A Hotel California for Apex Predators

Monday, February 20th, 2017

P-45, the King of Malibu, is a hundred-and-fifty-pound male mountain lion:

After killing an alpaca at a Malibu winery in late 2015, he was captured and fitted with a G.P.S. collar by the National Park Service, which designated him the forty-fifth subject in a long-running study, led by a wildlife ecologist named Seth Riley, on the mountain lions of Los Angeles. (The “P” comes from Puma concolor, the species whose common names include puma, panther, catamount, cougar, and mountain lion.) Since P-45 was collared, according to Phillips, he has killed some sixty goats, sheep, llamas, and alpacas, a miniature horse, and a four-hundred-and-fifty-pound heifer: members of the class of rustic pet known as “hobby animals.” Gallingly, he has eaten little — a nibble of heart meat here, a nip of scrotum there. Except in the case of pygmy goats, for which he has a taste, he seems to kill for sport.

Rickards, who has short blond hair and a cheerful manner, grew up on the ranch and runs a cat rescue there. She and Phillips have horses and dogs and, until recently, had alpacas. Then one night P-45 jumped into the alpaca pen, killing two of them. When it happened again last spring, and three more died, Phillips gave away the rest of the herd and turned his attention to pursuing the culprit. To Phillips, P-45 is a sociopath, a freak — “the John Wayne Gacy of mountain lions.”

Mountain Lion P-45

The Santa Monica Mountains extend from the Pacific Coast through the Hollywood Hills, to end in Griffith Park. Urban though Los Angeles is, its mountains are furrowed with densely vegetated canyons full of deer and coyotes, cactuses, live oaks, wheeling hawks — a patchwork of public and private holdings claimed both by top carnivores and by their human counterparts.

The real estate is increasingly contested. At some two hundred and forty square miles, the range is the perfect size for one or two dominant males and several females, along with their young. The National Park Service study is currently tracking ten mountain lions in the area, including three breeding males. There is also an unknown number of uncollared lions. Living at such close quarters intensifies the lions’ natural territorialism; in this population, the leading cause of death is conflict with other lions. But adolescent lions who set out in search of their own hunting grounds often come to an impasse. The range is bounded by the Pacific Ocean to the south and the Hollywood Freeway (the 101) to the north, and bisected by the 405 between Brentwood and Bel Air. Just as the roads keep native lions in, they also keep outside lions from entering, and first-order inbreeding has become common. Lush but confined, the mountains are a cushy prison, a Hotel California for apex predators, whose future is threatened by a double deficiency: not enough space for a group of lions with not enough genetic differences among them.

As a result, the mountain-lion population in the Santa Monica Mountains is in danger of entering an extinction vortex, a downward spiral in which everything starts to fail. “They could be in the process of genetic flatlining,” Robert Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, says. “Without our assistance, the Santa Monica Mountain pumas are likely to go extinct.” This is what nearly happened to the Florida panthers, in the mid-nineties, when intensive inbreeding caused physical changes that hindered reproduction. According to Riley, who recently published a paper on the subject, if similar problems occur and no new lions enter the area the likelihood of L.A.’s lions disappearing in fifty years is 99.7 per cent. But genetic rescue can come in the form of just one new animal in each generation — in Florida, where the population was larger, it took just six females from Texas to reverse the spiral.

From this point of view, Los Angeles can’t spare a single cat, and certainly not one matching P-45’s profile. According to a preliminary genetic analysis done at Wayne’s lab, P-45 comes from north of the 101: he is an outsider, a lion who successfully navigated the freeway and miles of suburbs to introduce his precious DNA to the Santa Monicas. Under threat, P-45 has inspired a committed following. In November, an editorial in the Los Angeles Times titled “Save P-45” defended his behavior as entirely natural. “Killing P-45 is not the answer,” the editorial said. “Surely there is a better way to manage the conflicts that arise when humans and their domestic animals move into areas that have long served as habitat for wildlife.”

P-45’s alien provenance aggravates the unease that Phillips and his neighbors feel. “I know P-45 is not indigenous to here,” Phillips told me. “I think he was a killer someplace else.” He added, “I’m not too happy about P-45’s genes getting passed down.” Though the young generally travel with their mothers — mountain-lion fathers are more likely to kill their kittens than to train them — he saw the potential for P-45 to accustom his offspring to a life of theft and slaughter. Besides, he said, “I’m tired of living inside a biology project.” If the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which manages the state’s mountain-lion population, or the National Park Service, which he blames for protecting P-45, refused to solve the problem, he warned that vigilante justice would prevail.

“Somebody’s going to shoot him soon,” Phillips said. “They’re just not going to report it. They’re not going to call N.P.S., not going to call Fish and Wildlife. They’re just going to shoot him, pound the collar off with a hammer, put it in a lead box in a bucket of water, and bury P-45 ten feet deep. That will be the end of that story. He will pass from reality into legend.”

Puma concolor, an evolutionary adept that, unlike the sabre-toothed cat, survived the Late Pleistocene Extinction, is found from Tierra del Fuego to the Canadian Yukon. Until successive extermination campaigns largely eradicated mountain lions from the Midwest and the East, they ranged throughout the United States. Now, as urbanization in the West encroaches on their remaining habitat, some are making audacious attempts to reclaim ceded lands. In 2011, a cat from South Dakota travelled more than fifteen hundred miles, to Greenwich, Connecticut, before being struck and killed by an S.U.V. on the Wilbur Cross Parkway.

Los Angeles is one of two megacities in the world that have a population of big cats. In the other, Mumbai, leopards live in Sanjay Gandhi National Park and occasionally eat the humans who make their homes around its edge. Though there have been instances of mountain lions targeting people in California — between 1986 and 2014, there were three fatal attacks — it has never happened in Los Angeles County. (Since the beginning of the twentieth century, according to the Mountain Lion Foundation, there have been fewer than thirty fatal attacks in North America; it is an often cited fact that vending machines kill more people than mountain lions do.) “They’re called ghost cats for a reason — they’re very elusive,” Jeff Sikich, a carnivore biologist with the National Park Service, who manages the field work for the mountain-lion study, told me. “We’ve seen with our data that they do a great job at avoiding us.” But, he said, “in this urban, fragmented landscape, they see us almost every day.”

The Benedict Option

Sunday, February 19th, 2017

The Wall Street Journal discusses the Benedict Option:

When the first few monks arrived in Hulbert, Okla., in 1999, there wasn’t much around but tough soil, a creek and an old cabin where they slept as they began to build a Benedictine monastery in the Ozark foothills.

Dozens of families from California, Texas and Kansas have since followed, drawn by the abbey’s traditional Latin Mass — conducted as it was more than 1,000 years ago — and by the desire to live in one of the few communities in the U.S. composed almost exclusively of traditional Catholics.

There aren’t many jobs nearby. The nearest bank, grocery store and coffee shop are nearly an hour’s drive on country roads. Yet many residents choosing to live near Our Lady of Clear Creek Abbey say it is worth the sacrifice.

“Our goal in moving here was to form our children’s conscience and intellect in a particular way, without society taking that authority from us,” said Mark Wheeler, one of the first to settle on the outskirts of the monastery more than a decade ago.

The 100 or so people living here are part of a burgeoning movement among traditional Christians. Feeling besieged by secular society, they are taking refuge in communities like this one, clustered around churches and monasteries, where faith forms the backbone of daily life. Similar villages — some Roman Catholic, others Orthodox or Protestant—have sprung up in Alaska, Maryland, New York and elsewhere, drawing hundreds of families.

As the proportion of Americans without any religious affiliation continues to grow, more Christians are considering where they can go to live out their faith more fully. It has been dubbed the “Benedict Option,” in homage to St. Benedict, who as a young man left the moral decay of ancient Rome to live in the wilderness.

[...]

They attend Mass daily and home-school their children. They seldom use their TV, except to check for tornado warnings, but they do use the internet to order supplies, such as cultures for the goat cheese that they sell. Mr. Wheeler, 52, helped with construction at the monastery.

Last year, they allowed their children — three of whom are old enough to vote — to listen to the presidential debates on the radio for the first time, and then to watch the last few on TV.

“The larger populated areas seem to have rejected the Christian culture and the Christian message,” Mr. Wheeler said. “If I don’t have to re-immerse myself in that, I’m not going to.”

If you pull your kids out of public school and “cut the cord,” I think you get most of the way there, without the economic cost of isolation.

How to Predict Gentrification

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Everyone has theories for why well-educated professionals are moving back into cities:

Perhaps their living preferences have shifted. Or the demands of the labor market have, and young adults with less leisure time are loath to waste it commuting. Maybe the tendency to postpone marriage and children has made city living more alluring. Or the benefits of cities themselves have improved.

“There are all sorts of potential other amenities, whether it’s cafes, restaurants, bars, nicer parks, better schools,” said Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University.

“But a huge piece of it,” she said, “I think is crime.”

New research that she has conducted alongside Keren Mertens Horn, an economist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and Davin Reed, a doctoral student at N.Y.U., finds that when violent crime falls sharply, wealthier and educated people are more likely to move into lower-income and predominantly minority urban neighborhoods.

Their working paper suggests that just as rising crime can drive people out of cities, falling crime has a comparable effect, spurring gentrification.

I love the surprised tone.

The Revolutionary Concept of Standard Sizes Only Dates to the 1920s

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016

In 1922, the German government standardized the size of office paper, and this had surprisingly far-reaching effects:

Books could now be standard sizes, making their storage and transportation easier. Mail would be easier to ship, weigh, and sort, and offices would be able to more efficiently store documents, files, binders, and portfolios.

[...]

Uniform-sized books led to standard bookshelves, standard files to standard filing cabinets. Desks could be built to perfectly hold all the paper they needed, without wasting a centimeter. Offices could be built to perfectly fit the desks. Soon different businesses like banks, libraries, and administrative offices could begin to fit together, like a machine.

[...]

By the early 1930s Neufert was an accomplished architect, and a leader in the field of construction technology. In 1936 Hitler implemented a four-year plan to prepare for war, which, among other things, involved rebuilding Berlin into a massive world capital, complete with grand, Parisian-style boulevards, new train stations, and massive apartment buildings.

In 1938 Hitler’s chief architect Albert Speer hired Neufert to, as Speer put it, “oversee the standardization of building parts, and the rationalization to building methods.” He got to lead his own team of designers and technicians. They were called The Neufert Department.

For the project to succeed, construction had to happen quickly and cheaply, and Neufert had to figure out how to streamline and simplify every step of the process. Trying to meet these demands, Neufert thought back to the A Series of paper formats, and what had made them so successful.

The beauty was in this standard’s ability to affect not just paper, but everything that interacts with paper—desks, drawers, offices, mailmen. To have a similar ripple effect throughout all of construction and design, what, then, should you change?

The bricks, of course.

And so he did. He created the Octametric Brick, a standard-sized masonry unit that would come to replace any other sized brick in Germany (the bricks were 12.5 centimeters wide, or one-eighth of a meter, hence its name). Adoption of the brick, as Neufert saw, would create a standardized, modular world that all construction would occur in—no more custom shapes or sizes within buildings, no more worrying that cabinets would be the same height as the stove.

With the Octametric Brick, buildings could still look different and be different sizes, but everything, when reduced to its smallest part, would have this as a base unit. This overarching uniformity, based around the dimensions of a single brick, would be called the Octametric System. Even if products were made of other materials, under this system their dimensions would always have to be evenly divisible by one-eighth of a meter. Everything would finally fit together.

The Nazi government loved it. The Octametric System helped solve several construction issues the regime faced, the most pressing of which was how make the act of building—something that had traditionally been done by skilled craftspeople—simple enough for unskilled laborers to perform. The modular nature of the Octametric System made construction relatively easy and error-proof, more like assembly of building blocks than fine woodworking or masonry.

[...]

While Neufert’s Octametric System never officially spread beyond Germany, it came to have a tremendous effect on building standards around the world. Throughout his life, Neufert continued to update his encyclopedia of architectural standards, Architects Data. Starting in the 1940s, his Octametric System began to reshape the contents of his book. Ideal dimensions within buildings were altered ever-so-slightly, so as to now be divisible by one-eighth of a meter.

Today Architects Data is one of the most popular reference books in architecture. It’s currently in its 40th edition, and has been translated into 20 languages; from France to Argentina to Iran, architects around the world open it up when trying to decide how tall to make a door, or how wide to make a parking spot. In this way the Octametric System still lives on in much of the world, even if most designers have never heard of it, or know anything about the man responsible for its creation.

The Japanese Zoning System

Monday, August 29th, 2016

Alex Tabarrok explains the Japanese zoning system:

Japan has 12 basic zones, far fewer than is typical in an American city. The zones can be ordered in terms of nuisance or potential externality from low-rise residential to high-rise residential to commercial zone on through to light industrial and industrial. But, and this is key, in the US zones tend to be exclusive but in Japan the zones limit the maximum nuisance in a zone. So, for example, a factory can’t be built in a residential neighborhood but housing can be built in a light industrial zone.

[...]

In addition, residential means residential without discrimination as to the type or form of resident.

On that last point, one commenter notes that the Japanese do not have to worry about crime, and Steve Sailer added that “Americans have replaced discrimination by race with discrimination by cost, which works pretty well, but, of course, it’s very expensive.”

How Did People Survive Before Air Conditioning?

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

How did people survive before air conditioning?

They built their houses differently.

We may not think about it much, but the invention of the air conditioner radically changed the way people built buildings, especially in the south. You may have noticed that older buildings tend to have much higher ceilings: this allowed heat to rise so that inhabits could enjoy the cooler space below. Deep eaves and porches protected windows from the heat of the sun, and it was common to plant trees on the east and west sides of a house for additional shade.

In addition to this, rooms were designed with windows on opposite sides of the space, which allowed for cross ventilation. Air likes to have a place to go, so opening up a single window won’t generate much air movement. But open two windows right across from each other and you can get a nice breeze going. In cases where it wasn’t possible to have two windows on opposite sides of a single room, architects would line up rooms in a row, allowing air to flow between them. You can see this in old shotgun homes in New Orleans, or in railroad apartments in New York.

They got outside.

Currently the porch, like the fireplace, is a charming but somewhat vestigial architectural feature. But in the past porches were incredibly important, not just for shading the windows of a home, but also for providing a place where people could sit outside, out of the glare of the sun, and perhaps enjoy a breeze. These days, when it’s hot, people flock inside, but in the past it was the opposite: temperatures indoors and out were more or less the same, and the porch was much less stuffy than the rest of the house. This led to a whole culture of people sitting outside on their porches after supper, which has essentially disappeared. Some older houses were also built with sleeping porches, screened-in porches where one could sleep during the summer, enjoying the breezes but protected from bugs. New Yorkers replicated this by sleeping on the fire escape on especially hot days.

America’s Dying Shopping Malls Have Billions in Debt Coming Due

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

America’s dying shopping malls have billions in debt coming due:

About $47.5 billion of loans backed by retail properties are set to mature over the next 18 months, data from Bank of America Merrill Lynch show.

[...]

Green Street estimates that several hundred malls could shut down over the next decade, with properties reliant on Macy’s, JC Penney and Sears at the most risk. Sales at department stores, once the engines that powered shopping centers across the U.S., have declined almost 20 percent since 2006, according to the firm. About 800 department stores would need to shut down to restore balance between sales and profitability, Green Street said in an April report.

Low-Road Narrative

Monday, June 20th, 2016

Los Angeles failed to keep up with its neighbor to the north:

Unlike the Bay Area, which pursued a “high wage specialization strategy,” Los Angeles, in the interest of social justice, deliberately focused on lower- and middle-tier economic sectors. “Los Angeles’s leaders generated a low-road narrative for themselves, while Bay Area leadership coalesced around a high-road vision for their region,” they write. Such decisions have consequences, many of which are demographic. Had Los Angeles followed the same path as San Francisco, Southern California would have attracted far fewer working-class Latinos. The authors don’t directly state this, but it’s a clear implication of their findings. It’s logical to conclude that any region looking to replicate San Francisco’s success should take an exclusively high-end focus — social justice be damned.

(Hat tip to Battery Horse.)

Benin

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

Like Scott Alexander, I’m confused why I never heard about the spectacular medieval African city of Benin before, when “even the people complaining about how neocolonialist society covers up the greatness of Africa only ever talk about Zimbabwe and Kilwa which are both way less impressive”:

The Guinness Book of Records (1974 edition) described the walls of Benin City and its surrounding kingdom as the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era. According to estimates by the New Scientist’s Fred Pearce, Benin City’s walls were at one point “four times longer than the Great Wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops”.

Situated on a plain, Benin City was enclosed by massive walls in the south and deep ditches in the north. Beyond the city walls, numerous further walls were erected that separated the surroundings of the capital into around 500 distinct villages.

Pearce writes that these walls “extended for some 16,000 km in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They covered 6,500 sq km and were all dug by the Edo people … They took an estimated 150 million hours of digging to construct, and are perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet”.

Barely any trace of these walls exist today.

Benin City was also one of the first cities to have a semblance of street lighting. Huge metal lamps, many feet high, were built and placed around the city, especially near the king’s palace. Fuelled by palm oil, their burning wicks were lit at night to provide illumination for traffic to and from the palace.

When the Portuguese first “discovered” the city in 1485, they were stunned to find this vast kingdom made of hundreds of interlocked cities and villages in the middle of the African jungle. They called it the “Great City of Benin”, at a time when there were hardly any other places in Africa the Europeans acknowledged as a city. Indeed, they classified Benin City as one of the most beautiful and best planned cities in the world.

In 1691, the Portuguese ship captain Lourenco Pinto observed: “Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon; all the streets run straight and as far as the eye can see. The houses are large, especially that of the king, which is richly decorated and has fine columns. The city is wealthy and industrious. It is so well governed that theft is unknown and the people live in such security that they have no doors to their houses.”

[...]

At the centre of the city stood the king’s court, from which extended 30 very straight, broad streets, each about 120-ft wide. These main streets, which ran at right angles to each other, had underground drainage made of a sunken impluvium with an outlet to carry away storm water. Many narrower side and intersecting streets extended off them. In the middle of the streets were turf on which animals fed.

“Houses are built alongside the streets in good order, the one close to the other,” writes the 17th-century Dutch visitor Olfert Dapper. “Adorned with gables and steps … they are usually broad with long galleries inside, especially so in the case of the houses of the nobility, and divided into many rooms which are separated by walls made of red clay, very well erected.”

Dapper adds that wealthy residents kept these walls “as shiny and smooth by washing and rubbing as any wall in Holland can be made with chalk, and they are like mirrors. The upper storeys are made of the same sort of clay. Moreover, every house is provided with a well for the supply of fresh water”.

Occupy Le Corbusier

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

The natural environment has its champions in American politics, but the built environment, where most of us live and work, does not:

Traditional architecture — derived ultimately from the columns, pediments, arches, and other features of ancient Greece and Rome — evolved by trial and error, teaching best practices to builders and architects generation by generation. The centuries forged a classical language that fostered architecture sensitive to the public’s desire for “congenial facades.” But in the mid-20th century, new ideas took over, and the public has ever since been subjected to endless experimentation and vanity projects.

In most cities and towns, the way new buildings look is not influenced by public taste, which is generally traditional. Instead, it is the purview of municipal and institutional facilities committees, design-review panels, the developers who hire architects who cater to the tastes of officialdom, and the local circle of professionals, academics, and journalists who may be relied upon to cluck at any deviation from the elite fashion in the design of new buildings.

Sustainable Produce

Sunday, November 29th, 2015

Modern greenhouses are now in the vanguard of sustainability.

The logic of farmers’ markets begins with this: that the route from harvest to plate ought to be as direct as possible. That’s fine if farmers live round the corner from consumers. But urban land is in short supply, expensive, often polluted, and unsuitable for horticulture. And there is more. Even in a short chain from farm to table, produce can get spoiled. A fresh tomato is not dead; like all fresh products, it’s a living organism with an active metabolism, post-harvesting, that provides a fertile substrate for microorganisms and causes tomatoes to deteriorate very fast. Freshness does not in itself translate into sustainability: unless the supply chain is well?organised, losses can be considerable. And food losses come down to a waste of land, water, energy and chemicals used to produce what is ultimately discarded. This ought to be a good argument for local markets, but it is not. Everything depends on transportation, storage and speed. Poorly packed products go to waste in a matter of hours.

Thanks to decades of research, we now understand the interacting metabolisms of vegetables and microorganisms. We can design high-tech transport and storage techniques that slow down, even halt, deterioration through the use of harmless mixtures of gases. Chips fitted to containers give off signals when the gas composition and temperature need adjusting to plan ripening at the exact moment of delivery. Likewise, to minimise food losses in supermarkets, packaging techniques and materials have been developed to prolong shelf life. Surprising but true: modern treatments with biodegradable plastic bags and sealing create an optimal environment inside the package and reduce loss. So does the industrial washing of packed and cut vegetables, which also saves water, compared with household?level processing.

What then of labour? While ‘handpicked’ sounds attractive to the urban consumer or occasional gardener, this type of manual labour is backbreaking if done all day long. Remuneration is poor, job security close to zero, and only few are willing to do this kind of work. To top it all, the yield from organic farming is low. So think about the alternative: harvesting vegetables such as tomatoes with smart robots that carefully grab each fruit, after assessing its ripeness with a special camera; using smart technology to fine-tune the dosing of fertiliser to every stage of plant development. This enhances flavour and texture, and reduces the overall amount of fertiliser needed. The result is that, in greenhouses, one square metre of tomato plants produces more than 70 kilos of high?quality tomatoes, all of which make it to consumers’ kitchens.

Since we’re on the subject of freshness, consider this: ketchup might actually be better for us than fresh tomatoes – and not just because of economics (the tomatoes used in ketchup are subgrade ones that would otherwise be destroyed). While fresh tomatoes contribute to a healthy diet, human digestive systems are not tuned to extracting most nutrients from fresh tomatoes. Tomatoes are far more nutritious when cooked or processed into ketchup or paste. So, ketchup is no bad thing – unless overloaded with sugar and salt. Indeed, a growing body of evidence suggests that the discovery of fire and cooking – that is, heating food – has been essential in the evolution of the human brain because it allowed for a better absorption of nutrients. Moreover, drying and smoking promoted the preservation of perishable foodstuffs, and perhaps facilitated the emergence of a more complex diet and division of labour.

But surely, you’ll object, tomatoes grown in small-scale gardens taste better. Not so! Double-blind tasting panels have been unable to pick out the greenhouse tomatoes as lacking in flavour, or tomatoes grown without fertiliser as more tasteful. According to Dutch reports on such testing, taste is more dependent on the variety of tomato than on the way it is grown. More importantly, the context of eating determines everything. The on-the-vine tomatoes you consume with mozzarella and olive oil on a village square in Italy will never taste the same at home. It’s a matter of psychology and gastronomy, not chemistry and biology.

In complete contrast to the mantras of organic farming, modern greenhouses are now in the vanguard of sustainability. No longer net?energy absorbers, pilot schemes show that they can produce enough additional energy to heat an entire neighbourhood by storing excess heat from the summer sun in groundwater to be released during winter. Since plants use only a small part of the solar spectrum in photosynthesis, modern technology enables us to find applications for the rest of the spectrum. Greenhouses also utilise residual CO2 from industry to promote plant growth and, in the Netherlands, CO2 from natural?gas production is routinely reused in agriculture. Conceiving greenhouses as net?energy producers opens up new opportunities to build them in hot, arid climates in order to use the stored energy for cooling down the facility.

But energy is just one dimension of sustainable production. Water is equally important. Here too, greenhouses optimise resource use. Under the very best conditions, one kilo of tomatoes can be produced using just 4-6 litres of water, because evaporation from plants can be collected and reused. Meanwhile, according to a 2015 study published in Science Direct, for tomatoes grown in the open air or under open plastic, the production of the same one kilo requires as much as 60 litres of water. Just as water might be reused in greenhouses, pests can be kept out. In a controlled environment, you can minimise the use of pesticides, or opt to use biological controls in the form of predatory insects.

Agricultural science has made great strides in breeding tomatoes with resistance to disease and pests, or with longer shelf-lives and better taste; while the latest genetic and biological techniques have increased our understanding of the genetic diversity of tomatoes and enabled us to speed up the breeding process. Such techniques do not always lead to genetically modified tomatoes. For that to happen, genes from other species would need to be introduced, of the kind that lead to higher vitamin contents in sweet potatoes, for example, or that use bacteria to build resistance against fungi.

So what do we really mean by sustainability? There have been many attempts at providing an exact and measurable definition beyond the statement of the Brundtland Report (1987), which coined the term in the context of equitable development that would not endanger the livelihoods of future generations. The concept originated in 19th-century forestry science to indicate the amount of wood that could be harvested from a forest without damaging future productivity. Since then, it has evolved to mean ‘respecting people, planet and profits’, in the parlance of the UN Earth Summit of 1992 and subsequent Millennium Development Goals.

A Tale of Two Suburbs

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Steve Sailer tells A Tale of Two Suburbs, the Beach Boys’ Hawthorne and NWA’s Torrance:

Straight Outta Compton is much celebrated by white critics for showing our heroes being hassled by suspicious police. (Ferguson is often cited by enthusiastic reviewers.) But, even sanitized as the film is — Dr. Dre’s penchant for beating women was left out, and I can’t recall a single scene of anybody smoking crack — Straight Outta Compton is still full of so much puerile mayhem that it’s hard to conclude that the cops weren’t sensible in trying to run these jokers out of town.

For example, when the Torrance police see our heroes hanging around outside the recording studio in gang gear, they force them down on the ground to send the message that Torrance isn’t gang ground. Their manager, middle-aged macher Jerry Heller (played by Giamatti) excoriates the cops: These aren’t criminals, they’re artists.

And indeed they weren’t affiliated with either the Crips or the Bloods. Just as drummer Dennis Wilson was the only surfer in the Beach Boys, N.W.A’s not-very-skilled frontman Eazy-E was the band’s only career criminal, and he was in the weed-dealing business (a less murderous line of work than cocaine). The more talented members were boys from respectable families who’d avoided serious trouble to focus on their entertainment ambitions. (Dr. Dre appears to have prudently restricted his violence to hitting girls.) But they couldn’t tell the cops that they were just pretending to be vicious thugs to sell records because that would have undermined their lucrative vicious-thug image.

I was particularly struck by their encounter with the Torrance police because I had looked into buying a house in that suburb in 1991. Like much of Southern California near the ocean, Torrance’s housing stock was of poor quality. (Before antibiotics, rich people had built inland in places like Pasadena out of fear that ocean fog causes tuberculosis.) And Torrance’s enormous oil refinery tends to periodically belch noxious fallout over homeowners.

But the schools were good because it’s a low-crime community. Today, while the Beach Boys’ Hawthorne, three miles north of Torrance, is over 80 percent Latino or black and Compton is 99 percent non-Asian minority, Torrance is still 42 percent white, 35 percent Asian, 16 percent Hispanic, 6 percent mixed, and only 3 percent black.

Torrance’s homicide rate in this century has been about one-fifth of Hawthorne’s and one-twentieth of Compton’s. How did Torrance dodge this (literal) bullet?

After watching Straight Outta Compton, I would guess: by the Torrance Police Department profiling black youths dressed as killers. Why did Torrance have the courage to save itself? I don’t know. Perhaps because Torrance’s large, politically powerful Asian presence (Torrance was the American headquarters of Toyota from 1982 to 2014) was immune to white guilt?

How Chicago Is Trying to Integrate Its Suburbs

Monday, July 20th, 2015

The Atlantic explains how Chicago is trying to integrate its suburbs — by replacing its housing projects with Section 8 vouchers to subsidize apartments outside the city — and Steve Sailer pokes some fun:

You may have somehow gotten the impression that tearing down Cabrini Green was all about driving out poor black people from right next to the Gold Coast to add billions to local property values. But, it turns out, it was really about Chicago generously Sharing Diversity with deprived suburban municipalities.

The Density Divide

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

Steve Sailer explores the density divide:

Different densities appeal to different personalities. For example, the frontier was always assumed to be where a man could be free from matronly tyranny, a major theme of American letters. Huckleberry Finn sums up that he’s headed for Oklahoma “because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

Americans were long extremely proud of settling the continent. The pioneers’ struggle against nature was an objective accomplishment that enthralled the world: Westerns were one of the most popular genres of movies from 1903 to 1970. American settlers combined independence and cooperation well, especially in contrast to the fractious Native Americans, who constantly stabbed each other in the back with self-destructive rivalries rather than unite to fight the white man.

Old-fashioned science fiction — Heinlein, Star Trek, Interstellar — tended to be about opening up a New Frontier that would allow Americans to once again flourish at what they do best: contend with nature for objective gain rather than with each other for subjective pride of place. Indeed the race to the moon proved a nonviolent way for Americans and Soviets to compete against the physical universe to show off who would win if they went to war against each other.

Different kinds of science evolve best under different conditions. Evolutionary theory is very much a product of the countryside, especially of England’s culture of intellectual country boys. On the other hand, Claude Shannon worked out information theory in Greenwich Village.

In the red-blue debate, both sides view the other as horrifyingly conformist: In the country, you can’t get away from people who know you, while in the city, you can’t get away from people, period.

The kinds of businesses found in lightly populated areas tend to be agriculture, energy, and other forms of resource extraction, and, as population increases, construction and heavy industry. The type of industry found in the highest-density places tends toward finance, law, media, fashion, and marketing.

In my ill-fated venture into the marketing profession, for instance, I had a corner office directly across Wacker Drive from the Sears Tower, then the tallest skyscraper in the world. Granted, it was an inconvenient place from which to attempt to manipulate the habits of the average grocery shopper since it was an expensive cab ride from the nearest supermarket, but the view was amazing.

Silicon Valley started off on the exurban frontier between San Francisco and San Jose because early chipmakers needed open land to build fabrication plants. And the kind of engineers who wanted to work on the problems that firms like Hewlett-Packard and Intel were solving preferred living in their own houses with their own yards and, famously, their own two-car garages.

But as the tech industry has evolved away from wrestling with nature toward becoming a marketing and media juggernaut, businesses such as Twitter have flowed back to San Francisco. Sure, there’s no room for you to work on your hobby in your garage, but today’s tech titans don’t see why their employees should have time for hobbies.

In the Twitter Age, status competitions tend to be played out online in the realm of ideology, with the more implausible your dogmas, the higher your status.

In other words, we’ve managed to combine the worst of village and big-city life: There’s now an unlimited number of people at hand to take offense and remember you for it. And there’s no way to light out for the territory and start over, because now it all goes on your permanent record.

When Did Healthy Communities Become Illegal?

Friday, June 12th, 2015

When did healthy communities become illegal?, Charles Tuttle asks:

The scene is Upper Monarch Lake, ten thousand feet up in the mountains of the Sequoia National Park in California. If you got here, you climbed thousands of feet in elevation through the wilderness, carrying your tent, sleeping bag, and all your supplies on your back. There is not a single graffito or piece of trash to be seen. If you should happen to have neighbors in a nearby tent for the night, you will not worry a bit about whether they will steal your gear or harm you in the night, even though they are strangers. More likely, they’ll invite you to share some of their bourbon.

Why do backpackers feel safe sleeping outside in public at 10,000 feet but not in their own city parks? It is the steep barrier to entry that creates this microcosm of community that so naturally emerges: anyone who has made it here has the physical, material, social, and informational resources to pass this natural test of good character.

The same is true, to a lesser extent, of Burning Man – the travel and resource outlay required to get to the desert festival forms a barrier high enough to allow for the formation of a temporary community, one in which participants feel safer interacting with strangers than they might in their own hometowns.

Natural human intuition about character has served people well in forming and pruning communities for thousands of years. Specific legal interventions in the United States, however, have limited the ability of individuals to act on their local social intuition and traditions, substituting a legal notion of radical inclusion. Legislation removed barriers to entry that people had erected for their communities, acting in turn on four core areas of social cohesion. While communities at first adapted to the new restrictions and evolved around them, eventually they became so warped that they began to fail to perform their most basic functions: providing members with social belonging, usefulness to others, a sense of meaning, and safety.

The first of the big four areas of life to be threatened by legislation was business – especially the kind of business that might have been called an inn or public house in another time, that is, public accommodations and restaurants. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin illegal for businesses of this kind. Federal and state laws have since expanded this anti-discrimination provision significantly; almost half of all states also prohibit discrimination against gay people by businesses, and Colorado recently forced a religious baker to either bake cakes for gay weddings, against his religious principles, or go out of business.

No longer does the restaurateur, publican, or even baker have the privilege to exclude anyone he chooses from his premises and service, for any reason or no reason. Some argue that the publican is better off; with more potential customers, his market is larger now. But is money the only imaginable motivation for owning a small business of this sort, the kind that underpins communities? A barrier to entry for customers at the pub has been removed. The only barrier that is still legal – as we will see in later sections – is money. Rather than having an exclusive pub with its clientele weeded by a kingly proprietor, the patrons must pay high prices as a substitute barrier to entry. Another solution is to arrange businesses so that customers need not interact with strangers, a small-scale version of modern city planning.

This is not a defense of the practice of racial discrimination. But outlawing bad discrimination has chilled the expression of good discrimination – of intuitive, personal discrimination, which sometimes but not always takes things like race or sexual orientation into account. (The race of neighbors at Upper Monarch Lake would scarcely make a difference.) Discrimination – the selection of some and exclusion of others for social interaction – had acquired the characteristic of a slur, but it is a necessary faculty for humans and groups. Peaceful people can hardly remain so if they can’t exclude destructive people. Discrimination, like speech, needs to be free from the chilling effects of lawsuits.

The right of a business proprietor to kick out anyone he likes seems a minuscule freedom in comparison to decades of legal oppression of a race of people descended from legal slaves. But black communities have served as a mascot for legislation rather than actually benefitting from it.