What Some Victorians Knew About the 21st Century

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Anomaly UK has, per orders, been reading Froude:

I read The Bow of Ulysses, and while he was obviously broadly accurate, at least in his more pessimistic outlook, I thought it was interesting that he had overestimated how bad democracy in the British West Indies would be.

A couple of days later, Kingston collapsed into civil war. Then I happened to notice that Jamaica had already had the highest murder rate in the world. It looks like this Victorian knew more about the twenty-first century than I do.

But that’s by the way. I went on to his Short Studies of Great Subjects. I’m less than a quarter through, and while I can’t point to any really new insights, I’ve suddenly found that I’m looking at a lot of things in a completely different way. The first result will be a piece on patriotism, which I’ll go onto next.

The Enemy Within

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

Mark Bowden (Black Hawk Down) examines the infamous Conficker worm — the enemy within — and notes just how much damage such malware could potentially cause:

Rodney Joffe heads the cabal that has been battling Conficker. He is a burly, garrulous South African–born American who serves as senior vice president and chief technologist for Neustar, a company that provides trunk-line service for competing cell-phone companies around the world. Joffe’s interest in stopping the worm did not stem just from his outrage and sense of justice. His concern for Neustar’s operation is professional, and illustrative.

The company runs a huge local-number-portability database. Almost every phone call in North America, before it’s completed, must ask Neustar where to go. Back in the old days, when the phone company was a monopoly, telecommunications were relatively simple. You could figure out where a phone call was going, right down to the building where the target phone would ring, just by looking at the number. Today we have competing telephone companies, and cell phones, and a person’s telephone number is no longer necessarily tied to a geographic location. In this more complex world, someone needs to keep track of every single phone number, and know where to route calls so they end up in the right place. Neustar performs this service for telephone calls, and is one of many registries that oversee high-level Internet domains. It is, in Joffe’s words, “the map.”

“If I disappear, there’s no map,” he says. “So if you take us down, whole countries can actually disappear from the grid. They’re connected, but no one can find their way there, because the map’s disappeared.”

A botnet like Conficker could theoretically be used to shut down Neustar’s system. So Joffe helped form the Conficker Cabal. He scoffed when he read in late 2009 that the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security planned to hire “a thousand” computer-security experts over the next three years. “There aren’t more than a few hundred people in the world who understand this stuff.”

An Ugly Secret to Global Poverty

Wednesday, May 26th, 2010

There’s an ugly secret to global poverty, Nicholas Kristof says:

It’s that if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.

In the Congolese village of Mont-Belo, Kristof met a bright fourth-grader, Jovali Obamza, about to be expelled from school because his family is three months behind in paying fees.

(In theory, public school is free in the Congo Republic. In fact, every single school we visited charges fees.)

We asked to see Jovali’s parents. The dad, Georges Obamza, who weaves straw stools that he sells for $1 each, is unmistakably very poor. He said that the family is eight months behind on its $6-a-month rent and is in danger of being evicted, with nowhere to go.

The Obamzas have no mosquito net, even though they have already lost two of their eight children to malaria. They say they just can’t afford the $6 cost of a net. Nor can they afford the $2.50-a-month tuition for each of their three school-age kids.

“It’s hard to get the money to send the kids to school,” Mr. Obamza explained, a bit embarrassed.

But Mr. Obamza and his wife, Valerie, do have cellphones and say they spend a combined $10 a month on call time.

In addition, Mr. Obamza goes drinking several times a week at a village bar, spending about $1 an evening on moonshine. By his calculation, that adds up to about $12 a month — almost as much as the family rent and school fees combined.

I asked Mr. Obamza why he prioritizes alcohol over educating his kids. He looked pained.

Other villagers said that Mr. Obamza drinks less than the average man in the village (women drink far less). Many other men drink every evening, they said, and also spend money on cigarettes.

“If possible, I drink every day,” Fulbert Mfouna, a 43-year-old whose children have also had to drop out or repeat grades for lack of school fees, said forthrightly. His eldest son, Jude, is still in first grade after repeating for five years because of nonpayment of fees. Meanwhile, Mr. Mfouna acknowledged spending $2 a day on alcohol and cigarettes.

Traditionally, a young man here might have paid his wife’s family a “bride price” of a pair of goats. Now the “bride price” starts with oversized jugs of wine and two bottles of whiskey.

Two M.I.T. economists, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, found that the world’s poor typically spend about 2 percent of their income educating their children, and often larger percentages on alcohol and tobacco: 4 percent in rural Papua New Guinea, 6 percent in Indonesia, 8 percent in Mexico. The indigent also spend significant sums on soft drinks, prostitution and extravagant festivals.

(Hat tip to Steve Sailer.)

Empires and Barbarians

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Razib Khan reviews Peter Heather’s new book, Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe, and goes on to emphasize certain points:

But just as there was no total replacement of Romans in northern Gaul, despite the non-trivial influx of Franks into that region, so the migration out of Central Europe did not leave the old Gothic or Vandal heartlands empty. In fact, the majority of those German tribes and clans which identified as Goth or Vandal may have remained in the heartlands. But critically the elites, and in particular the ruling houses and the free warriors and their families decamped. Roughly the top 10-20% of the population.

This is not so surprising. If you read Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America you observe the importance of “forward elements” in British migration to the United States. In Puritan New England there was a proactive attempt to discourage the emigration of the lower classes (as well as the blooded nobility), and a strong bias toward the “upper middle class” (the professions, the gentry, etc.). In the lowland South nobility of England often brought their own hierarchical social system along with them, including their customary retainers. It took some wherewithal to move en masse in an organized fashion.

But the author also points out that in the ancient world there was little motive for peasants to move, as there was little difference in quality of life from locale to locale. In a world where productivity gains were marginal and zero-sum economic psychology dominated, the motive existed for the rent-seeking elites to move onto greener pastures, not the productive peasantry who were the green pastures no matter where they were resident.

A class dimension to the Völkerwanderung is something that I think might be important, because I recall reading archaeologists noting how robust and tall the Lombards who entered Italy in the 6th and 7th centuries were on average. In the work I had read this was interpreted naturally as an ethnic difference, as the Germans were a larger folk than the local proto-Italians. But if there was this class bias in migration then the size difference has a more natural explanation: the malnourished majority of the German population never emigrated, rather, it was the hale and robust warrior elite who show up in post-Roman states.

But there’s a bigger issue here, and that’s the point that pre-modern elites viewed wealth through their own lenses as rentier thugs. In The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization Bryan Ward-Perkins emphasizes that the collapse of the Roman Empire did result in a social and economic regress. The data from Britain for example shows that air pollution because of industrial economic activity (broadly construed) did not reach the levels of the Roman period until the 18th century! In Empires and Barbarians the author also agrees that the Roman Empire was wealthier than the barbarian lands to their north and east, and in particular that the German dominated Jastrow and post-Jastrow societies practiced an extensive form of low productivity (per unit of land) agriculture which made their conquest economically a losing proposition for the Roman Empire. And naturally the relatively low per unit economic productivity of the German heartland resulted in fewer rents for its local elite.

And yet set against this we have the arguments in works such as A Farewell to Alms which assume as a default model that the median human in all societies from the emergence of humanity until 1800 was poor. Caught in the “Malthusian trap,” whereby gains in productivity were always swallowed up by population increase. This perspective gains some support from Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD. Before 1800 the differences in median wealth across regions is marginal, with the largest gaps being 50%, and 10-20% more typical. From our modern perspective everyone was caught in the Malthusian trap, on average, though some were marginally more well off than others.

But it isn’t the average difference which matters, it is the aggregate whereby you calculate total wealth in a political order. By that measure, even if the Roman peasant was no more well off (or even less well off!) than the average peasant on the Baltic, the high population density of the Roman political order was extremely beneficial to any rentier elite seeking to capture or extract surplus productivity from these teeming masses. In a pre-modern political order poverty may have been a permanent feature of the lives of most, but the configuration and implementation of subsistence and the distribution and flow of goods above subsistence were of the essence. It is much easier for men with swords to steal from densely settled agriculturalists than nomads or slash & burn cultivators.

The Roman peasant may not have been wealthier than the German peasant, but the Roman aristocrat of the 4th century lived a life of glamorous opulence in relation to the German warlord. Similarly, the Chinese peasant may not have been wealthier than the cultivators who lived beyond the frontier in 16th century Manchuria, but the Manchu dynasty fell into orders of magnitude more wealth after they toppled the Ming because they captured the much richer flow of rents.

The narrative of Empires and Barbarians is much denser than the above, and the analytical framework more sophisticated. But I think it is critical to emphasize why ancient barbarian elites were so keen on conquering civilized states, and why there seems to have been less mass migration of the peasantry. In the modern world when we think of differences between societies in regards to wealth, complexity or glory, we consider the median man on the street. This would tell us little for most of human history, rather, we would have to focus on the top 10% to truly get a sense of the difference, and in particular the top 1%. To a great extent civilization has been a racket which operates to the benefit of the tiny elite by making rent-seeking much more efficient.

John Emerson calls this a pretty general rule:

“Barbarian” areas are areas which are more expensive to conquer and control than the taxes collected on the area can pay for.

Trade is to culture as sex is to biology

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Matt Ridley explains why humans triumphed rather suddenly, about 45,000 years ago, well after developing big brains, tools, and culture — because they developed collective intelligence through trade:

The explosion of new technologies for hunting and gathering in western Asia around 45,000 years ago, often called the Upper Paleolithic Revolution, occurred in an area with an especially dense population of hunter-gatherers — with a bigger collective brain. Long before the ancestors of modern people first set foot outside Africa, there was cultural progress within Africa itself, but it had a strangely intermittent, ephemeral quality: There would be flowerings of new tool kits and new ways of life, which then faded again.

Recently at Pinnacle Point in South Africa, Curtis Marean of Arizona State University found evidence of seafood-eating people who made sophisticated “bladelet” stone tools, with small blades less than 10 millimeters wide, and who used ochre pigments to decorate themselves (implying symbolic behavior) as long as 164,000 years ago. They disappeared, but a similar complex culture re-emerged around 80,000 years ago at Blombos cave nearby. Adam Powell of University College, London, and his colleagues have recently modeled human populations and concluded that these flowerings are caused by transiently dense populations: “Variation in regional subpopulation density and/or migratory activity results in spatial structuring of cultural skill accumulation.”

The notion that exchange stimulated innovation by bringing together different ideas has a close parallel in biological evolution. The Darwinian process by which creatures change depends crucially on sexual reproduction, which brings together mutations from different lineages. Without sex, the best mutations defeat the second best, which then get lost to posterity. With sex, they come together and join the same team. So sex makes evolution a collective and cumulative process in which any individual can draw on the gene pool of the whole species. And when it comes to gene pools, the species with gene lakes generally do better than the ones with gene ponds — hence the vulnerability of island species to competition with continental ones.

It is precisely the same in cultural evolution. Trade is to culture as sex is to biology. Exchange makes cultural change collective and cumulative. It becomes possible to draw upon inventions made throughout society, not just in your neighborhood. The rate of cultural and economic progress depends on the rate at which ideas are having sex.

Dense populations don’t produce innovation in other species. They only do so in human beings, because only human beings indulge in regular exchange of different items among unrelated, unmated individuals and even among strangers. So here is the answer to the puzzle of human takeoff. It was caused by the invention of a collective brain itself made possible by the invention of exchange.

Once human beings started swapping things and thoughts, they stumbled upon divisions of labor, in which specialization led to mutually beneficial collective knowledge. Specialization is the means by which exchange encourages innovation: In getting better at making your product or delivering your service, you come up with new tools. The story of the human race has been a gradual spread of specialization and exchange ever since: Prosperity consists of getting more and more narrow in what you make and more and more diverse in what you buy. Self-sufficiency — subsistence — is poverty.

Edward Luttwak on Conversations With History

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Edward Luttwak appeared on Conversations With History a few years before his recent visit to promote The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.

He makes a number of points. He emphasizes that since liberal democracies won’t do what it takes to pacify an insurgency, they shouldn’t try to occupy foreign lands; they should disengage and rely on targeted strikes, if they resort to violence at all.

Also, our understanding of war is terribly distorted, he says, by the bias our experts bring to the subject. The academics studying international relations all come to the problem of conflict hating war — but plenty of people throughout history have been quite happy to go to war.

His opinions on the Middle East and China are perhaps more contrarian.

Woman offered £200 to be sterilised

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

A Glasgow woman, Deborah Wilson, says she was leaving her doctor’s office in the Possilpark area — which is well known for its drug-abusers — with her nine-year-old son, when three women approached her and  offered her £200 to be sterilised:

Ms Wilson said the women told her they were from Project Prevention, a US group which pays drug addicts to be voluntarily sterilised.

Police advised anyone approached in a similar way to contact them.

Ms Wilson, a mother-of-two, said she was shaken by the incident.

So, the police in an area known for rampant drug abuse want to be informed immediately of any solicitations to get sterilized? Seriously? What is the UK coming to?

Poverty and the Pill

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

Nicholas Kristof discusses Poverty and the Pill in Africa, where many women have never even heard of contraception:

Making contraception available to all these women worldwide would cost less than $4 billion, Guttmacher said in an important study published last year. That’s about what the United States is spending every two weeks on our military force in Afghanistan.

What’s more, each dollar spent on contraception would actually reduce total medical spending by $1.40 by reducing sums spent on unplanned births and abortions, the study said.

If contraception were broadly available in poor countries, the report said, more than 50 million unwanted pregnancies could be averted annually. One result would be 25 million fewer abortions per year. Another would be saving the lives of as many as 150,000 women who now die annually in childbirth.

Family planning has stalled since the 1980s. Republican administrations cut off all American financing for the United Nations Population Fund, the main international agency supporting family-planning programs. Paradoxically, conservative hostility to some family-planning programs almost certainly resulted in more abortions.

The Obama administration has restored that financing, and it should make a priority of broader access to contraception (and to girls’ education, which may be the most effective contraceptive of all).

In fairness, family planning is harder than it looks. Many impoverished men and women, especially those without education, want babies more than contraceptives. As Mitch and I drove through villages, we asked many women how many babies they would ideally have. Most said five or six, and a few said 10.

Parents want many children partly because they expect some to die. So mosquito nets, vaccinations and other steps to reduce child mortality also help to create an environment where family planning is more readily accepted.

(Hat tip to Steve Sailer.)

To Open Mind, Clean Hands

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

To open mind, clean hands:

After choosing between two alternatives, people perceive the chosen alternative as more attractive and the rejected alternative as less attractive. This postdecisional dissonance effect was eliminated by cleaning one’s hands. Going beyond prior purification effects in the moral domain, physical cleansing seems to more generally remove past concerns, resulting in a metaphorical “clean slate” effect.

Who would pay government salaries in a charter city?

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Who would pay government salaries in a charter city? Paul Romer answers:

One possible revenue source is the value of urban land. If the development authority initially owns the unoccupied land, it will capture huge gains as the city grows. The authority makes this land valuable by providing public goods, so it seems reasonable that it should use the gains in the value of the land to pay for those public goods. Hong Kong and Singapore use gains in the value of the land to finance government activity. Value can be captured by leasing land for private development, by selling it, or by putting very high tax rates on the gains in the value of privately owned land but excluding the value of the structures that sit on the land.

Although a land-value “tax” by the corporate “owner” of the land is what I had in mind, I don’t recall seeing Romer spell that out before. So, how would this work?

First, the charter city corporation would acquire a city-sized chunk of land. Then, as the clear owner, it would have the choice of selling or leasing the individual plots of that prospective city to real-estate developers — but it would do something that’s not quite selling and not quite leasing. It would sell the right to build on and use a plot, subject to a recurring “tax” of some percent of the land’s (unimproved) value — a bit like selling two-thirds of the equity in a piece of land and collecting one-third of the rent.

This leaves the charter city corporation with a clear incentive to increase the value of the land under its rule and the owners of the individual plots  a clear incentive to increase the value of their plots — because they’re not taxed on the value of any improvements, just on the average value of land in the city.

The Pinch

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Steve Sailer considers The Pinch, by U.K. Tory MP David Willetts, one of the best political books published recently in the English-speaking world — with one of the worst subtitles: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future — And Why They Should Give it Back:

By this point, American Baby Boomers have so endlessly (and insufferably) navel-gazed that it’s almost impossible to force yourself to read further once you reach the words “Baby Boomers” in a title.

The Pinch attempts to answer the question, What made possible the Anglo-American heritage of self-governing liberty under law?

We live in small families. We buy and sell houses.

Our parents expect us to leave home for paid work.

You try to save up some money from your wages so that you can afford to get married.

You can choose your spouse.

It takes a long time to build up some savings from your work and find the right person with whom to settle down, so marriage comes quite lately, possibly in your late twenties.

In the lands of extended families, the rules are quite different:

Helping relatives with contracts and jobs is not seen as corruption but as a moral obligation.

It means that voting is by clans: it is hard to have neutral contracts enforced by an independent judiciary when family obligations are so wide-ranging and so strong.

Extended families spread risks and rewards and thus serve as miniature welfare states. Small families need civil society more:

Instead of the mutual exchange of the extended family, small families must buy services. For example, insurance schemes, annuities, and savings help protect you when there is no wider family with such obligations.

And that’s how England developed capitalism without factories — which led to the more familiar capitalism with factories of the Industrial Revolution.

Chinese Writing Styles

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Smashing Magazine examines the writing systems and calligraphy of the world, starting with Chinese, which has many different written styles:

Seal script is the oldest style and continues to be widely practiced, although most people today cannot read it. It is considered an ancient script, generally not used outside of calligraphy or carved seals, hence the name.

In clerical script, characters are generally “flat” in appearance. They are wider than the seal script and the modern standard script, both of which tend to be taller than wider. Some versions of clerical are square, and others are wider. Compared to seal script, forms are strikingly rectilinear; but some curvature and influence from seal script remains.

The semi-cursive script approximates normal handwriting, in which strokes and (more rarely) characters are allowed to run into one another. In writing in the semi-cursive script, the brush leaves the paper less often than with the regular script. Characters appear less angular and rounder. The characters are also bolder.

The cursive script is a fully cursive script, with drastic simplifications and ligatures, requiring specialized knowledge to be read. Entire characters may be written without lifting the brush from the paper at all, and characters frequently flow into one another. Strokes are modified or eliminated completely to facilitate smooth writing and create a beautiful abstract appearance. Characters are highly rounded and soft in appearance, with a noticeable lack of angular lines.

The regular script is one of the last major calligraphic styles to develop from a neatly written early-period semi-cursive form of clerical script. As the name suggests, this script is “regular,” with each stroke written slowly and carefully, the brush being lifted from the paper and all strokes distinct from each other.

Amateurs Study Tactics

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Curzon cites an AP story that leads off with the claim that the US soldier’s M-4 carbine is no match for the old-fashioned bolt-action rifle of the Taliban sharpshooter — which is almost true.

My comment:

The word coming back from Afghanistan is that we should forget the fables about Afghan marksmen, because the current crop of Taliban can’t shoot straight. The “kids these days” prefer to “spray and pray” with automatic fire from AK-47s loaded with mixed and matched old ammo of dubious quality.

Certainly the Taliban can field some old-school snipers — and some machine-guns — so there’s a movement to take back the infantry half-kilometer by training and arming American soldiers more like the Marines, who qualify at longer ranges using the longer-barreled M16; by training and arming more designated marksmen; and by potentially moving away from 5.56 mm to 6.5 mm or 6.8 mm.

That brings us back to the question of why American soldiers shoot a glorified .22 in the first place. After WWII, Operations Research showed that soldiers with full-auto weapons were much more likely to fire their weapons at all, that enormous numbers of rounds were fired per actual casualty scored, and that most engagements were at short range — so a light round with low recoil and decent short-range performance made perfect sense.

As much as I enjoy discussing weapons, this really is a perfect example of amateurs studying tactics. Only a tiny fraction of US casualties are from fire-fights, and the counter-insurgency doesn’t revolve around combat either.

Powerful People Are Better Liars

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Powerful people are better liars — but which way does the causality run?

Dana Carney divided research subjects into two groups: bosses and employees. Bosses got larger offices and more power; they were asked, for instance, to assign employees’ salaries. Half of all subjects were instructed by a computer to steal a $100 bill. If they could convince an interviewer they hadn’t taken it, they could keep it. The other subjects were questioned as well. In the interviews, lying bosses displayed fewer involuntary signs of dishonesty and stress. On all measures, liars with power were hard to distinguish from subjects telling the truth.
We measured subjects on five variables that indicate lying — involuntary shoulder shrugs, accelerated speech, the level of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva, cognitive impairment, and emotional distress. Only the low-power liars could be “seen” as lying; the readings for the liars with power were essentially the same as those for truth tellers on all five variables. People with power lied more easily and effectively, which is troubling.

(Hat tip to Robin Hanson.)

Backyard gardens become income generators in lean times

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Backyard gardens become income generators in lean times:

Since the economy took a dive three years ago, [chef de cuisine Ken] Takayama and others say they’ve seen more and more people showing up unannounced at restaurants, local markets and small retailers, looking to sell what they’ve foraged or grown in their backyards.

No one keeps track of the number of people selling their homegrown bounty, but scores of ads have cropped up on Craigslist across the country, hawking local produce, home-filtered honey and backyard eggs.

One Los Angeles resident with a lemon tree posted an offering on Craigslist to let customers “save over 50% over Vons, Ralphs, etc. $1.00/pound.” At the Orange County Swap Meet, officials said the number of people selling home-canned beans and other homemade edibles grew to 30 vendors this month, up from eight vendors in early 2007.

In the South, hunters are selling venison and wild boar meat. In the Midwest, people are combing the forests for morel mushrooms, which can fetch $10 to $40 a pound.

Tacey Perkins decided her best customers may be the neighbors around her Riverside County home. Last fall, the mother of two and former real estate agent posted a sign on her front lawn in Mira Loma advertising home-grown pumpkins. She sold $100 worth.