The Finnish language is distinctive, beautiful, and spoken by no one other than Finns

Monday, June 3rd, 2019

One of Finland’s strengths, Jared Diamond notes in Upheaval, is that it has a strong sense of unity:

Finland identifies with Scandinavia and is considered part of Scandinavia. Many Finns are blue-eyed blonds, like Swedes and Norwegians. Genetically, Finns are in effect 75% Scandinavian like Swedes and Norwegians, and only 25% invaders from the east. But geography, language, and culture make Finns different from other Scandinavians, and they are proud of those differences.


Out of the nearly 100 native languages of Europe, all are related members of the Indo-European language family except for the isolated Basque language and four others. Those four are Finnish, the closely related Estonian language, and the distantly related Hungarian and Lapp (Saami) languages, all of which belong to the Finno-Ugric language family.


Finland’s national epic poem, the Kalevala, holds an even bigger place in Finland’s national consciousness than do the plays of Shakespeare for English-speakers.


The letter k is very common in Finnish: of the 200 pages of my Finnish-to-English dictionary, 31 pages are for words beginning with k.


I have nothing against k’s—but, alas, Finnish, unlike English, has double consonants (like kk) pronounced differently from single consonants (like k). That was the feature of Finnish pronunciation that made it hardest for my tolerant Finnish hosts to understand me on the few occasions when I gave short speeches in Finnish. The consequences of failing to pronounce single and double consonants distinctly can be serious. For instance, the Finnish verb meaning “to meet” is “tapaa” with a single p, while the verb “to kill” is “tappaa” with a double p. Hence if you ask a Finn to meet you but you mistakenly double the p, you may end up dead.


Finnish also has what are called short vowels and long vowels.


If you find yourself confused by the four cases of the German language or the six cases of the Latin language, you’ll be horrified to know that the Finnish language has 15 cases, many of which replace prepositions in English.


But in Finnish, whenever you use a direct object, you have to decide whether your verb is doing something to the whole object (requiring the accusative case) or to only a part of the object (requiring the partitive case).


One of my Finnish hosts in 1959 was a Swedish Finn whose home language was Swedish but who was fluent in Finnish. Nevertheless, he couldn’t get a job from any government agency in Finland, because all Finnish government jobs require passing exams in both the Finnish and the Swedish languages. My friend told me that if, in the 1950’s, you made only a single mistake in choosing between the accusative case and the partitive case, you flunked the exam and couldn’t get a government job.


All of those features contribute to making the Finnish language distinctive, beautiful, a source of national pride, and spoken by almost no one other than Finns themselves.


Other central pieces of Finland’s national identity are its music composers, its architects and designers, and its long-distance runners.


The Finnish musician Jean Sibelius is considered one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.


Finnish architects and interior designers are renowned worldwide. (American readers will think of the St. Louis Arch, Dulles Airport outside Washington, and the TWA terminal at New York’s Kennedy Airport, all of them designed by the Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen.)

What was the big deal about Viipuri?

Sunday, June 2nd, 2019

The first nation in crisis that Jared Diamond examines in Upheaval is Finland, which found itself invaded by the Soviet Union. Finnish graveyards record many, many deaths that took place in or near Viipuri:

That will make you wonder: what was the big deal about Viipuri, and why did so many Finns get killed there within such short time spans?


The explanation is that Viipuri used to be the second-largest city of Finland until it was ceded to the Soviet Union, along with one-tenth of the total area of Finland, after a ferocious war in the winter of 1939–1940, plus a second war from 1941 to 1944.


Finland’s death toll in its war against the Soviet Union was nearly 100,000, mostly men.


But it represented 2½% of Finland’s then-total population of 3,700,000, and 5% of its males. That proportion is the same as if 9,000,000 Americans were to be killed in a war today: almost 10 times the total number of American deaths in all the wars of our 240-year history.


Even though the last death commemorated in Hietaniemi’s military section had occurred more than 70 years previously (in 1944), I saw fresh flowers on many graves, and families walking among the graves.


But after Nicholas II became tsar in 1894 and appointed as governor a nasty man called Bobrikov (assassinated by a Finn in 1904), Russian rule became oppressive. Hence towards the end of World War One, when the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in Russia in late 1917, Finland declared its independence.


When the Whites consolidated their victory in May 1918, they shot about 8,000 Reds, and a further 20,000 Reds died of starvation and disease while rounded up in concentration camps. As measured by percentage of a national population killed per month, the Finnish Civil War remained the world’s most deadly civil conflict until the Rwandan genocide of 1994.


The Finns were willing to make some concessions, but not nearly as many as the Soviets wanted, even though Finland’s General Mannerheim urged the Finnish government to make more concessions because he knew the weakness of the Finnish army and (as a former lieutenant general in tsarist Russia’s army) understood the geographic reasons for the Soviet demands from the Soviet point of view.


One reason for Finns’ unanimity was their fear that Stalin’s real goal was to take over all of Finland. They were afraid that giving in to supposedly modest Soviet demands today would make it impossible for Finland to resist bigger Soviet demands in the future. Finland’s giving up its land defenses on the Karelian Isthmus would make it easy for the Soviet Union to invade Finland overland, while a Soviet naval base near Helsinki would allow the Soviet Union to bombard Finland’s capital by land and by sea.


The Finns had drawn a lesson from the fate of Czechoslovakia, which had been pressured in 1938 into ceding to Germany its Sudeten borderland with its strongest defense line, leaving Czechoslovakia defenseless against total occupation by Germany in March 1939.


Stalin could not imagine that a tiny country would be so crazy as to fight against a country with a population almost 50 times larger. Soviet war plans expected to capture Helsinki within less than two weeks.


The Finnish civilian casualties in that first night of bombing accounted for 10% of Finland’s total civilian war casualties during the entire five years of World War Two.


The Soviet Union had a population of 170 million, compared to Finland’s population of 3,700,000. The Soviet Union attacked Finland with “only” four of its armies, totaling 500,000 men, and keeping many other armies in reserve or for other military purposes. Finland defended itself with its entire army, consisting of nine divisions totaling only 120,000 men.


The world had already seen how quickly Poland, with a population 10 times that of Finland and far more modern military equipment, had been defeated within a few weeks by German armies half the size of the Soviet Union’s armies.


Against Soviet tanks attacking the Mannerheim Line, the Finns compensated for their deficiencies in anti-tank guns by inventing so-called “Molotov cocktails,” which were bottles filled with an explosive mixture of gasoline and other chemicals, sufficient to cripple a Soviet tank.


Other Finnish soldiers waited in a foxhole for a tank to come by, then jammed a log into the tank’s tracks to bring it to a stop.


Daredevil individual Finnish soldiers then ran up to the crippled tanks, pointed their rifles into the cannon barrels and observation slits, and shot Soviet soldiers inside the tanks.


Naturally, the casualty rate among Finland’s anti-tank crews was up to 70%.


Small groups of Finnish soldiers mounted on skis, wearing white uniforms for camouflage against the snow, moved through the roadless forest, cut the Soviet columns into segments, and then annihilated one segment after another (Plate 2.5).

Finnish Soldiers on Skis

They then climbed nearby trees while carrying their rifles, waited until they could identify the Soviet officers in the light of the bonfire, shot and killed the officers, and then skied off, leaving the Soviets frightened, demoralized, and leaderless.


Rather than remain in their homes under Soviet occupation, the entire population of Karelia, amounting to 10% of Finland’s population, chose to evacuate Karelia and withdrew into the rest of Finland.


There, they were squeezed into rooms in apartments and houses of other Finns, until almost all of them could be provided with their own homes by 1945. Uniquely among the many European countries with large internally displaced populations, Finland never housed its displaced citizens in refugee camps.


The poor performance of the huge Soviet army against the tiny Finnish army had been a big embarrassment to the Soviet Union: about eight Soviet soldiers killed for every Finn killed.


The longer a war with Finland went on, the higher was the risk of British and French intervention, which would drag the Soviet Union into war with those countries and invite a British/French attack on Soviet oil fields in the Caucasus.


But Russian archives opened in the 1990’s confirmed Finns’ wartime suspicion: the Soviet Union would have taken advantage of those milder territorial gains and the resulting breaching of the Finnish defense line in October 1939 in order to achieve its intent of taking over all of Finland, just as it did to the three Baltic Republics in 1940.


The poor performance of the Soviet army in the Winter War had convinced all observers—not only in Finland but also in Germany, Britain, and the U.S.—that a war between Germany and the Soviet Union would end with a German victory.


This second war against the Soviet Union, following the first Winter War, is called the Continuation War. This time, Finland mobilized one-sixth of its entire population to serve in or work directly for the army: the largest percentage of any country during World War Two.


But Finland’s war aims remained strictly limited, and the Finns described themselves not as “allies” but just as “co-belligerents” with Nazi Germany.


In particular, Finland adamantly refused German pleas to do two things: to round up Finland’s Jews (although Finland did turn over a small group of non-Finnish Jews to the Gestapo); and to attack Leningrad from the north while Germans were attacking it from the south. That latter refusal of the Finns saved Leningrad, enabled it to survive the long German siege, and contributed to Stalin’s later decision that it was unnecessary to invade Finland beyond Karelia (see below).


As a result, Finland became the sole continental European country fighting in World War Two to avoid enemy occupation.


Finland did have to agree to drive out the 200,000 German troops stationed in northern Finland, in order to avoid having to admit Soviet troops into Finland to do that. It took Finland many months, in the course of which the retreating Germans destroyed virtually everything of value in the whole Finnish province of Lapland.


The Soviet Union’s much heavier combat losses against Finland were estimated at about half-a-million dead and a quarter-of-a-million wounded. That Soviet death toll includes the 5,000 Soviet soldiers taken prisoner by the Finns and repatriated after the armistice to the Soviet Union, where they were immediately shot for having surrendered.

It is just scientific enough to be worth capturing

Saturday, June 1st, 2019

The APA highlighted a bunch of heroes and trailblazers from its past, but for every great hero celebrated on posters, there is an embarrassment buried somewhere deep in an archive, like Scott Alexander’s favorite, Dr. Anglin, who gave the APA Presidential Address in 1918 and declared that the greatest problem facing psychiatry was…the dastardly Hun:

The maxim that medical science knows no national boundaries has been rudely shaken by the war. The Fatherland has been preparing for isolation from the medical world without its confines. Just as, years ago, the Kaiser laid his ban on French words in table menus, so, as early as 19 14, German scientists embarked on a campaign against all words which had been borrowed from an enemy country. A purely German medical nomenclature was the end in view. The rest of the world need not grieve much if they show their puerile hate in this way. It will only help to stop the tendency to Pan-Germanism in medicine which has for some years past been gaining headway. ‘

The Germans excel all other nations in their genius for advertising themselves. They have proved true the French proverb that one is given the standing he claims. On a slender basis of achievement they have contrived to impress themselves as the most scientific nation. Never was there greater imposture. They display the same cleverness in foisting on a gullible world their scientific achievements as their shoddy commercial wares. The two are of much the same value, made for show rather than endurance — in short, made in Germany…

In the earliest months of the war it was pointed out that there are tendencies in the evolution of medicine as a pure science as it is developed in Germany which are contributing to the increase of charlatanism of which we should be warned. A medical school has two duties — one to medical science, the other to the public. The latter function is the greater, for out of every graduating class 90 per cent. are practitioners and less than 10 per cent, are scientists. The conditions in Germany are reversed. There, there were ninety physicians dawdling with science to every ten in practice. Of these 90, fully 75 per cent were wasting their time. In Germany the scientific side is over-done, and they have little to show for it all, while the human side is neglected. Even in their new institutions, splendid as they are in a material sense, it is easily seen that the improved conditions are not for the comfort of the patients.

Out of this war some modicum of good may come if it leads to a revision of the exaggerated estimate that has prevailed in English-speaking countries of the achievements of the Germans in science. We had apparently forgotten the race that had given the world Newton, Faraday, Stephenson, Lister, Hunter, Jenner, Fulton, Morse, Bell, Edison, and others of equal worth. German scientists wait till a Pasteur has made the great discovery, on which it is easy for her trained men to work. She shirks getting for herself a child through the gates of sacrifice and pain ; but steals a babe, and as it grows bigger under her care, boasts herself as more than equal to the mother who bore it. Realising her mental sterility, drunk with self-adoration, she makes insane war on the nations who still have the power of creative thought.

But it is especially in the realm of mental science that the reputation of the Germans is most exalted and is least deserved. For every philosopher of the first rank that Germany has produced, the English can show at least three. And in psychiatry, while we have classical writings in the English tongue, and men of our own gifted with clinical insight, we need seek no foreign guides, and can afford to let the abounding nonsense of Teutonic origin perish from neglect of cultivation.

The Germans are shelling Paris from their Gothas and their new gun. Murdering innocents, to create a panic in the heart of France! With what effect ? The French army cries the louder, “They shall not pass ” ; Paris glows with pride to be sharing the soldiers’ dangers, and increases its output of war material; and the American army sees why it is in France, and is filled with righteous hatred. Panic nowhere. Vengeance everywhere. What does the Hun know of psychology? His most stupid, thick-witted performance was his brutal defiance of the United States with its wealth, resources, and energy. That revealed a mental condition both grotesque and pitiable.

After the war a centre of medical activity will be found on this side the Atlantic, and those who have watched the progress medical science has made in the United States will have no misgivings as to your qualifications for leadership. If we learn to know ourselves, great good will come out of this war.

I was reminded of how English beat German as the language of science.

Scott Alexander makes the larger point that psychiatry has always been the slave of the latest political fad:

It is just scientific enough to be worth capturing, but not scientific enough to resist capture. The menace du jour will always be a threat to our mental health; the salient alternative to “just forcing pills down people’s throat” will always be pursuing the social agenda of whoever is in power; you will always be able to find psychiatrists to back you up on this.

A giant firehose that takes in pharmaceutical company money at one end, and shoots lectures about social justice out the other

Friday, May 31st, 2019

There’s a popular narrative that drug companies have stolen the soul of psychiatry, Scott Alexander notes:

That they’ve reduced everything to chemical imbalances. The people who talk about this usually go on to argue that the true causes of mental illness are capitalism and racism. Have doctors forgotten that the real solution isn’t a pill, but structural change that challenges the systems of exploitation and domination that create suffering in the first place?

No. Nobody has forgotten that. Because the third thing you notice at the American Psychiatric Association meeting is that everyone is very, very woke.


Were there really more than twice as many sessions on global warming as on obsessive compulsive disorder? Three times as many on immigration as on ADHD? As best I can count, yes. I don’t want to exaggerate this. There was still a lot of really meaty scientific discussion if you sought it out. But overall the balance was pretty striking.

I’m reminded of the idea of woke capital, the weird alliance between very rich businesses and progressive signaling. If you want to model the APA, you could do worse than a giant firehose that takes in pharmaceutical company money at one end, and shoots lectures about social justice out the other.

Democracy was just a word

Thursday, May 30th, 2019

American soldiers didn’t fight for especially noble reasons, Dunlap reminds us:

Most soldiers paid little attention to the “moral values” of the war, losing themselves in the anonymity of the uniform so far as political views were concerned. Democracy was just a word, and the enlisted man was either oversold on how noble we were or was double-crossed enough one way or another until he believed nothing in the way of official instruction or information. He came to live only for the day he would be free and in the meantime hated the Army about as much as the enemy.

One subgroup of scholars did manage to see more of what was coming

Tuesday, May 28th, 2019

I really enjoyed David Epstein’s The Sports Gene. His new book, Range, explores why generalists triumph in a specialized world:

Ehrlich’s starvation predictions were almost comically bad. And yet, the very same year he conceded the bet, Ehrlich doubled down in another book, with another prediction that would prove untrue: Sure, his timeline had been a little off, he wrote, but “now the population bomb has detonated.” Despite one erroneous prediction after another, Ehrlich amassed an enormous following and received prestigious awards. Simon, meanwhile, became a standard-bearer for scholars who felt that Ehrlich had ignored economic principles. The kind of excessive regulations Ehrlich advocated, the Simon camp argued, would quell the very innovation that had delivered humanity from catastrophe. Both men became luminaries in their respective domains. Both were mistaken.

When economists later examined metal prices for every 10-year window from 1900 to 2008, during which time the world population quadrupled, they saw that Ehrlich would have won the bet 62 percent of the time. The catch: Commodity prices are a poor gauge of population effects, particularly over a single decade. The variable that both men were certain would vindicate their worldviews actually had little to do with those views. Prices waxed and waned with macroeconomic cycles.

Yet both men dug in. Each declared his faith in science and the undisputed primacy of facts. And each continued to miss the value of the other’s ideas. Ehrlich was wrong about the apocalypse, but right on aspects of environmental degradation. Simon was right about the influence of human ingenuity on food and energy supplies, but wrong in claiming that improvements in air and water quality validated his theories. Ironically, those improvements were bolstered through regulations pressed by Ehrlich and others.

Ideally, intellectual sparring partners “hone each other’s arguments so that they are sharper and better,” the Yale historian Paul Sabin wrote in The Bet. “The opposite happened with Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon.” As each man amassed more information for his own view, each became more dogmatic, and the inadequacies in his model of the world grew ever more stark.

The pattern is by now familiar. In the 30 years since Ehrlich sent Simon a check, the track record of expert forecasters — in science, in economics, in politics — is as dismal as ever.

This is Philip E. Tetlock’s domain, of course. His notion of Superforcasting goes back to 1984, when he attended a meeting of a National Research Council committee on American-Soviet relations:

Renowned experts delivered authoritative predictions, and Tetlock was struck by how many perfectly contradicted one another and were impervious to counterarguments.

Tetlock decided to put expert political and economic predictions to the test. With the Cold War in full swing, he collected forecasts from 284 highly educated experts who averaged more than 12 years of experience in their specialties. To ensure that the predictions were concrete, experts had to give specific probabilities of future events. Tetlock had to collect enough predictions that he could separate lucky and unlucky streaks from true skill. The project lasted 20 years, and comprised 82,361 probability estimates about the future.

The result: The experts were, by and large, horrific forecasters. Their areas of specialty, years of experience, and (for some) access to classified information made no difference. They were bad at short-term forecasting and bad at long-term forecasting. They were bad at forecasting in every domain. When experts declared that future events were impossible or nearly impossible, 15 percent of them occurred nonetheless. When they declared events to be a sure thing, more than one-quarter of them failed to transpire. As the Danish proverb warns, “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Even faced with their results, many experts never admitted systematic flaws in their judgment. When they missed wildly, it was a near miss; if just one little thing had gone differently, they would have nailed it. “There is often a curiously inverse relationship,” Tetlock concluded, “between how well forecasters thought they were doing and how well they did.”

Early predictions in Tetlock’s research pertained to the future of the Soviet Union. Some experts (usually liberals) saw Mikhail Gorbachev as an earnest reformer who would be able to change the Soviet Union and keep it intact for a while, and other experts (usually conservatives) felt that the Soviet Union was immune to reform and losing legitimacy. Both sides were partly right and partly wrong. Gorbachev did bring real reform, opening the Soviet Union to the world and empowering citizens. But those reforms unleashed pent-up forces in the republics outside Russia, where the system had lost legitimacy. The forces blew the Soviet Union apart. Both camps of experts were blindsided by the swift demise of the U.S.S.R.

One subgroup of scholars, however, did manage to see more of what was coming. Unlike Ehrlich and Simon, they were not vested in a single discipline. They took from each argument and integrated apparently contradictory worldviews. They agreed that Gorbachev was a real reformer and that the Soviet Union had lost legitimacy outside Russia. A few of those integrators saw that the end of the Soviet Union was close at hand and that real reforms would be the catalyst.


Unfortunately, the world’s most prominent specialists are rarely held accountable for their predictions, so we continue to rely on them even when their track records make clear that we should not. One study compiled a decade of annual dollar-to-euro exchange-rate predictions made by 22 international banks: Barclays, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and others. Each year, every bank predicted the end-of-year exchange rate. The banks missed every single change of direction in the exchange rate. In six of the 10 years, the true exchange rate fell outside the entire range of all 22 bank forecasts.


In Tetlock’s 20-year study, both the broad foxes and the narrow hedgehogs were quick to let a successful prediction reinforce their beliefs. But when an outcome took them by surprise, foxes were much more likely to adjust their ideas. Hedgehogs barely budged. Some made authoritative predictions that turned out to be wildly wrong — then updated their theories in the wrong direction. They became even more convinced of the original beliefs that had led them astray. The best forecasters, by contrast, view their own ideas as hypotheses in need of testing. If they make a bet and lose, they embrace the logic of a loss just as they would the reinforcement of a win. This is called, in a word, learning.

Factors related to the outcomes of personal and national crises

Sunday, May 26th, 2019

Jared Diamond’s wife is a crisis therapist, and from her field he borrows a list of factors related to the outcomes of personal crises:

  1. Acknowledgment that one is in crisis
  2. Acceptance of one’s personal responsibility to do something
  3. Building a fence, to delineate one’s individual problems needing to be solved
  4. Getting material and emotional help from other individuals and groups
  5. Using other individuals as models of how to solve problems
  6. Ego strength
  7. Honest self-appraisal
  8. Experience of previous personal crises
  9. Patience
  10. Flexible personality
  11. Individual core values
  12. Freedom from personal constraints

From this, he builds a list of factors related to the outcomes of national crises

  1. National consensus that one’s nation is in crisis
  2. Acceptance of national responsibility to do something
  3. Building a fence, to delineate the national problems needing to be solved
  4. Getting material and financial help from other nations
  5. Using other nations as models of how to solve the problems
  6. National identity
  7. Honest national self-appraisal
  8. Historical experience of previous national crises
  9. Dealing with national failure
  10. Situation-specific national flexibility
  11. National core values
  12. Freedom from geopolitical constraints

In Upheaval he explores a half-dozen national crises through this lens.

Better than any national park

Saturday, May 25th, 2019

Jared Diamond is clearly liberal, but not orthodox:

There are also corporate interests because I’m on the board of directors for the World Wildlife Fund and I was on the board of Conservation International, and on our boards are leaders of really big companies like Walmart and Coca-Cola are their heads, their CEOs, have been on our boards.

I see that corporations, big corporations, while some of them do horrible things, some of them also are doing wonderful things which don’t make the front page. When there was the Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska, you can bet that made the front page. When Chevron was managing its oil field in Papua New Guinea in a utterly rigorous way, better than any national park I’ve ever been in, that certainly did not make the front page because it wasn’t a good picture.

They love the U.S. now

Thursday, May 23rd, 2019

Dunlap had strong opinions about Japan and the American occupation:

Japs always talked, once they were resigned to capture, for in their army, no man was ever supposed to be captured or surrender, hence no instructions regarding security of information could be issued. Our Counter-Intelligence Corps men, the Japanese-Americans, could find out everything the Nips knew — even to persuading them to draw maps for us! Incidentally, those men did a job, and no white American soldier ever said anything against them, or against the magnificent 100th Infantry, who made such a great record against the Germans in Italy, all members of that unit being of Japanese ancestry.


They love the U.S. now. Sure, they are a hypocritical batch of little monkeys and can bow without straining their honor, but I do not believe they are being so insincere. After all, we went into Tokyo wide open for anything, and met not even mental resistance. The Emperor was head man and his wish was law but even his personal instructions could not have restrained every single individual Japanese who had suffered at our hands had they been disposed to start trouble. Hundreds of thousands of the people of Tokyo had died under our fire bombs — probably the majority of those still alive had lost relatives and friends. In spite of this, they seemed to wash out their feelings and start clean. They wanted our sympathy for damage done to them by ourselves, but leaned over backward assuring us that they did not really blame us and held no hard feelings about it! They could not lick us so they want to join us, and want very much to have the U.S. on their side, in any role we want to play.

I think General MacArthur has been a wonderful administrator for Japan and that he has left little to be desired as a governor. His very name symbolizes American power and determination to the Japs and his aloof, impersonal decisions are just the thing for the Japanese mind to accept. So far as Japan is concerned, he is Mr. United States, in person.

Compared with the German government by the Allied commissions, our Japanese set-up has been 99.44% perfect. Of course, the Nips are easier to deal with — their basic government was not changed — they do as they are told, etc. Ito would like to be honorary American, please.

Upheaval offers grandfatherly good advice

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019

Jared Diamond’s Upheaval is No. 1 on Bill Gates’ latest summer reading list, and I largely agree with his assessment:

I’m a big fan of everything Jared has written, and his latest is no exception. The book explores how societies react during moments of crisis. He uses a series of fascinating case studies to show how nations managed existential challenges like civil war, foreign threats, and general malaise. It sounds a bit depressing, but I finished the book even more optimistic about our ability to solve problems than I started.

The case studies are indeed fascinating. The vague, do-gooder advice isn’t — which brings us to Paleo Retiree’s old piece on why Diamond writes what he writes:

Asked some fate-of-the-earth type question by the usual earnest-and-concerned, worshipful fan, Diamond revealed that he took up writing the big books for the popular audience when he became a parent. Up until the arrival of the kiddies, he’d focused on the kinds of small and tight questions that concern your everyday hardworking scientist. Now that the little ones were here, he knew that it was time for him to set aside academic disputes and start worrying about the future instead.

As far as I could tell, Diamond was admitting flat-out that, right from the outset, he intended his big books to be do-gooding “message” books.

So much for my other explanations for his apparent disingenuousness. He turns out to be a much simpler puzzle than I’d thought. He’d simply come down with what afflicts so many people when they have kids: a bad case of the Worthies. Where his big books go, his main concern hasn’t been to share his knowledge and his thinking. It’s “What shall we tell the children?” My conclusion: maybe Diamond’s books are best taken as morality fables for overgrown kids.

Steve Sailer calls it grandfatherly good advice:

Diamond begins with two success stories: 19th-century Japan and 20th-century Finland. Japan’s impressive response to the arrival of the American black ships in 1853 is well-known, but how Finland escaped being conquered and occupied by Stalin’s Soviet Union is less so. After fighting superbly when the Soviets invaded in 1939, postwar Finland had to humiliate itself by following the Soviet lead in its foreign policy. But Finland, unlike the rest of Eastern Europe, kept its domestic freedom.

Diamond identifies “a strong national identity” as a shared advantage possessed by both nations, with their unique languages and relative ethnic homogeneity. Diamond is impressed by the we’re-all-in-this-together patriotism of Finns and Japanese. As one of the last American intellectuals who can remember Pearl Harbor 78 years ago, he fears that contemporary Americans are losing the national solidarity of the mid–20th century.

On the other hand, history is less of Diamond’s strong suit than is geography. Thus, my favorite bit of the book is when Diamond pauses the political narratives to offer a Guns, Germs, and Steel-style explanation of why the soil of the Upper Midwest is so fertile:

Ice Age glaciers…repeatedly advanced and retreated over the landscape, grinding rocks and generating or exposing fresh soils.

So that explains why even the rainy parts of Texas aren’t great for farming: The glaciers seldom got that far south to pulverize the soil.

Because of North America’s tapering wedge shape, large volumes of ice forming in the broad expanse at high latitudes were funneled into a narrow band and became heavier glaciers as they advanced toward the lower latitudes.

In contrast, few parts of the tropical world were glaciated, and therefore have to rely on floods and volcanoes for good farmland.

Diamond’s most interesting book remains The Third Chimpanzee, probably because he had a magazine editor to quell his pedantic impulses. Also, Diamond has had a big influence on the conventional wisdom of the past quarter century, so his natural tropes are old news by now. Plus, he’s not naturally as forceful of a stylist as is, say, historian Paul Johnson. In this book, Diamond employs a casual prose style that won’t intimidate casual readers by conveying too many ideas per page, but it struck me as verbose.

Diamond is aware that his realism and ability to compare and contrast mark him as a potential crimethinker. For example, he made famous an aerial view of Hispaniola where you can see the national border between deforested, eroded Haiti and verdant Dominican Republic. In his 2005 book about ecological negligence, Collapse, he even dared suggest that the DR dictator Trujillo’s policy of welcoming white immigrants contributes to it being less dystopian than Haiti.

They would exclude foreign kids at higher rates

Friday, May 17th, 2019

The UK Department of Education has released the 2017 figures for suspensions:

By way of benchmarking, White British children are excluded at the rate of 5.23%. If British teachers were prejudiced against other racial groups, then they would exclude foreign kids at higher rates. Inspection of the rates show this is an unsupported assumption. For example, another benchmark is the Chinese exclusion rate of 0.56% which is what is attainable using Confucian principles, which presumably can be inculcated to the general benefit of all children, and all teachers. Indian children at 0.84% are doing almost as well.

UK School Exclusions by Ethnicity

If teacher’s animus is against Black foreigners, then they have got their prejudices the wrong way around. Black Africans are definitely foreign, while Black Caribbeans are British born and have been exposed to as much local culture, cuisine and weather as the White British, yet the Black Africans are excluded at the lower rate of 4.21% and the familiar Black Caribbeans at higher rate of 10.2%.

The purpose is to get to race without using race

Thursday, May 16th, 2019

The College Board plans to assign an adversity score to every student who takes the SAT:

This new number, called an adversity score by college admissions officers, is calculated using 15 factors including the crime rate and poverty levels from the student’s high school and neighborhood. Students won’t be told the scores, but colleges will see the numbers when reviewing their applications.

Fifty colleges used the score last year as part of a beta test. The College Board plans to expand it to 150 institutions this fall, and then use it broadly the following year.

SAT Score Distributions by Race

White students scored an average of 177 points higher than black students and 133 points higher than Hispanic students in 2018 results. Asian students scored 100 points higher than white students. The children of wealthy and college-educated parents outperformed their classmates.

Adversity Index

“The purpose is to get to race without using race,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Mr. Carnevale formerly worked for the College Board and oversaw the Strivers program.

Plastic bags are thought to endanger marine animals

Tuesday, May 14th, 2019

Plastic bags are thought to endanger marine animals, but they may protect us humans:

San Francisco County was the first major US jurisdiction to enact such a regulation, implementing a ban in 2007 and extending it to all retailers in 2012. There is evidence, however, that reusable grocery bags, a common substitute for plastic bags, contain potentially harmful bacteria, especially coliform bacteria such as E. coli. We examine deaths and emergency room admissions related to these bacteria in the wake of the San Francisco ban. We find that both deaths and ER visits spiked as soon as the ban went into effect. Relative to other counties, deaths in San Francisco increase by 50-100 percent, and ER visits increase by a comparable amount. Subsequent bans by other cities in California appear to be associated with similar effects.

“The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

NATO’s material inadequacies were matched by a lack of will

Monday, May 13th, 2019

NATO began dropping bombs on Serbian forces in Kosovo on March 24, 1999:

America and NATO went to war in Kosovo for humanitarian reasons. There was no vital national interest at stake. The Serbs, already responsible for the lion’s share of the atrocities during the Bosnian war, were to be punished and deterred from further mass killings in their restive, majority-Albanian province of Kosovo. Proponents of intervention compared ethnic cleansing in Kosovo to the Holocaust, sometimes inflating the death counts of Serbian atrocities by a factor of 10. That the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army was considered “without any questions, a terrorist group” by President Bill Clinton’s own special envoy to the Balkans was hand-waved away.

Kosovo gave birth to the idea of the responsibility to protect—“R2P” in international relations shorthand. R2P cast aside the Westphalian state system by declaring that when a government proved unwilling or unable to protect its people from crimes against humanity, it was the duty of other nations to intervene. British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that Kosovo was “a battle between good and evil; between civilization and barbarity.” Established during America’s decade of unipolarity and hyperpower status, R2P thus implicitly called on America to be a force of intervention for global good.

Proponents of this doctrine unabashedly cast aside state sovereignty for the sake of humanitarianism. As would later come in Iraq, with no United Nations Security Council mandate, the war’s backers proclaimed that it had “legitimacy if not legality,” an argument that would be repeated a few years later in Iraq. R2P was celebrated by internationalists and interventionist human rights activists. After sitting on its hands for too long in Bosnia, America was now acting swiftly to prevent a potential genocide in Europe. At home as abroad, that “moral arc of the universe” was bending toward justice.


R2P proponents helped carry water for America’s disastrous wars in Iraq and Libya. R2P was not explicitly used by the Bush administration when it made the case for invading Iraq, but humanitarianism and Saddam Hussein’s undeniable brutality were used as rhetorical cudgels against those who dissented from this war of choice. In Libya, R2P was the casus belli. Intervention was explicitly and indeed solely justified by the responsibility to protect Libyan civilians in Benghazi from the coming wrath of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Of course, the goal posts were quickly moved, as NATO airpower helped the rebels to win the civil war and Gaddafi was murdered in the street. Libya sank into further strife, with militias battling in the cities, foreign militants flooding in, and even slave markets appearing.

In Syria, humanitarian concerns only led the United States to arm jihadis and conduct a few feckless cruise missile strikes, rather than launch a full-scale invasion of yet another Arab country. One of the primary architects and apostles of R2P, then-UN ambassador Samantha Power, was left to sputter and rage about the atrocities of one side in the civil war.

The Kosovo campaign exposed the hollow force that NATO had become less than a decade after the end of the Cold War. All Western nations rightly took a peace dividend after the Soviet Union collapsed and the fearsome Red Army became the farcical Russian Army that (initially) couldn’t even subdue tiny Chechnya. The Europeans cut far more deeply than the United States, however. The vaunted Royal Air Force nearly ran out of bombs and spare parts in Kosovo. U.S. aircraft ended up conducting about two thirds of all sorties during the 78-day war and carried far more of the load in the early days of the campaign. Eighty-three percent of all munitions dropped were American.

American generals were unpleasantly surprised by the state of NATO air assets. The European NATO states were most lacking in the most critical capabilities: ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) and strike. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld initially rejected European assistance in the wake of the September 11 attacks, so struck was he by European military impotence in Kosovo two years prior.

The limits of NATO’s smart bombs and precision strike capabilities also became clear in Kosovo. Despite overwhelming technological superiority, including the first combat use of the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber and the now standard GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition, coalition attrition of Serbian forces turned out to have been more limited than early reports indicated. Poor weather, Serb cunning, and legacy air defense capabilities combined to limit the air campaign’s effect on Serbian materiel. The Serbs built dummy tanks with wood, plastic sheeting, and camouflage netting; metal plates and even hot water were used to spoof NATO thermal sensors. It took NATO the first 12 days to conduct the same number of strike sorties that the U.S.-led coalition had achieved during the first 12 hours of Operation Desert Storm. When Serbian troops withdrew from Kosovo at the end of the campaign, they left in good order, having suffered perhaps 20 percent of the casualties the coalition had originally claimed to have inflicted.

NATO’s material inadequacies were matched by a lack of will. European member states demurred from an aggressive U.S. plan to bomb Belgrade from the outset, likely prolonging the air war. When they did sign on to a broader air campaign, European leaders insisted on micromanaging the target list, in the manner of President Johnson in Vietnam 30 years before. This centralization, risk aversion, and fixation on preventing civilian casualties would become familiar to those who served with NATO troops in Afghanistan a few years later.

Americans were right behind Europeans in risk aversion, however. Much of the indecisiveness of the air campaign was due to keeping NATO planes at high altitude to avoid the remaining Serbian air defense assets. Decoy tanks and dummy artillery pits were much tougher to spot at 15,000 feet than at 500. No pilots in body bags trumped operational effectiveness and decisive victory.

The biggest legacy of the Kosovo war came in its immediate aftermath. Russia had tried to position itself between its Western economic benefactors and its traditional Serbian ally. Russian mediation offers were rejected by the U.S., and air strikes on Belgrade inflamed Russian public opinion. Even Boris Yeltsin, who owed his reelection in 1996 to U.S. intervention (the original, reverse Russiagate), could not stand for this level of shame.

When Serbia capitulated, Russian troops rushed into Kosovo from neighboring Bosnia to seize the airport in the capital, Pristina. Elite Norwegian and British troops met the Russians at the airfield, but General Clark insisted on trying to block the runway to stymie Russian attempts to reinforce their 250-man company at Pristina. His more level-headed British subordinate, General Mike Jackson, refused to carry out Clark’s orders and reportedly told the hyper-ambitious Arkansan, “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you.” Cooler heads prevailed, no shots were fired, and Clark left his post early, headed for eventual irrelevance in the 2004 Democratic presidential primary. But the ailing and humiliated Yeltsin resigned six months later, giving the Russian presidency to Vladimir Putin.

The war had left Kosovo as an autonomous region of Yugoslavia and then Serbia, policed by NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR). But Serbia’s continuing authority over Kosovo was still internationally recognized. The Kosovars, frustrated with the pace of final status negotiations, unilaterally declared independence on February 17, 2008. The international community was and is divided on recognizing Kosovo’s sovereignty, but Russia’s reaction was unequivocal. Vladimir Putin described the recognition of Kosovo’s independence by the U.S. and many European nations as “a terrible precedent, which will de facto blow apart the whole system of international relations, developed not over decades, but over centuries.” He warned the West: “they have not thought through the results of what they are doing. At the end of the day it is a two-ended stick and the second end will come back and hit them in the face.”

Putin explicitly invoked Kosovo after his incursion into Georgia in 2008 and his annexation of Crimea in 2014. Speaking to the Russian State Duma on March 18, 2014, Putin quoted America’s April 2009 Written Statement to the UN International Court in support of Kosovo’s independence, and asked what made Kosovo a special case. He told the Duma’s deputies, “This is not even double standards; this is amazing, primitive, blunt cynicism. One should not try so crudely to make everything suit their interests, calling the same thing white today and black tomorrow.” Turnabout is fair play. America’s ill-considered endorsement of Kosovo’s independence not only deepened tensions with Russia, it quickly provided justification for Russian land grabs and wars on both sides of the Black Sea.

Regardless of America’s laudable intentions and aims, the Kosovo war proved a handmaiden of two decades of disastrous interventions abroad. American hyperpower hubris, set free in a tiny corner of the Balkans, would unleash far more disastrous interventions in far more important regions of the world. Then-secretary of state James Baker had said of Yugoslavia in 1991, “We don’t have a dog in that fight.” Since Kosovo, America has found fights wherever it looked for them.

The company’s polygenic test for “mental disability” is more controversial

Saturday, May 11th, 2019

Genomic Prediction is the first company to offer polygenic risk scores for embryos rather than adults:

The firm is mainly promoting its tests as a way of screening out embryos at high risk of certain medical conditions. But the company’s polygenic test for “mental disability” is more controversial. It isn’t accurate enough to predict IQ for each embryo, but it can indicate which ones are genetic outliers, giving prospective parents the option of avoiding embryos with a high chance of an IQ 25 points below average, says Hsu.


Information from the same test could be used to go one step further and select whichever embryo is most likely to have a high IQ. “What that corresponds to is way-above-average intellectual potential,” says Hsu.

Naturally, this has been deemed highly unethical.