Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Big Five Personality Traits, Outliers and Per Capita Income in the U.S.

I went back and played with the data from that survey of Big Five personality traits by state (the OCEAN traits) and the NYT has a neat gadget; data below from there. Per capita income data comes from the Census. Automatically you start thinking about correlations between the Big Five and other things like income.


- Big Five traits and per capita income.
- Interestingly the strongest correlation at the state level both in terms of goodness of fit and slope (strength of influence) in a linear model is an inverse one with conscientiousness. Want to make money? Be lazy! Who knows the causal relationship here if any, so I won't hand-wave. With an R^2 of 0.2646, the regression says the state's per capita rises $236.87 for every rank lower you go on the conscientiousness scale. You also get money for being disagreeable ($221.87 for every rank the state drops, R^2 = 0.2321), although you also get money for being open-minded ($182, R^2=0.1566). This is probably largely the Northeast talking, although it might be interesting to look at the correlation between education and openness.

- Combinations of Big Five traits by state. If you do scatterplots with each of the Big Five characteristics against the others, several states appear repeatedly as outliers at the "corners" of the scatter - DC is one and Alaska is another. The whole reason that the study which initially generated this data is interesting is because it shows that there actually is a geographical difference in personality types (whether that's because of memes or genes is another question entirely). But it stands to reason that if gene and/or culture flow can explain this, then we should see outliers at the geographical extremities. It also stands to reason that the outliers on the coasts won't necessarily be outliers in the same way. While the map of openness does bear a similarity to the Red/Blue presidential voting distribution, there is no other obvious correlation between other characteristics or states.

So I looked at the coastal states (those with a saltwater port) against the non-coastal states, excluding Hawaii and Alaska. If geographic extremes correlate with personality type "outliers", then the saltwater states (which are farther from each other) should also be more dissimilar to each other than the interior states. By my count there are 26 interior and 23 saltwater states, so all other things being equal, the saltwater states should look more similar to each other, since there are fewer of them.

Indeed, the standard deviations for 3 of the 5 big 5 are smaller for the interior. They're the same for the other 2. As far as the averages, the interior states are more extraverted, agreeable and conscientious than the coastal states. (Those first two are consistently a shock to me.) The noncoastal states are on average less neurotic and less open to new experiences and ideas.

- Combinations of Big Five traits by region. If you do scatterplots with combinations of Big Five scores by region, then the Northeast (DC to Maine) is frequently an outlier (conscientiousness vs neurotic, conscientiousness vs openness, consciousness vs extraversion; more on this in a bit). The contiguous Pacific states are a major outlier on agreeableness vs openness; otherwise they land near the other states in and west of the Rockies. The Frontier Strip lands with the Midwest and the Bad Stripe tends to sort with the South, except that it's much less open than other Southern states.

- Per capita income distribution and average, coastal vs. non-coastal. It's also worth pointing out that the per capita incomes of non-coastal states were a) more similar to each other than the coastal states' were and b) on average lower, by $5,128. This is not surprising, as land-locked countries also have lower per capitas than those with coastline. 2/3 of all Alpha and Beta cities are on saltwater (or a river delta leading into saltwater), so, par for the course.

The Dialect of the Bad Stripe

The Bad Stripe as I've marked it out before (most recent here) is in many ways a boundary or transition zone between North and South, for example in social networks and religion. It turns out that it's a separate dialect zone too. The map can't be embedded well so click through to this dialect map of North American English, and you'll see that the Bad Stripe largely overlaps with the non-Texas part of the Inland South zone.

In many other systems (ecology and social networks) being at a phase transition is good, i.e. tidepools, savannas near jungles, being the only person who speaks both languages of two adjacent and relatively wealthy populations, etc. If the repeatedly observed "boundariness" of the Bad Stripe is not a coincidence or a historical accident, it could be that either the principle is reverse here, or that some aspects of the Bad Stripe are caused by the other negative conditions that previously obtained.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Punished for Transparency

"The Wikileaks method punishes a nation -- or any human undertaking -- that falls short of absolute, total transparency, which is all human undertakings, but perversely rewards an absolute lack of transparency. Thus an iron-shut government doesn't have leaks to the site, but a mostly-open government does."

- Jaron Lanier, The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy in The Atlantic


Amen to that. Where are the leaks from China? From North Korea? Hint: nowhere, and not coming anytime soon either. Without even accusing Assange of a deliberate focus on one or the other imperfect liberal democracy, it's easy to see how they might draw relative benefit from this and future leaks.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Why Is the Frontier Strip Where It Is

Summary: Climate continues to have a profound impact on the distribution and economic activities of humans. There is a rapid population density decrease in the Frontier Strip states. Moving westward, there is a sharp increase in population when the Pacific coast is reached. This is usually attributed to difficulty of farming in the country's interior as the 100 W meridian is approached. I show here that this is not consistent with current agricultural productiveness of Frontier Strip and Pacific states on a per person or per area basis. I also show that in the Frontier Strip, temperature, precipitation and latitude are poor predictors of agricultural output but strong predictors of population density. Population density and agricultural output do not predict each other.

Since the 100 W theory of population density drop-off appears falsified, other explanations must be sought. The appearance of easier transportation during the settlement of the Frontier Strip, as well as the depression are explored and discarded. Further research with better agricultural output data and higher resolution climate data may support the hypothesis that investments in agricultural capital came too early in the Frontier Strip to benefit from irrigation technology, and that modern transportation and U.S. population preferences of climate as well as the coastal location of large population centers with service economies combine to keep the Frontier Strip the low-population boundary of the U.S. interior.



PART 1. I've written enough about the Bad Stripe recently so I thought I'd move to another grouping of U.S. states: the Frontier Strip. The Frontier Strip is the north-south line of states including the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, identified retrospectively in the 1890 census as having been the frontier in 1880. I've been interested in the idea ever since I visited Scottsbluff, Nebraska on a road trip two years ago. Like many places in the High Plains, Scottsbluff is proud of its pioneer heritage, although you have to ask how proud you want to be of being famous for being on the way to somewhere else. Inspection of a population density map of the U.S. shows that there is a dramatic drop-off as you move west across the Frontier Strip states, which never "recovers" until you hit the coastal cities of Washington, Oregon and California. The precipitation map is underneath it for comparison.


The geographers' conventional wisdom on this phenomenon involves the hundredth meridian west, which I've drawn in as a black stripe. It does seem to track just to the west of the density drop-off. The argument is that precipitation drops off to the west of this area, so agriculture becomes less productive. In earlier times economies were more strongly dependent on agriculture; consequently, large cities would not tend to develop in these dry regions and, even if they did, could not be supplied with food. Therefore further settlement coming from the East passed these areas and continued to the (contiguous) Pacific coast states. This argument also assumes that the potential agricultural productivity of an area has been realized by settlement and farming, i.e. it is at steady-state, and North Dakota's population isn't about to explode due to settlement by new farmers.

I've always found this argument dubious. First of all, most of these assumptions are not addressed explicitly in discussions of the 100 W boundary. But the most direct thing to do would be to look at agricultural output and see how it stacks up by state. Because states differ in population and size, we should look at output per person and per area. This information comes from the 2010 Census. There is not an obvious unit of "agricultural output" (if we include tobacco, none of the Frontier Strip or Pacific states will do very well) so I used combined receipts for the four principal products that the Census tracks by state (beef cattle, dairy products, corn and broiler chickens). Yes, wheat is an obvious omission but I couldn't find data for it by state, so it's possible these numbers are off by virtue of neglecting important crops.

So, if we have cause to doubt the traditional 100 W explanation, the Frontier Strip states should do the same or better than the Pacific states in agricultural output, meaning that it's not such a farm productivity death sentence to be near 100 W. Here's how the Frontier states and Pacific states stack up when ordered by agricultural value produced per-person.

StateAg $/person
Nebraska 6,040
South Dakota 3,954
Kansas 2,846
North Dakota 2,091
Oklahoma  890
Oregon  590
Texas  451
Washington  286
Arizona  233
California 229


(I include Arizona because I'll use it later as an example.)

Before we get excited and declare 100 W theory dead, it should be noted that the above table probably isn't that interesting. We're looking at 2010 data, and even if California really is more productive than the Frontier states (as the traditional theory predicts), it might be masked in this table: states with large populations are likely to have higher proportions of people in other sectors, i.e. doing something other than agriculture. What really counts is the potential productivity of the land itself (owing to climate); that's the crux of the argument. So here's how they stack up when look at agricultural value produced per land area:

StateAg $/Area
Nebraska   55,405
Kansas  38,319
California  21,154
Oklahoma  18,765
Texas  16,698
South Dakota  16,364
Washington  11,128
Oregon   9,080
North Dakota   7,598
Arizona   5,059


This doesn't look good for the 100 W theory. Yes, California is productive per land area, but still, if you're in Nebraska or Kansas, why go west? You're better off in the High Plains! There are possible explanations for this, besides the limited four-product index I'm using: a) The farming business has changed a lot over the past century and a half, and what used to be family-owned farms are now gigantic industrial facilities. So what makes Nebraska so productive now might not matter to people economically today (if it's all going to one or two corporations) or it might be different from conditions a century ago. b) You could also make the argument that dollars produced per area is a weak proxy indicator, because the land isn't being used for valuable crops, because the value of crops has changed over time, or (least likely) the areas haven't reached steady state and are still being developed by settlers agriculturally.


Additional point: agricultural productivity cannot depend entirely on precipitation, i.e. on proximity to 100 W. Length of growing season has something to do with it as well, which as you might guess has a strong north-south trend. This map shows number of days below freezing:


That map is a little small so, if we can assume 1911 was typical, here's a larger map showing basically the same thing, the day of the last killing frost:



As it turns out, there is a north-south population density trend in the Frontier Strip. Looking further north to Canada, any semblance of a 100 W-population boundary disappears. In fact the population density along the country's southern border increases beyond 100 W, after having dropped off in Ontario well to the east. Again, black line is 100 W.


You might make several arguments to explain this: 1) The 100W boundary is in fact country-specific, due to different development policies, and/or 2) that as latitude increases, the strength of the association of precipitation becomes relatively weaker and latitude becomes stronger. (Who cares about number of days below freezing when you go from 30 to 50? Precipitation makes a bigger difference. But when you go from 120 to 140, latitude makes a bigger difference.) 3) The western part of Ontario isn't yet at steady state and its population will growin the future when settlers arrive to realize its agricultural potential, and the precipitation-driven east-west density gradient will assert itself.

Rather than speculate, I did linear regressions on the Frontier Strip and Frontier plus Pacific and Arizona, using latitude, rainfall (not including snow), days below freezing, average annual temperature, lowest average monthly low, highest average monthly high, and population density, and their correlation to agricultural dollars per area. Rather than take up space with a bunch of ugly scatter plots I made a table of R^2 values. This is exploratory so there's no fancy Bonferroni corrections going on, but in any event none are strong correlations.

 AllFrontier
Latitude0.00770.0039
Rainfall0.02050.1513
Frz Days0.09860.0014
Ave Temp0.02160.0003
Lowest Mnth Lo0.11230.0004
Highest Mnth Hi0.00060
Pop Dens0.03580.0125


Since agricultural output is just a proxy for the original question we're concerned with (population density), I used that as the output and looked at the same factors. Wow. The R's are much stronger.

 AllFrontier
Latitude0.13550.9463
Rainfall0.04840.4844
Frz Days0.56280.9773
Ave Temp0.29180.9475
Lowest Mnth Lo0.60010.9577
Highest Mnth Hi0.01170.8587
Ag Output/Area0.03580.0125


First: agricultural output and population density do not seem to be strongly related. Furthermore if rainfall is the reason 100 W is significant, it's interesting that rainfall is a much weaker predictor than temperature. These are both problems for the traditional 100 W theory.

Second, for the "inputs" with R's above 0.9, here's what they mean in terms of population density.

- For every day of the year where the temperature drops below freezing, the population density is lower by 0.197 people per square kilometer.

- For every degree lower the lowest monthly low is, the population density is lower by 0.863.

- For every degree the average annual temperature drops, the population density drops by 1.33.

- For every degree of latitude gained, the population density drops by 2.05.

It seems strange that there could be such a strong connection between climate and population but not agricultural output, especially in states where a huge fraction of the economy depends on agriculture. That connection could very well be concealed here by the limited set of agricultural products I'm considering. Really, what I should be using is climate and agriculture output data at the county level, and the agriculture data should be the value of all commercial livestock and crops. But I leave that to someone with access to real data and real software. It would also be interesting to crunch these numbers for every decade from 1850, and see how the R's and slopes for each of these change over time if at all. Maybe the weak predictiveness between climate factors and agricultural output is real, but it used to be much stronger.


PART 2. Other Possible Explanations

Explanation #1. The population drop-off is a result of timing, i.e. improvements in transportation and communication. Couldn't it just be that just as the Frontier Strip was getting settled, trains and telegraph lines were built? Finally, you could find out whether there were jobs in San Francisco, and you could get there. (Assuming that independent of mineral extraction revenues*, loss of population is equivalent to loss of economic growth, this is the root of productivity paradoxes that exist between areas with free movement of people and goods.

If this were the case, you would expect to see a shift westward from the Frontier Strip at least by the 1880s. The Transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 and it was connected to Los Angeles in 1876. In fact this is not what we see. First, here are the population densities of all Frontier Strip states and Pacific coast states, and then the average density of both groups.



After the 1920s, the Pacific states never looked back. Among the Frontier states, Texas is by far the strongest performer, owing probably to a longer growing season, early discovery of mineral wealth, and ports to make transportation cheaper (though I suspect immigration from Mexico is also a contributor there; Texas Hispanics are 35.9% of the population, compared to 6.1% in neighboring Oklahoma and comparable or lower northward.) Furthermore, you can see there was a local optimum in every Frontier state except Texas sometime in the teens. I don't know of any events that would explain this drop, nor if people were heading further west. Bottom line, the fact that the drop happened so late argues against the railroads having been the contributor, and the roads weren't yet developed enough that cars could have been the explanation.

Initially I was also skeptical because of Arizona. Arizona is clearly not a state blessed with rainfall, and yet it had (and still has) a strong citrus growing industry (thanks to irrigation), and its population density passed the Frontier Strip's in the 1980s and is still growing. It's worth asking why irrigation doesn't also cause a sudden increase in the relatively wetter Frontier Strip's population; climate and sunshine preference are likely to play a part, and we could make a guess based on sources of internal immigration for Arizona. This would suggest that in some ways, transportation and information about local conditions do make a difference, but the precondition is that the area can't have been settled prior to modern irrigation technology (because capital commitments are made in the agricultural infrastructure), and it has to have sunlight. I think that the real explanation will have something to do with the random impact of the historical timing of technological progress, if not transportation, then commitment to pre-existing agricultural infrastructure, shifting of economic importance to other sectors, and population preferences that make a greater difference in more recent history due to increased mobility.

Explanation #2. The Okie Effect. Can farm abandonment and consolidation during the Depression and Dustbowl explain it? See graphs above. These economic/agricultural events may have contributed but the trend was already underway at least a decade earlier.

*I give the caveat about mineral wealth because Texas and to a lesser extent Oklahoma have big oil sectors that impact their populations. In addition, most of North Dakota's counties are losing population and the state is just barely growing but recent oil discoveries have made the state profitable. Research suggestion: to what degree can sub-national entities be subject to the resource curse? What institutions or cultural features are protective against resource-curse type damage to economies?

Native-Born Californians Regain Majority Status

For the first time since the Gold Rush. LA Times story here. Interestingly during the 2000-2009 Census period, California LOST 1,509,708 people due to internal em/immigration. Only international immigration kept the population-due-to-em/immigration above water (by about 1% of the state's total population.) Many of these are Latin American, but a large number of high-skill well-to-do Asian immigrants are coming on 747s.

Suggested research*: relationship between proportion of ethnic populations who are legal immigrants or permanent legal residents vs. citizens, and per capita income in those populations; relationship between prevalence of international immigrants or incidence of international immigration in last decade and per capita income change. Also, distribution within California by country of origin of new international immigrants.

*"Suggested research" translates to "someone else do the work, I'm not a frickin demographics grad student over here".

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Let's Be More Like West Virginia

"Only 1.1% of the state's residents were foreign-born, placing West Virginia last among the 50 states in that statistic. It also has the lowest percentage of residents that speak a language other than English in the home (2.7%)." From Wikipedia.

"Let's be more like West Virginia!" I encourage the nativists of the U.S. to adopt that as their rallying cry. Catchy!

Note also that a) West Virginia is the eastern- and northern-most member state of the Bad Stripe (most recent post here), and b) never having had as strong an agricultural component to its economy, WV's population is 3.5% African-American vs. 20.5% for VA, which by most accounts has performed slightly better.

Unexpected Wisdom from Hayek

"The gullible do find agreement. Meanwhile, growing national confusion leads to protest meetings. The least educated - thrilled and conviced by fiery oratory, form a party."

- From the cartoon summary of The Road to Serfdom (at 2 minutes exactly).

Emphasis mine. Amazingly I've not yet seen Glenn Beck quote this.

Wujie: Top-Notch Internet Privacy Application

So it claims, so evaluate for yourself. Website here, in Mandarin.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

China's Development Policy in Africa

From Wikileaks, via Spiegel Online: "No matter whether it's war in Darfur, repression in Zimbabwe or corruption in Nigeria -- for the Chinese, it's not their problem. For example, instead of taking Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe to task for his totalitarian policies and looting of his own country, they bestowed an honorary doctorate on him in 2005 and declared him 'China's No. 1 Friend.' Three years later, in 2008, they sent Mugabe the An Yue Jiang, a ship full of weapons and ammunition."

The Chinese government is at least internally consistent in their position on basic civil liberties: Memetjan Abdulla was just sentenced to life in prison for his role in the 2009 Uighur riots in Xinjiang. And what was his role, exactly? Reporting on the riots.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Bad Stripe and Sexual Curiosity


That's a heat map from okcupid showing the density of self-identified straight people who have had, or would like to have, a same-sex experience. Note the appearance of the Bad Stripe again: markedly less adventurous. Richard Florida has frequently shown positive correlations between economic growth, innovation as measured by number of patents, education and property values between gay-tolerant attitudes in cities and states, the assumption being that this reflects the post-scarcity values that promote innovation in a modern economy. (You can see the Bad Stripe jumping out at you again in this map, and others before it.) No surprise to most that West Virginia, Mississippi and Oklahoma are not the places to start your software company or make discoveries about yourself.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Bad Stripe Continues: Human Development Index

The largest contiguous area (8 states) of lowest-category development index is found in the Bad Stripe, and this tracks many other health, education and economic indicators (play with the map and data yourself.) One very ineresting mismatch: violent crime per capita absolutely does not track the Bad Stripe. Neither does property crime.

Gini coefficient is highest in the southern U.S. and California. Guess: different causes for the South and California. In California it's ongoing immigration from a developing country, and in the South it's a holdover from agriculture. It would be interesting to see this same map, but only for people born in the U.S. California would probably blend into the rest of the country, and the South would remain. Thesis topic if it hasn't already been done: relationship between caste-system agrarianism and high Gini, two centuries later, in multiple countries (India, slavery areas in the U.S., Russia's serf system, etc.) Countries could serve as their own controls by comparing parts of the country with similar agrarian output but different caste traditions.

Other interesting trend: western states have more women legislators in their state legislatures than eastern states. This seems to be true regardless of whether the states are left- or right-leaning. Why? That these states were founded later when women's suffrage was a reality or close to it, and that value was fixed in political habits through the generations? In any event it seems less strange in light of this to contemplate that Wyoming was the first state which gave the franchise to women.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The U.S. Plans to Build Its Own Great Firewall

The Federal government have decided we Americans aren't grown up enough to avoid hurting ourselves with all the dirty, confusing things on the Internet. So they're drafting legislation for our very own Great Firewall. Apparently our Congress thinks China is the "it" government and thinks your freedom of information should be curtailed just like the CCP. Read more here.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Good News From Burma: Now What About Liu Xiaobo?

Aung San Suu Khi has been released from house arrest, at least for now. This is good news. On a (nationally) selfish note, it also looks very good that it was done immediately after the big U.S. tour through the Pacific Rim.

It's interesting that the Chinese government is apparently not as confident as the Burmese government in its own ability to persevere if it releases and recognizes its own Nobel Prize Winner, Liu Xiaobo.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Most Useful Analysis of the 2010 Election So Far

"Transportation unions lost three seats...And the mining industry gained two new seats." I wish we always heard election results reported this way. From a great post at the always-excellent Open Secrets.

In other news, Jim DeMint (R-SC) says "You can't be a fiscal conservative and not be a social conservative." Is that right Jim? Why are these guys so interested in keeping fiscal conservatives from supporting them?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Tibetan Buddhists Find Home on Montana Reservations

This jumped out to me because during the Tibet protests leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Americans were criticized as having our own oppressed "Tibetans": American Indians. That's why the immigration of Tibetan Buddhists to Indian reservations in the U.S. (particularly in Montana) is so rich. Something seems to be wrong with the Han-Tibetan, U.S.-Native American analogy, since we don't see too many Blackfoot or Navajo moving into China to practice their lifeways free from oppression.

These folks picked a great part of the U.S. to live in. The general awesomeness of Montana bears emphasizing.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

North Korean Documentary Screening in San Diego

If you're in San Diego, check out this event by UCSD Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) on Monday 15 November.

Where: UCSD Multipurpose Room (next to Yogurt World)

When: 8:00 pm, Monday 15 November

What: "Come watch a free screening of Hiding, a BRAND NEW documentary filmed in the summer of 2010.

"This 30-minute documentary will give you an inside look at the struggle North Korean refugees must face in China to find freedom. We will also be hosting DANNY LEE, a North Korean refugee saved through LiNK!

"This is a FREE event so make sure you come out and see LiNK in action!! Donations to reach LiNK@UCSD's goal of saving 3 refugees this school year will be accepted! Bring your friends for an evening of learning more of this humanitarian crisis!"

Friday, November 5, 2010

Politicians Won't Compete on Price

"Price" in this title is really a stand-in for "easily comparable attributes". Businesses hate when consumers can easily compare on price (same product or service with easy side-by-side comparison). That makes life much more difficult for competing businesses and tends toward a race to the bottom. This is why businesses do things like shrouding. It's also probably why some businesses have arrived at a "norm" of making you physically visit in order to get the price, or the real one at any rate. Sometime try calling a car dealership and getting a price out of them over the phone, and you're likely to get a firm "Why don't you come down and talk about it." I was once literally yelled at by the sales manager for doing this. Why? Once you've committed your lunch hour, or dinnertime or Saturday to shopping and you would have to drive 2 miles to go get the next price, chances are you'll be more easily worn down.

Votesmart.org has easily-compared position lists for the candidates, based on information the candidates supply. Perhaps not coincidentally, for every single major party candidate I looked up, it said: "[Name] refused to tell citizens where he/she stands on any of the issues addressed in the 2010 Political Courage Test, despite repeated requests from Vote Smart, national media, and prominent political leaders." Many Libertarian candidates provided their positions. I didn't look up Green or other parties. It would be interesting hearing from a campaign staffer as to whether the campaigns' refusal to provide this information in easily comparable format is a deliberate form of position-shrouding.

[Votesmart needs your help! To volunteer time or donate, go here.]

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Quote of the Day

"In California, where the urgent question of something suspiciously like state failure is staring the electorate in the face, the Brown-Whitman contest hasn't yet risen even to the level of the trivial."

Christopher Hitchens, Slate, 11 October 2010

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Thanks For Your Patience

If you read my blog, I thank you and I appreciate your patience. My real studies (the one they'll give me a degree for, hopefully) have to remain my first priority. Although weeks or even months may go by without new posts, there will be occasional bursts of activity (like today) during which I will also review any comments you've left. So don't feel too neglected; your thoughts will appear, but it might be a few weeks. In the meantime, you can email me at mdcblogs@gmail.com. And keep me on your reader list!

A Resource for Background on Chinese Government Officials

It's called China Vitae. This is an excellent idea and valuable resource.

Now where's the one for the U.S.? That's not a rhetorical question. By the same token, where are the Chinese and North Korean military documents on Wikileaks? That would be an exciting development. I fear that open societies are effectively being punished for that virtue.

Two Interesting Links

A tool - Open Heat Map

A photoessay - What America Looks Like

Rainfall, Agriculture and the Emergence of States

Recently Haber and Menaldo at Stanford and UW respectively published their rainfall theory of democracy. Rainfall and its impact on agriculture would seem to have an even greater impact on the history of the late neolithic in the formation of the first states. Large political structures have a tendency to first emerge in agriculturally marginal environments. The Nile at the edge of the Sahara (more savanna-like than desert like then); the Fertile Crescent; Cusco, at over 3,000 m in the Andes; and Tenochtitlan, on a lake in central Mexico - all are places where agriculture is very difficult without a fairly complex system of irrigation. Such systems are difficult to originate and maintain without some kind of central political structure to coordinate and maintain them. In addition dry climates allow for agricultural products to be stored for long periods. In fact in at least some places, storage predated agriculture, and was being done in the Middle East at least 11,000 years ago.

All this is to say is it's not necessarily the productiveness of land that predisposes strong centralized states to appear. In fact it seems that the key is marginal productivity which demands agricultural engineering, because a strong centralized state can more easily control agricultural production in such marginal environments. Once intensive agriculture is productive, the populations of those political centers grow, become wealthier, and raise armies, and any surrounding people either form their own states to resist the expansion or are absorbed, or once the empire contracts they're left with residual political structures. That is to say, once the initial political crystallization occurs, it spreads from the initial origins either by conquest or diffusion of ideas. (China is a real exception to this principle. The Mayans aren't a good exception because individual states never covered that much territory; some enemy cities could see each others' temples across the forest.)

If this model is predictive, then we would expect to see that people who are a) in rich physical environments and b) are insulated from trading with or being conquered by agricultural states, will not themselves develop strong, large centralized political structures, even if they themselves have agriculture.

The pre-contact cultures of the North American Pacific Northwest are striking for a) a rich material culture which took advantage of their physical environment and b) the absence of states or even proto-states despite this obvious sophistication. Visit the museums of any tribal nation in coastal Washington State - the Makah at the extreme tip of the Olympic Peninsula are an excellent example. This part of the world is infamously wet, and has rich soil; it would be easy to grow food, if you wanted to, but the deer and the salmon and the cedar and the whales and the seals ensured there was no pressure to develop agriculture, and in fact Makah did not have it. In any event in such a climate it might have been easy to grow food, but not store food. Consequently, it would have been very difficult for would-be states to control production. Any unhappy faction in old Makah villages could have just moved down the coast or two hills over, and the river there would be just as full of salmon, the forest just as full of deer, the cedar just as plentiful and the obsidian from the volcanoes just as available for making tools. With most wealth produced by nature, threats from kings would have little authority.


Waatch River, Makah Nation, Washington State, USA
(image credit Sam Beebe/Ecotrust)



This line of thought was initially inspired by the observed political gap between pre-contact Mesoamericans and the Pacific Northwest, despite the clear complexity of the latter's material culture. Other counterexamples include Amazonians (whose environment was rich but whose soil was not suited to agriculture). Perhaps a better example would be New Guinea, a highly non-marginal environment in terms of rainfall and plant life, and which did develop agriculture independently, but where again strong, expansive states failed to develop.

In 2010 true treatments of these kinds of questions should be quantitative, or explain why they're not. In every such model there are going to be strong biases (e.g., I obviously was impressed by the Makah!) that can be better accounted for by codifying your data numerically and using statistics to avoid cherry-picking. This also forces clear definitions; for example, to measure cultural complexity in a consistent way, or measure how much contact there is between "insulated" cultures, or whether geography is a confounder (maybe New Guinea geography makes state-expansion difficult.) This is why the work of Peter Turchin and others like him is critical if history is anything but a series of accidents and has retrodictable patterns that we can apply to the future.

Red Dawn Remake Release Delayed - Forever?

If you're a Hollywood type you knew this, but if you're a political junkie maybe not. Here's a story. Important point: the remake was about a Chinese takeover, not Russian. Delayed due to lack of funding - from banks in a certain country, maybe? Sounds like it's time for a documentary - The Undoing of Red Dawn.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Quote of the Day

"The Chinese people and other nations will also rejoice under the protection of the Turkish-Islamic Union"

- from the widely ignored but unintentionally very funny Turkish Islamic creationist Harun Yahya. I don't think even Uighurs expect or want the Han lands in eastern China to be under Islamic rule.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Prop 19 Ahead of Schedule? Almost

Getting caught with weed is now the same as getting a littering citation - thanks to a law signed by Governor Schwarzenegger. No, this isn't the referendum that completely decriminalizes it - that's still on the ballot for next month (Prop 19 - vote YES.)

Marijuana has just become significantly closer to becoming completely legal in California, and civilization hasn't yet ended. Amazing! It's almost like adults can behave responsibly without the government telling them what they're allowed to do.

Christine O'Donnell and Noam Chomsky: BFF

Here's a by-now famous quote about Delaware Senatorial candidate christine O'Donnell: "American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains. So they're already into this experiment."

You don't have to be a biotechnology expert to sense that Ms. O'Donnell is perhaps not the best informed on these issues. Which is unfortunate, if you want a well-informed pro-business, pro-enterprise candidate. Until recently, in the U.S. the Republican Party filled this role. Unfortunately, barely two decades after the Reagan administration, its candidates are now much more interested in scoring populist points through fear than in defending American innovation. The GOP has candidates who frankly are starting to sound like the radical left. For years Noam Chomsky has been claiming that the American biomedical industry was evil because it did no real research, socializing risk and privatizing profit, a claim that the briefest contact with reality will immediately explode. But here comes Christine O'Donnell, parroting a similar line: that the biomedical industry is evil for doing the wrong kind of research. We're left wondering exactly what kind of research Commissar O'Donnell's scientific politburo would be willing to approve. Is this woman pro free-market or not? This is no time to be sitting on the fence, Christine. American industry has enough enemies without you piling on.

As you might expect, the kind of technical illiteracy that would lead someone to vote for O'Donnell and think they're improving America's business edge has more immediate and profound implications:

"...colleges in Russia, China, and even Iran [are] churning out an order of magnitude more programmers than universities in the US. It is only a matter of time...a generation at most - until our military loses its digital superiority." (From Douglas Rushkoff writing about digital illiteracy.)

If Christine O'Donnell wants to improve America, she should be doing everything she can to help "scientific companies".

Friday, October 1, 2010

Guatemalan Tuskegee

It's a good sign (though too late for many) that today Tuskegee seems unthinkable. It turns out that the same organizations were doing the same thing in Guatemala too.

I've always found it frustrating that in criticisms of corporate pharmaceutical research, Tuskegee invariably comes up. It's useful to clarify that Tuskegee (and this Guatemalan project) were carried out by government organizations. Corporate America can be proud because it has never undertaken anything remotely as immoral as that. (And as historians dig, there's apparently more still to come.) So if you're worried about how people are treated in medical studies, history would strongly suggest that you should look at those carried out by government organizations rather than private companies.

No one wants more Tuskegees. The best way to ensure that is to know your history.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Immigration is Recruiting, Not Charity

This is a message that needs to be repeated more. Pithy summaries: Jim Manzi said "we should reconceptualize immigration as recruiting." Reihan Salam adds urgency: "Incredibly, during a time when we’ve come to appreciate the importance of talent agglomerations and intangible assets, we’re reducing rather than increasing the legal influx of skilled migrants." We're only offering one third the skilled visas today that we did in 2001. Limiting skilled visas and granting amnesty to illegals has the same effect as blocking skilled labor and encouraging low-value labor. Not only are you selecting for low-value labor but you're creating an (ethnically defined!) service sector underclass which - progressive white collar Californians don't like to recognize - we already have. This is not good for the economy, and not good if you want a functioning democracy either.

All I can add here is an entreaty to the national Republican Party to include solutions to this issue in their platform. The GOP is really missing a big win here by ignoring this as a campaign issue and focusing instead on anchor baby idiocy. Refocusing the immigration issue in this way will also repair some of the damage to the GOP brand caused by anti-immigration support coming from open racists who taint the party's image - where as if you're for encouraging smart immigration (which will, by the way, largely be from eastern and southern Asia) you're self-evidently not a racist.

It's possible to find a real issue that has substantial economic and national security impact that can also resonate with voters, and this is one. It is tragically being ignored.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Friday, September 24, 2010

Politicians Speak in Code

"The Vietnamese and the Republicans are - with an intensity - trying to take away this seat..."

That was Loretta Sanchez on Univision, talking about her opponent Van Tran. It's relevant that this quote is translated from Spanish.

It's amazing how often even in 2010 people feel safe using the opacity of a language barrier to (publicly) say things to one community that they wouldn't dare say to a wider audience - and how often the press and the public lets them get away with it. It's the same with Spanish-language radio, which gets away with language that would bring the FCC down on any English-speaking radio host. But this controversy is cause for optimism. The time when public figures could talk out of both sides of their mouths in different languages is now ending.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

How Are the Mexican Drug Cartels Fighting Marijuana Legalization?

In November California voters will decide whether to legalize marijuana (Prop 19). I've wondered for some time how the Mexican cartels who stand to lose in a huge way will fight this; after all, you can't directly give money to an American politician who will then stand in front of cameras and say "We should keep marijuana illegal so international drug-and-gun runners can stay in business."

The California Beer and Beverage Distributors group is getting press recently for their vigorous opposition to marijuana legalization. While they do have their own reasons for opposing legalization, I wonder what we'd find if we followed the money very closely.

Monday, September 20, 2010

China in Africa: Senegal

23-minute documentary on Chinese emigration to Senegal, in the context of Chinese economy activity in Africa. Main criticism: it would have been nice to see more about incentives and coordination to emigration from the Chinese government. If you don't like the little window below it's better to watch on a larger screen.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Incentives in Social Engineering

"If we miss the goals, who is going to punish us?" asked Esther Duflo, a development expert (and Macarthur Fellow, and Clark awardee) at M.I.T. "Nobody is going to come from Mars and say, 'You didn’t reach the goals, so we will invade' — there is no onus." The article addresses accountability problems with the U.N.'s approaches to fighting poverty. Maybe we need an X-Prize for measurable, realistic milestones in development?

Oddly, the types of private institutional giving discussed in the second link above (for example, the Gates Foundation) is proving difficult to get off the ground in the rising Number Two economy, China - not just because Chinese billionaires are cheap, but because the Chinese government doesn't want competition, even if it means faster improvement for its citizens.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Quote of the Day

"...it is not a sign of intolerance for us to notice that some cultures and sub-cultures do a terrible job of producing human lives worth living."

- Sam Harris, talking about his forthcoming book The Moral Landscape

Don't Like Chomsky? Then You WILL Like This

And I like this. Here's a great article about Chomsky's pretensions to political expertise. ("Pretensions!?" you huff, "How dare you!") There is an excellent allusion to the concept of horizontal fame. That is, Henry Ford was good at automating and managing production, which led him to believe he was good at everything else, including (oddly enough) politics.

Chomsky and Ford certainly aren't the first to think that because they can win at one game, they're experts at all of them, but it's up to the rest of us to wring the hero-worship out of what we read and not buy into the cult of fame - which, ironically, Chomsky enjoys decrying.

If you want to see some of old Noam's more ambitious claims even within linguistics punctured, for my money, no one is better than Stephen Pinker.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Rhetoric Check: Nuclear Disarmament Then and Now

The following reads like a "dark" science fiction scenario, as it might be written by a social conservative author:

In September 2011, the Obama administration decided to deactivate the Minuteman II ICBMs. Over the next few years the missiles were removed from the silos and placed in storage for use in launching satellites. In order to assure the Chinese that the silos were being deactivated according to the SALT III treaty each silo was first stripped of useful equipment and then the top 25 feet of the silo was blown apart using 2,800 pounds of explosives. After being left exposed for several months so the Chinese satellites could verify the destruction the remains were filled in and covered to look as much like the surrounding area as possible. Only one silo escaped destruction to become the Minuteman Missile Museum.

Submission to the Reds! Revelation of the President's true Marxist plan! His desire to destroy America! Right?

Hold on: this is the sign at the preserved nuclear missile silo south of Tucson.



When you can get rid of nuclear weapons in your national interest, that's a very good thing to do.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

New Painting - Redwoods

Cross-posted to my outdoors and running blog.





This time I actually spent some time mixing paint to get the right hue for redwood. It's a complex color! The second picture of the pair is an attempt to emphasize the three dimensionality of the thick paint in the middle of the trees; I tried to recreate the actual texture of redwoods with my brushwork. This is also the first time I did pre-work of any kind (on my computer) to decide how I would what paint when, and to be sure that I could represent distance using tree size.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Why Does Xinhua Have a File Photo of Emperor Palpatine



Similarly, the San Francisco Chronicle also has their file photo of the owner of the Oakland Raiders mixed up with a still-frame of an orc from Lord of the Rings (scroll to the end for it.)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Legislative Sclerosis and Subordinate Legal Systems

At the beginning of my first year of medical school the administration told us we could write our own honor code. Because during my undergrad years I had a bad habit of over-committing my time to non-career-supporting activities, I banished all thought of participating. But then a few days later when the writers were in front of us presenting the honor code they'd written, it occurred to me: I go on and on here on this blog about various social theories including social contracts, gaming the system by over-specializing legal language, and compiling constitutions in a legal program language. Yet here was the opportunity to draft a new social contract, and I'd rejected it! Then again, so for that matter did most of the class. (Interestingly, the students who did choose to participate were demographically non-representative of the student body as a whole but I won't say exactly in what way because it would change the focus of the post to something controversial.)

Even when it was presented, people didn't seem to care, and I was one of the non-carers. Why? There was no revolution going on. We weren't Jefferson or Lenin drawing up the new law of the land; maybe if we'd been on a desert island a la Lord of the Flies the code would have some meaning, but as it was, such a code has the backing of a sovereign organization only insofar as it conforms to the sovereign organization's aims. The student body's regulations are essentially those of a reservation within the medical school as a whole. This is not a complaint about my own institution; I can't imagine how it could be different anywhere else, or why schools would want it to be. For example, if we'd drawn up the following:

1) We don't have to take the exams or show up for labs but we still pass.
2) If we do take the exams, we can look at other people's tests.
3) We can perform whatever criminal activities we want while we're in school and there will be no repercussions for us.
4) A beer fountain on the quad every Tuesday. (Why wait for a beer volcano in heaven?)

But I'm guessing that wouldn't have flown, because it wouldn't accord with the sovereign's pre-existing rules.

I'm sure you're not surprised by the lack of civic enthusiasm for student government legislation, which at any rate seems universal. But there are two interesting observations here. First, the reason no one cares about student government laws is that they know if there's ever real trouble, it's the sovereign organization that has the real power. Yet in the U.S., people respect state and city governments even though they're ultimately beholden to the Federal government. What's the difference? I suspect there are three factors: 1) Those governments have police, whose right to operate as such are reciprocally recognized. (The Iroquois Nation recently found out about the importance of reciprocal recognition.) 2) Those governments have money. 3) A psychological coordination game - a political entity just seems "real" once it and the people+territory it governs reach a certain size.

Also, the laws of limited, subordinate organizations must conform to the sovereign organization's laws - that is, be at least as, or more, restrictive - which means that each successive layer of government makes a more restrictive overall set of legislation almost certain.

Ultimately the issue is that we humans have figured out very few land use arrangements that allow multiple ownership of a parcel between political entities. This is in contrast to agreements about pieces of property between individuals, or agreements about individuals' labor. Yes, a piece of land can belong to a person as well as be within a country, but only rarely have two separate political entities agreed to administer the same territory (a notable exception in U.s. history is the agreement between the U.S. and Britain to co-develop Columbia (the Oregon Country) from 1818 through 1846, all the more remarkable because the agreement was completed between two countries that had been at war less than four years before; and here's what might have happened if hotheads had prevailed in the American government at the end of that period.) The existence of multiple political entities administering the same piece of territory would allow actual competition, and avoid pitfalls like the sclerotic effect of multiple levels of government, or the regulatory ratchet problem. U.S.-and-British Columbia might not have been the best place to test this theory since there was hardly anybody there, and it was the relative number of settlers that decided the problem. Post-colonial enclaves like Hong Kong, where a regional culture and government survives as a result of the past collision between two cultures, could be argued to be a half-way point to geographically simultaneous competing political systems.

Currently emigration is one of few things that drives innovation - you lose people if you don't fix the things that are broken about your state - but there are barriers there too. From the emigrant's perspective, it costs money to emigrate, and you probably have to learn a new language and customs, and you lose your social network, and the people in charge either often don't care or don't understand what's happening, so the feedback loop is broken.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Medicare and Bush's Tricks

Unfortunately, Bush's tricks are now Obama's tricks too. Just as Bush put out budgets that had little to do with reality (especially regarding projected deficits and using unrealistically rosy best-case scenario projections) Obama's Medicare cost projections are dangerously unrealistic. Medicare's chief actuary says: "There is a strong likelihood that the cost projections in the new trustees report under current law understate the actual future cost that Medicare will face. A strong likelihood." More here.

If Bush's budget fantasies bothered you - and they should have - then so should this.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Spider Web in Barbed Wire


If I'd had a digital camera back then (2001, did anybody?) I would've kept taking shots until I was sure I had it. Then again I kind of like it as it is with just the barest suggestion of the concentric strands of the web inside the wire.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Cultures Cannot Suffer

Cultures cannot suffer. Therefore it is senseless and even harmful to talk about actions that result in harm to or destruction of cultures as immoral. This places a higher value on protecting perceived qualities of an inanimate entity than on preventing the suffering of conscious human beings. There is and can be no innate tragedy in the death of a culture or language apart from the suffering it causes to individual human beings.

The suffering caused by a culture's death or change can happen for various reasons. At the most basic level, adult humans don't appreciate the disruption involved with learning new social norms; it's just a pain. But there are additional and unnecessary causes of suffering that are built into the values of some cultures: namely, an explicit and conscious value that preserving the culture is itself innately good; and that if the culture were to change or disappear, it would be a moral disaster.

What prompted this post was Katja Grace's discussion regarding deliberately bringing up children to speak minority languages, thereby limiting their social contact with the rest of the world, "Agreeable Ways to Disable Your Children". (There are links to far more controversial proposals that have actually occurred in the real world.) By teaching children to be monolingual in an obscure language within a broader nation-state, parents are preserving their language, but limiting (disabling?) their children. Humans do indeed sometimes keep their children isolated in ingroups and one of the best insulation methods is by teaching them only the ingroup's language. This is one example where a moral value about preserving culture is inconsistent with preventing individual suffering. The language doesn't care that you preserved it; if you force yourself to perpetuate, you're just making it harder on yourself, and your children.

There is a more general argument to be made here, that more conservative, less open cultures which most strongly harbor an explicit value of preserving themselves for their own sake are doing something similar to their members by limiting them and making them suffer unnecessarily.

To make this slightly more concrete, imagine two cultures which differ in cultural conservatism. Culture A is a mercantile civilization that is frequently changed by its people's contact with foreign lands; they shrug and adopt the food and ideas of the people they meet. Culture B on the other side of the river is more conservative, with an explicit and conscious moral sense that their culture is intrinsically valuable, and that if it were ever lost, it would be the end of the world. Culture B constantly fights the advance of the new and its people wring their hands and gnash their teeth at the strange food and ideas polluting the next generation. In the end the material conditions of both places are the same, but the people in Culture B have suffered more, and unnecessarily. (If nation-states are cultures, then I would put the U.S. in Culture A's category. We've changed far more than we realize due to contact with other cultures, and I expect in 50-100 years we'll be, for example, far more Asian than we are now. And because we're an A-Culture, it fortunately won't bother us that much.)

On the other hand, culture is not just noise; cultural values can be better or worse in their impact on material well-being, so there is potentially still bad news in culture change beyond just the degree to which the culture causes its members to consciously decry change. But again the change or loss of these values must be evaluated only with regard to the effect on individual humans. It's tempting to object that we're still assuming values here in order to evaluate their worth. But there is a baseline that exists independent of acculturation, and it's composed of animal essentials - food, shelter, sex, and status.

[Added later: The Wall Street Journal publishes this article about an Eyak language preservation enthusiast. To put it bluntly: what is the value of this work, to Eyak-descendants or anyone else? Thanks to Thurston for the pointer.]

"Doctors Tea Party" In San Diego

Because I will be a doctor in 3 years if things go according to plan, I'm of course concerned about any and all changes to the medical marketplace that state programs will bring about.

Given that I have libertarian leanings, I was interested to learn that an organization of physicians critical of the Obama administration's current and planned changes to medicine - the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons - is meeting where I live, in San Diego, tomorrow.

Then I clicked on the event website and saw the speakers: among them Christianist Sharron Angle, and Joseph Farah from the unhinged World Net Daily.

So here's an open letter to organizers: you have now alienated one of the few pro-free-market medical students in my class at UC San Diego by choosing these kinds of openly theocratic clowns to represent you. I'm a capitalist but I'm sorry to say I want nothing to do with your organization as long as I'm excluded based on religion, and as long as you seem as confused as you are about what's more important, economics or faith. Good luck trying to appeal to any demographic but middle-aged and older straight white Christian males.

Monday, August 2, 2010

How We Filter Arguments: Valid, Relevant, and Ridiculous

The Doomsday Argument as put forth by Nick Bostrom (and others) is a form of the self-indication assumption as applied to the continued existence of humans. In short: the Doomsday Argument states that we can reasonably assume we are substantially closer to the end of the existence of the human species than we are to the beginning of it. Hence the sunny name. Bostrom has complained that on hearing this argument, most people dismiss it outright as ridiculous, but do so without a real counterargument, or even an honest attempt therein. That is to say, the argument is not really rejected; it's filtered without being evaluated. Whether or not there is ever a time when this kind of filtering is legitimate or safe to do, we have no choice but to have some criteria for doing so.

I think adherents of the Doomsday Argument would agree that this particular chain of reasoning runs counter to our desires and intuitions, and that the argument's degree of abstraction is one factor that aids rejectors in calling it "ridiculous". To be clear, I'm not implying anything about the validity or lack thereof of Doomsday; but because of these characteristics, this is a good example of an argument that many readers will react similarly to and consider "ridiculous". This raises questions about what what we mean when we call an argument ridiculous, and how and why we filter arguments without actually evaluating them.

There are multiple ways that humans attempt to influence other humans, and outside of force, most of these ways involve language. These attempts to manipulate each other, via valid arguments or otherwise, do not occur in a vacuum. Literate people in industrialized societies are bombarded every waking minute with statements by other agents with their own interests who intend to change our behavior. Most of these statements don't bother with any semblance of logical coherence.

Of the attempts to influence that do at least look like arguments (whether or not they really are coherent and valid), a large portion (no doubt the majority) are invalid, advanced either in earnest by claimants unable to see the faults in their own arguments, or by claimants who are at best indifferent to the validity of their own arguments as long as they create the desired change in the behavior of their audience. The problem is that there are only so many hours in a day, and it takes time and effort to evaluate arguments, and we don't know until we evaluate them which are coherent and valid. Therefore we end up rejecting most arguments without actually evaluating them. This should be no cause for guilt. I strongly suspect that the average blog reader encounters far more arguments per day than Aristotle or Descartes did in their prime. In modernity the possible substrates for arguments are much greater, as are the channels by which we can receive them. This is why instead of evaluating and rejecting arguments, we filter them, i.e. ignore them. Sometimes we do this by calling them "ridiculous".

This might not be so dangerous if we were able to keep accurate labels in our mental catalog, but chances are, if you filtered an argument last month and it comes up again, you won't remember that you provisionally rejected it without actually evaluating it, you'll remember that you thought it was "ridiculous". It would be nice if we at least had a cognitive junk mail pile for those arguments. Therefore, knowing whether you've filtered or legitimately rejected an argument, and what your filtering system is, are very important.

To help us we use heuristics, which are usually a social network-influenced way of approximating truth values. "I don't have time or background to think through argument ABC I just encountered. But this is the first time I'm hearing it, and if such a profound argument were true, I would have heard of it already, or experts would be discussing it prominently in the media." Or, "A moral authority I respect has not heard of this or actively rejects it. Therefore, it is probably wrong." Or even, "I mistrust this person, or this person is trying to get me to buy something/vote for them/sleep with them, therefore this thing they told me is likely false." These are not bad ways to make your argument filtration more accurate, but again we forget which are provisional rejections based on "My brother told me it's hogwash" and which are full critical rejections.

Furthermore, if we use these social weighting methods, then the population dynamics of the spread of an argument become very important, and of course in most cases the spread is related much more to claimed relevance than it is to the merits of that argument. Some of these heuristics do seem to improve our chances of "buying" valid arguments: whether the source is secure enough to welcome critical approaches to the argument; the other positions the source holds, especially if they are normally hostile to the position to which the argument leads; and being repeatedly exposed to the argument. That is, "Everyone's talking about it, so it must be meaningful or useful, and besides I don't want to look stupid by not having considered it."

Talk is cheap, and arguments are vulnerable to a cheap-signaling-type exploitation, namely the argument's superficial relevance to the argument-hearer. If we want our arguments heard, we don't work on the logic, we work on the apparent relevance. (In most circles. Most humans are not graduate students in philosophy.) You're not very likely to spend your finite efforts parsing arguments that don't relate with high probability to anything in your current or future experience. But when someone tells you, a twenty-first century technology user, that "cell phone use causes brain cancer", it might be a good idea to actively pursue that line of reasoning to be sure it's false. But we muddy the waters because we all put relevant premises or conclusions in our arguments to get attention for them. Absent any source-weighting, and as long as the argument isn't "ridiculous" (more on what this means later), you're inclined to listen.



This is all to say: we want to spend as large a fraction of our attention as possible evaluating arguments in Category-B, but until we spend the time we don't know if those arguments actually belong to A (and most probably will). We don't care enough about arguments in C or D to decide on their validity because they don't seem to relate to anything that makes a difference to us, so we throw them into the argument spam folder. That is, even if we can't tell without deliberation whether arguments are valid (right column), we can usually tell at first glance whether they're relevant (upper row),

A "ridiculous" argument is therefore one which a) claims to be relevant, b) makes an argument which, if accepted, would require the audience to substantially update their model of the world, and c) which the audience therefore rejects without evaluating. An argument that is irrelevant can't be ridiculous: you might hear an airtight, clearly communicated argument that Genghis Khan was ambidextrous, and though it sounds reasonable, you probably don't care enough to worry about it or actively call it "ridiculous" unless you're a historian of medieval Asia. Of course we do save a lot of time here, because the majority of arguments making demands on our attention by claiming relevance are neither relevant nor valid.

So what properties make us likely to call an argument ridiculous, i.e. subject to dismissal despite claimed relevance and despite not being evaluated for validity? For now I'll stick to reasons that rejectors of ridiculous would themselves report.

Extreme implications - any argument involving a conclusion that an object can exist, or an event can occur, of a magnitude or quality unobserved in the hearer's life or the hearer's account of history. This is especially true for outcomes that are very pleasant, very unpleasant (as with the Doomsday Argument), or very strange.

Novel or strange relationships - arguments that entities in what seem to the audience to be completely separate categories are in fact related.

Arguments that require a substantial change in behavior - unsurprisingly.

Contradiction of immediately perceivable reality - also unsurprisingly.

Contradiction of currently held beliefs - perhaps most unsurprisingly.

Note that argument structure or source are not on this list. Once we deem an argument ridiculous we may resort to picking on the structure or source for further validation, but this isn't critical thinking, and these characteristics do not trigger the initial labeling of ridiculous.

Readers may notice the similarity of the relevance vs validity table to the urgent/not urgent, important/unimportant productivity table. We tend to spend too much time doing urgent but unimportant things (in corporatese, "putting out fires"), and not enough doing not-urgent but important things. The equivalent mistakes in argument filtering are that we spend too much time thinking about A-arguments (relevant/invalid) so we overcompensate by throwing out any argument which would make a dent in our belief network (some of which are certainly true!), and there are likely D arguments (not clearly relevant, valid) which actually might affect us. These are the rhetoric-parsing consequences of our limits in correlating beliefs, as well the human tendency to epistemological homeostasis, our strong tendency to preserve the status quo in our worldview and avoid updating our beliefs.


* * *


Language allows us to adopt beliefs about phenomena and relationships that we have not directly observed. As there are more humans communicating with each other through more channels, the amount of propositions we are exposed to will increase, but our cognitive bandwidth will not. The need for some argument filtration is unavoidable. Consequently, we use shortcuts to avoid fully evaluating every argument we hear: without evaluating them for coherence and validity, we reject arguments that are not relevant and we reject arguments that conflict with what we believe we know to be true (these we call "ridiculous"). However, the danger is that in both cases we do not cognitively categorize these beliefs as provisionally rejected, feeling that in fact the beliefs were positively refuted.

Where Are China's Ancient Monuments?

David Frum has written a book review on Belknap's The Early Chinese Empires (Vol. I of VI). Among many pithy reflections, he offers this:
Despite the amazing and even terrifying continuity of Chinese culture, it is really astonishing how little of ancient China there remains for anybody to look at. Lewis off-handedly mentions at one point that there remains not a single surviving house or palace from Han China. There are not even ruins.

There's no equivalent of the Parthenon or the Roman Forum, no Pantheon or Colosseum. You can come closer to the present: There's no real Chinese equivalent for Notre Dame or the Palazzo Vecchio. For all its overpowering continuity, China does not preserve physical remains of the past.
It must be interjected here that a certain Wall does leap to mind, but beyond that, can you name another monument? This absence is indeed striking, and once stated seems like it should always have been obvious. Why? Are people's identities wrapped in culture but not at all with specific government administrations, therefore obviating nostalgia? ("We're in China, regardless of whether our own Parthenon still is.") Or for the conspiracy-minded, might it result from a pragmatic policy that each conqueror or dynasty has made sure to erase the monuments of preceding rulers, so they could create the past at their leisure, as Orwell suggested an ideal dictator would? Maybe it's something far more mundane; reliance on wooden structures that unlike the Coliseum or the Pyramids, don't weather so well?

Finally, maybe a millennia-old strong central government of a large nation has left no room for the provinces to leave behind their own castles? Japan has a rich heritage of castles and kofun, but Japan was also not strongly unified until the seventeeth century.

Can You Tell the Non-Japanese Actors in Memoirs of a Geisha?

When the movie came out, there was a controversy from certain quarters because most of the Asian roles are played by non-Japanese. In my anecdotal experience, the Japanese-American and Japanese expat community did not think this was a problem, just because East Asians look similar to each other, so why not cast non-Japanese in some roles?

If you're Caucasian, turn the tables. You might ask the same question of a movie with an all-European cast: do you think Braveheart cast only Scottish actors? Of course not! Why? Because West Europeans look similar to each other. Dienekes gives the results of a quiz to see if people could guess (if you want to test yourself, don't look at the top of the article because the answer is there; now here's the link.) Did you do any better?

It would be really interesting to have a bunch of pictures of Europeans - and Asians, and people from everywhere else for that matter - that the crowd can vote on to see if we really can tell a difference between adjacent nationalities. My guess is usually not.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Intelligence and Suffering



In Dune, the gom jabbar is a device that tests self-control; it "only kills animals". It's a box into which a person places his hand. Once the hand is in the box, the person feels a gradually growing pain which, though not tissue-damaging, eventually expands to become the most intense he's ever experienced. If at any point the person attempts to withdraw his hand, he is stung by a poisoned needle and dies.

This is related to the forbidden marshmallow impulse-control test of Mischel et al, though perhaps more dramatic. While delayed gratification is related to planning, future success and even intelligence, it's interesting and a bit dark to note that a positive behavioral attribute is measured by how much someone can make himself suffer.

Where Are the East Asian Histories of Greece and the Roman Empire?

Apparently Umberto Eco had a project to encourage the researching and publication of exactly such works, on the assumption that there would be much to be gained on our own history from a fresh outside perspective. I would enthusiastically read such histories but it seems Eco's program was a bust; I don't know of any. Am I missing them? If not, why are there none? On the other side, there are certainly plenty of English-language histories of China.

I should add that modern (and "post-modern") writers are not the literary Ostrogoths they're often called in book reviews by grumbling columnists. They usually show a deep understanding and love for the classics, and continue to mine them in inventive ways that make them even more relevant. Italo Calvino is another excellent example.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Two Cents About Grad School

Some months ago Felix Salmon wrote his excellent article with a cost-benefit analysis of getting an advanced degree in the humanities. This inspired me to summarize my own thoughts. I am not a graduate student in the humanities, but rather a medical student, and I just finished my first year. However, I did have a "real" job for 13 years before I went back to school. With that knowledge, weight my advice accordingly. I find that a lot of the same blind spots suffered by Salmon's hypothetical humanities student also afflict my younger classmates. However, I think there are several ways that students entering and studying in graduate programs, professional or otherwise, can avoid doing themselves a disservice.

1) Be sure to consider the economic future of your profession and your financial goals. You are not too good to worry about the mundane laws of supply and demand. They surely apply to you just as well as they apply to your mechanic. There's a difference between chasing dollars for their own sake, and being able to afford an apartment in a middle class neighborhood without a roommate when you're 49. You're choosing your lifestyle now, and you won't always be in your twenties or thirties. Think about that carefully.

2) Don't overspecialize or commit to an academia-only field. That ensures a lack of career options and mobility. Lack of control over your schedule and work location is one of the top factors damaging to happiness. Also, consider economics again. You're not special. Academia is not special. Do yourself a favor and free yourself of this bias.

3) Make sure to have frequent contact with people not in your program or university. Better living through induction! Talking face-to-face to people in bars or coffeehouses in other parts of town, and friends of parents, and people in any non-university-related social group - especially happy people - is absolutely invaluable. Get out into the great outdoors. Try something new that you're not good at. Don't be one of those people who lives for years in an interesting town or region of your country for years and barely leaves the academic ghetto. (I can't tell you how many Berkeley grads I know who have no idea about the amazing parks less than five miles from their doorsteps.) Having friends and activities in different social circles is another proven way to de-stress. The politics in your department and obstacles that you thought were all-important will suddenly seem really temporary and trivial, and you may just have an epiphany about what it is you're really trying to accomplish, in your project or your life.

4) Don't buy into the twenty-something myth that if you have interests outside of work and/or are usually happy, you aren't "serious about your career". This is just as true for twenty-somethings outside of grad school.

5) Don't go to grad school just to avoid the post-college depression. If you're on a career track that doesn't require a graduate degree, congratulations. Don't get one. When at age 23 you're suddenly for the first time not surrounded by age peers with whom you can socialize effortlessly, it's normal to get a little depressed. In fact I'm surprised "post-college depression" isn't a well-known institution of our culture by now. In 2010 it's probably a softer landing than it was in 1996 because technology makes it easier to stay in touch and meet people who share your interests, but it's still there. Be honest with yourself about your motives, and don't go back to college to be around other young people - you can do that for free.

The Bad Stripe Continues: Overall Well-Being


In an overall well-being survey, the Bad Stripe that jumps off of maps of the U.S. of well-being, health indicators, and economics is again unfortunately represented.

Read more about the Bad Stripe here, here and here. Looking at the reverse of the map above, the photonegative of the Bad Stripe stands out in this map of frequent mental distress (Kentucky comes up worst.) In addition to the relations there, the Bad Stripe is also the boundary between three geographical social networks built by Facebook users, and it also tracks the boundary between Baptists and Methodists judging by geography-associated tags on the internet. It's tempting to speculate about the link between being a cultural boundary zone and an emotionally depressed area and what the causality might be.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Even Now Athletes Are Rushing to Join North Korea's Sports Teams

After the 7-0 World Cup loss to Portugal, that can only be sarcastic. It's truly remarkable that more countries don't try to emulate the Dear Leader's management brilliance.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Will China Eat Our CleanTech Lunch?

That's the title of an article from Xconomy Boston. The worst position the U.S. could end up in is still being oil-dependent 50 years from now while China is not only weaning itself off oil, but developing and controlling the technology to do so.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Atlas Smirked

"We all lied on our timesheets. If I got lucky and finished three surveys in half an hour, I’d go home and get drunk in the afternoon and pretend I had spent four hours knocking on doors that no one answered. If I was too efficient in getting surveys filled out, I’d run out of work in my area and get let go, so I was really just following my rational self-interest like Ayn Rand would have told me to."

- ZING! A census worker describing his job in Viceland

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Iroquois Stickball Team and Real Sovereignty

They used Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) visas. To put it bluntly, countries like the U.S., Canada and South Africa that have "sovereign lands" arrangements with pre-European inhabitants are playing a game. We relax a few laws and call you a "sovereign" nation. It works fine, as long as there is no one involved besides the "sovereign" government and the surrounding, real government, and everyone plays the same game of pretend. It seems especially ridiculous when you consider that there are plenty of Native Americans who have no Federally recognized status as such just because they've never been "Federally recognized". That is, your Indian nation only exists if the U.S. government says it does. (In Northern California, Wintus are still not recognized, whereas the Feds did recognize some business partners who wanted to open a casino in San Pablo, CA.)

Where the rubber meets the road is when something happens that requires a foreign government not playing this game to recognize their sovereignty - as happened here. This would be bad enough even if people hadn't previously entered the U.K. using a Star Trek Federation visa (if you have the link, send it.)

That being the case, if American Indian reservations want to be recognized internationally, they have to start behaving like actual sovereign nations, and this means (for one thing) if you want to use your own travel documents, establish the relationship ahead of time, instead of assuming that the U.S. will do it for you. I've often wondered why Indian reservations in the U.S. don't push the issue more, and experiment with more than just gambling laws. Anecdotally, it certainly seems to me that gambling on rural reservations isn't contributing positively to the trade balance with the outside world; it seems that the vast majority of people gambling are from the rez, and the only wealth movement (not creation) is going from the pockets of people on the rez to the few people on the rez that own the casinos. I recall a case in the 80s or 90s of a reservation in Oklahoma that was pissing off the Federal government by offering wacky interest rates on loans and bank accounts, though I don't remember the details and can't find it now.

The real reason to support reservations pushing the issue with the Federal government is not to create anarchy but because it would provide a great opportunity to improve our democracy; there would be pressure on Federal institutions, and the closest thing to competition that government has. Why not more and more dramatic experiments than just gambling? Drug decriminalization is an obvious one, but what about foreign relations (begin relations with China and see how the Feds like that), medical research, numbered bank accounts, various internet safe-havens? It would be pretty awesome if the Navajo Nation offered its own Phase I drug research facilities. If that sounds potentially exploitive, you can mandate a certain level of investment in the local economy or a certain number of local employees like Thailand did when every corporation and his brother started doing HIV research there. And I'm sure lots of people (especially foreign pharmaceutical personnel with lots of currency!) certainly wouldn't mind a work-related excuse to be in the proximity of Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Other Primates Have Developed Other Forms of Political Satire

Read about them here, hat tip Tyler at Marginal Rev. On the whole I prefer Jon Stewart, but then again I'm human.