What would the decline of America look like?

Tuesday, July 31st, 2018

So, Tyler Cowen asks, what would the decline of America look like?

In recent years, the underlying rate of productivity growth often has been about 1 percent, and rates of economic growth are not even half of what they used to be. Meanwhile, America will have to increase taxes or reduce spending by about $2,200 per taxpayer per year to keep the national debt-to-GDP ratio from rising ever higher, and that figure predates the Trump tax cuts. To fund that shortfall, the U.S. will cut back on infrastructure maintenance. At least one-third of this country will end up looking like — forgive the colloquial phrase — “a dump.” The racial wealth gap will not be narrowed.

Aging and entitlements will force the president, whether Democratic or Republican, to look for a mix of spending cuts and tax increases. The spending cuts will diminish the range of the military, and the tax hikes will ensure that economic growth doesn’t pick up. The integrity of Medicare and Social Security will be (mostly) protected, but the U.S. will lose the ability to project power around the globe.

Over a period of less than five years, China will retake Taiwan and also bring much of East and Southeast Asia into a much tighter sphere of influence. Turkey and Saudi Arabia will build nuclear weapons and become dominant players in their regions. Russia will continue to nibble at the borders of neighboring states, including Latvia and Estonia, and NATO will lose its credibility, except for a few bilateral relationships, such as with the U.K. Parts of Eastern Europe will return to fascism. NAFTA will exist on paper, but it will be under perpetual renegotiation and hemispheric relations will fray.

One area of major technological advance will be drugs, and I don’t mean beneficial pharmaceuticals. The opioid crisis eventually will subside, but new waves of ever more powerful addictive substances will arise. Easy home lab production will make interdiction at the border fruitless. More than 80,000 Americans already die from alcohol every year, and more than 60,000 from drug overdoses. Total losses from addiction will rise.

Other technologies will indeed provide a bounty, but not all of it will be positive. Artificial intelligence and facial and gait surveillance will lead to unprecedented invasions of privacy, causing another 1 or 2 percent of Americans to decide to “live off the grid.” The impact of assassin drones will be curbed — by filling the skies with police drones. Public crimes will plummet, but public spaces in major cities will have a depressing sameness, due to the near-total absence of spontaneous behavior. Advances in recording technologies will make most conversations in public, and many in private, remarkably bland.

Driverless cars will be “the next big thing,” but they’ll make roads more crowded. The elderly will insist on their driverless car rights, and defeat economists’ proposals for new congestion charges. Americans will spend another hour a day in their cars, although texting and watching TV, rather than driving.

The very worst fears about climate change won’t come true. But a nagging succession of storms, plus required adjustments along the coasts to accommodate a rise in sea level, will eat up about 0.5 percent worth of economic growth. So when America does occasionally approach 3 percent growth, in terms of living standards it may feel more like 2 percent.

One of his “petty gripes” looks familiar:

Due to the limited selection on Netflix streaming, fewer and fewer people will watch the great movies of the past, thereby neutering the durability of the 20th century’s greatest art form. And live performances of classical music — another of the West’s most significant and beautiful achievements — will cease to be regular in all but a few major U.S. cities.

It starts with Fibonacci

Monday, July 30th, 2018

If you ever go to a Robeco presentation, Eric Falkenstein says, be sure to hit them up for their Concise Financial History of Europe:

It starts with Fibonacci introducing the Arabic number system in 1202, but interestingly the Florentine bankers prevented anything but Roman numerals as of 1299, and the Medici’s didn’t adopt Arabic numerals until 1500.

The Florentine bankers Bardi, Peruzzi, and Acciaiuoli, who prospered from 1300 to 1340, left a lot of documentation about their business. The Medicis then dominated from 1397–1494, followed by the Fuggers, and then the Rothschilds from 1800-1900. Interestingly, the Rothschild patriarch created the perfect family business, putting his five sons in key cities throughout Europe, allowing them to arbitrage the different exchange rates common to markets that are not fully integrated. Last year Bitcoin often traded at prices 5% higher in Korea, but it is difficult to move money in and out of Korea. The only way to arb this requires a non-formal relationship with someone in Korea, like a brother. You then buy in the US while your brother sells there, settling when you meet for a holiday.

Jan notes the rise of finance from Northern Italy, to Bruges, then Antwerp (1500-1550), and then Amsterdam. As the Dutch East India company was the first traded stock (1602) and prospered throughout the 17th century, Amsterdam was well situated. Amsterdam also reduced the uncertainty caused by the many coins and their various levels of debasement by requiring every transaction above 600 guilders to go through the Bank of Amsterdam, which kept a 100% reserve ratio and cleaned up the system by melting down ‘bad’ coins.

The English are fond of deprecating the Dutch — Dutch Uncle, courage, date — but they really owe the Dutch quite a bit. The financial center of Amsterdam literally moved to London around 1680, as when Dutch stadtholder William of Orange took over England via the Glorious Revolution in 1688, it gave them not only a Bill of Rights that limited monarchical power, it also created the Bank of England, tradable bonds, and an active London stock market. The start of the Industrial Revolution is often dated around 1750 centered in London, and surely it would have taken a lot longer without those innovations.

There was a simple way to get around the Catholic prohibition on interest. The 14th-century Florentine bankers simply used different FX rates on contracts. As FX rates could fluctuate the bill was not considered a loan and so not usury. Explicit loans were also available, but they would have been more like ‘payday’ lending today, a business dominated by two outsider groups: Jews who could charge interest to non-Jews, and pawnbrokers nicknamed Lombards, whose name underlies the ‘Lombard Streets’ found in many financial districts.

One streaming platform is prioritizing classic catalog titles

Sunday, July 29th, 2018

I’m not at all nostalgic for video-rental stores like Blockbuster, but they did have their advantages:

Over five billion rentals have come through 40,000 Redbox kiosks since the company’s launch in 2002 — they now control 51% of the physical rental market in the US. But even the biggest Redbox machine only holds around 600 discs, covering up to 200 titles — no match for even a tiny video store.

Since 2010, the total number of feature films available to stream on Netflix has dropped from 6,755 to 3,686 as of writing this — a loss of more than three thousand titles. There are far more television shows available on Netflix than in 2010 — up from 530 to 1,122 — but that doesn’t make up for the massive decline in streamable films.

And, as BGR notes, “Not only is Netflix primarily focused on generating original TV content, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos a few years ago said that 66% of all Netflix subscribers don’t even watch movies.”

In 2018, over 375 million people subscribe to Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. Streaming has become the dominant way in which most of us consume media, but little consideration has been given to what we’ve lost in saying goodbye to the tactile, human experience of visiting a video store.


Netflix’s current streaming catalogue of 3,686 films seems paltry when compared to even the most average Blockbuster, which stocked in the neighborhood of 10,000 titles. Amazon Prime’s streaming library is three times the size of Netflix’s, with 14,214 films now streaming — Amazon also offers an additional 20,265 titles via their rental service for an additional fee. Hulu has less than half as many movies as Netflix with 1,448 titles now streaming. On HBO NOW, that number falls to only 727 films.


No streaming service has been able to match the breadth and depth of a decades-old video store — at least not yet. Netflix’s disc rental service included 93,000 titles as of 2015 — a comparable library to somewhere like Eddie Brandt’s. But, disc rental isn’t a priority for Netflix: in 2016, they spent almost $1 billion promoting their streaming platform, but the physical rental service “doesn’t even have a marketing budget,” reports AP News.

And, even with 125 million streaming subscribers, Netflix still relies on physical media more than one might assume. AP News notes that Netflix makes “an operating profit of roughly 50 percent on DVD subscriptions, after covering the expense of buying discs and postage to and from its distribution centers…DVD profits have helped subsidize Netflix’s streaming expansion outside the U.S., a push that has accumulated losses of nearly $1.5 billion during the past five years [2011–2016.] The DVD service has made $1.9 billion during the same period, enabling Netflix to remain profitable.”

Besides Netflix’s physical DVD and Blu Ray service, the best, more accessible option for physical media rental for most is one of the 40,000 Redbox kiosks currently operating in America. While Redbox does carry many new release titles long before they reach streaming, when I looked up the Redbox closest to me in Hollywood, I found that only 168 titles were available in the machine, most of them from the last three years — not exactly an extensive selection, nor one that appeals to viewers interested in film history beyond the last decade.

The dearth of classic films and focus on new content becomes more apparent when taking a closer look at what’s available by decade on each of the major streaming services. According to JustWatch, two titles made before 1930 are now streaming on Netflix — they offer only 15 films made before 1950, 26 made before 1970, and 98 made before 1990. By streaming fewer than one hundred films to cover the medium’s first one hundred years, Netflix is doing an egregious disservice to film’s first century.

With four times as many titles as Netflix overall, it’s not surprising that Amazon Prime offers far more classic titles as well — 77 films on the platform were made before 1930; 661 before 1950; 1,292 before 1970; and 3,048 before 1990. But Amazon is the exception among streaming platforms — Hulu offers 115 films made by 1990 or earlier, and on HBO NOW, there are only 55 films that meet that same criteria.

There’s simply no question that new and exclusive content is the priority for Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. 3,155 of the 3,686 films now available to stream on Netflix are from the last ten years — 85% of their entire catalogue. On Hulu, 75% of all movies are from the last ten years too. And while Amazon Prime certainly bests all other major platforms when it comes to “old movies”, 59% of their currently streaming films are from the last ten years as well.

But, one streaming platform is prioritizing classic catalogue titles: FilmStruck, which launched in late 2016. FilmStruck self-describes as featuring “iconic films of all kinds from Hollywood classics to independent, foreign and cult cinema. As the exclusive streaming home of TCM Select and the Criterion Collection, FilmStruck is the world’s largest classic film vault.”

FilmStruck partnered with Warner Bros. to (eventually) bring films like CASABLANCA, CITIZEN KANE, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, and WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? to a streaming platform for the first very time. Including Criterion Collection titles (which are available for a small additional monthly fee) FilmStruck’s catalogue is still growing with 1,975 titles available. But more than 86% of their library is from 1990 or earlier, providing film fans with exclusive access to essential titles that are being overlooked and de-prioritized by other streaming services.

The idea that beloved, superlative films like CASABLANCA and CITIZEN KANE can only be accessed with a subscription to an arthouse/classic focused streaming service is quite frankly insane. THE GODFATHER trilogy is now available on Netflix, but that’s only been the case since January of 2018. Even something as ubiquitous as STAR WARS is only available in its first, unedited iteration as a VHS box set from 1995 — and the original trilogy isn’t currently streaming anywhere.

And of course, most major streaming platforms are deep into the original content game. Netflix has released 25 original films and added 7.4 million new subscribers thus far in 2018 — that’s as many releases as the six major studios combined. They plan to release 80 films by the end of the year. The focus on new content creation over the preservation of and access to catalogue titles for most streaming services is quite clear.

There are many hurdles to making the classic available:

The biggest hurdle affecting deep catalogue home video releases, going all the way back to the dawn of the format, has been music rights, since from EASY RIDER onward, when pop song recordings became common on film soundtracks. Contracts only covered theatrical and TV, and even after they started accounting for home video, they didn’t factor the invention of DVD. Some of the earliest home video releases are the rarest now because they were put out before the lawyers realized you needed to make a new deal for the new media.

Now that there are only three major labels, with the downturn of physical media and the slivers of pennies that come from streaming, they and the artists they control get significant money from licensing to TV, film, and commercials, so their incentive is to take the studios for all they’ve got, feeling they have them over a barrel, since many times the songs are often so embedded in the films, they can’t be replaced, or directors won’t approve of the change. But in turn, studios are loath to pay the inflated music fees because they feel the cost spent in clearing the songs will not be recouped by whatever sales a title may have, and it’s cheaper just to do nothing.

The second biggest problem keeping movies off of physical media is ancient, expired intellectual property rights, usually involving books or plays that were originally only cleared for so many years because back then, nobody thought about repertory demand years after the fact. Warner Bros. has had a big problem with this in particular, a lot of Golden Age classics that they own — BEYOND THE FOREST, LETTY LYNTON, CEILING ZERO — can’t be cleared for video because the estates of the authors of those original source materials can’t come to terms about relicensing the story rights. This is what held up NIGHTMARE ALLEY for years, and likely also what has kept one of the greatest comedies of all time, Olsen & Johnson’s HELLZAPOPPIN’, in limbo.

Since the rise of “secondary studios” from the ’70s onward, lots of movies that went out through the majors are now reverting to other companies that are only interested in them as properties to be developed rather than preserved. Bristol-Myers-Squibb owns the original THE HEARTBREAK KID, THE STEPFORD WIVES, and SLEUTH, and they’ve done nothing with them since the early noughts Anchor Bay releases, aside from sell remake rights. We’re beginning to see that on a larger scale with Morgan Creek, Regency, Revolution, and others — the old deals are expiring, what new deals are being made are just cherry-picking the hits and leaving the deep cuts behind.

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited is a boon for some authors

Saturday, July 28th, 2018

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited is a boon for some authors:

Industrywide, self-publishing is gaining readers as traditional publishers are losing them, according to Author Earnings, a site produced by an anonymous marketing analytics expert who calls himself Data Guy. The self-published share of paid US e-book units increased to 46.4 percent from 44.7 percent between the second quarters of 2017 and 2018, Data Guy told me in an email, while the traditionally published share of paid e-book units decreased to 43.2 percent from 45.5 percent. (His data takes into account self-published and Amazon imprint-published books, which many traditional data sources do not.)

Central to Amazon’s gambit — and authors’ pay — is Kindle Unlimited. Launched in 2014, the feature was a response to other companies that were trying to create a Netflix for books, such as Oyster, which shut down in 2015, and Scribd, which is slowly gaining acceptance from the Big Five publishing houses. Authors can choose to participate in KDP Select, which automatically puts a book into Kindle Unlimited, and which can be highly lucrative. Amazon sets aside a pot of money every month that it divvies up among KDP Select authors, based on how many of their pages have been read each month by Kindle Unlimited subscribers and readers from the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, which allows Prime members to borrow one book a month for free. The payment ends up being a little less than half a penny per page, authors told me, but those who are read the most can also get monthly bonuses as high as $25,000. Last year, Amazon paid out more than $220 million to authors, the company told me. Regardless of participation in KDP Select, authors who self-publish on Amazon through KDP also earn a 70 percent royalty on books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, and a 35 percent royalty on books that cost more or less than that.

Kindle Unlimited works in the same way as Amazon’s other big subscription service, Prime: Just as Prime users often think of shipping as free, even though they’re paying a monthly or annual fee for it, Kindle Unlimited readers may begin to think of books as free, even though they’re paying a monthly fee, because each additional book they read in Kindle Unlimited doesn’t cost them anything extra. This can be a boon for new authors: Readers who might not be willing to pay outright for books by unknown writers will read those books on Kindle Unlimited, where they feel “free.”

“I truly believe that people would not read as many of my books were I not on Kindle Unlimited,” Samantha Christy, who decided to try writing romance novels in 2014, told me. Christy’s Amazon writing career has been so successful that it supports her four children and husband, who quit his job two years ago to manage her IT, taxes, and publishing business. Christy, who typically writes three books a year, talked to me from Hawaii, where she was vacationing with her family before they were headed to Comic-Con International in San Diego to speak on a panel about self-publishing.

Kindle Unlimited has its downsides. Amazon demands exclusivity from its KDP Select authors, meaning they can only sell their books on the Kindle Store, and not on any other digital bookstores, or even on their own websites. The payment structure means that authors who produce a lot of pages, even if they’re not particularly good pages, earn more money than authors who write succinctly. Almost since the launch of Kindle Unlimited, Amazon has been battling “book stuffers,” authors who publish hundreds of pages of content in Kindle Unlimited, some of which is gibberish, some of which tricks readers into flipping to the last page of the book, so the book will count as read and they’ll get paid. Self-publishing on Amazon’s platforms benefits authors in some genres — including romance and mystery, where readers tear through books and writing them might not take a long time — over those who spend years writing novels, or who do deeply researched nonfiction books, Mary Rasenberger, the executive director of the Author’s Guild, told me.

And authors on Kindle Unlimited have to work hard to promote themselves and attract new readers in a crowded marketplace; one, I.T. Lucas, told me she works 12-hour days, seven days a week. Part of that is writing — she has published 21 full-length novels in three years — and part is marketing. “You have to be willing to run a business at the same time,” Rasenberger said. Christy tries to answer every message she receives on Facebook, does a lot of free giveaways, and frequently holds Q&As and other events. Many authors buy ads on Amazon, effectively paying their employer to get more customers.

The structure of Kindle Unlimited also means writers need to churn out a lot of content. Since 2014, Lea Robinson and Melissa King have published more than 100 romance novels and novellas on Amazon under the pen name Alexa Riley. They told me by phone that they make the bulk of their money from payments from KDP Select as people read their backlist of titles on Kindle Unlimited. This motivates them to keep producing; the more pages they have on Kindle Unlimited, the higher the chance they’ll be a most-read author, which will win them tens of thousands of bonus dollars from Amazon. Each woman tries to write 3,000 words a day, and Alexa Riley generally publishes three books a month.

Even so, King and Robinson said that writing for Amazon doesn’t necessarily feel like more of a churn than any other job would. Each writes from about nine to five each day, and never on the weekends.They both recently left their full-time jobs (Robinson in banking, King as a CFO) to write Alexa Riley books. They have a formula — sexy men, headstrong women, a happy ending — that they and their readers both enjoy. “It is a production with us,” King said. “We don’t deviate from how we write, and we know there are key points we have to hit, and we don’t change our formula.” This formula helps them, since once people discover one book, they tend to pore over the Alexa Riley backlist on Kindle Unlimited for more of the same, which brings in more income for King and Robinson. If they publish a new book and make $10,000 a month, they estimate, just $3,000 of that income comes from sales of the new book on Amazon; the rest comes from Kindle Unlimited payments.

Liquid water offers hope on Mars

Friday, July 27th, 2018

Radar observations have revealed what appears to be a buried lake on Mars:

Discovered by a team of Italian scientists using three year’s worth of data from the Mars Advanced Radar for Subsurface and Ionosphere Sounding (MARSIS) instrument on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter, the potential lake is at least a few meters deep, and might be a fixed, steady feature of the subsurface. If confirmed, this would be the first-known reservoir of liquid water on present-day Mars—a keystone in the search for past or even present life on the Red Planet, potentially offering fresh clues about how Earth’s neighbor so profoundly transformed billions of years ago from a warmer, wetter world to its current freeze-dried state. Announced today at a press conference in Rome, the results are detailed in a study appearing in the July 26 edition of Science. Although this is just one detection, the team wrote, “there is no reason to conclude that the presence of subsurface water on Mars is limited to a single location.”

“The presence of a body of liquid water beneath Mars’s south polar cap has various implications, opening new possibilities for the existence of microorganisms in the Martian environment,” says Sebastian Lauro, a study co-author based at Roma Tre University in Rome. “Moreover, it provides a valuable confirmation that the water that once flowed abundantly over the Martian surface in the form of seas, lakes and rivers filled the voids in the subsurface.”

For the past 12 years MARSIS has mapped the Martian underground using beams of low-frequency radar pulses, which can penetrate up to several kilometers beneath the surface. Although they pass relatively unscathed through most substances, these pulses reflect back up to the spacecraft each time they encounter boundaries between different materials, such as the interface of ice and bedrock. That reflection is particularly strong at interfaces with liquid water, and shows up as a distinctively bright spot in visualizations of the data. Following up on preliminary detections of bright spots beneath Mars’s southern ice cap dating back to 2007, the Italian team reprogrammed MARSIS to employ a more intensive scanning mode, then surveyed Planum Australe 29 times with the instrument between 2012 and 2015. Time and time again across the entire observing campaign the new MARSIS readings revealed a consistent 20-kilometer-wide bright spot nestled in a bowl-like depression beneath the ice cap in Planum Australe—a feature consistent with a sizable body of liquid water (or, to be fair, with water-saturated sediments more akin to subterranean sludge). The team then spent almost a year analyzing the data, and another two years writing their paper and attempting to rule out non-aqueous explanations for what they had seen.

Billions of years ago, Mars was a much more Earth-like place where water pooled in seas, carved enormous canyons and bubbled from hot springs. Life, many astrobiologists speculate, may have had no difficulty getting started there. But early in its promising existence the planet somehow lost its way, transforming into a desiccated orb of dried-up ocean-, river- and lakebeds. Robotic missions to the planet’s surface still find surprising echoes of that bygone time, such as patches of water-ice frost forming on rocks as well as water droplets condensing like dew on a lander’s leg. Orbiters, too, have glimpsed what might be rivulets of water flowing down sun-bathed crater walls at the height of Martian summer. Perhaps life, too, has managed to endure in some diminished, limited way. But, if so, it would have to contend with a world in which all moisture quickly vanishes in the thin, cold air, leaving the surface dry as a bone. Still, the water that once flowed across the land had to go somewhere. Some of it was likely lost to space, due to Mars’s diminutive gravitational field, but a significant fraction of the planet’s aqueous inventory never really left, instead just freezing belowground. Now it appears not all of that buried watery wealth is frozen after all.

“The really exciting thing is that this is a stable body of liquid water that was observed in the radar data over three years, not just droplets that have been observed over a short period of time,” says Anja Diez, a glaciologist at the Norwegian Polar Institute who wrote an accompanying commentary about the discovery. The subsurface lake, Diez says, may be similar those found via radar-sounding on Earth beneath ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland.

You can learn a lot from humans and their stuff

Thursday, July 26th, 2018

You can learn a lot from humans and their stuff, it turns out:

Formal training programs, which can be called education, enhance cognition in human and nonhuman animals alike. However, even informal exposure to human contact in human environments can enhance cognition.

We review selected literature to compare animals’ behavior with objects among keas and great apes, the taxa that best allow systematic comparison of the behavior of wild animals with that of those in human environments such as homes, zoos, and rehabilitation centers.

In all cases, we find that animals in human environments do much more with objects. Following and expanding on the explanations of several previous authors, we propose that living in human environments and the opportunities to observe and manipulate human-made objects help to develop motor skills, embodied cognition, and the use of objects to extend cognition in the animals. Living in a human world also furnishes the animals with more time for such activities, in that the time needed for foraging for food is reduced, and furnishes opportunities for social learning, including emulation, an attempt to achieve the goals of a model, and program-level imitation, in which the imitator reproduces the organizational structure of goal-directed actions without necessarily copying all the details. All these factors let these animals learn about the affordances of many objects and make them better able to come up with solutions to physical problems.

The kea is a large parrot found in the mountains of the South Island of New Zealand — and it’s pretty freakin’ smart.

(Hat tip to Tyler Cowen.)

You’re as rich as your database

Wednesday, July 25th, 2018

Ryan Holiday shares the 5-step research method he used for Tim Ferriss, Robert Greene, and Tucker Max:

Prepare long before gameday

In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb proposes a test.

Someone walks into your house and sees your many books on your many bookshelves. Have you really read all these? they ask. This person does not understand knowledge. A good library is comprised in large part by books you haven’t read, making it something you can turn to when you don’t know something. He calls it: the Anti-Library.

When I met Robert Greene and he asked me to become his research assistant, the only thing that changed was that I started getting paid. I’d already marked and organized hundreds of books with interesting leads and material and many other relevant books I had yet to get to.

Learn to search (Google) like a pro

Take a tip I learned from Tim Ferriss. When he was researching for the secrets behind health and diet, he used a few specific hacks to drastically reduce the search area he needed to cover.

For example, if he was looking for a high level athlete, he’d go on Wikipedia and find the world’s first and second-best athletes in that sport from a decade ago. Why? It meant there would be plenty of available material and unlike athletes currently on top of the world, these would be willing and available to talk.

Me, I like to look for phrases, in order to find unlikely subjects.

Go down the rabbit hole (embrace serendipity)

In a book about media (and my own personal experiences) I somehow made my strongest citations from Ender’s Game, The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton, and a handful of other books.

Directly, these books had nothing to do with what I was writing about, but because my mind was primed to see connections, I found them in the most unusual places.

When in doubt, turn to the classics

Remember, there is nothing new under the sun. And if we’re all just saying the same things with new words, what quote is going to have more authority: one from Tacitus or some flavor-of-the-month blogger?

The Classics are “classic” for a reason. They’ve survived the test of time. Consider it the survivorship bias put to your advantage.

Keep a commonplace book

While researching an article I wrote for Tim Ferriss’ blog, I discovered (and subsequently borrowed) a tool used by the famous essayist and experimenter Montaigne.

Montaigne kept what he called a “common place book” — a book of quotes, sentences, metaphors and miscellany that he could use at a moment’s notice. I keep a more modern — but still analog — version of this book. I write everything down on 4×6 note cards, which I file in boxes. (You could do this digitally, I suppose, but the physical arrangement — being able to lay them out on a desk — is critical to my work). I picked up this system from Robert Greene, who also used it for his books.

This means marking everything you think is interesting, transcribing it and organizing it. As a researcher, you’re as rich as your database. Not only in being able to pull something out at a moment’s notice, but that that something gives you a starting point with which to make powerful connections. As cards about the same theme begin to accumulate, you’ll know you’re onto a big or important idea.

From senescence to apoptosis

Tuesday, July 24th, 2018

Cells pick up damage all the time:

If the damage is sufficiently critical, the cell will respond by committing an orderly sort of suicide called apoptosis, which keeps it from causing any further problems. For lesser damage, there’s a less drastic alternative called senescence, in which the cell remains active and contributes its normal functions to the organism’s health, but it commits to no longer dividing. Over time, as animals age, more and more cells enter senescence, a process that’s thought to contribute to aging.

But it has gradually become apparent that senescent cells don’t just continue performing their normal function. They also produce a set of senescence-specific signaling molecules that can influence cells elsewhere in the body, including some that can trigger inflammation. The new work is based on the hypothesis that these signaling molecules might contribute to the changes that are associated with aging.

To test this, a large team of researchers did a relatively straightforward experiment: take senescent cells and implant them in an otherwise young and healthy mouse.

The authors chose fat cells, which typically don’t trigger an immune response when transplanted to a new animal. To get lots of senescent cells, they induced DNA damage, using either a drug or radiation (both produced similar results). While it would have been more relevant to obtain senescent cells from an older mouse, this allowed them to obtain lots of the cells they needed to do the experiments.

At various times after the transplant, the team measured a series of physical traits that change with age: average walking speed, muscle strength, endurance on a treadmill, time spent active, food intake and body weight. And while some of these didn’t change after the senescent cells were transplanted in, the young mice had clearly lost some strength by a month after the transplant: walking speed, endurance, and grip strength were all down significantly.

This change comes despite the fact that only about one in 10,000 cells in the body were senescent, transplanted cells. Obviously, this suggests that the cells are having an effect by talking to all the healthy ones around them. In fact, the researchers found that the transplanted cells’ presence seemed to cause some of the young animal’s cells to become senescent, amplifying their effect. Other experiments showed that the transplanted cells had stronger effects if the recipient was older or eating a high-fat diet.

For older mice receiving transplanted cells, one of the consequences was an increased chance of death. Risk of mortality was up by 5.2 fold, and there was no single cause of death or pathology that was increased by a similar amount. Instead, the animals just seemed to be less healthy.

At this point, the researchers shift focus to what they call a “senolytic agent.” That bit of jargon refers to a combination of two chemicals that cause senescent cells to die, possibly by shifting them from the senescence response over into the cell death response. The chemicals in question are quercetin, something found in a huge variety of plants (anyone who eats any vegetables undoubtedly ingests some of this every day). The second is called dasatinib, and you’re very unlikely to come across this as part of your diet, since it’s normally used as chemotherapy.

The combo of the two chemicals did what you’d expect. If they were administered immediately after the senescent cells were transplanted, the chemicals helped limit the cells’ impact on strength and endurance. For mice that were simply aging normally, the two chemicals also helped limit the loss of strength and endurance, and increased the animals’ daily activity relative to controls. In addition, the chemicals increased the average lifespan by 36 percent.

Google was not a normal place

Monday, July 23rd, 2018

Google was not a normal place, as this disjointed excerpt from Valley of Genius explains:

Charlie Ayers, Google’s first executive chef and, therefore, a member of an early executive team: I remember going in for an interview and Larry bounced on by on one of these big balls that have handles on them, like you buy at Toys “R” Us when you’re a kid. It was just a very unprofessional, uncorporation attitude. I have a pretty good understanding of doing things differently from the Grateful Dead—I’ve worked on and off with them over the years—but from my perspective, looking from the outside, it was an odd interview. I’d never had one like that. I left them thinking that these guys are crazy. They don’t need a chef!

Heather Cairns: I was very surprised that they hired this ex–Grateful Dead chef, since clearly everything that goes with that is coming with Charlie. Talk about a counterculture person!

Charlie Ayers: Larry’s dad was a big Deadhead; he used to run the Grateful Dead-hour talk show on the radio every Sunday night. Larry grew up in the Grateful Dead environment.

Larry Page: We do go out of our way to recruit people who are a little bit different.

Charlie Ayers: There was no under-my-thumb bullshit going on where you all had to dress and look and smell and act alike. Their unwritten tagline is like: You show up in a suit? You’re not getting hired! I remember people that they wanted showing up in suits and them saying, “Go home and change and be yourself and come back tomorrow.”

Heather Cairns: We said it was O.K. to bring pets to work one day a week. And what that did was encourage people to get lizards, cats, dogs—oh my God, everything was coming through the door! I was mortified because I know this much: if you have your puppy at work, you’re not working that much.

Douglas Edwards, Google employee #59: We would go up to Squaw Valley, C.A., and attendance was pretty much mandatory. That became the company thing.

Ray Sidney: The very first ski trip was in the first part of 1999. That was definitely a popular event over the years.

Charlie Ayers: On the ski trips in Squaw Valley, I would have these unsanctioned parties and finally the company was like, “All right, we’ll give Charlie what he wants.” And I created Charlie’s Den. I had live bands, D.J.s, and we bought truckloads of alcohol and a bunch of pot and made ganja goo balls. I remember people coming up to me and saying, “I’m hallucinating. What the fuck is in those?” . . . Larry and Sergey had like this gaggle of girls who were hot, and all become like their little harem of admins, I call them the L&S Harem, yes. All those girls are now different heads of departments in that company, years later. (A spokesperson for Google declined to comment.)

Heather Cairns: You kind of trusted Larry with his personal life. We always kind of worried that Sergey was going to date somebody in the company . . .

Charlie Ayers: Sergey’s the Google playboy. He was known for getting his fingers caught in the cookie jar with employees that worked for the company in the masseuse room. He got around.

Heather Cairns: And we didn’t have locks, so you can’t help it if you walk in on people if there’s no lock. Remember, we’re a bunch of twentysomethings except for me—ancient at 35, so there’s some hormones and they’re raging.

Charlie Ayers: H.R. told me that Sergey’s response to it was, “Why not? They’re my employees.” But you don’t have employees for fucking! That’s not what the job is.

Heather Cairns: Oh my God: this is a sexual harassment claim waiting to happen! That was my concern.

Charlie Ayers: When Sheryl Sandberg joined the company is when I saw a vast shift in everything in the company. People who came in wearing suits were actually being hired.

Heather Cairns: When Eric Schmidt joined, I thought, Well, now, we have a chance. This guy is serious. This guy is real. This guy is high-profile. And of course he had to be an engineer, too. Otherwise, Larry and Sergey wouldn’t have it.

Poor spending habits explain the persistence of the wealth gap

Sunday, July 22nd, 2018

There is arguably no racial disparity more striking than the wealth gap, Coleman Hughes argues:

While the median white household earns just 65 percent more income than its black counterpart, its net worth is fully ten times as high. And, unlike income, which individuals earn in their own lifetimes, wealth accrues over generations, and whites are more than three times as likely as blacks to inherit money from their families. In the public debate on racial inequality, the wealth gap is among the sharpest arrows in the progressive quiver.


Although it is true that the median income of white men more than tripled between 1939 and 1960 (rising from 1,112 dollars to 5,137 dollars), the median income of black men more than quintupled (rising from 460 dollars to 3,075 dollars).9 Black women, too, saw their incomes grow at a faster rate than white women over the same timespan.10 Baradaran makes the same mistake in her description of life for blacks in the 1940s and 50s: “poverty led to institutional breakdown, which led to more poverty.”11 But between 1940 and 1960 the black poverty rate fell from 87 percent to 47 percent, before any significant civil rights gains were made.12


If wealth differences were largely explained by America’s history of favoring certain groups over others, then it would be hard to explain why Asian-Americans, who were never favored, are on track to become wealthier than whites.

Nor can historical racism explain wealth disparities between groups of the same race. A 2015 survey of wealth in Boston found that the median black household had only 8 dollars of wealth. Newsweek reported this fact under the heading “Racism in Boston.” But the 8 dollar figure only pertained to black Bostonians of American ancestry; black Bostonians of Caribbean ancestry had 12,000 dollars of wealth, despite having identical rates of college graduation, only slightly higher incomes, and being equally black in the same city.

Similar disparities emerge when people are grouped by religion. A 2003 study found that Jewish households had a 7-to-1 wealth advantage over Conservative Protestant households, despite the fact that Protestants have been favored over Jews for most of American history. Because facts like these discredit the assumption that government favoritism drives wealth accrual, they don’t make it into the progressive narrative. When all the facts are included, the story changes: wealth is not handed from the top down. It is produced by a bottom-up process involving millions of individuals bringing their skills, habits, and knowledge — attributes which vary from group to group — to bear on valuable tasks.


No element of culture harms black wealth accrual more directly than spending patterns. Nielsen, one of the world’s leading market research firms, keeps extensive data on American consumer behavior, broken down demographically. A 2017 Nielsen report found that, compared to white women, black women were 14 percent more likely to own a luxury vehicle, 16 percent more likely to purchase costume jewelry, and 9 percent more likely to purchase fine jewelry. A similar Nielsen report from 2013 found that, while only 62 percent of all Americans owned a smartphone, 71 percent of blacks owned one. Moreover, all of these spending differences were unconditional on wealth and income.

To what extent do poor spending habits explain the persistence of the wealth gap? Economists at the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania asked this question after analyzing 16 years of nationally representative data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey. Consistent with the Nielsen data, they found that blacks with comparable incomes to whites spent 17 percent less on education, and 32 percent more (an extra $2300 per year in 2005 dollars) on ‘visible goods’ — defined as cars, jewelry, and clothes. What’s more, “after controlling for visible spending,” they concluded that the “wealth gap between Blacks and Whites, conditional on permanent income, declines by 50 percent.” To be clear, that 50 percent figure doesn’t pertain to the total wealth gap, but to the proportion of the gap that remains after income is taken into account — which was 40 percent. The upshot: the fact that blacks spent more on cars, jewelry, and clothes explained fully 20 percent of the total racial wealth gap.

To make matters worse, spending patterns are just one part of a larger set of financial skills on which blacks lag behind. Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis followed over 40,000 families from 1989 to 2013, tracking their wealth accumulation and financial decisions. They developed a financial health scale, ranging from 0 to 5, that measured the degree to which families made “routine financial health choices that contribute to wealth accumulation” — e.g., saving any amount of money, paying credit card bills on time, having a low debt-to-income ratio, etc. At 3.12, Asian families scored the highest, followed by whites at 3.11, Hispanics at 2.71, and blacks at 2.63.

Next, they asked if education accounted for the differences in financial habits by limiting the comparison to middle-aged families with advanced degrees. Surprisingly, they found that the racial gap in financial health-scores didn’t shrink; it widened. Highly-educated Asian families scored 3.49, comparable whites scored 3.38, comparable Hispanics scored 2.94, and comparable blacks remained far behind at 2.66. Thus, the study authors concluded, neither “periodic shortages of time or money” nor “lower educational attainment” were the driving forces behind the differences in financial decision-making.

When a flash-bang grenade isn’t enough

Saturday, July 21st, 2018

Flash-bang grenades are great, but what if you want to deliver 14 flash-bang grenades from 1,000 meters away?

“Currently the armed forces are unable to deliver non-lethal effects at extended ranges,” Michael Markowitch, an engineer involved in designing the munition, said in an Army press release in 2016. “Our goal was to develop a mortar that would be capable of delivering a non-lethal payload at ranges typical of mortar systems.”

“We took our inspiration for our design from the family of illumination mortars. They use parachutes attached to an illumination candle to slow its descent and illuminate an area. The team determined that similar designs could be used to control the descent of the metal parts,” Markowitch added.

This first field-test occurred during this year’s Rim of the Pacific exercise, which occurs every two years and involves more than 20 nations and dozens of warships.

The modified round is compatible with existing 81 mm mortar tubes and flies through the air like a standard mortar. The round’s effective range is between 450 and 1,500 meters.

When the round is roughly 250 meters above the target, a time-delay fuse detonates. The mortar’s nose and tail sections separate and the 14 nonlethal cardboard-encased submunitions are released.

Parachutes also release from the mortar’s nose and tail, and the mortar floats to the ground while the flash-bang grenades fall, stabilized by drag ribbons.

The nonlethal cartridges are designed to detonate simultaneously, covering an area of roughly 30 meters. Each cartridge, like the M84 stun grenade, emits a roughly 180-decibel bang and a flash of more than one million candela within five feet of the initiation spot.

Flash-Bang Mortar Dispersion

Developers of the system have also shown interest in adding infrared or ultraviolet ink to the mortar in order to paint anyone near the detonation. This could help soldiers identify people in a crowd who may disperse from the impact site, according to the Defense Department release.

In the end, it all depended on petroleum

Friday, July 20th, 2018

The failure of Barbarossa is really quite straightforward, Philip Andrews argues:

In the end, it all depended on petroleum.

Moscow was not important to Stalin. He was quite prepared, and had indeed planned, to retreat with as much industry as possible behind the Urals, and continue the fight from there — so long as he was able to receive petroleum supplies from the Caucasus across the Caspian.

The Germans knew about Moscow’s unimportance to the Soviets (Leningrad was far more symbolic, having been the birthplace of the Revolution). The German military attaché in Moscow had told the German high command as much, but they ignored him. The German high command had a fixation with major cities, and was determined to waste time and resources besieging cities that had no intrinsic military value to Stalin.

The Germans never had enough resources for the kind of war they went to fight in the Soviet Union. Firstly, most of their army was horse-drawn, and most of the transport that was mechanised was requisitioned from the occupied countries. Germany, at the start of the war, had the lowest level of transport mechanisation of any Western power. They relied far more on horses than France, Britain or the US. They did not have resources to mechanise their army sufficiently to launch a strategic war against Russia.

Secondly, in order to cripple Soviet industry and the transport infrastructure, they would have had to have developed a strategic bomber force on the lines of the British and Americans. After the death of General Wever, just before the war, they abandoned the idea of the strategic bomber altogether in favour of the Ju 88, which was never intended for strategic bombing. Thus, they never had the ability to bomb behind the Urals or to reach the Caucasus.

Thirdly, they would have needed a much stronger armoured mechanised force than the mere 20 or so panzer divisions with which they invaded Russia. Also, they should have designed their armour with wide tracks for Russia’s road-less conditions, and with sufficient armament to have taken on the T-34 and the KV-1. As it was, their intelligence on the Soviet Union and its resources, especially manpower potential, was abysmal to non-existent.

One possible winning strategy for them would have been to have invaded only the Ukraine, with a blocking force at the Pripet marshes. They could have granted independence to the Ukrainians, set up an anti- Communist puppet government, and used the Ukrainians to help fight the Soviet army. Meanwhile, German armoured and mechanised forces could have had to make a dash for the Caucasus and the oilfields.

The strategic bombers the Germans never had, could have been used to destroy the oil transfer points on the Caspian to prevent Stalin from receiving oil supplies — without, however, destroying the fields themselves. Once the panzer forces had arrived in the Caucasus, say about six months after the invasion, they may have been able to capture the fields intact, or at least to deny them to the Soviets.

At that time, the Caucasus oilfields were the only source of oil the Soviets had. If this ‘Ukrainian’ strategy had been planned for from the outset — with an appropriate build-up of bomber and panzer forces — the Germans may have been able to force Stalin to the negotiating table by denying him his oil supplies. They should have done this rather than waste good pilots and aircraft in futile battles over Britain.

This at least is my take on Barbarossa. I believe that Hitler had a very strong intuition about the importance of going for the Caucasus straightaway, but his tunnel-visioned and hidebound generals believed in conventional warfare and conventional targets like cities. It was they, rather than he, who believed that the Russians would collapse under the weight of the blitzkrieg and that the war would be over in a few months.

Israel significantly relaxes gun license regulations

Thursday, July 19th, 2018

Israel will significantly relax its regulations governing gun licenses, a move that would instantly allow hundreds of thousands of Israelis to acquire a firearm:

According to Haaretz, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan will allow any Israeli who underwent level 07 rifle training in the IDF to apply for a gun license. All infantry soldiers are certified as 07, in addition to all combat squad commanders and the majority of IDF officers. The vast majority of IDF soldiers aren’t combat soldiers and are certified as level 02.

While the police do not oppose the move, it requested that the mandatory training course be expanded to four and a half hours from the current two. The updated guidelines are a direct result of efforts by the Knesset’s Gun Lobby head Likud MK Amir Ohana, who has long pressed for Israel to relax its tightly regulated firearms industry in order to allow citizens to protect themselves from terrorism.

“A civilian carrying a weapon is more of a solution than a threat, and doubles as assistance for the security forces,” Ohana told Haaretz, pointing out that “in 11 attacks in just the Jerusalem area, they neutralized the threat.”

“Sending the citizens of Israel to protect themselves with pizza trays, selfie sticks, guitars and umbrellas is a crime of the state against its citizens. A law abiding citizen, who has the basic skill required, is entitled to be able to defend himself and his surroundings.”

Why not carry ammunition cans?

Wednesday, July 18th, 2018

The US Army is moving away from the current Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) to the new and improved Army Combat Readiness Test (ACRT):

This new six-event test will keep the two-mile run from the current Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), but scraps the push-ups and sit-ups in favor of leg tucks, a medicine ball power throw, three-rep max dead lift, “T” push-ups, and a shuttle sprint-drag-carry.


The ACRT, for example, is comparatively much more time intensive than the APFT. Each set of equipment allows approximately five soldiers to complete the full six-event ACRT in seventy-five minutes. In an infantry battalion with ten sets of equipment and eight hundred soldiers, completing the ACRT will take sixteen days — three work weeks — if limited to normal morning PT hours. Since the current APFT throughput is only limited by the number of available graders, an entire battalion can easily complete the APFT in a single PT session. While there are ways a battalion could adjust to make executing the ACRT more efficient, the financial cost is more significant.

Beyond consuming more time, the ACRT transition is going to be expensive. A battalion’s set of equipment, or ten ACRT sets, is estimated at $12,000. With hundreds of battalions across the Army — combined with geographically dispersed units like the more than 1,100 ROTC campus locations, 1,600 recruiting stations, or US Army personnel stationed in embassies worldwide that need their own sets — startup costs for the ACRT could easily reach into the tens of millions of dollars, if not higher. That’s a big budget pill to swallow after almost four decades of a nearly cost-free physical fitness assessment. That also doesn’t address associated costs of equipment replacement over time, or potentially reconfiguring on-base fitness facilities to allow soldiers to train for these news tasks.

While the ACRT has been sold as a means to reduce soldier injuries, the new test introduces physical tasks that require proper training and monitoring, such as the dead lift and medicine ball power throw. According to the Army Public Health Center, musculoskeletal injuries account for 70 percent of all medically non-deployable personnel, and weight-bearing and exercise-related activities account for roughly 50 percent of all non-combat injuries. Many of those injuries result from overtraining and improper exercise.


Several ACRT tasks tie directly to physical requirements in combat — this is arguably its biggest advantage over the APFT. The shuttle sprint-drag-carry in particular includes a weighted sled pull that resembles evacuating a casualty, and the kettle bell carry simulates moving with ammunition cans. To save money and even better replicate combat conditions, the Army could replace ACRT-specific equipment with items readily available in the force.

Rather than purchasing kettle bells to simulate carrying ammunition, why not carry ammunition cans? Rather than selling all of the huge number of ammunition cans the Army goes through to the public (a very common practice), it would be easy to fill them with a set amount of weight and use them for the test. Also, rather than investing in a new type of sled to pull around a couple 45-pound plates, why not use the standard-issue SKEDCO litter system? Standardizing the weight is simple, and using the SKEDCO would reinforce an actual tactical task.

The physical strength of nations varies considerably

Tuesday, July 17th, 2018

I was watching the latest CrossFit documentary on Netflix, The Redeemed and the Dominant, and this reminded me of Anatoly Karlin’s piece on the (physical) strength of nations, which looks at the stereotype that Northerners are stronger than Southerners:

The average Germanic seems to be around 15 years “younger” than the average Italian or Spaniard in terms of hand grip strength. These are remarkably big differences, around 1 S.D.’s worth. Average German, Swede, or Pole might have a 15 SQ (strength quotient) advantage over the average South European.

For context, there is a ~2.5 S.D. difference in male and female grip strength.

Women have around 60% of the hand grip strength of men. Huge difference… but remarkably, seems to be about equal to the difference between developed Anglo-German/Slavic Europe and the Indian subcontinent!

Why do so many of these studies focus on grip strength? Because it is easy to measure, changes the least as people age (hand grip is the last to go), and is exercised more or less universally.

My best guess is that in terms of S.D.’s it goes something like this in terms of hand grip strength (Flynn! denotes members of those ethnicities that dwell in First World environments).

  • +1 Icelanders
  • +0.5 Steppe!East Asians (i.e.Mongols)
  • 0 Balto-Slavic-Germanics, Flynn!WestAfricans
  • -.5 East Asians
  • -1 Mediterraneans, Flynn!Indians, WestAfricans
  • -2 Indians

Icelanders, with a mere 300,000 people, dominate the world strongman competitions. They have won 9 Gold medals, more than any other country other than the US, which has won 11 (and has ONE THOUSAND times its population).

Icelandic women have also won four years of the past decade’s worth the Crossfit Games.