September 7, 2013

National stereotypes of business meetings

Via Business Insider, here's a chart put together by a Brit named Richard Lewis for his bestselling business advice manual. 
I don't travel enough to have strong opinions on this.

The Simon-Ehrlich Bet (and the nonbet)

From the NYT:
Betting on the Apocalypse

Published: September 7, 2013

ONE day in October 1990, the iconoclastic economist Julian L. Simon walked out to get the mail at his house in the Washington suburb of Chevy Chase, Md. In a small envelope sent from Palo Alto, Calif., he found a sheet of metal prices, along with a check for $576.07 from the biologist Paul R. Ehrlich. There was no note. 
Ten years earlier, Mr. Simon and Mr. Ehrlich, joined by two scientific colleagues, had made a wager on the future prices of five metals: chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten. The bet — in which the loser would pay the change in price of a $1,000 bundle of the five metals — was a test of their competing theories of coming prosperity or doom. ... 
Paul Sabin is an associate professor of American history at Yale and the author of “The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth’s Future.”

What's usually left out of this story is that Ehrlich learned from losing his first bet, and proposed a more sophisticated second bet. From Wikipedia:
Understanding that Simon wanted to bet again, Ehrlich and climatologist Stephen Schneider counter-offered, challenging Simon to bet on 15 current trends, betting $1000 that each will get worse (as in the previous wager) over a ten-year future period.[2] 
The trends they bet would continue to worsen were: 
The three years 2002–2004 will on average be warmer than 1992–1994. 
There will be more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2004 than in 1994. 
There will be more nitrous oxide in the atmosphere in 2004 than 1994. 
The concentration of ozone in the lower atmosphere (the troposphere) will be greater than in 1994. 
Emissions of the air pollutant sulfur dioxide in Asia will be significantly greater in 2004 than in 1994. 
There will be less fertile cropland per person in 2004 than in 1994. 
There will be less agricultural soil per person in 2004 than 1994. 
There will be on average less rice and wheat grown per person in 2002–2004 than in 1992–1994. 
In developing nations there will be less firewood available per person in 2004 than in 1994. 
The remaining area of virgin tropical moist forests will be significantly smaller in 2004 than in 1994. 
The oceanic fishery harvest per person will continue its downward trend and thus in 2004 will be smaller than in 1994. 
There will be fewer plant and animal species still extant in 2004 than in 1994. 
More people will die of AIDS in 2004 than in 1994. 
Between 1994 and 2004, sperm cell counts of human males will continue to decline and reproductive disorders will continue to increase. 
The gap in wealth between the richest 10% of humanity and the poorest 10% will be greater in 2004 than in 1994. 

Simon refused to bet on this.

The proposed bet on ocean fisheries, for example, reflects a better awareness on Ehrlich's part of the benefits of property rights. Egg ranchers don't kill off all the chickens that lay the tasty eggs because they own the chickens. But nobody owns mid-ocean fish until they're caught (Garrett Hardin's tragedy of the commons), so the lack of property rights encourage overfishing and poaching right now, rather than long-term stewardship. It's not an insoluble problem, but it is a difficult one.

In general, people like to wonder about grandiose overall questions: Prosperity or Doom???

But, I'm more interested in thinking about policies ceteris paribus. Moore's Law, for example, has covered up for a lot of bad policy decisions, but the relevant question is, given Moore's Law, how much better would things be if Stupid Policy X hadn't been implemented?

Australian center-right wins big with immigration restrictionism

From the BBC:
Australia's opposition has crushed the governing Labor party in a general election that has returned the Liberal-National coalition to power for the first time in six years. 
The coalition won 88 seats to Labor's 57 in the 150-seat parliament.

From the British Independent a couple of days ago:
Thursday 5 September 2013 
Hostility to immigration looks likely to decide the outcome of the Australian election 
The opposition leader says he wants to see "zero" boatloads of immigrants 
... What does it mean for Australia and the world if the Liberal-National coalition resumes office after a six-year gap? A victory for Mr Abbott would confirm a trend that affects many rich countries, which is that hostility to immigration is starting to shift votes. The opposition leader says he wants to get to a position where there are “zero” boatloads of would-be immigrants arriving in Australia each year.

I wonder how different are the attitudes toward immigration of Rupert Murdoch's media properties in Australia and the U.S.?

September 6, 2013

America Out of Step with the World

Australians are voting today, and a major issue is which party will crack down hardest on illegal immigration, with the ruling left-of-center Labor party playing catch-up against the the right-of-center Liberal party. 

Here's an NYT article from a couple of months ago:
July 19, 2013 
Australia Adopts Tough Measures to Curb Asylum Seekers 
SYDNEY, Australia — Prime Minister Kevin Rudd [Labor] of Australia moved on Friday to curtail the record number of people trying the dangerous boat journey to claim asylum in the country, pledging that no one who arrives by boat without a visa will ever be granted permission to settle in Australia. 
Under the tough policy, all asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat will be sent to a refugee-processing center in nearby Papua New Guinea, which like Australia is a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention. If the asylum seekers are found to be genuine refugees, they will be resettled in Papua New Guinea, but forfeit any right to asylum in Australia. 
Mr. Rudd, who is facing a hotly contested federal election within weeks, acknowledged that the policy was harsh and likely to face legal challenges. But he said that something had to be done to protect the lives of asylum seekers and to restore the integrity of the country’s borders. 
“Australians have had enough of seeing people drowning in the waters to our north,” Mr. Rudd said at a news conference. “Our country has had enough of people smugglers exploiting asylum seekers and seeing them drown on the high seas.” 
“As of today asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia,” he said. 
No issue looms larger over Australian politics than how to deal with asylum seekers, and it is unclear whether Mr. Rudd’s tough new policy will score him any political points.
... Under the so-called Pacific Solution of Prime Minister John Howard a decade ago, asylum seekers were transported to nearby island nations like Papua New Guinea and Nauru for a lengthy processing intended to remove the incentive for claiming asylum on Australia’s shores. The policy, which was roundly criticized by human rights advocates, was abandoned when Mr. Rudd became prime minister for the first time in 2007. 
But Mr. Rudd’s change of policy backfired spectacularly, leading to an explosion in the number of arrivals from a mere 161 in 2008 to 11,599 in just the first three quarters of 2012-13, the latest period for which official statistics have been published. The majority of arrivals are from Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka. 
In 2012, Prime Minister Julia Gillard effectively revived the Pacific Solution, opening offshore detention centers in Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. However, those two centers could not accommodate the steady stream of new arrivals and Australia is now facing a backlog of some 20,000 people awaiting processing. 
... Given the success of the opposition leader Tony Abbott’s use of the governing Labor Party’s failed refugee policies as a cudgel, and with an election approaching, the political calculus may prove more relevant than the fiscal. 
The new asylum policy appears to be part of a concerted effort by Mr. Rudd to nullify Mr. Abbott’s main lines of attack ahead of the election. Earlier in the week he announced an end to another of Ms. Gillard’s unpopular programs — a tax on carbon emissions of which Mr. Abbott was highly critical. 

First, Australia is not the outlier here, the Schumer-Rubio American establishment is the ones out of step with global opinion. The political tides in most of the world are moving against illegal immigration. 

Second, the Australian opposition to phony refugees wasn't even driven by hard times. Australia has enjoyed a huge boom due to Chinese raw materials purchasing (recently ramping down). Much of the Australian opposition to illegal immigration has to do with environmentalism: Australians are worried about carbon emissions and water conservation, and, as frequent visitor to Australia Jared Diamond noted in 2005, those concerns aren't consistent with massive immigration.

It would be worth asking how American elite opinion on immigration remains in such a bubble of provincial ignorance. Except that we already know the answer: ignorance is easy.

Death of movies greatly exaggerated

Every year you read about how the movie business is collapsing, but, then, it just keeps sort of trundling along. This summer was widely reported to be one of catastrophic flops marking tectonic shifts that will soon dump Hollywood to the bottom of the ocean, but, after a terrible start to 2013, domestic box office was up 7% for summer 2013 versus summer 2012, despite the 3D fad continuing to fizzle out. (And the summer season growth would have been 12% except that last year's The Avengers was such a giant hit.)

And that's just measuring the century old business model of getting customers to leave their homes and go to a theater, which is a downright quaint way of doing things. They have lots of other ways to make money.

The Coen Brothers are out promoting their upcoming December movie about a folk-singer in pre-Bob Dylan Greenwich Village:
Q. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas recently talked about the state of the movie business and how frustrated they are with it. ... It’s a recurrent theme — the crisis in film. 
Joel Coen: It’s definitely harder now. On the other hand, I think you can exaggerate that, too, because the movie business in the United States, despite the sort of ups and downs of the economy, is still a very healthy business. And that healthy business is going to support — and it always has — a lot of niche moviemaking. More than you might expect it to, given the mentality. There’s still a lot of interesting stuff being made which is completely outside of the kind of trend that we’re describing, you know? 
Ethan Coen: We’ve always actually been remarkably commercially successful. Not in terms of making huge amounts of money, which we rarely do, but in terms of not losing money and making modest amounts of money. We’re actually strangely consistent in that respect. We’ve been able to keep making movies because of that and also because, strangely, we’ve had studio patrons, starting from Barry Diller. Sometimes they're establishment people who know they’re not going to make huge amounts of money, but they like your movies. They’re moviegoers, too. 
Joel: And mostly they’re making blockbusters, but when you get in a room with them, they go, “Go off and make your movie, and I’ll do it as long as I can’t get hurt too bad.” 

The Coen Brothers are like Woody Allen in this regard -- investors don't demand they maximize ROI as long as they don't Heaven's Gate them -- except that, in contrast to Allen, there are two of them, they are a couple of decades younger, and, on average, they take twice as long to make each movie, so with four times the amount of man-years per movie, their average film's quality/originality is much higher than Allen's last dozen.

A movie executive
The movie and TV industries are among the rare holdouts to having their cost-structures ruthlessly rationalized. Movie executives are generally not lacking in chutzpah, but even they have more dignity and self-awareness than Silicon Valley billionaires, so they don't lobby Congress about how the crippling best boy and key grip shortages mean that movies will be rotting in the soundstages unless Hollywood gets 100,000 more visas to bring in foreign workers to do the gaffering jobs Americans just won't do.

Moreover, the movie business is full of weird cross-subsidizations that any MBA with a spreadsheet would target for elimination. Most notably, teenage fans subsidize grown-up movie-goers. The wealth generated by blockbusters helps pay for Coen Bros.-type movies, both because investors lavish a fraction of their summer profits on fall movies, and because talent charges less to work on prestige pics.

Also, teenagers subsidize grown-up tastes even within summer blockbusters. The summer's biggest hit movie, Iron Man 3, for example, was a lot better than it had to be (e.g., Sir Ben Kingsley's role). 

By the way, to change the subject to sibling rivalry, over the last 29 years I've read dozens of joint interviews with the Coen Brothers (who are not twins), and I still can't tell them apart. Their public affect is not like, say, Ray and Dave Davies of the Kinks. Brothers usually take pains to distinguish themselves from each other (for instance, one identical twin recently informed me that he has 20-22 eyesight while his brother has 20-24 eyesight). In contrast, the Coens, who have gotten an awful lot of work done together, don't. I suspect they have fairly conscious strategies and rules for minimizing and managing sibling rivalry, but I don't know what they are.

My son tells me that a few years ago, the Coen Brothers came to his college to give a speech or receive an award or something, and the students buzzed for a week afterwards about the surprising fact that the Coen Brothers had arrived in separate limousines coming from separate directions. It had never occurred to the college film fans that the Coen Brothers are different individuals with distinct lives who don't live together in one big Coen Brothers House.

September 4, 2013

World War N

Milken, Gates, Kagame, Blair, and, lastly, Villaraigosa
From the NYT:
The Global Elite’s Favorite Strongman 
Published: September 4, 2013 
Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, agreed to meet me at 11 a.m. on a recent Saturday. Kagame’s office is on top of a hill near the center of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, and I took a taxi there, driven by a man in a suit and tie. Whenever I’m in Kigali, I am always impressed by how spotless it is, how the city hums with efficiency, which is all the more remarkable considering that Rwanda remains one of the poorest nations in the world. Even on a Saturday morning, platoons of women in white gloves rhythmically swept the streets, softly singing to themselves. I passed the Union Trade Center mall in the middle of town, where traffic circulates smoothly around a giant fountain. There was no garbage in the streets and none of the black plastic bags that get tangled up in the fences and trees of so many other African cities — Kagame’s government has banned them. 
There were no homeless youth sleeping on the sidewalks or huffing glue to kill their hunger. In Rwanda, vagrants and petty criminals have been scooped up by the police and sent to a youth “rehabilitation center” on an island in the middle of Lake Kivu that some Rwandan officials jokingly call their Hawaii — because it is so lush and beautiful — though people in Kigali whisper about it as if it were Alcatraz. There aren’t even large slums in Kigali, because the government simply doesn’t allow them.

The night before, I strolled back to my hotel from a restaurant well past midnight — a stupid idea in just about any other African capital. But Rwanda is one of the safest places I’ve been, this side of Zurich, which is hard to reconcile with the fact that less than 20 years ago more civilians were murdered here in a three-month spree of madness than during just about any other three-month period in human history, including the Holocaust. During Rwanda’s genocide, the majority Hutus turned on the minority Tutsis, slaughtering an estimated one million men, women and children, most dispatched by machetes or crude clubs. Rwandans say it is difficult for any outsider to appreciate how horrifying it was. Nowadays, it’s hard to find even a jaywalker. 
Clinton, ?, Usher?, Alicia Keyes?,
Quincy Jones, and Kagame in back
No country in Africa, if not the world, has so thoroughly turned itself around in so short a time, and Kagame has shrewdly directed the transformation. Measured against many of his colleagues, like the megalomaniac Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who ran a beautiful, prosperous nation straight into the ground, or the Democratic Republic of Congo’s amiable but feckless Joseph Kabila, who is said to play video games while his country falls apart, Kagame seems like a godsend. Spartan, stoic, analytical and austere, he routinely stays up to 2 or 3 a.m. to thumb through back issues of The Economist ...

The story goes on to offer a number of interesting vignettes, like Kagame beating with a stick subordinates who spent too much on drapes for the office. And it has some good insights, such as that Rwandans have been fairly well organized since Burton and Speke visited them in the in 1860s. 

But, it's kind of lacking in the bigger picture of the endemic struggle between Nilotics and Bantus, in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda (where Kagame was once a right hand man to the current dictator) and the Congo, where Kagame has been plundering for decades.

I briefly wrote about it in 2008. Back in 1995, Barack Obama Jr., who is half-Luo, noted the distinction in Kenya between "tall, ink-black Luos and short, brown Kikuyus." His Luo relatives assured him, "The Luo are intelligent but lazy." 

The Bantus, by weight of numbers, tended to get the upper hand in decolonization's one-man-one-vote-once era, but the Nilotics have been making an impressive comeback, with Raila Odinga (the son of Barack Obama Sr.'s political hero) just losing the Presidency of Kenya to Uhuru Kenyatta (the descendant of Barack Sr.'s enemy) in the recent election. 

Most remarkably, even in the United States, where the African-American population is overwhelmingly Bantu, the Nilotics are doing well in World War N. The American President is half Nilotic and not at all Bantu.

Wedding Crunchers

The website Wedding Crunchers displays keyword trends from 1981 through 2013 in New York Times wedding announcements in Google nGram style. For example, back during the first Reagan administration, more NYT wedding notifications mentioned "Republican" than "Democrat" or "Democratic." Recently, however, Democrats have opened up a 3 to 1 lead.

RapGenius has an interesting analysis with lots of graphs.

Bushes as Habsburgs with better jawlines

Two from commenter Peter the Shark:
The Bushes are really reminiscent of the Habsburgs - another family of aristocrats whose primary loyalty was (is) to themselves and who were happy to take on the coloring of any group of people they could rule. Thus you had a Habsburg popping up in Mexico in the 19th century, Emperor Karl trying to make himself king of Hungary after WWI and another nephew who tried to enlist Ukrainian nationalism in support of his cause. Now of course Habsburgs are big supporters of the EU and continuously trying to find a role at the supranational level. In similar fashion a Bush can be an old New Englander (Prescott), a Texan (Dubya), or a Hispanic. Doesn't really matter to the Bush family. In some ways you have to admire the Bush clan for somehow managing to preserve an almost medieval sense of European aristocratic entitlement into the 21st century. 

"30 Rock," like "Curb Your Enthusiasm." reflects a cynicism that has developed among smart urban liberals. They recognize that a lot of liberal tropes have failed, but for cultural and tribal reasons they won't abandon the ship. Liberal cynicism is probably good for the Democrats - it allows them to have a bigger tent since for the most part they are OK with being mocked from the inside as long as certain lines aren't crossed. I don't see that on the GOP where there is a constant battle to be "more true conservative than Thou!". The Dems are applying the Putin strategy to power and the GOP the North Korea strategy. 

"Obama Promises Syria Strike Will Have No Objective"

From The New Yorker:
WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—Attempting to quell criticism of his proposal for a limited military mission in Syria, President Obama floated a more modest strategy today, saying that any U.S. action in Syria would have “no objective whatsoever.” 
“Let me be clear,” he said in an interview on CNN. “Our goal will not be to effect régime change, or alter the balance of power in Syria, or bring the civil war there to an end. We will simply do something random there for one or two days and then leave.”

Actually, this parody proposal doesn't strike me as a totally bad idea, so it's worth thinking through why it would be bad. Assuming that there was use of poison gas in Syria and assuming the regime was behind it and that it's important to deter future use of poison gas, why not punish the leaders with some cruise missiles blowing up the leadership's prized possessions (does Assad have a G6?) and nicest offices, and then, point made, stop?

Well, one reason is because this kind of Olympian thunderbolt flinging is likely to lead onward. Things get personalized quickly. For example, Obama's unexpected declaration of a no fly zone over Libya in 2011 inevitably meant that the U.S. was going to overthrow Colonel Q/K/G. Obama couldn't go into the 2012 election as the President who started a war with G/Q/K and didn't win.

NYT: Strange New Respect for Bush Dynasty

Almost a decade ago, I argued that the dynastic ambition of the Bush clan is the shameful secret behind the Bushes' obsession with electing a new people. Now, the New York Times reports that the dynastic ambition of the Bush clan is the admirable secret behind the Bushes' obsession with electing a new people:
Bushes Focus on Immigration Debate to Reclaim Their Influence 
FORT WORTH — After years of enormous power and political influence, no member of the Bush family currently holds political office. 
But as the focus on military action in Syria drags former President George W. Bush’s Iraq war policy back into the spotlight, the Bush family is quietly but forcefully gearing up for another, still-developing debate: The fight on Capitol Hill over a broad overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws — a discussion critical to protecting the Bushes’ legacy on what has, for decades, been a defining issue for them. 
In July, Mr. Bush, who has largely avoided the political spotlight since leaving office, attended a naturalization ceremony for newly sworn-in citizens at his presidential library in Dallas. 
Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, his brother, has been traveling the country delivering speeches and writing opinion pieces pegged to his recent book, “Immigration Wars,” written with Clint Bolick, which argues for change in the law. 
And Jeb Bush’s two sons have been reaching out to Hispanics. George P. Bush, 37, is a founder of a political action committee — Hispanic Republicans of Texas — devoted to promoting Hispanics in Texas politics, and is running for office himself as a candidate for Texas land commissioner. Jeb Bush Jr., 29, is the founder of Sun PAC, a Florida group that recruits conservative Hispanic political candidates. 
For the Bushes, immigration is deeply personal. The family chose to root its political ambitions in Texas, and Jeb Bush’s wife, Columba, is from the central Mexican town of León. The elder George Bush famously, and lovingly, once referred to his three Mexican-American grandchildren as “the little brown ones.” 
What's wrong with his mouth?
Now, as the Republican Party struggles with how to attract Hispanic voters, members of the Bush dynasty seem more determined than ever to exert influence over the issue they have been helping to shape for years. 
“For generations, the Bush family has been connected to Hispanics by history, geography and family, and as a result, they have a deep understanding and acute sensitivity to important cultural nuances and political issues that affect the population,” said Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist who worked on both of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns. “When it comes to issues affecting Hispanics, the Bush family has a strong compass.” 
The family’s outreach to Hispanics is also smart politics, likely to bolster its political future in 2016 and beyond. George W. Bush won re-election to the White House in 2004 with 44 [sic] percent of the Hispanic vote, a number neither subsequent Republican presidential nominee came close to matching, and Jeb Bush is often mentioned as a likely 2016 contender in large part because of his strong relationship with Hispanic voters and support for an immigration overhaul.
Mr. McKinnon has already nicknamed George P. Bush “47.” (His uncle, of course, is “43,” and his grandfather is “41.”) ...
George P. Bush said in a recent interview after a campaign event here that courting Hispanics has always been both the politically smart and morally right thing to do. 
“My uncle obviously thought it was an important strategy for him, not only to win, but to expand the party, expand the base,” he said. “For my dad, it might be a little bit more personal, in the sense that he married ‘una Mexicana,’ and it certainly changes one’s perspective. But you know, being in Florida, it’s similar demographics to what you see in Texas, so it’s been important both from a political and a personal standpoint.” 
In the preface to his book, Jeb Bush writes that immigration to him “means my wife and family.” 
“It’s just smart marketing; it’s just smart business,” said Henry Bonilla, who is Hispanic and is a former Republican House member from Texas. “Whether it’s political business or corporate business, there are those who understand that it’s a diverse nation and it’s wise to be inclusive, and those who don’t, and it was just innately part of the Bush culture from the get-go.” ...
And before the Sept. 11 attacks, Robert Draper, the author of a book about the younger Bush’s presidency, reported that one of the priorities of Mr. Bush’s administration was to tackle immigration; the White House was so committed, he wrote, that “throughout 2001, the subject of amnesty for illegal immigrants popped up frequently in White House meetings.” 
The fact that the 43rd president’s immigration push — which failed in 2006 and 2007 — is being attempted again today, friends say, is evidence that he was simply ahead of his time. 

It's always seemed to me that importing a lot of ringers to eventually elect your doofus nephew President is a shocking violation of the public trust (just as Marco Rubio's transparent self-dealing is grotesque). But I forgot to factor in that the ringers the Bushes and Rubio are intent on importing to put themselves in the White House are nonwhite, so that makes it not only morally forgivable, but heroic.

In 21st Century America, ethics really aren't that complicated anymore:


September 3, 2013

The joy of American unexceptionalism

From my new column in Taki's Magazine:
I’ve found most talk about “American exceptionalism” pernicious because it tends to imply that America needs to be exceptional to deserve what other countries rightfully take for granted. ...
America is definitely exceptional in our recommended daily intake of flapdoodle. To Finns or Japanese or other sensible folk, their countries don’t have to be special to anybody except themselves. They need not be proposition nations, nor cities upon a hill redeeming the world, nor the rightful destinations of other countries’ huddled masses, nor the scourges of wrongdoing in the Levant. Instead, they are the past, present, and future homes of their own people. So their responsibility is to be good stewards for their heirs.
In contrast, the vague grandiosity of the ideology of American exceptionalism makes Americans easier to manipulate with contrived narratives.

Read the whole thing there.

How TV models discussions of what to notice

Last year in a discussion following the London Olympics, commenter NOTA made an interesting point:
I'm pretty convinced at this point that one of the biggest powers of TV media (particularly the 24 hour cable news channels and the talking-head sports shows that so resemble them) is the ability to model the discussions they want us to have. I think for a lot of people, they never hear or have even a tenth the amount of actual in-person conversation on any issue that they hear/see on TV. That provides the model for what people are thinking about some issue, and how you should think and speak and react, in order to fit in.  
If you can make sure that those conversations *don't* raise some issues or *don't* point out some pretty-obvious-looking facts, then most people somehow leave them out of their model. That's not what people seem to be talking about. Must not be very interesting.  
Presumably, there is some explicit decisonmaking going on about what ought not to be discussed--things that piss off too many advertisers or viewers, or that trigger retaliation from sources in media or sports or entertainment, or that run counter to the interests of the media company you work for (like having commentators on the Olympics coverage opine that probably everyone competing with any chance of winning is doping) probably get an explicit rule. Similarly, some issues are sufficiently politicized to get a rule by media organizations, like not referring to the race of criminals when they're black, or not calling anything Americans do torture.  
But probably a huge amount happens implicitly--some topics just aren't discussed in the community from which their commenters are drawn, or are universally seen as improper for public discussion. Even if there isn't an explicit rule saying that you can't speculate about Americans doping, it's just a whole lot less acceptable to bring up the issue about American gold medalists than foreigners.  ...

A few comments:

- I seldom watch unscripted talking on TV anymore. I used to, but with the coming of the Internet, there's so much to read, and reading is so much faster than sitting, looking, and listening.

- The Internet, however, remains less influential than television. That's Putin's big insight: control television and you don't need to control the Internet. Maybe have a few writers you don't like turn up dead, but mostly just make sure the good-looking, personable people on TV aren't causing you trouble.

- Because I don't have cable, I only recently noticed that the vast explosion in the number of channels has likewise increased the number of individuals who could, with some plausibility, think of themselves as television stars. In turn, a not insubstantial fraction of the rest of the public thinks that they might be on TV someday too, so they should pay careful attention to how people who are on TV talk.

- I have this strange opinion that you should be pleasant and inoffensive to average people you meet, but the ideas of those who voluntarily put themselves "in the arena" are fair game. Many people, however, feel that the arena is not the place for debate, it's for affirming consensus values, and that the people in the arena deserve deference (because their hair is so nice, or whatever).

- I continue to be struck by the division between comedy and serious (i.e., boring) talk. For example, I had always heard Tina Fey's sitcom "30 Rock" acclaimed as liberal, but when I finally got around to watching it, I found it very much on my wavelength. A couple of jokes per episode tended to be distinctly iSteveish.

- In general, I like things that combine humor and serious analysis, but I seem to be missing an appreciation for the human desire to keep separate the Profound and the Profane.

A rabbi's appeal to Jewish American citizenists

A long-time reader who is a rabbi sent me the following statement on immigration policy. 

Originally, he was bravely intending to publish it under his own name and seek the endorsement of other Jews like him of some public standing. 

I cautioned him to think carefully before going public with such a moderate manifesto. He eventually decided, prudently, to remain anonymous, but gave me permission to post it.
Jewish American Citizenists

While being strong supporters of human rights for all, we believe that the benefits of American citizenship are being diluted by our present inundation of immigrants, whether documented or otherwise.  
Particularly in precarious economic times such as our own, we believe that the financial wellbeing and concerns of lower and middle income Americans needs to be of greater concerns to our policymakers than the financial wellbeing and concerns of non-citizens. 
This would appear to be the view of the majority of the American public and of little controversy. 
We add our names here, as Jewish Americans, to make explicit the fact repeatedly proven in polls, that assumed Jewish support for increased immigration is vastly exaggerated and that any prominent Jewish supporters of such policies speak only for themselves rather than for the Jewish community as a whole. 
We, ourselves, share the sensible talmudic view that "the poor of your own city take precedence" and that increased immigration tends to depress wages and increase job competition for those Americans who have been hardest hit by the painful economic downturn of this past decade.  
The overwhelming majority of Americans oppose increased immigration to the United States and we proudly concur with that view.

Gladwell on human biological diversity in sports

Shaquille O'Neal and
comic Kevin Hart
In The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell reviews The Sports Gene by David Epstein. 

Epstein's book is structured around an attack on Gladwell's 10,000 Hour Rule, so Gladwell's irate initial response last month was to imply that his fans who are true believers in his 10,000 Hour Rule are deluded. They just didn't read Outliers closely enough to notice the fragments of sentences where he admits that innate gifts matter as well as training.

Now, Gladwell is back to say, well of course human biodiversity, including racial differences, matters hugely in sports. Who can't see that? Then, Gladwell focuses in on the weak spot in The Sports Gene: the impact of performance-enhancing genes. 

Gladwell goes on to say that sports should allow doping to make up for hereditary inequality. Why should Kenyans win most of the distance races just because they are born with advantages at running?

But he doesn't explain how that would make much difference. For example, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, PEDs mostly seem to augment racial differences. Up to 1989, East German chemistry wizardry made East German women competitive in the shorter races with women of West African descent. 

But since the end of communism freed Eastern European sports chemists to wander the world looking for work, it mostly seems to exaggerate previous racial differences. For example, EPO got to East African distance runners in the mid-1990s, making them even more dominant than they were since the 1960s.
In athletic competitions, what qualifies as a sporting chance? 
by Malcolm Gladwell 

Élite sports is a contest among athletes with an uneven set of genetic endowments and natural advantages.  
Toward the end of “The Sports Gene” (Penguin/Current), David Epstein makes his way to a remote corner of Finland to visit a man named Eero Mäntyranta. ... What’s most remarkable is the color of his face. It is a “shade of cardinal, mottled in places with purple,” ... 

Judging from pictures of the Finn online, Epstein's description is a little over-the-top. [Update, now that I look at the picture from a different angle on screen, wow, that is red.]
Mäntyranta carries a rare genetic mutation. His DNA has an anomaly that causes his bone marrow to overproduce red blood cells. That accounts for the color of his skin, and also for his extraordinary career as a competitive cross-country skier. ... Mäntyranta, by virtue of his unique physiology, had something like sixty-five per cent more red blood cells than the normal adult male. In the 1960, 1964, and 1968 Winter Olympic Games, he won a total of seven medals—three golds, two silvers, and two bronzes ...
In “The Sports Gene,” there are countless tales like this, examples of all the ways that the greatest athletes are different from the rest of us. They respond more effectively to training. The shape of their bodies is optimized for certain kinds of athletic activities. They carry genes that put them far ahead of ordinary athletes.
Epstein tells the story of Donald Thomas, who on the seventh high jump of his life cleared 7' 3.25"—practically a world-class height. The next year, after a grand total of eight months of training, Thomas won the world championships. How did he do it? He was blessed, among other things, with unusually long legs and a strikingly long Achilles tendon—ten and a quarter inches in length—which acted as a kind of spring, catapulting him high into the air when he planted his foot for a jump. ... 
Why do so many of the world’s best distance runners come from Kenya and Ethiopia? The answer, Epstein explains, begins with weight. A runner needs not just to be skinny but—more specifically—to have skinny calves and ankles, because every extra pound carried on your extremities costs more than a pound carried on your torso. That’s why shaving even a few ounces off a pair of running shoes can have a significant effect. Runners from the Kalenjin tribe, in Kenya—where the majority of the country’s best runners come from—turn out to be skinny in exactly this way. Epstein cites a study comparing Kalenjins with Danes; the Kalenjins were shorter and had longer legs, and their lower legs were nearly a pound lighter. That translates to eight per cent less energy consumed per kilometre.

Thin calves was part of O.J. Simpson's explanation back in the 1977:
“We are built a little differently, built for speed—skinny calves, long legs, high asses are all characteristics of blacks.”

Gladwell continues:
... According to Epstein, there’s an evolutionary explanation for all this: hot and dry environments favor very thin, long-limbed frames, which are easy to cool, just as cold climates favor thick, squat bodies, which are better at conserving heat. 
Distance runners also get a big advantage from living at high altitudes... When Kenyans compete against Europeans or North Americans, the Kenyans come to the track with an enormous head start.
What we are watching when we watch élite sports, then, is a contest among wildly disparate groups of people, who approach the starting line with an uneven set of genetic endowments and natural advantages. There will be Donald Thomases who barely have to train, and there will be Eero Mäntyrantas, who carry around in their blood, by dumb genetic luck, the ability to finish forty seconds ahead of their competitors. Élite sports supply, as Epstein puts it, a “splendid stage for the fantastic menagerie that is human biological diversity.” 
The menagerie is what makes sports fascinating. But it has also burdened high-level competition with a contradiction. We want sports to be fair and we take elaborate measures to make sure that no one competitor has an advantage over any other. But how can a fantastic menagerie ever be a contest among equals? 

Games aren't really supposed to be a contest among equals since the idea is to find the best, not the most average. Almost all games have rules that inevitably make some animals more equal than other animals: disparate impact. The most egalitarian games, like state lotteries and slot machines, games where nobody has a natural edge, where hard work doesn't pay off, where strategies don't avail, are the most boring to people with three digit IQs and most exploitative of people with two digit IQs.

All games have to trade off various aspects against others. For example, most sports have separate divisions for juniors, seniors and women, as well as some kind of open division in which young men compete. Is it fair to the 128th best men's tennis player that he's not allowed to win the sizable women's first prize in the U.S. Open? Sure, just as male golfers get to make some more money when they hit 50 and can compete in senior tournaments. It may or may not be fair, but it's more interesting.

Successful games have rules that make the game sporting enough to be interesting. For example, basketball is immensely biased in favor of the tall. On the other hand, it's not simply a test of tallness.

Now, we could have a game consisting solely of players being measured for height and the tallest team wins (kind of like a State Fair contest to see who grew the biggest rutabaga).

In fact, in the 18th Century, King Frederick William I of Prussia saw himself as competing with the other kings of Europe to assemble the tallest soldiers, often having his agents kidnap tall men. His Potsdam Giants were the reigning champs at his chosen sport of being tall.

Large men make large targets, and Frederick William was content to obsessively drill his Giants on the parade ground rather than to risk them in battle. His son, Frederick the Great, didn't see much point in his father's game, preferring to play a more serious game on the battlefields of Europe, and let his father's Giants dissipate.

In interest, basketball falls in-between the father's hobby and the son's. The disparate impact of height on basketball is profound, but there's more to the game than just height.

Or, consider the America's Cup sailboat race (currently going on in San Francisco Bay), which has a rule that the winner of the last America's Cup gets to set the rules for this one. So, zillionaire Larry Ellison wrote the current rules to require new high tech catamarans so lively that they sometimes fly almost completely above the water for long distances. But Ellison's Rules are so expensive that few countries showed up for the 2013 competition. And one sailor has been killed so far.

Is this fair? Well, the America's Cup has always been a rich man's race, sacrificing access for a celebration of the extreme in big money sailing. But there is much concern that Ellison pushed the envelope too far this time. Will the exciting footage of boats skimming the waves in front of the Golden Gate Bridge make up for the thinness of the field? We'll see. No doubt, there will be intense arguments after this America's Cup is over concerning the rules for the next one.
During the First World War, the U.S. Army noticed a puzzling pattern among the young men drafted into military service. Soldiers from some parts of the country had a high incidence of goitre—a lump on their neck caused by the swelling of the thyroid gland. Thousands of recruits could not button the collar of their uniform. The average I.Q. of draftees, we now suspect, also varied according to the same pattern. Soldiers from coastal regions seemed more “normal” than soldiers from other parts of the country. 
The culprit turned out to be a lack of iodine. Iodine is an essential micronutrient. Without it, the human brain does not develop normally and the thyroid begins to enlarge.  ...
After the First World War, the U.S. War Department published a report called “Defects Found in Drafted Men,” which detailed how the incidence of goitre varied from state to state, with rates forty to fifty times as high in places like Idaho, Michigan, and Montana as in coastal areas. 
The story is not dissimilar from Epstein’s account of Kenyan distance runners, in whom accidents of climate and geography combine to create dramatic differences in abilities. In the early years of the twentieth century, the physiological development of American children was an example of the “fantastic menagerie that is human biological diversity.” 
In this case, of course, we didn’t like the fantastic menagerie. In 1924, the Morton Salt Company, at the urging of public-health officials, began adding iodine to its salt, and initiated an advertising campaign touting its benefits. That practice has been applied successfully in many developing countries in the world: iodine supplementation has raised I.Q. scores by as much as thirteen points—an extraordinary increase. The iodized salt in your cupboard is an intervention in the natural order of things. When a student from the iodine-poor mountains of Idaho was called upon to compete against a student from iodine-rich coastal Maine, we thought of it as our moral obligation to redress their natural inequality. The reason debates over élite performance have become so contentious in recent years, however, is that in the world of sport there is little of that clarity. What if those two students were competing in a race? Should we still be able to give the naturally disadvantaged one the equivalent of iodine? We can’t decide. 

While perfect clarity is impossible, it's not that hard to logically distinguish between curing goiters by iodine supplementation and shooting up with steroids or EPO. The first involves rectifying a clear problem. There are major benefits in going from a sub-normal level of dietary iodine to a normal level, and few if any disadvantages. Moreover, there are no known benefits to risking your health by taking massively extra levels of iodine, so few do. Mainlining iodine right before you go on Jeopardy won't boost your IQ enough to win. So, iodine in salt is the textbook example of a health intervention without troubling tradeoffs, which is why I've been endorsing its spread since 2004.

In contrast, screwing around with your level of red blood cells, as endurance athletes are wont to do, can kill you. EPO doping needs to be regulated to keep cyclists from killing themselves in death or glory bids: Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote in the NYT in 2004:
In hindsight we can date the clandestine arrival of EPO with grim accuracy. ... Between 1987 and 1990, no fewer than 20 Belgian and Dutch cyclists died from otherwise inexplicable nocturnal heart attacks. 

Gladwell continues:
Epstein tells us that baseball players have, as a group, remarkable eyesight. ... 
Eyesight can be improved—in some cases dramatically—through laser surgery or implantable lenses. Should a promising young baseball player cursed with normal vision be allowed to get that kind of corrective surgery? In this instance, Major League Baseball says yes.

Laser surgery on your eyes sounds pretty crazy, except that millions of people have had this operation by now. So, the negative tradeoffs are well-understood and fairly limited. On the other hand, at some point some mad surgeon might develop a technique that, say, offers a 95% chance of getting 20/5 eyesight at the risk of a 5% chance of permanent blindness. Would some jocks jump at this? Yes, so therefore we shouldn't assume that any and all eye surgeries will be okay for the rest of baseball history.
... Baseball is in the middle of one of its periodic doping scandals, centering on one of the game’s best players, Alex Rodriguez. ...
The other great doping pariah is Lance Armstrong. He apparently removed large quantities of his own blood and then re-infused himself before competition, in order to boost the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells in his system. Armstrong wanted to be like Eero Mäntyranta. He wanted to match, through his own efforts, what some very lucky people already do naturally and legally. Before we condemn him, though, shouldn’t we have to come up with a good reason that one man is allowed to have lots of red blood cells and another man is not? ... 

Perhaps because arms races in boosting the chance of sudden death should make us think twice?

Now, it could be that thanks to volunteer lab rats like professional cyclists, the medical profession will slowly learn more about safe dosing levels for various substances, which will generate advances in the general welfare.

Of course, secrecy in sports doping gets in the way of doctors learning from these maniacs. So, Gladwell endorses legalizing everything but requiring complete transparency. The New Yorker summarizes:
He argues that we should legalize performance-enhancing drugs and then regulate them, and imagines a world where athletes make their biological passports public: “What I really would like is to have complete liberalization and complete transparency. I would like to know about every single baseball player, track-and-field athlete, basketball player, precisely what they are on. And then I’d like to reach my own conclusions as a fan about how to evaluate their performance.”

But, the point of doping is not to advance medical science, but to get a leg up over the competition. So, secrecy is a competitive weapon, meaning that if cheating were legalized when it comes to taking drugs, athletes would continue to cheat when it comes to reporting drugs because they don't want competitors to know their secrets (nor would they want their mothers to be able to find out what hellish potions they are ingesting).

The testing system would quickly collapse if the goal was only to get the paperwork right. Imagine being the poor bastard who had to collect slugger Ryan Braun's urine, only to get publicly lambasted by Braun for purported incompetence in Braun's successful bid to weasel out of his first positive drug test. If the goal is not to catch the guy with the $100 million contract but instead simply to document whatever devil's brew he is imbibing, well, screw it. Life's too short.

Furthermore, the often suggested solution -- let the athletes cheat a little -- doesn't work. They already do get to cheat some because the sports' organizations incentives are more to avoid false positives than false negatives. Telling athletes they can now have X parts per million of MongoDynaRoid 9000Z in their urine but not X+1 parts just makes the testing process even shakier.

So, we'll stumble onward much like we do now.

September 2, 2013

My Yąnomamö Mama

Yarima, formerly Mrs. Kenneth Good,
and her son David Good.
The Yanomami of the South American rain forest are one of the most famous tribes in the history of anthropology. One of the numerous controversies involving anthropologists and the Yanomami is the story of Dr. Kenneth Good, who over the course of 12 years studying the forest dwellers, married one, Yarima, and took her back to New Jersey. They had three children, but Yarima found suburban living lonely:
"I live in a place where I do not gather wood and no-one hunts. The women do not call me to go kill fish. Sometimes I get tired of being in the house, so I get angry with my husband. I go to the stores and look at clothing."

Wearing clothes for decoration might seem like a concept that would be foreign to her, but shopping for clothes had been the outside world idea that she had grasped fastest of all.
"It isn't like in the jungle. People are separate and alone. It must be that they do not like their mothers."

So, she went back to the Amazon, leaving Professor Good to raise their three children in New Jersey.

The couple's oldest son, David, now 25, recently visited his mother for the first time in a couple of decades or so:
Return to the rainforest: A son's search for his Amazonian mother

There's nothing too exciting in the story, but it's interesting to follow up on these individuals who got dragged into the history of anthropology. And it's nice to know that the son found his mother healthy and happy.
Crouching David is 5'5." The village elder kept offering him the
two girls on the right as his brides. 
One interesting fact is that Yanomami men don't go bald -- everybody, male and female, has these haircuts like Moe of the Three Stooges, with black hair that looks permanently nailed in. So, when the son set up a Skype connection with his father back in America, the tribespeople were freaked out by their old buddy's bald head.

World War T as the Next Great Distraction

The Washington Post editorializes:
The Manning momentThe Manning moment 
Editorial Board 
The case highlights the need for wider tolerance for transgender individuals.
IN JULY, Army Pfc. Bradley Manning, who had passed along classified information to WikiLeaks, was convicted of violating the Espionage Act. When sentenced in mid-August to 35 years in prison, the private issued a public statement that had nothing to do with the sentence or the crime but that nevertheless caught the attention of the country. 
“As I transition into this next phase of my life, I want everyone to know the real me,” that statement read. “I am Chelsea Manning. I am female.” 
With four words —“I am Chelsea Manning” — Pfc. Manning positioned the national spotlight onto the nation’s transgender community, the oft-forgotten “T” in “LGBT” (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) and what remains one of America’s most marginalized and neglected minority groups, even as the country makes significant strides in recognizing the rights of gay and lesbian citizens. 

It's really not that hard to distract Americans from thinking about serious issues of American power, is it? Let's all get worked up over World War T instead!

Panem et circenses: gay marriage and transgender campaigns are part of the circuses of the 21st American Imperium. There's really no end to the kind of hysterias that can be ginned up.

September 1, 2013

Dog that doesn't bark barks

One cultural conundrum is that Spanish-language television has very high ratings in the U.S. (headline in Variety in July: "Spanish-lingo net ranks No. 1 among all outlets in adults 18-49 and adults 18-34 demos") but Spanish-language movies rarely make a whisper at the American box office.

One way to notice notice dogs that don't bark is to notice the attention they get when they do (the exception that supports the tendency). Driving by the Century 8 movie theater in North Hollywood this evening, I saw a long line of Mexican families. I finally figured out they were there to see a Spanish-language movie. You would think that would be a commonplace in majority-Hispanic North Hollywood, but instead it's quite rare. Persian-language movies might be more common than Spanish-language ones.

Opening at just 347 theaters, Instructions Not Included [a.k.a., "No se Aceptan Devoluciones"] took fifth place with an incredible $7.5 million this weekend. That's significantly higher than other Spanish-language movies from Lionsgate's Pantelion division—Girl in Progress and No Eres Tu, Soy Yo earned just $2.6 million and $1.34 million, respectively, in their entire runs. Instructions star Eugenio Derbez also appeared in those movies, which makes Instructions's huge debut even more remarkable by comparison. 
Not only do Hispanics represent a growing percentage of the U.S. population, but they also account for a disproportionately high amount of movie theater ticket sales. According to the Motion Picture Association of America's 2012 theatrical market report, Hispanics made up 17 percent of the population, but 26 percent of frequent moviegoers. In spite of this, there are very few movies made each year that are specifically targeted towards Hispanics.  
... Instructions Not Included's focus on family seems to have clicked with the audience. The movie received a rare "A+" CinemaScore, which suggests that it could play well in the long-term. With great word-of-mouth and an incredible per-theater average, it wouldn't be surprising at all if Lionsgate attempts to expand this in to nationwide release next weekend.

My working explanation for the television vs. movie dichotomy is that television is for homebodies, while going to the movies is for young people who want to get out of the house and feel cool. This suggests that Spanish doesn't seem very cool to young Hispanics. This suggests to me that Quebec-style separatism isn't going to happen in the Southwest, but I'd appreciate hearing from those who know more about the history of Quebec than I do.

"The Rule of the Clan"

How can present-day societies of status evolve into modern societies of contract, to use Henry Maine’s famous distinction? Weiner commends the example set by the liberal professions—especially his own. And while Weiner may be biased, there are numerous recent examples of law professionals providing heroic role models, from the brave Italian prosecutors who took on the Mafia in Sicily two decades ago to the Pakistani prosecutor recently assassinated on his way to charging that unhappy country’s former dictator. 
Still, Weiner’s book raises more disturbing questions than it answers. For instance, how do we know that clannishness isn’t the wave of the future? 
While Weiner emphasizes the positive benefits of modern states, they triumphed mostly because they were better at total war. As the years go by, though, the bravery of the men who sacrificed themselves for their countrymen at Gettysburg or the Bulge seems less replicable. Likewise, some of us old-timers remember when space exploration was expected to become “the moral equivalent of war.” The Enterprise’s Captain James Kirk was modeled directly upon the Endeavour’s Captain James Cook, that symbol of meritocratic advancement from farm boy to explorer of the Enlightenment. 
In a mostly peaceful and earthbound 21st-century, however, why not instead connive to advance your family at the expense of your fellow citizens? Thus, the immigration debate is being conducted in the press as if the entire “citizenist” notion of Americans having responsibilities to their fellow citizens just because they are their fellow citizens is unimaginable.

Read the whole thing there.