Minor Thoughts from me to you

Asking the Wrong Question →

David Friedman uses the focus on affordable housing to illustrate how asking the right questions can lead you to different conclusions than you would otherwise get.

When someone moves into one house he moves out of another, which is then available for someone else to move into. If the development is built and the units are bought by people currently living in San Jose, the net result will be to increase the city's housing stock by almost a thousand units. Doing that will make more housing available in the city and lower its cost. The question the Mayor should be asking, assuming that what he is really interested in is the welfare of the citizens of the city and not merely his ability to control things, is whether the development will draw mostly from current residents or mostly from people who would not otherwise live in the city. Pretty clearly, that question never occurred to him.

The assumption of the Mayor–I think of city planners more generally–is that the way to get affordable housing is to build affordable housing. That is not the only way of getting it. The alternative, very common in the history of U.S. cities in the past, was for poor people to move into housing that had been occupied by, possibly built for, less poor people, vacated when the less poor people moved into newer and better houses.

The same way poor people get cars.

I thought this was very insightful.

This entry was tagged. Housing Market

Condemning the Alt-Right

I wanted to check in on what "my" side (the political right) was saying about the despicable events in Charlottesville, VA, so I took a look at the National Review's massive group blog, The Corner. I wasn't disappointed by what I saw.

David French:

Incredibly, key elements of the Trump coalition, including Trump himself, gave the alt-right aid and comfort. Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, proclaimed that his publication, Breitbart.com, was the “the platform for the alt-right,” Breitbart long protected, promoted, and published Milo Yiannopolous – the alt-right’s foremost “respectable” defender – and Trump himself retweeted alt-right accounts and launched into an explicitly racial attack against an American judge of Mexican descent, an attack that delighted his most racist supporters.

In other words, if there ever was a time in recent American political history for an American president to make a clear, unequivocal statement against the alt-right, it was today. Instead, we got a vague condemnation of “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” This is unacceptable, especially given that Trump can be quite specific when he’s truly angry. Just ask the Khan family, Judge Curiel, James Comey, or any other person he considers a personal enemy. Even worse, members of the alt-right openly celebrated Trump’s statement, taking it as a not-so-veiled decision to stand against media calls to condemn their movement.

America is at a dangerous crossroads. I know full well that I could have supplemented my list of violent white supremacist acts with a list of vicious killings and riots from left-wing extremists – including the recent act of lone-wolf progressive terror directed at GOP members of the House and Senate. There is a bloodlust at the political extremes. Now is the time for moral clarity, specific condemnations of vile American movements – no matter how many MAGA hats its members wear – and for actions that back up those appropriately strong words.

As things stand today, we face a darkening political future, potentially greater loss of life, and a degree of polarization that makes 2016 look like a time of national unity. Presidents aren’t all-powerful, but they can either help or hurt. Today, Trump’s words hurt the nation he leads.

Ted Cruz:

The Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists are repulsive and evil, and all of us have a moral obligation to speak out against the lies, bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred that they propagate. Having watched the horrifying video of the car deliberately crashing into a crowd of protesters, I urge the Department of Justice to immediately investigate and prosecute this grotesque act of domestic terrorism.

These bigots want to tear our country apart, but they will fail. America is far better than this. Our Nation was built on fundamental truths, none more central than the proposition “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Is there any doubt, at this point, that Ted Cruz would have been a far better President than Donald Trump?

Michael Brendan Dougherty:

Even if you believe as I do, that Spencer’s form of white nationalism is a marginal movement granted far too much attention, the sight of hundreds of unmasked young men marching through Charlottesville with torches and chanting racist slogans inspires genuine fear in many Americans. Trump was given a chance to speak to that fear today, and to offer the same moral condemnation and deflation he’s given others. Instead he essentially repeated his disgraceful half-disavowal of Duke. He refused to call out these white supremacists by name, and condemn them. He merely condemned “all sides.”  An energetic law and order president who had any sense of the divisions in his country would have announced today that he was instructing his Justice Department to look into the people in these groups, and zealously ferret out and prosecute any crimes they turned up. 

This is a target-rich environment. Some of these scummy racists in Charlottesville wore chainmail, others went around shouting their devotion to Adolf Hitler. A president with Trump’s intuitive sense of depravity should be able to call them what they are: evil losers. More pathetic: evil cosplayers.  Just as Spencer took Trump’s “I disavow” without a direct object to be a kind of wink in his direction, surely he’ll take today’s statement about “all sides” as another form of non-condemnation. With his performance today, Trump confirms the worst that has been said about him. He’s done damage to the peace of his country. What a revolting day in America. 

Rich Lowry:

—I’ve been skeptical of the rush to pull up Confederate monuments, and Robert E. Lee—the focus in Charlottesville—is not Nathan Bedford Forrest. But if the monuments are going to become rallying points for neo-Nazis, maybe they really do need to go.

I'd change this from "maybe" to "definitely". Otherwise, I agree with Rich. I've also been skeptical of the movement to remove Confederate monuments, but if the alt-right is organizing around them, it's long past time to take them all out.

—It’s always important to maintain some perspective. We aren’t experiencing anything like the level of political violence of the late-1960s and mid-1970s. But we now have two fringes on the right and the left, the white nationalists and anti-fa, who have a taste for violence, love the thrill and attention that comes with it, and are probably going to grow stronger rather than weaker. Depressing.

I agree.

This entry was tagged. Racism Terrorism

I Was Wrong About Robert E. Lee

Adam called me out on my respect for Robert E. Lee, after I posted "Dominance Displays Over Statues". He argued that Robert E. Lee, as a man, wasn't worthy of my respect. As proof, he pointed me towards "The Myth of the Kindly General Lee", published in The Atlantic.

I should have blogged about this then, but didn't. Recent events have forced me to do now, what I didn't do then. A city councilor from Charlottesville, VA wants to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. That brought out the alt-right to stage an ugly demonstration supporting the statue — and Robert E. Lee.

I'm going on the record now: Adam was right and I was wrong. Robert E. Lee is not worth supporting and I oppose both the actions of the alt-right in Charlottesville and the cause that they're agitating for.

This is the history that I wasn't taught in Southern schools and that I didn't bother to research on my own.

The strangest part about the continued personality cult of Robert E. Lee is how few of the qualities his admirers profess to see in him he actually possessed.

​> …

The myth of Lee goes something like this: He was a brilliant strategist and devoted Christian man who abhorred slavery and labored tirelessly after the war to bring the country back together.

There is little truth in this. Lee was a devout Christian, and historians regard him as an accomplished tactician. But despite his ability to win individual battles, his decision to fight a conventional war against the more densely populated and industrialized North is considered by many historians to have been a fatal strategic error.

But even if one conceded Lee’s military prowess, he would still be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in defense of the South’s authority to own millions of human beings as property because they are black. Lee’s elevation is a key part of a 150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one. That ideology is known as the Lost Cause, and as historian David Blight writes, it provided a “foundation on which Southerners built the Jim Crow system.”

What was Lee, himself, like?​

White supremacy does not “violate” Lee’s “most fundamental convictions.” White supremacy was one of Lee’s most fundamental convictions.

Describing an 1856 letter from Robert E. Lee, Adam Serwer writes:

The argument here is that slavery is bad for white people, good for black people, and most importantly, it is better than abolitionism; emancipation must wait for divine intervention. That black people might not want to be slaves does not enter into the equation; their opinion on the subject of their own bondage is not even an afterthought to Lee.

And Lee treated slaves horribly:​

Lee’s cruelty as a slavemaster was not confined to physical punishment. In Reading the Man, the historian Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s portrait of Lee through his writings, Pryor writes that “Lee ruptured the Washington and Custis tradition of respecting slave families,” by hiring them off to other plantations, and that “by 1860 he had broken up every family but one on the estate, some of whom had been together since Mount Vernon days.” The separation of slave families was one of the most unfathomably devastating aspects of slavery, and Pryor wrote that Lee’s slaves regarded him as “the worst man I ever see.”

Lee’s heavy hand on the Arlington plantation, Pryor writes, nearly led to a slave revolt, in part because the enslaved had been expected to be freed upon their previous master’s death, and Lee had engaged in a dubious legal interpretation of his will in order to keep them as his property, one that lasted until a Virginia court forced him to free them.

When two of his slaves escaped and were recaptured, Lee either beat them himself or ordered the overseer to "lay it on well." Wesley Norris, one of the slaves who was whipped, recalled that “not satisfied with simply lacerating our naked flesh, Gen. Lee then ordered the overseer to thoroughly wash our backs with brine, which was done.”

​It wasn't just slaves. Lee treated free blacks horribly as well.

During his invasion of Pennsylvania, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enslaved free blacks and brought them back to the South as property. Pryor writes that “evidence links virtually every infantry and cavalry unit in Lee’s army” with the abduction of free black Americans, “with the activity under the supervision of senior officers.”

​Lee even sounds like a modern, alt-right, white supremacist.

Nor did Lee’s defeat lead to an embrace of racial egalitarianism. The war was not about slavery, Lee insisted later, but if it was about slavery, it was only out of Christian devotion that white southerners fought to keep blacks enslaved. Lee told a New York Herald reporter, in the midst of arguing in favor of somehow removing blacks from the South (“disposed of,” in his words), “that unless some humane course is adopted, based on wisdom and Christian principles you do a gross wrong and injustice to the whole negro race in setting them free. And it is only this consideration that has led the wisdom, intelligence and Christianity of the South to support and defend the institution up to this time.”

Lee had beaten or ordered his own slaves to be beaten for the crime of wanting to be free, he fought for the preservation of slavery, his army kidnapped free blacks at gunpoint and made them unfree—but all of this, he insisted, had occurred only because of the great Christian love the South held for blacks. Here we truly understand Frederick Douglass’s admonition that "between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference."

Privately, according to the correspondence collected by his own family, Lee counseled others to hire white labor instead of the freedmen, observing “that wherever you find the negro, everything is going down around him, and wherever you find a white man, you see everything around him improving.”

​And he tacitly encouraged abominable behavior by others.

Lee is not remembered as an educator, but his life as president of Washington College (later Washington and Lee) is tainted as well. According to Pryor, students at Washington formed their own chapter of the KKK, and were known by the local Freedmen’s Bureau to attempt to abduct and rape black schoolgirls from the nearby black schools.

There were at least two attempted lynchings by Washington students during Lee’s tenure, and Pryor writes that “the number of accusations against Washington College boys indicates that he either punished the racial harassment more laxly than other misdemeanors, or turned a blind eye to it,” adding that he “did not exercise the near imperial control he had at the school, as he did for more trivial matters, such as when the boys threatened to take unofficial Christmas holidays.” In short, Lee was as indifferent to crimes of violence toward blacks carried out by his students as he was when they were carried out by his soldiers.

Study: Regular soda causes body to store more fat after high-protein meals →

It's not a high protein food, but this research is why I didn't have a Mexican Coke with my pizza last night.

Combining a sugary soda with your burger or fried chicken can really prime your body to pack on more pounds, a new study suggests.

Folks who had a sweetened drink with a high-protein meal stored more unused fat, compared to others who ate the same food with a sugar-free beverage, laboratory tests revealed.

Their bodies did not burn about a third of the additional calories provided by the sugary drink, researchers found.

The participants also burned less fat from their food, and it took less energy overall to digest the meal.

"If we are adding extra carbohydrates on top of what's already in a meal, that will definitely have an effect on the body being able to use fat as an energy source, and it will more than likely go into energy storage," said lead researcher Shanon Casperson. She's a research biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

​The study was performed by putting participants into a sealed room and precisely measuring how their bodies did (or didn't) burn the nutrients in their meals.

Each day, the participants had a sugary cherry-flavored drink with one meal and a sugar-free cherry drink with the other meal, Casperson said.

The sugar-sweetened drink decreased fat oxidation -- the process that kick-starts the breakdown of fat molecules -- by 8 percent, the researchers discovered.

Also, the sweetened drink consumed with a 15 percent protein meal decreased fat oxidation by an average 7.2 grams, while the same sugary drink with a 30 percent protein meal decreased fat oxidation by 12.6 grams.

If you ​decrease fat oxidation by that much per meal, over enough meals, you'll definitely start to pack on the pounds. This is disappointing news, because I really love to have a soda with my fried chicken, brats, burgers, and other delicious high protein meals.

This entry was tagged. Food Research Weight

Slavery and Southern Income

Tyler Cowen shares this quote from Douglas Irwin’s book Clashing Over Commerce: A History of US Trade Policy.

The South’s enormous economic stake in slavery far outweighed the impact of protective tariffs on its income. In 1860, the aggregate value of slaves as property was $3 billion, nearly 20 percent of the nation’s wealth. The value of slaves was more than 50 percent greater than the capital invested in railroads and manufacturing combined, a calculation that excludes the value of land in southern plantations. Slavery generated a stream of income that enable overall white per capita income in the south to approximate that of northern whites. In the seven cotton states, nearly a third of white income came from slave labor.

That’s staggering. Growing up in the South, I had an inherent bias towards finding reasons for the Civil War that didn’t involve slavery. For instance, Southern anger over Northern tarrifs. And, sure, that was a factor. But these numbers are a convincing indication that slavery was the chief economic reason for the Civil War.

In terms of both capital investment and income, slavery was the foundation of the Southern economy. Ending slavery would have financially wiped out many of the Southern whites, especially the rich and the powerful. Moral arguments against slavery barely stood a chance — to paraphrase Upton Sinclair, “It’s difficult to get a man to agree to end slavery when his income depends on his maintaining it”.

Dominance Displays Over Statues

Dan McLaughlin wrote this, at the end of a blog post for National Review. And I'm quoting it, because I particularly liked the sentence that I bolded.

Lee was no hero; he fought for an unjust cause, and he lost. Unlike the Founding Fathers (even the slaveholders among them), he failed the basic test of history: leaving the world better and freer than he found it. And while he was not responsible for the South’s strategic failures, his lack of strategic vision places him below Grant, Sherman and Winfield Scott in any assessment of the war’s greatest generals. We should not be building new monuments to him, but if we fail to understand why the men of his day revered him, we are likelier to fail to understand who people revere today, and why. And tearing down statues of Lee today is less about understanding the past than it is a contest to divide the people of today’s America, and see who holds more power. That’s no better an attitude today than it was in Lee’s day.

Much of today's political fighting is cloaked in the language of justice, morality, and virtue. But it often feels more like gleeful displays of dominance than it does sober exercises in judgment. The end result may be good — removing statues that honor seriously flawed heroes — but the process can create bitterness and resentment rather than healing and unity.

Freaking Out Over Babies in Boxes

Rachel Rabin Peachman gives me the reason for my weekly eye roll directed towards the New York Times. Finland gives new mothers a box loaded with baby supplies. The box can double as an infant bed. It's been a successful program in Finland, so American hospitals are following their lead.

American "safety" experts are freaking out, because these are unregulated boxes. And, by the mighty power of the precautionary principle, anything unregulated must be treated as a danger to society.

But the rapid pace at which the box programs have been adopted by states and hospitals worries some experts, who say the boxes have not yet been proven to be a safe infant sleep environment or an effective tool in reducing infant mortality.

“I’ve been very surprised at how much enthusiasm there’s been for this and how people are just jumping on this bandwagon,” said Dr. Rachel Moon, chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ task force on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. “They’re just assuming that since it worked in Finland that it’s going to be fine.”

Well, yes. That seems a reasonable thing to assume. Hence the reason why I'm rolling my eyes at Dr. Moon. She appears be a professional worrier, which does nothing to change my general opinion that the American Academy of Pediatrics is primarily run by professional worriers.

The CPSC joins her in stressing out about these boxes.

Ms. Buerkle said there are a number of unknowns about the boxes. “What is the box made of? How durable is it? If you use it through three different children does it deteriorate?” she said. “But those are things they’ll determine in the standards committee.”

But Dr. Moon said safety standards need to be decided by unbiased experts, not the companies that make a product. She said she has many unanswered questions about the boxes herself, including: What are the age and weight limits for baby boxes made in the United States? Is it safe to pick up the box with the baby in it? What is the airflow quality inside the box? Is it safe to place the box with baby inside on the floor or on another surface?

Good grief, people. It's a box for newborn infants. I think it's very nature indicates that it's a disposable start, not a full bed. She appears to worry that there will be a rash of parents trying to stuff their children in boxes, carry the boxes around the house, and then mail them to their grandparents.

Meanwhile, Temple University has been busy using these new box programs to do some research.

On Monday, Temple University released data showing that box programs may influence the sleep practices of new parents. When new mothers in the Temple program received a baby box and face-to-face sleep education from a nurse before leaving the hospital, their reported rate of bed-sharing with their infant within the first eight days of life was 25 percent lower than the reported bed-sharing rate of mothers given nursing instructions and no baby box. Bed-sharing is a risk factor for suffocation and other sleep-related deaths. The A.A.P. recommends that infants sleep alone, on their backs, without any loose, soft bedding.

Dr. Megan Heere, medical director of the Well Baby Nursery at Temple University Hospital and lead author of the study, said she was optimistic about the baby boxes and their potential role in promoting safe sleep. “At this point we have no reason to believe they’re dangerous,” Dr. Heere said. “We’re of the thought process that it can only help.”

I'm with Dr. Heere. Let's try acting as though parents had a modicum of common sense. Parents who already have a good bed or bassinet for their infant won't use the box as a bed. For the parents who don't have those things, the box may very well be better than whatever they'd been planning to use. Let's not freak out until we've first seen whether or not there's a reason to freak out.

(Oh, and why am I rolling my eyes at the New York Times? Because of their typically breathless coverage and the fact that they chose to lead the article with the fact that the boxes are, gasp!, unregulated. As though that were the primary thing that mattered.)

What a Conservative Sees From Inside Trump's Washington →

Megan McArdle, writing at Bloomberg, on the Washington scuttlebut about Trump's White House.

Consider the endless debates over last week’s series of leaks. Washington conservatives read the news stories too. But for connected conservatives in DC, the media isn’t the only source of information about this administration. I’d venture to say that most of them have by now heard at least one or two amazing stories attesting to the emerging conventional wisdom: that the president either can’t, or refuses to, follow any kind of policy discussion for more than a few minutes; that the president will not be told no, or corrected about anything, forcing his staff to take their concerns to the media if they want to get his attention; that the infighting within the West Wing is unprecedentedly vicious, and that those sort of failures always stem from the top; and that his own hand-picked staffers “have no respect for him, indeed they seem to palpitate with contempt for him.” They hear these things from conservatives, including people who were Trump supporters or at least, Trump-neutral. They know these folks. They know, to their sorrow, that these people are telling the truth.

So even though they agree with conservative outsiders that the media skews very liberal, and take all its pronouncements about Republicans with a heavy sprinkling of salt, they know that the reports of this administration’s dysfunction aren’t all media hype. They have seen the media report on their own work, and that of their friends; they know what sort of things that bias distorts, and what it doesn’t. Washington conservatives know that reporters are not making up these incredible quotes, or relying only on Democratic holdovers, or getting bits of gossip from the janitor. They know that the Trump administration is in fact leaking like a rusty sieve -- from the top on down -- and that this is a sign of a president who has, in just four short months, completely lost control over his own hand-picked staff. Which is why the entire city, left to right, is watching the unfolding drama with mouth agape and heads shaking.

The White House dysfunction should discourage anyone who was hoping for big conservative policies and encourage anyone who was afraid of big policy changes.

And here’s the final thing that they know: that if you want to do anything big in Washington, there’s a lot of smaller stuff that has to happen first. You don’t write code or build a building without a lot of stuff that probably seems expensive and unnecessary to the customers, and our product requires similarly careful planning and management.

Some of the hoops that a president’s staff must jump through are legally required; some of them are simply necessary to make sure that your bill doesn’t explode on the steps of the Capitol, or die a gruesome public death in the Supreme Court. They include: appointing policy staff; deciding on policy goals, strategy and tactics; keeping the staff from descending into the infighting that inevitably besets any large organization; providing regular oversight of evolving policies to make sure they adhere to the president’s goals; setting up channels and a process to get input from Congress and legal advisers; writing a very detailed plan that provides guidance to staff and legislators, and reassurance to the public; and having your political and communications strategy lined up long before you roll out that plan. Insiders know that this process looks cumbrous and unnecessary to outsiders; they also know that getting majorities in Congress, and legislation that will survive a court challenge, is a Herculean task that cannot be completed without many thousands of people devoting many thousands of hours to these labors.

I don't think Trump knows how to be anything other than what he already is. And that could mean that this administration is among the least effective in American history. Good news for some, bad news for others.

This entry was tagged. Donald Trump

Planning to Age in Place? Find a Contractor Now →

Paula Span brings an important message to anyone planning home renovations who's also planning to live in their home a long time.

Older people have the highest rate of homeownership in the country — about 80 percent, according to a 2016 report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard. The great majority live in single-family homes, most of them poorly suited for the disabilities common in later life.

The center has looked at three of the most important accessibility features that allow people to move safely around their living spaces: entrances without steps, single-floor living, and wide hallways and doorways that can accommodate wheelchairs.

“Less than 4 percent of the U.S. housing stock has all three of those,” said Jennifer Molinsky, a senior research associate at the center.

Add two more important elements for aging in place — doors with lever handles, and light switches and electrical outlets that can be reached from a wheelchair — and the proportion drops to 1 percent.

You’ll often hear older people vow that they won’t leave their homes except “feet first.” Without modifications, however, the design of most older Americans’ homes could eventually thwart their owners’ desire to stay in them.

This entry was tagged. Home Ownership

The crisis in American journalism benefits no one →

Salena Zito writes in the Washington Examiner about the lack of trust between America's most venerable news organizations and readers with traditional values. I found myself agreeing with everything she said.

Beginning in the 1980s, Washington and New York City newsrooms began to be dominated by people who had the same backgrounds; for the most part they went to the same Ivy League journalism schools, where they made the right contacts and connections to get their jobs.

Yes, elite networks are a thing not just in law schools, as "Hillbilly Elegy" author J.D. Vance so aptly described of his experiences in law school. They also exist in Ivy League or elite journalism schools.

And the journalists who came from working-class roots found it in their best interest to adopt the conventional, left-of-center views that were filling the halls of newsrooms.

In short, after a while you adopt the culture you exist in either out of survival or acceptance or a little of both. Or you really just wanted to shed your working-class roots for a variety of reasons: shame, aspiration, ascension, etc.

That does not make them bad people – aspiration is the heart of the American Dream — but it did begin the decline of connection between elite journalism institutions such as the New York Times and the Washington Post and the rest of the country.

So when fewer and fewer reporters shared the same values and habits of many of their consumers, inferences in their stories about people of faith and their struggles squaring gay marriage or abortion with their belief systems were picked up by the readers.

Pro-tip, don't think people can't pick up an inference, even the most subtle, in the written word. It is as evident as a news anchor rolling his eyes at someone on his panel he doesn't agree with.

The result was a populist explosion against all things big: big companies, big banks, big institutions and big media. The movement went undetected by the D.C. and New York centralized press not because they are bad people, not because they had an ax to grind against the center of the country. They just didn't know them. They did not know anyone like them, or if they did it reminded them of all the things they despised about their upbringing, and they wanted to correct those impulses.

And so they missed it. They were a little shocked by the support for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton, and they were really shocked by the support candidate Donald J. Trump received in the primaries

And they were really, really shocked by his win.

The problem journalists face right now is that they have never really acknowledged his win appropriately, at least not in the eyes of the people who voted for him.

Since the day he won, the inference that his win was illegitimate has been everywhere. It set the tone in the relationship between the voters and the press that has only soured since November of last year.

New golden age for science fiction in China →

Rachel Cheung writes about the Chinese sci-fi scene, for the South China Morning Post.

It’s not the first golden age of sci-fi in China, though. Wang Yao says that was between 1978 and 1983 during reforms initiated by late Deng Xiaoping. “It was thought that science fiction could cultivate a scientific spirit, and the authorities assigned authors to write books in the genre,” says Wang.

More than 30 years later, the new golden age is very different but also being supported by the government. In its science and technology progress plan, published last year, the State Council cited a need to improve the population’s scientific literacy. Policies include the establishment of national science fiction awards and international sci-fi festivals.

Although investors are eyeing sci-fi’s entertainment industry potential, the literature itself is not so highly valued. “The payment writers receive for fiction writing is very small. I also write for fashion magazines, which pay a lot more,” says Regina Wang. Since it is impossible to make ends meet writing sci-fi, most authors do it simply as a hobby.

… ​> Although the Hugo Awards have brought global attention to the Chinese sci-fi scene, as an industry it still has a long way to go.

“Unlike Western countries, we do not have a long tradition of a cultural and creative industry,” says Wang Yao. There are only about 100 writers, publishers and filmmakers in the Chinese sci-fi industry, compared with more than 4,000 sci-fi writers in the United States, she adds.

​That's a surprising discrepancy to me, especially given the overall population advantage that China has over the United States. That, combined with the government sponsorship of both "golden ages" of Chinese science fiction, makes me wonder how much staying power the genre has in Chinese culture. SF is great at shining a light on society, but only if it's coming from a place of genuine enthusiasm and grass roots support.

This entry was tagged. China Science Fiction

Did a Voter ID Law Really Cost Clinton a Victory in Wisconsin? →

It's not easy to say, but recent reports suggesting that Voter ID lost Wisconsin for Mrs. Clinton are overstating the evidence. So says Slate anyway, and they're not noted for being Republican shills.

But the Nation headline doesn’t say it all—not even close, as a number of political scientists and polling experts were quick to point out.

One of the first to arrive on the scene with a big bucket of cold water was Eitan Hersh, an assistant professor of political science at Yale University who has studied the effect of voter ID laws.

No offense, but this is something that is going to be shared hundreds of times and does not meet acceptable evidence standards. https://t.co/4M3ipqiaWg

— Eitan Hersh (@eitanhersh) May 9, 2017

The most glaring problem with the report and how it’s being interpreted, Hersh told me by phone, is that the firm behind the analysis decided to operate at a surface level when it almost certainly had the data and expertise to dig much deeper. “Civis presents itself as a very sophisticated analytics shop,” Hersh said, “and yet the analysis they’re offering here is rather blunt.”

The group relied largely on state-by-state and county-by-county comparisons to reach its conclusions, but it could have—and Hersh maintains, should have—conducted a more granular analysis. Civis could have isolated communities that straddle the border between two states, for instance, or even used a comprehensive voter file to compare similar individuals that do and don’t live in states with new voter ID laws. Doing either would have allowed Civis to eliminate variables that may have ultimately skewed its findings. “It’s very weird to do an analysis the way they did when they presumably had a better way to do it,” Hersh said. “That’s a red flag that jumps out right away.”

Civis says it mostly limited itself to publicly available information so that its analysis was repeatable; Hersh counters that repeating a flawed analysis will just lead to the same flawed results. As the New York TimesNate Cohn pointed out on Twitter, and as Hersh echoed in his conversation with me, the absence of a detailed voter file-based analysis of the impact of voter ID laws—by Civis or anyone else for that matter—is in itself telling at this point. “I would in no way argue that these [voter ID] laws have no effect, but what we’ve found is that it’s a relatively small one,” Hersh said. Making things more complicated, he added, is that the effect of a voter ID law can be difficult to separate from that of other non-ID-based measures that disenfranchise the same types of people. “It’s just very unlikely that these voter ID laws by themselves would translate into the effect of 200,000 voters,” Hersh said.

Richard Hasen, an occasional Slate contributor and a professor of law and political science at the University of California–Irvine, voiced similar concerns about the Civis findings on his blog, pointing to a New York Times story published in the weeks after the election. Reporting from Milwaukee in late November, Times national correspondent Sabrina Tavernise cited Wisconsin’s voter ID law as one potential reason why turnout was down in the city’s poor and black neighborhoods. Tavernise, though, ultimately found a bounty of anecdotal evidence that black voters were simply far less excited to vote for Clinton in 2016 than they were to pull the lever for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Here again it is difficult to offer a single explanation for depressed voter turnout: If a black man in Milwaukee decides it’s not worth jumping through hoops to cast a ballot, do we explain that by citing voter enthusiasm, the ID law, or both?

Why Everything We Know About Salt May Be Wrong →

Gina Kolata reports on new salt research, for the New York Times.

The salt equation taught to doctors for more than 200 years is not hard to understand.

The body relies on this essential mineral for a variety of functions, including blood pressure and the transmission of nerve impulses. Sodium levels in the blood must be carefully maintained.

If you eat a lot of salt — sodium chloride — you will become thirsty and drink water, diluting your blood enough to maintain the proper concentration of sodium. Ultimately you will excrete much of the excess salt and water in urine.

The theory is intuitive and simple. And it may be completely wrong.

New studies of Russian cosmonauts, held in isolation to simulate space travel, show that eating more salt made them less thirsty but somehow hungrier. Subsequent experiments found that mice burned more calories when they got more salt, eating 25 percent more just to maintain their weight.

The research, published recently in two dense papers in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, contradicts much of the conventional wisdom about how the body handles salt and suggests that high levels may play a role in weight loss.

​It's amazing to me how little we definitely know about diet and nutrition. There is a lot of folk wisdom out there, but so little proof based on rigorous research and testing.

This entry was tagged. Food Research

Reading Idea: Invisible Planets

Invisible Planets

Invisible Planets
by Ken Liu
$11.99 on Kindle

What I've been reading - Marginal REVOLUTION

  1. Invisible Planets: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese SF in Translation, edited and translated by Ken Liu.  A strong collection, with two stories by Cixin Liu.  Here is a new article on Chinese science fiction.

Tyler Cowen's recommendations are always worth considering. And this one is a two-fer, as they say: it's science fiction and it's genuinely a glimpse into another culture.

Reading Idea: The Berlin Project

The Berlin Project

The Berlin Project
by Gregory Benford
$7.99 on Kindle

I know Gregory Benford as a writer of top-notch, hard science fiction. He's also an astrophysicist. And now he's written an alternate history of the development of the atom bomb. This book is self-recommending. On John Scalzi's site, he described the book and what prompted him to write it.

The Big Idea: Gregory Benford

I got the idea for this novel when I was working on nuclear matters as a postdoc for Edward Teller. Then decades later, heard it from the guy who was at its center, and who became my father in law, Karl Cohen. All that came together when I decided to go back to writing novels in 2012.

The year 1967 seems so distant now. I was finishing my PhD thesis in theoretical physics when two of my thesis advisors took me aside and said that, just to be safe, I should apply for two postdoc positions, not just one. It was that long ago. I turned down UC Berkeley, a professorship at Royal Holloway College, London (which had read a published paper and wanted someone in that area; I’d never heard of them).

So I decided to work with Teller. In the course of many calculations and conversations, he told me of a turning point in World War Two that few knew. I heard it later from Karl Cohen:

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the effect on the US atomic program (Manhattan Project) was a one-year delay. The US Army was preoccupied with the new war in the Pacific; they failed to appoint a person to head the Manhattan Project with enough power.  In 1941 the people in charge favored Urey’s centrifuge approach to producing the fuel instead of gaseous diffusion. 

By 1942, General Groves was in and Urey was out of favor.  Building the gaseous diffusion plant took longer than expected, and the result was a one-year delay in the project. The delay meant that the target changed away from Germany. The object of dropping an A-bomb over Germany was to prevent an invasion.

How many more concentration camp victims would have survived if the war had ended one year earlier?  For one, Anne Frank. Most CC victims succumbed eventually to the rugged conditions… The difference between 1944 and 1945 as the end of the war is probably quite significant in terms of lives.

The central context for this novel came from the protagonist I chose to follow through it, Karl Cohen. I also folded in my experience of living in the US occupation of Germany in 1955-57, where my father commanded combat units.

Karl’s words made me think, because in the last year of war, whole societies collapsed. A million died each month, the Soviet Union captured many countries into subjugation, and the devastation of the Axis powers took decades to repair.

Reading Idea: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro
$11.99 on Kindle

I heard about this book on an episode of The Cato Daily Podcast. I've roughly transparaphrased the description that Kimberly Hurd Hale and Caleb Brown gave during the episode.

WARNING: Their description is filled with spoilers, so don't read it if you would like to just read the book.

The Politics of Perfection: Technology and Creation in Literature and Film

The book describes children at Hailsham, which is a boarding school, but not really a boarding school. It's gradually revealed that the wonderful education they are receiving at Hailsham is just a cover for the very dark destiny that awaits them.

The story is set in the late 1990's, in Britain. The premise is that following World War 2, rather than the breakthroughs in nuclear power that we experienced, there were breakthroughs in medicine. We figured out a way to clone human beings and use their organs to, essentially, cure cancer, cure heart disease, and all of the other great, mass killers of our society. We can use the clone organs to cure them. This means that ordinary human beings no longer have to fear cancer, or heart disease, or liver disease. They no longer have to worry that their family members will die prematurely from these things. The society is willing to accept this program of breeding and raising and slaughtering clones in exchange for longer, healthier life.

It's told from the point of view of one of the clone children. It's not a story of revolution. It's a story of her growing up, having friends, falling in love, and reconciling herself to the fact that she will die before she reaches middle age. She will donate her organs, one at a time, in a very cruel manner. She will spend her last years caring for her fellow clones, as they make these organ donations. She will have to watch her friends be slaughtered by this bureaucratic system. It has been solely responsible for her creation and education and has controlled every aspect of her life, to the point where she does not resist it. None of the clones resist it. They accept their fate and show no indication that they would be able or willing to escape their destiny. They think that that is what they were bred to do and, really, there's very little indicating that they find it morally objectionable.

Never Let Me Go examines it from the point of view of a society that wants these organs desperately but also seemingly recognizes that it is a serious inhumane, unethical thing that they are doing. Then you get Hailsham, you get the idea that if we educate these clones in a classical sense, give them a classical education where they read the great novels, learn about philosophy, spend most of their time doing art, then, somehow, what we're doing to them is more humane. They're given names. It's recognized that they have human drives, that they benefit somehow from these educations.

Reading Idea: God: A Biography

God: A Biography

God: A Biography
by Jack Miles
$14.99 on Kindle

Adam recommended this one to me, while we were discussing religion on our podcast. I've already added it to my short list for the year.

Reacquainted: 4: Like a Jenga Game

A man who won the Pulitzer Prize, Jack Miles, wrote a book called God: A Biography and a second book called Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. God: A Biography won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography in 1996. What he does is almost the opposite of what Dr. Robert Alter does. Whereas Dr. Alter finds the storytelling in the books of the Bible, Jack Miles takes the books of the Bible and finds the story.

Unburdened by the need to keep rigidly stuck to theological principles, he tries to read the whole Bible with a fresh set of eyes and write the story of God as a literary character. If God is a literary character and the Bible is His story, what does He go through? What is His character arc? Can you form a coherent one? Jack Miles does. It's a really enjoyable read.

Updating My Rating System

After writing about the awfulness of numeric rating systems, it only made sense to update my own personal rating system. With a star system, I feel compelled to rate on artistic merit rather than on personal enjoyment. After all, a numerical score should have an objective reality behind it. But sometimes I have a hard time judging artistic merit and I spend a lot of time ruminating over the "correct" rating.

What I really want is just a way to give a personal review and recommendation: did I enjoy this or not? Switching to a binary thumbs up / down system gives me the freedom to rate on my personal enjoyment and not worry as much about artistic merit. So, thumbs it is.

I am going to cheat a bit and add a second thumb for overall enthusiasm. One thumb means that the rating applies just to me and whether or not I enjoyed something. The second thumb means that I think the enjoyment (or distaste) should be universal and that I'm proactively recommending for or against something.

  • 👍 I liked it
  • 👎 I didn't like it.
  • 👍👍 You should read it.
  • 👎👎 No one should read it.

Since I'll still post book reviews over on Goodreads, I'll need to map my ratings to Goodreads' star ratings. That breaks down like this. (Basically, the wishy-washy three star review is out.)

  • 👍👍 = ★★★★★
  • 👍 = ★★★★
  • 👎 = ★★
  • 👎👎 = ★

This entry was tagged. Review

The Awfulness of Numeric Rating Systems

Caroline O'Donovan wrote at Buzz Feed about why the existing rating systems are awful.

“The rating system works like this: You start off as a five-star driver,” Don, a San Francisco Lyft driver told BuzzFeed News. “If you drop below a 4.6, then your career becomes a question. Uber or Lyft will reach out to you and let you know that you are on review probation. And if you continue to drop, then you're going to lose your job. They'll deactivate you."

But ratings are nonetheless a stressor for some drivers. Julian, who drives for both Uber and Lyft in San Francisco, said maintaining a good rating can be difficult because customers don’t really understand them. "They think that 3 is okay, and a 4 is like a B, and 5 is exceptional," he told BuzzFeed News. "Well, if you got a 4 every time, you’d be terminated. You have to maintain a 4.7, so anything less than a 5 is not okay.”

​> …

This sort of rating anxiety extends well beyond Uber and Lyft. “The rating system is terrible,” said Ken Davis, a former Postmates courier, who noted that under the company's five-star rating system couriers who fall below 4.7 for more than 30 days are suspended. Said Joshua, another Postmates courier, “I really don’t think customers understand the impact their ratings have on us."

​> …

Wendy and her son Brian, visiting San Francisco from Indiana and using Uber for their first time, were surprised to hear that most drivers consider four stars to be a bad rating. “I would have thought 5 is excellent, and 4 is good,” Wendy said. That revelation was equally shocking to Elnaz, a longtime Uber user visiting San Francisco from LA. “Four stars sucks," she said, incredulous. "Really?"

“Customers don't understand the impact ratings have on couriers at all,” said a former Postmates community manager, who requested anonymity while discussing her previous employer. “A customer might rate a delivery three stars, assuming that three stars is fine. Several three-star ratings could bring a courier’s rating down significantly, especially if they’re new. It could even get the courier fired.”

​The biggest problem is that no two people have the same definition of what each of the ratings means.

Lyft says that five stars means “awesome,” four means “Ok, could be better,” and three means “below average.” But for Uber, five stars is “excellent,” four is “good,” and three is “OK.”

To that point, Goodreads has the following rating system:

  • ★: Did not like it
  • ★★: it was ok
  • ★★★: liked it
  • ★★★★: really liked it
  • ★★★★★: it was amazing

But few people actually use that scale to rate their books. In fact, many people start or end their Goodreads reviews with a discussion of their own personal rating system. I'm guilty of this myself.

It's even worse than that. People give ratings differently from how they actually use ratings. When it comes to giving ratings, people are nuanced critics. Take hotel stays. We'll knock off a star for a room that's a little dingy or a shower that doesn't have the right water pressure. We'll give it back for friendly staff and a hot breakfast. The result is a 3.7 rating that we think accurately represents our "mostly good with a few minor downsides" experience at the hotel.

Given our own nuanced ratings, how many of us even bother to read star ratings with a similarly nuanced eye? We only want to stay at five star establishments. We'll consider a four star hotel, but anything lower than that makes us inherently suspicious. We know how we rate businesses and we know that an average rating of 5 should be impossible to achieve, if everyone rates like we ourselves do. But we read ratings with a highly critical eye anyway and hotels are reduced to begging for high ratings because anything less is the kiss of death.

O'Donovan recounts an anecdote that I find telling.​

John Gruber, publisher of Daring Fireball, is among those who believe that five-star rating systems don’t produce particularly useful data, and that generally speaking, binary systems are better. “There’s no universal agreement as to what the different stars mean,” Gruber told BuzzFeed News. “But everybody knows what thumbs-up, thumbs-down means.”

A few years ago, during a trip to Orlando, Gruber had an experience that made him realize how this confusion over what the stars mean can impact individuals in ways customers don’t realize. After taking a ride in an Uber that had an overpoweringly strong smell of air freshener, Gruber gave the driver a four-star rating. The next day, he got a call from an Uber employee asking him to explain what the driver had done wrong.

“I was like, Holy shit!” Gruber said. “The guy was nice, I wish I hadn’t done this.”

When I read this, everything suddenly clarified. Exact, specific, nuanced ratings aren't useful to consumers. I only care about one thing: would you stay here again or would you avoid it? When I'm thinking back on my own stays, maybe the water pressure was too low, but if the overall experience was good then I'll book another room at the same hotel on my next trip. The crucial question really just boils down to: would I stay here again and would you recommend it to me. Everything else is just details.

Jason Snell came to the same conclusion, writing One for the thumbs.

Say you’re Netflix, which has allowed its users to apply five-star ratings to movies since its inception. Netflix offered user ratings because it’s always been focused on improving its own recommendation engine, so that it can look at your tastes and suggest other movies you might like—and use your ratings to feed the recommendation engine of viewers who share your tastes, too.

At some point, Netflix must have looked at its data and realized that their five-star rating system wasn’t really improving its recommendations. It was just adding noise. Does knowing that one user gave a movie four stars while another one gave it five stars really provide more information? The answer is clearly no, because Netflix eliminated star ratings and now only seeks a thumbs up or a thumbs down, just like YouTube did in 2009. In the end, you can obsess over whether a movie deserves three or four of your precious personal stars, but Netflix doesn’t care. It just wants to know if you liked the movie or not, because that’s all that really matters.

Take it from Gene Siskel, via that same Roger Ebert piece:

Gene Siskel boiled it down: “What’s the first thing people ask you? Should I see this movie? They don’t want a speech on the director’s career. Thumbs up—yes. Thumbs down—no.”

Or as John Gruber succinctly put it, star ratings are garbage—“thumbs-up/thumbs-down is the way to go—everyone agrees what those mean.”

I think a numeric rating system only makes sense for purely personal use. For instance, in family meal planning. My family uses a 4-star system for rating meals. After trying each recipe, we ask our daughters to rate it using this four point scale.

  • ★ Never make this again.
  • ★★ I didn't care for it but I'll eat it without a tantrum if you do make it again.
  • ★★★ Make this a part of our standard list of meals.
  • ★★★★ Make this every week.

It helps that it's a simple system. But the main reason is it works is that everyone in the family knows the definition and uses it in a consistent way. When my wife plans the meals, we include some recipes rated 3 or 4. The 2-star recipes may get used sparingly, if one family member happens to love them, since the rest are willing to tolerate them. The 1-star recipes are kept around purely as a reminder of what not to make. It works, but it's a system that would break down entirely if we tried to share our recipe database with another family.

I would be happy to see numeric rating systems disappear entirely from public websites and apps. Let's stick to a simple recommended / not recommended binary choice for everything that we're not personally curating for our own personal use.

This entry was tagged. Review News

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 fails to meet Groot expectations →

I'm glad I'm not the only curmudgeon that failed to enjoy the new Guardians movie. The Globe and Mail also panned it.

After the original earned $770-million (U.S.) worldwide – all without boasting a name-brand star or much built-in affection for a talking tree named Groot – a sequel was inevitable. But it didn't have to be this sequel, which swaps out amusement for arrogance, delight for disdain.

At least a dozen times, for instance, this new movie laughs at its own jokes – literally. The characters of Drax (an alien warrior) and Rocket (the aforementioned talking raccoon) regularly deploy punchlines or watch ones whiz by, and then cackle for what seems like minutes on end. (Some choice jokes pivot around the size of one character's turds and another's urgent need to urinate.) There is even a running bit about the fine art of winking at your audience. And if that is not enough to hammer home Guardians' particular brand of misplaced confidence, then the filmmakers hope snippets of seventies' AM radio pop will inject a sly bit of nostalgic levity into the proceedings. See, we're just here for a good time, not a long time – why else would Looking Glass, Electric Light Orchestra and Cheap Trick be blasting on the soundtrack?

It is tittering, unrestrained filmmaking at its most self-indulgent – high, as it were, on its own supply.

This cinematic smugness touches everything, all while clinging to the law of diminishing returns. The plot, for starters, is a weak facsimile of the 2014 film, solely designed to connect set-pieces that rehash best-loved moments from the original. Wasn't, say, that first prison-escape scene so funny and unexpected? Well, maybe you'll also like a new escape sequence that triples the body count while erasing the number of laughs and adding Jay and the Americans' 1964 hit Come a Little Bit Closer to the soundtrack, for no reason in particular? Oh, remember when hundreds of Xandarian space ships converged to battle Ronan's warship back in the first movie? That was mighty cool, so why not revisit that here but with an even larger fleet of space ships? Did you enjoy the Vin Diesel-voiced Groot? Good, because now he's a cute widdle Baby Groot, voiced by what sounds like Diesel on helium, and present in nearly every other frame.

Look, I like Groot. But that's a fair bit of criticism. Dude was everywhere, almost as though someone were thinking of the potential for moving massive amounts of Baby Groot action figures and dolls over the next couple of months.