Keeping someone in solitary for more than 15 days constitutes torture

February 8th, 2019

Professional gambler Rich Alati took an unusual bet:

On 10 September last year, the American was sitting at a poker table at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, when he was asked a question by a fellow professional player, Rory Young: how much would it take for him to spend time in complete isolation, with no light, for 30 days? An hour later a price had been agreed: $100,000.

Young would hand over the money if Alati could last 30 days in a soundproofed bathroom with no light. He would be delivered food from a local restaurant, but the meals would come at irregular intervals to prevent him from keeping track of time. There would be no TV, radio, phone or access to the outside world but he would be allowed some comforts: a yoga mat, resistance band, massage ball, and, appropriately for a bathroom, lavender essential oils as well as a sugar and salt scrub. If Alati failed he would have to pay Young $100,000.

[...]

Dr Michael Munro, a psychologist Young consulted before agreeing to the bet, told Young: “Even if he lasts for 30 days, it will be extremely taxing on his mental health for the short and potentially long term.”

There’s good reason for such caution. Solitary confinement is often used as punishment, most notably in the United States, where inmates in solitary are isolated in their cells 23 hours a day. The United Nations’ Nelson Mandela Rules state that keeping someone in solitary for more than 15 days constitutes torture.

[...]

But Alati was confident. He had practiced meditation and yoga, and was certain his experiences at silent retreats would help him. On 21 November, a crowd of families and friends gathered at the house where the challenge would take place. Alati and Young’s lawyers were there as well as cameramen from a production company interested in buying television rights to the story. For that reason, as well as safety, the entire bet would be recorded. Alati’s father was given the power to pull Alati out at any time should he show signs of not being “in the right headspace,” as Alati puts it.

[...]

Around the 10-day mark, Young started to worry that Alati might make the 30 days, noting he looked “totally fine”. He worried he had miscalculated: Young hadn’t known Alati – a gregarious, fast talker – for long before they had made the bet. “His personality did not reflect that of someone who was proficient with meditation,” Young said.

On day 15, Young’s voice came on over the loudspeaker. Alati jumped out of bed, happy to hear a voice that wasn’t his own. Young told Alati that he had been in for around two weeks and that he had an offer for him: Alati could leave if he paid out $50,000.

[...]

Alati waited for a few days until Young came back on the loudspeaker and asked if he had any offers of his own. Alati said he wouldn’t come out for less than $75,000, to which Young countered with an offer of $40,000. They settled on $62,400. Alati had had been in the silence and dark for 20 days.

The Complexity of the World repeatedly makes fools of them

February 7th, 2019

Bryan Caplan is a fan of dystopian fiction, but he had overlooked Henry Hazlitt’s The Great Idea (subsequently republished as Time Will Run Back) until last December, because he had feared a long-winded, clunky version of Economics in One Lesson — but he gave it a chance, and his gamble paid off:

I read the whole thing (almost 400 pages) on a red-eye flight – feeling wide awake the whole way.

The book’s premise: Centuries hence, mankind groans under a world Communist government centered in Moscow. People live in Stalinist fear and penury. Censorship is so extreme that virtually all pre-revolutionary writings have been destroyed; even Marx has been censored, to prevent anyone from reverse engineering whatever “capitalism” was. However, due to a marital dispute, Peter Uldanov, the dictator’s son, was raised in an island paradise, free of both the horrors and the rationalizations of his dystopian society. When the dictator nears death, he brings Peter to Moscow and appoints him his heir. The well-meaning but naive Peter is instantly horrified by Communism, and sets out to fix it. In time, he rediscovers free-market economics, and sets the world to right.

Yes, this sounds trite to me, too. But Hazlitt is a master of pacing. It takes almost 200 pages before any of Peter’s reforms start to work. Until then, it’s one false start after another, because so many of the seemingly dysfunctional policies of the Stalinist society are remedies for other dysfunctional policies.

[...]

In most literary dialogues, at least one of the characters has the answers. (“Yes, Socrates, you are quite right!”) What’s novel about Hazlitt’s dialogues is that all the characters are deeply confused. Even when they sound reasonable, the Complexity of the World repeatedly makes fools of them.

The Great Idea was originally published in 1951. Stalin was still alive.

Leftist mobs burned convents and churches, while Republican police stood by

February 6th, 2019

Rod Dreher recently watched a 1983 British television documentary about the Spanish Civil War and came away with some scattered impressions:

Maybe it’s an American thing, but it’s hard to look at a conflict like this without imposing a simple moralistic narrative on it, between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. Certainly the received history of the conflict frames it as an unambiguous fight between democracy and fascism — and the evil fascists won. The truth is far more complicated.

In fact, the filmmakers make a point of saying that ideologues and others who project certain narratives onto the conflict do so by ignoring aspects of it that were particularly Spanish. That is to say, though the civil war did become a conflict between fascism and communism (and therefore a proxy war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union), that’s not the whole story. Its roots have a lot to do with the structure and history of Spain itself.

The first episode covers the years 1931-35, which covers the background to the war. In 1930, the military dictatorship was overthrown, and municipal elections across the country the next year led to a big win for combined parties of left and right who favored a democratic republic. (N.B., not all leftists and rightists wanted a republic!) After the vote, the king abdicated, and the Republic was declared. Later that spring, leftist mobs burned convents and churches in various cities, while Republican police stood by doing nothing. This sent a deep shock wave through Spanish Catholicism.

The Republic, in typical European fashion, was strongly anticlerical. It quickly passed laws stripping the Catholic Church of property and the right to educate young people. There were other anticlerical measures taken. Anti-Christian laws, and violent mob action, were present at the beginning of the Republic. Prior to watching this documentary, I assumed they happened as part of the civil war itself. Imagine what it was like to see a new constitutional order (the Republic) come into being, and suddenly you can’t give your children a religious education, and your churches and convents are being torched. How confident would you be in the new order?

According to the film, Spain was still in the 19th century, in terms of economics. It was largely agrarian, with a massive peasantry that was underfed, and tended to be religious and traditional. On the other hand, they were dependent on large landowners who favored the semi-feudal conditions. These landowners were extremely conservative. Their interests clashed, obviously, and became violent when the land reform promised by the liberal Republicans did not materialize fast enough for the peasantry. Mind you, the Republic was declared in the middle of the global Great Depression, with all the political and economic turmoil that came with it.

The urban working class was organized along Marxist lines, though the left was badly fractured, and unstable. There were democratic socialists, but also communists who hewed closely to the Stalinist line. Plus, anarchists were a really significant force in Spain, something unique in Europe at the time. They competed politically, and usually aligned with the left in fighting the right. But they refused to compromise their principles by taking formal power, even when the defense of the Republic required it.

Regional autonomy also played a role in defining sides. When the civil war started, Catholics supported the Nationalist side (the Francoists) … but not in the Basque Country, which was religious, but which wanted more self-rule — something the Nationalists despised. Catalonia also wanted more independence, which meant it was firmly Republican. Barcelona, the Catalan capital, was a Republican stronghold for left-wing reasons, to be sure. I bring up the situation with the Basques and the Catalans simply to illustrate the complexity of the conflict.

Anyway, the 1933 elections resulted in a swing back to the right, with a coalition of center-right and far-right parties winning control, and reversing some of the initiatives of the previous government. Socialists, anarchists, and coal miners in the province of Asturias rebelled against the Republic. They murdered priests and government officials; the military, led by Gen. Franco, brutally suppressed the uprising. All of this radicalized the left even more.

By 1935, left-right opinion had become so polarized that there was practically no middle ground left. Both sides came to distrust democracy because it was the means by which their enemies might take power. And, as one Nationalist interviewed in the documentary puts it, people on the left and right just flat out hated each other. The whole country was a powder keg.

By the 1936 campaign, the centrist parties had practically disappeared. A leftist coalition won the vote, but deadly violence between left and right began ramping up. A far-right fascist militia, the Falange, formed. Mutual assassinations on both sides, and street fighting between Falangists and Republican forces, triggered a military coup against the government. The coup failed to overthrow the Republic, but it did divide the country, and spark a civil war between Nationalists and Republicans. Gen. Francisco Franco quickly emerged as the Nationalist leader.

I give you all that history to show what was news to me: that this was by no means a simple case of right-wing military figures trying to overthrow a democratically elected government — though it was that too!

The series devotes an hour each to the complicated internal politics of both the left and the right. All my life I’ve heard Franco and the Nationalist side described as “fascist,” but it’s not accurate. True, the Nationalist had real fascists in their ranks — that was the Falange — but Franco exploited and controlled them. The Falange’s founder, Jose Antonio Rivera, was killed by the Republicans, and turned into a martyr by the Nationalists. Doing so allowed Franco to embrace the Falange but also to defang them as a political force. In the film, an elderly Falangist complains that Franco was not a real fascist, and he wouldn’t seriously implement the Falange’s program (e.g., Falangism’s opposition to capitalism).

The documentary says Franco ought to be understood as a hard-right conservative authoritarian, not a fascist. Mussolini was a big supporter, and sent troops and military aid, but was frustrated by Franco’s failure to be affirmatively fascist. Hitler sent lots of military aid, which was critically important to the Nationalist victory, but was angry at Franco for not being willing to be more Nazi-like. The truth is, Franco was trying to lead a reactionary coalition of fascists, monarchists, traditionalist Catholics, and others on the Right. The Spanish Right by and large did not trust the Spanish fascists, who were revolutionary modernists. This is an example of the filmmakers’ point that you can’t get a true grasp on what was happening in Spain at the time by imposing a narrative that overlooks particularly Spanish characteristics of the conflict.

Franco managed to unite the right, but the left remained hopelessly mired in internal rivalry. If you’ve read Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia — which I did in the early 1990s, and forgot all about — you know something about how fissiparous and treacherous left-wing politics were in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell went to Spain to fight with the POUM, the democratic socialists. They were set upon and betrayed by Spanish communists loyal to the Soviet Union. The Soviets were open supporters, military and otherwise, of the Republicans, but also instructed their Spanish followers to undermine the non-communist left.

Two things struck me about the left. I mentioned earlier the role of the anarchist militias, and how they were both crucial to the Republican war effort — they were fierce fighters — but also an Achilles heel, because they were obstinately principled. There’s a passage in the film in which a Republican veteran talks about how hard it was to get the anarchists to take military orders (naturally!). They would stand around debating about whether or not they should obey an order, while the far more disciplined Nationalists would be making gains. Isn’t that cartoonish, in a herding-cats way? But it happened.

The other thing — and this, to me, was the more important thing — was how off-the-hook crazy the Spanish left was. In 1936, after the start of the war, the anarchists and left-wing supporters led a revolution within the Republic. Here’s Orwell describing revolutionary Barcelona:

It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags and with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black.

That’s from Orwell, but this is reported in the Granada documentary too. It’s this kind of thing that made me aware that had I been alive then, I would have 100 percent supported the Nationalists. It was truly a revolution, and violently anti-Christian to the core. It was brought low by the communists, on Moscow’s orders, on the grounds that defeating fascism had to come before the revolution. The communists were right.

There is no trace to follow

February 5th, 2019

The Internet is full of commercial activity, not all of it legal. Dropgangs may be the future of darknet markets:

To prevent the problems of customer binding, and losing business when darknet markets go down, merchants have begun to leave the specialized and centralized platforms and instead ventured to use widely accessible technology to build their own communications and operational back-ends.

Instead of using websites on the darknet, merchants are now operating invite-only channels on widely available mobile messaging systems like Telegram. This allows the merchant to control the reach of their communication better and be less vulnerable to system take-downs. To further stabilize the connection between merchant and customer, repeat customers are given unique messaging contacts that are independent of shared channels and thus even less likely to be found and taken down. Channels are often operated by automated bots that allow customers to inquire about offers and initiate the purchase, often even allowing a fully bot-driven experience without human intervention on the merchant’s side.

The use of messaging platforms provides a much better user experience to the customers, who can now reach their suppliers with mobile applications they are used to already. It also means that a larger part of the communication isn’t routed through the Tor or I2P networks anymore but each side — merchant and customer — employ their own protection technology, often using widely spread VPNs.

The other major change is the use of “dead drops” instead of the postal system which has proven vulnerable to tracking and interception. Now, goods are hidden in publicly accessible places like parks and the location is given to the customer on purchase. The customer then goes to the location and picks up the goods. This means that delivery becomes asynchronous for the merchant, he can hide a lot of product in different locations for future, not yet known, purchases. For the client the time to delivery is significantly shorter than waiting for a letter or parcel shipped by traditional means — he has the product in his hands in a matter of hours instead of days. Furthermore this method does not require for the customer to give any personally identifiable information to the merchant, which in turn doesn’t have to safeguard it anymore. Less data means less risk for everyone.

The use of dead drops also significantly reduces the risk of the merchant to be discovered by tracking within the postal system. He does not have to visit any easily to surveil post office or letter box, instead the whole public space becomes his hiding territory.

Cryptocurrencies are still the main means of payment, but due to the higher customer-binding, and vetting process by the merchant, escrows are seldom employed. Usually only multi-party transactions between customer and merchant are established, and often not even that.

Marketing and initial vetting of both merchant and customer now happens in darknet forums and chat channels that themselves aren’t involved in any deal anymore. In these places merchants and customers take part in the discussion of best procedures, methods and prices. The market connects and develops best practices by sharing experience. Furthermore these places also serve as record of reputation, though in a still very primitive way.

Other than allowing much more secure and efficient business for both sides of the transaction, this has also led to changes in the organizational structure of merchants:

Instead of the flat hierarchies witnessed with darknet markets, merchants today employ hierarchical structures again. These consist of procurement layer, sales layer, and distribution layer. The people constituting each layer usually do not know the identity of the higher layers nor are ever in personal contact with them. All interaction is digital — messaging systems and cryptocurrencies again, product moves only through dead drops.

The procurement layer purchases product wholesale and smuggles it into the region. It is then sold for cryptocurrency to select people that operate the sales layer. After that transaction the risks of both procurement and sales layer are isolated.

The sales layer divides the product into smaller units and gives the location of those dead drops to the distribution layer. The distribution layer then divides the product again and places typical sales quantities into new dead drops. The location of these dead drops is communicated to the sales layer which then sells these locations to the customers through messaging systems.

To prevent theft by the distribution layer, the sales layer randomly tests dead drops by tasking different members of the distribution layer with picking up product from a dead drop and hiding it somewhere else, after verification of the contents. Usually each unit of product is tagged with a piece of paper containing a unique secret word which is used to prove to the sales layer that a dead drop was found. Members of the distribution layer have to post security — in the form of cryptocurrency — to the sales layer, and they lose part of that security with every dead drop that fails the testing, and with every dead drop they failed to test. So far, no reports of using violence to ensure performance of members of these structures has become known.

This concept of using messaging, cryptocurrency and dead drops even within the merchant structure allows for the members within each layer being completely isolated from each other, and not knowing anything about higher layers at all. There is no trace to follow if a distribution layer member is captured while servicing a dead drop. He will often not even be distinguishable from a regular customer. This makes these structures extremely secure against infiltration, takeover and capture. They are inherently resilient.

Furthermore the members of the sales layer often employ advanced physical tradecraft to prevent surveillance by the procurement layer when they pick up product. This makes it very hard to dismantle such a structure from the top.

If members of such a structure are captured they usually have no critical information to share, no information about persons, places, times of meeting. No interaction that would make this information necessary ever takes place.

It is because of the use of dead drops and hierarchical structures that we call this kind of organization a Dropgang.

The result of this evolution is a highly decentralized, specialized and resilient method of running black market commerce. Less information is acquired, shipments are faster, isolation between participants is high, and multiple independent sales channels are established.

Pave the muddy paths

February 4th, 2019

We often think of “law” and “legislation” as synonyms, Mike Munger notes, but Hayek argued otherwise:

Habits that are shared might be called “customs,” informal rules that might be written down nowhere. These are agreements, in the sense that we all agree that is the way we do things, even though we never actually sat down and signed anything.

A while back I wrote about the Pittsburgh left turn as an example of such a custom. It is important that the habit of waiting for someone to turn left in front of you be “agreed” on, in the sense that the expectation is widely shared — and met — because otherwise it wouldn’t be effective in making traffic move faster. These customs can come to govern behavior, however, precisely because they shape expectations, and violating expectations may be expensive or dangerous.

Those customs, if they consistently lead to useful outcomes, are “laws.” They are discoverable by experience and emerge in the form of traditions. But it is useful to write them down so that they can be enforced more effectively and can be easily learned by new generations. Laws that are written down are rules, commands, and prohibitions we call “legislation.”

The problem is that legislation need not arise from law at all.

Hayek was rightly concerned about the conceit that experts know what is best for everyone else:

I often illustrate this with what I call the Hayek Sidewalk Plan. Imagine that a new university has been built, and you are on the committee charged with laying out the sidewalks. What would you do?

You might walk around, look at aerial maps of the campus, and draw lines to try to guess where people will want to walk. Or you might want to have a purely aesthetic conception of the problem, and put the sidewalks in places or in patterns that are pleasing to the eye as you look out the windows of the administration building.

But all of that is legislation. No individual, or small committee of individuals, could possibly have enough information or foresight to be able to know in advance where people are going to want to walk. After all, universities are peopled by broadly diverse groups, with heterogeneous plans and purposes. People are often willing to walk on the sidewalks, if that serves their purpose at that point. But you probably don’t want to build a sidewalk from every doorway to every other doorway on the campus.

What would a law look like, in this setting? No one person, after all, has any effect walking on the grass, and all the different plans and purposes, taken one at a time, contain no information that you can use. But there is a physical manifestation of the aggregation of all these plans and purposes working themselves out over time. I don’t intend to make a path, and neither do you. But if enough of us, over time, find it useful to walk in the same place to accomplish our own idiosyncratic purposes, a visible record of the shared pattern emerges: a muddy path.

So, the law for the Hayek Sidewalk Plan committee will be discoverable if we adjourn for six months or so and then have a drone take some overhead photographs. It is clear now where people, acting as individuals but observable together in the shared result called a muddy path, want the sidewalks to be placed. And the task of the committee is simply to “legislate” by paving the muddy paths.

If we think of the process of discovering law as “looking for the muddy paths,” and legislation as “paving the muddy paths,” we have a simple but quite powerful way of thinking about the rule of law.

The Air Force forgot what business it was in

February 3rd, 2019

The United States Air Force has lost its way, Jerry Hendrix argues — and most of its bombers, too:

It has forgotten what business it’s in, mistakenly believing that its raison d’être is air supremacy while forgetting that the core of its mission is long-range strike. If the nation is to be successful in the great-power competition it finds itself in, the Air Force will need to find its way home and regain its strategic relevance in an environment dominated by anti-access/area-denial systems employed by China and Russia.

[...]

The Air Force once understood its purpose with stark clarity. In the first half of the 20th century, air-power advocates continually stressed the importance of bypassing tactical skirmishes and penetrating to the enemy’s vital centers to coerce either the foreign government or its population to submit. Independent air forces in Great Britain and Italy focused their procurement efforts on larger and longer-range heavy bombers. Non-independent air forces, such as the U.S. Army Air Corps, sought the same even as their parent service (the U.S. Army, in the American case) pressed them to buy tactical aircraft and perform direct-combat air-support missions for ground infantry and armor units. This made some sense during World War II, when long-range bombers found themselves in need of fighter escorts to fend off enemy fighters and establish temporary air dominance for the bombers to get through to their targets. But after the war, science and engineering combined to alter circumstances.

The jet engines that came to dominate aircraft design during the early years of the Cold War changed the nature of force employment, as jet fighters no longer had the range to escort the jet bombers of the newly established and very powerful Strategic Air Command to targets inside the Soviet Union. Fighters then became specialized for air-defense and air-dominance missions within a radius of a couple of hundred miles of fighter bases. Strategic Air Command bombers, which numbered in the thousands, soon began to specialize themselves, evolving towards designs that could fly higher and faster in order to penetrate Soviet air defenses. The Soviets responded by building new surface-to-air missiles and high-altitude/high-speed interceptors to rob American bombers of their advantages. It was only at the end of the Cold War, with the introduction of the stealth B-2 Spirit bomber, that bombers regained the upper hand in the U.S.–USSR strategic competition. But by then, the Strategic Air Command had been disestablished, and the Air Force felt that its mission had changed.

The change began during the Vietnam War, in which fighters flying from land bases in South Vietnam were loaded up with bombs to hit land targets in North Vietnam and along supply routes in neighboring countries. The improved accuracy of smaller aircraft carrying lighter loads of bombs and providing combat air support to American ground forces in direct contact with the enemy began to subtly alter the internal culture of the Air Force. The bomber “tribe,” based in the politically powerful Strategic Air Command, had supplied six of the first ten Air Force chiefs of staff, but it began to lose influence within the service to the fighter “tribe.” In the 36 years since Chief of Staff Lew Allen Jr. retired, no bomber pilot has occupied that office, and the Air Force’s inventory of bombers has shrunk from over 10,000 aircraft during the 1950s to fewer than 200 today. Fighter pilots gained ascendency based upon the assumptions of access to bases within range of their enemies, the ability of their supporting tanker force to survive, and the greater importance of air supremacy than long-range-strike capability.

Air supremacy is a straightforward concept. It seeks a degree of superiority over an opposing air force such that the enemy is incapable of effective interference with friendly aircraft or ground and naval forces. This definition of air superiority held for regional wars such as those in Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq (both times), and Afghanistan (where the enemy had no opposing air power to speak of). Air Force theorists also state that air superiority applies to theater campaigns (those that range across an entire region of the globe), enabling larger aircraft, cargo haulers, refueling tankers, and bombers to operate freely — except when they cannot, and that is where the modern United States Air Force lost its way.

Air supremacy is all about fighting a long war. It assumes proximity of air-power units to the front lines and/or to the adversary’s coast. It also assumes that the U.S. will fight the next war the way it has fought small wars over the 70-plus years since the end of World War II — deploying combat and support forces from the United States; gradually building up forces and supplies in theater; “rolling back” adversary defenses to gain air, sea, and ground control; and decisively defeating the adversary’s military in force-on-force engagements. All these assumptions are wrong.

Both China and Russia have noted how effectively the United States has fought its wars over the past 50 years and have invested in a new series of sensors and weapons that seek to push American forces back from their shores. Broadly grouped under the label of “anti-access/area-denial” systems, these radars, satellites, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and submarines all seek to ensure that U.S. power-projection forces cannot reach their vital political, economic, and military centers. Because of these investments, most of America’s most recent weapons systems, including all three variants of the new F-35 multi-role fighter, will be unable to reach Chinese or Russian targets. There will be no proximity to “front lines” — not that it matters, as there will be no front lines. The next battlefield will be fluid and spread out over vast areas. Moreover, both legacy fighters and just-fielding F-35s are already vulnerable to modern integrated air- and missile-defense networks. The enemies get a vote, and they have cast it.

[...]

When World War II ended, the Army Air Forces understood these lessons, and when the U.S. Air Force was established in 1947 and the Strategic Air Command thereafter, the long-range bomber and the long-range strike mission lay at the center of their culture. But then regional wars and the end of the Cold War happened, and the Air Force forgot what business it was in. It got into short-range fighters and fought small, short-range wars.

He’s a big fan of the B-21 Raider.

Affordability has its costs

February 2nd, 2019

Besides its obvious shortcomings, Los Angeles has a number of subtle problems that go back to decisions made long ago:

Much of the Los Angeles area would be better today if early city fathers had realized how valuable the property would eventually become. Los Angeles has quite high population density these days, but lacks urban amenities. The San Fernando Valley on the north side of the city of Los Angeles, for instance, was built up under the assumption that it would remain a rural retreat from the big city, but it now has over 1.75 million residents.

In contrast, Chicago was laid out after its 1871 fire by men like Daniel Burnham who took “Make no little plans” as their motto. L.A. wasn’t. And it’s hard to fix urban-planning mistakes afterward.

To take a seemingly trivial example, Chicago, where I lived from 1982 to 2000, was set up with most streets having sidewalks, and the sidewalks are usually wide enough for two people to walk abreast while conversing. In contrast, sidewalks on residential streets in Los Angeles often peter out at the developers’ whims, and those that exist are usually a little too narrow for two people. So pedestrians end up conversing over their shoulders.

One reason for the sidewalk shortage is that Los Angeles was the first major city in America to develop after the automobile.

Another is that much of it was laid out to be affordable after the stock-market crash of 1929. That introduced a more democratic, less elitist ethos. There’s a lot to be said for the remarkable living standards of average people in postwar L.A., but the city is paying the price today for cutting corners back then.

Chicago, in contrast, was mostly built during the era before the New Deal when upscale bourgeois values dominated tastes. For instance, my Chicago condo was in a three-story brick building on an elegant block of other three-story brick buildings. It was a very respectable-looking block, with every building striving to live up to proper bourgeois standards.

This doesn’t mean that everybody can keep up appearances at all times. My Chicago condo had been built in 1923 with optimistic touches like nine-foot ceilings. During the Depression, the owners must have been ruined as the units were split up into two apartments. But a couple of generations later, the building was rehabbed, and the tall ceilings and other generous touches were still there.

Los Angeles, in contrast, reflects an odd combination of mass-market needs and celebrity tastes.

In 1915, Charlie Chaplin, rapidly becoming the most famous man in the world, lived in Chicago a couple of blocks from where my old condo would go up. But in 1916, as filmmakers realized the advantages of sunshine, he moved from Chicago to Los Angeles.

The movies did in the chance of Los Angeles developing physically along bourgeois lines. Film people valued privacy and self-expression. Screenwriter Nathanael West’s 1939 novel Day of the Locust complained of the excessive diversity of Hollywood houses:

But not even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses. Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyon.

One of the most popular architects of celebrity homes was an African-American named Paul Revere Williams whose view, in contrast to the more academically celebrated Los Angeles architects such as Schindler and Neutra, was that his movie-star clients paid him to make their whims come true. So if, say, Frank Sinatra desired a Japanese Modern house with superb acoustics for his state-of-the-art stereo, Williams would figure out how to give the client what he wanted.

Another need celebrities have is privacy from tourists. Not having a sidewalk in front of your house for your stalkers to assemble upon makes sense if you are a world-famous actor.

The peculiar needs of movie stars influence everybody else’s tastes in L.A., with generally unfortunate results. If you are in constant danger of being pestered by crazed fans, it can be a good idea to go everywhere by car. But not being able to walk down your own street without risking being hit by traffic is a dumb idea if you are a nobody.

One lesson from Los Angeles ought to be that it’s hard to retrofit urban-planning mistakes made for reasons of affordability and expedience.

For example, the Los Angeles River, a floodplain that is dry most of the year, almost washed the city away in the 1938 flood. The Army Corps of Engineers were called in and rapidly built the notorious concrete ditch that is now the L.A. River to keep, say, Lockheed from being carried out to sea in the next deluge, causing America to lose the upcoming war.

After the war, newer desert communities like Scottsdale and Palm Springs realized that it makes more sense to convert natural flood channels into parks and golf courses that can absorb runoff. Moreover, the 1994 earthquake in Los Angeles demonstrated that putting up apartment buildings on the old sand and gravel riverbed had been a bad idea, as numerous apartment buildings near the river collapsed.

For decades, public-spirited Angelenos have generated countless plans to replace the ugly concrete culvert. But to do that would require a broader channel, which would demand using eminent domain to purchase all the very expensive real estate along the river. And so nothing ever gets done.

Similarly, it’s hard to undo affordable-housing construction, unless it happens to be in a hugely valuable location, such as along the beach. Gentrification is most likely where there’s something to gentrify.

For instance, Van Nuys in the heart of the San Fernando Valley was built as an affordable place for people who couldn’t afford cars. I recall it in the 1960s being a dump.

Driving through Van Nuys last week, it was still the same dump.

Affordability has its costs.

If some idiot from the South tried to be polite, the system broke down

February 1st, 2019

As you travel the world, some of the local rules you can look up or read about, but often the rules are just assumed because “everyone” knows them:

I described an experience of mine in Erlangen, Germany, in an earlier column, where I didn’t know about the practice of collecting a deposit on shopping carts. No one told me about this, and I thought I recognized the context of “grocery store” as familiar, one where I knew the rules. But I didn’t.

I had another experience in Germany, one that made me think of the importance of what Hayek called “the particular circumstances of time and place.” Erlangen, where I taught at Friedrich Alexander University, is a city of bicycles. There are roads, but most are narrow and there are so many bikes that it can be frustrating to drive.

The bike riders, as is true in many American cities, paid little attention to the traffic lights. Often, there were so many bikes that it was not possible to cross the street without getting in the way. But I noticed that people did cross, just walking right out into the street.

I tried this, several times, in my first time in Erlangen. But being from the southern United States, I’m polite and deferential. So, I would start across the street, but then look up the street, and if a bike was close and coming fast I’d stop.

And get hit by a large, sturdy German on a large, sturdy German bicycle. And then I got yelled at, in German. What had I done wrong? Eventually, I figured it out: there had evolved a convention for crossing the street and for riding bicycles. The pedestrian simply walked at a constant speed, without even looking. The bicyclist would ride directly at the pedestrian, actually aiming at the spot where the pedestrian was at that point in time. Since the pedestrian kept moving in a predictable fashion, the cyclist would pass directly and safely behind the pedestrian.

If some idiot from the southern United States, in an effort to impose his own views of “polite” behavior on people whose evolved rules were different, tried to be polite and stop, the system broke down. Though that idiot (me) was stopping to avoid being hit, I was actually being rude by violating the rules. These rules were not written down and could not easily be changed.

In fact, a number of my German colleagues even denied that it was a rule, at first. But then they would say, “Well, right, you can’t stop. That would be dumb. So, okay, I guess it is a rule, after all.”

More precisely, this rule — like many other important rules you encounter in “foreign” settings — is really a convention. A convention, according to Lewis (1969), is a persistent (though not necessarily permanent) regularity in the resolution of recurring coordination problems, in situations characterized by recurrent interactions where outcomes are (inter)dependent.

Conventions, then, exist when people all agree on a rule of behavior, even if no one ever said the rule out loud or wrote it down. No one actor can choose an outcome, and no actor can challenge the regularity by unilaterally deviating from the conventional behavior. But deviation can result in substantial harm, as when someone tries to drive on the left in a country where “we” drive on the right, or social sanction, as when there is intentional punishment on behalf of other actors if deviation is observed and publicized.

According to David Hume, convention is

a general sense of common interest; which sense all the members of the society express to one another, and which induces them to regulate their conduct by certain rules. I observe that it will be to my interest [e.g.] to leave another in the possession of his goods, provided he will act in the same manner with regard to me. When this common sense of interest is mutually expressed and is known to both, it produces a suitable resolution and behavior. And this may properly enough be called a convention or agreement betwixt us, though without the interposition of a promise; since the actions of each of us have a reference to those of the other, and are performed upon the supposition that something is to be performed on the other part. (Hume, 1978; llI.ii.2)

Notice how different this is from the “gamer” conception of laws and rules. For the gamer, all the rules can be — in fact, must be — written down and can be examined and rearranged. For the world traveler, the experience of finding out the rules can involve trial and error, and even the natives likely do not fully understand that the rules and norms of their culture are unique.

One of my favorite examples is actually from the United States, the so-called Pittsburgh Left Turn. In an article in the Pittsburgh City Paper in 2006, Chris Potter wrote:

As longtime residents know, the Pittsburgh Left takes place when two or more cars — one planning to go straight, and the other to turn left — face off at a red light without a “left-turn only” lane or signal. The Pittsburgh Left occurs when the light turns green, and the driver turning left takes the turn without yielding to the oncoming car.

Pittsburgh is an old city, many of whose streets were designed before automobiles held sway. [That means] that street grids are constricted, with little room for amenities like left-turn-only lanes. The absence of such lanes means drivers have to solve traffic problems on their own. Instead of letting one car at the head of an intersection bottle up traffic behind it, the Pittsburgh Left gives the turning driver a chance to get out of everyone else’s way. In exchange for a few seconds of patience, the Pittsburgh Left allows traffic in both directions to move smoothly for the duration of the signal. Of course, the system only works if both drivers know about it. No doubt that’s why newcomers find it so vexing.

The Pittsburgh Left is a very efficient convention. On two-lane streets, turning left can block traffic as the turning car waits for an opening. And left-turn arrows are expensive and add time to each traffic light cycle. Far better to let the left turners — if there are any — go first. If there are no left turners, traffic just proceeds normally, not waiting on a left arrow.

Of course, if some idiot from the southern United States (yes, me again) is driving in Pittsburgh, that person expects to go when the light turns green. I blew my horn when two cars turned left in front of me. And people on the sidewalk yelled at me, as did the left-turning drivers. Once again, I didn’t know the rules, because I was a foreigner, at least in terms of the rules of the road in Pittsburgh.

Actually, it’s worse than that. The Pittsburgh Left is technically illegal, according to the Pennsylvania Driver’s Handbook (p. 47): “Drivers turning left must yield to oncoming vehicles going straight ahead.” The written rules, the gamer rules, appear to endorse one pattern of action. But the actual rules, the ones you have to travel around to learn, may be quite different. Real rules are not written down, and the people living in that rule system may not understand either the nature or effects of the rules. It is very difficult to change conventions, because they represent the expectations people have developed in dealing with each other over years or decades.

Hayek understood this clearly, and argued for what I have called the “world traveler” conception over what I have called the “gamer” conception of rules and laws. As Hayek said in 1988, in The Fatal Conceit:

To understand our civilisation, one must appreciate that the extended order resulted not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices, many of which men tend to dislike, whose significance they usually fail to understand, whose validity they cannot prove, and which have nonetheless fairly rapidly spread by means of an evolutionary selection — the comparative increase of population and wealth — of those groups that happened to follow them.… This process is perhaps the least appreciated facet of human evolution.

Standing on the shoulders of jerks

January 31st, 2019

Eric Weinstein discusses the origin of the Intellectual Dark Web:

Widespread use would provide an entire new category for the Darwin Awards

January 31st, 2019

The Four Thieves Vinegar Collective is a volunteer network of anarchists and hackers developing DIY medicines:

Four Thieves claims to have successfully synthesized five different kinds of pharmaceuticals, all of which were made using MicroLab. The device attempts to mimic an expensive machine usually only found in chemistry laboratories for a fraction of the price using readily available off-the-shelf parts. In the case of the MicroLab, the reaction chambers consist of a small mason jar mounted inside a larger mason jar with a 3D-printed lid whose printing instructions are available online. A few small plastic hoses and a thermistor to measure temperature are then attached through the lid to circulate fluids through the contraption to induce the chemical reactions necessary to manufacture various medicines. The whole process is automated using a small computer that costs about $30.

To date, Four Thieves has used the device to produce homemade Naloxone, a drug used to prevent opiate overdoses better known as Narcan; Daraprim, a drug that treats infections in people with HIV; Cabotegravir, a preventative HIV medicine that may only need to be taken four times per year; and mifepristone and misoprostol, two chemicals needed for pharmaceutical abortions.

[...]

As for the DEA, none of the pharmaceuticals produced by the collective are controlled substance, so their possession is only subject to local laws about prescription medicines. If a person has a disease and prescription for the drug to treat that disease, they shouldn’t run into any legal issues if they were to manufacture their own medicine. Four Thieves is effectively just liberating information on how to manufacture certain medicines at home and developing the open source tools to make it happen. If someone decides to make drugs using the collective’s guides then that’s their own business, but Four Thieves doesn’t pretend that the information it releases is for “educational purposes only.”

[...]

The catalyst for Four Thieves Vinegar Collective was a trip Laufer took to El Salvador in 2008 when he was still in graduate school. While visiting a rural medical clinic as part of an envoy documenting human rights violations in the country, he learned that it had run out of birth control three months prior. When the clinic contacted the central hospital in San Salvador, it was informed the other hospital had also run out of birth control. Laufer told me he was stunned that the hospitals were unable to source birth control, a relatively simple drug to manufacture that’s been around for over half-a-century. He figured if drug dealers in the country were able to use underground labs to manufacture illicit drugs, a similar approach could be taken to life-saving medicines.

This doesn’t seem wise:

Eric Von Hippel, an economist at MIT that researches “open innovation,” is enthusiastic about the promise of DIY drug production, but only under certain conditions. He cited a pilot program in the Netherlands that is exploring the independent production of medicines that are tailor made for individual patients as a good example of safe, DIY drug production. These drugs are made in the hospital by trained experts. Von Hippel believes it can be dangerous when patients undertake drug production on their own.
“If one does not do chemical reactions under just-right conditions, one can easily create dangerous by-products along with the drug one is trying to produce,” von Hippel told me in an email. “Careful control of reactor conditions is unlikely in DIY chemical reactors such as the MicroLab design offered for free by the Four Thieves Vinegar Collective.”

His colleague, Harold DeMonaco, a visiting scientist at MIT, agreed. DeMonaco suggested that a more rational solution to the problems addressed would be for patients to work with compounding pharmacies. Compounding pharmacies prepare personalized medicine for their customers and DeMonaco said they are able to synthesize the same drugs Four Thieves is producing at low costs, but with “appropriate safeguards.”

“Unless the system is idiot proof and includes validation of the final product, the user is exposed to a laundry list of rather nasty stuff,” DeMonaco told me in an email. “Widespread use [of Four Thieves’ devices] would provide an entire new category for the Darwin Awards.”

Rising Sun Victorious

January 30th, 2019

Rising Sun Victorious presents ten counterfactuals of Japan winning in WW2 — or getting a negotiated settlement:

“Hokushin: The Second Russo-Japanese War” by Peter Tsouras has Hitler pressuring the Japanese with a full court press before Operation Barbarossa in 1941. The Soviets stripped out their best divisions from Siberia in summer 1941 which are lost in great encirclements at Kiev and outside of Moscow. The Japanese have a successful offensive from Manchuria and seize a part of the Soviet Union’s Far East.

“Be Careful What You Wish For: The Plan Orange Disaster” by Wade G. Dudley. The Japanese don’t attack Pearl Harbor but the Philippines. The U. S. Pacific Fleet charges headlong to destruction under Adm. Kimmel. This is one instance where Japan could have possibly achieved its goals.

“Pearl Harbor: Irredeemable Defeat” by Frank R. Shirer. Nagumo sends in the third wave on the attack on Pearl Harbor. Much more damage including the fuel tanks and the channel blocked by the sunken U. S. S. Nevada. Pearl Harbor is unusable as a base until April 1942.

“Coral and Purple: The Lost Advantage” by James R. Arnold. The Battle of the Coral Sea caused Adm. Yamamoto to make changes to the upcoming offensive against Midway Island.

“Nagumo’s Luck: The Battles of Midway and California” by Forrest R. Lindsey. The Battle of Midway goes badly against the Americans. MacArthur is recalled from Australia to take command of the Western Defense Zone. The Battle of California has the Americans dealing with a Japanese raid on aircraft manufacturing plants in California. This was an imaginative scenario.

“Samurai Down Under: The Japanese Invasion of Australia” by John H. Gill. The Japanese successfully take the island of New Guinea and decide to take Australia out of the war by direct invasion. I enjoyed this one quite a bit.

“The Japanese Raj: The Conquest of India” by David C. Isby. The Japanese attack India after successfully taking Burma. British control collapses holding on to Pakistan only.

“Guadalcanal: The Broken Shoestring” by John D. Burtt. Adm. Halsey does not replace Adm. Ghormley as commander of naval forces at Guadalcanal in fall 1942. Ghormley loses his nerve and evacuates the Marines from the island.

“There are Such Things as Miracles: Halsey and Kurita at Leyte Gulf” by Christopher J. Anderson. The Japanese pull out a miracle victory at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Japan is able to negotiate a peace where it keeps Indochina, Manchuria, and most of China.

“Victory Rides the Divine Wind: The Kamikaze and the Invasion of Kyushu” by D. M. Giangreco. The invasion of Japan has Pearl Harbor II with the destruction of thirty-eight Liberty ships, a score of destroyers, and twenty-one other vessels within sight of the invasion beaches by kamikazes. There is a Cold War with Japan going on in 1965.

As one reviewer puts it, “The overriding theme of the book is that, with very few exceptions, an Allied victory was inevitable once the US manufacturing juggernaut was fully mobilized.” In retrospect, the key was not waking the sleeping giant and filling him with a terrible resolve.

Pay attention to all of the following body language

January 29th, 2019

Greg Ellifritz shares the crime prevention chapter from his upcoming third-world travel book, where he discusses pre-assault indicators:

Pay attention to all of the following body language:

Hands – Hands above the waistline and or being clenched are a warning sign. Look at people who are calm and are not angry. Their hands will be relaxed and generally below waist level. When the hands come up, get ready for action. Any time a person is hiding his hands may indicate that he is in possession of a weapon.

Lower body – Standing in a bladed stance with one leg (and the same side hand) back and out of view is a sign that the person has hostile intentions or is concealing a weapon. Standing on the balls of the feet indicates that the person is getting ready for rapid movement, which may also precede an attack

Arm movements – Wide gesticulating outside the framework of the body is threat and posturing. It’s the sign of a person who is trying to blow off some steam. Gestures inside the body frame and pointing are more closely associated with violent actions.

Breathing – As adrenaline spikes, the criminal’s breathing rate will increase. If you notice someone who appears to be “panting,” it should be a warning sign. Likewise, it should also be a warning when you see or hear someone take a big, deep, breath or audibly sigh. The criminal may be taking these actions to consciously slow his breathing rate and calm down so that he doesn’t prematurely alert you to his plans.

[...]

Masking Behaviors, Pacifying Actions and “Grooming Cues” – One of the really obvious pre-assault indicators is the unnecessary touching of the face, neck, or upper body. Described using different terms depending on the expert cited, these actions all have the same purpose, to “hide” psychological discomfort.

As criminals are evaluating you as a victim or planning their attack, their stress levels rise. The criminals don’t want to get hurt and they don’t want to get caught. The idea of pain, death, or imprisonment amps up the criminal’s fear and baseline level of stress. They know this is happening and subconsciously fear that you will pick up on their nervousness and do something to prevent their successful commission of the crime.

The criminal doesn’t want you to see his psychological stress reactions, so he subconsciously “masks” them by covering his face, eyes, or neck.

[...]

“Target Glancing” – When a criminal wants to steal something from you, he has to figure out how to physically remove it from your protection. Sometimes that takes time. While the criminal is figuring out his plan of action, he will likely be staring at what he wants to take. This is called this “target glancing.”

Any time someone stares intently at some item (especially a valuable item) in your possession, assume that he is planning on stealing it. Immediately implement countermeasures to ensure that he won’t be able to proceed with the criminal activity he is planning. If you take immediate action, there is a good chance the criminal will become frustrated and move on to another victim.

“Looking Around” – Immediately prior to his attack, the criminal has to make sure that there is no one in the immediate area who can frustrate his plans. The criminal will take a quick look around to ensure there are no cops or security guards in the area. He may also be looking for cameras or escape routes. This indicator almost always occurs. If you are being approached by someone who displays a grooming cue and then looks left and right in a furtive manner, get ready. You are about to be attacked.

While we are discussing the direction that a criminal may look, I should also mention criminals often “check their tail.” They look behind themselves to see if anyone is following or watching. If you are observing someone and you notice frequent looks to the rear, you can safely assume that the person you are watching is a criminal, a cop, or a spy. You don’t want to have contact with any of those people.

Predatory Movement Patterns – Criminals targeting you will regularly move in a predictable fashion. Anyone attempting to correlate their movement with yours (following, paralleling, directly approaching in crowds) should be viewed as a danger. Running directly towards you is an obvious threat cue.

People who turn or look away when you notice them are worthy of your attention. A conspicuous lack of movement should also ping your radar. People who are sitting in parked cars without getting out should be watched suspiciously.

A sudden change in status (focusing of attention) – If someone is watching you then suddenly looks away, he is probably trying to hide his attention. Likewise if someone “locks in” on you with his eyes, you should be ready for a potential attack.

He regularly asks students to throw spears at him

January 28th, 2019

Anthropologists have long concluded that Neanderthals used their thick, heavy spears only at close range, because the academics could only throw those spears about 10 meters. What happens when athletes throw Neanderthal spears?

On a very cold January morning, in an athletic field in central England, Annemieke Milks watched as six javelin-throwers hurled a pair of wooden spears. Their target was a hay bale, “meant to approximate the kill zone of a large animal like a horse,” says Milks, an archeologist at University College London. And their spears were replicas of the oldest complete hunting weapons ever found — a set of 300,000-year-old, six-and-half-foot sticks found in a mine at Schöningen, Germany.

The athletes managed to throw their replicas over distances of 65 feet. That’s a far cry from modern javelin feats — the world record for men, set in 1996, is 323.1 feet. But it’s twice what many scientists thought that primitive spears were capable of. It suggests that, contrary to popular belief, early spear-makers — Neanderthals, or perhaps other ancient species like Homo heidelbergensis — could probably have hunted their prey from afar.

[...]

“The 10-meter distance was repeated over and over again, but not backed up with much evidence.” It came from an influential ethnographic review that considered the spear-throwing skills of many modern populations, but didn’t include adept groups like the Tasmanian and Tiwi peoples of Australia. And it was bolstered by studies and anecdotal reports in which spears were thrown by anthropologists—hardly a decent stand-in for a skilled Neanderthal hunter.

For example, John Shea, an archeologist at Stony Brook University tells me that he regularly takes his students into an athletic field and asks them to throw replica Schöningen spears at him. “If they hit me, I pledge to give them $20,” he says. “I’ve been doing this ‘experiment’ for 25 years and I’ve neither got so much as a scratch on me nor parted with any cash. The spears come sailing in so low and slow I can usually just step sideways out of the way, bat them away with a stick or, if I am feeling really cocky, catch them in mid-air.”

A German sport scientist and javelin-thrower named Hermann Rieder had more success: In a small study, he managed to hit targets from around 16 feet away and suggested that the spears were useful weapons at longer distances.

[...]

It’s sometimes said that heavy spears would slow mid-flight and hit their targets with dull thuds. But Milks found that the replicas slowed very little, and landed with a kinetic wallop comparable to projectiles launched by bows or spear-throwing tools.

But Steve Churchill, an anthropologist from Duke University, notes that the javelin-throwers only hit their target a quarter of the time, and less so at the furthest distances. He’s also unclear as to how many of those “hits” would have been strong enough to, say, penetrate an animal’s hide. In his own experience (and he freely admits that he’s not a trained thrower), Schöningen replicas wobble a lot and tend to strike targets at glancing angles. They might fly far, in other words, but do they fly true? “This is a very good study,” he says, but “I don’t see a lot here to convince me that the Schöningen spears were effective long range weapons.”

Milks counters that professional javelin-throwers go for distance, and aren’t trained to hit targets. Despite that, some of them clearly got the sense that the heavy spears behave unusually, vibrating along their axis and flexing on impact. The more experienced athletes compensated for this by putting spin on the spears. “That brought home how important it is to use skilled throwers,” Milks says. “What I really want to do now is to go to hunter-forager groups and have them show us these spears are capable of. They use spears from age 6, which is something I can’t replicate with javelin athletes.”

The one fierce volcano burst had satisfied the need of nature

January 28th, 2019

One of the best-named TV Tropes is the load-bearing boss — the big bad guy whose death causes his whole evil lair to collapse, for rather ambiguous reasons.

What I didn’t realize was that the original Dracula had just such an ending, but it was edited out:

As we looked there came a terrible convulsion of the earth so that we seemed to rock to and fro and fell to our knees. At the same moment with a roar which seemed to shake the very heavens the whole castle and the rock and even the hill on which it stood seemed to rise into the air and scatter in fragments while a mighty cloud of black and yellow smoke volume on volume in rolling grandeur was shot upwards with inconceivable rapidity.

Then there was a stillness in nature as the echoes of that thunderous report seemed to come as with the hollow boom of a thunder-clap – the long reverberating roll which seems as though the floors of heaven shook. Then down in a mighty ruin falling whence they rose came the fragments that had been tossed skywards in the cataclysm.

From where we stood it seemed as though the one fierce volcano burst had satisfied the need of nature and that the castle and the structure of the hill had sunk again into the void. We were so appalled with the suddenness and the grandeur that we forgot to think of ourselves.

This leaves no evidence of there ever having been a vampire.

Throw out your used books

January 27th, 2019

You should simply throw out your used books, Tyler Cowen argues, instead of gifting them:

If you donate the otherwise-thrashed book somewhere, someone might read it. OK, maybe that person will read one more book in life but more likely that book will substitute for that person reading some other book instead. Or substitute for watching a wonderful movie.

So you have to ask yourself — this book — is it better on average than what an attracted reader might otherwise spend time with? Even within any particular point of view most books simply aren’t that good, and furthermore many books end up being wrong. These books are traps for the unwary, and furthermore gifting the book puts some sentimental value on it, thereby increasing the chance that it is read. Gift very selectively! And ponder the margin.

You should be most likely to give book gifts to people whose reading taste you don’t respect very much. That said, sometimes a very bad book can be useful because it might appeal to “bad” readers and lure them away from even worse books. Please make all the appropriate calculations.