He pounded through that dungeon with a ruthless efficiency

Tuesday, June 15th, 2021

Ben Espen reviews the D&D-inspired anime Goblin Slayer, whose main character is old school:

The Goblin Slayer, in his obsession with killing goblins, studies them relentlessly. He learns their ways, and schemes better and better ways to kill them. It reminds me very much of this Hill Cantons blog post about they way Chris Kutalik’s Vietnam veteran father played D&D like he was leading a patrol in ‘Nam. All the other adventurers find the Slayer kind of weird. And he is kind of weird. But he is really good at what he does, and he takes a real problem very seriously that no one else does. The metajoke here is of course that everyone else this fantasy world thinks they are playing the modern roleplaying game of improv theater with fantasy superpowers, while the Goblin Slayer lives in Fantasy F**king Vietnam.

Here’s how Chris Kutalik describes Fantasy F**king Vietnam:

My father was a Vietnam vet. Not a “I scrubbed B-52s on Guam” or “flew F-16s in the Texas National Guard” kind of vet, but a Purple-Hearted combat veteran of the First Cavalry. I always felt that he hated the war though, what it did to him body and soul — he still carries shrapnel in a shoulder to this day. It haunted him, but he spoke freely of it and even let it enter our play with him.

On long hikes he’d send me or my brother, stick in hand, to walk point — several yards in front so that the sudden blast of an imaginary mine or grenade didn’t wipe out the “squad”. Hike done we’d jog back to the car Jody-chanting: “I wanna be an Airborne Ranger, living my life full of danger.”

And I played D&D with the man.

Somewhere in the summer of 1981, I ran a few sessions as a DM where he played a first-level mook of a Fighting Man, fittingly called the Tunnel Rat, alongside my brother’s bland-by-comparison elf. He played the game with every bit of a rigor that phrase conjures up for latter-day REMFs.

He pored over the equipment tables, grilling me on the properties of this or that item. It took him about five seconds to grasp the killing power of the standard Molotov-like flask of oil. He bought 20. Grokking the need to travel light and mean he skimped on armor and the excess weapons so common in our summer camp D&D experience. He bought dogs instead.

Viet Cong Tunnel Complex

He pounded through that dungeon with a ruthless efficiency. At first my brother’s PC walked point. When that nearly ended with his death at the hands of a goblin ambush, he switched to running his dogs into rooms and closing the door before running in on the attack. When that stopped working, he doused the dogs with oil, set them on fire, and loosed them into the massed ranks of his opponents.

There wasn’t a trap in the place he didn’t find, and little in the way of anything hidden missed his eye.

The game was tense, adversarial even. It brought out a side of him that scared me a little. I think sometimes we forget that games — especially such demanding ones as the role-playing variety — aren’t always leisurely fun, sometimes they mix passion and a welter of emotions in them. Those sessions certainly did, but I treasure them because they taught me something about the man.

This is the flip side of Tucker’s Kobolds:

Tucker ran an incredibly dangerous dungeon in the days I was stationed at Ft. Bragg, N.C. This dungeon had corridors that changed all of your donkeys into huge flaming demons or dropped the whole party into acid baths, but the demons were wienies compared to the kobolds on Level One. These kobolds were just regular kobolds, with 1-4 hp and all that, but they were mean. When I say they were mean, I mean they were bad, Jim. They graduated magna cum laude from the Sauron Institute for the Criminally Vicious.

When I joined the gaming group, some of the PCs had already met Tucker’s kobolds, and they were not eager to repeat the experience. The party leader went over the penciled map of the dungeon and tried to find ways to avoid the little critters, but it was not possible. The group resigned itself to making a run for it through Level One to get to the elevators, where we could go down to Level Ten and fight “okay” monsters like huge flaming demons.

It didn’t work. The kobolds caught us about 60′ into the dungeon and locked the door behind us and barred it. Then they set the corridor on fire, while we were still in it.

“NOOOOOO!!!” screamed the party leader. “It’s THEM! Run!!!”

Thus encouraged, our party scrambled down a side passage, only to be ambushed by more kobolds firing with light crossbows through murder holes in the walls and ceilings. Kobolds with metal armor and shields flung Molotov cocktails at us from the other sides of huge piles of flaming debris, which other kobolds pushed ahead of their formation using long metal poles like broomsticks. There was no mistake about it. These kobolds were bad.

We turned to our group leader for advice.

“AAAAAAGH!!!” he cried, hands clasped over his face to shut out the tactical situation.

We abandoned most of our carried items and donkeys to speed our flight toward the elevators, but we were cut off by kobold snipers who could split-move and fire, ducking back behind stones and corners after launching steel-tipped bolts and arrows, javelins, hand axes, and more flaming oil bottles. We ran into an unexplored section of Level One, taking damage all the time. It was then we discovered that these kobolds had honeycombed the first level with small tunnels to speed their movements. Kobold commandos were everywhere. All of our hirelings died. Most of our henchmen followed. We were next.

I recall we had a 12th-level magic user with us, and we asked him to throw a spell or something. “Blast ‘em!” we yelled as we ran. “Fireball ‘em! Get those little @#+$%*&!!”

“What, in these narrow corridors? ” he yelled back. “You want I should burn us all up instead of them?”

Our panicked flight suddenly took us to a dead-end corridor, where a giant air shaft dropped straight down into unspeakable darkness, far past Level Ten. Here we hastily pounded spikes into the floors and walls, flung ropes over the ledge, and climbed straight down into that unspeakable darkness, because anything we met down there was sure to be better than those kobolds.

We escaped, met some huge flaming demons on Level Ten, and even managed to kill one after about an hour of combat and the lives of half the group. We felt pretty good — but the group leader could not be cheered up.

“We still have to go out the way we came in,” he said as he gloomily prepared to divide up the treasure.

Tucker’s kobolds were the worst things we could imagine. They ate all our donkeys and took our treasure and did everything they could to make us miserable, but they had style and brains and tenacity and courage. We respected them and loved them, sort of, because they were never boring.

At the end of the training, the subjects fell rather neatly into three groups

Monday, June 14th, 2021

Some endurance athletes have the talent of trainability when it comes to VO2max, and the same pattern holds when it comes to strength training, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene):

Sixty-six people of varying ages were put on a four-month strength training plan — squats, leg press, and leg lifts — all matched for effort level as a percentage of the maximum they could lift. (A typical set was eleven reps at 75 percent of the maximum that could be lifted for a single rep.) At the end of the training, the subjects fell rather neatly into three groups: those whose thigh muscle fibers grew 50 percent in size; those whose fibers grew 25 percent; and those who had no increase in muscle size at all.

[...]

In Miami’s GEAR study, the strength gains of 442 subjects in leg press and chest press ranged from under 50 percent to over 200 percent. A twelve-week study of 585 men and women, run by an international consortium of hospitals and universities, found that upper-arm strength gains ranged from zero to over 250 percent.

[...]

One of the genes that displayed much more activity in the extreme responders when they trained was IGF-IEa, which is related to the gene that H. Lee Sweeney used to make his Schwarzenegger mice. The other standouts were the MGF and myogenin genes, both involved in muscle function and growth.

The activity levels of the MGF and myogenin genes were turned up in the high responders by 126 percent and 65 percent, respectively; in the moderate responders by 73 percent and 41 percent; and not at all in the people who had no muscle growth.

The real currency of the professional elite

Sunday, June 13th, 2021

The Class Ceiling combines an analysis of earnings data from the large-scale Labour Force Survey with findings from the Great British Class Survey (an online questionnaire hosted on the BBC website in 2011) to explain why it pays to be privileged:

In the case of the creative industries, being told that their employment practices are classist, racist and sexist would irritate and anger most senior staff, even when they implicitly accept the reality. Take their case study of one of the major TV companies, which they disguise as “6TV”, who, in the words of one self-employed — and underemployed — working-class actor, are “all these middle-class people making…working-class programme[s]”.

The creative industries’ diversity problem is obvious from the outset. It is partly about behaviour, an easy switch between the demotic and more rarefied. Senior commissioners at 6TV can put their boxfresh trainers up on the desk and swear freely, but only because they know how to do it at the right time and in the “right” context.

Friedman and Laurison’s interviews illustrate the power of “studied informality” — essentially the way in which working class ways of being have been ruthlessly appropriated by the upper middle-class as a way to make money and cachet from authenticity. 6TV’s commissioners pride themselves on programming that connects with “real people”, living “real lives” in “real places”. At the company’s gladiatorial commissioning meetings, where programme ideas get thrashed out, the most coveted skill is a kind of highbrow banter. You can proclaim, as one commissioner does, that “We’re talking about TV…it’s not Hegel!”, but you still have to know who Hegel is and to know how to get a laugh out of bringing up his name.

In other words, the authors highlight the multiplying effects of factors that privilege the already privileged. It’s not just that having rich parents makes your upbringing well resourced, which in turn makes you less risk-averse, secure in the knowledge that you have money to fall back on. It means being used to dinner settings with more than one fork. It means going to schools where the stock in trade is the cultivation not of passionate argument but of dispassionate debating skills — because none of it really matters, does it Boris? Wordplay, wit, highbrow references, and above all, the display of lightly worn intelligence deployed to raise a knowing chuckle, are the real currency of the professional elite.

They’re unlikely to function as effective team members in an organization that has to deal with everyday realities

Saturday, June 12th, 2021

R.R. Reno is not inclined to hire graduates from America’s elite universities:

A decade ago I relished the opportunity to employ talented graduates of Princeton, Yale, Harvard and the rest. Today? Not so much.

As a graduate of Haverford College, a fancy school outside Philadelphia, I took interest in the campus uproar there last fall. It concerned “antiblackness” and the “erasure of marginalized voices.” A student strike culminated in an all-college Zoom meeting for undergraduates. The college president and other administrators promised to “listen.” During the meeting, many students displayed a stunning combination of thin-skinned narcissism and naked aggression. The college administrators responded with self-abasing apologies.

Haverford is a progressive hothouse. If students can be traumatized by “insensitivity” on that leafy campus, then they’re unlikely to function as effective team members in an organization that has to deal with everyday realities. And in any event, I don’t want to hire someone who makes inflammatory accusations at the drop of a hat.

Student activists don’t represent the majority of students. But I find myself wondering about the silent acquiescence of most students. They allow themselves to be cowed by charges of racism and other sins. I sympathize. The atmosphere of intimidation in elite higher education is intense. But I don’t want to hire a person well-practiced in remaining silent when it costs something to speak up.

Just ask Spock for his opinion, then do the opposite

Friday, June 11th, 2021

In The Scout Mindset Julia Galef argues that Star Trek’s Spock is a “Straw Vulcan” — a caricature of rationality designed to make rationality look foolish — but Tim Hartford sees him as a rather typical economist:

There is another way that we economists might learn from observing Spock’s mistakes. He is a truly terrible forecaster. Galef, rather delightfully, has gone through the full catalogue of Star Trek, finding every occurrence she could of Spock making a prediction.

“[There’s] only a very slight chance [this plan] would work,” Spock tells Captain James T Kirk at one stage. The plan works. “Intercepting all three ships is an impossibility,” he warns Kirk during another adventure. Kirk intercepts all three ships. The chance of a daring escape? “Difficult to be precise, Captain. I should say approximately 7,824.7 to one.” They escape.

[...]

Yet this sort of overconfident nonsense is common in real-world punditry. We seem to have an unslakable thirst for knowledge about the future. Sadly, knowledge about the future is not easy to acquire, so we satisfy ourselves with the pretence of knowledge. If you can’t be accurate, at least sound self-assured. Spock does, every time.

“My choice will be a logical one,” he upbraids a subordinate, shortly before making another fatal error, “arrived at through logical means.”

Well said. But his record is not so good. According to Galef’s tally, when Spock says something is “impossible” it happens 83 per cent of the time, and when he gives something more than a 99.5 per cent chance, it happens just 17 per cent of the time. (He does OK with his forecasts of “likely”.) This makes him a reliably contrarian indicator, as Kirk seems to have realised — just ask Spock for his opinion, then do the opposite.

Failing that, if you want to become a better forecaster, do what Galef did: look back at old forecasts and keep score.

Bouchard figured he would see some variation in VO2max improvement between people

Thursday, June 10th, 2021

In 1992, a collective of five universities in Canada and the United States began recruiting subjects, David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene), for a seminal project known as the HERITAGE (HEalth, RIsk factors, exercise Training And GEnetics) Family Study:

The universities enlisted ninety-eight two-generation families to subject their members to five months of identical stationary-bicycle training regimens — three workouts per week of increasing intensity that would be strictly controlled in the lab.

[...]

In the 1980s, Bouchard had put a group of thirty very sedentary subjects through identical training plans to see how much their aerobic capacities would increase.

[...]

Bouchard figured he would see some variation in VO2max improvement between people, but “the range from 0 percent to 100 percent change, I did not expect,” he says. It piqued his interest enough that he decided to test identical twins in three different studies, each with a unique training protocol. Sure enough, there were high responders to training and low responders, “but within pairs of brothers, the resemblance was remarkable,” Bouchard says. “The range of response to training was six to nine times larger between pairs of brothers than within pairs, and it was very consistent.

[...]

Despite the fact that every member of the study was on an identical exercise program, all four sites saw a vast and similar spectrum of aerobic capacity improvement, from about 15 percent of participants who showed little or no gain whatsoever after five months of training all the way up to the 15 percent of participants who improved dramatically, increasing the amount of oxygen their bodies could use by 50 percent or more.

Amazingly, the amount of improvement that any one person experienced had nothing to do with how good they were to start.

[...]

Along the improvement curve, families tended to stick together.

David Epstein calls this the talent of trainability. He had it himself:

When I first started running track in high school, I had such trouble keeping up on longer runs that I went to a pulmonologist who tested my breathing and found that I was only expelling about 60 percent as much air as my peers with each breath.

[...]

Each fall during college I would report to school having done the same exact, prescribed light summer training that all the half-milers did. And yet, I would invariably be in worse shape than the rest of the guys.

[...]

But when the arduous training began, I would catch up, quickly. When I visited the pulmonologist in the winter, the results showed that I was miraculously transformed into a young man with the power to exhale as forcefully as my peers. Low baseline, quick responder.

The seeds of the sting were sown when law enforcement agencies took down a company called Phantom Secure

Wednesday, June 9th, 2021

The recent global sting is impressive:

More than 800 suspects were arrested and more than 32 tons of drugs seized, including cocaine, cannabis, amphetamines and methamphetamines. Police also seized 250 guns, 55 luxury cars and more than $148 million in cash and cryptocurrencies. An indictment unsealed Tuesday in San Diego named 17 foreign distributors charged with racketeering conspiracy.

The seeds of the sting were sown when law enforcement agencies took down a company called Phantom Secure that provided customized end-to-end encrypted devices to criminals, according to court papers.

Unlike typical cellphones, the devices do not make phone calls or browse the internet — but allow for secure messaging. As an outgrowth of the operation, the FBI recruited a collaborator who was developing a next-generation secure-messaging platform for the criminal underworld called ANOM. The collaborator engineered the system to give the agency access to any messages being sent.

ANOM didn’t take off immediately. But then other secure platforms used by criminals to organize drug-trafficking hits and money laundering were taken down by police, chiefly EncroChat and Sky ECC. That put gangs in the market for a new app, and the FBI’s platform was ready. Over the past 18 months, the agency provided phones via unsuspecting middlemen to gangs in more than 100 countries.

The flow of intelligence “enabled us to prevent murders. It led to the seizure of drugs that led to the seizure of weapons. And it helped prevent a number of crimes,” Calvin Shivers, assistant director of the FBI’s criminal investigative division, told a news conference in The Hague, Netherlands.

The work that made Darwin and Newton famous was actually closer in spirit to building treehouses than studying for exams

Tuesday, June 8th, 2021

A few days ago, on the way home from school, Paul Graham’s nine-year-old son told him he couldn’t wait to get home to write more of the story he was working on:

This made me as happy as anything I’ve heard him say — not just because he was excited about his story, but because he’d discovered this way of working. Working on a project of your own is as different from ordinary work as skating is from walking. It’s more fun, but also much more productive.

[...]

You have moments of happiness when things work out, but they don’t last long, because then you’re on to the next problem. So why do it at all? Because to the kind of people who like working this way, nothing else feels as right. You feel as if you’re an animal in its natural habitat, doing what you were meant to do — not always happy, maybe, but awake and alive.

[...]

Instead of telling kids that their treehouses could be on the path to the work they do as adults, we tell them the path goes through school. And unfortunately schoolwork tends be very different from working on projects of one’s own. It’s usually neither a project, nor one’s own.

[...]

It’s a bit sad to think of all the high school kids turning their backs on building treehouses and sitting in class dutifully learning about Darwin or Newton to pass some exam, when the work that made Darwin and Newton famous was actually closer in spirit to building treehouses than studying for exams.

[...]

When I was picking startups for Y Combinator, I didn’t care about applicants’ grades. But if they’d worked on projects of their own, I wanted to hear all about those.

The standard-bearer of the latest armed-drone revolution emerged last year on the battlefields around Turkey

Monday, June 7th, 2021

On the first day of the Nagorno-Karabakh War, Azerbaijani drone strikes focused heavily on Armenian short-range air-defense vehicles, and now, the Wall Street Journal reports, armed low-cost drones made by Turkey are reshaping geopolitics:

The standard-bearer of the latest armed-drone revolution emerged last year on the battlefields around Turkey, the Bayraktar TB2.

Compared with the American MQ-9, the TB2 is lightly armed, with four laser-guided missiles. Its radio-controlled apparatus limits its basic range to around 200 miles, roughly a fifth of the ground the MQ-9 can cover.

Yet it is utilitarian, and reliable — qualities reminiscent of the Soviet Kalashnikov AK-47 rifle that changed warfare in the 20th century. A set of six Bayraktar TB2 drones, ground units, and other essential operations equipment costs tens of millions of dollars, rather than hundreds of millions for the MQ-9.

The drone’s Turkish producer, Baykar, which started in 1984 making auto parts, boasts of more bang for the buck. Qatar and Ukraine are customers. Poland, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member, said last month it would buy 24 TB2 drones. Several other NATO allies are interested, as well as countries in Africa and Asia, Turkish government and company officials said.

The TB2 drone gained international notice in the skies over Syria in early 2020.

[...]

Last spring, the TB2s helped turn the tide in the Libyan civil war for the Tripoli-based government, which is backed by the United Nations.

Turkey had sent arms in 2019 to stem an assault on the capital by militia leader Khalifa Haftar, who is supported by Russia and others. In 2020, Turkey increased military support. Improved drone tactics honed in Syria provided the upper hand against Russian-made surface-to-air missile systems known as Pantsir, handing the Tripoli government aerial supremacy. By June, Mr. Haftar’s forces retreated from Tripoli.

I was amused to see “honed in” used correctly there.

Ukraine signed a deal in January 2019 to buy TB2 drones from Turkey, receiving at least six so far, and Kyiv is in talks for joint production. A Ukrainian company is manufacturing engines for the latest Baykar drone, a larger model with a heavier payload than the TB2.

The country hopes the drones will discourage a repeat of the Kremlin’s 2014 invasions.

The TB2 was born of Turkey’s dissatisfaction with available models from the U.S. and Israel and its desire for systems under its control to fight the PKK:

Baykar emerged as a leader among several Turkish drone producers after spotting a niche in the early 2000s, said Mr. Bayraktar, the company’s chief executive. His brother Selcuk Bayraktar, who took advanced studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, came up with flight-control software and guidance systems while using off-the-shelf components.

During development, company officials set up a workshop at a military base to get a firsthand understanding, including from a colonel who took them to a patch of bloodied ground where, they said, Turkish soldiers were killed by the PKK.

In 2007, Turkey launched a national competition to supply mini drones, which yielded an order of 76 from Baykar. At the time, the U.S. wouldn’t sell armed drones to Turkey. Baykar developed the TB2 and gradually replaced foreign components with locally produced ones. In 2015, the company successfully test-fired a precision-guided munition.

One in every 421 female competitors had a Y chromosome

Sunday, June 6th, 2021

When David Epstein (The Sports Gene) spoke with endocrinologists who work with androgen-insensitive women, they all felt that XY women with androgen insensitivity — that is, they have a male Y chromosome but can’t use testosterone at all — are overrepresented, not underrepresented, in sports:

At the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, the last that had cheek swabs, 7 women out of the 3,387 competitors — or about 1 in 480 — were found to have the SRY gene and androgen insensitivity. The typical rate of androgen insensitivity is estimated to be between 1 in 20,000 and 1 in 64,000. Over five Olympic Games, an average of 1 in every 421 female competitors was determined to have a Y chromosome. So women with androgen insensitivity are vastly overrepresented on the world’s largest sporting stage.

Perhaps, then, something about the Y chromosome other than testosterone may be conferring an advantage. Women with androgen insensitivity tend to have limb proportions more typical of men. Their arms and legs are longer relative to their bodies, and their average height is several inches taller than that of typical women.

(Two of the endocrinologists I spoke with said that XY women are also overrepresented in modeling, because they are often very feminine in appearance in addition to being tall with long legs. Before her personal medical information unfortunately landed in the press, the tall, blond Coimbra had been dubbed the “Brazilian Barbie Doll.”)

I must be a bad person for being so well-informed

Saturday, June 5th, 2021

What if I’m right?, Steve Sailer asks:

What if my way of thinking is, in general, more realistic, insightful, and reasonable than the conventional wisdom?

I dislike thinking of my concepts as an ideology. I don’t propound “Sailerism.” I lack the ambition and the ego. I am by nature a staff guy rather than a line boss. I like to think of my approach to understanding human society as one that will eventually seem obvious to everybody, so I shouldn’t claim credit now for what is simply solid empirical thinking applied to the more contentious subjects.

Instead, I like to tell myself, I should just keep coming up with more ideas that are (in declining order of importance to me) true, interesting, new, and funny. Eventually, people will notice how much better my approach to reality has been than that of the famous folks winning MacArthur genius grants and try to figure out for themselves how I do it so that everybody can do it too.

Or at least that’s what I hope.

On the other hand, it’s now 2021 and public discourse has just gotten stupider and more self-destructive over the course of my career.

Maybe that’s my fault?

What if I had just kept my mouth shut and, instead of challenging popular pundits to be honest and intelligent, I’d let them work it out for themselves? After all, while people who know me tend to find I’m an admirable individual, people who don’t know me tend to hate me.

Many pundits seem enraged over the idea that I might prove right. This tendency to personalize social science disputes has always struck me as dim-witted, but, apparently, the fear “What if Sailer is right?” is infuriating and/or terrifying to many. It’s almost as if what gets people mad is my being correct so often.

Thus, when I point out the facts, I’m often greeted with incoherent anger centering on the allegation that I must be a bad person for being so well-informed.

Queer was in the air in the Los Angeles of the Prohibition and post-Prohibition eras

Friday, June 4th, 2021

I jokingly noted that The Big Sleep features a number of “pansies” and a lot of alcohol. The annotations in my copy explain the first ingredient:

Queer was in the air in the Los Angeles of the Prohibition and post-Prohibition eras. The 1920s and early ’30s saw no fewer than ten new terms for “homosexual” recorded, including “fag” (ca. 1923) and, for that matter, “queer” (Auden used it in its current neutral/proud sense in a letter of 1932). Gay and lesbian subcultures were more visible than they had ever been before, thanks in large part to Prohibition speakeasies, where otherwise law-abiding Americans of all sexualities mingled and were often entertained over drinks by drag performers. The so-called Pansy Craze was all the rage in post-Prohibition New York and moved west in the early 1930s. At B.B.B.’s Cellar (where the floor show was called “Boys Will Be Girls”) and the Bali nightclub on the Sunset Strip, gay entertainers sang and danced for Hollywood celebrities. It was considered de rigueur to employ an obviously gay maitre d’, even at restaurants and clubs that were not considered “gay.” Flighty hotel clerks and swishy sidekicks, played by renowned queer actors like Franklin Pangborn and Edward Everett Horton, were featured in Hollywood films. Marlowe’s “fag party” reference may be to Hollywood parties, covered with a wink and a nod by the newspapers. All-male pool parties were hosted by, among others, Cole Porter and George Cukor; according to Irwin Winkler, director of De-Lovely, a 2004 film about Porter, they competed “to see who could have more boys by the pool.”

[...]

“Punk” first appeared in Elizabethan England, initially meaning “prostitute,” then more widely naming the mistress of a criminal or soldier. By the American 1920s it had jumped genders and referred to a young male, generally a criminal or a ne’er-do-well, and frequently the male concubine of a prison inmate, hobo, or sailor. “I told you I didn’t like that punk,” Sam Spade growls of the youthful Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon.

They aim to tame the beast

Thursday, June 3rd, 2021

Having defeated Donald Trump and stumbled on new methods of control during the Covid-19 pandemic, the elites who run our institutions are striking back, Martin Gurri says:

Trump, always a volatile substance, in defeat managed to live up to the most outrageous caricatures of himself drawn by his opponents. His madcap nihilism was a happy gift to the elites. The president of the United States was thus banned from social media, using protocols developed during the pandemic to direct only “authoritative” information to the public.

Trump’s QAnon followers actually exceeded anyone’s expectations of what a lunatic fringe might behave like, then took selfies of themselves in the act of being violently bizarre. That was another happy moment. The barbarians who looted the Capitol building were declared to be not a mob but an insurgency, a sort of latter-day Whisky Rebellion — and the heart of Washington, D.C. remains occupied by a military force to this day.

When Trump won in 2016, elites insisted that he had subverted the election with Russian help. When Trump lost in 2020, the electoral process miraculously regained its virginal purity. To question the outcome became the equivalent of saying that Bill Gates had invented Covid-19. Both were simple opinions, however eccentric — and both were found to be dangerously unorthodox and thus bounced from social media.

The Georgia state legislature, controlled by Trumpian Republicans, enacted an election law that the Trump-loathing establishment condemned as an attempt to restrict minority votes. The law contains nothing particularly new, and some of the claims made against it seem dubious, but the elites in their hour of triumph were in no mood to tolerate deviancy. A vast choir of voices emanating from the White House, traditional and digital media, CEOs of major companies, academia, the social justice industry, and the usual gaggle of virtue signalers — all with remarkable unanimity and in perfect harmony — pronounced the Georgia law “unacceptable.” Punishment had to be meted out to the inhabitants. In an unprecedented gesture, Major League Baseball withdrew the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta. Georgians, in their shame, were unworthy of Bryce Harper.

Joe Biden doddered into the presidency with a single thought in mind: to sign as many enormous checks as his septuagenarian hand could stand. That the public would tolerate a drunken-sailor approach to federal spending was yet another lesson of the pandemic—Trump and his Republicans were eager to participate in the original binge. The economic theory behind this appears to be that government prints the money anyway, so what harm can be done if the president shovels tons of it at those he loves? No doubt we’ll get the answer in the next few years.

Today, having lost access to the money spigot, congressional Republicans have developed highly principled reservations about spending. It’s too late. They will be emasculated. The Biden bills in their bloated enormity will shower money on an entirely different crowd.

These bills have such official-sounding descriptions as “stimulus” or “infrastructure,” but as always when colossal sums get thrown around, something is bought and something is sold, and political and ideological fantasies are fulfilled thereby. The $2 trillion infrastructure bill allocates a measly $115 billion to what I, in my simplicity, understand infrastructure to be: roads, rail, and so forth. Much will be spent on “addressing climate and racial inequities.” The object is clearly to purchase a permanent majority, forever secure against madcap populists and other incursions from below — the ultimate fantasy. A trillion here, a trillion there, and suddenly you find yourself applauded by a lot of new friends.

Now, some might insist that this spree belongs to the great American tradition of partisan politics. The Democrats, not the elites, won the 2020 election and are now reaping the rewards, while Trump and the Republicans, having lost, are deservedly consigned to the wilderness. And that is true so far as it goes. But it misses the big picture: the elites in our country lean progressive and vote Democratic, but not all Democrats love the elites.

Joe Biden, a 78-year-old middling figure who had failed at presidential politics before, would never have become the Democratic candidate except as a desperate stopgap to the anti-elite Bernie Sanders. He would never have become president except for the establishment’s four-year exorcism of the anti-elite Trump. The elites got Biden where he is; elite is what he is, a man whose chief attribute is comfort at the top of the pyramid. When the CEO of Coca-Cola and the commissioner of Major League Baseball, tech companies like Google and Apple, the New York Times and Washington Post, and Bank of America and the ACLU run interference for the president on the Georgia controversy, a weird agitation of the elites is at hand that transcends party politics.

The people in charge of our great institutions fear and loathe the public. The election of Trump convinced them that ordinary citizens couldn’t be trusted with the vote. The rise of social media has persuaded them that limits must be imposed on what can be said. Aware that they lack personal and institutional authority, they will gladly settle for political power. They aim to tame the beast.

Let’s be clear: there’s no elite conspiracy, no secret gatherings in smoke-filled rooms, only a herd-like huddling of conformist minds. There’s no elite ideology in any coherent sense, only a blind impulse to control that gravitates instinctively to certain positions on certain issues. The script is always the restoration of order in a broken world.

Two common threads are apparent: the public is a bigoted and destructive monster, and only state power wielded by virtuous elites can protect this creature from itself. The politics of racial and gender “equity” entail complicated government mandates over corporate and private behavior, as well as undeviating conformity in speech and opinion policed by online inquisitors. The politics of climate change entail government control over large swaths of the economy and the demonization of skeptics as the moral equivalent of Holocaust deniers. The politics of authorized truth entail the regulation of digital platforms to ensure that algorithms deliver officially approved answers, and the red-flagging or de-platforming of opinions obnoxious to the elites. The politics of transportation entail taxing to extinction that symbol of indeterminacy, the car, while shoving the masses into predictable rail lines and bike lanes.

Nearly all women’s world records in sprint and power events are from the 1980s

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2021

David Epstein explains (in The Sports Gene) a point that Steve Sailer has been making for decades:

It now appears that a primary reason why women in track and field gained on men in the 1970s and ’80s — and what the Nature papers did not account for — was because they were making up for the lack of an SRY gene by simply injecting testosterone.

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Seventy-five of the top eighty women’s shot put throws of all time, for instance, came between the mid-1970s and 1990, predominantly from Eastern Bloc countries.

[...]

To this day, nearly all women’s world records in sprint and power events are from the 1980s, a testament to the powerful effect of male hormones on female athletes.

Some kids can color in the lines and others can’t

Tuesday, June 1st, 2021

Born in 1981, Freddie deBoer is an English Ph.D., Nick Gillespie notes, and the author of The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice:

He is also a third-generation Marxist who believes that individuals are innately different from one another (probably due to inherited differences in intelligence and physical capacity) and that many of his fellow Bernie Sanders-loving, progressive inhabitants of Brooklyn are hurting the poor when they insist that all K-12 students take college prep classes and have access to higher education. “Education is not a weapon against inequality; it is an engine of inequality,” he writes, sounding like Dirty Jobs‘ Mike Rowe when it comes to promoting well-paying but low-status trade jobs. What deBoer calls “the cult of smart” — the valorization of test-taking and a belief that all of us are blank slates who can be remediated through the right sort of instruction and environment — not only marginalizes the poor and “untalented,” it ultimately blames them for their own condition.

Freddie deBoer gives his own brief primer on the text:

The Cult of Smart is not buttressed by evidence; in fact it is often directly contradicted by evidence. The idea that education is the key to a better economic future for individuals and our country has been promoted by every president going back at least as far as Reagan. Educational achievement has expanded at essentially every level, with better than 90% of American adults now holding a high school diploma, more than 35% now holding bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees exploding, with the number of people holding such degrees increasing by more than 100 people per 100,000 people in less than 25 years. And yet in the last 25 years while we were becoming a vastly more educated nation, working age poverty (the metric of relevance here) barely changed and income inequality rose dramatically. The troubling separation between productivity and real wages continued. The failure of rapidly-rising college participation rates to reduce poverty or inequality in the way typically argued reflect broader dynamics, or so the book argues: college creates inequality rather than reduces it, and if everyone got a college degree (as the policy apparatus often pushes for), the financial value of a college degree would fall to zero. What’s more, America has always sucked at international educational comparisons, including during the periods of our greatest scientific, economic, and military dominance, undermining the basic claim that we need to succeed in school to succeed in general.

The Cult of Smart is self-serving. If we get rid of the influence of environment and assorted, we’ll be left with a system that prizes… what the people advocating for that system think makes them look best. All of those think tankers and politicos and journalists and “consultants” that push education as our great economic sorting system are themselves people who flourished in education. In many ways these people seem unwilling to think deeper than “this worked for me, so it can work for everyone.”

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First, and simply, different people are better or worse at educational tasks of all stripes. Some kids can color in the lines and others can’t; some kids learn the alphabet faster than others; some kids crunch through equations more accurately; some score in the 25th percentile on their state standardized tests and some in the 75th percentile. Nothing controversial there, and nothing contrary to a purely environmental vision of what produces educational outcomes. But it’s important to remember that we have never observed educational equality of outcomes, whatever that could mean, in any context.

The second observation is vital, blatantly obvious to most career educators, and conveniently ignored in a great deal of our educational debates. As I argue in the book, people tend to think that what we care about in education is absolute learning — can a kid who could not do long division/recite the state capitols/tie his shoes do so now? But in fact what we are more concerned with is relative learning — are the bronze reading group kids catching up to the gold group/is the racial achievement gap closing/what percentile did you score in on the SAT? People constantly complain about poor scores on standardized tests without knowing the slightest thing about the content of those tests. That would make little sense if they were primarily concerned with absolute learning, with content. Instead, they care about how different groups perform relative to each other, and about the relative performance of their own child to his or her peers. And what you find, again and again, is that academic performance relative to peers is remarkably static. That is, kids tend to sort themselves into a given ability band early in their academic life and they tend to stay there.

“Tend” is an important word; there are plenty of exceptions. Individual students exceed their previous academic standing (or fall back in the pack) fairly often. But at scale, from the point of view of the system, it’s remarkable how static relative educational position is. There are tests you can give to very young children that predict how well they’ll do in kindergarten. The grades students achieve in the earliest grades tend to produce performance distributions that persist all the way through their academic lives. Indeed, data gathered the summer after kindergarten provides useful predictive information about how students will perform in college. Third grade reading group (age 8/9), by itself, is a strong predictor of how a student will perform by the end of high school (age 17/18). SAT results don’t just give us quite accurate information about how well test takers will perform in their first year of college. They give us useful predictive information about whether test takers will ever hold a patent or write a bestselling book. Kids sort themselves into an educational hierarchy and they mostly don’t move. That this is not the first thing mentioned in every educational discussion is a function of the fact that it is not polite.