Bill Gates recommends 5 good books for a lousy year

Monday, December 14th, 2020

Bill Gates recommends 5 good books for a lousy year. The one I have already read, David Epstein’s Range, is well worth reading:

I started following Epstein’s work after watching his fantastic 2014 TED talk on sports performance. In this fascinating book, he argues that although the world seems to demand more and more specialization — in your career, for example — what we actually need is more people “who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress.” His examples run from Roger Federer to Charles Darwin to Cold War-era experts on Soviet affairs. I think his ideas even help explain some of Microsoft’s success, because we hired people who had real breadth within their field and across domains. If you’re a generalist who has ever felt overshadowed by your specialist colleagues, this book is for you.

I have mentioned Range a few times:

Throwing men against fire and steel

Sunday, December 13th, 2020

This Kind of War by T.R. FehrenbachAs the 23rd’s perimeter broke at Chipyong-ni on the night of 14 February 1951, the battle took in miniature the form it would have for the next few months, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War):

The Chinese by prodigally throwing men against fire and steel had wiped out a defending unit. Any ground commander, given men and willing to spend them, can break any ground defense, in time, at any chosen place.

It’s possible to travel all around the world and never leave AirSpace

Saturday, December 12th, 2020

Digital platforms like Foursquare are producing a harmonization of tastes across the world:

Every time Schwarzmann alights in a foreign city he checks the app, which lists food, nightlife, and entertainment recommendations with the help of a social network-augmented algorithm. Then he heads toward the nearest suggested cafe. But over the past few years, something strange has happened. “Every coffee place looks the same,” Schwarzmann says. The new cafe resembles all the other coffee shops Foursquare suggests, whether in Odessa, Beijing, Los Angeles, or Seoul: the same raw wood tables, exposed brick, and hanging Edison bulbs.

It’s not that these generic cafes are part of global chains like Starbucks or Costa Coffee, with designs that spring from the same corporate cookie cutter. Rather, they have all independently decided to adopt the same faux-artisanal aesthetic.


We could call this strange geography created by technology “AirSpace.” It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live / work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet. The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless, a value that Silicon Valley prizes and cultural influencers like Schwarzmann take advantage of. Changing places can be as painless as reloading a website. You might not even realize you’re not where you started.

It’s possible to travel all around the world and never leave AirSpace, and some people don’t.

A squad tent won’t stop bullets

Friday, December 11th, 2020

This Kind of War by T.R. FehrenbachT. R. Fehrenbach describes a scene (in This Kind of War) where an officer commanding the company mortars discovered a group of artillerymen huddling together inside one of the battery’s canvas tents:

Fire from the hills was beginning to spray over into the valley now, and mortarmen and gunners were being hurt.

“Hell!” this officer barked at them. “A squad tent won’t stop bullets!”

Despite this officer’s urging, none of these men would go up on the hill to give the riflemen a hand. Faced with being overrun, they seemed to feel that because their primary military occupational specialty did not include handling a rifle, no one had the right to make them use one.

The only thing tougher than moving illegal drugs across borders is getting the profits back to Mexico’s cartels

Thursday, December 10th, 2020

Small cells of Chinese criminals have upended the way narcotics cash is laundered:

The only thing tougher than moving illegal drugs across borders is getting the profits back to Mexico’s cartels, U.S. officials said. Cash is heavy, and transporting it exposes traffickers to lots of risk. Putting it into the banking system is perilous, too. The U.S. and Mexican financial systems have been geared to detect dirty money.

Prosecutors told the court that Gan and his accomplices sidestepped these obstacles by first moving the U.S. cash offshore to China, then on to Mexico. Lim was a linchpin connecting both sides of the Pacific. In her November 2019 plea agreement, Lim admitted to laundering, with Gan and Pan Haiping, about $48 million in drug cash between 2016 and September 2017. She took a 0.5% commission, the agreement said.

Lim testified at Gan’s trial that she had two jobs. The first was collecting drug money in U.S. cities such as Chicago and New York from cartel contacts, typically anywhere from $150,000 to $1 million at a time. She would wait in a public place, armed with a burner phone, a code name and the serial number of an authentic $1 bill. Mexican cartels would pass on her details to their dealer contacts, who would call Lim’s burner phone and use the code name to identify themselves. At the rendezvous point, Lim would give them the $1 bill with the corresponding serial number as a “receipt” to verify the handoff had taken place, Lim said at trial.

Lim’s other job was recruiting businesses in the Chinese diaspora to help them make that cash disappear, Lim and prosecutors said.

Some U.S.-based Chinese merchants have long engaged in off-the-books currency “swaps” to avoid hefty bank fees. Such transactions are illegal in the United States, American authorities said, if they are used by companies routinely to skirt the formal banking system or to operate an unauthorized money transfer business. In some cases these informal, hawala-style transactions are used to help wealthy Chinese move money clandestinely out of China, in violation of that nation’s currency controls.

The operation run by Gan and Pan Haiping grew to include at least three Chinese merchants in New York, who were paid commissions to participate, Lim told the court. The names of the Chinese merchants were not revealed at Gan’s trial, and it’s unclear if they knew of Lim’s links to drug trafficking.

Prosecutors at trial presented testimony, evidence and graphics showing how the transactions worked. At their simplest, authorities said, that process worked as follows: Lim would arrive at one of the merchants with, say, $150,000 in cartel cash. With the businessperson observing, she would open a currency converter app on her smartphone to obtain the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Chinese yuan. She would also hand over the details of a bank account in China given to her by Gan. In what’s known as a “mirror transaction,” the Chinese businessperson would take possession of the $150,000 in U.S. currency while simultaneously transferring the equivalent in Chinese yuan from their own account in China to the bank account number provided by Gan.

The result was that a foreign transfer of funds had been made without involving a U.S financial institution – or the accompanying digital fingerprints. The Chinese business had effectively used yuan from its China-based bank account to purchase cash dollars now on hand in the United States; it earned a commission for its trouble while avoiding bank fees and U.S. government scrutiny.

Meanwhile, Gan had converted U.S. drug dollars into Chinese currency now sitting in a Chinese bank. The only contact with the financial system – a domestic transfer between two accounts in China – would be unlikely to raise red flags with Chinese banking authorities unaware of the money’s provenance.

The crime ring used various Chinese banks for the operations, including the Bank of China, according to WhatsApp messages exchanged between Gan and Pan Haiping. The messages were extracted from Gan’s iPhone by Homeland Security Investigations agents after his arrest, and key excerpts were read out aloud by prosecutors at trial, according to court transcripts.


“When there is need by the cartels for cash to be laundered, and there is demand for cash from the Chinese, you have a perfect marriage made in heaven,” Im told Reuters. “The Chinese brokers are very important to the Mexican and Colombian cartels.”


Chinese money launderers are squeezing out Mexican and Colombian rivals by undercutting them on price by as much as half, U.S. officials said. The Chinese operators have been able to do that because they levy fees on both sides of each transaction. They impose fat commissions as high as 10% on Chinese citizens eager to get money out of China. That allows the Chinese money brokers, in turn, to charge traffickers nominal fees of just a few percentage points. The money launderers still turn a handsome profit while locking in a steady supply of coveted dollars and euros from cartel customers.

Chinese began to infiltrate over the low hills, carrying pole and satchel charges

Wednesday, December 9th, 2020

This Kind of War by T.R. FehrenbachThe Chinese infiltrators had success, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), with some unorthodox tactics:

But after nightfall, flares soared high all around the southern rim of Chipyong-ni, and the brassy noise of bugles beat on the defender’s ears. Chinese began to infiltrate over the low hills, carrying pole and satchel charges. They poured into George Company, killing many men by dropping explosives in the foxholes.

Stefan Zweig liked to play an interesting game

Tuesday, December 8th, 2020

The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, during his many years of delightful and luxurious travel, liked to play an interesting game — one very similar to a practice that Seneca had:

As soon as Zweig arrived in a new city — no matter how distant — he would pretend that he’d just moved there and desperately needed a job. He would go from store to store, checking to see if they were hiring. He’d read the help wanted ads in the newspaper. He would often go all the way through the hiring process until he got an offer. Offer in hand, he would then walk out and enjoy his trip, feeling the pride and comfort of knowing he could handle starting from scratch if he had to.

Seneca’s version of this was to practice poverty once per month. He’d wear his worst clothes and eat the cheapest food. He’d sleep on the ground. The point was to get up close and personal with the thing most of us secretly and subconsciously fear: losing everything. Being poor. Having nothing.

No war was complete unless a little fun could be had out of it

Monday, December 7th, 2020

This Kind of War by T.R. FehrenbachThe French, already engaged in Vietnam, had supplied only one battalion of infantry to the Korean effort, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), but the battalion was a good one:

Professionals all, the unit contained many half-wild Algerians, to whom no war was complete unless a little fun could be had out of it, too.

As the first platoon of Chinese rushed them, a Frenchman cranked a hand siren, setting up an ungodly screech. A single squad fixed bayonets, grabbed up hand grenades, and when the enemy was twenty yards away, came out of their holes and charged.

Four times their number of CCF stopped, turned, and ran into the night. The Frenchmen went back to smoking and telling jokes.

Here are three ways that education funding might look different a decade from now

Sunday, December 6th, 2020

The predominant funding model for K-12 education is based on seat time, or how many students are physically present in a classroom in a traditional school year:

The pandemic has disrupted nearly everything about K-12, including who is in a school building. It has also shown that learning can take place virtually, or in small groups, not just in a classroom for nine months straight.


Overall, K-12 spending in the U.S. was $739 billion in 2016-17, or $14,439 per student, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Most K-12 schools in the U.S. rely on local property tax for roughly half of their revenue, a legacy of the days when public schools were community institutions funded by donations.

Over time, state funding has become a bigger piece of the pie, driven partly by judges who found that local funding unfairly benefits students in wealthy areas and penalizes students in poor ones. Per-pupil funding still varies widely depending on the wealth of the community where a school is located.


Here are three ways that education funding might look different a decade from now.

One model allots money based on a student’s individual needs, with schools getting paid more for kids from poor areas or those who are struggling to meet proficiency standards, as opposed to equal amounts for each child.


A “learner-validated” model distributes funding based on what the student learns, as they master different skills or meet completion requirements. It also means that schools have an incentive to improve their teaching, because schools get paid more as learners meet benchmarks.


There will likely be a mix of online and in-person learning models that continue after the crisis is over, funded by tax revenue, offset by tax breaks to parents or supported by public and private grants.

Michael Strong has explained how to give your child an expensive private education for less than $3,000 per year — which is quite a bit less than $14,439.

But the retreat once started was difficult to halt

Saturday, December 5th, 2020

This Kind of War by T.R. FehrenbachWhile in overall numbers the allied forces nearly matched the Chinese, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), at the point of impact the disparity was overwhelming:

But the terrain made it a series of Indian fights. While one American division was cut to pieces, others a few miles across the mountains enjoyed relative peace and quiet.

Understandably, American commanders were eager to get out of the horrible mountains and back to where they could fight once more in modern, civilized fashion.

The first withdrawal, to the 38th parallel, would have accomplished this. But the retreat once started was difficult to halt.


Contact, except for scattered patrol actions, was broken. The mechanized U.N. forces had been able to move south faster than the footsore, ill-supplied, and badly coordinated CCF could follow.

Now geography began to exert its influence in reverse. In South Korea the terrain was still broken, but passable to vehicles. In a narrower part of the peninsula, Americans and ROK’s could throw a continuous line from coast to coast, with a refused flank to either side. And while U.N. supply lines were shortened and improved, the CCF inherited a logistic nightmare.

The CCF’s guns, ammunition, and supplies had to be brought down from the Yalu under constant air attack, over poor roads, and on a limited amount of transport. The CCF had manpower, including thousands of Korean laborers, and could live on very little, but there is a limit to the operations of an army that has to bear its ammunition hundreds of miles over mountains, principally by muscle power.

Now, rebuilt, reequipped, in maneuverable terrain, the U.N. forces needed more than anything else the will to fight. The means they had.

Matt Ridgway supplied the will.

The kinds of gun control measures that poll well are not the kind of thing that would significantly move the needle in terms of US gun deaths

Friday, December 4th, 2020

Democrats were wise, Matthew Yglesias notes, to have abandoned gun control as an issue between John Kerry’s defeat and Barack Obama’s re-election:

Back a bit over a decade ago when I worked at the Center for American Progress there were certain issues CAP didn’t really work on. Some of that was just a lack of funding or staff interest but there was no rule against trying to go get the funding if you were interested. The two big exceptions to that were trade, which was seen as too divisive in the Democratic Party, and guns, where the feeling was that post-2004 Democrats had decided that this was not an issue worth losing votes over.

That analysis had a few parts to it:

  1. Even gun regulation measures that poll well did not seem to really motivate voters while opposition to gun regulations was clearly motivating.
  2. The kinds of gun control measures that poll well are not the kind of thing that would significantly move the needle in terms of US gun deaths — the high-profile mass shootings that spark these conversations are statistically rare and generally don’t involve shooters who would’ve flunked universal background checks.
  3. The pro-gun forces are advantaged by the geography of the US Senate, so the outlook for federal action on even popular-but-ineffective measures is bad.

Related to (1), most progressives themselves did not think this was a particularly important issue compared to universal health care, climate change, immigration reform, and abortion rights. Nor did they consider it as urgent as fiscal stimulus and financial regulation.

In summary, it did not make sense to risk losing votes over measures that were unlikely to be adopted and unlikely to make a huge difference even if they were adopted.


Then came Sandy Hook, which was horrifying and happened to arrive at the very peak of liberal hubris about cultural issues right in the wake of Obama’s win. Progressives re-engaged with the issue, and Pat Toomey (a conservative Republican from a state Obama won) and Joe Manchin (one of the vocal pro-gun Democrats) wrote a bill that while not particularly consequential would, if it passed, have signaled a breaking of the pro-gun consensus in Washington.

It was a calculated risk and it didn’t pay off. The Manchin-Toomey bill failed, and all four of the elements of the circa 2008 consensus turned out to still be true.

Given that reality, it makes sense for people who care passionately about other issues to try to swim back to that old approach.


Here’s the deal: There are about 40,000 firearms deaths per year in the United States and if you could make them go away that would be great.

But a majority of those deaths are suicides. And the homicides are mostly committed by normal, inexpensive easily concealed handguns, not by scary assault weapons. Where do the guns come from? In a 2016 report for the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Mariel Alper and Lauren Glaze look at a survey of prison inmates and found that 21 percent of all federal and state prisoners said they had a firearm when they committed the offense for which they were serving time in prison. Of those incarcerated gun owners, just “seven percent had purchased it under their own name from a licensed firearm dealer.”

The largest share (43 percent) said they bought the gun on the black market. Another 25 percent say they got it from family or friends.

None of this is to deny that gun control laws could drastically reduce the incidence of firearms death. You might think that potential suicides would just substitute some other means of killing themselves, but research does not bare that out. If fewer guns were around, then fewer people would kill themselves. By the same token, you definitely could drain the swamp of illegally circulating firearms. But the way you would accomplish these things would be by drastically reducing the number of legally owned guns around. Stricter background checks for new purchases just aren’t going to significantly change the situation.

The United Kingdom has drastically fewer gun assaults than we do and that has a lot of benefits. Not only are innocent lives saved, but it allows their police to operate largely unarmed which would greatly ameliorate a tangled nexus of American social problems around racism and police use of force. But the UK didn’t get there with really rigorous background checks, it got there by making civilian ownership of guns mostly illegal.

What’s more: Gun enthusiasts are aware of this. So when progressives talk about the tragedy of gun deaths in America, it doesn’t matter if their actual proposal is a very mild tweak to background checks. When you define “the problem” as gun deaths, you are pushing toward a drastic solution that gun hobbyists don’t want, and they are highly motivated to vote against you.

Let no more civilians through

Thursday, December 3rd, 2020

This Kind of War by T.R. FehrenbachThousands of Korean refugees in January 1951 were pouring southward, streaming through U.N. lines, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), and with them came disguised NKPA:

Muñoz, like all the old hands, had grown wary of infiltrators.

One day he ordered his roadblocks, “Let no more civilians through.”

A sergeant, a recallee who had had to leave his new business and was understandably bitter about it, said, “Captain, I’m not about to shoot civilians.”

Muñoz put hard black eyes on this man. “Sergeant, I realize you’re new. We’ve had experience with this. Some of these ‘civilians’ have inflicted casualties on us, and unless you want to be killed, you’d better watch it.”

One night, while on roadblock guard, the sergeant disappeared. Muñoz figured some “civilians” had probably thrown his body into the deep snows along the road. In spring, thousands of skeletons were found all over the roadsides of Korea, but few of them could be identified.

Social scientific works can be a trove of politically incorrect data

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2020

Many conservatives credulously believe progressives’ claims that the social sciences vindicate liberal ideology, Steve Sailer says, but social scientific works can be a trove of politically incorrect data:

Here are some striking facts gleaned from [A Peculiar Indifference: The Neglected Toll of Violence on Black America, by conventional liberal criminologist Elliott Currie of UC Irvine]:

Between 2000 and 2018…more than 162,000 black Americans lost their lives to violence…the population of a substantial midsize American city — say Jackson, Mississippi….

As Currie admits, the vast majority of black murder victims are unquestionably killed by other blacks. The criminologist offers a lengthy historical explanation of why that is still, in 2020, the fault of whites (as you no doubt would anticipate, FDR’s redlining plays a role), but the 21st-century empirical data in the book is eye-opening:

In the United States today, a young black man has fifteen times the chance of dying from violence as his white counterpart.

Why do murderous blacks and their victims skew so young? Among whites, “hardened criminals” tend to be considerably older than they are among blacks. Does the violence gap between the races decline with age? It’s an unanswered question whether the racial disparity in homicidal tendencies actually diminishes with increasing age, or whether blacks of criminal inclinations simply tend to wind up dead or in prison earlier than whites do.

Currie goes on:

What makes these disparities even more sobering is that the rates of violent death for white men in the United States are themselves quite high by comparison with those of men in other advanced industrial societies…. The current annual homicide death rate for non-Hispanic white men in the United States, at nearly four per 100,000, is more than five times the rate for all German men, and close to twenty times the rate for men in Japan.

Contrary to the usual assumptions that racial gaps are driven by white bigotry, they tend to be smallest in Southern and old Wild West states, and largest where whites are best-behaved, such as in North-Central blue states:

In the state of Illinois, for instance, the homicide death rate for young African-American men (ages fifteen to twenty-nine) has averaged 143 per 100,000 over the course of the twenty-first century, thirty-seven times the rate for white men the same age.

Surely, though, race is less important than sex when it comes to murder rates?

But so strong is the effect of race that a black woman has half again as much chance of dying by homicide as a white man…. Black women lose far more years of life to homicide than to diabetes—a notorious killer of African-American women.

Moreover, among male victims of domestic murders:

What may be more surprising, though, is that intimate partner violence also contributes to the excess risk faced by black men. Among the male victims…the racial imbalance was even more striking than among female ones: nearly half of the men who died in these incidents of intimate partner violence were black.

Flamboyance in itself is worth nothing

Tuesday, December 1st, 2020

This Kind of War by T.R. FehrenbachT. R. Fehrenbach discusses leadership (in This Kind of War):

But the one thing a democracy has in common with a dictatorship is that when there is military failure, heads must roll. Perhaps, as Voltaire remarked, it is not a bad policy, since it tends to encourage the remaining leaders.


History has tended to prove that, like bishops, generals need a certain flamboyance for public success. Walker had none; he could never have been a public figure, win or lose.

Flamboyance in itself is worth nothing, but when it is coupled with genuine ability, history records the passage of a great leader across the lives of men. It is no accident that the names of Clausewitz, Jomini, von François, or Gruenther — brilliant minds all — are known only to students of warfare, while all the world remembers Ney and his grenadiers, Patton’s pearl-handled pistols, and Matt Ridgway’s taped grenades.

Ridgway was brave:

He was possessed of such personal courage that, caught in artillery shellfire, he was always the first man out of the ditch — a habit that caused his aide, a Medal of Honor winner, once to remark, “Oh, Jesus, I wish the Old Man would wait a little longer!”