Elite Cosmopolitanism

Thursday, December 31st, 2015

It is normal for elites to be cosmopolitan, Anomaly UK notes, as he cites a tweet addressed to Donald Trump from one Anand Giridharadas:

I’m at a Muslim wedding in a Christian church in NYC, and everyone is dancing to salsa.

America already is great.

Elites in the past though did not impose their exotica on the common people:

George IV built the Royal Pavilion, but he did not import thousands of Indians from Madras to live in Brighton. Christian VII of Denmark commissioned translations of Persian histories, but did not expect his subjects to go to mosques.

Today’s elites, unlike those of any previous era, do not even see themselves as elite. They think that everyone is equal, that everybody else should be like them, and assume without hesitation that everyone else could be like them. That produces a disconnection with reality that could become the stuff of legend. The peasants have no bread? Let them eat cake! Flyover people don’t want Syrian refugees? Let them dance salsa with them! The apocryphal French princess was probably less out-of-touch.


The culture of the rural town or the inner city is not an elite culture and cannot be an elite culture, because it is not possible to drive those that do not fit out of it. In those bottom cultures, it is necessary to manage to live alongside those that the elite would exclude, and that involves a range of behaviours to avoid outsiders in ones activities and to reinforce one’s own status as an acceptable insider who should not be avoided in turn.

Comfort with Numbers

Thursday, December 31st, 2015

This summary of Superforecasting made one point that rang especially true to me:

The superforecasters rarely use sophisticated mathematical models to make their forecasts, but they are uniformly highly numerate. Comfort with numbers is a prerequisite for making good forecasts but fancy quantitative models are not.

Rocket Science

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015

Thomas of Protokol2020 shares some bits of rocket science:

  1. The most economic angle to launch a rocket from an airless planet is at 0 degrees elevation, direction to the east. The next time you’re returning from Moon, just go east young man!
  2. The most economical launching pad on Earth in the terms of rocket fuel is Chimborazo mountain, Ecuador.
  3. Fuel costs are not very significant in overall costs.
  4. A coal, wood or wax rocket could reach the orbit.  Even a rocket propelled by compressed air could. It would simply require a few more stages.
  5. The more g, the less fuel is needed to reach the orbit. A super cannon could launch cheaply, if there were no people and no delicate instruments on board and if there was no atmosphere. A Moon based horizontal cannon would be very good.
  6. An Earth based launching cannon could not be chemical, but electromagnetic for example. You can shoot a bullet from some special military guns from the Moon to the Earth. Not the other way around.
  7. An Earth based space cannon would require a heat shield all the way up through the atmosphere. Rockets don’t need that, since they start very slowly. For the same reason they are not very energy efficient.
  8. With the space lift the minimal energy needed to leave the planet is negative! You actually get a lot of energy by launching a kilogram of mass from the Earth’s surface. The space lift must be tall  enough, but still less than the Moon is high in the sky.
  9. As the Moon slowly moves away from Earth, both go away from the Sun! We are on a collision course with Jupiter. Jupiter is on a collision course with the Sun, but our collision is scheduled first.
  10. Our Solar system is very unusual. Too many gas giants and planet orbits that are too circular. But don’t worry, it’s normalizing slowly, becoming inhospitable.
  11. There might be some objects in space, leftovers from the nuclear detonations after WW2. Ulam’s doors (remains?) could be farther away than Voyagers and Pioneers.

(Hat tip to our Slovenian guest, who calls Thomas of Protokol2020 “the smartest Slovenian I know of” and “a skeptic par excellence“.)

The Crisis in Social Psychology

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015

Early in his career, social psychologist Lee Jussim faced a crisis:

An early mentor, Jacquelynne Eccles, handed him some large datasets gathered from school children and teachers in educational settings. He tried testing the social psychology theories he had studied, but consistently found that his data contradicted them.

Instead of finding that the teachers’ expectations influenced the students’ performances, he found that the students’ performances influenced the teachers’ expectations. This data “misbehaved”. It did not show that stereotypes created, or even had much influence on the real world. The data did not show that teachers’ expectations strongly limited students’ performances. It did not show that stereotypes became self-fulfilling prophecies. But instead of filing his results away into a desk drawer, Jussim kept investigating — for three more decades.

Some months after Jussim’s presentation at the 2015 Sydney Symposium, the results of the Reproducibility Project in psychology were announced. This project found that out of 100 psychological studies, only about 30–50% could be replicated.


When I went through University as a psychology undergraduate Jussim’s work was not on the curriculum. His studies were not to be found in my social psychology textbook. Nor was Jussim ever mentioned in the classroom. Yet the area of study Jussim has been a pioneer of — stereotype accuracy — is one of the most robust and replicable areas ever to emerge from the discipline.

To talk about stereotypes, one has to first define what they are. Stereotypes are simply beliefs about a group of people. They can be positive (children are playful) or they can be negative (bankers are selfish), or they can be somewhere in between (librarians are quiet). When stereotypes are defined as beliefs about groups of people (true or untrue), they correlate with real world criteria with effect sizes ranging from .4 to .9, with the average coming in somewhere around .8. (This is close to the highest effect size that a social science researcher can find, an effect size of 1.0 would mean that stereotypes correspond 100% to real world criteria. Many social psychological theories rest on studies which have effect sizes of around .2.)

Jussim and his co-authors have found that stereotypes accurately predict demographic criteria, academic achievement, personality and behaviour7. This picture becomes more complex, however, when considering nationality or political affiliation. One area of stereotyping which is consistently found to be inaccurate are the stereotypes concerning political affiliation; right-wingers and left wingers tend to caricature each others personalities, most often negatively so7.

Lest one thinks that these results paint a bleak picture of human nature, Jussim and his colleagues have also found that people tend to switch off some of their stereotypes — especially the descriptive ones — when they interact with individuals7. It appears that descriptive stereotypes are a crutch to lean on when we have no other information about a person. When we gain additional insights into people, these stereotypes are no longer useful. And there is now a body of evidence to suggest that stereotypes are not as fixed, unchangeable and inflexible as they’ve historically been portrayed to be8.

Whoever Controls Star Wars

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015

Myths, not facts, rule mankind, John C. Wright says, and whoever controls Star Wars controls the window into the imagination of an entire generation:

In the decade before STAR WARS, flicks were a drag. They were filled with gloom, doom, grit, and anxiety, the kind of fretful worry-wart frenzies about non-issues in which Leftwingers love in indulge. It was the time of SOYLENT GREEN and EASY RIDER. They were made when America was at an apex of wealth and liberty. Meanwhile, back in the 1940s, we had polio, the Dustbowl, and Pearl Harbor, three of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, namely Plague, Famine, and War, were riding the land. And folks made Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials that were fun escapism telling simple stories about larger-than-life good underdogs fighting larger-than-life evil overlords like Killer Kane or Ming the Merciless. And so we were inspired to storm Normandy Beach and topple the Evil Empire of the Soviets.

So George Lucas, liberal extraordinaire, misled by his sheer love of nostalgic film, and without the least notion of what he was doing, decide to remake FLASH ROGERS CONQUERS MARS, and make a pure schoolboy action-adventure film supercharged with the sheer love of escapist film for the sake of film, with some chop-socky samurai sword-fighting thrown in for good measure.

And he accidently brought the whole 1940s back into the soul of the filmgoing public with him, complete with all its conservative values, can-do Yankee optimism, and sassy dames.

The Farm boy is from Tantooine, but could be from Kansas, the lovable rogue could be a hot rodder from Route 66, or any number of other cowboys, rumrunners, or tough guys, and the Princess is a sassy but straight-shooting dame straight out of any number of 1940s adventure serials, comedies, or action flicks.

We have seen so many sassy heroines made directly in the mold of Leia that we tend to forget what decade she is from: she is more like Ginger Rogers or Virginia Mayo playing a gun moll or a girl reporter with moxie than she is like any 1970s actress. What she was not was an icon of feminism, or an ad for female equality with men: she was a princess, that is, she outranked all the male characters.

Leia spoke not just with sass, but with authority, and the script did not have, nor did it need, any embarrassingly unrealistic scenes of her wrestling apes or using wire-fu on hulking thugees twice her size. American gals from the 1940s did not need to wear men’s clothing and false moustaches and speak in a forced low pitched voice to be strong: they were strong and female, not weakminded females playacting at being strong men.

Above all, STAR WARS was pure Americana, as immediately part of our American cult and culture as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer or the Lone Ranger.

Long, Long ago was 1940. The Galaxy Far, Far Away was the USA.

STAR WARS was us.

The Rocket Builder’s Handbook of the Twenty-First Century

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015

Elon Musk and his SpaceX team threw out the Rocket Builder’s Handbook of the Twentieth Century and started from scratch with their own designs:

Instead of using a foundation of flight-tested but badly outdated designs, they designed a brand-new rocket, built using modern materials and techniques.

Instead of building high-performance rocket engines with exotic alloys to squeeze out every ounce of performance, they sacrificed some performance for a large reduction in cost.

Instead of building a larger, more powerful rocket engine for the booster stage, they designed it to use nine smaller ones.

Instead of using expensive radiation-hardened computers, they chose a low-cost design using three redundant computers built from ‘off the shelf’ components.

Instead of using flight computers in the uppermost stage alone, they used identical avionics in both stages to facilitate booster stage recovery.

Not only did using nine booster engines provide assurance that a launch would succeed even if an engine failed, it opened up options to recover the booster stages at some later date. By using virtually identical engines on both the booster and the second stage, they would also get more engine performance data per launch while reducing both cost and design complexity.

SpaceX also designed the booster stage of the Falcon 9 to have far more power than was required to launch the most common medium-weight payloads into space. This extra power provided the margin SpaceX needed to develop a recovery system without having to take a future hit on the vehicle’s payload capacity. Even as an expendable launch vehicle, the Falcon 9 is already one of the lowest-cost in its class, putting the company ahead of its competition even without reusability.

SpaceX Falcon 9 Launch Profile

The recovery system that SpaceX finally arrived at was nothing more complicated than fuel, landing legs, grid fins, and updated flight software. This system took advantage of the vehicle’s extra fuel capacity and lighter weight to create a reusable booster stage out of an expendable one. Reusability could then be achieved with minimal structural changes to the existing booster stage.

Phylogeny of Elves

Monday, December 28th, 2015

A recent phylogenetic study confirms what I’ve long contended:

This study reconstructs the evolutionary tree of elves using 26 life history, morphological, behavioral, and magical characters. Notably, we include Christmas elves, J.K. Rowling’s elves, and the elves of The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit. Our findings suggest that Christmas elves should not be classified as elves but are actually more closely related to dwarves.

Phylogeny of Elves Abstract

18th-Century Dentistry

Sunday, December 27th, 2015

Modern dentistry is mildly unpleasant, with a terrible reputation that goes back centuries:

Most of us will have had cavities at some point in our lives. Some of us are even old enough to have had them filled with amalgam: a mixture of mercury, silver, tin and copper. But in earlier periods, having a cavity filled was not an option. Once a tooth began to rot, one had little choice but to have it pulled, without anaesthetic.

Of course, the loss of a tooth could leave a person aesthetically challenged. The wealthy were increasingly unhappy to go around in public with missing teeth. In the 18th century, surgeons began experimenting with implants. Patients who could afford it might choose between “live” or “dead” teeth. With the former, the recipient would have his or her rotten tooth removed before a selection of donors, who would then have their own teeth extracted until one was found that was deemed acceptable in appearance. Afterwards, the tooth was inserted into the empty socket and fixed using a silver wire or silk ligatures.

Although desirable, having a “live” tooth implanted into one’s mouth was a costly endeavour. For the thrifty consumer, teeth extracted from the mouths of the dead proved cheaper. According to one body-snatcher: “It is the constant practice to take the teeth out first … because if the body be lost, the teeth are saved.” During the 19th century, a good set of teeth could fetch as much as five guineas, or roughly £400 today.

As time progressed, the prevalence of tooth decay increased as sugar and tobacco became more readily available, creating a market for dentures. Early versions were made of ivory or animal bone, and typically incorporated the teeth of executed criminals or exhumed bodies.

When George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States in 1789, he only had one remaining tooth left in his mouth. Dr John Greenwood — a dentist from New York, and a former soldier in the war of independence — fashioned a set of dentures from hippopotamus ivory, using gold wire springs and brass screws to hold together the human teeth he had procured. There was even a hole left for his one remaining tooth.

George Washington’s Lower Denture

Contraptions like this were cumbersome and painful to wear. But more so, these teeth were often plucked from the mouths of those who had died from syphilis, thus infecting their new owners when contaminated tissue came into contact with open wounds in the mouth.

What practitioners really needed was access to young, healthy teeth. That opportunity presented itself during the battle of Waterloo in 1815, which led to the deaths of 51,000 men. “Waterloo teeth”, as they were known, referred to any teeth stolen from the mouths of dead soldiers in the 19th century, and was a term employed during the Crimean and American civil wars. Body-snatchers followed armies into battle, and returned home with bagfuls of teeth that they sold to dentists and surgeons at inflated prices.

Class Differences in Child-Rearing

Saturday, December 26th, 2015

Across income groups, 92 percent of parents say they are doing a good job at raising their children, yet they are doing it quite differently:

Well-off families are ruled by calendars, with children enrolled in ballet, soccer and after-school programs, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. There are usually two parents, who spend a lot of time reading to children and worrying about their anxiety levels and hectic schedules.

In poor families, however, children tend to spend their time at home or with extended family, the survey found. They are more likely to grow up in neighborhoods that their parents say aren’t great for raising children, and their parents worry about them getting shot, beaten up or in trouble with the law.


Of families earning more than $75,000 a year, 84 percent say their children have participated in organized sports over the past year, 64 percent have done volunteer work and 62 percent have taken lessons in music, dance or art. Of families earning less than $30,000, 59 percent of children have done sports, 37 percent have volunteered and 41 percent have taken arts classes.

Especially in affluent families, children start young. Nearly half of high-earning, college-graduate parents enrolled their children in arts classes before they were 5, compared with one-fifth of low-income, less-educated parents.

Nonetheless, 20 percent of well-off parents say their children’s schedules are too hectic, compared with 8 percent of poorer parents.

Another example is reading aloud, which studies have shown gives children bigger vocabularies and better reading comprehension in school. Seventy-one percent of parents with a college degree say they do it every day, compared with 33 percent of those with a high school diploma or less, Pew found. White parents are more likely than others to read to their children daily, as are married parents.

Discipline techniques vary by education level: 8 percent of those with a postgraduate degree say they often spank their children, compared with 22 percent of those with a high school degree or less.

Those differences don’t seem extreme to me — and, of course, the article ignores any not-so-cultural differences between the groups.

Happy Wookiee Life Day!

Friday, December 25th, 2015

I’ve discussed Christmas a number of times over the years:

Life Extension Cost-Benefits

Thursday, December 24th, 2015

Gwern performs a life-extension cost-benefit of metformin, the diabetes drug that may have more general anti-aging properties, and finds that metformin use is probably “profitable” for a 30-year-old.

How Martin van Creveld’s Family Survived the Holocaust

Thursday, December 24th, 2015

Martin van Creveld tells the story of how his family survived the Holocaust:

Most of the interned Jews went docilely enough. No one like the Dutch in bowing to “de overheid” (the authorities) and following orders! Not so my family. My grandfather, fully expecting that the Germans would break their promise, prepared accordingly. When the day came, he, his wife, their children four daughters, one in-law, two future in-laws, and two nephews all managed to escape. My father, who had golden hands, used to work as a handyman in camp, simply put on his overalls, picked up his tools — my son Eldad still has his electric tester, which still works — and walked out. What nerve! But to this day he feels a little guilty about having left his fiancé, my mother to be, behind.

Valerian’s Influence on Star Wars

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015

Star Wars borrows heavily from many sources, including a French bande dessinée called Valerian et Laureline:

In Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy’s Greatest Science Fiction, contributor Matt Bielby details some of the designs and concepts in the Star Wars films that are similar to elements that first appeared in the French comic: “The slave-girl outfit that Laureline wore in a 1972 adventure appears to have inspired Princess Leia Organa’s costume in The Return of the Jedi (1983). Other elements of Star Wars that seem indebted to the French strip include the Millennium Falcon, Luke falling from Cloud City, Han in carbonite, Darth Vader’s scarred face and the concept of clone armies — indeed, on first seeing the George Lucas film, Mézières was said to have been ‘furious.’”

Laureline Slave-GirlValerian Villain Unmasking

Valerian Imprisoned

Valerian ClonesShingouz

You Need to Compare

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015

A recent debate revolved around ISIS, but ISIS is not the point, Spandrell reminds us:

The point is that you have a bunch of men in that room, and you’re supposed to make a judgment about them. You need to compare. And comparisons require a yardstick. What do we compare about them?

How tall and handsome they are? Well that works in some places. How well they dance or sing? That happens in many places too. How strong and brave they are in single combat? Lots of cultures did that too. But we don’t. We resent tall and handsome men are privileged enough in the sexual marketplace, so fuck that. Fuck dancers too, those get women also. And fuck single combat, the average voter isn’t a good fighter. We don’t want to give high status to tall, strong men with good dancing feet. That would make us feel inadequate. And with good reason, in Africa they give high status to all those men and it sucks.

Our culture gives high status to men with ideas. Everybody can claim to have good ideas. It doesn’t take good genes, nor dancing or fighting skills. Everybody can learn to parrot bullshit after a little practice. Bullshit is the most egalitarian arena, so all status contests are done in the realm of bullshit. Now bullshit requires a topic too. Remember in middle school, when a bunch of friends got together and stared asking: “What would you do if you were invisible?” Or “Batman or Spiderman?” What’s the point of those questions? Nobody’s gonna become invisible. But by asking stupid questions you get people to talk, and through their answers you get to know their character. The question doesn’t matter. The more outlandish the better. You can’t get to know people by asking them a factual question. It has to be bullshit.

And adults do the same thing. In the Cultural Revolution people liked to discuss materialist dialectics. The Republican party likes to talk National Security. Why? Did peasants in Jingzhou give a shit about Hegel? Of course not. Does anybody in the USA really care about Raqqa? No. So why won’t people shut up about it?

“You gotta talk about something!”. That’s what my mother tells me when I ask her why does she like discussing the news about stuff she absolutely has no clue about. And… that’s all there is to it. There’s a bunch of old dudes on TV, and you gotta choose one. Experience says they’re all lying their asses anyway. But you gotta choose one. And how do you choose one? You throw some bullshit topic at them and look at how they respond. Then you have something to make judgment about. How they talk. Tone of voice, body language. Logic. This guy sounds smart. Oh this guy’s a doofus. Hey this guys sounds like fun to have a beer with.

You then choose a guy who you like, or more accurately, you choose the guy because saying that you like that guy makes you look good with your friends. And you made that decision after seeing him speak about ISIS. What’s ISIS? I don’t know. Who gives a shit. I just kinda like the guy who said we should bomb them. So yeah, let’s bomb them. What, we just spent 2 trillion bombing some other guy? Who gives a shit, it’s not like I know the difference. They’re not gonna lower my taxes if I choose not to bomb someone, right? So anyway, yeah I like that bomb-ISIS guy.

Thing vs. Thing

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

A recent comment sent me down the Internet rabbit hole, where I soon found this:

Fantastic Four's Thing vs. John Carpenter's Thing