Friday, December 16, 2016

New Online Map-Building Tool

Boy have I wished for exactly this tool many times: Thanks developer! I haven't tried it yet so I can't endorse it but wanted to blog it here so I remember it next time I'm grumbling I can't find the map I want for a post.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Reverse Engineering Airline Costs from Fares

I thought it would be good fun to do a scatter plot of flights with how much they cost vs how long they are. I did them in two groups of international and US domestic flights (about 20 each), getting the best fares 3 weeks out with Google Flights, and then got the linear equation that described them.

What it showed:

The Y-intercept for US flights was $92; that is, it costs you $92 to get on the plane, and then $32 for every hour you fly. So flying from one of the Norcal cities to San Diego (1.5 hrs) should be about $140. Checks out.

That $92 would be for maintenance and all the other fixed costs. Now, not including the TTD (through-the-door) cost, at a domestic rate of $32 for every hour you fly, you can figure out how much that balances against fuel costs. At a jet fuel cost of $5.02/gallon at the time of writing, and a 737 mid-air burn rate of 750 gallons per hour, a 737-MAX (200 passengers) that's less than two-thirds full will lose money just considering fuel costs alone. Including the TTD, they have to be only 15% full before it drops below that. Again, that's just fuel costs. Pilots and flight crew eat up money and that $92 might be better thought of as gate-time costs. Of course not everyone will get the good fare that I was using for my comparison, but the average fare certainly won't be double what I got here.

Interestingly, international flights showed a negative Y-intercept of -$12 - which initially I thought could represent a subsidy, but is essentially zero. Plus, then I noticed that the per-hour cost of flying is almost four times as expensive as the domestic numbers I had above. Of course long international flights aren't using 737s, and fuel is probably taxed more than in the U.S. but does this really work out to a factor of four? More than likely this is because most countries' airlines are heavily subsidized (and/or socialized), and even beyond that international route scheduling changes only very slowly and so often doesn't represent what the market would actually bear. For this reason, when I was traveling to Vancouver a lot I found it was worth both my time and money to fly to Seattle and drive, regardless of whether I was looking at American or Canadian airline prices.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Tepuys Are Cool

I have long been obsessed by Mount Roraima and tepuys, and it's easy to see why. (This is the second time I'm blogging about them.) They are a chain of sheer-walled flat-topped mountains jutting vertically a thousand meters from the Venezuelan and Brazilian jungle. Some of them are over a hundred miles from the closest road, but even if you could drive right up to the base of one of them, so what? Their isolation produces their alienness, with reproductive isolation producing bizarre frogs with long legs, carnivorous plants, and other evolutionary nonsense. The only communication between the summits and the surrounding jungle is by flying animals, and many of them were not reached by humans until the 60s and 70s with aircraft (or more recently by balloon in the movie Up.) Adding to this they also have deep sinkholes that are cut off even from the surrounding plateaus. The weather at the top is frigid, rarely breaking 10 degrees centigrade, making life hard for whatever jungle-adapted organisms find themselves stranded up there. Combine all this with the extreme weathering of the summit plateaus - they're two billion years old, with predictable bizarre rock formations and bedrock constantly swept clean of nutrients by daily rain - and you have the recipe for what is easily the strangest place on this planet.

Though normally I'm intrigued by trying to get to bizarre places, in this case I'm quite content to read about the mountain in biologists' reports. This report goes out of its way to warm about the rain and the damp, and I believe him - the few pictures I've seen of people at the top makes it look unpleasantly moist in all respects. This report is written in an inappropriately cheerful tone, given the description of inch-long ants eating their faces and flying beetles they mistook for birds.

Images 1, 2, and 5 from All That Is Interesting. 3 is from, 4 is from Wiki.

One can be forgiven for thinking that Roraima is a boundary not just for three countries, but for other dimensions.

I made it onto Boingboing with my other blog post for pointing out that these mountains clearly demonstrate we are in a simulation, and that the simulation is Minecraft.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Were There Demographic Triggers for the American Revolution?

I'd often been curious about whether there was a generational tipping point in colonial America that led the colonists to seek separation. In other words: was it just that by the 1770s, there were enough native-born Americans that at some point they were going to stop feeling close kinship with the mother country, and would find some flashpoint to use as a case for separation, taxes or otherwise? This is attractive because it gives us a number and can be simply modeled; you could see where a colony is on the "revolution curve".


A case is often made that after the Seven Years War, the colonies began to view themselves as able to defend themselves, while resenting restrictions the Crown placed on territorial expansion. Once this change in perspective occurred, along with a land-owning elite that had been reading a lot of Enlightenment books, the clock was ticking. Is that it? Or was the clock ticking because of basic demographic factors?

The answer is: not obviously. In 1790 the proportion of immigrants in the colonies was, at absolute most, 24% of the total population. (This simple data is mostly from Wikipedia.) English immigrants, who might be more loyal to the Crown, not even 6% were born in England (if you include the rest of the British Isles, that comes up to 11%.) In fact, the actual numbers of people born outside the colonies must be much lower than this, since this number assumes that everyone who ever immigrated to the colonies was still alive in 1790, which is obviously nonsense, and immigration slowed down around the time of the Seven Years War. So, if there is a native:homeland ratio serving as a "demographic trigger" for separation, it's well below one-quarter and maybe even around 10%.

You might be thinking, "the colonists must have felt completely separate by 1775!" Not so fast. The timing is suspect. Of the native-born colonists in 1775, many if not most of them would be at least second-generation. I don't have the numbers to determine how many were second- and third-generation, but it seems unlikely that a third-generation person would (independent of other conditions) be that much more disconnected from the homeland than the second-generation one. More intuitively, the big break in attitudes about the homeland would come between the initial immigrants and their first-generation native-born offspring. So why is the grandson of the immigrant all of a sudden taking up arms, and not the son? Why the 25 year waiting period? What's more, by 1775 there's no clear evidence of consistent, quickly identifiable cultural differences (e.g. a distinct accent) that would mark people as having been born on one side or the other of the Atlantic and thus drive a sense of colonial identity.

Another question would be what percentage of native-born people held high positions in the various colonial governments? I don't have access to such data and don't know if it exists, but a review of the birthplace of colonial governors shows no clear trends across the colonies. Pennsylvania had a number of native-born governors until 1763, when again it was run by British-born officials; Massachusetts was run by native sons starting in 1757 until administration was given back to an English-born military officer in 1774.


Another possible contributor to the break: colonial merchants and landowners had accumulated enough capital by the 1770s that they felt strong enough to challenge the Crown, but again that's speculation. Per capita income was higher, and taxation lower in the Americas on the eve of the Revolution. This greater wealth may have been a two-fold cause of the split: the colonies felt strong enough to revolt, and the Crown couldn't resist the chance to increase taxes on its wealthy colonies to cover its debt after decades of war. Of course, as we already know, the most obvious and direct cause for the Revolution was taxation, starting with the Stamp Tax just 2 years after the Treaty of Paris.

If this is the case, we should see something similar occurring in other British colonies as they become wealthier. We do suffer from a paucity of examples, but there has been one (and only one) other example of a revolt in an ethnic-majority-Anglo British colony that turned into a shooting war, the mystifyingly forgotten Canadian uprisings of 1837. I can't find data for per capita income at that time, or for that matter native:homeland ratio. In any event the revolt was not well-subscribed and was quickly put down, by a colonial government that also was interested in compromise in a way that they had not been 60 years earlier with the older colonies.

Moving out of the Anglophone world, it should also be pointed out that Mexico had been settled by Spain started in the early 1500s, and only revolted in 1810, undergoing this process almost a century and a half slower than the United States. (Arguably they only did so because of the external trigger of the Napoleonic Wars.) Given the much greater genetic and cultural admixture of natives with colonists in Mexico, it seems that national identity is not as important, though this could be confounded by an elite of greater European descent (still visible in Mexico today) that identifies more with Spain that the people and land around them.


I don't have enough data to make a revolution curve, but there are some qualitative statements I can make with moderate confidence. Chiefly, if you're going to govern people badly, and they're accumulating wealth and far away, you're not going to be governing them for long. And, "warm" cultural ties in the form of lots of people from the homeland living in the colonies seem not to be as important.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Bad Stripe Is Evident in More QOL Indicators

The Bad Stripe is a section of the US that runs from extreme southwest Pennsylania along the Appalachians, turns west and decreases in intensity through western Kentucky and Tennessee, and extends through Arkansas and into eastern Oklahoma. As noted before, it consistently shows lower values for happiness and human development indices. For US demographics and geography buffs: it's not the Black Belt, which abuts it further southeast and closer to the coast. It is clearly, however, a cultural boundary zone between north and south - basically, from the southern shore of the Ohio River to the Deep South - and the part that extends west of the Mississippi may be a result of having been settled by Appalachians, since Americans have tended to in-migrate east-to-west. But the reasons for the Strip and whether it really has resulted from the same factors remains unclear.

Below are two maps from the several earlier articles showing the frequently re-emerging Bad Stripe: increased voting GOP for president in 2008 (bright red is 15% or more increase since 2004), and self-reported by congressional district, also 2008.

So it was with great interest that I read this Medium article ("The Origin of Populist Surges Everywhere", there's another more-intense-Republican-voting map, as well as these two: death by overdose (mostly opioids, i.e. pain meds) on top, and firearm suicides on the bottom - "diseases of despair", as the author calls them.

Paintings of Unnoticed Places

Westside San Joaquin

I've run across Stephanie Taylor's work before, in the hospital where I work, and on every occasion they were paintings non-iconic, obscure, but nonetheless unique and immediately identifiable aspects of California. These are places we aren't suppose to see, because they aren't how the place wants to think about itself, but we see them anyway. Consequently it's exciting to see them represented. I was moved to write about them and post some here after a trip to the Crocker in Sacramento. I've always had kind of a strange fascination with boiling a place down to its authentic essence - taking the semantic mean, I guess you could say - and while usually I feed this addiction by poring over maps and narratives, here she's accomplishing the same thing visually. (Of note, as I looked through her work I noticed that she draws the occasional map.) Through these non-places, she lets California speak for itself, in the same way that Terrence Malick's New World let the real Virginia speak for itself. Some of these places, specifically, are the Salton Sea, the rivers in the Central Valley, the golf courses in SoCal - oddly, places that many Californians would not recognize - but that if you're observant and you've been up and down the state, you immediately know. I guess my enthusiasm can be excused as resulting from the kinship I feel, after having often been in and around these places that we're not supposed to notice, and so has she, and more importantly I wonder if she found them all the same way.

A second observation is in order about her portraits, rather than the landscapes (although I've included only landscapes here). Paintings of people are, I think, necessarily more honest about the intrusion onto the subject the act of capturing them represents. Non-candid photography of casual subjects often seems a bit disingenous to me. Clearly the subject knows s/he is being photographed, yet the speed of the shutter leaves us thinking that somehow we're seeing them in the moment as they actually are, not how they are for the camera. When someone is being painted, we know they sat for it, that they posed, that they moved during the process.

You can see more at this Bee article, as well as at her studio.

Above: two Salton Sea images. Next two below: Southern California.

Two below: scenes from the Central Valley.

Two below: a foothill-looking forest,
and one getting into higher in the Sierra.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Problems of Utilitarianism #3: Hypothetical Happiness Matters, Unless It Doesn't

I spent the previous post about problems of utilitarianism critiquing the repugnant conclusion, by saying that what counts is utility as experienced by individuals, not some big abstract pile of hypothetical total utility points separate from the people that experience them. This explains why it's better to have some happiness-experiencing people than none at all, but not why and not why we shouldn't feed the utility monster.

If we define "bad" as decreasing utility - then quickly and humanely killing someone in their sleep would be acceptable, because they don't suffer. But in fact this isn't what our moral intuitions lead us to do. We endorse ending the lives of living things only when there is no possibility of future positive experience, future experience that would make life worth living. Hence a patient with ALS looking to the future may choose assisted suicide, but we don't sneak up to the hospital bed of someone suffering from pneumonia and give them a quick overdose of fentanyl.

The problem is that not just the pile of utility points, but also all future positive experience is also an abstraction. In fact almost all utility is abstract, i.e. not being currently experienced. We don't just react to immediate pleasure or pain we're experiencing this millisecond, we're also setting up to avoid future pain and gain future pleasure. However, abstract though it is, again it will be experienced non-abstractly by an individual.

One might argue that to make others' suffering less abstract the answer is to increase empathy so you're motivated to help them and everyone's utility increases; or, to decrease empathy so you can't be haunted by others' suffering. It is possible that from a population perspective one of these strategies is more stable and self-perpetuating than another, and this could be modeled experimentally. Whether this will helpfully apply to a natural evolved nervous system (even a social one) is another question, as these nervous systems evolved as machines subservient to the mission of spreading their genes, and if suffering achieves that, then that's what will be employed. When the nervous systems rebel and start thinking the universe is about them is when the story gets confused, which may be why these inconsistencies in reasoning about morality and happiness continue to appear.

Problems of Utilitarianism #2: Parfit and Rawls Are Incompatible

Previous problem of utilitarianism here. Next problem of utilitarianism here.

The Rawlsian conception of a just society is incompatible with Parfit's extension of utilitarianism.

Rawls claimed that a just society was necessarily a very egalitarian one. His argument was that if you were going to be placed into a society without knowing ahead of time what your role would be, if you're smart, you would want a society where there's not much difference between the guy at the top, and the guy at the bottom. That is to say: sure it would be a blast to be a plantation-owner in the antebellum American South, but if you fell out of the sky at random into a role in that society, chances are much greater you'd end up as a slave or tenant farmer breaking your back for one of the plantation owners.(1)

Parfit extended utilitarianism by saying that if we want the greatest good for the greatest number, we should want not just more happiness, but more people. The equation is average happiness of each person * # people = total amount of happiness. In this view, having more people to be experiencing some happiness can even counterbalance the amount of happiness that each person is experiencing. Another way of saying this: if utilitarianism is the greatest good for the greatest number, don't neglect the "number" part.

The full elaboration of this claim runs counter to most people's moral intuitions and lead to what's known as the repugnant conclusion (summarized below).

Imagine two societies: a society of a million people who have the best lives possible, whose lives are 99% worth living. (I don't know, sometimes it's cloudy when they go to the beach, otherwise life is perfect.) Compare that to a society of a hundred million whose lives are only 1% better than death: they groan each day under the oppressive weight of a dictatorship, but sometimes see a nice flower, which keeps them from wanting to kill themselves.(2) Because 99% * a million is less overall happiness than 1% * a hundred million, the repugnant conclusion according to Parfit's interpretation of utilitarianism, is that it's better to have the much bigger, much less happy society.

The obvious rejection is that an individual experiences individual happiness - total happiness is not something that is experienced - and the individual experience of objective happiness is what matters. Of course, if you make that claim, you're arguing against utilitarianism.

To illustrate Parfit's repugnant conclusion concretely in contrast to Rawls, let's apply it to a real historical situation, the concrete example of black slavery in the United States. Of course the QALY (quality-adjusted life years) measurements for utility will necessarily be a little fudged. On the eve of the American Civil War in 1860, the census showed 3,953,761 slaves in the United States. Let's round that up to four million and assume these people had lives 1% worth living(3) (after all they're literally in the horrible dictatorship that I described above.) [Added later: the very next day after I wrote this post, I ran across Robin Hanson's blog post "Power Corrupts, Slavery Edition" which contains the statement "US south slave plantations were quite literally small totalitarian governments".] Now let's compare that to Avalon on the California island of Catalina. Ever been there? It's really nice, as you might expect, and has a population of just under 4,000, and while it's not completely egalitarian, you can't be bought or killed with impunity. It's a really nice place, so let's assume there's 99% average happiness. Parfit concludes that it's better to have that slave society than modern Avalon.

By Parfit's interpretation of utilitarianism, the problem is not the institution of slavery's impact on quality of life, as long as we can overcome this by having enough slaves. Rawls could never recommend choosing a slave society over a non-slave society ("well how big a slave society is it?" the repugnant conclusion says you should ask.) By Rawls (and most of our intuitions) the answer of which you would rather be randomly thrown into is obvious, and wholly contingent on whether moral value comes from some abstract total register of utility points, or the experienced utility of an individual human being. Since policy makers do these calculations to make decisions, this absurd conclusion could conceivably make a difference, and some respected thinkers (Bryan Caplan and Michael Huemer among them) have argued that our intuitions are wrong.

Of course the counterargument is: if individually experienced utility is all that matters, isn't it better to have one really happy person then two ho-hum people? Shouldn't we feed the utility monster then? I don't know, other than to say fatalistically, that possibly moral reasoning either is not a real process, and that we are unable to make decisions like this about groups of people that we do not know. Which would be terrible, considering that modern societies are forced to do so all the time. But it would be consistent with Adam Smith's thought experiment about losing a single joint of a finger versus an earthquake in China that kills a hundred thousand. Humans cannot reason about abstract people as moral agents, because we did not evolve with a need to do so - other than as threats or trade partners.


1. Rawls also suffers from the problem of differing agents: assume that someone doesn't care about relative status, only absolute comforts. If such a person gets his head frozen and wakes up in a future where there are absolute un-displaceable overlords but who give them amazing experiences and material comfort, that person might not care, even though someone else might chafe under such an uber nanny-state regime. I also wonder how meaningful the question of a choice can be, because there is no neutral position to choose from and all are habituated to the specifics of times and places. I.e., to me England appears a nightmarish dystopia but the people I've met from there seem to be reasonable people who enjoy their lives and even return there voluntarily, so who knows.

2. If you think assigning numbers to such situations is spurious and academic, I'm afraid I must inform you that they are very concrete and very real-world, as health systems use units of DALYs and QALYs all the time to make decisions. And some systems do assign negative values, meaning that some conditions are considered to make life not worth living, i.e. they are literally worse than death.

3. I tried to look up the suicide rate for slaves, as this would give an idea of how many slaves thought their life was not worth living. Although I couldn't find numbers, apparently suicide was unexpectedly rare, and the threat of execution by owners would not have been an effective deterrent for slaves who thought continued slavery was worse than death. In several places (e.g. here) I saw an article referenced: David Lester, Center for the Study of Suicide, "Suicidal Behavior in African-American Slaves," Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, 37:1 (1998), 1-13.

Problems of Utilitarianism #1: Real Utility Monsters

Next problem of utilitarianism here.

Utilitarianism is often formulated as the claim: "The best society is the one with the greatest good for the greatest number."

There are many problems with this, first and foremost is that such an abstract formulation submerges the question of how to achieve and maintain this. To make this concrete, it doesn't even distinguish between radical capitalism and radical communism.

But another problem troubles it, one which crops up in multiple places in reasoning about moral societies: the problem of differing agency. Many of us understand on some level how troubling this is to the Enlightenment project of organizing societies, and this is evident in our discomfort discussing (for instance) behavioral genetics.

Here is an innocuous case of differing agency - one might call it trivially differing agency - that is not problematic for utilitarianism: I kind of like chicken. But my wife really likes chicken. If we get to the end of the meal and there's one piece of chicken left, the obvious best choice is to give it to her, because there will be more happiness in the world if she eats it. In the same way, I once refused a free ticket to a PGA tour event because I can't stand golf, and it is almost certainly true that whoever got that ticket instead of me, they enjoyed the event more. My taking up a spot at such an event would be an anti-utilitarian travesty.

Differing agency remains innocuous only so long as agents differ somewhat randomly in their specific tastes but not on average in the intensity of their pleasure and suffering. To illustrate this problem, Robert Nozick imagined a utility monster, that would always derive more enjoyment from everything. It doesn't habituate, it has no hedonic treadmill. You could imagine the utility monster as some kind of hedonistic superintelligent alien that had come to Earth to experience chocolate ice cream and massages, and experience them it does, on wondrous levels of ecstasy we can't begin to imagine. To it, we are as dim beasts, barely able to register pleasure compared to the raptures that the monster can attain. If we are true utilitarians, we always have to give our chicken and golf tickets (and chocolate ice cream and massages) to the utility monster. (Let's assume it's a nice utility monster that doesn't destroy things like the one below, it just likes the things we like, more than we like them, which is still a big problem.)

Not exactly how Nozick imagined it, but hey it's funny.
From Existential Comics

And as it turns out, this is not a thought experiment, because humans actually do differ, both in their capacity to experience pleasure, and the damage done by negative stimuli. People in the throes of a manic episode take great hedonic value from a great many things, including money and sex, which is partly why such episodes are psychiatric emergencies. Do we feel obligated to help them continue spending sprees or accept their propositions? People with borderline personality disorder are much more badly harmed by social rejection than the rest of us; do we feel obligated to constantly reassure them that we are their best friends, to the exclusion of other people who are healthier in this regard? You might argue that over time the greatest good is not to help them make worse decisions that will surely harm them in the long run. But there are certainly people whose happiness set points are constitutionally lower or more fragile (anti-utility monsters), and outside of mental health professionals there are very few of us who see a moral obligation in continually propping up their current hedonic state.

My gut reaction is that we don't have such an obligation, but I can't see why we shouldn't, if utilitarianism is correct.

Of note, Nozick also critiqued the Rawlsian conception of a just society, but there is a further critique of Nozick in the instantiation of societies of humans, which again relies on the actual differing capacities of humans that affect the quality of their agency. And despite heroic efforts to create equal agents, humans continue to stratify themselves based on these differing qualities.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

In Praise of Dilettantism; Or, Going Through "Phases" As Therapy

Those of us with wide-ranging interests can hit a wall at a certain age. As our career takes a greater share of our time, it becomes more difficult to escape noticing that some of our interests actually pay off in ways that directly improve our lives (like interest in the subject matter of our careers), as opposed to mere curiosity in things with neat-o factor but that are basically intellectual consumption goods. At a certain point, curiosity, praiseworthy though it is, just isn't good enough. It's against the backdrop of this conflict that some of us adopt and discard not just curiosities, but investments in communities and skills. Some of these quickly-jettisoned phases make it under the wire initially because they offer improvements to our perceived weaknesses, and while that is good enough at first, soon enough we encounter diminishing returns.

I'm posting this because this conflict engenders the adoption of certain kinds of new skills and activities at a certain age, and if this seems familiar, read on. (Intellectual mid-life crises? I won't say it but you can if you want.) For a concrete example: not long ago a retired friend of mine was going through a higher math phase. He was learning a lot of difficult, dense stuff that he'd always been interested in as a younger man - and I've had exactly the same urge on occasion - but he admitted to me a year ago that he was starting to question the rewards and his motivations in the first place. (I don't know if he's stuck with it.)

And I closely identified with him. Two years ago, I went through a chess phase. As with my friend, this was something I had wanted to do since college, and only once I was a couple months in to the daily games and studying did I begin to contemplate the massive amount of time and effort required to properly develop such a skill. After a beginner's bump, my Elo rating was frustratingly inert.

I revisited my motivation for learning chess, with renewed honesty. First, I thought the learning and improving at chess would improve my strategic thinking generally. Second (something which I could finally admit to myself) I could dump my long-standing inferiority complex around my ability to learn strategy games. As for the first point, I went looking for evidence that learning chess would in fact improve strategic thinking in some ways. What I found were some scattered results that there was an improvement in academic achievement in children learning chess, but nothing like general improvements in strategic thinking in a grown-ass man, other than at chess (duh). (Note: having done this kind of research for several such activities, one of the patterns that has emerged is that efficiencies in our thinking mostly do not generalize outside very limited, concrete domains as much as we would like to think. Even the famous N-back results for improving working memory have not generalized well.) As for the second point, I then asked myself if learning chess would only make me better at chess, did it really matter?

I am proud to say I quickly made the decision to quit, and have not played a game in almost 2.5 years. More importantly I'm not troubled that I made this decision. I'm actually quite proud, as you might guess by my taking the time to write about it in public. And in fact it's not the only recent instance of gleeful hobby-abandonment: I had a very similar experience with learning how to really hit a baseball for the first time at age 42. I hired a former pro to teach me for five lessons. Ridiculous? Maybe. Did I get much, much better at hitting? Yes! (Have you ever reliably hit overhand pitches from a pro? Didn't think so bro.) At this point, am I good enough to join even the recciest of rec leagues? Probably not. But most importantly, do I get mad thinking about how I could never hit a baseball when I see people playing baseball, or hear them talking about playing baseball? No, not anymore! And THAT is what I wanted. Who knows if I would improve my coordination or definition in my arms from hitting; I bet not, but anyway there are better ways of doing that.

A reader might think, "Well that's super, this guy is celebrating being a dilettante and/or quitter." For chess and baseball, yes, quitting is worth celebrating. And really, what would be the most contemptible outcome here, celebrating quitting, or a 40-year-old man suddenly deciding he's going to put his heart and soul into chess and baseball, activities for which the window of opportunity is long closed even if I'd ever had some innate advantage for either? (The fact that I don't is the whole reason I did these things.) There are more important things to commit to - in direct opposition to the flakiness described above, I take my marriage and my career very seriously and almost every day I literally measure how I'm improving at those.

My own focus here is that these (mercifully brief) phases let me jettison my concerns about things that, once I do them and improve a little, show that I did get better, but they weren't that important. I mostly want to recommend similar liberations to my fellow humans, since this process has certainly benefited me.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Bad Stripe = "Greater Appalachia"

The Bad Stripe I've identified based on voting out of sync with the rest of the country and even the rest of their states, and a consistent cluster of low human development indicators - and it appears on Jayman's blog, more or less, as his Greater Appalachia. Is it because it's a boundary zone? Settled by Border Reivers?

Above: the yall zone, the border of which is basically the Bad Stripe. Note the correspondence with northern Greater Appalachia.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Polk, Truman, Eisenhower Are Most Unjustly Forgotten, Ford is Most Relatively Obscure U.S. President

1) Who is the most obscure president, adjusting for temporal distance? That is to say; Gerald Ford and Millard Fillmore are both obscure, but Fillmore's excuse is that he was in office 170 years ago. After 170 years will people remember Ford even less?

2) Presidents can be remembered for good or bad reasons. Unfortunately it seems easier to forget those who did a decent job. So when ranking obscurity against performance, who are the undeservedly forgotten presidents?

1. The Most Obscure President, Relative to Time Since Leaving Office

Results here are for presidents through Reagan. Here I assume obscure = least remembered = least discussed in print at a certain recent point in time. (We don't care that Zachary Taylor was discussed in 1849, of course he was, he was in office!) So I looked at Google Ngram mentions of the president's names in the year 2000. This means I excluded all presidents who did not complete their administration by that point (Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton) and also excluded George H.W. Bush because of confusion with his son in the 2000 primary season. I included common variants of their names ("Chester A. Arthur" and "Chester Alan Arthur"; "JFK" especially may be overinflated by mentions of the airport.) I did not include nicknames (Tippecanoe, Ike, etc.) I consider Cleveland to have left office in 1897 (no special treatment due to non-consecutiveness.)

Once I had the number of Google Ngram mentions per president, I compared against how long they'd been out of office. Not surprisingly, the trend is that the longer you're out of office, the more obscure you are. For all of these graphs, Y-axis is remembrance (%Ngram mentionsx10,000), and X-axis is years out of office. (X-axis might be counter-intuitive; earlier presidents are on the RIGHT.)

It's reasonable to think that most of the forgetting occurs in the first couple decades; that is, from 1 year after they leave office to 21 years after they leave office, people will forget faster than from 101 years to 121 years. And indeed that's the case.

Above you can see the curve for (more recent) 20th century presidents, which is three times steeper (we forget the more recent ones faster) than the overall curve for all presidents. Also, the older group starting with John Quincy Adams through Cleveland is essentially flat. So, after they've been gone a century, we've basically forgotten whatever we're going to forget. (I started with John Quincy Adams to avoid inflation by Founding Fathers; those presidents were already well-known for their involvement with the Revolution and Constitution, and I want to learn about remembrance relating to what they did as president.)

Now we can look for presidents that are furthest off-trend from the curve. I modified the original curve from linear to a power function, which reflects the early forgetting trend better than a linear function.

Sure enough, relative to how long he's been out of office, Gerald Ford is the most obscure. He is furthest below the curve, on the lower left. Most presidents are in a sea of average-to-obscure just below the curve, starting with Coolidge as we go back. But there are plenty of more memorable outliers.

So who are the best-known, relative to the the time since they left office? FDR, LBJ, JFK (remember, airport signal), Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington. Honorable mentions are John Adams, James Madison and Andrew Jackson. What's interesting is that being famous before you're president (usually for being a war hero, but in one case being an actor) doesn't seem to matter for how well you're remembered, even if it helps you get elected. (Today do we talk about Grant the president, or Grant the general?)

2. How Are Presidents Remembered Relative to Performance? Who is Most Under-Rated?

My source for presidential performance is the Wikipedia article on ranking of the presidents; I averaged every survey they have in the scholar survey results. I convert the average of all the scores into a decimal between 0 to 1. 0 means everyone unanimously agreed he was the best president, 1 that he was terrible. These surveys span 1948 to 2015. The curve in the previous graph predicts how well-remembered they should be based on how long they've been out of office. For each, their distance above or below the curve is the relative remembrance. This compares the relative remembrance to their historical ranking. (For grins, I compared my own ranking against the historians and got an R^2 for 0.4527; there was general agreement except relative to historians, I really don't like John Adams and LBJ.)

As it turns out, there may be justice after all. The better the president, the more likely they are to be remembered. (Although it must be said, if the winners write history, this is also what we should expect to see.)

Looking at the two "unjust" quadrants (bad but remembered, or good but forgotten), let's focus on the good-but-forgotten; they're the ones we should be thinking more about, plus the good-but-forgotten stand out above the curve much more than the bad-but-remembered.

I circled the three most unjustly forgotten presidents. As I'd expected, Polk was a good but forgotten president (come on, click on that and read about him, he deserves it!) In particular, he explicitly set a number of ambitious foreign policy and domestic goals, and achieved them, prosecuting the Mexican War and expanding to the Pacific, settling the Oregon Territory question peacefully but to American advantage even against Victorian Britain, and establishing the forerunner to our modern treasury. (He would have been a very good candidate for futarchists!) Eisenhower and Truman are also standouts underrated by the attention we pay them.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

What Are the Things That Could Derail the Improvement of Life on Earth?

We assume that wealth will grow, violence will decrease, and in general life will get better for life on Earth, if only things keep going roughly as they are now. What might happen to interrupt this process?

On a Timescale of Minutes to Years:

1. Weapons of mass destruction/acute ecocide. This breaks down into three categories:

a) nukes: there are a lot of them left. This one is frustrating because it's still an existential threat but it's been around for a long time, so people have become used to it.

Once one is is used deliberately or even explodes by accident, the taboo is broken, and more will follow in much shorter order than the interval between that event and Nagasaki.

b) any other such weapons, especially biological weapons.

c) The Singularity. Superhuman general artificial intelligence would still not necessarily be intelligent enough to be evolutionarily stable, and instead of a blossoming of ultra-intelligence, could just result in ultimate ecological castastrophe.

2. Natural events that could destroy parts of the infrastructure the modern economy relies on. Earthquakes weren't a big deal when you could rebuild your bark longhouse in a few annoying hours. Not so San Francisco. 9.0 earthquakes aren't that frequent, but they occur. Similarly, we don't even know how often Carrington-level events happen because until there were electrical lines to be affected, there was no way of knowing and no reason to care. Also related to Carrington events, refer back to item 1a; the result of a nuclear high-altitude EMP would be catastrophic.

Decades to Centuries:

3. Selection against intelligence by economic development, both within and between countries. That is, idiocracy. The most fertile countries are often the most disastrous. Related: the world and technology will not change any slower than they are now (unless one of the disasters in this list occurs) yet there are people (the majority?) who appear constitutionally unable to adapt to this level of change and think in abstract terms. The modern world ironically appears to make these people regress into more and more of a fundamentalist, tribal state where they assume, correctly, that they will not be able to understand the world at all, so they cling to tribal authority.

4. Consumerism and collapse/transparency of status hierarchies, making people unhappy with otherwise stable productive lives.

a) Consumerism: it has been argued that above a certain amount (usually given as US$70,000), gains to income translate increasingly marginally to happiness. However it is increasingly impossible to escape images of houses, mates, experiences that you're not getting even with your $70,000 and your nice home, spouse and vacation. Hence this principle runs up against the human irrationality that we would rather live in a neighborhood of $100k earners and make $120k, then a neighborhood of $200k earners and make $180k.

b) This same media technology also means that increasingly, we are de facto in a world culture where there are few isolated laboratories for meme innovation. In the past, even in neighboring dictatorships, at least the more flawed dictatorship might lose on the battlefield, with the slightly better practices of the other dictatorship winning out. But what will ever fix your shitty institution now? The Mongols aren't about to overrun the DMV for being too slow. Also, increasingly we cannot preserve the independence of our multiple overlapping status hierarchies and "healthily" isolate our social spheres from one another - so your boss, or that girl that was prettier than you in high school, can make fun of your for being the president of a local organization which otherwise would've give you a nice status boost to increase your QOL.

Therefore, to avoid acute events, we should focus on continuing nuclear disarmament, start taking biology more seriously before CRISPR gives us the equivalent to Rosenbergs working with ISIS, and increase focus on AI safety. We should also try to understand how to predict and protect against Carrington solar events and similar century-frequency geological and astrophysical threats.

To avoid the longer-onset ones: no solution here would seem palatable, but otherwise we face death by a thousand cuts. To fix #3, it would seem only eugenics by licensing reproduction would work within a country, but this is abhorrent in Western politics to liberals and conservatives alike. (A certain China does come to mind and they seem to have done "okay", and by "okay" I mean "the greatest developmental triumph in human history". Despite or because of one-child?) There is also the Brave New World style solution of a big reservation or favela for all the people who can't hack it in the future economy, but in Brave New World it was just a few misfits, as opposed to all their Epsilons and Deltas.

For #4, we could adopt cultural norms about media use - while this is already happening to some degree, it takes both personal discipline and is easily eroded by non-cooperators, i.e. your co-worker who you suspect will check their email on the weekend even if they said they wouldn't. Also, solving the "tyranny of territory" would speed the diffusion of good memes, even in a connected mono-culture world. ("Tyranny of territory" is that humans have to live on the surface of the Earth so organizations from families up to government have static boundaries. Charter cities are a nice idea but fall flat as long as they are within territories held by the cartel system of mutually-recognizing violence monopolists, i.e. states. That is, I can't tell my DMV, California, that I choose to use Minnesota's DMV, because at bottom guys with guns will come and make me cooperate.)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Europe as China: Why Didn't It Happen This Way, Part II

For the original thought experiment from my alternate history alter ego, go here.

Alternate history thought experiments are useful for reversing the anesthesia of the familiar - mixing terms, switching coincidences, you start to see where things might have been accidents, and where other things were probably destined. Hence, the "sinization" of European history, combining Europe into a super-state, and the Europizing of China's. But it didn't happen that way. It's still interesting to consider how Europe would seem if shoe-horned into the patters of Chinese history and vice versa.

From a Chinese point of view, Europe is a just a Warring States Period that never ended; a China that never got conquered by one government. Several of the warring states dominate the picture. They are those which have access to coastline and historical political access to new territories, as well as those with good cultural institutions that serve them well in the industrial age; those seem to be states that lacked strong central control until recently, especially those which were not dominated by an empire outside Europe. Europe is a multiethnic continent that has never been truly united. We still remember the Roman empire 15 centuries after its fall because it controlled two-thirds of the continent's territory at one point. Europe is often divided into east-west (although most of the east is now in NATO and this line has seemed to waver in the space of decades); more enduring is the north-south division, created by the more permanent physical barrier of the Alps and their weather effects, which we can see in religious and other cultural divides. Other conquests from without have been averted: the Persians, then the Moors, then the Mongols, then the Turks, all of whom who got pieces of the proximate fringes of Europe. (Don't forget that western Turkey was settled by people we would recognize as Greek and they were ruled by the Persians and fought for Darius at the Battle of Marathon.)


On the other hand, China is just Europe that got conquered, and never re-fractured. Pick your unification point - a loss at the Battle of Salamis, and/or Alexander going west instead of East, or the Roman Empire never falling, or at least always having its territories inherited intact by future rulers. When the Qin took Guangdong (modern Canton), they were culturally and ethnically distinct from the people they met, who they described as bamboo-thicket dwellers barely more advanced than hunter-gatherers. (Many Cantonese people even today who self-identify as Han in fact are more genetically similar to Cambodians or other southeast Asians than they are to Han from the rest of China.)

Miao women in traditional dress, from

A glance at the map shows the old kingdoms of East Asia - the old Warring States - and the briefest of research will reveal China's persisting multiple ethnicities - unsurprisingly in its interior (the Uighurs and Tibetans) but even much further east (like the Miao women above, or the recently migrated Hmong, and many others) - and many of these are finally today losing their cultural distinctiveness, long after losing their political autonomy. The parallels in my little essay are fairly obvious. In that world, there is no "China", there's just East Asia, a collection of belligerent ethnically distinct states with confusing alliances, and an unlikely overarching religion (Neo-Shivanism) from a very foreign place that somehow does not cause them to unify. The Persian state was the Qin, who didn't tolerate lots of chattering scholars either; the burning of the library at Alexandria was nothing. The Macedonian and Caesarean dynasties were the Han, and the Norse were the Mongols. In the alternative universe the East Asians have their own barbarians (the Xiongnu who served as mercenaries in the Han legions) and their Scandinavians, the Mongols and Manchus. In the alternate-history Europe, the last of the Huns and Basques are losing their dress and cuisine, while the Russians and Turks remain politically problematic. (Perhaps Vladimir Putin is the Dalai Lamasky in that world? Who knows.) If you find a Norse or Finnish dynasty unlikely, why, that's exactly what the Sung would've said about the Mongols, and the Ming about the Manchus.

So what are the answers to the questions posed by my alternate history alter ego? That is to say: why am I real, a German-descended person with a Hebrew first name living in a United States settled by the British and named after an Italian, and he's fictional? (I'm not debating whether I'm the real one. Don't get all Chuang Tzu on me.)

1. Why did the super-state of China unify so early to be ruled by one dynasty after another, with only brief periods of fracture, in contrast to Europe, which has only been half-ruled by one state and only for a few centuries at that? This one may be straightforward: geography. Most of eastern Asia is a warm fertile plain, and you could walk from Shaanxi to Guangdong, eating rice along the way - which is exactly what many armies have done. (You would expect that places with geographical challenges would resist incorporation. Within China, Shu, now Sichuan, developed a distinct culture, and of course Korea and the tropical-forested Southeast Asian countries were never absorbed.) On the other hand, Europe has an insanely complicated coastline, plains frequently interrupted by mountains, and a shorter growing season. Europe is harder to invade, harder to administer, and until relatively recently has been less of an economic prize than much of the surrounding world. This is why the Romans ruled Syria but not Denmark, why Alexander went to Egypt and not Rome, and why the Moors only half-heartedly pursued Europe beyond the Pyrenees. In particular, the ornate coastline of Greece looks like something an overenthusiastic ten year-old geography nerd would invent.

2. Why did religion in the West evolve such that it was synonymous with political power? Why is religion in the despotic East syncretic and tolerant of other traditions? I do not have a strong answer for this, but here are several speculations: a) a statistical-evolutionary one. More religions evolving means more natural selection, and therefore more that want to spread and hold power (ie, evangelical, politically-aggressive religions.) Therefore, if you're a state in contact with more religions, you're more likely to encounter politically aggressive religions. If you're in Europe this is the case; and the Middle East was also more closely connected to Europe than to China. (This is the same reason in biology that Eurasian/Mediterranean species are more likely to become invasive in the New World and Oceania than the other way around - a larger initial territory means more species competing, and by the time of the Columbian exchange, only the best-adapted ones were left in that Darwinian crucible, and they often overwhelmed the ecosystems they encountered.) b) Large, centralized absolutist rulers who are serious about staying in power do not tolerate flourishing ideas: hence, the purge of philosophers that occurred with the foundation of China. Who knows, maybe if the Mohists were still here today, they would have spawned something as intolerant as the Abrahamic religions? Plus, religions in an absolutist state where the head of state is not interested in religions are not in a position to develop into an ideology that tries to purge other ideologies.

3. Why did the technology and wealth of European states progress rapidly beyond that of China beginning just prior to the age of discovery? Economists and historians have put the most thought into this question, and one thing we do know is that the groundwork was laid well-prior to the age of discovery. That is to say: the answer wasn't just that Europe extractively colonized the world and benefited from the labor of non-Europeans (although that helped.) There is an argument that natural selection built states in Europe that were militarily successful, and that living in a state which was able to provide predictability and safety but was otherwise not authoritarian would tend to select at an individual level for values that would be useful in the late iron and industrial ages.

This immediately relates to current trends. If we are now in an age more dependent on administrative competence than military skill, China has the advantage. But if China's recent successes now come partly from implementing ideas and values the West has stumbled upon through natural selection, a continued strongly central authoritarian China would not be expected to keep producing such. And that by extension, a strong world state would be an absolute disaster in terms of cultural innovation. Ibn Khaldun, the Persian historian and observer of China, made an observation about this, just as relevant to China's initial unification as it is to the source of its continuing dynasties and ultimately the impact on civilization of the habitable world being entirely divided into states, as it now is. Why would the unifier of China be from Shaanxi, which even today is a bit of a backwater? Why did the first European conqueror not arise from Sparta or Athens, but from those upstarts Macedonia? Whether or not he was right, Ibn Khaldun thought there was an effect of outsiders on the frontiers of an empire coming in to take over the complacent inward-gazing capitals, at least in Chinese history, and he had the benefit of many additional dynasties' worth of data to make his argument than just the Qin. He was perhaps over-weighting the significance of the Mongol dynasty in power at the time he was writing. But what if there were no more clever barbarians on the frontiers, but only other states, operating in a cartel? I don't know, but some level of natural selection, and therefore the triumph of good cultural practices over bad, seems very likely to grind to a halt.

Europe as China: Why Didn't It Happen This Way?

Exposition from a real-world standpoint here. If you enjoy the alternate history aspect of this piece you should see What Do The Patterns in Alternate Histories Say About Us?, which also links to other thought experiments.

Look at a satellite image of Daria and eastern Eurasia. In some ways they seem quite similar: green, fertile places with large population centers. There the similarities end. One is a jumble of small competing states, the other an ancient kingdom. Why did things turn out so differently?

Daria was not always a single unified state so it is useful to review the first dynasty which controlled much of its modern territory. Prior to the Persian Dynasty, there was no Daria as such, but really just southwestern Eurasia, a collection of small city-states trying to hold on to the territories around them and constantly fighting; hence this is referred to as the Warring City-States Period (a term invented by a Darian historian during the Caesarean dynasty). Stretching back into the West Eurasian bronze age there are names of dynasties (the Hittite and Sargon) which I will neglect here because it is difficult to separate legend from fact. In any event it was not until the Persian king took Athens after the Battle of Salamis that a large portion of what we now know as Daria was unified. The officers of the Persian Dynasty wrote that the people living in Athens ("Greeks") were unique-looking, often with blue eyes and sometimes light hair, who worshiped a large contingent of gods headed by a triumvirate, instead of the Zoroastrian dyad that we all know today. Consequently we can infer that the people of Greece province, and probably Italia and Hispania, were culturally and ethnically distinct from the unifying Persians. (And here is our first question: why did the super-state of Daria unify so early to be ruled by one dynasty after another, with only brief periods of fracture, in contrast to East Asia - to the collection of belligerent states known collectively as "China" - which has only been half-ruled by one state and only for a few centuries at that?)

The armies of the Persian king (later emperor of Daria) then went on to conquer Macedon, stopping their northward advance in the wild forests of the Southern Balkans, as well as taking the Italian Peninsula and Spain - which again at the time were not Persian lands, but had people living there called "Punes" and "Romans". These people were also gradually absorbed by interbreeding with the soldiers and administrators who came to settle the conquered lands and by multiple waves of immigration from further east with the future dynasties, giving rise to the large ethnic majority who later spread north from Mediterranean Daria, calling themselves "Caesareans". Caesareans do not make up all of Daria, and today there are autonomous regions (often politically troublesome) set aside for Russians and Turks. Even in the Caesarean areas, travelers remark that there are still minorities with distinctive dress, ceremonies and cuisines in mountain areas that the Darians never fully absorbed, like the Huns and the Basques, but the reach of the modern government (and tourists) may be finally eroding these distinctions. Xerxes noted that the people of the unified continent had rich and chaotic modes of thought, some of which were debated in public, and multiple schools existed without state sanction, especially in Athens and Jerusalem. Consequently, the Persian king ordered the Purge of Philosophers. Some philosophies survived, like the Stoics, mingled with the syncretic and polytheistic belief systems that so bewilder us Easterners, but others like the Pythagoreans or Judaism are known only from history.

After infighting back in Babylon, the Persian Dynasty fractured in a mere decade, leaving general Mardonius in charge of Western Eurasia. Daria was finally reunified two centuries later when Alexander founded the Macedonian Dynasty, extending Daria past the Balkans and Alps to the Baltic; the Caesarean, Ostrogoth, Frankish, and Habsburg dynasties followed the Macedonian. Aside from a few fractures between geographically remote parts of Daria, most of the kingdom, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean and the Indus to the Atlantic, has remained one nation ruled by the Caesareans to this day, although a different dynasty has come into power every 200-250 years, with the capital moving between Athens, Rome, Baghdad, and finally where it is today in Amsterdam. The Hindu scholar Brahmagupta noted that the new dynasties tended to come from the fringes of Daria, after the current dynasty had begun to ignore the world outside its borders and even outside the intrigues of its courts. The clearest such example was the Norse Dynasty, when the legendary men of the sea swept out of Scandinavia and up all the rivers of Europe, absorbing the peoples of conquered provinces until the gutters of Athens ran red with blood. (This is the reason for the famous inscription near the Matterhorn where the young Emperor and his advisor, last of the Justinian Dynasty, leapt to their deaths to avoid the ravages of the Northmen.) Despite two efforts, the Northmen were somehow never able to conquer the Maghreb, as their naval expertise did not apply in the desert. The Northmen famously conquered even India and the eastern regions of Russia, and there is a cottage industry of shuddering with horror at the thought of them sailing up the Irrawaddy and the Pearl and the Yangtze. And indeed, there is every reason to think that they would have wiped out the kingdoms of Qin and Chu and Jin, as in their one encounter, they made short work of the best forces East Asia had to offer at the time, the combined navies of Qi and Lu and Wu fighting side by side in the Hainan Sea. But in both cases, they turned around. Coincidence matters; both times when they were preparing to take the whole Pacific Coast, the death of the their high leader the Konungur called them back for an "Al-thing", a council discussion of succession. (Of course, some historians contend that their animals and war techniques and northern constitutions would not have done well in the damp summer heat of the coast.) When Mikl Konungur (which just means the Great Konungur in Norse) died, their great empire split into four pieces as fast as they had conquered it, with Olaf Konungur holding onto the prize of Daria.

And of course, any mention of the Northmen and in particular Olaf Konungur is the natural jumping off point for the history of the East's contact with Daria. East Asia had a very different history leading up to that point. While then Qin famously made several bids on the southern coast of East Asia, they failed; and of course the king of Shu created an empire, but coastal East Asia had little to offer in those days, so he went toward the places of culture and learning, the birthplace of the Buddha, going around the Himalayas to India, only stopping his advance at the Indus River when his men revolted and refused to march further west. And following this, the Han Empire whose legacy most shaped East Asia unified the coast for several centuries. Many books have been written on the rise and fall of the Han Empire (the classic being that by Nakayama) and many leaders have claimed to be building a new Han Empire (among them Yan Li, Chao Po, and of course generations of insufferable Japanese officials after visiting the ruins of the Han baths in Tohoku, just to name a few). But the fall of Han Empire certainly resulted from some combination of poor succession processes, complacence about the outside world, and increasing incursions by the Xiongnu and Turks who the Han increasingly relied on to fill the ranks of their armies. A much debated point is the role of the spread of Neo-Shiva-ism in the empire's decay, ever since Xao Ti's very public conversion and dividing the Han Empire into halves, with capitals at Xi'an and Shanghai. Of course the Xiongnu hordes took Shanghai one last time, and the Mongols took Xi'an, and after that East Asia was back to its natural state of multiple competing states: Shu, Jin, Han, Korea, Vietnam, Shaanxi, and all the rest. (As an aside: it is hard to square the two images we have in the East of the steppe people: the rampaging Mongols and Manchus, who seemed to suddenly settle down into well-run welfare states to make pop music and home-assembled bamboo furniture for the rest of us.)

It was from this fractured world, living in the shadow of the fallen Han (as we still do today) that Tu Pei traveled along the Silk Road as a merchant to visit the famed riches of Daria, at the time of Olaf Konungur's rule, just after the Northmen had conquered the ancient land. Kawashima Mirai's poem about Olaf's stately pleasure domes of Hamburg strike us as a bit over-romantic and even racist today, but this gives us an idea of the fantastic riches Tu Pei thought he might find. As Tu learned, our term Daria is actually the name that the Persian king Xerxes gave to his unified empire in celebration of his victory, naming it after his father, but ironically it derives from a state the only lasted a decade - which happens to be when Han traders started writing about it. Their literal term for themselves is the somewhat arrogant-sounding Ohrmazd-Land, or the Land of the God of Light. East Asian merchants (especially Shanghainese like Tu) were at the time frequent traders, but they knew only marginally more about the Occident than the man in the street. That they knew anything at all was partly a result of the Lingades, the series of bloody wars that resulted from East Asian Neo-Shivans taking back India, the land of their prophet's birth, from Buddhists; though disastrous, this revitalized the Silk Road re-established a middle class in the East Asian states that had not truly existed since the fall of the Han Empire. (This is the second question: why did religion in the East evolve such that it was synonymous with political power? Why is religion in the despotic West syncretic and tolerant of other traditions?) Scholars doubt how much of Tu's story can be taken at face value, but he accurately described many of the Darian landmarks he claimed to have visited, the Acropolis and Coliseum among them (it is a widely believed misconception that he saw the Great Seawall along the Baltic but this was not built until the Habsburg Dynasty, partly as a reaction to the invasion of the Northmen). Tu claimed to have been given a position in the local government of exotic Germany province (Tu had never seen snow or drunk beer) which seems strange unless we remember that the Northmen were warned by Darian advisors that the conquerors of Daria often found themselves absorbed, so they were in the habit of trying to avoid this by appointing foreigners. (In fact they even switched their administration's records from those based on the Phoenician script to one based on Irish Ogham runes, given the strange Norse affinity for the Celts through their brand of Neo-Zoroastrianism; but this did not spread beyond the Norse Courts.)

As we know, the Habsburgs replaced the Norse Dynasty, and indeed the gradual failure of the remaining Norse satrapies seemed to signal a decline not just of Daria but of West Eurasian in general in world affairs starting at that point in history. The Red Sea-Horde held on in India for a century longer (Eastern scholars have often wondered why India retains a tradition of despotism into the modern age when democracy has flourished in the rest of Eastern Eurasia). Even into the age of discovery, relations between East Asia and Daria largely remained those of trade. And the third outstanding question is why the technology and wealth of the East Asian states progressed rapidly beyond that of Daria during this era; the trends were underway well before Japan and Guangzhou began exploiting their colonial possessions. and while Japan, Korea and Guangzhou were colonizing the Two Eastern Continents, they certainly had designs on Daria but outright conquest of such a large and unified state, from a distance no less, was clearly impossible.

As East Asia began colonizing the planet in earnest, the Habsburg Dynasty fell and was replaced by the Finnish (although one Habsburg general did hold out on Mallorca for years). Much has been made of the complacency of the Darian emperor in rejecting the gifts of the Japanese merchant Ishizaki: "What could Japan have that Daria could possibly need?" Meanwhile, control of the islands of the Mediterranean was effectively ceded to one or another East Asian power. Very few West Eurasian states held out: Cromwells who controlled the British crown perhaps wisely remained closed, allowing the Koreans their trade base on the Island of Wight. (It is underappreciated that with help from Guangzhou, the British briefly built their own ships, crossing the Atlantic to trade with Mexico before the Cromwells declared the policy of isolation.) The independence of most of the East Asian colonies changed life very little in Daria, which became progressively more miserable under the Finns, with famine after famine and cession after cession. The East Asian nations began to cooperate to carve up spheres of influence. In most of East Asia, the civil war in the Japanese-speaking United States of Yuanshi was better known than the Napoleonic rebellion in Daria, led by a newly-converted Zoroastrian which resulted in many million more deaths and a near-miss for the fall of the Finns. In the end, it was the curious combination of neo-Han and Buddhist ideals that led to the establishment of the US of Y, and progressive constitutional freedoms in East Asian states, that spread to Daria. A graduate of an eastern-style medical school named Hans Reber took it upon himself to spread these ideas, so it was ironic that when the Finns finally fell, he was in Asia. The ideas of freedom did not take root easily, and the next several decades were filled with famine and unrest, opening Daria to a brutal occupation by British forces. The men serving competing ideals of how to structure the new republic held an uneasy truce while fighting the British. Of course the British withdrew after Yuanshian forces dropped atomic bombs on Manchester and Cornwall, and within a few years the Long March by Kovacs drove Dubois out to Mallorca, which remains de facto independent but claimed by the People's Republic of Daria.

What now? The Shaanxi general Yan Li famously said, "Daria is a sleeping bear, and we would do best not to wake it." It is now awake. After a disastrous first few decades, it has relaxed its policies and grown rapidly, surpassing the U.S.Y. as the world's biggest economy. The surrounding nations of West Eurasia like Ireland and Scandinavia have become quite nervous about the ambitions of Daria and have been driven somewhat into the orbit of the U.S.Y. and strenghtened military and economic ties with ANWEN (the Association of Northwest European Nations). Darian human rights are still an issue, although the Darian government points out the U.S.Y.'s and other Eastern countries' less than perfect record in this regard; candid moments with Darian officials and citizens also show a willingness to tolerate some oppression for the sake of growth, although of course the enlightened citizens of the East would argue that this tradeoff is unnecessary. The East's and in particular the U.S.Y.'s relationship to the wakened bear teeters between that of enemy and friendly competitor. But if Daria and the East want to remain isolated, that ship has already sailed. Eastern universities are filled with Darian students, some of whom remain and of some of whom return home with Eastern ideas. There are Darian restaurants in every city in the U.S.Y., which most Yuanshians would be loathe to give up out of misguided patriotism (even if they don't all know how to correctly use a spoon and knife to eat). But it appears Daria's growth is stalling, making its people again wonder whether this dynasty too has lost the mandate of heaven. The world has become a small place, and history is not over.

Mahesh Nekotani
O-shu, Gosaihama, United States of Yuanshi
Mind-integration physician, University of Gosaihama at Iwatani

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Why No Dicussion of American Quilombos?

There's a rarely-told and barely-investigated history of escaped slave communities in the the southeast U.S. The significant groups are Black Seminoles (now relocated to Oklahoma and Texas), the Great Dismal Swamp maroons, and the Gullah community in South Carolina and lowland Georgia (much of which remains in the area, and which to some degree seems to have originated part of the two other populations). The Black Seminoles were closely associated with, but it seems still culturally distinct from, the other mostly native renegades who arrived in the swamps as they fled British and then American forces. These are immediately reminiscent of quilombos in Brazil, which were the same thing but along the Amazon and its tributaries.

These communities formed from escaped slaves; that is to say, from people who "suffered" from drapetomania (can you believe antebellum physicians diagnosed this condition after being asked to solve the great mystery of why slaves would try to escape?) Several things about this are striking; for example the understated influence of the Caribbean colonies on southeastern U.S. culture (listen to this Gullah speaker's accent when she's speaking English. She's a native-born South Carolinian!)

The question is why the quilombos seem to be a much more present part of Brazilian history than these communities are a part of American history. Both countries have a history of slavery; there must be something else associated with this difference.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

U.S. City Population Growth and Location, 2010-2014

Statistics from the Wikipedia list of U.S. cities by population, with numbers for 2010 and 2014 for cities 100,000 and over. My analysis excludes Kent, WA and Macon, GA which had non-organic annexations.

Cities that gained population had, on average, 297,130 people. Cities that lost had, on average, 223,384 people. The smaller you are, the smaller you get. A scatter plot (log or absolute population) was not very informative, other than to show that the shrinking cities were all smaller. The largest city that lost population was (hold your breath) Detroit, which lost 33,522, or 4.7% over 4 years - that annualizes to 1.2% lost per year.

Cities of 100,000 or more added 4,099,428, a 5.02% growth rate for growing cities for 2010-2014 (annualized to 1.23%).1111

In the same period, cities of 100,000 or more lost 65,007, a -1.46% loss rate for shrinking cities for 2010-2014 (annualized to -0.366%).

This means on net, cities over 100,000 added a total of 4,034,421 people, for an overall growth rate of 4.68% (annualized to 1.15%).

Compare this, for the same period, to a US population growth of 3.28% (0.809% per year). Cities above 100,000 grew faster than the country as a whole.

The center of growth was at 36.232 N, 99.661 W (western Oklahoma).

The center of shrinking, on average, were at 38.145, 84.188 (suburbs of Lexington, KY). Not surprising that there's more growth to the west (and somewhat to the south).

Weighting it by % gain or loss, it doesn't move very much. The center of shrinking moves about 40 miles, and the center of growth moves less than that.