National Firearms Act

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016

Alan Berlow, writing in the New York Times, asserts that the National Firearms Act “stands as a stark rebuke to the most sacred precepts of the gun lobby and provides a model we should build on.”

According to A.T.F. analysis, among N.F.A. weapon owners there were only 12 felony convictions between 2006 and 2014, and those crimes did not involve an N.F.A. weapon. If that conviction rate were applied to the owners of the other privately owned firearms in the United States, gun crime would virtually disappear.

You see, he has causality laughably reversed.

The National Firearms Act was passed in 1934, in response to the gangland violence of the (recently ended) Prohibition era. It required NFA firearms to be registered and taxed — at the then-prohibitive rate of $200 per firearm (roughly $3500 in today’s dollars).

Which firearms were to be NFA firearms? Machine guns and all guns small enough to be concealed. Conventional semi-auto pistols and revolvers were ultimately excluded from the act before it passed, but short-barreled rifles and shotguns were not.

Also, “silencers” or sound suppressors are considered NFA firearms — even though they are not firearms and are almost unregulated in other countries that regulate firearms quite tightly.

So, the well-to-do, law-abiding citizens willing to go through the bureaucratic process to legally own a suppressor are — surprise! — not felons and don’t commit violent crimes with their firearms.

The Gorilla Incident

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016

Reason shares an eyewitness’s firsthand account of the gorilla incident (lifted from Facebook):

My family and I decided to go to the zoo yesterday after visiting my niece at Cincinnati Children’s hospital. For those of you that have already heard, there was a terrible accident there yesterday. And since every news media has covered this story, I don’t feel bad telling our side. This was an accident! A terrible accident, but just that!

My husband’s voice is the voice talking to the child in one of the videos. I was taking a pic of the female gorilla, when my eldest son yells, “what is he doing? ” I looked down, and to my surprise, there was a small child that had apparently, literally “flopped” over the railing, where there was then about 3 feet of ground that the child quickly crawled through!

I assumed the woman next to me was the mother, getting ready to grab him until she says, “Whose kid is this? ” None of us actually thought he’d go over the nearly 15 foot drop, but he was crawling so fast through the bushes before myself or husband could grab him, he went over!

The crowed got a little frantic and the mother was calling for her son. Actually, just prior to him going over, but she couldn’t see him crawling through the bushes! She said “He was right here! I took a pic and his hand was in my back pocket and then gone!” As she could find him nowhere, she lookes to my husband (already over the railing talking to the child) and asks, “Sir, is he wearing green shorts? ” My husband reluctantly had to tell her yes, when she then nearly had a break down!

They are both wanting to go over into the 15 foot drop, when I forbade my husband to do so, and attempted to calm the mother by calling 911 and assure her help was on the way. Neither my husband or the mother would have made that jump without breaking something! I wasn’t leaving with my boys, because I didn’t trust my husband not to jump in and the gorilla did just seem to be protective of the child.

It wasn’t until the gorilla became agitated because of the nosey, dramatic, helpless crowd; that the gorilla violently ran with the child! And it was very violent; although I think the gorilla was still trying to protect, we’re taking a 400 lb gorilla throwing a 40 lb toddler around! It was horrific!

The zoo responded very quickly, clearing the area and attempting to save both the child and the gorilla! The right choice was made. Thank God the child survived with non-life threatening, but serious injuries!

This was an open exhibit! Which means the only thing separating you from the gorillas, is a 15 ish foot drop and a moat and some bushes! This mother was not negligent and the zoo did an awesome job handling the situation! Especially since that had never happened before! Thankful for the zoo and their attempts and my thoughts and prayers goes out to this boy, his mother and his family.

Dwayne “The Doc” Johnson

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson just announced that he will be playing Doc Savage:

For all comic book fans you already know the world’s first superhero (pre-dating Superman) is the “Man of Bronze” himself Clark “Doc” Savage.

Want to thank my bud director/writer Shane Black and his writing team Anthony Bagarozzi and Chuck Mondry for flying in from LA and sitting with me and our @sevenbucksprod’s producer @hhgarcia41 on this Memorial Day weekend to chop up creative and break story on this very cool project.

Comic book fans around the world know that the cool thing about “Doc” Savage is that he’s the inspiration for Superman. First name Clark, called “Man of Bronze”, retreats to his “Fortress of Solitude” in the Arctic etc etc.

Doc was physically and mentally trained from birth by his father and a team of scientists to become the perfect human specimen with a genius level intellect. His heightened senses are beyond comprehension. He can even identify a women’s perfume from half a mile away. He is literally the master of everything.

But here’s the #1 reason I’m excited to become Doc Savage.. HE’S A F*CKING HILARIOUS WEIRDO!

Confidently, yet innocently he has zero social graces whatsoever due to his upbringing so every interaction he has with someone is direct, odd, often uncomfortable and amazingly hilarious.

After speaking for hours w/ Shane Black I can see why the creator of Superman took only the best parts of Doc Savage and leaving the “weirdo” part behind. But to us, it’s that “weirdo” part that makes Clark “Doc” Savage dope! Can’t wait to sink my teeth into this one of a kind character.

The Rock doesn’t actually resemble the classic 1930s cover art depicting the character:

Doc Savage 1933

But he does resemble the 1970s cover art by James Bama (of Steve Holland):

Doc Savage 1970s

The character went on to inspire Superman but was itself inspired by The Savage Gentleman.

Sebastian Junger’s Take on PTSD

Monday, May 30th, 2016

Sebastian Junger (@sebastianjunger) recently spoke with Tim Ferriss (@tferriss) about his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. This Wall Street Journal piece covers much the same ground:

Tracking back to the theme of “Tribe,” he said, “I asked a buddy of mine, a soldier, ‘Would you rather have another good friend or an enemy?’ He looked at me like I was crazy. ‘An enemy, of course. I’ve got plenty of friends. An enemy brings out the best of you.’”

Social problems decline, Mr. Junger explained, when community cohesion rises. “[After] 9/11 the suicide rate went down,” he said. “The violent-crime rate went down.” PTSD symptoms among patients in Department of Veterans Affairs facilities subsided.

In his book, Mr. Junger marshals history, psychology, anthropology and statistics to make his case. He suggests that in countries with a strong sense of community, such as Israel, incidence of PTSD is low even though that nation exists in a state of near-constant conflict.

At least in part because most Israelis do military service. “Those who come back from combat are reintegrated into a society where their experiences are very well understood,” said Mr. Junger, quoting Dr. Arieh Shalev, an expert on PTSD and formerly chief psychiatrist for the Israel Defense Forces Medical Corps.

He sounds like a distant cousin of Ernst Jünger (Storm of Steel).

Harvard’s Eugenics Era

Monday, May 30th, 2016

Adam Cohen looks back in horror at Harvard’s eugenics era:

Eugenics emerged in England in the late 1800s, when Francis Galton, a half cousin of Charles Darwin, began studying the families of some of history’s greatest thinkers and concluded that genius was hereditary. Galton invented a new word — combining the Greek for “good” and “genes” — and launched a movement calling for society to take affirmative steps to promote “the more suitable races or strains of blood.” Echoing his famous half cousin’s work on evolution, Galton declared that “what Nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly.”

Eugenics soon made its way across the Atlantic, reinforced by the discoveries of Gregor Mendel and the new science of genetics. In the United States, it found some of its earliest support among the same group that Harvard had: the wealthy old families of Boston. The Boston Brahmins were strong believers in the power of their own bloodlines, and it was an easy leap for many of them to believe that society should work to make the nation’s gene pool as exalted as their own.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. — A.B. 1829, M.D. ’36, LL.D. ’80, dean of Harvard Medical School, acclaimed writer, and father of the future Supreme Court justice — was one of the first American intellectuals to espouse eugenics. Holmes, whose ancestors had been at Harvard since John Oliver entered with the class of 1680, had been writing about human breeding even before Galton. He had coined the phrase “Boston Brahmin” in an 1861 book in which he described his social class as a physical and mental elite, identifiable by its noble “physiognomy” and “aptitude for learning,” which he insisted were “congenital and hereditary.”

Holmes believed eugenic principles could be used to address the nation’s social problems. In an 1875 article in The Atlantic Monthly, he gave Galton an early embrace, and argued that his ideas could help to explain the roots of criminal behavior. “If genius and talent are inherited, as Mr. Galton has so conclusively shown,” Holmes wrote, “why should not deep-rooted moral defects…show themselves…in the descendants of moral monsters?”

As eugenics grew in popularity, it took hold at the highest levels of Harvard. A. Lawrence Lowell, who served as president from 1909 to 1933, was an active supporter. Lowell, who worked to impose a quota on Jewish students and to keep black students from living in the Yard, was particularly concerned about immigration — and he joined the eugenicists in calling for sharp limits. “The need for homogeneity in a democracy,” he insisted, justified laws “resisting the influx of great numbers of a greatly different race.”

Lowell also supported eugenics research. When the Eugenics Record Office, the nation’s leading eugenics research and propaganda organization, asked for access to Harvard records to study the physical and intellectual attributes of alumni fathers and sons, he readily agreed. Lowell had a strong personal interest in eugenics research, his secretary noted in response to the request.

The Harvard faculty contained some of nation’s most influential eugenics thinkers, in an array of academic disciplines. Frank W. Taussig, whose 1911 Principles of Economics was one of the most widely adopted economics textbooks of its time, called for sterilizing unworthy individuals, with a particular focus on the lower classes. “The human race could be immensely improved in quality, and its capacity for happy living immensely increased, if those of poor physical and mental endowment were prevented from multiplying,” he wrote. “Certain types of criminals and paupers breed only their kind, and society has a right and a duty to protect its members from the repeated burden of maintaining and guarding such parasites.”

Harvard’s geneticists gave important support to Galton’s fledgling would-be science. Botanist Edward M. East, who taught at Harvard’s Bussey Institution, propounded a particularly racial version of eugenics. In his 1919 book Inbreeding and Outbreeding: Their Genetic and Sociological Significance, East warned that race mixing would diminish the white race, writing: “Races have arisen which are as distinct in mental capacity as in physical traits.” The simple fact, he said, was that “the negro is inferior to the white.”

East also sounded a biological alarm about the Jews, Italians, Asians, and other foreigners who were arriving in large numbers. “The early settlers came from stock which had made notable contributions to civilization,” he asserted, whereas the new immigrants were coming “in increasing numbers from peoples who have impressed modern civilization but lightly.” There was a distinct possibility, he warned, that a “considerable part of these people are genetically undesirable.”

In his 1923 book, Mankind at the Crossroads, East’s pleas became more emphatic. The nation, he said, was being overrun by the feebleminded, who were reproducing more rapidly than the general population. “And we expect to restore the balance by expecting the latter to compete with them in the size of their families?” East wrote. “No! Eugenics is sorely needed; social progress without it is unthinkable….”

East’s Bussey Institution colleague William Ernest Castle taught a course on “Genetics and Eugenics,” one of a number of eugenics courses across the University. He also published a leading textbook by the same name that shaped the views of a generation of students nationwide. Genetics and Eugenics not only identified its author as “Professor of Zoology in Harvard University,” but was published by Harvard University Press and bore the “Veritas” seal on its title page, lending the appearance of an imprimatur to his strongly stated views.

In Genetics and Eugenics, Castle explained that race mixing, whether in animals or humans, produced inferior offspring. He believed there were superior and inferior races, and that “racial crossing” benefited neither. “From the viewpoint of a superior race there is nothing to be gained by crossing with an inferior race,” he wrote. “From the viewpoint of the inferior race also the cross is undesirable if the two races live side by side, because each race will despise individuals of mixed race and this will lead to endless friction.”

Castle also propounded the eugenicists’ argument that crime, prostitution, and “pauperism” were largely due to “feeblemindedness,” which he said was inherited. He urged that the unfortunate individuals so afflicted be sterilized or, in the case of women, “segregated” in institutions during their reproductive years to prevent them from having children.


Davenport wrote prolifically. Heredity in Relation to Eugenics, published in 1911,quickly became the standard text for the eugenics courses cropping up at colleges and universities nationwide, and was cited by more than one-third of high-school biology textbooks of the era. Davenport explained that qualities like criminality and laziness were genetically determined. “When both parents are shiftless in some degree,” he wrote, only about 15 percent of their children would be “industrious.”

But perhaps no Harvard eugenicist had more impact on the public consciousness than Lothrop Stoddard, A.B. 1905, Ph.D. ’14. His bluntly titled 1920 bestseller, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy, had 14 printings in its first three years, drew lavish praise from President Warren G. Harding, and made a mildly disguised appearance in The Great Gatsby, when Daisy Buchanan’s husband, Tom, exclaimed that “civilization’s going to pieces” — something he’d learned by reading “‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard.”

Computers — Threat or menace?

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

“Ready or not, computers are coming to the people,” Stewart Brand wrote in 1972, in Rolling Stone — which explains the context for what comes next:

That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics. It’s way off the track of the “Computers — Threat or menace?” school of liberal criticism but surprisingly in line with the romantic fantasies of the forefathers of the science such as Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, J.C.R. Licklider, John von Neumann and Vannevar Bush.

The trend owes its health to an odd array of influences: The youthful fervor and firm dis-Establishmentarianism of the freaks who design computer science; an astonishingly enlightened research program from the very top of the Defense Department; an unexpected market-Banking movement by the manufacturers of small calculating machines, and an irrepressible midnight phenomenon known as Spacewar.

Reliably, at any nighttime moment (i.e. non-business hours) in North America hundreds of computer technicians are effectively out of their bodies, locked in life-or-death space combat computer-projected onto cathode ray tube display screens, for hours at a time, ruining their eyes, numbing their fingers in frenzied mashing of control buttons, joyously slaying their friend and wasting their employers’ valuable computer time. Something basic is going on.

Rudimentary Spacewar consists of two humans, two sets of control buttons or joysticks, one TV-like display and one computer. Two spaceships are displayed in motion on the screen, controllable for thrust, yaw, pitch and the firing of torpedoes. Whenever a spaceship and torpedo meet, they disappear in an attractive explosion. That’s the original version invented in 1962 at MIT by Steve Russell. (More on him in a moment.)


The setting and decor at AI is Modern Mad Scientist – long hallways and cubicles and large windowless rooms, brutal fluoresccnt light, enormous machines humming and clattering, robots on wheels, scurrying arcane technicians. And, also, posters and announcements against the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon, computer print-out photos of girlfriends, a hallway-long banner SOLVING TODAY’S PROBLEMS TOMORROW and signs on every door in Tolkien’s elvish Fëanorian script – the director’s office is Imladris, the coffee room The Prancing Pony, the computer room Mordor. There’s a lot of hair on those technicians, and nobody seems to be telling them where to scurry.


I’m guessing that Alan Kay at Xerox Research Center (more on them shortly) has a line on it, defining the standard Computer Bum: “About as straight as you’d expect hotrodders to look. It’s that kind of fanaticism. A true hacker is not a group person. He’s a person who loves to stay up all night, he and the machine in a love-hate relationship… They’re kids who tended to be brilliant but not very interested in conventional goals. And computing is just a fabulous place for that, because it’s a place where you don’t have to be a Ph.D. or anything else. It’s a place where you can still be an artisan. People are willing to pay you if you’re any good at all, and you have plenty of time for screwing around.”

The hackers are the technicians of this science — “It’s a term of derision and also the ultimate compliment.” They are the ones who translate human demands into code that the machines can understand and act on. They are legion. Fanatics with a potent new toy. A mobile new-found elite, with its own apparat, language and character, its own legends and humor. Those magnificent men with their flying machines, scouting a leading edge of technology which has an odd softness to it; outlaw country, where rules are not decree or routine so much as the starker demands of what’s possible.

A young science travels where the young take it. The wiser computer research directors have learned that not trusting their young programmers with major responsibility can lead immediately to no research. AI is one of perhaps several dozen computer research centers that are flourishing with their young, some of them with no more formal education than they got at the local Free School. I’m talking to Les Earnest, the gent who went for beer. He’s tall, swarthy, has a black and white striped beard, looks like a Sufi athlete. He’s telling me about what else people build here besides refinements of Spacewar. There’s a speech recognition project. There’s the hand-eye project, in which the computer is learning to see and visually correct its robot functions. There’s work on symbolic computation and grammatical inference. Work with autistic children, ‘trying to get them to relate to computers first, and then later to people. This seems to be successful in part because many of these children think of themselves as machines. You can encourage them to interact in a game with the machine.”

I’ve written about that piece before, but it came up again because Rolling Stone itself is revisiting it:

Brand had something of a knack for staging epochal cultural happenings. In 1966, he co-produced the infamous Trips Festival with Ken Kesey. Thousands of hippies attended this three day event in San Francisco to listen to psychedelic rock and drink punch dosed with LSD.


Brand was equally tuned in to the technological revolution that was rocking the Bay Area at the time. “I discovered that drugs were less interesting than computers as a way to expand your consciousness,” he says.

In 1968, Brand helped the inventor Doug Engelbart orchestrate a presentation at a computer conference that has come to be known as The Mother of All Demos. Engelbart demonstrated video conferencing, the computer mouse, email, hypertext, word processing and a windows-based organizational structure. Basically, he predicted most of the elements of the modern personal computer and the modern workplace.

The Color of Crime

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

Edwin S. Rubenstein describes the color of crime:

The evidence suggests that if there is police racial bias in arrests it is negligible. Victim and witness surveys show that police arrest violent criminals in close proportion to the rates at which criminals of different races commit violent crimes.

There are dramatic race differences in crime rates. Asians have the lowest rates, followed by whites, and then Hispanics. Blacks have notably high crime rates. This pattern holds true for virtually all crime categories and for virtually all age groups.

In 2013, a black was six times more likely than a non-black to commit murder, and 12 times more likely to murder someone of another race than to be murdered by someone of another race.

In 2013, of the approximately 660,000 crimes of interracial violence that involved blacks and whites, blacks were the perpetrators 85 percent of the time. This meant a black person was 27 times more likely to attack a white person than vice versa. A Hispanic was eight times more likely to attack a white person than vice versa.

In 2014 in New York City, a black was 31 times more likely than a white to be arrested for murder, and a Hispanic was 12.4 times more likely. For the crime of “shooting” — defined as firing a bullet that hits someone — a black was 98.4 times more likely than a white to be arrested, and a Hispanic was 23.6 times more likely.

If New York City were all white, the murder rate would drop by 91 percent, the robbery rate by 81 percent, and the shootings rate by 97 percent.

In an all-white Chicago, murder would decline 90 percent, rape by 81 percent, and robbery by 90 percent.

In 2015, a black person was 2.45 times more likely than a white person to be shot and killed by the police. A Hispanic person was 1.21 times more likely. These figures are well within what would be expected given race differences in crime rates and likelihood to resist arrest.

In 2015, police killings of blacks accounted for approximately 4 percent of homicides of blacks. Police killings of unarmed blacks accounted for approximately 0.6 percent of homicides of blacks. The overwhelming majority of black homicide victims (93 percent from 1980 to 2008) were killed by blacks.

Actions Have Consequences

Saturday, May 28th, 2016

I was only vaguely aware of Gawker when Peter Thiel taught them that actions have consequences, but I nonetheless enjoyed Ryan Holiday’s “hot take”:

Every time I write a piece about Gawker—and I’ve written a few—I pause before I hit publish. Once I take a second to check what skeletons are in my closet, that my personal life is in order and that my facts and figures are straight, I ask myself one last time: Am I sure I really want to do this? If there’s time, I say a quick prayer too.

This is what one does when they decide to cross a powerful person or entity, especially if they’ve been attacked before. As someone who has felt the vindictive wrath of Gawker—had my emails hacked and leaked, been called a “known fraud” in a Valleywag headline—I can tell you it’s not an easy decision to call out someone whose resources are inversely proportional to their scruples.

Usually, I proceed, but I do it fully aware of what I might be in for.

What is even more interesting to me—and something that seems to get lost every time the Gawker hydra rears up from its new Lernaean lair in the Flatiron District—is that this same calculus is necessary regardless of who you choose to speak out or go up against: You gotta be sure you’re ready for what might happen because actions have consequences.

Although most people I talk to file this little piece of wisdom under “common sense” and consider it a fundamental fact of life, the folks at Gawker never seem to have considered it. Like your typical bully, they got very used to other people being afraid of their power but never bothered to respect the power and influence of anyone else. Which is why they’ve come to find themselves staring down the barrel of a $140 million court judgment they can’t pay and millions more spent on legal fees.

Gawker pissed off the wrong guy.

After needlessly outing and maliciously antagonizing the billionaire Peter Thiel in 2007, Gawker made an enemy whose patience and dedication to responding tit for tat rivals the Count of Monte Cristo. Mr. Thiel made it his mission not to get mad or get even—but to drive Gawker out of business by funding lawsuits on behalf of victims who had had their privacy even more egregiously violated than his. He calls it one of the most “philanthropic” things he’s ever done. And I wouldn’t disagree. What better way to give back to the body politic than fight to remove a pernicious cultural cancer?

And now he’s won. Not just won but won on such a Greek scale that the only thing missing is a Thyestean Feast where Gawker writers are fed the flesh of their own family. (I would love to see Mr. Thiel do his version of a much deserved Cartman impression here.) But instead of appreciating the poetry of this comeuppance, the same media pundits who decried Gawker’s cruel publication of the surreptitiously recorded Hulk Hogan sex tape, the people who have criticized Gawker’s awful outings of other gay figures and its unending snark and avarice are suddenly pulling back.

It’s alarming that a billionaire would attack a media outlet like this, they say. Using the legal system to settle scores will have a chilling effect on all free speech.

This is nonsense.

The Munger Operating System

Saturday, May 28th, 2016

In 2007, Charlie Munger gave the commencement address at USC Law School and effectively spelled out the Munger Operating System:

  • To get what you want, deserve what you want. Trust, success, and admiration are earned.
  • Learn to love and admire the right people, live or dead.
  • Acquiring wisdom is a moral duty as well as a practical one.
  • Learn to fluency the big multidisciplinary ideas of the world and use them regularly.
  • Learn to think through problems backwards as well as forward.
  • Be reliable. Unreliability can cancel out the other virtues.
  • Avoid intense ideologies. Always consider the other side as carefully as your own.
  • Get rid of self-serving bias, envy, resentment, and self-pity.
  • At the same time, allow for the self-serving bias in others who haven’t removed it.
  • Avoid being part of a system with perverse incentives.
  • Work with and under people you admire, and avoid the inverse when at all possible.
  • Learn to maintain your objectivity, especially when it’s hardest.
  • Concentrate experience and power into the hands of the right people – the wise learning machines.
  • You’ll be most successful where you’re most intensely interested.
  • Learn the all-important concept of assiduity: Sit down and do it until it’s done.
  • Use setbacks in life as an opportunity to become a bigger and better person. Don’t wallow.
  • The highest reach of civilization is a seamless system of trust among all parties concerned.

Crowdfund the Truth

Friday, May 27th, 2016

Pax Dickinson (@paxdickinson) recently announced his new information marketplace, Wesearchr (@wesearchr), which promises to crowdfund the truth.

Nick Land declares it huge:

It’s what media following the grain of the Internet looks like (if only as a preliminary glimpse).


The conception alone crosses an honesty threshold. There is no longer any need for meta-lies about the essential character of contemporary journalism (as a political apparatus screened by an increasingly-ludicrous pretense to disinterested ‘news’ curation). All research is interested, and its incentives are now openly formalized. The result is a germinal assassination market for hidden things. It targets enemy secrets. The information warfare that media have always been ceases to be promoted as anything else.

For the first time in over a century, it is now possible to envisage journalists making an honest living (by fulfilling private research contracts). This type of transition only goes in one direction. A piece of the future just came into view.

Successful Charter Schools

Friday, May 27th, 2016

Scott Alexander summarizes recent research findings on charter schools:

Successful charter schools seem to do much better than public schools in educating the most disadvantaged minority children, but critics have scoffed that they must either be selectively admitting the best students or just “teaching to the test”. But one new study finds charter school success cannot be explained by selective admission, and a second finds commensurate success on non-test-related outcomes, including lower teenage pregnancy and lower incarceration rates for charter school students. Educational establishment vows to respond to findings by improving their own performance calling charter schooling racist a lot.


Thursday, May 26th, 2016

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

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

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

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

Barely any trace of these walls exist today.

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

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

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


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

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

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

Basketball Genes

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

According to a Wall Street Journal analysis, almost half of NBA players are related to elite athletes — defined as anyone who has played a sport professionally, in the NCAA, or at national-team level:

While other leagues feature notable dynasties — the Manning’s of the NFL or the Griffey’s in baseball — only about 17.5% of NFL players and 14.5% of MLB players are related to other elite athletes, based on a similar study.

The connectedness in the NBA likely comes down to the importance of height in elite basketball. The average NBA player is about 6-feet, 6-inches tall, which is 11 inches taller than the average American male, according to Census data.

Slavery Abolition Act 1833

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 ended slavery within the British Empire — well, most of the empire — a few decades before the American Civil War ended slavery there. It was expensive, but not as expensive as a civil war:

In practical terms, only slaves below the age of six were freed in the colonies. Former slaves over the age of six were redesignated as “apprentices”, and their servitude was abolished in two stages: the first set of apprenticeships came to an end on 1 August 1838, while the final apprenticeships were scheduled to cease on 1 August 1840. The Act specifically excluded “the Territories in the Possession of the East India Company, or to the Island of Ceylon, or to the Island of Saint Helena”; the exceptions were eliminated in 1843.

The Act provided for compensation for slave-owners who would be losing their property. The amount of money to be spent on the compensation claims was set at “the Sum of Twenty Millions Pounds Sterling”. Under the terms of the Act, the British government raised £20 million (£69.93 billion in 2013 pounds) to pay out in compensation for the loss of the slaves as business assets to the registered owners of the freed slaves. The names listed in the returns for slave compensation show that ownership was spread over many hundreds of British families, many of them of high social standing. For example, Henry Phillpotts (then the Bishop of Exeter), with three others (as trustees and executors of the will of John Ward, 1st Earl of Dudley), was paid £12,700 for 665 slaves in the West Indies, whilst Henry Lascelles, 2nd Earl of Harewood received £26,309 for 2,554 slaves on 6 plantations. The majority of men and women who were awarded compensation under the 1833 Abolition Act are listed in a Parliamentary Return, entitled Slavery Abolition Act, which is an account of all moneys awarded by the Commissioners of Slave Compensation in the Parliamentary Papers 1837–8 Vol. 48.

In all, the government paid out over 2 separate awards. The £20 million fund was 40% of the government’s total annual expenditure. In the Cape Colony, where farmers had loans estimated at a total £400,000 (£1.4 billion in 2013 pounds)[14] secured against their slaves, the Dutch-language newspaper De Zuid-Afrikaan first campaigned against abolition and then for a compensation package to enable farmers to pay their debts.

(Hat tip to Scott Alexander.)

Inference With The Vampire

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016

Imagine a cravat-wearing vampire Count who is one thousand years old:

The vampire is incredibly knowledgeable about humans. He gets his knowledge about humans from centuries of experience interacting with them and observing them. Modern humans get their knowledge of humans from their limited experience, from the social sciences of psychology and sociology. The vampire’s knowledge of humans is far superior to our social science. He knows us better than we know ourselves.

Who do you think will make more accurate predictions about humans: a 25-year-old sociology/psychology graduate student who has read a ton of studies, or a thousand-year-old vampire? If you agree with me that the vampire would eat the graduate student alive, then we can conclude that sufficient experience with people can overpower social science.

When the Count turns 1000, a study comes out that contradicts his understanding of human nature. This study has a sample of a couple hundred college students, a p-value of 0.05, it was conducted by a professor who proudly claims a political cause, and the results just happen to line up with that cause. Would the vampire throw out his 999 years of experience and believe this study?

No, he would stick with his prior beliefs and laugh at the puny humans. College students are only good for dessert, not for generating knowledge.

Typical social science studies, which nowadays pass for serious evidence, are immensely weak in comparison to knowledge accumulated over human history. There are probably very few studies that are strong enough to contradict a vampire’s beliefs. If modern people disagree with the vampire about human nature, it’s most likely that the vampire knows what he is talking about and the humans are just wrong.

Raymond Brannen suggests how you can think more like a wise, thousand-year-old vampire and less like a puny, Philistine human:

Imagine digging up a historical figure you admire, getting them up to speed on everything that’s happened since they died, and then seeing what they think about the questions you are mulling over.

When someone is slinging study in your direction, consider where it would persuade a thousand-year-old vampire to shift his beliefs. If not, then perhaps it shouldn’t persuade you, either.

Read old books, and talk to your parents and older people. They are your lifeline to the past.

Take what the wisest humans believed at an earlier point in time, and make those beliefs your priors. Next, mentally replay everything that has been learned since then, updating as you go. See if you get the same answers as the modern consensus, or if you get different answers.