Most people tacitly assume a more elaborate counter-factual

Wednesday, July 31st, 2019

Does burning your money make you poor?

Almost everyone responds, “Obviously.”  And in a sense, it is obvious.  If you take all your money and burn it, you’ll be hungry and homeless as a result.  QED.

In another sense, though, burning money might not change a thing.  How so?  Suppose if you don’t burn your money, you flush it down the toilet instead.  Empirical researchers who look will detect zero effect of burning money on your standard of living.  Why?  Because your Plan B is just as impoverishing as your Plan A.

As far as I know, no researcher bothers to study the connection between burning cash and living in poverty.  But researchers do study analogous issues, like: Does becoming a single mother lead to poverty?  At least according to some studies, once you adjust for preexisting characteristics, women who have kids out of wedlock are no poorer than women who don’t.

How is this even possible?  You have to think about what single moms would have done if they hadn’t gotten pregnant.  Maybe they would have just spent more time hanging out with irresponsible boyfriends and partying.  If so, researchers will detect no effect of single motherhood on poverty.

There’s nothing literally wrong with this result, but it is easily misinterpreted.  Key point: Most people who affirm that “Single motherhood causes poverty” tacitly assume a more elaborate counter-factual.  Something like: “Continuously working full-time without getting pregnant.”  And if that’s the counter-factual, “Single motherhood causes poverty” is almost as undeniable as “Burning money makes you poor.”  Empirical research can and occasionally does disprove common sense.  But more often empirical research just addresses a different but superficially similar question.

The porous nature of the wafer increases the total surface area of the battery by up to 70 times

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

The key difference between a conventional Lithium-ion battery and an XNRGI Powerchip battery is that conventional Lithium-ion batteries use a graphite slurry on a two-dimensional conductor as a building material, while the XNRGI battery uses lithium metal in a three-dimensional porous silicon wafer:

The best part is that XNRGI batteries are made with older, thicker wafers that are no longer in demand. Worldwide infrastructure already exists to manufacture these wafers cheaply, and in great quantity.

The advantage of using silicon wafers to build a battery depends on another well-established semiconductor process. The XNRGI design uses perforated wafers to create a waffle-like surface. Each 12-inch silicon disc can carry up to 160 million microscopic pores. Then the wafers are coated with a non-conductive surface on one side. The other side of the wafer is coated with a conductive metal to carry the electrical current.

“The metal coatings we use are taken from the chip industry,” D’Couto said, “and the insulating coatings are taken from the chip industry and used here. We are not inventing anything on the process side.”

The porous nature of the wafer increases the total surface area of the battery by up to 70 times compared to a two-dimensional surface. Each pore is physically separated from its neighbors, which helps eliminate internal short-circuits and helps the battery resist degradation over time and use.

“Each of these little holes is effectively a very tiny battery,” D’Couto observed. “When any of those individually fail, the failure doesn’t propagate. This architecture makes the battery completely safe by preventing thermal runaway and explosions.”

XNRGI’s wafer technology is designed to go on the anode side of a battery. When a battery is fully charged, the anode is like a bucket of electrons. As the battery discharges, the electrons flow through the circuit to the cathode side of the battery. When the battery is recharged, the anode bucket refills.

“Today when you talk about a Lithium-ion battery, it’s made of lithium intercalated with graphite,” D’Couto explained. “Since the inception of lithium-ion batteries, graphite has been used on the anode side to provide a parking spot for the lithium ions to land and take off.”

One huge advantage of the porous silicon wafer design is that the XNRGI anode has 70 times more surface area than a graphite anode and uses pure lithium metal, giving the Powerchip’s anode about 10 times the energy density of existing lithium-ion battery anodes.

“We get more energy density because of the three-dimensional increase in surface area,” D’Couto stated.

One reason that rechargeable batteries degrade over time is that as the anode goes through repeated discharge and charge cycles, it gets a chemical buildup on the anode surface. This buildup is called a “dendrite” and it looks like a limestone stalactite. Dendrites can eventually pierce the physical separator between the anode and the cathode and short out the battery.

“When the dendrite punches through the separator, you get a rapid failure of the battery,” D’Couto explained.

Lithium ions also carry other materials that build up like plaque on the separator between the anode and cathode sides of the battery, essentially clogging up the battery and reducing performance. The XNRGI anode resists dendrite formation and extends battery life because of the non-conductive coating on the silicon wafer. The elements carried along with the lithium ions don’t stick to that surface and so cannot easily form dendrites or build up plaque.

D’Couto estimates that an XNRGI Powerchip batter will offer three to five times longer service life than a Lithium-ion battery can achieve today.

The increased surface area inside a Powerchip means the battery can discharge and recharge much more quickly than conventional Lithium-ion cells. That means more power is available when you’re driving. More importantly, it means quicker recharging.

According to D’Couto, the Powerchip anode is capable of achieving an 80% recharge from empty in 15 minutes. The more common 10% to 90% recharge is also targeted at 15 minutes. In addition to fast charging, XNRGI estimates that Powerchip batteries will increase EV range up to 280% compared to a conventional Lithium-ion battery pack of the same weight. For reference, that means a current EV with 250 miles of range (as many have) would have a 700-mile range.

The XNRGI battery is also much lighter than today’s cells. Automakers could choose to make lighter and more efficient EVs, or put more batteries into the car for even longer range at the existing weight.

Not all is lost for communism, since China has taken up the baton

Monday, July 29th, 2019

François Bougon’s Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping is T. Greer’s new go-to recommendation for those who want to understand the priorities of the Communist Party of China:

Bougan understands what too many China analysts downplay (or even worse, outright ignore). The concerns Xi Jinping and his clique have about the ideological integrity of the Chinese socialist system and the threat Western values and institutions pose to them are not comic curiosities. They are the foundation for China’s relationship with the United States. We cannot get China policy right if we do not take the fears of these men seriously.

He cites two passages. The first deals with the film In Memory of the Collapse of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union:

The film crew had travelled to Russia to interview witnesses, who happened mostly to be former Soviet Communist Party members. Oddly enough, they were all desperately nostalgic for the USSR’s lost greatness. In the film, a voice-over recites a ponderous political analysis tinged with a hint of paranoia, characteristic of authoritarian regimes. The original sin, it explains, can be traced back to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on 25 February 1956, during which Khrushchev gave his ‘secret speech’ before 1,430 delegates. This was when the seeds of disaster had been sown. The Soviets had started to burn down their idols: Stalin, but also Lenin, which opened the floodgates to a questioning of Marxist faith. Gorbachev, father of the 1980s reforms, and his ‘accomplices’— Alexander Yakovlev, Edward Shevardnadze, and Boris Yeltsin— were all ‘children of the Twentieth Congress’. In a nutshell, they were traitors. When they came to power, their objective had been to bring down socialism and communism. Under the influence of Western powers, who were counting on them, they had implemented their destructive policies: the introduction of a multi-party system, the authorisation of NGOs, the liberalisation of the media, the abandonment of control over means of production, the privatisation of public industries, and severing the link between the Party and the army.

The documentary specifically demonises Gorbachev and accuses him of selling himself to the Americans. Weak in his decision-making, ideologically hesitant, he had driven his country to ruin through a wave of privatisations. The wealth of a huge majority of the people had been collected by a handful of oligarchs from the old Party bureaucracy. It was the beginning of the reign of violence and of the mafia. The final blow came with the former USSR falling victim to separatist movements. Twenty years after the fall of the motherland of socialism, the outcome of glasnost and perestroika was not just negative— it was downright criminal.

The film ends with the usual elements of propaganda: not all is lost for communism, since China has taken up the baton. Gennady Zyuganov, leader since 1993 of what’s left of the Russian Communist Party, drives this point home in his interview with the Beijing film crew: In the space of thirty years, China has achieved formidable results. I hope you will not forget the reasons for the collapse of the USSR and the lessons of the fall of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: only by [learning these lessons] can the Chinese people build their own country. The documentary ends with images of the Kremlin set to The Internationale. The voiceover gives some closing recommendations to Party members: never renounce socialism and Marxism; never give in to the influence of ‘hostile forces’ who wish to ‘Westernise’ the country and ‘sow the seeds of separatism’. Beware above all of ‘the manoeuvres of Western powers’, of their ‘financial and ideological manipulations’, of their use of NGOs, of ‘their will to incite chaos by promoting governance from the streets’.

With this film, the tone was set from the first year of Xi’s mandate: the West was the enemy and Gorbachev had been its puppet. Xi, on the other hand, would be a herald of Chinese Marxism-Leninism.

A synthesis between cosmopolitanism and nationalism

Monday, July 29th, 2019

Razib Khan discusses the emergence of a cosmopolitan class in th 19th-century Europe — in part to emphasize that it was not purely a matter of Jewish assimilation:

The great families of Europe which came to dominate the polities of the continent after the fall of the Roman Empire were not tied to one particular national identity or ethnicity. The Anglo-Norman kings famously spoke French, and many of them lacked facility with English. Meanwhile, the mother of the king of France was from Kiev, and, and half Russian and half Swedish. Queen Elizabeth’s family consciously shed their German affinities in the early 20th-century, while her husband’s family had the throne of Greece for several decades, though apparently, he considers himself “more Danish” than anything else.

In the Islamic world for centuries Egypt was ruled by a separate caste of Turks and Circassians, the Mamelukes, even after the Ottoman conquest. The famous Safavid dynasty, which converted Iran to Shia Islam in the 16th-century, was Azeri Turk in language, but their ancestry seems to have been a recent mix of Kurd, Turk, and Pontic Greek. And let’s not forget India, where Turkic and Afghan Muslims ruled vast swaths of the subcontinent for centuries.

The period between 1815 and the present is unique in the supremacy of a particular national idea. It also coincides with the high tide of European dominance in the world. The world is going through economic and cultural rebalancing, but we don’t have the language or the expectations to understand this. The current age is one of globalization, though not necessarily any greater than the decades around 1900. But that was a more limited, European world, with the emergence of a trans-Atlantic elite (remember Winston Churchill’s mother was American). Today we have an international class of people with passports from specific nations, but global affinities. I do have friends who express more fellow-feeling and comfort with upper-middle-class elements in Dubai, London, and Singapore, than with their own fellow citizens in the hinterlands. This is partly a function of the importance of travel to the new sub-elite. And yet in the United States, 64 percent of people do not have a valid passport.

The reality is that people with passports are not going away. And the people without passports are not going away. Both of these groups have to accommodate the contingent historical reality that Westphalian nation-states exist, and we aren’t going to instantaneously create a new political arrangement which can conveniently integrate both groups. The problem with the nature of elite media, academia, and cultural and economic productivity producers is that passport holders dominate these sectors. In the 1990s this led to a delusion that the nation-state would dissolve in substance, if not de jure, just like the state boundaries in the USA are basically administrative realities.

That’s not happening. And the non-passport holding class has been negatively affected in various ways by the efficiencies of globalization, in some ways in absolute terms, but definitely in positional terms. Mainstream parties of the Left and Right, being of the passport holding class, hoped that these consequences would not be extreme. But they have been extreme. And the late 2000s financial crisis undermined what credibility the elite among the passport holding class did have.

At some point, the passport holders need to put neoclassical economic textbooks to the side and accept that there are non-economic variables which generate social cohesion and positive externalities, which allow for prosperity. And the acidic impact of globalization is eroding those factors across the developed world, resulting in the rise of populism.

But just as the medieval Catholic commonwealth is not coming back, the national systems of 1950 are not coming back. The current wave of populists is in denial, and refuses to engage with the global oligarchy’s existence, along with the much larger sub-elite of the new class global upper-middle-class. At some point, a reckoning will occur because the passport holders pay a disproportionate amount of the taxes.

What we need to see in the next few decades is a dialogue, and synthesis, between global cosmopolitanism and regional nationalism. The very forces of global efficiency have now shown us that the gains to trade and integration are not equally distributed, and the non-passport holding class, the populist voter, will never join the universal global class. But neither is the second era of globalization going to end as the first did. We are simply too integrated, and travel and communication are too easy.

The student movements trained an entire generation of intellectuals to feel instead of think

Sunday, July 28th, 2019

T. Greer has a second, more tentative hypothesis for why post-1960s strategic theorists seem far less brilliant than those who came before:

The very first wave of thinkers in the American age (who by and large were educated before its birth) were brilliant people. If Thomas Schelling and Herbert Simon are not included in St. John’s reading list by 2050, the list will not be worth much. The strategic practitioners of this time were also very sharp people. But things quickly were muddled up. The clearest break between the crisp thinking of the older Americans and the addled thought that came after them is marked quite clearly in Freeman’s second section, when he transitions from a discussion of the strategic theory behind the American Civil Rights movement to the theory behind the SDS and the Port Huron manifesto.

My low estimation of the SDS’s strategic acumen is shared by Freedman himself. To quote:

The new radicals were more in a libertarian, anarchist, anti-elitist tradition, desperate for authenticity even at the expense of lucidity… Instead of the rigorous analysis of classic texts, the new radicals were suspicious of theory. Political acts had to be genuine expressions of values and sentiments. Convictions took priority over the calculation of consequences, reflecting a wariness of expediency and a refusal to compromise for the sake of political effects. At times it seemed as if deliberate and systematic thought was suspect and only a spontaneous stream of consciousness, however inarticulate and unintelligible, could be trusted. Todd Gitlin, an early activist and later analyst of the New Left, observed how actions were undertaken to “dramatize” convictions. They were “judged according to how they made the participants feel,” as if they were drugs offering highs and lows. If it was the immediate experience which counted for most, then there was little scope for thinking about the long term.

I do not think American intellectual thought has ever really recovered from this. The SDS and the constellation of social movements that it was a part of created the “New Left.” These students, and those they influenced, would go on to take control of university departments, editorial chairs, and other positions in the ‘commanding heights of American culture. Though most are now passing from the scene, the American imagination still refracts politics through the cultural lens these boomer rebels created. Most of the intellectual sloppiness that you find in modern activism comes from this source (not from Foucault et. al., who was brighter than conservatives give him credit for, and has largely been appropriated as intellectual cover for shoddy thinking that had been entrenched before Foucault was published in English).

The student movements trained an entire generation of intellectuals to feel instead of think. It also taught them to reject all that came before, cutting themselves off from the smartest thinking of the preceding two centuries. It was our misfortune that this happened just as the American intellectual scene was shrinking away from the rest of of the world. The free-wheeling, transnational debates of the 19th and early 20th century could not be repeated in the frozen Cold War world.

I pity the American public intellectual. Rejecting the rigor of the past, isolated from intellectual currents of non-Anglophone society, and planted in an environment where feelings trumped thought, it is a marvel that any of the lot has added to our understanding of strategy at all.

The dark side of Japan’s anime industry

Sunday, July 28th, 2019

According to this Vox piece on the dark side of Japan’s anime industry, animators there don’t make a living wage, despite being in great demand:

Shingo Adachi, an animator and character designer for Sword Art Online, a popular anime TV series, said the talent shortage is a serious ongoing problem — with nearly 200 animated TV series alone made in Japan each year, there aren’t enough skilled animators to go around. Instead, studios rely on a large pool of essentially unpaid freelancers who are passionate about anime.

At the entry level are “in-between animators,” who are usually freelancers. They’re the ones who make all the individual drawings after the top-level directors come up with the storyboards and the middle-tier “key animators” draw the important frames in each scene.

In-between animators earn around 200 yen per drawing — less than $2. That wouldn’t be so bad if each artist could crank out 200 drawings a day, but a single drawing can take more than an hour. That’s not to mention anime’s meticulous attention to details that are by and large ignored by animation in the West, like food, architecture, and landscape, which can take four or five times longer than average to draw.


According to the Japanese Animation Creators Association, an animator in Japan earns on average ¥1.1 million (~$10,000) per year in their 20s, ¥2.1 million (~$19,000) in their 30s, and a livable but still meager ¥3.5 million (~$31,000) in their 40s and 50s. The poverty line is Japan is ¥2.2 million.


Anime’s structural iniquities stem back to Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astro Boy and the “god of manga.” Tezuka was responsible for an endless catalog of innovations and precedents in manga, Japanese comics, and anime, onscreen animation. In the early 1960s, with networks unwilling to take the risk on an animated series, Tezuka massively undersold his show to get it on air.

“Basically, Tezuka and his company were going to take a loss for the actual show,” said Michael Crandol, an assistant professor of Japanese studies at Leiden University. “They planned to make up for the loss with Astro Boy toys and figures and merchandise, branded candy. … But because that particular scenario worked for Tezuka and the broadcasters, it became the status quo.”

How much work can a young animator produce in one year for $10,000? I’m tempted to come up with a project.

When a discipline begins it is not really recognized as an independent discipline at all

Saturday, July 27th, 2019

T. Greer has two hypotheses for why post-1960s strategic theorists seem far less brilliant than their predecessors. The first involves the social position of post-1960s theorists:

The thinkers and practitioners from 19th and early 20th century did not think of themselves as being part of a specific intellectual discipline. They were not experts in “strategic studies,” “activism,” or “business strategy.” Credentials in these fields did not exist. Indeed, they were not yet recognized as professional fields at all. There was no canon for potential strategists to master, no position for potential strategists to strive for, and no degrees to validate potential strategists’ pretensions. Those who theorized and strategized did so because of an irrepressible intellectual fascination with the topic or because their immediate responsibilities demanded it of them.

This changed in the latter half of the 20th century. By the turn of the millennium, these were fully professional fields with their own graduate degrees and industry hierarchies. Much of the intellectual work done over the last three generations was done for the sake of obtaining credentials or jumping through professional hoops. ‘Correct’ frames of thought had been ingrained into the relevant communities. What had once been an exciting, open-ended pursuit that defied existing categories had been nailed down into domains of licensed expertise.

There are some similarities between what I am describing here and what happened to the strategy-related blogosphere (the “strategy sphere”) c. 2008-2014. In the years before, online writing about war and strategic theory has been dominated by anonymous junior officers desperately debating paths to victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were complimented by a small host of (again, mostly anonymous) citizens nerdy enough to play along. What mattered most was the quality of one’s thinking. By the end of the era, however, blogging had become a prestige medium. People wrote to promote their careers. What they wrote could not compare to what had come before.

I often wonder if intellectual disciplines do not always work something like this. When a discipline begins it is not really recognized as an independent discipline at all. Its practitioners come from diverse backgrounds and they draw on ideas and research from a strange conglomeration of sources. They are in dialogue with the world. I would put the emerging discipline of “cultural evolution” (or “cultural epidemiology,” if you are from Paris) in this category right now; just about everything game-theory hit this stage in the ’50s. Move forward a decade or two and the field has an upswing in funding and prestige. It is no longer the work of isolated scholars. Professional associations, research centers, and grants have been founded to improve our knowledge of the field. In this stage the field is at its most productive—ideas and insights from earlier eras are built into more coherent models and used to explain an increasing number of otherwise mysterious social phenomenon. This is right about where I would place cognitive and evolutionary psychology and the current iteration of ‘global’ history today.

After this comes the decline. Now established as an independent discipline, new folks sign on because it is the sort of thing respectable scholars do. A canon of what experts in field x are supposed to study becomes the standard curriculum. New research continues, but few outside the field care about or understand it anymore. Links to research outside of the field dry up; debates are limited to insiders. There are clearly defined social markers (and if the people involved are modern academics, journals) that separate success from failure. Innovation in this stage mostly means spinning off new subfields. Things are more competitive than they used to be, yet a larger percentage of those who succeed in the field seem to do so by jumping through professional hoops. I would put a great deal of current IR theory in this bucket.

Where things go from here depends upon the social nature of the field in question. If the field is attached to a plane where there are real world consequences for mediocrity (say, a general staff), reality might crash in and force a reshuffling of the social deck. In academia few fear such exogenous shocks. There the field devolves into little more than an intellectual patronage network. Doyens of a past age act as king-makers. Scholarly disputes linger on, ossified remnants of ancient gang-wars. The old methods are applied to increasingly narrow problems. All of the institutions that were created in the field’s heyday still exist, and they continue on, funding and hiring long after their purpose has been fulfilled.

So that is my first guess. The skillset needed to obtain a set of credentials does not match the skillset needed to develop useful strategic theories. Or useful theories in general. Credentialism has ravaged American thought.

Storytelling begins with a kind of empathy

Saturday, July 27th, 2019

Storytelling begins with a kind of empathy, Neal Stephenson explains, in his conversation with Tyler:

I think that part of it begins with empathy because, in order to tell somebody a thing, you need to know and understand what it’s like to not already know that thing, which seems kind of obvious.

Little bit of a tangent here. For a while, my kid was on a soccer team, and we had a group of parents who would organize going to these different soccer games all over the city, each one at a different field. These different parents would write emails. This was before mapping systems were good, so parents would take turns writing emails, telling you how to get to the soccer field.

The range of skill was amazing. You would get people who just couldn’t do it, couldn’t make a very simple description of how to go from point A to point B, and others who wrote these amazing, almost like little short stories about it.

I started thinking about it then, and thinking that the thing that distinguished the people who were good at it was that they were capable of putting themselves in the shoes of somebody who didn’t know how to find that field and imagining what it would be like to try to navigate that route. And those people were good at it.

Injury rates across sports can be surprising

Friday, July 26th, 2019

Injury rates across sports can be surprising:

Injury Rates across 15 Sports

You don’t control all the variables

Friday, July 26th, 2019

Trying to figure out why a criminal chooses to commit a crime can be a bit tricky at times, Greg Ellifritz reminds us:

I had been called to a nursing home on the complaint that a homeless man was sitting outside being argumentative with staff and residents. The nursing home staff didn’t want charges filed against the guy. They just wanted me to get him to leave.

I found the man sitting on a bench right in front of the nursing home entrance. I approached him, introduced myself, and explained the reason why I was there. He told me that he was homeless and stayed at a local shelter. He had a bus pass, so I offered to give him a ride to the nearest bus stop so that he could get “home.”

The interaction couldn’t have gone better. I was nice and polite. He was nice and polite. He understood why the nursing home didn’t want him there. I wasn’t going to arrest him. I asked him where he wanted to go and was in the process of taking him there. There was absolutely no motivation for him to attack me.

Yet he did. He extended his hand to shake and when I took it, he shot in for a double leg take down. I sprawled, took his back, and got him cuffed in just a few seconds. As soon as I got his arms behind his back, he stopped fighting and apologized.

If I recall correctly, he was in his mid-40s (a few years older than me at the time). He was really tall, but very skinny and undernourished looking. No past criminal record other than some minor convictions for trespassing and disorderly conduct. He wasn’t on any drugs.

He was just crazy. The voices in his head told him to do it. After I arrested him, he was calm and polite again. He couldn’t tell me why he had tried to take me down. It was almost like he suffered from extremely poor impulse control. He had a strange thought and he just suddenly had to act on it. No rhyme or reason.

Another anecdote:

I was once dispatched to a traffic crash in the early afternoon. After I arrived on scene, I quickly determined that the person who caused the crash was incredibly intoxicated. He was a tiny (103 lbs) male in his 20s and drunk out of his mind (later tested at .229). As I was handcuffing him, I asked him a question:

“Do you have any weapons on you?”

Nods head yes

“What do you have, a gun?”

Nods head yes

“Where is it?”

He says “right here!” and rapidly goes for his waistband.

Greg smash. To the ground we go. I land on top of him, get control of his hands and cuff him. After he’s cuffed, I search him. No gun.

“Why did you say you had a gun?”

Laughs. “Cuz I’m a fuckup”


About a year ago, I responded to a very chaotic call. A college-age male was playing basketball with his friends on a junior high school playground. His friends reported that he sort of “spaced out” and then suddenly ripped off his shorts and shirt. Clad only in his boxer shorts and shoes, he ran away from his friends at full speed. The friends were puzzled by his actions and started following the nearly naked man.

He ran to a neighborhood across the street from the school. He walked up to the front door of a house and kicked it in. He entered the house and began tearing up all of the furniture and destroying all the art in the house. He did not know the owner of the home and seemingly chose the house randomly. In less than five minutes he caused almost $30,000 in damage and ended up cutting himself pretty badly.

He walked out of the house, took his shoes off, and ran back to the school. There was a girls’ lacrosse game going on. The man ran directly onto the lacrosse field and tried to take lacrosse sticks from a few of the girls. An athletic trainer saw this bleeding man wearing only underwear and appearing disoriented. The trainer approached the bleeding man and asked if he needed medical attention. The man punched the female trainer in the face.

By now, the fans watching the game noticed what was happening. Several of the girls’ fathers chased the man down and tackled him. They held him down until we arrived. It took several cops to get him under some semblance of control and into the back of the police car. He banged his head on the plastic screen that separates the back seat of the cruiser from the driver for almost the entire drive from the scene to the jail.

When he arrived at the station he punched an officer and it took four of us to get him controlled and buckled in to a restraint chair. He soon became almost catatonic. We summoned the medics to come check him out. Blood pressure and heart rate normal. No difficulty breathing. No wounds deep enough to need stitches. He got a clean bill of health.

So why did he destroy a house, attack an athletic trainer, and punch a cop?

We don’t know. About an hour into the arrest, the suspect became fully coherent. He didn’t remember any facet of the incident. He said that he had consumed some “magic mushrooms” and shortly thereafter started acting irrationally. He said he did the mushrooms regularly and that he took the same dose that he always takes. He’s never done anything like this before.

I’ve been a cop for 24 years. My undergraduate degree is in natural resources management. I went to class every day in college with hippie “tree hugger” types who liked to smoke dope and eat mushrooms. I’ve also been to Burning Man five times. I’ve seen LOTS of people high on psychedelic mushrooms. None of those stoned people acted like this guy.

I suspect that he was either lying about what drugs he took, or that he had consumed some contaminated mushrooms. His behavior is more consistent with the behaviors of people doing synthetic cathinones (Spice, K-2, Bath Salts). He was displaying signs of excited delirium, not what I would expect from a person who has taken a “normal” dose of ‘shrooms.

Sometimes the drugs have a more indirect effect:

I asked him if he ever tried to get off the heroin. He said:

“No. I don’t want to get off of it. The drugs don’t even get me that high any more. I inject the heroin just to keep from getting sick. It doesn’t make me happy like it used to.”

“What I like is the adrenaline high from stealing things. I also like the adrenaline high I get from buying the dope without getting caught by the police. Those are my motivations; the drugs just keep me from getting sick. I just really like the thrill I get when I’m stealing things and the heroin ensures that I keep stealing. You can put me in jail, but I’ll start stealing and using again the first day I get out. I’ll never stop. I don’t want to stop”

What’s the point in telling all these stories?

The point is that the criminal who attacks you may have absolutely no motivation whatsoever for the attack. His motivations might also be altered by drugs or alcohol. He might just want the adrenaline spike he gets from committing the crime.

You might never really understand a particular criminal’s motivating drive. Unfortunately that lack of understanding doesn’t prevent the criminal from victimizing you. As I mentioned before, you don’t control all the variables. There are situations where no level of increased awareness, verbal judo, or “de-escalation” will prevent your victimization.

Freedman did not invent this pattern, but he does follow it

Thursday, July 25th, 2019

Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History is gargantuan, T. Greer notes:

Really. This intellectual history clocks in at over 760 pages. It narrates various theorists’ attempts to discover and describe the principles of strategy over the last few centuries of Western thought. Freedman covers many definitions of the word ‘strategy’ but never settles on any one of them: the common theme that unites them all is an attempt made by one group of humans to change the behavior of another group. Freedman’s book is divided into three sections and the narrative arc of each follows a different category of strategic interaction: the first, attempts to impose one’s will upon an adversary through military force; the second, attempts to impose one’s will upon an adversary through law, propaganda, media manipulation, revolution, or protest; and the third, attempts to impose one’s will upon an adversary through economic bargaining and financial maneuvering. These categories are less about ends than means. The first group of theories were addressed to generals and statesmen; the second, to activists, revolutionaries, and politicians; and the third, to businessmen and financial strategists.

These three categories of people seem quite different from each other. But they are not. One of the fascinating things about Strategy is how these three groups of theorists regularly faced the very same set of intellectual problems — sometimes stumbling across one of them for the very first time in the same decade theorists in a different stream of strategy were wrestling with the exact same issues. Freedman does not beat you over the head with these parallels. Nevertheless, they vindicate Freedman’s decision to include all of this disparate material in one generously sized book.

Freedman’s history really begins only in the 19th century:

Specifically, 19th century Europe. At this time, no one European country dominates the debates over military, political, or revolutionary strategy. Germany is something of the center-node for strategic thought and practice as the century comes to a close, but the Germans by no means have a monopoly on strategy, and there is no clear division between debates happening within Germany and those happening outside of it. In both military and revolutionary circles, everybody read everybody else.

When American thinkers first show up on the scene in the 1910s, this did not change. They simply joined the conversation. It is clear from Freedman’s profile of American theorists like Jane Addams and John Dewey (not who you expected to show up in this book, is it?), that the American thinkers of this era viewed themselves as voices in an international conversation. Freedman presents them as such; the chapter in which they appear gives equal space to Max Weber and Leo Tolstoy.

This changes in the post-war world. In each of the three eras, Freedman’s intellectual history narrows in on America after 1945. These chapters are devoted almost entirely to case studies involving American social movements, American military conflicts, or American firms. Henceforth he profiles frameworks created by strategic theorists living in America or made relevant because they were written in English and addressed to Americans. There are two main exceptions to this: a chapter on Foucault and French social theory of the 60s and 70s, and a chapter on Japanese business strategy in the 1980s. Even these two chapters earn their place mostly because of the immediate impact their subjects had on American strategic thought in ’80s and ’90s. The utility of French thinking and Japanese praxis is assessed by the impact they had on American conceptions of strategy.

There is a larger pattern here. You will find it on numerous syllabi in philosophy and related topics in the humanities. A chronologically minded 101 course will contain a scatter-shot collection of writings from the ancient and medieval world, a much larger chunk of content from 18th and 19th century Europe, and then around 1950 or so “Western” thought becomes “Anglophone” thought, and most of that is really just “American.” Freedman did not invent this pattern, but he does follow it.

Has the engine of thought really left the Old World behind?

I doubt that it has. My reasoning reflects my second observation about the grand course of Freedman’s narrative: the theorists of the post-’60s, for a lack of a better way to put it, seem far less brilliant than those that came before.


Zoltan believed he could still turn his ancient missiles into lethal weapons

Thursday, July 25th, 2019

The Serbian battery commander whose missiles downed an American F-16 and F-117 in 1999 retired as a colonel a few years later and revealed how he did it:

Zoltan had about 200 troops under his command. He got to know them well, trained hard and made sure everyone could do what was expected of them. This level of quality leadership was essential, for Zoltan’s achievements were a group effort.

Zoltan used a lot of effective techniques that American air defense experts expected, but did not expect to encounter because of poor leadership by the enemy. For example, Zoltan knew that his major foe was HARM (anti-radar) missiles and electronic detection systems used by the Americans, as well as smart bombs from aircraft who had spotted him. To get around this, he used landlines for all his communications (no cell phones or radio). This was more of a hassle, often requiring him to use messengers on foot or in cars. But it meant the American intel people overhead were never sure where he was.

His radars and missile launchers were moved frequently, meaning that some of his people were always busy looking for new sites to set up in, or setting up or taking down the equipment. His battery traveled over 100,000 kilometers during the 78 day NATO bombing campaign, just to avoid getting hit. They did, and his troops knew all that effort was worth the effort.

The Serbs had spies outside the Italian airbase most of the bombers operated from. When the bombers took off, the information on what aircraft they, and how many, quickly made it to Zoltan and the other battery commanders.

Zoltan studied all the information he could get on American stealth technology, and the F-117. There was a lot of unclassified data, and speculation, out there. He developed some ideas on how to beat stealth, based on the fact that the technology didn’t make the F-117 invisible to radar, just very to get, and keep, a good idea of exactly where the aircraft was. Zoltan figured out how to tweak his radars to get a better lock on stealth type targets. This has not been discussed openly.

The Serbs also set up a system of human observers, who would report on sightings of bombers entering Serbia, and track their progress.

The spies and observers enabled Zoltan to keep his radars on for a minimal amount of time. This made it difficult for the American SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) to use their HARM missiles (that homed in on radar transmissions.) Zoltan never lost a radar to a HARM missile.

Zoltan used the human spotters and brief use of radar, with short range shots at American bombers. The SA-3 was guided from the ground, so you had to use surprise to get an accurate shot in before the target used jamming and evasive maneuvers to make the missile miss. The F-117 he shot down was only 13 kilometers away.

Zoltan got some help from his enemies. The NATO commanders often sent their bombers in along the same routes, and didn’t make a big effort to find out if hotshots like Zoltan were down there, and do something about it. Never underestimate your enemy.

(Hat tip to Alrenous, who mentioned this recently. Frankly, I thought I’d posted about it long ago…)

Rekognition misidentified darker-skinned women as men 31 percent of the time

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

Amazon’s Rekognition face-recognition software doesn’t always work that well, particularly on people of color:

An MIT study released earlier this year found that Rekognition misidentified darker-skinned women as men 31 percent of the time, yet made no mistakes for lighter-skinned men.

There’s no reason to trot out the old cultural chestnuts

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

Screenwriter Tony Tost is spooked by how a living, breathing cultural memory is seeming to evaporate:

My pet theory is that the reason so many younger Americans have apparently no awareness of singers, movies, TV shows, or writers from before their teenage years is because their parents (my generation) have been over-indulgent in letting them only access culture that’s directly marketed to their age group. Streaming technological delivery systems probably contribute to this: for a lot of families there’s no reason to trot out the old cultural chestnuts because the newest freshest thing is right at their fingertips.

So it’s no wonder younger folks don’t have any cultural memory or taste for aesthetic adventure. In pre-school their parents played the most recent kids’ music in the car for them instead of the older music the parents actually wanted to listen to. And at home the kids only watched kid-centric youtube channels or superhero or Pixar movies instead of suffering through dad’s weird favorite old movies. So when the kids hit elementary school, they only have ears and eyes for whatever was being marketed to their age group that year. The same thing carried forth to junior high, high school, and beyond. So at what point would they have discovered who Akira Kurosawa or Billie Holiday or even Robert Redford might be? Every step of their development they’ve been trapped in the pre-packaged bubble of the new.

I think we deprive our kids if we don’t make them put up with listening or watching things that only the adults really like. Older and adult art forces them to get out of their comfort zone and deal with a little ambiguity and thematic density and encounter shit that wasn’t manufactured for their immediate effortless consumption. It might even make them develop what John Keats called “negative capability,” the capacity for “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” With older art, they have to find value and pleasure in something that wasn’t necessarily made for them. I think that’s healthy as hell. And because it’s not happening very much anymore, I’m afraid we’re producing emptier, more fragile, less intellectually and aesthetically adventurous adults.

Every era’s monetary institutions are virtually unimaginable until they are created

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2019

On Bretton Woods’ 75th Anniversary, Tyler Cowen reminds us that every era’s monetary institutions are virtually unimaginable until they are created:

Every era’s monetary institutions are virtually unimaginable until they are created. Looking forward, don’t assume the status quo will hold forever, but rather prepare to be shocked.

Consider the broader history of monetary and financial institutions. The gold standard (and sometimes bi-metallic) regime that marked the Western world from 1815-1914 was without precedent. In medieval times, gold, silver, copper and bills of exchange — from multiple issuers — all circulated as means of payment, and often there was no single dominant form of money. As the gold standard evolved, however, claims to gold became a global means of settling claims and easing foreign trade and investment. While the system was based on some central bank intervention, most notably from the Bank of England, it was self-regulating to a remarkable degree, and it formed the backbone of one of the West’s most successful eras of economic growth. It was not obvious that the West would arrive at such a felicitous arrangement.Now fast forward to the current day. Currencies are fiat, the ties to gold are gone, and most exchange rates for the major currencies are freely floating, with periodic central bank intervention to manipulate exchange rates. For all the criticism it receives, this arrangement has also proved to be a viable global monetary order, and it has been accompanied by an excellent overall record for global growth.

Yet this fiat monetary order might also have seemed, to previous generations of economists, unlikely to succeed. Fiat currencies were associated with the assignat hyperinflations of the French Revolution, the floating exchange rates and competitive devaluations of the 1920s were not a success, and it was hardly obvious that most of the world’s major central banks would pursue inflation targets of below 2%. Until recent times, the record of floating fiat currencies was mostly disastrous.

It is considered bizarre that former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan advocated a gold standard in 1967, but in fact it was a pretty reasonable view at the time, even if it turned out to be incorrect. And it wasn’t just Greenspan who didn’t see where the world was heading; Benn Steil, in his well-known book on Bretton Woods, wrote: “Keynes thought of freely floating rates as a sort of blind groping … and certainly not as a viable alternative model for underpinning trade relations among nations.” In reality, we are just emerging from arguably the world’s most rapid age of globalization, from about 1990 to 2007.

The Bretton Woods arrangements also seemed highly unlikely until they were in place. They involved a complicated system of exchange rate pegs, capital controls and a “gold pool” (and other methods) to control gold prices and redemption ratios. What’s more, the whole thing was dependent on America’s role as global hegemon, both politically and economically. The dollar still was tied to gold, and the other major currencies tied to the dollar, but as the system evolved it required that no one was too keen to redeem dollars for gold (the French unwillingness to abide by this stricture was one proximate cause of the collapse of Bretton Woods).

I don’t think a monetary economist from, say, 1890 could have imagined that such an arrangement would prove possible, much less successful. Yet the Bretton Woods arrangements had a wonderful track record, as the 1950s and 1960s generated strong economic growth for both the U.S. and Western Europe.

At the same time, once Bretton Woods ended in the early 1970s, few people thought it was possible to turn back the clock. The system required the U.S. to be a creditor nation, to hold much of the world’s gold stock, and for countries such as France to defer to American wishes on gold convertibility. Once again, the line between an “imaginable” and “unimaginable” monetary arrangement proved to be a thin one.

Another surprising monetary innovation would be the euro. Both Milton Friedman and Paul Krugman warned that the euro was unlikely to succeed and persist. Yet it has proven more durable than many people expected, and there does not seem to be an end in sight. This kind of a common fiat currency, spread across so many nations, is without precedent in world history.

So as you consider the legacy of Bretton Woods this week, remember that core lesson: There will be major changes in monetary and institutional arrangements that no one can even imagine right now. Assume the permanency of the status quo at your peril.