Later On

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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

When Police Kill

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Alex Tabarrok’s article, mentioned in an earlier post, appears in Marginal Revolution, and it begins:

When Police Kill is the 2017 book by criminologist Franklin Zimring. Some insights from the book.

Official data dramatically undercount the number of people killed by the police. Both the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Arrest-Related Deaths and the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Reports estimated around 400-500 police kills a year, circa 2010. But the two series have shockingly low overlap–homicides counted in one series are not counted in the other and vice-versa. A statistical estimate based on the lack of overlap suggests a true rate of around 1000 police killings per year.

The best data come from newspaper reports which also show around 1000-1300 police killings a year (Zimring focuses his analysis on The Guardian’s database.) Fixing the data problem should be a high priority. But the FBI cannot be trusted to do the job:

Unfortunately, the FBI’s legacy of passive acceptance of incomplete statistical data on police killings, its promotion of the self-interested factual accounts from departments, and its failure to collect significant details about the nature of the provocation and the nature of the force used by police suggest that nothing short of massive change in its orientation, in its legal authority to collect data and its attitude toward auditing and research would make the FBI an agency worthy of public trust and statistical reliability in regard to the subject of this book.

The FBI’s bias is even seen in its nomenclature for police killings–“justifiable homicides”–which some of them certainly are not.

The state kills people in two ways, executions and police killings. Executions require trials, appeals, long waiting periods and great deliberation and expense. Police killings are not extensively monitored, analyzed or deliberated upon and, until very recently, even much discussed. Yet every year, police kill 25 to 50 times as many people as are executed. Why have police killings been ignored?

When an execution takes place in Texas, everybody knows that Texas is conducting the killing and is accountable for its consequences. When Officer Smith kills Citizen Jones on a city street in Dallas, it is Officer Smith rather than any larger governmental organization…[who] becomes the primary repository of credit or blame.

We used to do the same thing with airplane crashes and medical mistakes–that is, look for pilot or physician error. Safety didn’t improve much until we started to apply systems thinking. We need a systems-thinking approach to police shootings.

Police kill males (95%) far more than females, a much larger ratio than for felonies. Police kill more whites than blacks which is often forgotten, although not surprising because whites are a larger share of the population. Based on the Guardian data shown in Zimring’s Figure 3.1, whites and Hispanics are killed approximately in proportion to population. Blacks are killed at about twice their proportion to population. Asians are killed less than in proportion to their population.

A surprising finding:

Crime is a young man’s game in the United States but being killed by a police officer is not.

The main reason for this appears to be that a disproportionate share of police killings come from disturbance calls, domestic and non-domestic about equally represented. A majority of the killings arising from disturbance calls are of people aged forty or more.

The tendency  of both police and observers to assume that attacks against police and police use of force is closely associated with violent crime and criminal justice should be modified in significant ways to accord for the disturbance, domestic conflicts, and emotional disruptions that frequently become the caseload of police officers.

A slight majority (56%) of the people who are killed by the police are armed with a gun and another 3.7% seemed to have a gun. Police have reason to fear guns, 92% of killings of police are by guns. But 40% of the people killed by police don’t have guns and other weapons are much less dangerous to police. In many years, hundreds of people brandishing knives are killed by the police while no police are killed by people brandishing knives. The police seem to be too quick to use deadly force against people significantly less well-armed than the police. (Yes, Lucas critique. See below on policing in a democratic society).

Police kill more people than people kill police–a ratio of about 15 to 1–and the ratio has been increasing over time. Policing has become safer over the past 40 years with a 75% drop in police killed on the job since 1976–the fall is greater than for crime more generally and is probably due to Kevlar vests. Kevlar vests are an interesting technology because they make police safer without imposing more risk on citizens. We need more win-win technologies. Although policing has become safer over time, the number of police killings has not decreased in proportion which is why the “kill ratio” has increased.

A major factor in the number of deaths caused by police shootings is the number of wounds received by the victim. In Chicago, 20% of victims with one wound died, 34% with two wounds and 74% with five or more wounds. Obvious. But it suggests a reevaluation of the police training to empty their magazine. Zimring suggests that if the first shot fired was due to reasonable fear the tenth might not be. A single, aggregational analysis:

…simplifies the task of police investigator or district attorney, but it creates no disincentive to police use of additional deadly force that may not be necessary by the time it happens–whether with the third shot or the seventh or the tenth.

It would be hard to implement this ex-post but I agree that emptying the magazine isn’t always reasonable, especially when the police are not under fire. Is it more dangerous to fire one or two shots and reevaluate than to fire ten? Of course, but given the number of errors police make this is not an unreasonable risk to ask police to take in a democratic society.

The successful prosecution of even a small number of extremely excessive force police killings would reduce the predominant perception among both citizens and rank-and-file police officers that police have what amounts to immunity from criminal liability for killing citizens in the line of duty.

Prosecutors, however, rely on the police to do their job and in the long-run won’t bite the hand that feeds them. Clear and cautious rules of engagement that establish bright lines would be more helpful. One problem is that police are protected because police brutality is common (somewhat similar to my analysis of riots).

The more killings a city experiences, the less likely it will be that a particular cop and a specific killings can lead to a charge and a conviction. In the worst of such settings, wrongful killings are not deviant officer behavior.

…clear and cautious rules of engagement will …make officers who ignore or misapply departmental standards look more blameworthy to police, to prosecutors, and to juries in the criminal process.

Police kill many more people in the United States than in other developed countries, even adjusting for crime rates (where the U.S. is less of an outlier than most people imagine). The obvious reason is that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 July 2020 at 2:21 pm

What Next for Democracy?: Defining America’s place in the world

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David Warsh writes at Economic Principals:

The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today (Princeton, 2020), by David Stasavage, of New York University, gives the impression of being an easy read. Three hundred pages of text present a powerful narrative delivered with disarming clarity, with no showier claim to authority than the precision of its arguments.

But then come 37 pages of notes and a bibliography of 850 items, adding another hundred pages to the book. Stasavage has mastered so much history, and located it so deftly in recent controversies of social science, that he covers nearly everything that I have so much as glimpsed going on as an economic journalist these past fifty years, and a great deal more that I hadn’t. No wonder I missed on the couple of previous swings I took at it. I’ve got a bead on it now.

We won’t know for a while, but my hunch is that Decline and Rise will turn out to be the most compelling work on grand strategy since The End of History, by Francis Fukuyama, and The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, by Samuel Huntington, in the euphoria of the early ’90s. Since then there’s been Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? (2017), by Graham Allison, but that was somehow less helpful than the much earlier The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline 1895-1905 (1988), by Aaron Friedberg. Meanwhile, Decline and Rise is differently grounded from the agendas of realists such as John Mearsheimer (The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, 2018) and Stephen Walt (The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of US Primacy, 2018). The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty (2019), by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, is somewhat similar to Decline and Rise.

Stasavage begins by rehearsing the narrative familiar to anyone who has taken a course in world history:  how democracy was invented in Greece, and how it died out after a very short time – “about as much time as the American republic has existed.” Resurrected in Italian city republics like Venice and Genoa, after more than a thousand years, thanks to the rediscovery of Aristotle; and in the England of  Magna Carta, democracy then resumed its long slow evolution to the present day.

That takes no more than a paragraph.  The “problem with this story,” Stasavage writes (a phrase that occurs many times in the book) is that it is highly misleading.  When Europeans in the sixteenth century began fanning out across the world they often found themselves dealing with systems of government in which consent of the governed played a greater role  than the ones that prevailed at home. These included tribes like the Huron people of southwest Ontario, whom Jesuit missionaries studied intently; and the Tlaxcala people of Mesoamerica, whose government Hernan Cortez described as resembling that of Genoa or Pisa, because there was no king.

These early democracies, as Stasavage calls them, flourished wherever states were weak, which as recently as five hundred years ago, was most of the Earth.   They involved tribal chiefs who ruled collectively with the aid of assemblies and councils that constrained their power. These bodies were in turn responsive to the ordinary people whom they led, at least a subset of them, and they were to be found all over the world in communities that shared three characteristics:  small scale; leaders who lacked knowledge of what their subjects were producing; and an option for the disaffected to flee into the forest or otherwise “light out for the territory.” Fans of the saga of King John and Robin Hood will recognize the situation. Leaders who lacked dependable tax systems were more likely to govern consensually.

Early democracies existed in contradistinction to autocracies, which prevailed wherever a state could get a leg up on the citizenry, chiefly by knowing whom to tax and how much, in settlements  from which there  was no easy exit. China, with its fertile plateau of loess soil, was the first state.  From at least the beginning of the second millennium BCE,  dynasties in northwest China were able to support armies and build proto-bureaucracies by levying taxes on farmers whose productivity was more or less visible.  Rulers were hereditary. Councils had no say in the matter.  Other autocracies emerged out of similar geography:  the Third Sumerian Dynasty of Ur, the Aztec Triple Alliance, the Incas, the Mississippian chiefdoms, the Azande kingdom in central Africa. Islam inherited a state when it burst out of Arabia to conquer the Sasanian Empire in the Fertile Crescent.  Islam retained the local bureaucracy and converted it to its use.

Then came “the great divergence.” Everyone seems to agree that the different economic trajectory that Europe pursued began with representative government. But if the economic divergence has political origins, where did the politics come from? Representative government in Europe stemmed from the backwardness of its state bureaucracies, Stavasage argues. Rulers had no alternative but to seek consent from Europe’s growing towns. China and the Islamic world were far better off than Europe for five centuries or more; autocracy served development well. But at a certain point the Renaissance commenced, followed by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

Modern democracies had their beginnings in England, not the Dutch Republic, as has often been argued, England borrowed many Dutch institutions, so what made England  different? A new kind of parliamentary government, in which representatives could be bound by voter mandates, nor were they required to report back to their constituencies before making decisions. The Dutch retained institutions that permitted vested interests to forestall technological innovations; England sprinted ahead economically.

If the English went halfway to modern democracy, building a centralized state in which kings had powers as well as the newly-animated parliament, American colonists took the process to the next level, creating the broad suffrage for white males as a means of maintaining the consent of the governed necessary to the existence of a strong executive state. But the same conditions that produced democracy for European immigrants produced slavery for Africans and disaster for native American peoples. Stasavage is especially acute on the forces binding today’s Americans together – and those driving them apart.

The picture that emerges is of a world divided into two deep traditions, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 3:27 pm

What’s up with my blogging

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A reader wrote inquiring about the change in pattern of my blogging (less frequent) and about the spareribs recipe I posted (do I still follow a whole-food plant-based diet?). I thought others might be wondering about that, so here’s what’s up with me on those accounts.

Blogging and its interruptions

My decision to acquire fluency in Esperanto has required a fair amount of time — here’s my current regimen. That post includes some detail on the reasons for the regimen.

The time spent in study means fewer blog posts. However, I now have the bit in my teeth and am determined to achieve fluency.

Whole-food plant-based diet

I still follow this diet, but my family and (I suspect) many of my readers do not, though certainly my family and I hope my readers do emphasize the consumption of fresh vegetables (including leafy greens), dried beans, intact whole grains, fresh fruit, berries, and nuts and seeds, and minimize the consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs — and try to avoid refined and “product” foods.

Still, I like food, and when I see a recipe like the St.-Louis-style spareribs (riparaĵo laŭ la stilo “St. Louis”), a recipe that is interesting, sounds tasty, and is easy, I post it for my meat-eating readers. Indeed, I might eat a rib or two on a special occasion, but certainly I continue now to follow a diet that is almost exclusively whole-food and plant-based. If I don’t, my blood glucose goes up (since I no longer take any medication for that — or for high blood pressure, since I also have cut out added salt).

I do think it’s a good idea to cut out refined food (e.g., refined sugar and foods that contain it, ultra-processed foods, fruit juice) and move toward whole foods, and to minimize one’s consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs, for the reasons explained in Dr. Michael Greger’s book How Not to Die and his more recent book How Not to Diet. But I figure you can read those and decide for yourself based on the research findings he points out.


Written by LeisureGuy

29 June 2020 at 10:25 am

An essay on swimming in a book review

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From the NY Review of Books, a review by Iris Murdoch:

Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero
by Charles Sprawson
Pantheon, 307 pp., $22.00

I am not in the athletic sense a keen swimmer, but I am a devoted one. On hot days in the Oxford summer my husband and I usually manage to slip into the Thames a mile or two above Oxford, where the hay in the water meadows is still owned and cut on the medieval strip system. The art is to draw no attention to oneself but to cruise quietly by the reeds like a water rat: seeing and unseen from that angle, one can hear the sedge warblers’ mysterious little melodies, and sometimes a cuckoo flies cuckooing over our heads, or a kingfisher flashes past. Very poetical. And how much more so than a swimming pool, which is just a machine for exercising in.I fancy Mr. Sprawson would agree with me about this. Packed with fascinating tales of swimming exploits in history and literature, and with accounts of immersion in lochs, fjords, straits, and torrents all over the world, his splendid and wholly original book is as zestful as a plunge in champagne. Alan Ross published the short piece with which it began in his London Magazine; and Mr. Sprawson called on me and on other writers to see if we had anything interesting to tell him about our swimming experiences. His own stories, and those of his friends and family, turn out to be far more interesting. Tutored by the captain of a Turkish pilot tug, he learned how to swim the Hellespont, making allowance for tide and currents, and on his final successful crossing he was accompanied by his daughter. Rather unfairly, I thought, the Turkish skipper gave her a little medal and certificate, while her father had to be content with his own personal sense of achievement. While the experience of total immersion should be, like baptism, a rite of joyful equality, it must be admitted that to be young and blonde and beautiful is just as much of a social advantage in the water as it is everywhere else.

Having graduated in the Bosphorus, like Byron, Mr. Sprawson went on to tackle the Tagus estuary at Lisbon, a much more demanding swim as it turned out, and one endangered by giant tankers as well as unpredictable tides. Normally he is not fussy, as I am not myself, about the quality of the water he swims in; although all bathers would of course prefer a green pure foaming element to a stagnant one. But the pollution in the Lisbon estuary was too much for him, and together with the tides and the tankers it forced him to abandon the swim. No less than the hero on dry land, the hero in the water can be as distinguished by glorious failure as by success. Unguided by Hero’s torch, Leander failed to make it one night across the Hellespont; and his distraught inamorata is said to have plunged in to share his fate. Women can be heroes in the water as much as men; but I like to think we would not make so much fuss about it as Byron for instance did: swimming for him was the chief expression of a male chauvinist persona.

However keen and dedicated, and famous throughout Europe for their prowess in the water—George Borrow and the poet Swinburne were both ecstatic and indefatigable swimmers—the English always remained amateurs of the sport. Early this century their exploits were easily overtaken by the Germans and the Japanese, who trained themselves scientifically and moved methodically through the water to get the best results. Speed became the criterion; and in diving, height. The swallow dive was invented, and made famous in Leni Riefenstahl’s films of the Olympic Games. Before that, in 1914, photographed in her film A Daughter of the Gods, Annette Kellermann had set a world high-dive record when she escaped from her prison tower by plunging a hundred feet into the sea in a perfect swallow dive. One may doubt if Leander’s Hero, dutifully waiting for her lover every night beside the signal flame, could have achieved anything like that, but it would have been child’s play to Esther Williams, the swimming star and a movie heroine of my early youth.

All this and much more we learn from Mr. Sprawson’s pages; and his presentation is as stirring as the facts he gives us. Did you know that the world high-dive record is still held by Alick Wickham, a Solomon Islander, who in 1918 dived 205 feet 9 inches from a platform on a cliff above the Yarra River in South Australia? He was offered a hundred pounds for the feat, so it was a professional affair; and he was not so much bothered by the height or water depth as by the chances of hitting the opposite bank. He was successful, however, although the many bathing costumes he wore for protection were ripped off by the impact, and he lay in a coma for a week. Less hazardous, one hopes, were the film exploits a few years later of Jane and Tarzan. Then, as Mr. Sprawson writes, “musicals were full of girls swallow diving from the tops of waterfalls. Jane swallow dived from out of the trees into the arms of Tarzan. Weissmuller himself was an immaculate swallow diver, as photographs show, but he preferred to take part in competitions where the result was not dependent on the whims of judges.”

Earlier there were no judges, even when the English Channel was swum for the first time in August 1875 by Captain Matthew Webb, a Shropshire man celebrated in some lively verses by our former Poet Laureate, John Betjeman. Oddly enough, Webb was a friend and employee of the poet W.B. Yeats’s grandfather, who owned a number of merchant ships, and who “thought so little of danger,” as his more timorous grandson wistfully remarked, “that he had jumped overboard in the Bay of Biscay after an old hat.” Webb despised racing: in the water he was slow but sure. The journalist who accompanied his Channel swim grew tired of watching his “slow, methodical, but perfect breaststroke, and the magnificent sweep of his ponderous legs.” (I would maintain that the breaststroke is by far the most natural as well as the most comfortable way to enjoy the water; and Mr. Sprawson informs me that when the swimming craze took off in England, quite early in the last century, frogs were kept in tubs beside the new municipal swimming pools as a means of instruction.)

Technically, in fact, Webb was not the first man to swim the channel: he was preceded by an enterprising American, a coast guard named Boynton, who performed the feat in a rubber suit and assisted by a paddle. This equipment—an early instance of Yankee know-how—he continued to use when he and Webb took part in endurance races which the latter nonetheless managed to win, swimming continuously for six days, fourteen hours a day. He became totally committed to the deeps, and resigning command of his ship performed feat after feat of endurance swimming, always in need of money, of which he only earned modest amounts. He married and had children but continued to swim. Like Peleus, the father of Achilles, who begat his famous son on Thetis the sea goddess, he became totally committed to the new style of heroism. Such epic marine immersions aged his once magnificent body, but like all classic heroes he could not stop. He knew where his fate must lie; he arranged to swim through the whirlpool below Niagara Falls, a feat never previously attempted. Like a warrior in the Iliad putting on his armor, Webb wore the red silk costume made famous by his Channel swim. He dived from the boat and swam through “the savage green boiling water that seemed piled up in the centre like some glacier.” He was never seen alive again.

Rupert Brooke visited Niagara some years later, and viewed the scene, as Mr. Sprawson observes, “with a swimmer’s eye.” “Close in its bands of rock the river surges tumultuously forward,” Brooke wrote, “writhing and leaping as if inspired by a demon…. Its motion continually suggests muscular action. The power manifest in these rapids moves one with a different sense of awe and terror from that of the Falls. Here the inhuman life and strength are spontaneous, active, almost resolute; masculine vigour compared with the passive gigantic power, female, helpless and overwhelming, of the Falls. A place of fear.” He might well say so. Brooke’s division of water into two manifestations—male and female—suggests the division in his own nature. He had an obsessive longing to plunge into water wherever he found it, at Granchester, Swanage, or Tahiti; but this very longing reveals an inhibition, was perhaps a substitute for the human sexual relations about which he seems to have been extremely coy, in spite of bathing in the nude near Cambridge with Virginia Woolf and other young ladies in the same state.

Daring was not enough however, “It may be there is a herb growing at the bottom of the river just above the pool at Granchester,” he wrote to his friend Geoffrey Keynes (later to become a well-known Blake scholar), “and that if I dive and find it and bring it up—it will heal me.” What of? One fascination of swimming is that the swimmer may feel himself cured of all ailments and dissatisfactions, as of all other longings. The waters of death have gone over my head, as the Bible says. Swimming, like dying, seems to solve all problems: and you remain alive. At least two English novelists, I note with interest—Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh—once swam out to sea with the intention of never coming back. They did of course—Waugh, as he says, because he found himself surrounded by jellyfish. But a poet of an earlier generation, John Davidson, who entered the sea near Penzance with the same intention, held to his purpose.

Heroism with Brooke, like the outbreak of the Great War, was purification, a lustral rite; soldiers would go into action “like swimmers into cleanness leaping.” That of . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 June 2020 at 2:40 pm

Posted in Books

The Hard Truth Of Poker — And Life: You’re Never ‘Due’ For Good Cards

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Five Thirty Eight has posted an excerpt from Maria Konnikova’s book:

Maria Konnikova is a New York Times bestselling author and contributor to The New Yorker with a doctorate in psychology. She decided to learn how to play poker to better understand the role of luck in our lives, examining the game through the lens of psychology and human behavior. This excerpt is adapted from her new book, “The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win,” which is available June 23.

For many years, my life centered around studying the biases of human decision-making: I was a graduate student in psychology at Columbia, working with that marshmallow-tinted legend, Walter Mischel, to document the foibles of the human mind as people found themselves in situations where risk abounded and uncertainty ran high. Dissertation defended, I thought to myself, that’s that. I’ve got those sorted out. And in the years that followed, I would pride myself on knowing so much about the tools of self-control that would help me distinguish myself from my poor experimental subjects. Placed in a stochastic environment, faced with stress and pressure, I knew how I’d go wrong — and I knew precisely what to do when that happened.

Fast-forward to 2016. I have embarked on my latest book project, which has taken me into foreign territory: the world of No Limit Texas Hold ’em. And here I am, at my first-ever tournament. It’s a charity event. I’ve been practicing for weeks, playing online, running through hands, learning the contours of basic tournament poker strategy.

I get off to a rocky start, almost folding pocket aces, the absolute best hand you can be dealt, because I’m so nervous about messing up and disappointing my coach, Erik Seidel — a feared crusher considered one of the best poker players in the world. He’s the one who finagled this invitation for me in the first place, and I feel certain that I’m going to let him down. But somehow, I’ve managed to survive out of the starting gate, and a few hours in, I’m surprised to find myself starting to experience a new kind of feeling. This isn’t that hard. This is fun. I’m not half-bad.

This moment, this I’m not half-bad making its fleeting way through my brain, is the first time I notice a funny thing start to happen. It’s as if I’ve been cleaved in two. The psychologist part of my brain looks dispassionately on, noting everything the poker part of me is doing wrong. And the poker player doesn’t seem to be able to listen. Here, for instance, the psychologist is screaming a single word: overconfidence. I know that the term “novice” doesn’t even begin to describe me and that my current success is due mostly to luck. But then there’s the other part of me, the part that is most certainly thinking that maybe, just maybe, I have a knack for this. Maybe I’m born to play poker and conquer the world.

The biases I know all about in theory, it turns out, are much tougher to fight in practice. Before, I was working so hard on grasping the fundamentals of basic strategy that I didn’t have the chance to notice. Now that I have some of the more basic concepts down, the shortcomings of my reasoning hit me in the face. After an incredibly lucky straight draw on a hand I had no business playing — the dealer helpfully tells me as much with a “You’ve got to be kidding me” as I turn over my hand and win the pot — I find myself thinking maybe there’s something to the hot hand, the notion that a player is “hot,” or on a roll. Originally, it was taken from professional basketball, from the popular perception that a player with a hot hand, who’d made a few shots, would continue to play better and make more baskets. But does it actually exist — and does believing it exists, even if it doesn’t, somehow make it more real? In basketball, the psychologists Thomas Gilovich, Amos Tversky, and Robert Vallone argued it was a fallacy of reasoning — when they looked at the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers, they found no evidence that the hot hand was anything but illusion. But in other contexts, mightn’t it play out differently? I’ve had the conventional thinking drilled into me, yet now I think I’m on a roll. I should bet big. Definitely bet big.

That idea suffers a debilitating blow after a loss with a pair of jacks — a hand that’s actually halfway decent. After a flop that has an ace and a queen on it — both cards that could potentially make any of my multiple opponents a pair higher than mine — I refuse to back down. I’ve had bad cards for the last half an hour. I deserve to win here! I lose over half my chips by refusing to fold — hello, sunk cost fallacy! We’ll be seeing you again, many times. And then, instead of reevaluating, I start to chase the loss: Doesn’t this mean I’m due for a break? I can’t possibly keep losing. It simply isn’t fair. Gambler’s fallacy — the faulty idea that probability has a memory. If you are on a bad streak, you are “due” for a win. And so I continue to bet when I should sit a few hands out.

It’s fascinating how that works, isn’t it? Runs make the human mind uncomfortable. In our heads, probabilities should be normally distributed — that is, play out as described. If a coin is tossed ten times, about five of those should be heads. Of course, that’s not how probability actually works — and even though a hundred heads in a row should rightly make us wonder if we’re playing with a fair coin or stuck in a Stoppardian alternate reality, a run of ten or twenty may well happen. Our discomfort stems from the law of small numbers: We think small samples should mirror large ones, but they don’t, really. The funny thing isn’t our discomfort. That’s understandable. It’s the different flavors that discomfort takes when the runs are in our favor versus not. The hot hand and the gambler’s fallacy are actually opposite sides of the exact same coin: positive recency and negative recency. We overreact to chance events, but the exact nature of the event affects our perception in a way it rightly shouldn’t.

We have a mental image of the silly gamblers who think they’re due to hit the magic score, and it’s comforting to think that won’t be us, that we’ll recognize runs for what they are: statistical probabilities. But when it starts happening in reality, we get a bit jittery. “All these squalls to which we have been subjected are signs the weather will soon improve and things will go well for us,” Don Quixote tells his squire, Sancho Panza, in Miguel de Cervantes’s 1605 novel, “because it is not possible for the bad or the good to endure forever, from which it follows that since the bad has lasted so long a time, the good is close at hand.” We humans have wanted chance to be equitable for quite some time. Indeed, when we play a game in which chance doesn’t look like our intuitive view of it, we balk.

Frank Lantz has spent over twenty years designing games. When we meet at his office at NYU, where he currently runs the Game Center, he lets me in on an idiosyncrasy of game design. “In video games where there are random events — things like dice rolls — they often skew the randomness so that it corresponds more closely to people’s incorrect intuition,” he says. “If you flip heads twice in a row, you’re less likely to flip heads the third time. We know this isn’t actually true, but it feels like it should be true, because we have this weird intuition about large numbers and how randomness works.” The resulting games actually accommodate that wrongness so that people don’t feel like the setup is “rigged” or “unfair.” “So they actually make it so that you’re less likely to flip heads the third time,” he says. “They jigger the probabilities.”

For a long time, Lantz was a serious poker player. And one of the reasons he loves the game is that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 June 2020 at 2:16 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Math, Science

The Plan to Make Post-Pandemic Flying Miserable

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Matt Stoller writes in BIG:

Today I’m going to write about how Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao is starting to restructure air travel with a little noticed change to consumer protection rules. Here are a few of the other nuggets in this issue:

  • The five dollar footlong rebellion among Subway franchises reveals market power in the franchise economy.
  • A whistleblower from the antitrust division and political interference by Trump
  • Corruption at the United States Trade Representative’s Office
  • The relationship between corporate research levels and antitrust
  • The policy attack on targeted ads
  • Tesla, Nikola, or how the stock market is unreal
  • Concentration in the market for body cameras and policing equipment

First, some housekeeping. I wrote an essay for the American Compass on how to bring back generic pharmaceutical supply chains. The gist of the argument is that our markets are screwed up by monopoly power. We distribute and sell medicine through an opaque system of kickbacks among various large buying groups. If we just got rid of kickbacks, we’d get real prices again, and then we could structure supply chains more safely.

And now…

Planning for the Unfriendly Skies

Perhaps the hardest hit industry during the pandemic is that of commercial airlines. Though the evidence isn’t clear, being confined in a small metal tube with other passengers for hours at a time seems like the best possible way to spread a disease like the Coronavirus, and travel itself using any medium is much riskier these days. Entire countries like New Zealand and Taiwan, and even states, like Maine, are under self-imposed quarantine, which suggests that without a vaccine, the post-pandemic “normal” for airlines will look very different than what we are used to.

Congress recognized this dynamic in March, when it passed the CARES Act to provide specific financial support to the industry. So far, we don’t really know what the end state will be. Some airlines are getting more aggressive on masking policy. On a financial level, both American Airlines and United are putting up their frequent flyer programs as collateral for more loans, while Alaska Airlines is planning large job cuts. Delta reduced hours and pay, which is likely a violation of CARES Act conditions. Most airlines are also making it much harder to get refunds by changing their ticketing practices to prevent class action lawsuits. Airlines seem to be transitioning to a new post-pandemic normal in ways that prioritize cursory health measures and preserve cash by exploiting customers and workers.

Policymaking is also in flux. The existing consumer protection framework is in chaos, with consumers filing 25,000 complaints in March and April, versus 1,500 in a normal month. There are questions about how to restore flying while the virus is on the loose, as well as what to do with people who had planned to fly but could not. It’s an opportune time for forward-looking policymakers to rethink an industry that is both vital and deeply problematic in terms of its competitive dynamics. In Germany, for instance, policymakers are using aid to restructure the industry. Lufthansa, after a fairly bitter negotiating stance, got government aid conditioned on giving up a few takeoff and landing slots at Munich and Frankfurt airport, which may increase competition.

Clearly, the airline industry is at a big inflection point; the next election will likely have a big impact on what the industry comes to look like. The last major pivot point was deregulation of the airlines in 1978, which was a shift from seeing the airline grid as a public utility to one in which airlines simply operated in a normal market for tradable services. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader was the single most aggressive advocate for eliminating the Civil Aeronautics Board, in favor of deregulation, plus a robust consumer protection and antitrust regime. Since that time, consumer protection and antitrust authority has been held mostly by the Department of Transportation.

Deregulation did not work out as Nader (plus other deregulatory champions like Ted Kennedy, Alfred Kahn, and Stephen Breyer) thought it would. In terms of antitrust and mergers, the story is pretty bleak. There’s a story that prices came down because of deregulation, but this wasn’t really true in aggregate; prices had been coming down since commercial airlines began, because technology keeps getting better. Throughout the 1980s, and continuing through the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, the DOT allowed a continued consolidation of airlines. Today there are just four big ones and a few smaller more regionally focused ones. A significant number of routes are monopolized, and smaller airports have seen fewer flights over time. Under Trump, the DOT has been giving antitrust immunity to foreign airlines engaged in joint ventures to fly into and out of the U.S. There were a bunch of bad mergers and there’s plenty of price gouging, but the root problem was deregulation; the economics of airlines simply don’t lend themselves to robust competition without extensive regulatory intervention.

Unlike antitrust, which was weak under both parties, there is a bit of a partisan split for consumer protection, a legacy of the Nader influence among Democrats. Democratic administrations tend to be slightly more aggressive on things like baggage fees, tarmac delays, ticket price transparency, wheelchair accessibility, and so forth., But it’s important not to overstate the difference. In 2015, the DOT issued just 15 consent orders against airlines, with a little over $2M in fines, this despite 19,000 complaints. The National Consumer’s League’s John Breyault noted the total amount of fines since 2009 amounts to $38.7 million, versus $1.4 billion collected via baggage fees just in the fourth quarter of 2019. Here’s a chart of the fairly sad story. . .

Continue reading. There’s more. Bottom line: try not to travel by air.

Later in the article:

In 2017, the airline lobby sought to overturn a bunch of consumer protection regulations, which would give airlines the ability to:

  • Hide the full price of a ticket at the point of purchase
  • Raise the price of a ticket after a consumer has already paid
  • Not divulge how often flights are delayed or canceled when selling tickets
  • Charge multiple baggage fees for an itinerary
  • End the practice of letting consumers cancel within 24 hours of booking a flight
  • No longer promptly provide wheelchair assistance to passengers
  • Have much longer tarmac delays
  • Not have air conditioning or heating during tarmac delays
  • Deny giving paper-based explanations of denied boarding compensation
  • Pay denied boarding compensation in flight credit instead of money

Written by LeisureGuy

16 June 2020 at 4:09 pm

It Can Happen Here

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In the New York Review of Books Cass R. Sunstein reviews a couple of ominous books about how a public can blind itself to what is happening (review also available in complete form here):

They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933–45
by Milton Mayer, with a new afterword by Richard J. Evans
University of Chicago Press, 378 pp., $20.00 (paper)

Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the Twentieth Century
by Konrad H. Jarausch
Princeton University Press, 446 pp., $35.00<

Liberal democracy has enjoyed much better days. Vladimir Putin has entrenched authoritarian rule and is firmly in charge of a resurgent Russia. In global influence, China may have surpassed the United States, and Chinese president Xi Jinping is now empowered to remain in office indefinitely. In light of recent turns toward authoritarianism in Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and the Philippines, there is widespread talk of a “democratic recession.” In the United States, President Donald Trump may not be sufficiently committed to constitutional principles of democratic government.

In such a time, we might be tempted to try to learn something from earlier turns toward authoritarianism, particularly the triumphant rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s. The problem is that Nazism was so horrifying and so barbaric that for many people in nations where authoritarianism is now achieving a foothold, it is hard to see parallels between Hitler’s regime and their own governments. Many accounts of the Nazi period depict a barely imaginable series of events, a nation gone mad. That makes it easy to take comfort in the thought that it can’t happen again.

But some depictions of Hitler’s rise are more intimate and personal. They focus less on well-known leaders, significant events, state propaganda, murders, and war, and more on the details of individual lives. They help explain how people can not only participate in dreadful things but also stand by quietly and live fairly ordinary days in the midst of them. They offer lessons for people who now live with genuine horrors, and also for those to whom horrors may never come but who live in nations where democratic practices and norms are under severe pressure.

Milton Mayer’s 1955 classic They Thought They Were Free, recently republished with an afterword by the Cambridge historian Richard J. Evans, was one of the first accounts of ordinary life under Nazism. Dotted with humor and written with an improbably light touch, it provides a jarring contrast with Sebastian Haffner’s devastating, unfinished 1939 memoir, Defying Hitler, which gives a moment-by-moment, you-are-there feeling to Hitler’s rise. (The manuscript was discovered by Haffner’s son after the author’s death and published in 2000 in Germany, where it became an immediate sensation.)* A much broader perspective comes from Konrad Jarausch’s Broken Lives, an effort to reconstruct the experience of Germans across the entire twentieth century. What distinguishes the three books is their sense of intimacy. They do not focus on historic figures making transformative decisions. They explore how ordinary people attempted to navigate their lives under terrible conditions.

Haffner’s real name was Raimund Pretzel. (He used a pseudonym so as not to endanger his family while in exile in England.) He was a journalist, not a historian or political theorist, but he interrupts his riveting narrative to tackle a broad question: “What is history, and where does it take place?” He objects that most works of history give “the impression that no more than a few dozen people are involved, who happen to be ‘at the helm of the ship of state’ and whose deeds and decisions form what is called history.” In his view, that’s wrong. What matters are “we anonymous others” who are not just “pawns in the chess game,” because the “most powerful dictators, ministers, and generals are powerless against the simultaneous mass decisions taken individually and almost unconsciously by the population at large.” Haffner insists on the importance of investigating “some very peculiar, very revealing, mental processes and experiences,” involving “the private lives, emotions and thoughts of individual Germans.”

Mayer had the same aim. An American journalist of German descent, he tried to meet with Hitler in 1935. He failed, but he did travel widely in Nazi Germany. Stunned to discover a mass movement rather than a tyranny of a diabolical few, he concluded that his real interest was not in Hitler but in people like himself, to whom “something had happened that had not (or at least not yet) happened to me and my fellow-countrymen.” In 1951, he returned to Germany to find out what had made Nazism possible.

In They Thought They Were Free, Mayer decided to focus on ten people, different in many respects but with one characteristic in common: they had all been members of the Nazi Party. Eventually they agreed to talk, accepting his explanation that he hoped to enable the people of his nation to have a better understanding of Germany. Mayer was truthful about that and about nearly everything else. But he did not tell them that he was a Jew.

In the late 1930s—the period that most interested Mayer—his subjects were working as a janitor, a soldier, a cabinetmaker, an office manager, a baker, a bill collector, an inspector, a high school teacher, and a police officer. One had been a high school student. All were male. None of them occupied positions of leadership or influence. All of them referred to themselves as “wir kleine Leute, we little people.” They lived in Marburg, a university town on the river Lahn, not far from Frankfurt.

Mayer talked with them over the course of a year, under informal conditions—coffee, meals, and long, relaxed evenings. He became friends with each (and throughout he refers to them as such). As he put it, with evident surprise, “I liked them. I couldn’t help it.” They could be ironic, funny, and self-deprecating. Most of them enjoyed a joke that originated in Nazi Germany: “What is an Aryan? An Aryan is a man who is tall like Hitler, blond like Goebbels, and lithe like Göring.” They also could be wise. Speaking of the views of ordinary people under Hitler, one of them asked:

Opposition? How would anybody know? How would anybody know what somebody else opposes or doesn’t oppose? That a man says he opposes or doesn’t oppose depends upon the circumstances, where, and when, and to whom, and just how he says it. And then you must still guess why he says what he says.

When Mayer returned home, he was afraid for his own country. He felt “that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man,” and that under the right conditions, he could well have turned out as his German friends did. He learned that Nazism took over Germany not “by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler.” Many Germans “wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.”

Mayer’s most stunning conclusion is that with one partial exception (the teacher), none of his subjects “saw Nazism as we—you and I—saw it in any respect.” Where most of us understand Nazism as a form of tyranny, Mayer’s subjects “did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now.” Seven years after the war, they looked back on the period from 1933 to 1939 as the best time of their lives.

Mayer suggests that even when tyrannical governments do horrific things, outsiders tend to exaggerate their effects on the actual experiences of most citizens, who focus on their own lives and “the sights which meet them in their daily rounds.” Nazism made things better for the people Mayer interviewed, not (as many think) because it restored some lost national pride but because it improved daily life. Germans had jobs and better housing. They were able to vacation in Norway or Spain through the “Strength Through Joy” program. Fewer people were hungry or cold, and the sick were more likely to receive treatment. The blessings of the New Order, as it was called, seemed to be enjoyed by “everybody.”

Even in retrospect Mayer’s subjects liked and admired Hitler. They saw him as someone who had “a feeling for masses of people” and spoke directly in opposition to the Versailles Treaty, to unemployment—to all aspects of the existing order. They applauded Hitler for his rejection of “the whole pack”—“all the parliamentary politicians and all the parliamentary parties”—and for his “cleanup of moral degenerates.” The bank clerk described Hitler as “a spellbinder, a natural orator. I think he was carried away from truth, even from truth, by his passion. Even so, he always believed what he said.”

Mayer did not bring up the topic of anti-Semitism with any of his subjects, but after a few meetings, each of them did so on his own, and they returned to it constantly. When the local synagogue was burned in 1938, most of the community was under only one obligation: “not to interfere.” Eventually Mayer showed his subjects the local newspaper from November 11, 1938, which contained a report: “In the interest of their own security, a number of male Jews were taken into custody yesterday. This morning they were sent away from the city.” None of them remembered seeing it, or indeed anything like it.

The killing of six million Jews? Fake news. Four of Mayer’s subjects insisted that the only Jews taken to concentration camps were traitors to Germany, and that the rest were permitted to leave with their property or its fair market value. The bill collector agreed that the killing of the Jews “was wrong, unless they committed treason in wartime. And of course they did.” He added that “some say it happened and some say it didn’t,” and that you “can show me pictures of skulls…but that doesn’t prove it.” In any case, “Hitler had nothing to do with it.” The tailor spoke similarly: “If it happened, it was wrong. But I don’t believe it happened.”

With evident fatigue, the baker reported, “One had no time to think. There was so much going on.” His account was similar to that of one of Mayer’s colleagues, a German philologist in the country at the time, who emphasized the devastatingly incremental nature of the descent into tyranny and said that “we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.” The philologist pointed to a regime bent on diverting its people through endless dramas (often involving real or imagined enemies), and “the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise.” In his account, “each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’” that people could no more see it “developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.”

Focusing largely on 1933, in Defying Hitler Haffner offers a radically different picture, in which the true nature of Nazism was evident to many Germans from the start. Just twenty-five years old that year and studying law with the goal of becoming a judge or administrator, he describes the mounting effects of Nazism on the lives of his high-spirited friends and fellow students, who were preoccupied with fun, job prospects, and love affairs. Haffner says that as soon as the Nazis took power, he was saved by his capacity to smell the rot:

As for the Nazis, my nose left me with no doubts. It was just tiresome to talk about which of their alleged goals and intentions were still acceptable or even “historically justified” when all of it stank. How it stank! That the Nazis were enemies, my enemies and the enemies of all I held dear, was crystal clear to me from the outset.

As Haffner describes it, a form of terror began quickly, as members of the SS made their presence felt, intimidating people in public places. At the same time, citizens were distracted by an endless stream of festivities and celebrations. The intimidation, accompanied by the fervent, orchestrated pro-Nazi activity, produced an increase in fear, which led many skeptics to become Nazis. Nonetheless, people flirted, enjoyed romances, “went to the cinema, had a meal in a small wine bar, drank Chianti, and went dancing together.” Sounding here like Mayer’s subjects, Haffner writes that it was the “automatic continuation of ordinary life” that “hindered any lively, forceful reaction against the horror.”

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 June 2020 at 12:02 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Government, Law, Politics

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The Enchanted Castle is as spellbinding and wonderful as I recalled

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I’m so glad to have found it. It’s from Wikisource, which has it available for download in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats. I downloaded the EPUB version and used Calibre to translate it to Kindle format.

I highly recommend the book, which is (as they say) suitable for all age — not only suitable, but enthralling.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 June 2020 at 11:53 am

Posted in Books

The Common Seaman in the Heroic Age of Sail 1740–1840

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Come Hell or High Water, by Stephen Taylor, seems a book useful to read in conjunction with Patrick O’Brian’s series of British Naval novels that begin with the trilogy:

Master and Commander
Post Captain
HMS Surprise.

Matthew Lyons reviews the book in Literary Review:

Early in the 19th century, there were some 260,000 of them across Britain’s naval and merchant fleets. People called them Jacks, but they are mostly nameless – or nameless to history. Even on surviving muster lists, seamen’s identities can be hidden behind pseudonyms. Some of these – George Million or Jacob Blackbeard, say – express a degree of wish fulfilment. Others are more whimsical: a Mark Anthony and Julius Caesar could be found on board the Calcutta-bound Tyger in 1757.

To join them was to enter another world, with its own laws (the thirty-six Articles of War, read to them every Sunday, besides whatever strictures a captain thought fit to apply), its own rituals and its own argot. ‘All seemed strange,’ one former ship’s boy recalled of his first days on board, ‘different language and strange expressions of tongue, that I thought myself always asleep, and never properly awake.’

There were, of course, distinctions among them. The lowest of the low were the waisters, comprised of old men, boys and the most inexperienced landsmen, good for nothing but drudgery. Then came the afterguard, consisting of ordinary seamen and more skilled landsmen, who trimmed the after yards and the sails. Above them were the forecastlemen, able seamen who handled the lower ropes and saw to weighing and anchoring. Princes over all of them were the topmen (or Foremast Jacks), who went aloft to bend or reef the sails, even in the highest of seas.

As Stephen Taylor argues in this enthralling new book, it was men like these who, in the great age of sail, made the British Empire possible. He tells the story of Britain’s rise to maritime supremacy in roughly the century from 1750 to 1850, using first-hand accounts of life on the lower decks, official records – ships’ logs, muster rolls, court martials and so on – and other contemporary sources.

Because of the immediacy of these sources, and Taylor’s deft, incisive use of them, it is the men, not the nation, to whom Sons of the Waves belongs. ‘Out of the King’s service they are in general citizens of the world,’ one officer wrote of them. Jacks might have made the British Empire possible, but they were only circumstantially loyal to it.

When their personal discontent became intolerable, they deserted in their tens of thousands. Nelson himself reckoned that 42,000 deserted between 1793 and 1802 alone, a figure Taylor believes may be on the low side. Their skills made them highly prized commodities and they were happy to sail under any flag, towards any compass point. The institution that valued that commodity least was the Royal Navy.

Perhaps the most resented British naval practice in this period was . . .

Continue reading.


Written by LeisureGuy

8 June 2020 at 2:18 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Military

Tagged with

Calibre and your ebooks

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Calibre is a terrific program for managing your ebooks, and it gives you the ability to do some very nice things. Calibre is free, though donations are encouraged.

Lee Miller, in the Duolingo Esperanto Learner’s group on Facebook pointed out two good Esperanto resources available as PDFs: Teach Yourself Esperanto, John Cresswell, and Esperanto: Learning and Using the International Language, by David Richardson.

I downloaded the PDFs, and then wanted to put the Cresswell book on my Kindle. So I added the book (as a PDF) to my Calibre library. I then used Calibre to edit the metadata, correcting the author and title. They were both wrong, and since they are displayed in the library listing of the book, it was important that they be correct. Correcting them a snap: the metadata are displayed and you can easily edit the information.

I then used Calibre to covert the PDF to the format used by my eBook reader (AZW3 for my Kindle, but Calibre can also do MOBI, EPUB, and many other formats). I then copied the converted file to my Kindle.

Not quite Bob’s your uncle, but easy enough.

If you use ebooks, you should investigate Calibre. (The link is to a variety of YouTube explanations.)

Written by LeisureGuy

6 June 2020 at 10:08 am

“The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”

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I read Julian Jaynes’s book when it first came out and have been fascinated by it. Scott Alexander writes a review in Slate Star Codex:


Julian Jaynes’ The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind is a brilliant book, with only two minor flaws. First, that it purports to explains the origin of consciousness. And second, that it posits a breakdown of the bicameral mind. I think it’s possible to route around these flaws while keeping the thesis otherwise intact. So I’m going to start by reviewing a slightly different book, the one Jaynes should have written. Then I’ll talk about the more dubious one he actually wrote.

My hypothetical Jaynes 2.0 is a book about theory-of-mind. Theory-of-mind is our intuitive model of how the mind works. It has no relation to intellectual theories about how the mind is made of cognitive algorithms or instantiated on neurons in the brain. Every schoolchild has theory-of-mind. It goes like this: the mind is an imaginary space containing things like thoughts, emotions, and desires. I have mine and you have yours. I can see what’s inside my mind, but not what’s inside your mind, and vice versa. I mostly choose the things that are in my mind at any given time: I will thoughts to happen, and they happen; I will myself to make a decision, and it gets made. This needs a resource called willpower; if I don’t have enough willpower, sometimes the things that happen in my mind aren’t the ones I want. When important things happen, sometimes my mind gets strong emotions; this is natural, but I need to use lots of willpower to make sure I don’t get overwhelmed by them and make bad decisions.

All this seems so obvious that it sounds like common sense rather than theory. But it has to be learned. Very young children don’t start out with theory of mind. They can’t separate themselves from their emotions; it’s not natural for them to say “I’m really angry now, but that’s just a thing I’m feeling, I don’t actually hate you”. It’s not even clear to them that people’s minds contain different things; children are famously unable to figure out that a playmate who has different evidence than they do may draw different conclusions.

And the learning isn’t just a process of passively sitting back observing your own mind until you figure out how it works. You learn it from your parents. Parents are always telling their kids that “I think this” and “What do you think?” and “You look sad” and “It makes me feel sad when you do that”. Eventually it all sinks in. Kids learn their parent’s theory-of-mind the same way they learn their parents’ language or religion.

When in human history did theory-of-mind first arise? It couldn’t have been a single invention – more like a gradual process of refinement. “The unconscious” only really entered our theory-of-mind with Freud. Statements like “my abuse gave me a lot of baggage that I’m still working through” involves a theory-of-mind that would have been incomprehensible a few centuries ago. It’s like “I’m clicking on an icon with my mouse” – every individual word would have made sense, but the gestalt would be nonsensical.

Still, everyone always assumes that the absolute basics – mind as a metaphorical space containing beliefs and emotions, people having thoughts and making decisions – must go back so far that their origins are lost in the mists of time, attributable only to nameless ape-men.

Julian Jaynes doesn’t think that. He thinks it comes from the Bronze Age Near East, c. 1500 – 750 BC.


Jaynes (writing in the 1970s) was both a psychology professor at Princeton and an expert in ancient languages, so the perfect person to make this case. He reviews various samples of Bronze Age writing from before and after this period, and shows that the early writings have no references to mental processes, and the later ones do. When early writings do have references to mental processes, they occur in parts agreed by scholars to be later interpolations. If, with no knowledge of the language itself, you tried to figure out which parts of a heavily-redacted ancient text were early vs. late by their level of reference to mental processes, you could do a pretty decent job.

I don’t speak fluent Sumerian, so I am forced to take Jaynes’ word for a lot of this. It’s even worse than that, because Jaynes argues that other translators sometimes err and translate non-mental terms in mental ways. This is an easy mistake for them to make, because most cultures, once they got theory of mind, repurposed existing language to represent it. Jaynes makes a convincing case for why this would happen, and convincingly argues for why his interpretations are truer to the spirit of the text, but it does mean you can’t double-check his work by reading the works in translation.

Jaynes spends the most time talking about the Iliad, with good reason – it’s the longest Bronze Age work we have, and in many ways it’s a psychodrama, focusing as much on the characters of Achilles, Hector, etc as the plot itself. It came together piecemeal through the efforts of Greek bards between about 1100 and 800 BC, finally reaching a canonical version in the mouth of “Homer” around 700 BC – the period Jaynes says theory of mind was starting to evolve. Jaynes uses it to trace the development process, showing how older sections of the Iliad treat psychology in different ways than newer ones.

So for example, a typical translation might use a phrase like “Fear filled Agamemnon’s mind”. Wrong! There is no word for “mind” in the Iliad, except maybe in the very newest interpolations. The words are things like kardianoosphrenes, and thumos, which Jaynes translates as heart, vision/perception, belly, and sympathetic nervous system, respectively. He might translate the sentence about Agamemnon to say something like “Quivering rose in Agamemnon’s belly”. It still means the same thing – Agamemnon is afraid – but it’s how you would talk about it if you didn’t have an idea of “the mind” as the place where mental things happened – you would just notice your belly was quivering more. Later, when the Greeks got theory of mind, they repurposed all these terms. You can still find signs of this today, like how we say “I believe it in my heart”. In fact, you can still find this split use of phrenes, which has survived into English both as the phrenic nerve (a nerve in the belly) and schizophrenia (a mental disease). As the transition wore on, people got more and more flowery about the kind of feelings you could have in your belly or your heart or whatever, until finally belly, heart, and all the others merged into a single Mind where all the mental stuff happened together.

The Iliad uses these body parts to describe feelings despite its weak theory of mind. Its solution for describing thoughts and decision-making is more…unconventional.

Suppose Achilles is overcome with rage and wants to kill Agamemnon. But this would be a terrible [idea]; after [thinking] about it for a while, he [decides] against. If Achilles has no concept of any of the bracketed words, nothing even slightly corresponding to those terms, how does he conceptualize his own actions? Jaynes:

The response of Achilles begins in his etor, or what I suggest is a cramp in his guts, where he is in conflict, or put into two parts (mermerizo) whether to obey his thumos, the immediate internal sensations of anger, and kill the king, or not. It is only after this vacillating interval of increasing belly sensations and surges of blood, as Achilles is drawing his mighty sword, that the stress has become sufficient to hallucinate the dreadfully gleaming goddess Athene who then takes over control of the action and tells Achilles what to do.

Wait, what?


As you go about your day, you hear a voice that tells you what to do, praises you for your successes, criticizes you for your failures, and tells you what decisions to make in difficult situations. Modern theory-of-mind tells you that this is your own voice, thinking thoughts. It says this so consistently and convincingly that we never stop to question whether it might be anything else.

If you don’t have theory of mind, what do you do with it? Children don’t have theory of mind, at least not very much of it, and more than half of them have imaginary friends. Jaynes has done some research on the imaginary friend phenomenon, and argues that a better term would be “hallucinatory friend” – children see and hear these entities vividly. The atheoretical mind is a desperate thing, and will comply with any priors you give it to make sense of its experiences. If that prior is that the voice in your head is a friend – or god – it will obediently hallucinate a friend or god for you, and modulate its voice-having accordingly.

I know some very smart and otherwise completely sane evangelical Christians who swear to me that God answers their prayers. They will ask God a question, and they will hear God’s voice answer it. God’s voice may not sound exactly like an external voice, and it may give them only the advice they would have given themselves if they’d thought about it – but they swear that they are not thinking about it, that their experience is qualitatively different than that. And these are normal people! If you’re a special person – a saint or mystic, say – and you actively court the experience by fasting and praying and generally stressing your body to the limit – then the voice will be that much louder and more convincing.

There are even whole forms of therapy based on this kind of thing. In Internal Family Systems, the therapist asks the patient to conceptualize some part of their mind (maybe the part that’s producing a certain symptom) as a person, and to talk to it. I know people who swear that this works. They approach their grief or anger or anxiety, and they get a clear image of what “he” or “she” looks like, and then “he” or “she” talks to them. Usually he/she tells them some appropriately psychological sounding thing, like “Hello, I am your anxiety, and I’m only inflicting these fears on you because we were abused as a child and I want to make sure nobody ever abuses us like that again”. Then the patient talks to their anxiety and hopefully strikes a bargain where the patient agrees to take the anxiety’s perspective into account and the anxiety agrees not to make the patient so anxious all the time. Some people swear by this, say it’s helped them where nothing else can, and absolutely insist they are having a real dialogue with their anxiety and not just making up both sides of the conversation. [See also psychosynthesis, in particular books by its founder, Roberto Assagioli and Piero Ferrucci’s What We May Be. – LG]

Most of the people who seem to really like IFS have borderline personality disorder. And borderline people are also at the most risk of dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality). Multiple personality has two main risk factors: borderline, and somebody suggesting to you that multiple personality disorder might be a reasonable thing to have. For a while in the 80s, psychiatrists were really into multiple personality and tried diagnosing everyone with it, and sure enough all those people would admit to having multiple personalities and it would be very exciting. Then the APA told the psychiatrists to stop, people stopped talking about multiple personality as much, and now the condition is rarer.

A few years ago, someone rediscovered/invented tulpamancy, the idea of cultivating multiple personalities on purpose because it’s cool. People who try to do this usually succeed. At least they say they’ve succeeded, and I believe they think this. I think their internal experience is of talking to a different entity inside of them. Also, I have a friend who writes novels, and one time she created such a detailed mental model of one of her characters that it became an alternate personality, which she still has and considers an important part of her life. She is one of the most practical people I know and not usually prone to flights of fancy.

I also have less practical friends, friends who are into occultism . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 June 2020 at 2:38 pm

Posted in Books, Science

The Cooper Review is insightful as well as funny

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Take this post, for example: 9 Non-Threatening Leadership Strategies for Women. And browse around the site.


Written by LeisureGuy

31 May 2020 at 7:34 am

Posted in Books, Comedy, Daily life

Recomendo: The (free) book

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I get Recomendo’s free weekly newsletter and have found their recommendations to generally be both interesting and reliable. They now have a free PDF book of 500 of those recommendations. Just put “0” in the price field and you can download it at no cost.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 May 2020 at 7:19 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

Deaths of despair

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Joshua Cohen talks to Angus Deaton in the Boston Review:

Angus Deaton, Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of Economics and International Affairs Emeritus at Princeton University, has been widely recognized for his work on capitalism and inequality. Awarded the Nobel Prize in 2015 for “his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare,” the British American scholar was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II the following year for “for his services to research in economics and international affairs.” In the mid 2010s, he and economist Anne Case turned their attention to what seemed to be a startling trend: the reversal of declines in mortality rates for white working-class Americans in middle age. That research culminated in the March 2020 publication of their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Last month, Boston Review editor Joshua Cohen spoke with Deaton about this new work—the narrowing economic horizons for the U. S. working class, the relationship between culture, financial hardship, and health, and prospects for change.


Joshua Cohen: In mid-March you and Anne Case published Deaths of Despair. As the book appeared, much of the country was shutting down because of COVID-19. But the book is about a terrible problem that significantly predates COVID-19, will almost certainly outlive COVID-19, and in all likelihood will be made worse by COVID-19. We’ll come back to the COVID-19 connection at the very end, but I want to focus the conversation on the terrible problem that the book identifies. What were the initial reasons that led you to what you call “deaths of despair”?

Angus Deaton: Like many things that surprise you, you fall over it accidentally. We were working together on suicide, and discovered a remarkable increase in suicides among white non-Hispanics in midlife. We were going to present that at a conference, and it seemed like a good idea to put it in the context of all-cause mortality.

When we pulled that data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), we were astonished to find that the long-term decline in mortality in the twentieth century for all racial groups—a trend I’d written about for my previous book, The Great Escape (2013)—had stalled or reversed for white non-Hispanics in midlife. That seemed extraordinary. I should note that African Americans, who have historically had higher all-cause mortality rates, and indeed still do, were making real progress in terms of falling mortality rates.

At the same time, Anne was working on pain—she suffers from very severe lower back pain herself—and she knew there’d been an increase in pain and other morbidity in the same group. And we saw very quickly that this was happening to both men and women, and, most importantly, that this decline was only happening to white people who didn’t have college degrees. Those of us with at least a bachelor’s degree, the educational elite, were somehow exempted from these horrors.

So first we wrote about it in a 2015 paper. When we saw the rise or cessation of fall in all-cause mortality rates, we did what seems like a reasonable thing: we looked at what other things were rising really rapidly and found three that Anne later christened “deaths of despair”: suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholic liver disease. What we got wrong at the time—as Jon Skinner and Ellen Meara picked up very quickly—was that even the rapid rise in these three things could not account for the increase in all-cause mortality. Deaths from heart disease, which had been falling rapidly in the last quarter of the twentieth century, had stopped declining. Lots of people die from heart disease; adding that to the deaths of despair that were going up very fast accounted for the all-cause mortality rates. We had missed that.

We also missed—and the book is clear about this—that these deaths of despair are getting worse not just for white people in middle age (45–55 years old), but for younger people as well. When we wrote in 2015, it was also too early to see the increase in drug overdose among African Americans once fentanyl reached the inner cities after 2013.

JC: In the book you focus on these deaths of despair: 158,000 in 2018, about 100,000 of which are above and beyond what we would normally expect, an excess that is almost entirely among white non-Hispanic men and women without a college degree. The category covers three different causes of death: alcohol, opioids, and suicide. Could you talk about why you group them together?

AD: Initially, “deaths of despair” was a label of convenience. It helped express the sense that these deaths were sort of caused by your own hand—unlike COVID-19, say. We had this sense that you have to look at what’s happening to people in their lives, rather than some fault in the medical systems. Anne thought up that term in an interview, I think. And that led us back to Durkheim, whose thinking about suicide proved very useful and provided some intellectual framework—not something that economists are brought up on.

JC: Yes, it’s not exactly a common American Economic Review reference, but it’s important. To what extent is this fundamentally an opioids issue, rather than an issue of alcohol and suicide as well?

AD: Some have taken the position that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 May 2020 at 3:21 pm

The usefulness of Calibre

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I was browsing through a list of adventure stories, and found this entry:

E. Nesbit’s children’s fantasy adventure The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904). Nesbit’s writing is extraordinary, because: she is drily witty, in a way that makes her writing as entertaining to adults as to children; she was politically progressive, so there’s not quite as much to cringe at as we find in her contemporaries’ writing; and her conception of how magic and the everyday world might interact — the brilliant idea that magic has strict rules which need to be puzzled out, painfully — would prove influential on everyone from P.L. Travers to Edward Eager, C.S. Lewis, Diana Wynne Jones, and J.K. Rowling. Here, siblings Cyril, Anthea, Robert, and Jane, whom we first met in Five Children and It (1902), discover a flying carpet and an ancient Phoenix — a magnificent, vain creature which expects to be worshipped by modern Londoners. Over the course of several adventures, the children wear out the carpet’s fabric — which causes it to malfunction, entertainingly. There’s a burglar, a buried treasure, and a church jumble sale that goes entertainingly awry. Will the children figure out the best possible use for the carpet before it’s too late? Fun facts: The final installment in the Psammead series is The Story of the Amulet (1906). I’m also a fan of Nesbit’s Bastable series, her House of Arden series (including 1908’s The House of Arden), and her other children’s novels — including The Railway Children (1906) and The Enchanted Castle (1907).

E. Nesbit’s name rang a bell, as did The Enchanted Castle, which I’m sure I read some decades ago. A quick search took me to a site with the full text, but I wanted to read it on my Kindle, not my computer. I saw that you can download the text in MOBI format, but that download is chapter by chapter, not the entire book. The PDF is the entire book, but that’s not a good format for the Kindle. The EPUB file is the full novel, but Kindle doesn’t do EPUB (nor, for that matter, does it any longer do MOBI — it insists on AZW3).

However, the (free) program Calibre, an ebook management program, can convert files from one format to another, and in particular from EPUB to AZW3. And before you could say “Jack Robinson,” I had the file downloaded, converted, and transferred to my Kindle. (I admit you would have to speak v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y to still be saying the name when I had finished, but it did take very little time.)

An aside on the etymology of the phrase “before you can say ‘Jack Robinson'”?

Uncertain. There is some speculation that this is a reference to Sir John Robinson, a Lieutenant at the Tower of London around 1600, but there is nothing known about him that is associated with speed (Samuel Pepys called him as “a talking bragging bufflehead.”), and the phrase does not appear in print until 1778.

If you read ebooks, Calibre is worth a look.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 May 2020 at 10:31 am

Posted in Books, Software, Technology

Best 250 adventure stories of the 20th century

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With a bonus of a short list of top novels from the 19th century. Well worth a bookmark. The post begins:

As HILOBROW readers know, since 2014 I’ve endeavored to identify, read or re-read, and offer a few helpful notes on the best 10 adventure novels, comics, and story collections published during each year of the 20th century (from 1904–2003, that is, according to HILOBROW’s eccentric/correct periodization scheme). Since we’re all stuck at home, flattening the curve, I’ve put together this list of my Top 25 favorites from each decade of the past century.

This page supersedes my 2013 list of The 200 Greatest Adventures (1804–1983), which has received hundreds of thousands of visits… but which no longer accurately reflects my thinking about the 20th Century’s best adventures. There are 200 titles listed on this page, so far; dating from 1904–1983. (Plus: 25 titles from the 19th Century, just for context.) This summer, I’ll add 25 titles from the Eighties; early next year, I’ll add 25 titles from the Nineties. More information on the BEST ADVENTURES series below — including a few lists from the Eighties.

So much to read/listen to here, hope it helps…

PS: Thanks for the shout-out, Boing Boing.


Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Drop me a line.


Written by LeisureGuy

10 May 2020 at 9:38 am

Posted in Books

The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months

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Rutger Bregman writes in the Guardian:

For centuries western culture has been permeated by the idea that humans are selfish creatures. That cynical image of humanity has been proclaimed in films and novels, history books and scientific research. But in the last 20 years, something extraordinary has happened. Scientists from all over the world have switched to a more hopeful view of mankind. This development is still so young that researchers in different fields often don’t even know about each other.

When I started writing a book about this more hopeful view, I knew there was one story I would have to address. It takes place on a deserted island somewhere in the Pacific. A plane has just gone down. The only survivors are some British schoolboys, who can’t believe their good fortune. Nothing but beach, shells and water for miles. And better yet: no grownups.

On the very first day, the boys institute a democracy of sorts. One boy, Ralph, is elected to be the group’s leader. Athletic, charismatic and handsome, his game plan is simple: 1) Have fun. 2) Survive. 3) Make smoke signals for passing ships. Number one is a success. The others? Not so much. The boys are more interested in feasting and frolicking than in tending the fire. Before long, they have begun painting their faces. Casting off their clothes. And they develop overpowering urges – to pinch, to kick, to bite.

By the time a British naval officer comes ashore, the island is a smouldering wasteland. Three of the children are dead. “I should have thought,” the officer says, “that a pack of British boys would have been able to put up a better show than that.” At this, Ralph bursts into tears. “Ralph wept for the end of innocence,” we read, and for “the darkness of man’s heart”.

This story never happened. An English schoolmaster, William Golding, made up this story in 1951 – his novel Lord of the Flies would sell tens of millions of copies, be translated into more than 30 languages and hailed as one of the classics of the 20th century. In hindsight, the secret to the book’s success is clear. Golding had a masterful ability to portray the darkest depths of mankind. Of course, he had the zeitgeist of the 1960s on his side, when a new generation was questioning its parents about the atrocities of the second world war. Had Auschwitz been an anomaly, they wanted to know, or is there a Nazi hiding in each of us?

I first read Lord of the Flies as a teenager. I remember feeling disillusioned afterwards, but not for a second did I think to doubt Golding’s view of human nature. That didn’t happen until years later when I began delving into the author’s life. I learned what an unhappy individual he had been: an alcoholic, prone to depression; a man who beat his kids. “I have always understood the Nazis,” Golding confessed, “because I am of that sort by nature.” And it was “partly out of that sad self-knowledge” that he wrote Lord of the Flies.

I began to wonder: had anyone ever studied what real children would do if they found themselves alone on a deserted island? I wrote an article on the subject, in which I compared Lord of the Flies to modern scientific insights and concluded that, in all probability, kids would act very differently. Readers responded sceptically. All my examples concerned kids at home, at school, or at summer camp. Thus began my quest for a real-life Lord of the Flies. After trawling the web for a while, I came across an obscure blog that told an arresting story: “One day, in 1977, six boys set out from Tonga on a fishing trip … Caught in a huge storm, the boys were shipwrecked on a deserted island. What do they do, this little tribe? They made a pact never to quarrel.”

The article did not provide any sources. But sometimes all it takes is a stroke of luck. Sifting through a newspaper archive one day, I typed a year incorrectly and there it was. The reference to 1977 turned out to have been a typo. In the 6 October 1966 edition of Australian newspaper The Age, a headline jumped out at me: “Sunday showing for Tongan castaways”. The story concerned six boys who had been found three weeks earlier on a rocky islet south of Tonga, an island group in the Pacific Ocean. The boys had been rescued by an Australian sea captain after being marooned on the island of ‘Ata for more than a year. According to the article, the captain had even got a television station to film a re-enactment of the boys’ adventure.

I was bursting with questions. Were the boys still alive? And could I find the television footage? Most importantly, though, I had a lead: the captain’s name was Peter Warner. When I searched for him, I had another stroke of luck. In a recent issue of a tiny local paper from Mackay, Australia, I came across the headline: “Mates share 50-year bond”. Printed alongside was a small photograph of two men, smiling, one with his arm slung around the other. The article began: “Deep in a banana plantation at Tullera, near Lismore, sit an unlikely pair of mates … The elder is 83 years old, the son of a wealthy industrialist. The younger, 67, was, literally, a child of nature.” Their names? Peter Warner and Mano Totau. And where had they met? On a deserted island.

My wife Maartje and I rented a car in Brisbane and some three hours later arrived at our destination, a spot in the middle of nowhere that stumped Google Maps. Yet there he was, sitting out in front of a low-slung house off the dirt road: the man who rescued six lost boys 50 years ago, Captain Peter Warner. . .

Continue reading. There is, of course, more…

Written by LeisureGuy

9 May 2020 at 6:48 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

Twelve Tones, by Vi Hart

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So far as I’m concerned, this is a must-watch.

Some thoughts I had as I watched:

One thing about learning a new language is that it requires the acquisition and understanding of new patterns because two lanauages don’t really fully match up any more than the lives of people in the same line of work in the same village match up: there are commonalities, but there are also differences difficult to match.

A mild example from this morning: Esperanto has the word kuri, to run, which matches the English verb quite well: replacing to run with kuri  works well: “He runs” and “Li kuras” mean the same thing..

But I could not think of a simple Esperanto verb that would match to walk. There is marŝi, but that definitely includes the idea of walking in step — it matches “to march,” not “to walk.” And there’s promeni, to walk to see sights or for exercise, but it has for me overtones of “to promenade,” “to stroll,” and “to amble.” I wanted a neutral word, in the same way that “to run” is neutral.

I posted a question in the Lernu forum, asking for an Esperanto verb that means “iri per piedoj” (to go by foot) or “iri piede” (to go footwise). An immediate response: piediri. And that does seem to match, and it also illustrates how in Esperanto (as in Forth) one constructs new words to do the exact job you want, whereas in English one must dig through the drawer of words to find the closest match and perhaps be satisfied with a phrase — though it should be pointed out that the poet’s role is to take current words and, through context, stretch them to take new shapes and do new jobs. By putting a word in a new context, the poet fills it with a different color and charges it with a different energy. And not only poets: writers of fiction and drama do the same — think of some of the significant words in (say) “Death of a Salesman,” or “Macbeth,” or some stories of Raymond Carver, and how the impact of those words in that context differs from their workaday use.

A second thought was how the real numbers, being a continuum, contain many numbers and properties that we can never know — very interesting numbers and very interesting properties, if we could only know them. I suppose one of the reasons mathematicians are constantly generalizing is that moving to a more general level you can get a kind of overarching “knowing” of a class and its structure that frees you of having to know the individual elements.

At any rate, I found it a fascinating video, and as I write this I’m listing to Schoenberg (via YouTube), and his music — at least this piece — is indeed very nice.


Written by LeisureGuy

6 May 2020 at 5:43 pm

Kent State and the War That Never Ended

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Jill LePore writes in the New Yorker:

Phillip Lafayette Gibbs met Dale Adams when they were in high school, in Ripley, Mississippi, a town best known as the home of William Faulkner’s great-grandfather, who ran a slave plantation, fought in the Mexican-American War, raised troops that joined the Confederate Army, wrote a best-selling mystery about a murder on a steamboat, shot a man to death and got away with it, and was elected to the Mississippi legislature. He was killed before he could take his seat, but that seat would have been two hundred miles away in the state capitol, in Jackson, a city named for Andrew Jackson, who ran a slave plantation, fought in the War of 1812, was famous for killing Indians, shot a man to death and got away with it, and was elected President of the United States. Phillip Gibbs’s father and Dale Adams’s father had both been sharecroppers: they came from families who had been held as slaves by families like the Jacksons and the Faulkners, by force of arms.

In 1967, after Gibbs and Adams started dating, he’d take her out to the movies in a car that he borrowed from his uncle, a car with no key; he had to jam a screwdriver into the ignition to start it up. After Dale got pregnant, they were married, at his sister’s house. They named the baby Phillip, Jr.; Gibbs called him his little man. Gibbs went to Jackson State, a historically black college, and majored in political science. In 1970, his junior year, Gibbs decided that he’d like to study law at Howard when he graduated. He was opposed to the war in Vietnam, but he was also giving some thought to joining the Air Force, because that way, at least, he could provide his family with a decent apartment. “I really don’t want to go to the air force but I want you and my man to be staying with me,” he wrote to Dale, after she and the baby had moved back home to Ripley to save money.

The Jackson State campus was divided by a four-lane road called Lynch Street, named for Mississippi’s first black congressman, John Roy Lynch, who was elected during Reconstruction, in 1872, though a lot of people thought that the street honored another Lynch, the slaveholding judge whose name became a verb. It was on Lynch Street, just after midnight, on May 15, 1970, that policemen in riot gear shot and killed Phillip Gibbs. He was twenty-one. In a barrage—they fired more than a hundred and fifty rounds in twenty-eight seconds—they also fatally shot a seventeen-year-old high-school student named James Earl Green, who was walking down the street on his way home from work. Buckshot and broken glass wounded a dozen more students, including women watching from the windows of their dormitory, Alexander Hall. Phillip Gibbs’s sister lived in that dormitory.

That night, as the historian Nancy K. Bristow recounts in “Steeped in the Blood of Racism: Black Power, Law and Order, and the 1970 Shootings at Jackson State College” (Oxford), students at Jackson State had been out on Lynch Street protesting, and young men from the neighborhood had been throwing rocks and setting a truck on fire, partly because of something that had happened ten days before and more than nine hundred miles away: at Kent State University, the Ohio National Guard had shot and killed four students and wounded nine more. They fired as many as sixty-seven shots in thirteen seconds. “Four dead in Ohio,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young would sing, in a ballad that became an anthem. “Shot some more in Jackson,” the Steve Miller Band sang, in 1970, in the “Jackson-Kent Blues.” In the days between the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State, police in Augusta, Georgia, killed six unarmed black men, shot in the back, during riots triggered by the death of a teen-ager who had been tortured while in police custody. At a march, on May 19th, protesters decorated coffins with signs: 2 Killed in Jackson, 4 Killed in Kent, 6 Killed in Augusta.

Two, plus four, plus six, plus more. In 1967, near Jackson State, police killed a twenty-two-year-old civil-rights activist—shot him in the back and in the back of the head—after the Mississippi National Guard had been called in to quell student demonstrations over concerns that ranged from police brutality to the Vietnam War. And, in 1968, at South Carolina State, police fatally shot three students and wounded dozens more, in the first mass police shooting to take place on an American college campus. Four dead in Ohio? It’s time for a new tally.

This spring marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Kent State shootings, an occasion explored in Derf Backderf’s deeply researched and gut-wrenching graphic nonfiction novel, “Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio” (forthcoming from Abrams ComicArts). Backderf was ten years old in 1970, growing up outside Kent; the book opens with him riding in the passenger seat of his mother’s car, reading Mad, and then watching Richard Nixon on television. “Kent State” reads, in the beginning, like a very clever college-newspaper comic strip—not unlike early “Doonesbury,” which débuted that same year—featuring the ordinary lives of four undergraduates, Allison Krause, Jeff Miller, Sandy Scheuer, and Bill Schroeder, their roommate problems, their love lives, their stressy phone calls with their parents, and their fury about the war. As the violence intensifies, Backderf’s drawings grow darker and more cinematic: the intimate, moody panels of smart, young, good people, muddling through the inanity and ferocity of American politics yield to black-backed panels of institutional buildings, with the people around them saying completely crazy things, then to explosive splash pages of soldiers, their guns locked and loaded, and, finally, to a two-page spread of those fateful thirteen seconds: “boom!” “bang!” “bangbangpow!”

Backderf’s publisher has billed his book as telling “the untold story of the Kent State shootings,” but the terrible story of what happened at Kent State on May 4, 1970, has been told many times before, including by an extraordinary fleet of reporters and writers who turned up on campus while the blood was still wet on the pavement. Joe Eszterhas and Michael Roberts, staff writers for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, both of whom had reported from Vietnam, reached campus within forty-five minutes of the first shot—they rushed in to cover the growing campus unrest—and stayed for three months to report “Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State,” their swiftly published book. Eszterhas went on to become a prominent screenwriter. Philip Caputo, a twenty-eight-year-old Chicago Tribune reporter who later won a Pulitzer Prize and wrote a best-selling memoir about his service in Vietnam, was driving to Kent State, from the Cleveland airport, when the news about the shots came over the radio. “I remember stepping on the gas,” he writes, in the introduction to “13 Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings,” a series of reflections on his earlier reporting. “I entered the picture late,” the best-selling novelist James A. Michener wrote. “I arrived by car in early August.” He stayed for months. The Reader’s Digest had hired him to write “Kent State: What Happened and Why,” providing him with reams of research from on-the-spot reporters. The political commentator I. F. Stone cranked out a short book—really, a long essay—titled “The Killings at Kent State: How Murder Went Unpunished.” So many books were published about the shooting, so fast, that when NBC’s “Today” show featured their authors the result was a screaming match. Before introducing them, the host, Hugh Downs, gave a grave, concise, newsman’s account of the sequence of events:

On Thursday, April 30th, 1970, President Richard Nixon announced that American forces were moving into Cambodia. On Friday, May 1st, students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, expressed their displeasure at the President’s announcement. That night, there was violence in the streets of Kent. On Saturday, May 2nd, the R.O.T.C. building was burned, National Guardsmen moved onto the campus. On Sunday, May 3rd, students and Guardsmen traded insults, rocks, and tear gas. On Monday, May 4th, the confrontations continued. There was marching and counter-marching. Students hurled rocks and Guardsmen chased students, firing tear gas. The Guardsmen pursued the students up an area called Blanket Hill. Some Guardsmen pointed their rifles menacingly. And suddenly, it happened.

Nearly all accounts of what happened at Kent State begin the way the “Today” show did, on April 30, 1970, when, in a televised address, Nixon announced that the United States had sent troops into Cambodia, even though, only ten days earlier, he had announced the withdrawal of a hundred and fifty thousand troops from Vietnam. Students on college campuses had been protesting the war since 1965, beginning with teach-ins at the University of Michigan. By 1970, it had seemed as though U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam was finally winding down; now, with the news of the invasion of Cambodia, it was winding back up. Nixon, who had campaigned on a promise to restore law and order, warned Americans to brace for protest. “My fellow Americans, we live in an age of anarchy, both abroad and at home,” he said. “Even here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed.”

Nixon’s Cambodia speech led to antiwar protests at hundreds of colleges across the country. Campus leaders called for a National Student Strike. Borrowing from the Black Power movement, they used a black fist as its symbol. The number of campuses involved grew by twenty a day. Most demonstrations were peaceful, but others were violent, even terrifying. In some places, including Kent, students rioted, smashing shop windows, pelting cars, setting fires, and throwing firebombs. In Ohio, the mayor of Kent asked the governor to send in the National Guard.

Nixon hated the student protesters as much in private as he did in public. “You see these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses,” he said the day after the Cambodia speech. He had long urged a hard line on student protesters: antiwar protesters, civil-rights activists, all of them. So had Ronald Reagan, who ran for governor of California in 1966 on a promise to bring law and order to Berkeley, a campus he described as “a rallying point for communists and a center for sexual misconduct.” In 1969, he ordered the California Highway Patrol to clear out a vacant lot near the Berkeley campus which student and local volunteers had turned into a park. Patrolmen fired shots, killing one student, and injuring more than a hundred. Reagan called in the National Guard. Weeks before Nixon’s Cambodia speech stirred up still more protest, Reagan, running for reëlection, said that he was ready for a fight. “If it takes a bloodbath,” he said, “let’s get it over with.”

May 4, 1970, the day of that bloodbath, fell on a Monday. The Guardsmen at Kent State started firing not long after noon, while students were crossing campus; there seems to be some chance that they mistook the students spilling out of buildings for an act of aggression, when, actually, they were leaving classes. Bill Schroeder, a sophomore, was an R.O.T.C. student. “He didn’t like Vietnam and Cambodia but if he had to go to Vietnam,” his roommate said later, “he would have gone.” Schroeder was walking to class when he was shot in the back. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 May 2020 at 6:40 pm

The Best Books on the Politics of Information

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Henry Farrell is interviewed by Sophie Roell at Five Books. The blurb:

Our political systems evolved in an era when information was much harder to come by. What challenges does our current reality of information overload pose for democracy? How do we even start thinking about these questions? Political scientist Henry Farrell proposes key books for building a curriculum on ‘the politics of information,’ starting with a beautifully written novel.

The interview begins:

When I first got in touch, I asked you to choose books about your field, political science, but you felt that was too broad. Instead, we’re focusing on information systems. Before we get to the books, could you explain how this topic fits into political science and why you chose it? I get the sense that you feel it’s particularly important right now.

I should make it clear that information systems are not a standard political science topic. They’re something that I study as a political scientist, but as you can see from the list of books, there are a wide variety of different ways that you can approach them: from the point of view of novels, memoirs, or by thinking about them in a more abstract way.

The idea behind my choice is as follows: If we are to understand how politics and markets work at the moment, we need to pay attention to how algorithms work, and how the economy is being remade from the ground up by these new forms of information processing. We don’t know nearly as much as we ought to about the workings of these processes of information gathering, of information analysis, of information use, which leads to a very important new set of questions.

My starting point is an article by Ludwig Siegele, who is the Economist’s information technology editor. In the last Christmas issue of the Economist, he looked at various debates around these questions and asked a version of the following question: ‘We’ve got a bunch of people thinking about this in economics, in political science, in computational sciences, in statistical physics: how do we pull this together?’

What I have tried to do in pulling together this list is to provide a practical follow up to Ludwig’s essay. My starting point was ‘Okay, if we started thinking about the core of a curriculum for a course on this topic, what could we include?’ These would be the core books you would want as part of the discussion.

So are you teaching this course? Or is it all too new?

I’m planning it out, in part as a product of having been asked to do this interview. When I was prepping to speak with you, I had to start thinking about which five books I would choose and then of course I had to read them again. Once I read them through, the ideas started buzzing around my head about how I might want to put them together. What are the other texts that I want to draw on? So this is a course that, in a certain sense, you have helped midwife into being.

Wow. That is a huge compliment. Is it common for political scientists to decide what to study by looking at what seems relevant and in the news?

To some extent. If you think about international relations, it does a wonderful job at anticipating future trends, provided they’ve happened five years in the past. The logic behind that is that five years is about as much time as is needed for a PhD student to gear up a dissertation project explaining why his or her elders are completely wrong and why there is something new in the world that we need to study.

Political science, because it is interested in politics, has to be concerned with what is happening in the broader world. However, I’m afraid to say that, by and large, it tends to be a lagging rather than a leading indicator. It aspires towards being a science—in the sense of having some predictive capacities—but in practice, we political scientists tend to be much better at explaining what has happened than at predicting what is likely to happen in the future. Hence we are always trying to catch up with what is happening in the world at the moment.

But with this topic, you’re thinking it could make an important contribution to safeguarding democracy?

Very much so. If you were to think about the specific, underlying questions that have brought this into being, this is about the intersection between what you might call algorithmic capital or informational capital—Shoshana Zuboff calls it ‘surveillance capitalism’—and the kinds of political systems that we have.

The political systems that we have were built in a different era. They were built for an era where information was extraordinarily important, but where the capacities to process and disseminate information were very, very limited. We used to live in a world where if you wanted to get information out to a large number people you effectively had to buy a printing press, or own a newspaper or television station.

Now we find ourselves in a different world, in which the scarce resource is not the capacity to publish, but the capacity to pay attention. One of the crucial questions we need to understand is how this world of information surfeit, of information overload, is stressing and straining our political system. There are many other questions. When the information economy is dominated by large platform companies, do they have new forms of power that haven’t been seen hitherto? How do these platform companies process information—through algorithms, through machine learning, through all these other different methodologies—and what are the political consequences?

So what I’m doing here in these five books and in the imaginary course is really asking, ‘How do we start to think more systematically about this?’ And the first book that really pulled this together for me is a novel by Francis Spufford. Francis’s novel looks at a very different era of information processing and asks how it worked and didn’t work. That, I think, gives us some useful lessons to understand what’s happening right now.

It’s a wonderful, gorgeous novel. It has endnotes, which is decidedly odd in a novel. It’s about the ‘socialist calculation debate’, which he says he chose deliberately as the most unpromising topic he could possibly write a novel about. The book lays out the debate over whether it was possible to replicate, using planning mechanisms, the benefits of a market, and describes the Soviet Union’s efforts to realise this in the post-war period, reaching a peak during the Khrushchev years. After that, economic planning underwent a gradual and then rapidly accelerating decline.

The book has a couple of characters who pop up here and again, but the narrative structure is really the story of a system. So it begins with a mathematician, Leonid Kantorovich, who has this wonderful insight when he’s sitting in a tram. It’s a beautifully designed scene describing how Kantorovich is stuffed into a tram with all these smelly, sweaty human beings.

He thinks about the ways these human beings can somehow magically coordinate themselves so that they all get on and off the tram at the same time; he’s also thinking about the hole that he has in his shoe, which is letting in water, and this extraordinary mathematical idea he has just had. This is the beginning of the notion of linear programming: of how you can take a complex system of variables that looks like it doesn’t have any obvious solution and figure out ways to optimise it. It’s this blending of on the one hand the sweaty reality of human beings, and on the other hand this beautiful, beautiful mathematical idea which seems to have profound consequences.

The rest of the novel is really working that through, weaving back and forth between the efforts to plan and implement the economy and the systems that this gives rise to, and then the consequences of that for the lives of ordinary people: for a young woman academician, for a woman giving birth, for protesters who are shot because they are demonstrating against the rise in the price of meat which has been planned by these economists.

It’s looking at how an abstract system like that works out in reality, and how that reality feeds back into the system. It’s about how it is that the beautiful mathematical insights seem to recede further and further into the distance as the system trundles along and becomes its own thing—its own messy, unpleasant and inefficient human thing.

According to the Economist article you mentioned, Leonid Kantorovich was the only Soviet to win the Nobel prize in economics.

That’s absolutely correct.

So did this happen in real life?

It all happened, more or less. Spufford is quite clear in the footnotes about what he’s doing. Part of the reason he added them is to say, ‘With this incident here, I telescoped this and that thing together’ or ‘This person is not a real person but has something in common with Raissa Berg, who was a famous geneticist.’ He’s using the tools of a novel to try and probe a social logic, which is an odd, contrary, wonderful thing to do. It’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t work, but does—gloriously.

Red Plenty has acquired kind of a cult following among social scientists. It really helps to set the scene for the debates that are happening at the moment. The ways in which information might or might not be used are in many ways recapitulating those that happened 60 or 70 years back, albeit with a different set of technologies and a different set of ways of applying them.

On the one hand, we have people in Communist China, like Jack Ma, suggesting that we may not need markets anymore; we may be at the point where planning is actually going to work because we’ve got machine learning. Machine learning is going to provide us with the sophisticated means to achieve what the planners were trying to achieve and where they failed. On the other hand, we’ve got the Silicon Valley model, which is trying to figure out ways to use machine learning techniques to turn raw information into patterned data that can then be turned towards a variety of commercial purposes, with the same kind of enthusiasm that the people like Kantorovich had. This sudden, ‘Oh my God, we have the mathematics to turn all of these complicated miseries of human life into a set of engineering problems that can be optimised, isn’t that wonderful?’ sounds very familiar if you’ve read Spufford’s book.

There’s no way central planning could work, however fast technologies are coming along. Or is there?

I don’t think we live in a world where it will ever work. One of the off-shoots of Red Plenty is a wonderful piece by a co-author of mine, Cosma Shalizi. He’s a statistical physicist and he goes into the math of Red Plenty and explains why it is, given what we understand about computational complexity, that this stuff simply doesn’t work. Another friend who’s an economist at Columbia, Suresh Naidu, is more optimistic, but hasn’t yet written up the reasons for his optimism.

Cosma also talks about how, even if you could somehow get the math to work, the ways in which human beings are likely to respond to these systems invariably mean that they’re going to screw up. There’s this wonderful bit in Red Plenty where there’s a discussion between an economist—who’s really disappointed that they’re not going to apply his beautiful new math—and a somewhat cynical party apparatchik who says, ‘All of this math relies upon the assumption that the producers in the factories are going to give you the information and tell you the truth. We know that’s not going to work. We know that’s not the way people are going to behave. Therefore, we need to have some scope in the system for human beings to respond and figure out ways around it.’

We still have the same thing today. There was a piece by Yuval Harari in the Atlantic about a year-and-a-half ago, saying that authoritarian capitalism is going to beat democracy because authoritarian countries like China are able to use all of these new technologies to run the economy far more efficiently and keep an eye on everyone.

What commentators like Harari don’t get is the ways in which these systems are not only incapable of grasping the messiness of actual human social systems, but also able to actually exacerbate the flaws of central planning. For authoritarian countries, China in particular, you have these feedback loops between the categories that people are using to try and understand the world in the central committees, and the actual world they are trying to explain. We know how politics work in these systems. Very often, if you’re not implementing the thought of the beloved chairman, your superiors will decide that there’s something wrong with you and you’re obviously a problematic political element who needs to be eliminated. So the categories you use are likely to reflect the ideas of your superiors, even if you know that they’re wrong.

The technologist Maciej Ceglowski describes machine learning as “money laundering for bias.” That can have terrible consequences if machine learning reflects the categories of official thought, and then interprets the policy consequences in terms of these categories too, so that bias compounds bias. This then creates incentives for ever more distorted ways of understanding the world which are implemented through these algorithms and which then create these feedback loops which get worse and worse, and lead, perhaps, to human tragedy, but also to these authoritarian systems not working in the cool, clean, beautiful and efficient way that pundits like Harari expect.

There is a wonderful essay by Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University. He notes that when we think about these vast systems of machine learning, we assume that they work as advertised, whether we evaluate them positively because of the wonderful things that they can do, or negatively because they’re creating new forms of authoritarianism and surveillance and control. In practice, we know they sort of work and also sort of don’t. We tend to overestimate the extent to which there’s a single overwhelming logic of efficiency that’s associated with them.

So basically, Xi Jinping should read Red Plenty?

Yes. I would also love Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to read Red Plenty en masse and to think to themselves, ‘Which aspects of this apply to how I think about the world, and what aspects of it do not?’ There are important and crucial differences, but there’s also a fundamental similarity between the optimism expressed by these young, excitable Soviet economists and central planners back in the 1950s and the optimism of Silicon Valley people today: that software is going to eat the world, and that this is a really good thing. I think it would be really useful for them to start wondering, ‘Okay, are there aspects of this which simply don’t work in the way we expect?’ And I think that Red Plenty really pokes at these questions in a very, very useful way.

Let’s move on to the next book on your list, which gives a very clear-eyed analysis of the market system we currently live in but don’t tend to think about that much. It’s called The Market System (2001).

This is by Charles Lindblom, who is the only political scientist on my list. He taught for decades at Yale. This book, The Market System, also has an invisible twin that I’d have loved to have talked about too, a book called The Intelligence of Democracy. What he’s thinking about in these two books is how markets and democracies . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 May 2020 at 5:36 pm

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