvelously compressed, yet sweeping, literary quality of Marx’s verbal imagery and present readers. Though I had read The Manifesto years ago, I found the adaptation to be both a refresher and newly insightful.

Quite… uncritical.

Google’s leadership was quite dismayed by Trump’s election

Wednesday, September 12th, 2018

Breitbart just shared a video recorded by Google shortly after the 2016 presidential election, where the leadership is obviously dismayed:

  • (00:00:00 – 00:01:12) Google co-founder Sergey Brin states that the weekly meeting is “probably not the most joyous we’ve had” and that “most people here are pretty upset and pretty sad.”
  • (00:00:24) Brin contrasts the disappointment of Trump’s election with his excitement at the legalization of cannabis in California, triggering laughs and applause from the audience of Google employees.
  • (00:01:12) Returning to seriousness, Brin says he is “deeply offen[ded]” by the election of Trump, and that the election “conflicts with many of [Google’s] values.”
  • (00:09:10) Trying to explain the motivations of Trump supporters, Senior VP for Global Affairs, Kent Walker concludes: “fear, not just in the United States, but around the world is fueling concerns, xenophobia, hatred, and a desire for answers that may or may not be there.”
  • (00:09:35) Walker goes on to describe the Trump phenomenon as a sign of “tribalism that’s self-destructive [in] the long-term.”
  • (00:09:55) Striking an optimistic tone, Walker assures Google employees that despite the election, “history is on our side” and that the “moral arc of history bends towards progress.”
  • (00:10:45) Walker approvingly quotes former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s comparison between “the world of the wall” with its “isolation and defensiveness” and the “world of the square, the piazza, the marketplace, where people come together into a community and enrich each other’s lives.”
  • (00:13:10) CFO Ruth Porat appears to break down in tears when discussing the election result.
  • (00:15:20) Porat promises that Google will “use the great strength and resources and reach we have to continue to advance really important values.”
  • (00:16:50) Stating “we all need a hug,” she then instructs the audience of Google employees to hug the person closest to them.
  • (00:20:24) Eileen Noughton, VP of People Operations, promises that Google’s policy team in DC is “all over” the immigration issue and that the company will “keep a close watch on it.”
  • (00:21:26) Noughton jokes about Google employees asking, ‘Can I move to Canada?’ after the election. She goes on to seriously discuss the options available to Google employees who wish to leave the country.
  • (00:23:12) Noughton does acknowledge “diversity of opinion and political persuasion” and notes that she has heard from conservative Google employees who say they “haven’t felt entirely comfortable revealing who [they] are.” and urged “tolerance.” (Several months later, the company would fire James Damore allegedly for disagreeing with progressive narratives.)
  • (00:27:00) Responding to a question about “filter bubbles,” Sundar Pichai promises to work towards “correcting” Google’s role in them
  • (00:27:30) Sergey Brin praises an audience member’s suggestion of increasing matched Google employee donations to progressive groups.
  • (00:34:40) Brin compares Trump voters to “extremists,” arguing for a correlation between the economic background of Trump supporters and the kinds of voters who back extremist movements. Brin says that “voting is not a rational act” and that not all of Trump’s support can be attributed to “income disparity.” He suggests that Trump voters might have been motivated by boredom rather than legitimate concerns.
  • (00:49:10) An employee asks if Google is willing to “invest in grassroots, hyper-local efforts to bring tools and services and understanding of Google products and knowledge” so that people can “make informed decisions that are best for themselves.” Pichai’s response: Google will ensure its “educational products” reach “segments of the population [they] are not [currently] fully reaching.”
  • (00:54:33) An employee asks what Google is going to do about “misinformation” and “fake news” shared by “low-information voters.” Pichai responds by stating that “investments in machine learning and AI” are a “big opportunity” to fix the problem.
  • (00:56:12) Responding to an audience member, Walker says Google must ensure the rise of populism doesn’t turn into “a world war or something catastrophic … and instead is a blip, a hiccup.”
  • (00:58:22) Brin compares Trump voters to supporters of fascism and communism, linking the former movement to “boredom,” which Brin previously linked to Trump voters. “It sort of sneaks up sometimes, really bad things” says Brin.
  • (01:01:15) A Google employee states: “speaking to white men, there’s an opportunity for you right now to understand your privilege” and urges employees to “go through the bias-busting training, read about privilege, read about the real history of oppression in our country.” He urges employees to “discuss the issues you are passionate about during Thanksgiving dinner and don’t back down and laugh it off when you hear the voice of oppression speak through metaphors.” Every executive on stage – the CEO, CFO, two VPs and the two Co-founders – applaud the employee.
  • (01:01:57) An audience member asks if the executives see “anything positive from this election result.” The audience of Google employees, and the executives on stage, burst into laughter. “Boy, that’s a really tough one right now” says Brin.

Every specimen is arguably irreplaceable

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro burned down, which is terrible, but not terribly surprising:

The burned building was the largest natural-history museum in Latin America, but it had never been completely renovated in its 200-year history. It had long suffered from obvious infrastructure problems including leaks, termite infestations, and — crucially — no working sprinkler system. Recognizing these problems in the 1990s, museum staff began planning to move the collection into a different site, but without stable funding, those plans proceeded in fits and starts.

[...]

The museum’s herbarium, its main library, and some of its vertebrates were housed in a different building that was untouched by the fire. But together, these reportedly account for just 10 percent of the museum’s collection. For comparison, the remaining 90 percent includes twice as many specimens as the entire British Museum. Museum staff carried out whatever they could by hand, including parts of the mollusk collection. Time will tell what else survived, and some losses are already clear: The floor beneath the entomology collection collapsed, for example, and the 5 million butterflies and other arthropods within were likely lost.

The museum’s archeological collection had frescoes from Pompeii, and hundreds of Egyptian artifacts, including a 2,700-year-old painted sarcophagus. It housed art and ceramics from indigenous Brazilian cultures, some of whose populations number only in their thousands. It contained audio recordings of indigenous languages, some of which are no longer spoken; entire tongues went up in flames. It carried about 1,800 South American artifacts that dated back to precolonial times, including urns, statues, weapons, and a Chilean mummy that was at least 3,500 years old.

Older still was the museum’s rich trove of fossils, from crocodile relatives like Pepesuchus to one of the oldest relatives of today’s scorpions. It harbored some of the oldest human remains in the Americas: the 11,500-year-old skull and pelvis of a woman who was unearthed in 1975 and nicknamed Luzia. “The skull is very fragile,” the artist Maurilio Oliveira told The New York Times. “The only thing that could have saved it is if a piece of wood or something fell and protected it.”

One might think that fossils, being rock, would be immune to fire. But as Mariana Di Giacomo, a paleontologist from the University of Delaware, described in a Twitter thread, fires can reach temperatures that are high enough to crack stone. It destroys buildings, causing walls and ceilings to fall on fragile specimens. It burns the labels attached to fossils and the numbers that are painted onto them, turning something that’s part of the scientific record into uninformative rock. “Without data, we only have old bones/shells/logs,” wrote Di Giacomo. Even the water that’s used to quench the flames can make things worse, causing fossils to swell and crack, dissolving adhesives, ruining labels even further, and stimulating the growth of mold.

The burned building housed skeletons of several dinosaurs, including Maxakalisaurus, a 44-foot-long, armor-backed, long-necked titan, and Santanaraptor, a lithe predator that contained beautifully preserved soft tissues in its legs, down to individual muscle fibers. “That really stabs me in the heart as a scientist,” said John Hutchinson from the Royal Veterinary College. “I always wanted to go study that specimen. It could have been revelatory. Now that probably will be impossible for anyone.”

The museum was also home to an irreplaceable collection of pterosaurs — flying reptiles that soared over the dinosaurs’ heads. Brazil was something of a “heaven for pterosaurs,” and the discovery of spectacular creatures such as Tapejara, Tupandactylus, and Tupuxuara, with their marvelously complete skeletons and improbably ornate crests, helped to reshape our understanding of these animals. “We may have lost dozens of the best preserved pterosaurs in the world,” said the paleontologist Mark Witton. “There really is no collection comparable … We find them elsewhere in the world, but the quality of the Brazilian material is remarkable.”

Many of these presumably lost specimens were holotypes — the first, best, and most important examples of their kind. Every specimen is arguably irreplaceable, but holotypes are especially so. Losing them is like losing the avatar of an entire species. Some of these specimens have been drawn and described in the scientific literature, but that information is often patchy, which is why scientists frequently return to holotypes to study them with their own eyes.

I’m reminded of all the Middle Eastern artifacts housed in London — where they’re a good deal safer.

Call it moxie

Monday, August 27th, 2018

Gregory Clark finds that social status is strongly heritable, and Gregory Cochran runs with this:

Combined with a very high degree of assortative mating for the genetic factors behind this heritability, social mobility is surprisingly low. This happens without anyone particularly trying to make it this way — although it can happen less if people do try to stop it. An interesting example out of Plomin’s group: genetics explains “twice as much variance in educational attainment and occupational status in the post-Soviet era compared with the Soviet era.”

Plomin (or maybe more exactly his student Kaili Rimfeld) says that “The extent of genetic influence on these social outcomes can be viewed as an index of success in achieving meritocratic values of equality of opportunity by rewarding talent and hard work, which are to a large extent influenced by genetic factors, rather than rewarding environmentally driven privilege. ”

I don’t think that statement is entirely wrong. Estonia today is better run than it was in 1953, or 1990. But I am just as sure that it isn’t entirely right. We’re talking about genetic factors that tend to increase social status: intelligence helps, sure, but the people at the top, the people running the show are rarely the smartest — or the most decent, or the most effective. If we define ‘merit’ as a tendency to effective action that favors the best interest of society as a whole — surely what high-status people have more of is only loosely associated with ‘merit’. They have more of what works for themselves. Call it moxie.

So the ideal social policy would attempt — and succeed — at picking people for high-status job that were good at getting the job done — not just good at getting the job. Talent and hard work are influenced by genetic factors, but then so is being a back-stabbing, credit-stealing asshole.

I don’t think it would be easy: nature’s agin it. But it’s possible. I think. To a degree.

What should the Classical Greeks have done with Alcibiades, who surely had enough genetic moxie for a platoon? Answer: shoot the bastard. Him better off dead.

Relying on the priests’ potentially corrupt interpretation

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2018

Sociologist Francesca Tripodi takes an ethnographic approach to studying how partisan groups interact with media:

There is a narrative out there, floating around the executive offices at Google and Facebook, lurking in the halls of prominent publications like The New York Times or The Washington Post, and emerging from the mouths of most cable news pundits that “fake news” has ruined democracy. Tied up in this narrative is an accusation that supporters of President Trump were “tricked” into voting for him because Russian bots fed them a steady stream of misinformation. If only, the story goes, there was some way to reach Trump supporters — who, according to a study by the Oxford University Computational Propaganda Project, more frequently like and share “fake news.” Why don’t they do their research? some bemoan. Don’t they check the facts? The assumption: If only they could learn to think critically, accessing, analyzing, and evaluating a variety of sources, then they would be informed voters.

The thing is — they do, and they are. During 2017, I began regularly attending Republican events associated with two upper-middle class communities in the Southeastern United States: a women’s group and a college group. [...] At one point during the meeting, the Pastor turned from the Bible to the new tax reform bill, where he encouraged the group to apply the same “deep reading.” The group poured over the text together, helping each other decide what it really meant rather than relying on mainstream media coverage of the bill. In that moment, I realized that this community of Evangelical Christians were engaged in media literacy, but used a set of reading practices secular thinkers might be unfamiliar with. I’ve seen hundreds of Conservative Evangelicals apply the same critique they use for the Bible, arguably a postmodern method of unpacking a text, to mainstream media — favoring their own research on topics rather than trusting media authorities.

[...]

Distrust in translation of text also explains why the debate-watching parties I attended favored television stations without pundits, like C-SPAN. They did not need CNN to tell them who had won; they relied on Trump’s words to signify that the values they described to me as “faith, family, the constitution, and national security” would be protected. The style of media literacy that I witnessed among Conservative groups helps explain the strategy of several prominent Conservative media organizations. These organizations stress that liberal ideology is formed by disputable claims and emotional appeals instead of fact-based evidence.

[...]

Herein lies the problem with media literacy approaches. Based on my data, upper-middle class Conservatives did not vote for Trump because they were “fooled” into doing so by watching, reading, or listening to “fake news.” Rather, they consumed a great deal of information and found inconsistencies, not within the words of Trump himself, but rather within the way mainstream media “twisted his words” to fit a narrative they did not agree with. Not unlike their Protestant ancestors, doing so gave them authority over the text rather than relying on the priests’ (i.e. “the elites’”) potentially corrupt interpretation.

The historical inspiration for the novel was not, actually, the American Revolution

Sunday, August 19th, 2018

Travis Corcoran’s The Powers of the Earth recently won the Prometheus Award (for best libertarian sci-fi novel of the year), and he penned this acceptance speech:

I’m sorry I couldn’t be here tonight, but I live on a farm and it’s harvest season in the Granite State. Live free or die!

I first heard of the Prometheus Award a quarter century ago and put “writing a novel worthy of winning it” on my bucket list. It was an amazing honor to be nominated alongside so many other worthy authors, and I can still barely wrap my head around having won.

Eric S Raymond said it best: “Hard SF is the vital heart of the field”. The core of hard science fiction is libertarianism: “ornery and insistent individualism, veneration of the competent man, instinctive distrust of coercive social engineering”.

I agree; science fiction is best when it tells stories about free people using intelligence, skills and hard work to overcome challenges.

[...]

The Powers of the Earth is a novel about many things.

It’s a war story about ancaps, uplifted dogs, and AI fighting against government using combat robots, large guns, and kinetic energy weapons.

It’s an engineering story about space travel, open source software, tunnel boring machines, and fintech.

It’s a cyberpunk story about prediction markets, CNC guns, and illegal ROMs.

It’s a story about competent men who build machines, competent women who pilot spaceships, and competent dogs who write code.

It’s a novel that pays homage to Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which in turn pays homage to the American Revolution.

…But the historical inspiration for the novel was not, actually, the American Revolution. It’s the founding of the Icelandic Free State almost a thousand years earlier. The difference is subtle, but important.

The American Revolution was an act of secession: one part of a government declaring itself independent and co-equal, and continuing to act as a government. The establishment of the Icelandic Free State is different in two important particulars. First, it did not consist of people challenging an existing government, but of people physically leaving a region governed by a tyrant. And second, the men and women who expatriated themselves from the reign of Harald Fairhair did not create a government — they wanted to flee authoritarianism, not establish their own branch of it!

(The Kindle edition is currently 99 cents.)