Thursday, February 29, 2024

R.F. Kuang, "Babel, or the Necessity of Violence"

Babel, or the Necessity of Violence, which won the 2022 Nebula award, is a pretty good historical fantasy: the writing is good, the characters are fine, and the magic system is a stroke of genius. In Kuang's world, magical power comes from the impossibility of exact translation: spell casters, known as translators, create magic by pairing words in different languages that mean slightly different things, chosen so that the difference between them resonates with the power sought. 

But that isn't what seems to interest most people about Babel; wikipedia's summary of the plot begins, "the book criticizes British imperialism, capitalism, and the complicity of academia in perpetuating and enabling them." One reviewer wrote that Babel "educates and urges us to reframe—to (re)translate—the dominant narrative of what the West calls its civilization."

The story is set in Britain and Canton circa 1840, and the plot has much to do with the outbreak of the Opium Wars. The main characters have come to Oxford to become translators, studying in the tower known as Babel to master this arcane art and thus become important, powerful people within the British empire. One is half Chinese, another Haitian, a third from a wealthy Muslim family in India; they have a fourth classmate who is English, who struggles to understand why they hate the Imperial system that seems pretty good to her. Radicalized by the experienced of helping to launch a sleazy imperial war, the three non-Brits join a secret society plotting rebellion against the empire, and in the end things come to an explosive conclusion.

Ok, fine, there was a lot to hate about British imperialism. To me that means especially the contempt that the British (and French) showed toward the rest of the world's peoples; the radicalism of Babel is most powerful when it dwells on the face-to-face racism and snobbery that the non-British characters have to endure. But it seems to me that if your idea of the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world gets too caught up in personal slights, you are missing some really big and important things. What follows may strike you as pedantic, but Kuang filled her book with footnotes justifying the historical accuracy of her claims. For example, when the British classmate says that the British eliminated slavery in India, one of the other characters responds that this is only partly correct; the 1833 law banned chattel slavery but explicitly exempted a lot of statuses in India that were very close to slavery. This is true, and kudos to Kuang for knowing the history at this level. 

The thing is, the British did not invent any of the ways that people in India oppressed each other. Some, such as debt slavery, go back to our earliest records of Indian life, while others emerged after the conquest of most of India by Muslim invaders. Rather than loading all the evils of life in India onto the poor Brits, Kuang might have glanced at the writings of a certain Narendra Modi, who regularly asserts that India suffered under foreign rule for centuries before the British arrived. Modi assigns at least as much blame for India's woes to Muslim conquerors as to Europeans. Me, I think even that is short-sighted, and I suspect earlier native tyrants were just as bad.

But as I said the main events of the plot have much to do with China, so lets look there. In 1840 the British attacked China in what we call the First Opium War, the spark for which was the refusal of the Qing government to allow "free trade" in the opium that the British were shipping from India to China. The British easily smashed the Qing fleet, destroyed Chinese coastal defences, and in 1842 forced the emperor to sign the Treaty of Nanjing, which legalized the opium trade, handed Hong Kong island to the British, expanded the foreign enclaves in other Chinese cities, and generally re-arranged the China trade in ways more favorable to the Europeans.

Which was dastardly. But let me ask a question about China: who, exactly, was in charge there? Not the Chinese. China had been ruled since 1644 by Manchu invaders who called their rule the Qing dynasty. Among other things they imposed restrictions on the dress and hair of their Chinese subjects that many Chinese found every bit as galling as European racism. The Opium Wars did, in fact, trigger armed uprisings by Chinese people, but not against the British; instead they rebelled against the Manchus under the slogan Fǎn Qīng fù Míng, that is, "Oppose Qing and restore Ming." (Ming was the last dynasty led by Han Chinese emperors. Incidentally the end of Qing rule in 1911 led to genocidal massacres of Manchus so effective that there are now very few Manchus in China.)

So when Chinese ambassadors told British traders that there was nothing they wished to import, since China already had everything it needed – a statement Kuang takes at face value – what they really meant was that the Manchu elite had everything they needed, and that they saw foreign trade as a destabilizing influence that threatened their rule. Future events showed that plenty of Chinese people did want European goods like steam engines and cheap cotton cloth.

Kuang, in her books, never, ever, even once acknowledges that non-Europeans oppressed each other; all of oppressive evil mentioned is perpetuated by the British. This is, you know, wrong. But that's not why I write about it; I write about it because I think it is a highly pernicious and destructive doctrine that is all too pervasive in our world. We have had to witness the sad spectacle of anti-imperial westerners praising vicious thugs who wrap themselves in the banner of anti-American, anti-Western sentiment: Vladimir Putin, the Assads, the mullahs in Iran, the Shining Path, the Khmer Rouge. Anti-imperialism is an ideology that destroys thought as powerfully as any other ideology does; once you put on those glasses, you are forced, it seems, to go around excusing Russian, Syrian, Chinese or whatever other tyranny and murder because at least its perpetrators are standing up against western imperialism.

But that is, to my mind, the disputable part. Western imperialism was often terrible, and it exacted a grim political and psychic price in many parts of the world. But for Kuang, as for many others, that is not enough. Her rebels are not satisfied with accusing Britain of political crimes and evil racism, but somehow want to blame it for disease and famine as well. This is a worldwide habit. We have Indian historians who insist that the British caused horrible famines, Native Americans who attribute epidemics to some kind of primitive germ warfare involving infected blankets, and on and on. 

So another question: when we are "educating" each other about "dominant narrative of what the West calls its civilization," are we talking about civilization as in good manners, or are we talking about who lives and for how long? Because if you care about preserving and extending human life, if you think that people dying of famine and disease is bad, then the rise of modern Europe was the greatest event in the history of humanity, and this is not disputable at all. 

Demography is a grim, amoral science. It is a numbers game that does not care about good intentions. Confusion about this is another horrible mental habit that I wish to fight. People being mean and nasty to each other, or oppressing each other, has very little to do with how long people live or how they die. Death by famine and epidemic disease was the reality of human life for 7,000 years, and there was very little governments could do about it no matter how kind-hearted, virtuous, or impecabbly native they might have been.

It was Europe, with some later help from the US, that gave us the science and technology that multiplied human life beyond anything ever seen before. Maybe some colonial wars were accompanied by destructive famines, but it was western inventions – the railroad, the steamship, the tractor, artificial fertilizer, hybrid seeds, chemical pesticides – that made famine practically obsolete. When two German chemists named Bosch and Haber figured out how to make ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen, they added more years of human life to the planet than have been lost in all of humanity's wars put together. Even if you want to blame Europeans for all the 100 million or so Native American deaths caused by disease, well, India recently added a billion people in thirty years. 

The explosion of the earth's population was almost all caused, not by rising birth rates, but by falling death rates. The seven billion people we have added to the earth in the past 150 years are all alive because of the revolutions in science and technology that began in Europe. Penicillin, a British discovery, has by itself saved more lives than were lost to the whole 300-year regime of Atlantic slavery.

I believe, as I have argued here before, that what made Europe so wildly creative was gathering all the knowledge of the world together in a few cities; and of course part of that accummulation of learning was funded by the profits of colonial trade and the exploitation of slaves.

Which means that if what you care about is people not dying, then you ought to cheer Europe's global expansion as the greatest event in history.

If you want to object to European racism, slave trading, imperial double-dealing, or their nauseating self-backpatting about sometimes fairly minor reforms, sure, fine, whatever. I don't think they were any worse than previous generations of conquerors, but that might be a matter of taste.

But spare me all talk of Europeans killing people or causing famines. Because if human life is a surpeme value, then modernity, mostly created by Europeans, has succeeded like nothing else ever. If you care about extending human lives and ending hunger you should forget about reframing the narrative and try to get people more science. While you're at it, maybe you could try to get them more democracy and more human rights.

Sometimes it is not violence that is necessary; it is wisdom.

Schloss Marienburg

In the category of "extraordinary birthday presents" I give you Marienburg Castle:

The castle was built between 1858 and 1867 as a birthday present by King George V of Hanover (reigned 1851–1866) to his wife, Marie of Saxe-Altenburg. 

See, for more than a century the King of Hanover was also the King of Great Britain, so they had not invested very heavily in the court of Hanover, so when the houses were split in 1837 the Hanoverians found themselves lacking what wikipedia calls "a suitable summer seat." The architect was Conrad Wilhelm Hase, glossed as "one of Hanover's most famous architects."

So, this. But the castle did not remain in the hands of the Hanoverian royal family for long; in 1866 Hanover was annexed by Prussia, and they went into exile in England, where they resided until after World War II. They then returned home to assist in rebuilding Germany. Very little was done to update the castle during then interregnum, so it remained very much as it had been built.

The castle remained in the hands of the family until 2018, when its owner, Prince Ernst August, announced that he could not longer afford the upkeep and transferred it to the state of Lower Saxony.

Now it serves as many European castles do: weddings, conferences, movie set, general touristry.

The room you are most likely to see on the internet is the library. Notice the images of famous German authors and publishers; above, Sebastien Brandt and Johannes Gutenberg.

View up the tower, a photograph taken by (it seems) every visitor.

More. Will any billionaire of our time build a house with the lasting appeal of these nineteenth-century neogothic or neorenaissance palaces? I doubt it.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

AI is Taking Over Customer Support

Announcement from Klarna:

Klarna today announced its AI assistant powered by OpenAI. Now live globally for 1 month, the numbers speak for themselves:
  • The AI assistant has had 2.3 million conversations, two-thirds of Klarna’s customer service chats
  • It is doing the equivalent work of 700 full-time agents
  • It is on par with human agents in regard to customer satisfaction score
  • It is more accurate in errand resolution, leading to a 25% drop in repeat inquiries
  • Customers now resolve their errands in less than 2 mins compared to 11 mins previously
  • It’s available in 23 markets, 24/7 and communicates in more than 35 languages
  • It’s estimated to drive a $40 million USD in profit improvement to Klarna in 2024
  • Klarna has also seen massive improvement in communication with local immigrant and expat communities across all our markets thanks to the language support.

Of course, they undertook this switch in a public-spirited way:

We decided to share these statistics to raise the awareness and encourage a proactive approach to the topic of AI. For decision makers worldwide to recognise this is not just "in the future", this is happening right now.


And who knew that what a customer service rep does is called an "errand"?

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Frank Dicksee

Sir Francis Bernard Dicksee (1853 – 1928) was an English artist most famous for his illustrations, although he also did a lot of portraits. Above, Stella.

Surely you've all seen this one, La Belle Dame sans Merci.

Romeo and Juliet.

Mrs. Edwart Stuart Talbot, 1920

A Viking Funeral

Two Crowns, detail

Portrail of Mrs. Henry Reiss, detail

Nixon on Russia, 1992

March, 1992:

Well, Russia at the present time is at a crossroads. It is often said that the Cold War is over and that the West has won. But that's only half true, because what has happened is that the communists have been defeated, but the ideas of freedom are now on trial. If they don't work, there will be a reversion, not to communism, which has failed, but to what I call a new despotism, which would pose a mortal danger to the rest of the world, because it would be infected with the virus of Russian imperialism, which of course has been a characteristic of Russian foreign policy for centuries. The West has, the United States has, all those who want peace and freedom in the world have, a great stake in freedom succeeding in Russia. If it succeeds, it will be an example for others to follow. It will be an example for China. If it fails, it means that the hard-liners in China will get a new life. They will say, it failed there. There's no reason for us to turn to democracy. That's part of what is at stake here.

Monday, February 26, 2024

What's Happening in Iran?

A while back the announcer at an Iranian soccer game asked for a moment of silence for the people of Palestine, but the crowd instead erupted into boisterous shouting.

It was a small thing, but I found it telling; many Iranians are so embittered by their own Islamic government that they can't even muster sympathy for fellow Muslims under Israeli bombardment.

This came to mind because Tyler Cowen linked to a tweet about the study from which the chart at the top comes, documenting the steep decline in religion in Iran. Based on survey data, the study found that more Iranians claimed to be atheist, agnostic, or "none" than Shiite. Cowen's comment section then filled up with supporting posts from people who claimed knowledge of Iran and said things like:

  1. Islam is seen by younger people as the doctrine of a failed government staffed by a bunch of crooks.
  2. And it's a foreign, Arab imposition, while the "real Iran" - the Achaenemids - were Zoroastrians, but quite willing to allow non-judgemental religious pluralism.
  3. The IRGC is staffed by redneck losers, or by non-Iranians. (Iran has a separate "regular army" that all Iranian men must join as conscripts.)
  4. There is a rather vast city-country divide, with people in the big Iranian cities largely non-religious or dabbling in Zoroastrianism, with the last stronghold of Islam being rural areas, particularly near Afghanistan (and around some of the religious cities).


Based on my interactions in person and online, most Iranians hate their terrible government and everything it stands for.

And this:

I don't support the US killing Iranians - too many innocents and future friends there.

Which I think is very wise.

But that doesn't answer the question of what is likely to happen in Iran now. The mass protests of the past couple of years showed that hundreds of thousands of Iranians hate the regime and its form of religion, but they were unable to budge it. Does that mean the anti-regime forces are weaker and less numerous than they seem from a western perspective? Or that the regime is willing to hold onto power using force and fanaticism? Experience seems to show that 25% is enough support to keep a dictatorial regime in power, especially when they are the most determined and violent part of the population.

I don't see the Iranian regime falling soon, but I wonder what happens as the people increasinging turn against the mullahs and their ideology.

Fertility Rates by Housing Type

US total fertility by housing type, from the 2021 Community Survey:

Single-Family Home
   2.12   Trailer
   1.95   Single-family detached house
   1.93   Single-family townhouse
Apartment building
   1.74   2 units
   1.80   3-4 units
   1.53   5-9 units
   1.52   10-19 units
   1.39   20-49 units
   1.33   50+ units

This was proposed as a partial explanation for the very low fertility rates in places like Seoul and Bangkok, where most people live in large apartment buildings. Since much of South Korea has very low population density, people could in theory spread out, but of course that has other costs.

But what South Korea and Taiwan obviously need is lots of trailer parks.

And this, from the same source: "Unplanned childlessness is now far more common than unplanned pregnancy!"

First Springlike Day

Happy Birthday to me! One of the many ways I am blessed is that living where I do, my birthday often falls at the beginning of Spring: the first daffodils, the first robins, the first sunshine warm enough to bask in. Like today, a truly gorgeous day when it feels great to have been born.

A Small Ruin

Stumbled across this little ruined rural outpost last week on my way to somewhere else. Any thoughts on what this is? There are a lot of orchards in this part of the world; could this be a set-up for weighing and loading apples?

Modern Constitutional Law

Interesting article in the NY Times about teaching constitutional law in an era when the Supreme Court is ever more willing to reject precedent. One law professor says,

One of the primary challenges when one is teaching constitutional law is to impress upon the students that it is not simply politics by other means. And the degree of difficulty of that proposition has never been higher.


While I was working on my syllabus for this course, I literally burst into tears. I couldn’t figure out how any of this makes sense. Why do we respect it? Why do we do any of it? I’m feeling very depleted by having to teach it.

This being a NY Times article, the onus is all loaded onto the current conservative court, but I think that is unfair. I strongly support abortion and gay marriage, but I can't find either one in the Constitution.  If I wanted to put a non-political interpretation on all of this, I would say that as the Constitution gets older and older it is less and less able to provide guidance on our issues.

And I suspect that is true. Honestly, though, I find the notion that there was ever anything apolitical about interpreting the Constution ridiculous. The Constitution says nothing about race, but somehow past generations of justices found a lot of race in it. The Court upheld the internment of Japanese Americans and flip-flopped in a big way on Federal regulation of business activity. I can't see any past golden age of justice in America, or of respect for the Supreme Court.

So if there was really some kind of consensus judicial philosophy in the Cold War era, the consensus was simply that pushing political agendas too hard would be bad politics. That no longer seems to be true; now most Americans are perfectly happy to see the Court ram their political preferences down their opponents' throats, so that is what the justices are doing.

And while law professors are torn about all of this, law students are not:

I said something to the effect of, ‘It’s important to assume that the people you disagree with are speaking in good faith.’ And a student raises his hand and he asks, ‘Why? Why should we assume that people on the other side are acting in good faith?’ This was not a crazy person; this was a perfectly sober-minded, rational student. And I think the question was sincere. And I think that’s kind of shocking. I do think that some of the underlying assumptions of how a civil society operates can no longer be assumed.

Others I spoke to agreed with this assessment. “We’re witnessing a transformation in the New Deal consensus. . . . Our students are increasingly rejecting it, progressives and conservatives. They are less judicial supremacists. They are more willing to question courts.” He added, “We have to figure out what the new world is going to look like. I don’t know.”

This is the challenge we face as a nation: holding it all together as the arguments get ever angrier and less constrained.

Friday, February 23, 2024

The Gdansk Port Crane

Thanks to a little news item that I will get to in a moment, I discovered the existence of the Gdansk port crane.This is quite extraordinary, a bit of surviving port technology from the 1400s. Some sources say that this was for centuries the largest crane in the world.

But as soon as I saw these pictures I thought, "What about World War II?"

And, yes, of course, the thing was very badly damaged:

All elements constituting the crane wooden structure were destroyed: roof truss of towers, ceilings, the central part – the lift, part of the tower walls were also significantly damaged. After World War II, the facility was reconstructed, retaining its original dimensions, while the tower inside was equipped with reinforced concrete inter-floor ceiling slabs and staircases as well as steel roof trusses. The wooden central part with the crane mechanism was also reconstructed.
On the other hand, I've seen things damaged worse than this that have been rebuilt and are still enjoyed as historic monuments, so I'm willing to post about this one. It was mainly used, not for loading or unloading ships, but for outfitting and repairing them: lifting masts into position, lifting ships up for quick work on their undersides, etc; later on it was used for lifting engines in and out of hulls.

Views of the reconstructed interior. As built (and reconstructed), it was treadmill-powered. I wondered if it was ever converted to steam power, but I can't find a source that says. 

Anyway, this was in the news because it is being extensively renovated, and during work around the foundations this medieval love token was found, a turtledove bearing the classic inscription AMOR VINCIT OMNIA.

Links 23 February 2024

Gold pendant with pearls in the shape of a caravel, Greece, 17th century

The adult consequences of childhood bullying (bad).

Privately built spacecraft successfully lands on the Moon. It carries a bunch of devices, some from NASA and some from private entities, supposed to prepare the way for a future human base.

Millions of sardines beach themselves on a Philippine island that is poor enough for people to excitedly scoop them up in baskets to eat or sell.

The Sprint/T-Mobile merger was criticized as anti-competitive, but creating a powerful entity capable of competing with AT&T and Verizon seems to have reduced prices and improved service. Of course it is possible that the main driver of falling prices is just better technology and this merger had nothing to do with it, but anyway the dire consequences predicted by some anti-trust advocates have not come to pass.

A claim that Neanderthals used an adhesive made with bitumen and ochre to attach stone tools to handles. The significance is that using adhesive to attach two things together to make a tool has long been considered an important step in human cognitive development.

Study of genomes from the Roman period suggests that under the empire about 8 percent of people lived in a different region than their recent ancestors.

New archaeological discoveries in Bronze Age Oman.

Today in conspiracy theories, a pro-Russian source says dissident Alexei Navalny was killed by the Covid vaccine.

What is a species? “A 2021 survey found that practicing biologists used 16 different approaches to categorizing species. Any two of the scientists picked at random were overwhelmingly likely to use different ones.” As one biologist says, “Everyone uses the term, but no one knows what it is.” (NY Times) My readers know that I agree with Charles Darwin, who argued that the word has no special meaning: “I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other.”

One of the founders of Moms for Liberty is in hot water after her husband, accused of sexual assault, defended himself by saying that his accuser had been part of a consensual threesome with him and his wife. An advocate for "Don't Say Gay" bills, Bridget Ziegler was greeted at a recent school board meeting with signs reading "Don't Say Threesome."

Lovely Merovingian gold ring found in Denmark.

A claim that a Neolithic stone wall more than a mile long has been found on the floor of the Baltic Sea.

Urban children in 18th- and 19th-century Britain suffered from seasonal vitamin D deficiency, which you can read from their teeth. I have mentioned here before that many 19th-century reformers were obsessed with getting clean milk to slum dwellers, and that Louis Pasteur got famous because his process made that possible. The stains in their teeth show you why there was so much concern.

In the US syphilis seemed on the path to extinction back in 2000, but since then it has come roaring back. This article blames collapsing public health infrastructure but I have to think it declined in the first place because of fear of AIDS and has rebounded as that fear has declined.

Two mass graves of plague victims excavated in Germany, probably date to the 1600s.

From a long Scott Siskind post responding to the comments on his recent post about polyamory, I derive this graph comparing the frequency of sex for monogamous and poly people. Statistically speaking, those lines are pretty close to identical. (Of course that might just mean that monogamous and poly people lie the same amount.)

Andrei Morozov, the LPR volunteer and then Russian solider known as Murz, seems to have committed suicide. In his final post he said he was suffering from shell shock. Before exiting he posted what he said were the official Russian numbers on their losses losses during the capture of Avdiivka: 16,000 men and 300 armored vehicles. The war he helped to launch has grown into an all-consuming monster.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Americans and the Economy

Strange piece in the NY Times about why Americans are not more enthusiastic about the economy, based on a bunch of focus groups. It is interesting mainly because it shows that most Americans are too wrapped up in their own lives to have any kind of long-term vision, and also that they do not understand how the government and the economy are related.

When asked what drives the economy, many Americans have a simple, single answer that comes to mind immediately: “greed.” They believe the rich and powerful have designed the economy to benefit themselves and have left others with too little or with nothing at all.

We know Americans feel this way because we asked them. . . . While national indicators may suggest that the economy is strong, the Americans we listened to are mostly not thriving. They do not see the economy as nourishing or supporting them. Instead, they tend to see it as an obstacle, a set of external forces out of their control that nonetheless seems to hold sway over their lives.
Ok, fine, I also agree that our economy is too good for the very rich and our society too accepting of outrageous greed. But that isn't why regular folks feel strapped; in terms of purchasing power, Americans in (let's say) the 20th-40th percentile of income are richer than similar people in Japan, Korea, Canada, Mexico, or most of Europe, and way richer than just about everyone in Bolivia or Nigeria. There are many reasons to want to bring down the rich, but that would not in and of itself make everybody else richer. 

The main complaint of people in the focus groups was a sense of living paycheck to paycheck, with no ability to save for a rainy day:
While a tight job market has produced historic gains for lower-income workers, many of the low-income workers we spoke with are unable to accumulate enough money to build a safety net for themselves. “I like the feeling of not living on the edge of disaster,” a special education teacher in rural Tennessee said. “[I am] at my fullest potential economically” right now, but “I’m still one doctor’s visit away from not being there, and pretty much most people I know are.”
Or this:

Well-being “is about being financially stable. It’s not about being rich, but it’s about being able to take care of your everyday needs without stressing.”

But what is an “everyday need”? For millions of Americans, the category has expanded to include many things that did not even exist 20 years ago: smartphones with unlimited data plans, multiple streaming services, etc. There is an old economic principle that applies here, known as Parkinson's law: expenditures rise to meet income. There is no obvious, absolute amount of expenditure to which everyone is entitled, some sort of basic standard that every should be able to afford.

I am not going to get on some kind of moral high horse here and complain about how other people spend money, especially since I am not particularly virtuous in this department. But there is not, in this article, a single acknowledgement that household budgeting has two sides, and maybe one might save money by spending less. In America we have a whole genre of books and videos about how to save money and retire early, and they all say the same thing: pay yourself first. That is, the way to save money is to have it moved automatically into savings and then scrimp by on whatever is left. Maybe some of the people interviewed by the Times are really in bad financial shape and can't do this, but I am certain not all of them are. I know people who live just fine on incomes most Americans would consider very small, so I know it can be done. If you want to spend less and save, stop saying that every penny you spend is an "everyday need" and do it.

And then there is the question of politics. The people in these focus groups seem to be overwhelmingly turned off by politics, sure that neither Republicans nor Democrats have anything to offer them. But one of the complaints that comes up repeatedly is this:

the threat of an accident or a surprise medical bill looms around every corner.

This is true, and I agree that this is shameful, but this is a problem that absolutely has a political solution. We know this, because all the other rich countries in the world have solved it; the US is the only rich country where medical bankruptcy is a serious problem. And one party, the Democrats, has been trying to solve it since the 1930s, while the other, the Republicans, opposes them.

This is true regardless of how you feel about government health care, or anything else about the parties. If the Democrats had had sufficient power over the past 30 years, we would have a national health system. Maybe it would suck, but it could solve the problem of the "surprise medical bill."

Here we come to one of the other long-term problems of democracy: that people don't understand how politics works, and how hard it is to enact any serious change. I can imagine some of these focus groupers saying, "Well, I voted for Bill Clinton, and he didn't do anything, and I voted for Obama and all I got was this Bronze plan that I can't afford and doesn't pay for much." (Or, on the opposite side, "I voted for George W. Bush and the Republicans held both houses of Congress and we still didn't replace Social Security with a better federal retirement program.") 

American voters regularly elect one party because they like what they are promising, but then if it hasn't materialized in two years they turn around and vote for the other party. Two years is not enough, in our system, to do much, especially when you only have a 52-48 majority. The president has no magic wand he can wave to make things better for everyone, even if his allies control both houses of Congress; but sufficient pressure exerted over decades can at least shift the economy in different directions. We saw that with the neoliberalism of the Carter-Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush era. 

If the issue that bugs you the most is economic insecurity, then you should vote that issue every year until it happens. But we don't seem to be like that.

My overwhelming response to this whole article was that for the people they interviewed, there is no solution. There is no solution because "everyday needs" are an ever-expandable category. Our system is based, on the one hand, on greed, but on the other on offering everyone unlimited tempting things to spend money on, unlimited ways to buy a little happiness with cash. No matter your income, you can't save for a rainy day unless you resist the pressure to buy joy.

And if you just ignore politics because nobody you vote for has a magic wand, then you are part of the problem.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Bukele's El Salvador

Interesting piece by Geoff Shullenberger about the reign of El Salvador's Nayib Bukele, most famous for suspending the constitution to jail all the country's gang members. Bukele is descended from Christian Palestinians and came into politics through the left-wing FMLN party. He was expelled from the FMLN in 2017 and founded his own party, New Ideas. He ran for president in 2019 and won; most observers thought his victory was due to the nation's exhaustion with the older parties of the left and right, which had alternated in power since the end of the Civil War and seemed incapable of improving the economy or controlling the violence that made El Salvador the murder capital of the world.

Under Bukele violence went down some and the economy was pretty good; people say, although this has never been proved, that he reduced crime by cutting some kind of deal with El Salvador's powerful gangs. Then in March, 2022, Bukele announced a state of emergency and his government launched a nationwide program of mass arrests, jailing 70,000 to 75,000 people they accused of being involved with the gangs. Human rights groups screamed, and even Bukele's supporters admit that thousands of innocent people were jailed, but violent crime fell by 50%, dozens of neighborhoods were freed from gang rule, and Bukele instantly became the most beloved leader in the world. He ran for an unconstitutional second term this year, and on February 4 won 80% of the vote in an election most observers think was pretty fair.

Shullenberger is ambivalent about this, as I think most outsiders are. I mean, violent crime isn't much of a problem in North Korea, either. But Bukele is not just a thug, and he cannot really be classified as a conservative. Among other things, Bukele spends a lot of time denouncing outside interference in El Salvador, and blaming its problems on the Americans:

He summarized the last four or five decades as an unbroken string of violations of Salvadoran sovereignty, mainly by the United States. First came the civil war, an “international war” that made El Salvador “one battlefield more” between foreign powers; then, the 1992 peace accords—“another of the tricks we’ve been subjected to in our history,” which “brought no peace,” only new forms of violence; then, the deportation of gang members from the United States, prompting new generations to flee. The same story, again and again: a population subjected to unending brutality by external forces, all due to a lack of sovereignty and self-determination. “From now on, we will build our own destiny,” Bukele declared.
Bukele sometimes talks like a socialist, arguing that
the power exerted by gangs amounted to an acutely oppressive form of neoliberal privatization of public space, in which those who couldn’t afford walled compounds and private guards found their lives dictated by the whims of organized crime.


I asked the Honduran-Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya, known for his paranoid, darkly hilarious novels about the region, what he made of the young president’s rise. He replied with a simple point that is often overlooked: “Bukele’s popularity is not the product of having defeated the gangs.” That happened in 2022, well after he had crushed the opposition, first in the 2019 presidential elections and then in the 2021 legislative elections, and consolidated the institutions of state power in support of his agenda. In this sense, it was his popularity that enabled the defeat of the gangs, not the other way around. It is hard to imagine the apparent lockstep loyalty of state institutions would be what it is today without the public support behind the president’s projects, and without many within them being believers in the project they are undertaking.

In Castellanos Moya’s account, Salvadorans coalesced around Bukele because they were “hypnotized by the promise of the new” the young leader embodied. In other words, it was the imaginative capture of the public by Bukele’s charismatic appeals that enabled the institutional capture. It is an argument one would expect from a novelist: Power over the imagination precedes political power and makes it possible. But I found this conclusion hard to dispute. . . 

“Terror is the given of the place,” Didion wrote of El Salvador in 1982. Castellanos Moya told me something similar: “The form of social domination in El Salvador throughout time has been terror: The army, the security forces, the guerrillas and the gangs have been the instruments of that form of domination.” Today, terror no longer haunts the streets of central San Salvador, but it hasn’t been eliminated altogether, merely relocated and concentrated, as the glossy videos of the Terrorism Confinement Center (capacity: 40,000) make clear.

To Shullenberger, the case of Bukele is among other things a parable about how populist third parties come to power, and what people want from government: freedom from violence, and a positive vision for the future. Shullenberger says Bukele's only weakness seems to be the economy, which is ok but nothing like the modernizing transformation he has promised. But if growth does take off, Bukele could easily keep winning unconstitutional elections for decades.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Developers Building Tiny House Communities

With all the complaining about the price of houses, I have wondered why someone didn't just do the obvious and build them smaller. I mean, a lot of Americans live by themselves these days.

And I'm not the only one who had this thought. A developer in San Antonio, Texas is building a subdivision called Elms Trails where you can get a very small house for around $130,000 and up.

And here is a similar development near Seattle.

You can get them even smaller; this is a small neighborhood of 350-square-feet homes, also near San Antonio.

Village of Wildflowers, a tiny house retirement community in North Carolina.

There are also a bunch of DYI tiny house communities springing up, that is, places zoned for small houses with small lots and utility hook-ups where you can build tiny house or install one you bring in on a trailer. The most famous seems to be Spur, Texas (below). I think this is great. People have long complained that developers only build for the median family, so many folks who want a good location and a decent neighborhood have to buy much more house than they need. So lets build them in all sizes.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Links 16 February 2024

Donkeys on a fragment of wall from an Egyptian Tomb, c. 2400 BC

Bizarre scandal at the Hugo Awards.

Scott Sumner compares Abu Dhabi and Orange County. And here he looks at the economic situation in the rich Arab states, where the complete lack of a domestic working class means they can hire workers or firms from all over the world, making some industries very efficient.

Interesting piece by Jonathan Chait reviewing the career of Bari Weiss, who has retraced the path of the original neoconservatives: beginning as a Jewish liberal, she feels driven by progressives excesses and leftist hatred of Israel to join the right.

Visitors to Rome can now see a replica of the Colossus of Constantine.

There is now a very detailed 3D model of the best preserved Roman military diploma, a centurion's discharge from AD 71.

Some jurisdictions, including the whole country of Ireland, are limiting the construction of data centers because of their huge consumption of electricity and water.

Speaking of which, Scott Siskind runs the numbers and finds that developing a theoretical GPT-7 would require all the energy and computing power in the world.

The US Marines are testing a naval logistics drone "inspired by drug running narco subs."

Refuting the always dubious idea that sexual kissing was invested in South Asia around 1500 BC, which was based on the genetics of the Herpes virus. (NY Times) Sumerian records documenting kissing are older, and there are pretty convincing depictions of kissing in Neolithiic art, and since bonobos kiss it is probably a lot older than than. It is certainly true that not all cultures practice it, but it just seems too obvious to me to require some special act of invention or transmission.

The saga of Flaco, a Eurasian Eagle-Owl who escaped from New York's Central Park Zoo last year and took up residence in the park, teaching himself how to fly and hunt rats, thereby becoming a beloved symbol of freedom and the subject of several pieces of street art. (NY Times, wikipedia, CBS News video)

A libertarian look at the early moves of Argentina's libertarian president, Javier Milei, with a glimpse at the libertarian energy spreading across South America. No libertarian myself, I would agree that South America has a long-term problem with excessive statism and public corruption.

Interesting NY Times story about the rise of BYD, China's hugely successful electric car maker. On the one hand, they have grown thanks to billions in direct government subsidies, but on the other they have pioneered new battery technologies and are making appealing electric cars much more cheaply than any US or European manufacturer.

How to respond to criticism. Humor, I hope.

The violent death of the bog body known as Vitrup Man.

Video showing that Iran has converted a large ex-cargo ship to carry vertical launch silos for ballistic missiles. Such a ship could theoretically carry hundreds of missiles, although there's no way of knowing how many working launch silos it actually carries.

Ukraine sinks another Russian warship with naval drones, this time the landing ship Caesar Kunikov; the ship was attacked by several drones from multiple angles. Russia has been using these ships to ferry key supplies and personnel to Crimea, so this a more significant loss than last month's sinking of a missile corvette. And on Youtube.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Running out of Things

Alex Tabarrok calls our attention to the myriad predictions that a shortage of Lithium would cripple battery production and thus limit the switch to electric cars etc.; meanwhile Lithium production keeps rising and the price of batteries keeps falling.

This has been a theme over my whole life. I grew up with predictions that the world was about to run out of oil; in high school we played a primitive computer game in which you tried to keep civilization alive without running out of energy, and it was very hard to win. I remember in particular that the game said the US would run out of natural gas in six years, and hear we are 44 years later with natural gas production still rising.

I also grew up with predictions that the world would run out of food, with news stories from every African famine shown as glimpses of the world's future. But you only have to look toward the borders of Ukraine, where Polish and Romanian farmers are trying to block Ukrainian grain exports, to see that we are suffering as much from an oversupply of food as a shortage. Instead of starvation, we have seen the slow, painful disappearance of the family farm in the face of falling prices.

I no longer take any of these predictions seriously. So far as I can see, we have reached a level of technology and wealth that the makes the danger of real, physical shortages very slight.

Energy? Solar power gets cheaper every year, new types of nuclear reactors promise oceans of safe power, geothermal power may soon be practical on a massive scale, and many engineers say fusion power is 15 to 25 years away.

Fresh water? We are on the edge of making solar-powered desalination affordable on a massive scale. 

Rare minerals like Lithium and Cobalt? The rising demand for these items has spawned, on the one hand, major efforts to mine them, and on the other drives to use them more efficiently and recycle them when they are used up.

I could go on. I do not mean to say that our consumption of these things is cost-free; we are digging up and paving over huge areas to do all of this, causing strange kinds of pollution with unforseeable impacts, and so on. But in our world almost all "shortages" are really about politics. Shortages of housing are created by limitations on building; famine is now the child of war. 

The one shortage we cannot seem to solve is the shortage of good will; the one desire we cannot sate is the lust for power over each other.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Immigration and Economic Growth in the USA

New Congressional Budget Office annual report on the economy and the budget:

In calendar year 2023, the U.S. economy grew faster than it did in 2022, even as inflation slowed. Economic growth is projected to slow in 2024 amid increased unemployment and lower inflation. CBO expects the Federal Reserve to respond by reducing interest rates, starting in the middle of the year. In CBO’s projections, economic growth rebounds in 2025 and then moderates in later years. A surge in immigration that began in 2022 continues through 2026, expanding the labor force and increasing economic output. . . .

In CBO’s current projections, the number of people who are working or actively seeking employment continues to expand at a moderate pace through 2026. Higher population growth in those years, mainly from increased immigration, more than offsets a decline in labor force participation due to slowing demand for workers and the rising average age of the population. A large proportion of recent and projected immigrants are expected to be 25 to 54 years old—adults in their prime working years. . . .

CBO also projects that high rates of net immigration through 2026 will support economic growth, adding an average of about 0.2 percentage points to the annual growth rate of real GDP over the 2024–2034 period. . . .

The downward revision to economic growth resulting from higher projected interest rates is partly offset by an increase in economic activity over the 2024–2027 period stemming from greater projected net immigration. . . .

That greater immigration is projected to boost the growth rate of the nation’s real gross domestic product (GDP) by an average of 0.2 percentage points a year from 2024 to 2034, leaving real GDP roughly 2 percent larger in 2034 than it would be otherwise. . . .

The US is not suffering economically from its aging population and low birth rates because immigrants of working age are taking up the slack; this is so important that even a small adjustment to the expected number of immigrants (from last year's projection to this year's, a difference of less than 5%) yields measurably increased economic growth. For the forseeable future, this makes our aging population sustainable.

Friday, February 9, 2024

Putin Talks History

Richard Hanania:

On the Tucker interview with Putin.

I'm glad that we got to see this, because it revealed how out of touch Putin is. Tucker begins with a simple question of what the threat was on February 22. Putin's response spends *half an hour* on the entire history of Russia.

We're used to people in the Middle East talking like this. An obsession with deep history is the characteristic of cultures that fight wars that never end. No one wonder no one even in the Russian speaking part of Ukraine wants to be part of Russia. Modern people care about their own lives and freedom and want a vision of the future.

That's what Ukraine and the West offer. Not endless lectures from a grumpy uncle on how Vlad Vladimirovich sent love letters to Svetlana the Elegant in 1207 and why this proves that Russians and Ukrainians are one people.

When talking about geopolitics, the deeper someone goes in history, the more disconnected they are from modern reality, and the less likely they are to be a rational actor who can be negotiated with. Putin had arguments he could've started with about the US interfering in Russian affairs or whatever, but he's deranged enough to think that leading with a lecture on the history of the Slavic peoples is how you sell a war in the twenty first century.
Sometimes I wish people cared more about history but then I look at people who do care and have similar thoughts. More depth here.

And this:

Links 9 February 2024

George Sherwood Hunter, Jubilee Procession in a Cornish Village, 1897

The Vesuvius Challenge awards its Grand Prize in the contest to read a carbonized scroll from the Villa of the Papyri: "We Can Now Read the First Scroll." Seems to be part of an Epicurean treatise about the pleasure of listening to music.

Kagen Sound's amazing wooden puzzle boxes.

Interesting piece at Reason on some company coal towns in Iowa that seem to have been both integrated and nice places to live – so long as the coal lasted, which wasn't very long.

Cute 10-minute video in which Japanese carpentry students build the frame of a pagoda in the traditional manner, with no nails or screws. As a safety-trained American it freaked me out to see a sharp chisel used on a block held in place by a bare foot.

Pretty good, somewhat anti-trans article in the NY Times about the changing nature of the trans population. One de-transitioning 23-year-old says, “What should be a medical and psychological issue has been morphed into a political one. It’s a mess.”

According to the Guardian, more than 10,000 scientific papers were formally withdrawn last year. This piece focuses, not on the sins of famous scientists, but on the "mills" that are turning out hundreds of dubious papers a year.

Despite claims that we are busier than ever, Americans seem to be sleeping more than we used to. Did you know that sleep number beds collect and share data on your sleep habits?

Grave of an Avar warrior from the 7th century includes a complete set of lamellar (scale) armor.

Chinese people upset about the decline of stock prices have found an interesting place to post their angry comments: as part of a US Embassy thread on giraffe conservation.

A Tumblr displaying the AI-generated paintings of an imaginary 19th-century painter whose stuff looks a lot like William Waterhouse. Very interesting, actually. One the one hand this is bad for artists, but on the other it is good for people like me who want to create images of our fantasy worlds but can't draw. (So far I have put this off as a potential gigantic time sink.)

Fossils of a 350-million-year-old tree provide some insight into the leaves and branches of early trees, which are known mostly from fossils of their trunks. "A perpetual bad-hair day." (Science, NY Times)

Archaeologists find a blacksmith's shop in Oxfordshire that may date back to 770 BC, the beginning of the British Iron Age. Best of all, it's in a range of hills called the Wittenham Clumps.

Scott Siskind notes that people who write books about themselves are not like other people, so memoirs by polyamorous people don't necessarily reveal much about most polyamorous people. This generalizes broadly: people who write about politics are not politically like other people, people who went to January 6 are not representative of Trump voters, people who make videos about their houses do not have normal houses, etc. I wonder all the time about the implications of this for doing history.

Last year the US imported more from Mexico than from China, for the first time in 20 years. (X, NY Times). Some of this is just moving the assembly of final products from China, so there are still a lot of Chinese parts that don't count in the statistics.

Mysterious deposit of black henbane seeds from Roman-period site in the Netherlands; black henbane is one of the plants that is hallucinogenic if you take just the right amount but kills you if you take too much.

Some of the new art in the NYC Subway.

Advice from 1340 on how to recognize a werewolf.

Remarkable pair of two-minute videos documenting the destruction of a small Russian armored column by drones and artillery.