wikipedia-popups.js”, (2019-07-29; ):
https://en.wikipedia.org/api/rest_v1/). All summaries are loaded on page load so as to have minimal latency (on-mouseover summary loading is noticeably slow). If a page has many Wikipedia links on it, this can result in quite a few requests; the summaries can instead be provided statically, encoded into data attributes. (This also allows encoding summaries/previews of arbitrary websites by whatever is compiling the HTML.) See
/static/js/popups.jsfor a JS library which takes that approach instead.
The Chinese National Twin Registry (CNTR) currently includes data from 61 566 twin pair from 11 provinces or cities in China. Of these, 31 705, 15 060 and 13 531 pairs are monozygotic, same-sex dizygotic and opposite-sex dizygotic pairs, respectively, determined by opposite sex or intrapair similarity. Since its establishment in 2001, the CNTR has provided an important resource for analysing genetic and environmental influences on chronic diseases especially cardiovascular diseases. Recently, the CNTR has focused on collecting biologic specimens from disease-concordant or disease-discordant twin pairs or from twin pairs reared apart. More than 8000 pairs of these twins have been registered, and blood samples have been collected from more than 1500 pairs.
In this review, we summarize the main findings from univariate and multivariate genetic effects analyses, gene-environment interaction studies, omics studies exploring DNA methylation and metabolomic markers associated with phenotypes. There remains further scope for CNTR research and data mining. The plan for future development of the CNTR is described. The CNTR welcomes worldwide collaboration.
[Behavioral genetics discussion of eminence/genius: intelligence, developmental processes, psychopathology, and creativity scales all contribute to accomplishment but leave much unexplained, in particular, the odd pattern of inheritance where genius runs in families but highly sporadically and not following any standard Mendelian or polygenic inheritance pattern.
The authors refer to the concept of ‘emergenesis’, where emergenic traits are not additive combinations of subtraits (as is strongly the case for traits like intelligence) but rather are multiplicative combinations, which are epistatic at the genetic level. Because all subtraits must be present to have a chance of producing the overall trait, emergenic traits can be highly genetically influenced yet still rare and sporadically appearing within families. (The Wiley Handbook of Genius 2014, chapter 14)]
How can we account for the sudden appearance of such dazzling artists and scientists as Mozart, Shakespeare, Darwin, or Einstein? How can we define such genius? What conditions or personality traits seem to produce exceptionally creative people? Is the association between genius and madness really just a myth? These and many other questions are brilliantly illuminated in The Origins of Genius.
Dean Simonton convincingly argues that creativity can best be understood as a Darwinian process of variation and selection. The artist or scientist generates a wealth of ideas, and then subjects these ideas to aesthetic or scientific judgment, selecting only those that have the best chance to survive and reproduce. Indeed, the true test of genius is the ability to bequeath an impressive and influential body of work to future generations. Simonton draws on the latest research into creativity and explores such topics as the personality type of the genius, whether genius is genetic or produced by environment and education, the links between genius and mental illness (Darwin himself was emotionally and mentally unwell), the high incidence of childhood trauma, especially loss of a parent, amongst Nobel Prize winners, the importance of unconscious incubation in creative problem-solving, and much more.
Simonton substantiates his theory by examining and quoting from the work of such eminent figures as Henri Poincare, W. H. Auden, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Niels Bohr, and many others. For anyone intrigued by the spectacular feats of the human mind, The Origins of Genius offers a revolutionary new way of understanding the very nature of creativity.
[Further discussion of “emergenesis” and relationship to genius: why are geniuses, while sometimes clearly affiliated with entire clans, so sporadic even within those? This is difficult to explain on any environmental or simple additive genetic grounds, suggesting that it may require entire complexes of exactly aligned genes and environmental factors.]
Human genius has always been a problem for both environmentalists and hereditarians to understand (Galton, 1869; Kroeber, 1944; Simonton, 1988.) There have been families of genius, of course—the Bernoullis and the Baths, the Darwins and the Huxleys, the musical Marsalis family—but it is the solitary genius, rising like a great oak in a forest of scrub and bramble, who challenges our understanding. Carl Friedrich Gauss, ranked with Archimedes and Newton as one of the “princes of mathematics”, had uneducated parents. His mother was illiterate, yet the boy had taught himself to read and to do simple arithmetic by the time he was 3 years old (Buhler, 1981).
…Suppose that Gauss or Ramanujan had been born with a healthy MZ twin who was spirited away to be reared by some country parson in Oxfordshire. Barring cholera or other accident, is it not likely that the parson’s surname too would now be immortal? Ramanujan died young without offspring; his parents and one brother apparently were unexceptional. Although Gauss provided rich stimulation and opportunity for his six offspring (by two different and highly cultivated wives), none of them distinguished themselves.2 But if the genius of these men was prefigured in their genes, why was it never manifested elsewhere in their lineage? The answer is, we think, that genius consists of unique configurations of attributes that cannot be transmitted in half helpings.
“The mechanism of emergenesis”, (2006; ):
The intraclass correlations of monozygotic twins who were separated in infancy and reared apart (MZA twins) provide estimates of trait heritability, and the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart [MZA: Bouchard et al 1990, ‘The sources of human psychological differences: the Minnesota study of twins reared apart’, Science 250, 223–228] has demonstrated that MZA pairs are as similar in most respects as MZ pairs reared together.
Some polygenic traits—eg. stature, IQ, harm avoidance, negative emotionality, interest in sports—are polygenic-additive, so pairs of relatives resemble one another on the given trait in proportion to their genetic similarity.
But the existence and the intensity of other important psychological traits seem to be emergent properties of gene configurations (or configurations of independent and partially genetic traits) that interact multiplicatively rather than additively. Monozygotic (MZ) twins may be strongly correlated on such emergenic traits, while the similarity of dizygotic (DZ) twins, sibs or parent-offspring pairs may be much less than half that of MZ pairs. Some emergenic traits, although strongly genetic, do not appear to run in families.
MISTRA has provided at least two examples of traits for which MZA twins are strongly correlated, and DZA pairs correlate near zero, while DZ pairs reared together (DZTs) are about half as similar as MZTs.
These findings suggest that even more traits may be emergenic than those already identified. Studies of adoptees reared together (who are perhaps more common than twins reared apart) may help to identify traits that are emergenic, but that also are influenced by a common rearing environment.
[Keywords: epistasis, heritability, polygenic additivity, psychophysiology]
Preliminary findings from an on-going study of monozygotic twins reared apart (MZA) and data from a larger sample of twins reared together (MZT and DZT), indicate a surprisingly strong influence of genetic variation on aptitudes, psychophysiological characteristics, personality traits and even dimensions of attitude and interest. For some of these variables, MZT and MZA twins show high intra-class correlations while DZT twins are no more similar than pairs of unrelated persons.
It is suggested that such traits are ‘emergenic’, ie., that they are determined by the interaction—rather than the sum—of genetic influences. Emergenic traits, although perhaps strongly genetic, will not tend to run in families and for this reason have been neglected by students of behavior genetics.
For this and several other listed reasons, wider use of twins in psychological research is strongly recommended.
[Keywords: twins, behavior genetics, emergenesis, range correction, EEG spectra]
Heritability is often estimated by decomposing the variance of a trait into genetic and other factors. Interpreting such variance decompositions, however, is not straightforward. In particular, there is an ongoing debate on the importance of genetic factors in cancer development, even though heritability estimates exist. Here we show that heritability estimates contain information on the distribution of absolute risk due to genetic differences. The approach relies on the assumptions underlying the conventional heritability of liability model. We also suggest a model unrelated to heritability estimates. By applying these strategies, we describe the distribution of absolute genetic risk for 15 common cancers. We highlight the considerable inequality in genetic risk of cancer using different metrics, eg., the Gini Index and quantile ratios which are frequently used in economics. For all these cancers, the estimated inequality in genetic risk is larger than the inequality in income in the USA.
Background: A wide range of diseases show some degree of clustering in families; family history is therefore an important aspect for clinicians when making risk predictions. Familial aggregation is often quantified in terms of a familial relative risk (FRR), and although at first glance this measure may seem simple and intuitive as an average risk prediction, its implications are not straightforward.
Methods: We use two statistical models for the distribution of disease risk in a population: a dichotomous risk model that gives an intuitive understanding of the implication of a given FRR, and a continuous risk model that facilitates a more detailed computation of the inequalities in disease risk. Published estimates of FRRs are used to produce Lorenz curves and Gini indices that quantifies the inequalities in risk for a range of diseases.
Results: We demonstrate that even a moderate familial association in disease risk implies a very large difference in risk between individuals in the population. We give examples of diseases for which this is likely to be true, and we further demonstrate the relationship between the point estimates of FRRs and the distribution of risk in the population.
Conclusions: The variation in risk for several severe diseases may be larger than the variation in income in many countries. The implications of familial risk estimates should be recognized by epidemiologists and clinicians.
The relative contributions of genetics and environment to temporal and geographic variation in human height remain largely unknown. Ancient DNA has identified changes in genetic ancestry over time, but it is not clear whether those changes in ancestry are associated with changes in height. Here, we directly test whether changes over the past 38,000 years in European height predicted using DNA from 1071 ancient individuals are consistent with changes observed in 1159 skeletal remains from comparable populations. We show that the observed decrease in height between the Early Upper Paleolithic and the Mesolithic is qualitatively predicted by genetics. Similarly, both skeletal and genetic height remained constant between the Mesolithic and Neolithic and increased between the Neolithic and Bronze Age. Sitting height changes much less than standing height–consistent with genetic predictions–although genetics predicts a small Bronze Age increase that is not observed in skeletal remains. Geographic variation in stature is also qualitatively consistent with genetic predictions, particularly with respect to latitude. We find that the changes in genetic height between the Neolithic and Bronze Age may be driven by polygenic adaptation. Finally, we hypothesize that an observed decrease in genetic heel bone mineral density in the Neolithic reflects adaptation to the decreased mobility indicated by decreased femoral bending strength. This study provides a model for interpreting phenotypic changes predicted from ancient DNA and demonstrates how they can be combined with phenotypic measurements to understand the relative contribution of genetic and developmentally plastic responses to environmental change.
Using newly available polygenic scores for educational attainment and cognitive ability, this paper investigates the possible presence and causes of a negative association between IQ and fertility in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study sample, an issue that Retherford and Sewell first addressed 30 years ago. The effect of the polygenic score on the sample’s reproductive characteristics was indirect: a latent cognitive ability measure, comprised of both educational attainment and IQ, wholly mediated the relationship. Age at first birth mediated the negative effect of cognitive ability on sample fertility, which had a direct (positive) effect on the number of grandchildren. statistically-significantly greater impacts of cognitive ability on the sample’s fertility characteristics were found among the female subsample. This indicates that, in this sample, having a genetic disposition toward higher cognitive ability does not directly reduce number of offspring; instead, higher cognitive ability is a risk factor for prolonging reproductive debut, which, especially for women, reduces the fertility window and, thus, the number of children and grandchildren that can be produced. By estimating the effect of the sample’s reproductive characteristics on the strength of polygenic selection, it was found that the genetic component of IQ should be declining at a rate between −0.208 (95% CI [−0.020, −0.383]) and −0.424 (95% CI [−0.041, −0.766]) points per decade, depending on whether GCTA-GREML or classical behavior genetic estimates of IQ heritability are used to correct for ‘missing’ heritability.
2019-sella.pdf: “Thinking About the Evolution of Complex Traits in the Era of Genome-Wide Association Studies”, (2019-06-21; ):
Many traits of interest are highly heritable and genetically complex, meaning that much of the variation they exhibit arises from differences at numerous loci in the genome. Complex traits and their evolution have been studied for more than a century, but only in the last decade have genome-wide association studies (GWASs) in humans begun to reveal their genetic basis. Here, we bring these threads of research together to ask how findings from GWASs can further our understanding of the processes that give rise to heritable variation in complex traits and of the genetic basis of complex trait evolution in response to changing selection pressures (ie., of polygenic adaptation). Conversely, we ask how evolutionary thinking helps us to interpret findings from GWASs and informs related efforts of practical importance.
[Keywords: evolution, genome-wide association study, , quantitative genetics, complex traits, polygenic adaptation, genetic architecture]
[Mukherjee traces the evolution of CAR T-cell therapy, a form of immunotherapy that uses engineered immune cells to eliminate cancer, beginning with the development of bone marrow transplantation by Fred Hutch’s Dr. E. Donnall Thomas. In his article, Mukherjee profiles recent T-cell therapy research by Dr. Carl June at the Perelman School of Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania and other leaders in the immunotherapy field including Drs. Steve Rosenberg and Michel Sadelain and the Hutch’s Drs. Stan Riddell and Phil Greenberg. In addition to the promising early successes with this new therapy, Mukherjee explores some of the challenges that remain to making these approaches more accessible and affordable. In particular, the staggering price of custom single-patient CAR-T immunotherapy is in the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, posing a challenge to health insurance and national healthcare systems.]
“Pluribus: Superhuman AI for multiplayer poker”, (2019-07-11):
In recent years there have been great strides in artificial intelligence (AI), with games often serving as challenge problems, benchmarks, and milestones for progress. Poker has served for decades as such a challenge problem. Past successes in such benchmarks, including poker, have been limited to two-player games. However, poker in particular is traditionally played with more than two players. Multiplayer games present fundamental additional issues beyond those in two-player games, and multiplayer poker is a recognized AI milestone.
In this paper we present Pluribus, an AI that we show is stronger than top human professionals in six-player no-limit Texas hold’em poker, the most popular form of poker played by humans.
[Keywords: Monte Carlo CFR, state abstraction, Nash equilibrium]
“How we built the Waifu Vending Machine”, (2019-07-23):
[Design company Sizigi Studios discusses their creation of Waifu Labs (https://waifulabs.com/), a deep learning GAN website for interactive generation of anime faces, and their experience running a prototype of it at the Anime Expo (AX) 2019 anime convention in Los Angeles, where it was a popular exhibit. Laptops were setup attached to printers in an enclosed booth, making a ‘vending machine’. Challenges included: no electricity outlets and no WiFi. Multiple laptops were cycled through as batteries wore out, while a gaming PC ran the neural network locally rather than in a cloud VM. The failed WiFi was bypassed by using a smartphone as a local router. Further bugs were discovered in the code while many users waited in a long line. but were fixed in time, and the waifu vending machine was a success.]
“Waifu Labs”, (2019-07-23):
[Waifu Labs is an interactive website for generating (1024px?) anime faces using a customized StyleGAN trained on Danbooru2018. Similar to Artbreeder, it supports face exploration and face editing, and at the end, a user can purchase prints of a particular face.]
We taught a world-class artificial intelligence how to draw anime. All the drawings you see were made by a non-human artist! Wild, right? It turns out machines love waifus almost as much as humans do. We proudly present the next chapter of human history: lit waifu commissions from the world’s smartest AI artist. In less than 5 minutes, the artist learns your preferences to make the perfect waifu just for you.
“The Big Crunch”, (1994):
[On the end to the post-WWII Vannevar Bushian exponential growth of academia and consequences thereof: growth can’t go on forever, and it didn’t.]
According to modern cosmology, the universe began with a big bang about 10 billion years ago, and it has been expanding ever since. If the density of mass in the universe is great enough, its gravitational force will cause that expansion to slow down and reverse, causing the universe to fall back in on itself. Then the universe will end in a cataclysmic event known as ‘the Big Crunch’. I would like to present to you a vaguely analogous theory of the history of science. The upper curve on Figure 1 was first made by historian Derek da Solla Price, sometime in the 1950s. It is a semilog plot of the cumulative number of scientific journals founded worldwide as a function of time…the growth of the profession of science, the scientific enterprise, is bound to reach certain limits. I contend that these limits have now been reached.
…But after about 1970 and the Big Crunch, the gleaming gems produced at the end of the vast mining-and-sorting operation produced less often from American ore. Research professors and their universities, using ore imported from across the oceans, kept the machinery humming.
…Let me finish by summarizing what I’ve been trying to tell you. We stand at an historic juncture in the history of science. The long era of exponential expansion ended decades ago, but we have not yet reconciled ourselves to that fact. The present social structure of science, by which I mean institutions, education, funding, publications and so on all evolved during the period of exponential expansion, before The Big Crunch. They are not suited to the unknown future we face. Today’s scientific leaders, in the universities, government, industry and the scientific societies are mostly people who came of age during the golden era, 1950–1970. I am myself part of that generation. We think those were normal times and expect them to return. But we are wrong. Nothing like it will ever happen again. It is by no means certain that science will even survive, much less flourish, in the difficult times we face. Before it can survive, those of us who have gained so much from the era of scientific elites and scientific illiterates must learn to face reality, and admit that those days are gone forever.
“1960: The Year The Singularity Was Cancelled”, (2019-04-22):
[On the relationship between absolute population size, population growth, economic growth (absolute and per capita), innovation, ideas, and science: is the long exponential history of the progress of science, technology, and computing merely due to the accompanying exponential growth of the human population size after reaching a critical point where the Malthusian trap could be escaped and a new higher equilibrium sought, creating more possible researchers and enabling positive externalities? If so, then the end of exponential global population growth in the 1960s–1970s was also the end of the exponential era in human progress… At least until a new mode of exponential growth, such as artificial intelligence or brain emulations, begins.]
“Ingredients for creating disruptive research teams”, (2019-05-16):
This post tries to answer the question of what qualities make some research teams more effective than others. I was particularly interested in learning more about “disruptive” research teams, ie. research teams that have an outsized impact on (1) the research landscape itself (eg. by paving the way for new fields or establishing a new paradigm), and/or (2) society at large (eg. by shaping technology or policy). However, I expect the conclusions to be somewhat relevant for all research teams…
Key findings: excellent researchers have individual qualities and diversity, with shared direction, purposeful vision, concrete goals, leadership, and no inconveniences. Their organizations emphasize autonomy & self-organization, organic decentralized collaboration (with possibly metrics, goal-setting, and incentives), spaces for interaction, shared physical space, shared ‘psychological spaces’ and forced interaction combined with psychological safety. Teams are small, seek external input and feedback, and value immaterial rewards.
…Based on the findings above, these are the most important takeaways for our research team at the Foundational Research Institute (FRI) as I see them: (1) We should continue to apply a high bar for hiring researchers…(2) Currently, we have staff who either excel at leadership or at research but nobody who combines both skill sets. We would likely benefit substantially from such an addition to our team…(3) We should continue to provide our research staff with as much freedom and operational support as possible…(4) Currently, many of our researchers work remotely which seems to have higher costs than I previously thought. As a consequence, I have become more convinced that we should try to create a research office geared toward the needs of our research staff…(5) We should invest more time into creating psychological safety for our research staff. I’m not yet sure how to best proceed here…(6) It was worth it to invest time into developing a theory of change, ie., thinking about how exactly our research would lead to real-world changes when it comes to AI designs and deployment…(7) Organizing research workshops with other organizations focused on similar questions is worth it. We should also look into other formats of high-intensity in-person interaction.
1994-weschler.pdf: “Inhaling the spore: Field trip to a museum of natural (un)history”, (1994-09-01; ):
[Description of a visit to an unusual science museum: the LA Museum of Jurassic Technology. Unlike most science museums, only some of the exhibits are genuine. The others are fakes, many made by the museum’s curator. The visitor is challenged to discern the fabulous from the fraudulent.]
[Keywords: 20th century, California, Curiosities and wonders, David Hildebrand Wilson, Los Angeles, Museum of Jurassic Technology, Science museums, hoax, performance art, critical thinking]
“Quantifying the evolution of individual scientific impact”, (2016-11-04):
Are there quantifiable patterns behind a successful scientific career? Sinatra et al. analyzed the publications of 2887 physicists, as well as data on scientists publishing in a variety of fields. When productivity (which is usually greatest early in the scientist’s professional life) is accounted for, the paper with the greatest impact occurs randomly in a scientist’s career. However, the process of generating a high-impact paper is not an entirely random one. The authors developed a quantitative model of impact, based on an element of randomness, productivity, and a factor Q that is particular to each scientist and remains constant during the scientist’s career.
Introduction: In most areas of human performance, from sport to engineering, the path to a major accomplishment requires a steep learning curve and long practice. Science is not that different: Outstanding discoveries are often preceded by publications of less memorable impact. However, despite the increasing desire to identify early promising scientists, the temporal career patterns that characterize the emergence of scientific excellence remain unknown.
Rationale: How do impact and productivity change over a scientific career? Does impact, arguably the most relevant performance measure, follow predictable patterns? Can we predict the timing of a scientist’s outstanding achievement? Can we model, in quantitative and predictive terms, scientific careers? Driven by these questions, here we quantify the evolution of impact and productivity throughout thousands of scientific careers. We do so by reconstructing the publication record of scientists from seven disciplines, associating to each paper its long-term impact on the scientific community, as quantified by citation metrics.
Results: We find that the highest-impact work in a scientist’s career is randomly distributed within her body of work. That is, the highest-impact work can be, with the same probability, anywhere in the sequence of papers published by a scientist—it could be the first publication, could appear mid-career, or could be a scientist’s last publication. This random-impact rule holds for scientists in different disciplines, with different career lengths, working in different decades, and publishing solo or with teams and whether credit is assigned uniformly or unevenly among collaborators.
The random-impact rule allows us to develop a quantitative model, which systematically untangles the role of productivity and luck in each scientific career. The model assumes that each scientist selects a project with a random potential p and improves on it with a factor Qi, resulting in a publication of impact Qip. The parameter Qi captures the ability of scientist i to take advantage of the available knowledge in a way that enhances (Qi > 1) or diminishes (Qi < 1) the potential impact p of a paper. The model predicts that truly high-impact discoveries require a combination of high Q and luck (p) and that increased productivity alone cannot substantially enhance the chance of a very high impact work. We also show that a scientist’s Q, capturing her sustained ability to publish high-impact papers, is independent of her career stage. This is in contrast with all current metrics of excellence, from the total number of citations to the h-index, which increase with time. The Q model provides an analytical expression of these traditional impact metrics and allows us to predict their future time evolution for each individual scientist, being also predictive of independent recognitions, like Nobel prizes.
CONCLUSION: The random-impact rule and the Q parameter, representing two fundamental characteristics of a scientific career, offer a rigorous quantitative framework to explore the evolution of individual careers and understand the emergence of scientific excellence. Such understanding could help us better gauge scientific performance and offers a path toward nurturing high-impact scientists, potentially informing future policy decisions.
The observation of individuals attaining remarkable ages, and their concentration into geographic sub-regions or ‘blue zones’, has generated considerable scientific interest. Proposed drivers of remarkable longevity include high vegetable intake, strong social connections, and genetic markers. Here, we reveal new predictors of remarkable longevity and ‘supercentenarian’ status. In the United States, supercentenarian status is predicted by the absence of vital registration. The state-specific introduction of birth certificates is associated with a 69–82% fall in the number of supercentenarian records. In Italy, which has more uniform vital registration, remarkable longevity is instead predicted by low per capita incomes and a short life expectancy. Finally, the designated ‘blue zones’ of Sardinia, Okinawa, and Ikaria corresponded to regions with low incomes, low literacy, high crime rate and short life expectancy relative to their national average. As such, relative poverty and short lifespan constitute unexpected predictors of centenarian and supercentenarian status, and support a primary role of fraud and error in generating remarkable human age records.
My interest lies in the dynamics of civilized societies: their material needs and limitations, the recurring patterns of geography, social organization, and cultural complexity upon which they are built, and the type of interactions that define their relationships with each other and the physical systems they depend on for survival—or in simpler words, the means by which human communities flourish and fall.
…Human civilization has gone through two stages. The first of these stages is the longest, beginning with the emergence of complex societies in the Near East c. 11,500 years ago and ending only at the beginning of the 19th century. I submit that every society of this period—from the first chiefdoms to the great empires of Rome and China—operated under the same basic structural constraints. The rules and limitations were the same; the differences were a matter of emphasis and scale. This changes at the turn of the 19th century. Humanity’s third great period begins here (it has not yet ended). The rules by which the modern world operates are incredibly different from those of the old order. The transformation wrought by modernization was no less revolutionary than that wrought by the advent of complex society 11,000 years previous.
This revolution is widely recognized, but also grossly mischaracterized. The standard label for this transition is the “Industrial Revolution”. This title is misleading. The industrialization of the world economy was the result, not the cause of modernization. The nature of this radical transformation is captured better by a different title: The Growth Revolution. Population, wealth, and energy production/consumption are three quantitative variables that can be estimated with some accuracy through much of human history. When displayed on a broad scale like this, a striking trend is seen in all three data sets: by 1820 all three begin an exponential climb upwards. This is the “Growth Revolution.” During this revolution human energy production and consumption, population size, wealth, technological capacity, and knowledge all began to increase at an exponential rate. This constant expansion of human resources is the defining feature of our time. Ours is an exponential age.
…500 years of growth on the part of the wealthiest static societies of the old order is equal to less than 7% of a single year’s growth on the part of their modern equivalent!
…Many of the world’s fallen civilizations met their doom by trying to exceed the inherit limits of static civilization.
These type of questions naturally lead to the topic of this book: lex talionis, the law of the talion, the principle of an eye for an eye, of justice through vengeance, retaliation sanctioned by culture and law. This understanding of justice is what propels the Icelandic sagas. But it wasn’t just a Viking tick. “Eye for an eye” was standard practice just about everywhere a few thousand years ago, from the shores of Germainia and the fields of the Greek polis to the warring tribes of Canaan and the even more distant lands of the Kurus and the Zhou. We view this understanding of justice as backward and crude. We say things like “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Miller aims to convince us otherwise. We have a lot to learn from these talionic cultures, he argues, and our world could be made a more just place if we could humble ourselves enough to learn from them.
I am not going to provide a precis of Miller’s argument here. Like past editions of ‘Passages I Highlighted’ (see here) I will reserve myself to quoting the passages of this book I found most interesting. But to really give you a sense for Miller’s argument, I think the best thing I can do is quote first from another one of his books, one that focuses specifically on Icelandic society. He begins that book by quoting a passage from an obscure saga. In only a paragraph, the saga lays out what lex talionis looked like in real life:
Some Norwegian merchants chopped off Skæring’s hand. Gudmund was given self-judgment in the injury case. Haf Brandsson [Gudmund’s second cousin] and Gudmund together adjudged compensation in the amount of thirty hundreds, which was to be paid over immediately. Gudmund then rode away from the ship. But the Norwegians confronted Haf, who had remained behind; they thought the judgment had been too steep and they asked him to do one of two things: either reduce the award or swear an oath. Haf refused to do either.
Some people rode after Gudmund and told him what had happened. He turned back immediately and asked Haf what was going on. Haf told him where matters stood. Gudmund said, “Swear the oath, Haf, or else I will do it, but then they will have to pay sixty hundreds. The oath of either one of us will have the same price as Skæring’s hand.”
The Norwegians refused the offer. “Then I shall make you another proposal”, said Gudmund. “I will pay Skæring the thirty hundreds that you were judged to pay, but I shall choose one man from amongst you who seems to me of equivalent standing with Skæring and chop off his hand. You may then compensate that man’s hand as cheaply as you wish.”
This did not appeal to the Norwegians and they decided to pay the original award immediately. Gudmund took Skæring with him when they left the ship. (G.dýri 26:212) 
Iceland was a country without a state. They had laws but no government to enforce them. If you were wronged, the responsibility to right the wrong rested with you and your kin. To prevent retaliatory feuds the Icelanders would often give the wronged party a chance to stand in judgement and mete out a punishment to pay for their mistakes and restore balance between the two groups. The saga passage you’ve just read is an excellent example of how the system worked. Miller’s comments on it are worth pondering:
By the time the saga writer focuses attention on this incident it is not the hand that is the subject of the dispute but the legitimacy and justice of Gudmund’s judgment. The Norwegians think the award excessive, and not without reason. More than a few men’s lives at this time were compensated for with thirty hundreds or less. Gudmund, however, is able to justify astutely his over-reaching by giving these men of the market a lesson on the contingency of value and values. To the Norwegians the award should reflect the price of a middling Icelandic hand. Gudmund forces them to conceive of the award in a different way: it is not the price of buying Skæring’s hand, but the price of preserving a Norwegian hand. By introducing the prospect of one of their hands to balance against Skæring’s, he is able to remind the Norwegians that the thirty hundreds they must pay purchases more than Skæring’s hand; it also buys off vengeance in kind. He is also able to force them to take into account the costs of personalizing the injury. Most people, he bets, are willing to pay more to save their own hands than they would be willing to pay to take someone else’s. The justice of Gudmund’s award thus depends on a redefinition of its importance. Rather than buying Skæring’s hand, the Norwegians are preserving their own, and the price, they now feel, is well worth paying. Fellow feeling thus comes not in the form of imagining Skæring’s anguish and pain as Skæring’s, but in imagining the pain as their own. 
This is the logic of lex talionis. This is why “an eye for an eye” did not in fact make the whole world go blind. The principle of an eye for an eye, as Miller sees it, is “the more ancient and deeper notion that justice is a matter of restoring balance, achieving equity, determining equivalence, making reparations… getting back to zero, to even.”  Trading eyes for eyes is not so much about indiscriminate, unthinking violence as it is carefully calculated attempts to match punishment to crime. Talionic justice is a system built on deterrence—not only deterring criminals from committing crimes, but deterring vengeance seekers from exacting too heavy a price in retaliation for crimes committed against them.
“Tradition is Smarter Than You Are”, (2018-08-27):
Let’s talk about Henrich first. One of the clearest presentations of his ideas is in his 2016 book The Secret of Our Success. The book is less a heavy scholarly tome than a popified version of Henrich’s research, but Henrich’s decision to trade theoretical detail for accessibility is understandable (it is also why I don’t feel bad quoting large blocks of text from the book in this post). Henrich advances the argument that brain-power alone is not enough to explain why humans are such a successful species. Humans, he argues, are not nearly as intelligent as we think they are. Remove them from the culture and environment they have learned to operate in and they fail quickly. His favorite example of this are European explorers who die in the middle of deserts, jungles, or arctic wastes even though thousands of generations of hunter-gatherers were able to survive and thrive in these same environments. If human success was due to our ability to problem solve, analyze, and rationally develop novel solutions to novel challenges, the explorers should have been fine. Their ghastly fates suggest that rationality may not be the key to human survival…Henrich has dozens of these examples. The common thread pulling them together is that the people whose survival is guaranteed by strict observance of these traditions have no real explanation for why they are following them. Henrich goes into this with more depth in discussion of his ethnographic work in Fiji, where women do not eat certain fish while pregnant.
… Henrich makes two arguments here, both relevant to contemporary debates in politics and philosophy. The first is that customs, traditions, and the like are subject to Darwinian selection. Henrich is not always clear on exactly what is being selected for—is it individuals who follow a tradition, groups whose members all follow the tradition, or the tradition itself?—but the general gist is that traditions stick around longest when they are adaptive. This process is “blind.” Those who follow the traditions do not know how they work, and in some cases (like religious rituals that build social solidarity) knowing the details of how they work might actually reduce the efficacy of the tradition. That is the second argument of note: we do not (and often cannot) understand just how the traditions we inherit help our survival, and because of that, it is difficult to artificially create replacements.
…Can any of this be put into action? I suspect many conservatives will think the answer to this question is obvious. Henrich and Scott have provided empirical support for maintaining “Chesterton’s fence.” Chesterton asks us not destroy customs, tradition, and social structures that we cannot explain. Henrich and Scott question our ability to rationally explain them. Implicit in this is a strong defense of the local, the traditional, and the unchanging. The trouble with our world is that it is changing. Henrich focuses on small scale societies. These societies are not static. The changes they undergo are often drastic. But the distance between the life-style of a forager today and that of her ancestors five hundred years ago pales next to the gap that yawns between the average city-slicker and her ancestors five centuries past…Europeans, Japanese, Taiwanese, and South Koreans born today look forward to spending their teenage years in stage five societies. What traditions could their grandparents give them that might prepare them for this new world? By the time any new tradition might arise, the conditions that made it adaptive have already changed. This may be why the rationalist impulse wrests so strong a hold on the modern mind. The traditions are gone; custom is dying. In the search for happiness, rationalism is the only tool we have left.
“When Modern War Met an Antique Art”, (2015-05-08):
We associate ukiyo-e prints with traditional Japanese landscapes or pastoral settings, episodes from Japanese myths or historical epics, and scenes of courtesan life in Edo. It can be a bit bewildering when we see the same art style and production methods used to produce more modern images. This should not be too much of a surprise, however: the most famous of the great Japanese woodblock artists died only a few decades before Commodore Perry brought his black boats to Edo bay. Much of their era would disappear in the miraculous changes of the Meiji revolution, but as the prints included here show quite clearly, much of the old order lived on into the 20th century.
These prints all depict episodes from the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 or the Russo-Japanese War that was waged a decade later. Remarkably, none of these prints were designed to be great works of art; the great majority were carved and colored to accompany news reports from the front-lines, printed in newspapers or periodicals circulating in Japan on short notice. The artists never saw the battlefields they depicted, relying instead on common visual tropes, reporter’s accounts (you can see a gaggle of such reporters in the bottom right corner of the print placed directly below), and their own imaginations to create these images. The prints are therefore less useful for understanding the tactics or battlefield conditions of these wars than they are for understanding the attitude of a Japanese public mobilized for external conquest for the first time in centuries.
As historical sources the prints are revealing. A comparison of the physical features of the Japanese and Chinese soldiers depicted testifies to how thoroughly the Japanese people had adopted the racialist ideology common in European circles at the time. The prints, like the wars themselves, also betray how eager the Japanese were to prove that they were the equals of the Western powers. Perhaps most interesting, however, is how exultantly they depict the wars of their day. Tactically, the Russo-Japanese War was not far removed from the Great War that soon followed it, but the way the Japanese portrayed their experience with industrial warfare could not be further removed from the collective horror Europeans felt when they fought in the trenches. These woodblock prints were some of the first artistic renderings of industrial age warfare; never again would a people forced to wage such a war render it so beautifully.
Copied below are the war prints I found most useful as historical windows or most visually arresting as works of art…
“ISIS, the Mongols, and 'The Return of Ancient Challenges'”, (2014-12-18):
The most interesting parallel between ISIS and the forces of Chinggis Khan is actually not one Anderson makes explicitly. He sets up this comparison in his discussion of the ISIS command structure:
Use Mission Orders to Enhance Operational Security. Telling subordinates what to do, not how to do it, is a basic tenant of maneuver warfare; but it also allows Baghdadi to command and control his forces with an absolute minimum of cell phone and radio communications that are subject to American intercepts which can be provided to Iraqi security forces. Baghdadi makes extensive use of runners and motorcycle messengers to keep his opponents in the dark.
American commanders talk a good game about Maneuver Warfare, but many take advantage of technology and secure communications to micromanage. It is not unusual for an American Colonel to be tracking squad sized units on his computer; worse still, it is not unusual to require American squad and platoon sized units to submit detailed patrol plans three days in advance so they can be plotted into computers. Baghdadi can simply say; “take this town and let me know when you have it”. It doesn’t make him a good guy, but he is a very effective military leader. Contrast this with Maliki and Karzai who will move or fire a commander who appears so competent or popular that he might become a competitor for power (emphasis added) .
And here is where things get interesting. I don’t think it is possible to isolate one, single variable that can account for the epochal success of the Mongol military machine. But if I was forced to try and boil down the secret of the Mongol Empire to a sentence or two it would sound a lot like the one Anderson has written here. In contrast to both the kingdoms the Mongols destroyed and every other nomadic confederation that preceded or followed his empire, Chinggis Khan possessed the complete loyalty of his troops and his generals. The men under his command were absolutely, and to their enemies, terrifyingly, united. Chinggis Khan could wage simultaneous wars on opposite sides of the known world, erode the internal cohesion of every kingdom his envoys visited, and paralyze enemy defenses with a flood of independently commanded units only because of the fearsome unity and loyalty of his forces.
While none of the Mongol’s other foes imploded so spectacularly, sowing dissension and division within the ranks of their enemies was an essential element of all Mongol campaigns. Whether they were fighting Hungarian monarchs on Pannonian plains or Song Dynasty navies on the Yangtze, the Mongols were masters at turning their enemies against each other. The same could not be said about the Mongol’s rivals. No one ever managed to turn a Mongol. For the first three generation of the empire there were no secession crises, no infighting, and few traitors. Powerful commanders deferred to their leaders, even when, as Juvainyi hints, doing so meant to demotion or punishment.  This is really quite extraordinary when you consider the kind of positions these commanders were placed in. Consider the case of Muqali, one of the greatest but least known of the Mongol generals. While Chinggis was off fighting the Khawarezm Empire and other enemies in the West, Muqali was placed in charge of the war effort in Northern China. For six years he controlled all of Mongolia, Manchuria, and the North China plain and for six years he fought the Jin Empire without losing a single battle. He was a powerful and popular commander. But neither he nor his sons ever challenged the great Khan’s authority. There is no evidence that Chinggis ever feared that they would. 
…The story of how Chinggis Khan created an empire whose many branches were unified in effort and whose many subjects were absolutely loyal to him is one of the most fascinating in world history. Unfortunately, it is only tangentially related to the topic at hand. A full investigation of that question must be reserved for a later post. For the purposes of this discussion what matters is that the conquests of the Mongol empire, the type of warfare it waged, and the methods it used to incorporate new peoples into its domains would not have been possible except for the unshakable unity of its commanders and warriors. In this the Mongols are very much like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the warriors under his command.
“The Cross Section Illusion”, (2014-06-07):
If you are concerned with American obesity rates and turn to the cross sectional data to try and figure out what is going on, it is easy to reach a flawed conclusion. The correlation between education and obesity, for example, seems quite clear. The poorer and less educated an American is, the more likely he or she is to be obese. Looking at this data it seems reasonable to suggest that something about poverty is making people more obese—perhaps cruddy processed food is the only thing America’’s poor and less educated can afford to buy, or maybe the poor live in urban areas where people do not exercise. These hypotheses are plausible… until you look at the time series. It then becomes apparent that the rich and educated are gaining weight at the same rate as the poor. Poverty cannot explain this.
It is very difficult to make meaningful claims about causation—or even correlation!—on the basis of cross section data alone. Often times seemingly perfect, statistically-significant correlations disappear when the same variables are viewed over a longer stretch of time. In other cases—as in this one—time series data reveals that the real story isn’’t aboutbetween two groups at all, but about the rate at which each group is changing. It is all too easy to be fooled by the Cross Section Illusion.
“Announcing: The Thucydides Roundtable”, (2016-08-23):
I am proud to announce the upcoming Thucydides Roundtable, to be hosted at the group blog Zenpundit in October 2016.
Thucydides is a man of firsts. He has been called the father of realism, the first “theorist of war” in the Western tradition, the inventor of political science and international relations, the first man to ever attempt an objective and evidence based history of the world he lived in, and many other things besides. In the two thousand years since they were first written, his words have been used and abused by historians, poets, social scientists, and statesmen from one side of the Earth to the other. His chronicle of the thirty year war waged between his native Athens and her rival Sparta has just about everything in it. I really do mean everything. No great or enduring theme of the human experience is left untouched—war and international order of course make their appearance, but so do meditations on statesmanship, bargaining, courage, partisanship, justice, ethics, ambition, greed, honor, religion, culture, history, and so much more. His History of the Peloponnesian War is not just the story of a quarrel between Athenians and Lacedaemonians in the 5th century BC. It is a story about all of mankind.
Or at least this is what Thucydides hoped it would be.
I invite you to discover for yourself if Thucydides’ ambition was realized by reading his work with us. We will officially kick off the roundtable discussion at Zenpundit in mid-October. In the weeks to come we will publish the full list of official participants as well as the Roundtable’s official rules of engagement. Until then, I encourage you to go out and purchase the Landmark Thucydides to get a head start on the reading. It’s a big book, but one well worth reading.
“Everybody Wants a Thucydides Trap”, (2016-10-30):
We don’t come to Thucydides’ History with preexisting knowledge of the war. Our only guide to Thucydides is Thucydides himself. We thus must read with utmost care. If we do not, we risk mistaking Thucydides’ judgments about the war for the events of the war itself.
Nowhere is more careful attention demanded than Thucydides’ treatment of the Megarian Decree. Like all Greeks of the age, the Athenians had long memories. Their enmity for Megara began a generation earlier, when Athenian blood was lost as consequence of Megarian betrayal. The Megarian betrayal came during a day of war, Athen’s first life-and-death struggle with the men of Sparta. The proximate causes of the this dispute were more recent, however. Thucydides reports that Athens “accused the Megarians of pushing their cultivation into consecrated ground and the unenclosed land on their border, and of harboring runaway slaves.” Thucydides’ description of the Athenian response: a “Megara Decree, excluding the Megarians from the use of Athenian harbors and of the market of Athens.” (1.139.2)
…In face of these questions Pericles was dismissive:
"I hope that none of you think that we shall be going to war for a trifle if we refuse to revoke the Megara decree, which appears in front of their complaints, and the revocation of which is to save us from war, or let any feeling of self-reproach linger in your minds, as if you went to war for slight cause. Why, this trifle contains the whole seal and trial of your resolution. If you give way, you will instantly have to meet some greater demand, as having been frightened into obedience in the first instance; while a firm refusal will make them clearly understand that they must treat you more as equals. Make your decision therefore at once, either to submit before you are harmed, or if we are to go to war, as I for one think we ought, to do so without caring whether the ostensible cause be great or small, resolved against making concessions or consenting to a precarious tenure of our possessions. For all claims from an equal, urged upon a neighbor as commands before any attempt at legal settlement, be they great or be they small, have only one meaning, and that is slavery." [1.40.4, emphasis added]
The argument that Thucydides puts into Pericles’ mouth is simple: the coming war is not really about the decree at all, but more fundamental questions of power and rank. Is Athens subordinate to Sparta? Or are the two polis equal in rank? That was the real question being decided by this war. Any “ostensible cause” to get things rolling would do—in this case that ostensible cause just happened to be the embargo of Megara.
…See this for what it is: Thucydides has omitted from his history a central cause of the war! This was not an oversight. It may have been the entire point of Book I. In Thucydidean terms, the Megarian decree was (as Thucydides has Pericles say) “a trifle.” It was an “ostensible cause” of the great war, but not its true one. A war of this magnitude could not be caused by trifles, and to drive home the point of just how trifling and irrelevant this casus belli was to the war’s actual conduct, Thucydides crafts a narrative of the war that does not include it at all…A review of the origins and first moments of this war suggests that it was less a matter of growing fear and growing power, than a matter of tarnished honor and quests for glory. Athens’ growing wealth was a necessary condition for the war, but it was hardly the only or the most important cause of it. Had Athens’ quest for glory been less ambitious, had Sparta not tied herself to an ally hellbent on forcing her private wars and narrow interests onto the entire league of Spartan allies, and had the Greeks not been a people obsessed with insults, rank, and honor, this war may never have occurred. It was not an inevitable clash of fear and power that brought war to Hellas, but a very specific set of decisions made by a very specific set of leaders in the years before the war.
“Men of Honor, Men of Interest”, (2016-12-01):
The Plataeans and the Mytilenians both heard a case arguing for their death, as well as one arguing for their continued survival. In the Mytilenian case, both the defendant and the prosecution were represented by Athenians. In the case of Plataea, the Plataeans were forced to speak in their own defense, with the Thebans arguing for their death. The parallel is clear. It is to the arguments we turn to find the contrast between the two hegemonic powers.
…What is this but to make greater enemies than you have already, and to force others to become so who would otherwise have never thought of it?
The Athenians were once a people of honor. “For glory then and honor now” was the rallying cry Pericles raised to lead his people to war (2.64.6). The Athenians began this entire drama chasing it. No longer. Athenian honor died long before the war’s close. Athenian honor could not survive the plague. Then the beastly truth was revealed: honor meant nothing but scarred skin and blistered visage. Nobility brought no recompense but rotting flesh. Eat now, drink now, be merry now, for tomorrow men will die! And die, and, die, and die. Justice, integrity, honor—mere words. Where could those words be found? Buried deep in burning heaps of flesh! Abandoned in lonely, forgotten corners where none would see them croak away! Beneath blood, phlegm, pustule, and vomit! What has honor to do with Athens? Nothing. What is more, they knew it…Thucydides relates the speech of two men in the debate over Mytilene, one Cleon, son of Cleanetus, the ‘most violent man in Athens.’ The other Diodotus, son of Eucrates, a more measured sort who does not appear elsewhere in this history. Cleon argues for the Mytilene’s extinction. Diodotus, for their salvation. They disagreed on almost every point. What sticks out, however, is what they did agree on. Both wanted everyone to know that their arguments had nothing whatsoever to do with justice, honor, or mercy.
…However, if, right or wrong, you determine to rule, you must carry out your principle and punish the Mytilenians as your interest requires; or else you must give up your empire and cultivate honesty without danger (3.37; 3.40).
In reply, Diodotus:
…However, I have not come forward either to oppose or to accuse in the matter of Mytilene; indeed, the question before us as sensible men is not their guilt, but our interests. Though I prove them ever so guilty, I shall not, therefore, advise their death, unless it be expedient; nor though they should have claims to indulgence, shall I recommend it, unless it be clearly for the good of the country
Behold the men of Athens! Dead to honor, to principle, to humanity. This was a people whose hearts had hardened. Nothing was left to Athens but the pursuit of power—and its cousin, profit. The only language they spoke was the language of naked interest. That language saved the Mytilenians. They were lucky. Interest is a fickle master. The men of Melos discovered just how twisted a master it can be. In time, so would the Athenians.
“ History is Written by the Losers ”, (2016-11-21):
In his roundtable post, “Treason Makes the Historian”, Lynn Rees lists a few of the type. Herodotus wrote his history only after his exile from Halicarnassus; Xenophon wrote his memoirs only after his faction was forced out of Athens. Polybius was once a general for the Archean League, but wrote his history as a hostage at Rome. The destruction of Judea was chronicled by a Josephus, a Jew.
These men abandoned their countries and people for the victors of the future. But Quislingdom was not the only losing path to historical fame. Tacitus’s loyalty to Rome never wavered—but neither did his identification with Rome’s Senatorial class, a group whose power was slowly stripped away as Tacitus wrote his chronicles. Sima Guang, the second most important historian of Chinese history, only finished his massive Zizhi Tongjian after court rivalries had forced him to retire. The history of the Mongols was written almost entirely by their vanquished enemies. Ibn Khaldun was associated with so many failed regimes that it is a wonder he found time to write his history at all.
I am sure more examples can be found. The example most relevant to this roundtable is one Thucydides, son of Olorus. It is here in Book IV we finally learn a tad about the man behind the curtain:
The passage of Brasidas was a complete surprise to the people in the town; and the capture of many of those outside, and the flight of the rest within the wall, combined to produce great confusion among the citizens; especially as they did not trust one another…Meanwhile the party opposed to the traitors proved numerous enough to prevent the gates being immediately thrown open, and in concert with Eucles, the general, who had come from Athens to defend the place, sent to the other commander in Thrace, Thucydides, son of Olorus, the author of this history, who was at the isle of Thasos, a Parian colony, half a day’s sail from Amphipolis, to tell him to come to their relief. On receipt of this message he at once set sail with seven ships which he had with him, in order, if possible, to reach Amphipolis in time to prevent its capitulation, or in any case to save Eion (4.103).
Now pieces of Thucydides work start to click together. Few Spartans are mentioned by name; fewer still are Spartans mentioned by name on multiple occasions. The exception is Brasidas. Brasidas, brave defender of Methone, and thus “the first man in this war to receive the official honors of Sparta” (2.25). Brasidas, whose stratagems almost defeated the Athenians at sea (2.86-87). Brasidas, the daring leading who almost stormed the fort at Pylos (4.12). Brasidas, the savior of Megara (4.70-73). Brasidas, the only Spartan eloquent and wise enough to raise all of Thessaly into revolt (4.84). Brasidas, the general who defeated Thucydides.
Thucydides’ obsession with Brasidas is easy to understand once his personal relation to Thucydides is made clear. His portrayal of Brasidas as daring, brilliant, charismatic, and clever beyond measure also begins to make sense—the greater Brasidas’ past feats appear, the less damning Thucydides defeat at his hands becomes.
“Pre-Modern Battlefields Were Absolutely Terrifying”, (2015-10-25):
Why was cold steel a “unique terror” for troops in combat? On the face of it a sword does not seem any more frightening than the cannon-ball. Pop culture portrayals of small imperialist forces putting hordes of backward natives to flight with nothing but gun and powder suggest the opposite conclusion. Images of countless thousands led to the slaughter on the banks of the Somme or hills of Verdun only strengthen the impression. But those men who actually withstood both the bullet and the bayonet overwhelmingly preferred to face the former. A similar preference for arrows and cross-bows shot from afar over spear thrusts and sword strokes closer to home pervades the ancient and medieval sources.
To understand why this was so you must discard Hollywood notions of close combat. This is hard to do, for the notions are much older than Hollywood. The classical Chinese novels Outlaws of the Marsh and Romance of the Three Kingdoms speak of warriors who exchange five, ten, twenty, and even fifty “rounds” or “clashes” on the battlefield. The long duels of ancient India’s great war epic, the Mahabharata, are matched only by the extended contests of its Greek counterpart, the Iliad. All of it is poppycock. Ancient battles did not descend into a series of extended melees when the two front lines collided. The silliness of the Hollywood style of battle becomes immediately apparent when you watch sparring competitions that use pre-modern weapons: [video link]
As you can see, most close quarter engagements are decided within seconds. To engage in hand to hand combat is to hang your life on a the balance of a few split second decisions. This is terrifying. It is all the more terrifying if the enemy force is as committed and disciplined as your own. If you survive the first encounter—that is, if you successfully kill the first man who attempts to kill you—there will be another, and then yet another to fill in his place. How long can you keep making instant life-or-death decisions before you make a mistake? The odds are not in your favor. The physical and mental strain of close quarters combat on those in the front lines is simply more than can be borne for any great stretch of time.
“The Radical Sun Tzu”, (2015-01-02):
Timeless as it may seem, however, the Sunzi was the product of problems experienced at a specific time and a specific place. It is my belief that we cannot really understand the Sunzi if we do not first understand the world from which it came—the world of the Warring States. A few historians and scholars of Chinese thought have written this sort of analysis; the best of these attempts to place the Sunzi within its historical context are usually focused on the broad, macro-historical trends that divided the Spring and Autumn period that preceded the Sunzi from the Warring States period that gave birth to it. From this perspective the Sunzi and the other military manuals that followed it were the natural product of a world torn asunder by wars waged on an ever increasing scale between large infantry armies fighting in the name of territorial, bureaucratized states. There is, however, more to the Sunzi’s historical setting than the institutional history of ancient China. Just as important is the intellectual milieu of early Warring States times. The compilers of the Sunzi were not the first Chinese to write about war. When read as a response to these earlier voices, the Sunzi’s vision of war and politics is nothing less than radical.
…Its revolutionary nature only becomes clear when we see what it was written in response to. The place to turn is the Zuo Zhuan, China’s oldest narrative historical account and one of the few preserves of the old Spring and Autumn ethos. One of its better known dictums reads:
The great affairs of state are sacrifice and warfare.
Meyer comments on the contrast between the two statements:
[In the Sunzi] all mention of sacrifice is eliminated, telegraphing the text’s contention that martial matters must be viewed in purely material terms. Rather than “warfare”, the “military” is held up as the great affair of state, implying (as the text goes on to elaborate) that there are uses for military power beyond the ‘honorable’ contest of arms. Moreover, the word that the Sunzi uses by reference to the “military”, bing (兵), does not evoke the aristocratic charioteer but the common foot solider, who had become the backbone of the Warring States army.
The Sunzi’s insistence that military methods were more important to the state’s survival than sacrifice was not merely radical—it was nonsensical. In the early Chinese world view, sacrifice and warfare could not be separated from each other. As with the Aztecs, Maya, and many other premodern peoples, for the Chinese of Zhou times, warfare was a sacrificial ritual.
A few weeks ago a friend passed along one of the least correct essays I have ever had the misfortune to read. It was written by Edward Luttwak…In it Luttwak suggests contemporary Chinese foreign policy follows a pattern first seen in the foreign relations of the Han Dynasty two millennia ago
Formidable mounted archers and capable of sustained campaigning (a primary objective of the Steppe State), the Xiongnú ravaged and savaged and extorted tribute from the perpetually less martial, and certainly cavalry-poor Han until the latter finally felt able to resist again. Even then, 147 years of intermittent warfare ensued until Huhanye (呼韓邪), the paramount Chanyu (Qagan, Khan) of the Xiongnú, personally and formally submitted to the emperor Han Xuandi in 51 BCE, undertaking to pay homage, to leave a son at court as a hostage, and to deliver tribute, as befitted a vassal. That was a very great downfall from the familial status of earlier Chanyus of the epoch of Xiongnú predominance, who were themselves recognized as emperors, whose sons and heirs could have imperial daughters in marriage, and who from 200 BCE had received tribute from the Han, instead of the other way around. It is this successful transformation of a once superior power first into an equal (signified by imperial marriages) and then into a subservient client-state that seems to have left an indelible residue in China’s tradition of statecraft.
…ifwants to talk about how the echoes of the Han-Xiongnu war can be heard in modern China’s foreign policy, I am all ears. Long term readers of The Stage know that there are few conversation starters I would find more thrilling to hear. Too many contemporary controversies cannot be understood until we step back and look at world affairs from the long view of history. But there is a catch in all this: the history has to be correct. It must accord to the facts. If one uses the past to interpret the present then your reading must be based on events that actually happened. This cannot be said for Mr. Luttwak’s essay. The story he tells simply did not happen.
Luttwak’s descriptions of the heqin policy’s aim is basically correct. It was designed to corrupt the Xiongnu and slowly ‘Sinicize’ them. It was designed, through the power of Confucian family norms, to subordinate the Xiongnu ruler to Han Emperor.
Whatneglects to mention is that the policy was a complete and utter failure.
If the ‘peace marriage’ (heqin) systemdescribes did not do the Xiongnu in, what did?
…The logistics machine the Han created to defeat the Xiongnu is one of the marvels of the ancient world . Each of the Han’s campaigns was a feat worthy of Alexander the Great. But Alexander only pushed to India once. The Han launched these campaigns year after year for decades . The sheer expanse of the conflict is staggering; Han armies ranged from Fergana to Manchuria, theaters 3,000 miles apart. Each campaign required the mobilization of tens of thousands of men and double the number of animals. Chang Chun-shu has tallied the numbers:
“In the many campaigns in the Western regions (Hexi, Qiang, and Xiyu) and the Xiongnu land, the Han sent a total force of over 1.2 million cavalrymen, 800,000 foot soldiers, and 10.5 million men in support and logistic roles. The total area of lad seized in Hexi alone was 426,700 square kilometers. In developing this region the Han spent 100 billion in cash per year, compared to the regular annual government revenue of 12 billion. In the process the Han government moved from the interior over 1 million people to populate and develop the Hexi river. Thus the Han conquest of the land west of the Yellow River was the greatest expansion in Chinese history.” 
The demands of the war forced the Han to restructure not only the Chinese state, but all of Chinese society.  The Han’s willingness to radically restructure their society to meet the immense financial and logistic demands of an eighty year conflict is one of the central reasons they emerged victorious from it.
…The Han followed the same basic strategy. The aim of generals like Wei Qing and Huo Qubing was to kill every single man, woman and child they came across and by doing so instill such terror in their enemies that tribes would surrender en masse upon their arrival. By trapping the Xiongnu into one bloody slug match after another the Han forced them into a grinding war of attrition that favored the side with the larger population reserves. The Xiongnu were unprepared for such carnage in their own lands; within the first decade of the conflict the Han’s sudden attacks forced the Xiongnu to retreat from their homeland in the Ordos to the steppes of northern Mongolia. Then came a sustained—and successful—effort to apply the same sort of pressure on the Xiongnu’s allies and vassals in Turkestan and Fergana. By sacking oasis towns and massacring tribes to the east, the Han were able to terrorize the peoples of Turkestan into switching their allegiance to China or declare their independence from the Xiongnu.
The Xiongnu were left isolated north of the Orkhorn. Under constant military pressure and cut off from the goods they had always extorted from agrarian peoples in China and Turkestan, the Xiongnu political elite began to fracture. A series of succession crises and weak leaders ensued; by 58 BC the Xiongnu’s domain had fallen into open civil war. It was one of the aspiring claimants to the title of Chanyu that this conflict produced who traveled to Chang’an, accepted the Han’s suzerainty, and ended eighty years of war between the Han and the Xiongnu .
How did the Chinese transform an enemy whose realm stretched thousands of miles across Inner Asia into a mere tributary vassal? They did it through flame and blood and terror. Any narrative of Han-Xiongnu relations that passes over these eighty years of grueling warfare is a distorted depiction of the times.
“Smallpox on the Steppe”, (2014-03-08):
…The Manchus, before the founding of the Qing, also rarely encountered smallpox, but they knew of its danger. Mongols and Manchus who had not been exposed to the disease were exempted from coming to Beijing to receive titles of succession. The main response of the Mongols and Manchus to those who did fall ill was quarantine. Li Xinheng commented that if anyone in a tribe caught smallpox, his relatives abandoned him in a cave or distant grassland. 70 to 80% of those infected died. The German traveler Peter Simon Pallas, who visited the Mongols three times front 1768 to I771, commented that smallpox was the only disease they greatly feared. It occurred very seldom, but spread rapidly when it struck: “If someone catches it, they abandon him in his tent; they only approach front the windward side to provide food. Children who catch it are sold to the Russians very cheaply.” The Mongols whom Pallas visited lived far from the Chinese border, but they knew well that smallpox was highly contagious and nearly fatal.
The Chinese discovery of variolation—a method of inoculation—was of great aid in reducing the severity of attacks. The Kangxi emperor himself was selected as heir in part because he had survived the disease in childhood; his father had died of it. In 1687 he inaugurated regular inoculation of the royal family, and his successor extended mandatory inoculation to all Manchu children. The Manchus adopted this Chinese medical practice in order to protect themselves against the virulent strains that were absent from the steppe. Only Manchus who had survived the disease were allowed to be sent to the Mongolian steppe. Mongols close to the Manchu and Chinese border gradually grew immune, but those farther away suffered great losses in the nineteenth century when Chinese penetration increased. 
…For several millennia historians have tried to explain the generally superior strength and endurance of steppe warriors, often focusing on the demands of life in the saddle or the nomads’ protein-rich diets as the explanation for their vitality. A more powerful explanation may be the absence of the debilitating and deadly diseases of settled life among the peoples of the steppe.
“Meditations on Maoism—Ye Fu's Hard Road Home”, (2014-04-14):
Americans-and particularly American conservatives-are sometimes accused of failing to confront their country’s past honestly. Ye Fu’s challenge—and in many respects all of China’s—was not honestly facing his past, but simply finding it. Ye Fu was born the great grandson of a ranking Nationalist commander, the grand son of a landlord, and the son of two parents who zealously joined the revolution only to be discarded by later ‘struggles of the Proletariat’. Ye Fu was only dimly aware of this heritage growing up. It was not until his father’s funeral, when he first stepped foot on his ancestral lands, that he had either the chance or a reason to find the truth of his family’s past. This became a quest that drove and consumed him and is a recurring motif that unites his most poignant essays.
…Thus the true details of his father’s life and heritage were revealed: a grandfather who had climbed from the peasantdom of his birth to the hallowed class of landlord only a few years before the revolution overtook the village (he earned the title by being the only one in the village rich enough to employ a single field hand); a son who zealously hunted down landlords for the Party, unaware that his own family 50 miles to the east suffered the same persecution he so earnestly delivered; the suicide of his father and the destruction of the clan’s eldest generation in its entirety, both brothers and wives, within a single night.
"Hundreds of millions of lives were shoveled into the trenches of the 20th century", Ye Fu reflects.  Historians estimate that the death toll of these land reform campaigns is in the range of two to three million.  But for Ye Fu those ditches are not those of the nameless millions. These were dug by his father and filled by his grandfather. The tragedies of the 20th century are his tragedies. He was born from the ditches—though he would not discover this gruesome truth until he was a grown man.
He who reads Ye Fu’s meditations on these mournful roots leaves with the strong—but unexpected—impression that the true tragedy of modern Chinese history is not found in its colossal death toll. For Ye Fu the real tragedy is what all these dead represented. The first to die were those most committed to the old order. They were the upholders of traditional propriety, keepers of the ancestral shrine, and symbols of basic human decency. These men and women often lived far below their ideals, profiting from a system rightly seen as exploitative, but as long they lived so did the ideal. Their deaths meant the destruction of their entire society. With them passed old structures of power and control, but also the old values and traditions these social arrangements had embodied and enshrined. The life defined by decorum, trust, filial piety, and kindness lost its place as the ideal of Chinese civilization, replaced by a new model that honored cruelty, deception, and revolutionary ardor.
One of the extraordinary things about reading Mao’s speeches from this period is the fluidity of who was considered an ally and who was considered an enemy. Mao framed his campaigns as a struggle between “the people” and “the enemy”, but who fit into each group differed drastically based off of the Party’s perceptions of who was a credible threat to The Cause and who was not. As Mao put it:
To understand these two different types of contradictions correctly, we must first be clear on what is meant by “the people” and what is meant by “the enemy”. The concept of “the people” varies in content in different countries and in different periods of history in a given country. Take our own country for example. During the War of Resistance Against Japan, all those classes, strata and social groups opposing Japanese aggression came within the category of the people, while the Japanese imperialists, their Chinese collaborators and the pro-Japanese elements were all enemies of the people. During the War of Liberation, the U.S. imperialists and their running dogs—the bureaucrat-capitalists, the landlords and the Kuomintang reactionaries who represented these two classes—were the enemies of the people, while the other classes, strata and social groups, which opposed them, all came within the category of the people. At the present stage, the period of building socialism, the classes, strata and social groups which favour, support and work for the cause of socialist construction all come within the category of the people, while the social forces and groups which resist the socialist revolution and are hostile to or sabotage socialist construction are all enemies of the people.
Thus a particular group could at one point be an honored part of “the people”, at another point an ally in a “united front”, and later a despised “enemy” of the regime. How the regime treated you depended very much on how threatening Party leaders believed you might be to the regime and its cause.
Today The Cause has flipped—officially—from socialist revolution to national rejuvenation. The Party works under the same schema but has shifted the “people” that Mao identified with specific economic classes to the nation at large. Mass mobilization campaigns have been retired. But struggle and united front campaigns have not. Xi’s great corruption purge, the Uighur labor camps of Xinjiang, the attack on Christians across China—these all follow the same methods for crushing and coercing “enemies” developed by Mao and the Party in the early ’40s. “One Country, Two Systems”, interference campaigns in the Chinese diaspora, the guided, gilded tours given to Musk and his ilk—these all follow the same methods for corrupting and controlling “allies” developed by Mao and the Party that same decade. The tools have never changed. The only thing that has changed is the Party’s assessment of who is an “enemy” and who is part of the “people.”
There is one threat, however, that the Communist legacy has poorly prepared the Party to face. Stalin and Mao conceived of their projects in cultural terms—they were not just attempting to stamp out dangerous people, but dangerous ideas. To that end both Stalin and Mao cut their countries off from the world they had no control over. If your end goal is socialist revolution this might be tenable. But if your end goal is national rejuvenation—that is, a future where China sits at the top of a global order, more wealthy and powerful than any other—then engagement with the outside world must be had. It means foreigners coming to China in great numbers, and Chinese going abroad in numbers no smaller. It means a much more accurate conception of the way the rest of the world works among the minds of the Chinese people. It means contemplating paths for China that do not involve being ruled by a dictatorial party-state.
This tension lies at the root of the Party’s problems with the West. Countries like America threaten the Party with their mere existence. Consider what these countries do: they allow dissidents from authoritarian powers shelter. Their societies spawn (even when official government policy is neutral on the question) movement after movement devoted to spreading Western ideals and ideas to other lands and peoples. They are living proof that a country does not need a one-party state to become powerful and wealthy. These things pose a threat to the Communist Party of China. The Party itself is the first to admit it. 
Under the Khmer Rouge, making love was an explicitly political act. Marriage was a political decision. Refusing to sleep with your husband was an act of political rebellion. The first claim of the totalitarian is that everything is political.
In my view, a totalitarian system must meet two minimum requirements:
- In this system all human action is considered political action.
- The system is ruled by a Party which claims commanding authority to direct all political action—and thus all human action—for its cause.
The great tragedies of 20th century history occurred as the totalitarian leaders attempted to translate their claim of authority over all human action into actual control over the same.
This view of totalitarian society crystallized in my mind some years ago, when I first read Liang Heng’s memoir of his youthful escapades as a Red Guard in the Cultural Revolution. A professor had asked me to review it. In that brief review I noted:
In Mao’s China the personal was always political. And not just the personal—everything anyone did was political. Maoism was a political ideology that asked its members to give everything they were, had, and did to the socialist cause. This intellectual framework implies that everything one does should be layered with political meaning. A child’s prank, a lover’s kiss, and a friend’s embrace were all political acts. The clothes one wore, the way one walked, the letters one wrote, and the words one spoke all had political valence. It was with this in mind Liang Shan warned: “Never give your opinion on anything, even if you’re asked directly” (76).
Such caution is inevitable in a world where there is no distinction between the personal and the political. Politics is the division of power, politicking the contest for it. In a system where the most intimate and private actions have political meaning, these actions will be used by those who seek power. These naked contests for control leave no room for good and evil—good becomes what those with power declare it. “One day you are red, one day you are black, and one day you are red again” (76), Liang Shan instructed, and he was correct. This struggle stretched from factions warring within the walls of Zhongnanhai to the village black class child currying for favor.
The problem is not competition: that is an ingrained aspect of human life. The special tragedy of the Maoist system was that it spared nothing from the pursuit of power. There was no aspect of life that could be cordoned off as a refuge from the storm. 
“Everything is Worse in China”, (2017-07-19):
Here I will just share one of my strongest reactions to the book—a thought that occurred again and again as I drifted through its pages. Esolen presents a swarm of maladies sickening American society, ranging from a generation of children suffocated by helicopter parenting to a massive state bureaucracy openly hostile too virtuous living. My reaction to each of his carefully drawn portraits was the same: this problem is even worse in China.
Are you worried about political correctness gone awry, weaponized by mediocrities to defame the worthy, suffocating truth, holding honest inquiry hostage through fear and terror? That problem is worse in China.
Do you lament the loss of beauty in public life? Its loss as a cherished ideal of not just art and oratory but in the building of homes, chapels, bridges, and buildings? Its disappearance in the comings-and-goings of everyday life? That problem is worse in China.Do you detest a rich, secluded, and self-satisfied cultural elite that despises, distrusts, and derides the uneducated and unwashed masses not lucky enough to live in one of their chosen urban hubs? That problem is worse in China. Are you sickened by crass materialism? Wealth chased, gained, and wasted for nothing more than vain display? Are you oppressed by the sight of children denied the joys of childhood, guided from one carefully structured resume-builder to the next by parents eternally hovering over their shoulders? Do you dread a hulking, bureaucratized leviathan, unaccountable to the people it serves, and so captured by special interests that even political leaders cannot control it? Are you worried by a despotic national government that plays king-maker in the economic sphere and crushes all opposition to its social programs into the dust? Do you fear a culture actively hostile to the free exercise of religion? Hostility that not only permeates through every layer of society, but is backed by the awesome power of the state?
These too are all worse in China.
…All of this should lighten the tone of gloom and doom that pervades the traditionalist critique of modern America. The reference point of these writers is the American (or less usually, the European) past. Look instead at the present! It could be so much worse for those of our ilk. In some countries, it is.
“The Utterly Dysfunctional Belt and Road”, (2019-05-08):
The always excellent Stella Zhang directed me to a newish paper by political scientists Lee Jones and Zeng Jinhan on the domestic politics of China’s Belt and Road. Long term readers will remember that I am bearish on Xi’s grand dream. Here is how I described the central problems with the scheme for Foreign Policy:
There is also a gap between how BRI projects are supposed to be chosen and how they actually have been selected. Xi and other party leaders have characterized BRI investment in Eurasia as following along defined “economic corridors” that would directly connect China to markets and peoples in other parts of the continent. By these means the party hopes to channel capital into areas where it will have the largest long-term benefit and will make cumulative infrastructure improvements possible.
This has not happened: one analysis of 173 BRI projects concluded that with the exception of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) “there appears to be no statistically-significant relationship between corridor participation and project activity…[suggesting that] interest groups within and outside China are skewing President Xi’s signature foreign policy vision.”
This skew is an inevitable result of China’s internal political system. BRI projects are not centrally directed. Instead, lower state bodies like provincial and regional governments have been tasked with developing their own BRI projects. The officials in charge of these projects have no incentive to approve financially sound investments: by the time any given project materializes, they will have been transferred elsewhere. BRI projects are shaped first and foremost by the political incentives their planners face in China: There is no better way to signal one’s loyalty to Xi than by laboring for his favored foreign-policy initiative. From this perspective, the most important criteria for a project is how easily the BRI label can be slapped on to it…
The problems China has had with the BRI stem from contradictions inherent in the ends party leaders envision for the initiative and the means they have supplied to reach them. BRI projects are chosen through a decentralized project-management system and then funded through concessional loans offered primarily by PRC policy banks. This is a recipe for cost escalation and corruption. In countries like Cambodia, a one-party state ruled by autocrats, this state of affairs is viable, for there is little chance that leaders will be held accountable for lining their pockets (or, more rarely, the coffers of their local communities) at the entire nation’s expense. But most BRI countries are not Cambodia. In democracies this way of doing things is simply not sustainable, and in most BRI countries it is only so long before an angry opposition eager to pin their opponents with malfeasance comes to power, armed with the evidence of misplaced or exploitative projects. 
The key points to take away from my account is that the failures of the BRI seem to factor back to a few central points: first, that project selection is mostly driven by the priorities of folks working in SOEs, provincial governments, and a plethora of different policy banks. The central government in Beijing has difficulty directing their efforts. Secondly, that these people do not have a good understanding of the countries in which they are investing, and face little incentive to gain this understanding. This leads to the sort of corruption and ‘predatory’ funding that has given BRI its poisonous reputation in countries long exposed to it.
Jones and Zeng agree with this general picture, but provide a far more detailed account of what is happening ‘behind the scenes’ when BRI projects are chosen and funded. The process they describe is not unique to the Belt and Road. It starts as Communist high leadership paints bold words in the sky:
Foreign-policy steering happens through several important mechanisms. The first is top leaders’ major speeches, which are usually kept vague to accommodate diverse interests and agendas. Rather than ‘carefully-worked out grand strategies’, they are typically ‘platitudes, slogans, catchphrases, and generalities’, offering ‘atmospheric guidance’ that others must then interpret and implement. Examples include: Deng’s tao guang yang hui, whose meaning is ‘debatable’; Hu’s ‘harmonious world’—‘more of a narrative than a grand strategy’; and Xi’s ‘new type of great power relations.’ As discussed below, Xi’s vague 2013 remarks on the ‘silk road economic belt’ (SREB) and ‘maritime silk road’ (MSR) exemplify this tendency. 
But bold words are not policy. The Party often has difficulty transforming grand visions into detailed policy proposals. This is sometimes quite intentional—in a closed system like the People’s Republic, it may be better to have politicos arguing over how to make the Core’s vision possible, instead of whether the Core’s vision is worth making possible in the first place.
“The Inner Life of Chinese Teenagers”, (2019-04-19):
The second point probably deserves more space than I was able to give in the LA Review of Books. Consider, for a moment, the typical schedule of a Beijing teenager:
She will (depending on the length of her morning commute) wake up somewhere between 5:30 and 7:00 AM. She must be in her seat by 7:45, 15 minutes before classes start. With bathroom breaks and gym class excepted, she will not leave that room until the 12:00 lunch hour and will return to the same spot after lunch is ended for another four hours of instruction. Depending on whether she has after-school tests that day, she will be released from her classroom sometime between 4:10 and 4:40. She then has one hour to get a start on her homework, eat, and travel to the evening cram school her parents have enrolled her in. Math, English, Classical Chinese—there are cram schools for every topic on the gaokao. On most days of the week she will be there studying from 6:00 to 9:00 PM (if the family has the money, she will spend another six hours at these after-school schools on Saturday and Sunday mornings). Our teenager will probably arrive home somewhere around 10:00 PM, giving her just enough time to spend two or three hours on that day’s homework before she goes to bed. Rinse and repeat, day in and day out, for six years. The strain does not abate until she has defeated—or has been defeated by—the gaokao.
This is well known, but I think the wrong aspects of this experience are emphasized. Most outsiders look at this and think: see how much pressure these Chinese kids are under. I look and think: how little privacy and independence these Chinese kids are given!
To put this another way: Teenage demands for personal space are hardly unique to China. What makes China distinctive is the difficulty its teenagers have securing this goal. Chinese family life is hemmed in narrow bounds. The urban apartments that even well-off Chinese call their homes are tiny and crowded. Few have more than two bedrooms. Teenagers are often forced to share their bedroom with a grandparent. So small was the apartment of one 16-year-old I interviewed that she slept, without apparent complaint, in the same bed as her parents for her entire first year of high school. Where can a teenager like her go, what door could she slam, when she was angry with her family? Within the walls of her home there was no escape from the parental gaze.
A Chinese teen has few better options outside her home. No middle-class Chinese teenager has a job. None have cars. The few that have boyfriends or girlfriends go about it as discreetly as possible. Apart from the odd music lesson here or there, what Americans call “extra-curricular activities” are unknown. One a recent graduate of a prestigious international high school in Beijing once explained to me the confusion she felt when she was told she would need to excel at an after-school activity to be competitive in American university admissions:
“In tenth grade our home room teacher told us that American universities cared a lot about the things we do outside of school, so from now on we would need to find time to ‘cultivate a hobby.’ I remember right after he left the girl sitting at my right turned to me and whispered, ‘I don’t know how to cultivate a hobby. Do you?’”
Many people point to the hyper-partisanship of national Democratic and Republican parties as the greatest challenge facing 21st century America. When seen through the lens of another vapidly partisan political system—that of Jacksonian America—we see that the real danger is not noisy partisanship, but the iniquity it hides: for them it was slavery; for us, plutarchy.
…As in the antebellum, today’s hyperpartisanship has its uses. The issues are real enough, and the cultural divide between each party’s demographic “base” is wide. Politicians take advantage of this with over-the-top rhetoric, turning all issues into a cultural crusade against the radicalism of the progressive left or the bigotry of entrenched conservatism. The accuracy of these attacks is unimportant. The antebellum party system allowed Southerners to define themselves as ‘Whigs’ or ‘Democrats’ instead of ‘slavers’. The current system serves its purpose just as well, allowing plutocrats to define themselves not in terms of power or privilege, but as part of a culturally cohesive group that represents ‘real’ America. With partisan issues taking the fore, politicians, lobbyists, and corporate big wigs can plunder the American economy and strip American citizens of their liberties in a decidedly bipartisan fashion.  And thus the greatest structural fault-line in America’s body-politic and the most dangerous challenge to the integrity of her republican institutions and the liberties of her citizenry continues onward without public comment. And all of this without a gag rule.
If the comparison of the antebellum Republic’s political regime with its ailing modern descendent seems a bit chilling—well, it is. The last time America’s sins broke through the partisan politics designed to hide them the result was the most destructive war of her history. It is an ominous precedent.
“Shakespeare in American Politics”, (2015-09-30):
…A good place to start is with the Webster-Hayne debate of 1830. Of all American oratory, only the Lincoln-Douglass debates can claim greater fame than the debate Daniel Webster and Robert Hayne held on the antebellum Senate floor. At that time there was a resolution before the Senate calling for all new federal land surveys to be postponed until all of the existing land already surveyed was sold. This struck the ire of the westerners, who pushed for federal land to be given to new settlers without charge or delay…These allusions to Shakespeare only occupy a normal portion of the two men’s debate—no more than a few paragraphs out of ninety or so pages of text. Nevertheless, the use of Macbeth’s script in the debate is telling. Neither Webster nor Hayne thought it was a waste of their time to debate the finer points of Shakespeare’s plays in the halls of the Senate. The reader senses that Webster, in particular, did so in a positively gleeful fashion.
What has happened here? How have we gone from long discussions of Shakespearean drama on the senate floor to the shallow repetition of disembodied sentence fragments? The answers to this question tell us much about the American body politic:
1. The decline of public speaking as a vital part of American culture. Oratory is something of a lost art in modern America. It is hard to imagine just how vital it was to public life for most of America’s history. In Webster’s day public speaking was a central part of entertainment, education, civic life, and religious practice. He was elected in the midst of the 2nd Great Awakening, when American religious life was dominated by camp meetings and church members were expected to preach and testify one to another. It was a time when every township had a lyceum at its center, and intellectual life was dominated by those who traveled the lyceum circuit. Collections of speeches like The Columbian Orator were the most common type of schoolbook in the antebellum era, while most American men actively participated in town assemblies and party caucuses. The mastery of proper political rhetoric was an essential social skill.
Add all this together and you are left with a population that found immense pleasure in listening to, reenacting, and reading the speeches of others. It was a prized art, and when masters like Webster or Lincoln displayed their talents, people flocked together to listen to them. There was thus a great deal of patience for the sort of rhetorical flourish inherit in the long discussions of Shakespeare seen above. Today’s Americans will not sit still and listen to a political speech for longer than ten minutes. The medium through which politicians communicate to the masses really doesn’t let them. Radio shows and news channels rely on the soundbite. If a politician’s message cannot be squeezed into a seven second slot it will not be heard.
“Awareness vs. Action: Two Modes of Protest in American History”, (2015-10-07):
…Daniel Walker Howe devotes several pages to the origins of the [Temperance] movement in his excellent book What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1814–1848. It is worth quoting from them at length:
Americans in the early nineteenth century quaffed alcohol in prodigious quantities. In 1825, the average American over fifteen years of age consumed seven gallons of alcohol a year, mostly in the form of whiskey and hard cider. (The corresponding figure at the start of the twenty-first century was less than two gallons, most of it from beer and wine.) Workers typically took a midmorning break and a mid-afternoon break, both accompanied by alcohol, as well as liquor with every meal. To entertain guests meant to ply them with several kinds of alcohol until some fell down. All social classes drank heavily; college students, journeyman printers, agricultural laborers, and canal-diggers were especially notorious. Schoolchildren might face an inebriated teacher in the classroom. Although socially tolerated, drunkenness frequently generated violence, especially domestic violence, and other illegal behavior. In such a society, intemperance represented a serious issue of public health, comparable to the problems of drug abuse experienced in later generations.
Making temperance a Christian cause constituted an innovation, for traditional Christianity had not discouraged drinking. Indeed, Beecher recalled, ministerial conferences during his youth had been occasions for heavy convivial drinking. Unlike a later generation of crusaders, Beecher never thought the legal prohibition of alcohol a practical solution; he relied purely on changing public attitudes. This was no mean feat. To take stand against the strong social pressures to drink took real courage, especially for young men. To help them, temperance workers paid reformed alcoholics to go on speaking tours, published temperance tracts, put on temperance plays, and drove the “water wagon” through towns encouraging converts to jump on. Publicists and organizers like Beecher struck a nerve with the public. The temperance cause resonated among people in all walks of life, rural and urban, white and black. Although it began in the Northeast, temperance reached the South and West and exerted powerful and lasting influence there. At first the temperance advocates restricted themselves to encouraging moderation (hence the name “temperance”); in this phase they condemned only distilled liquors, not beer and wine. At the grassroots level, however, it became apparent that total abstinence made a more effective appeal. Beecher endorsed this shift in Six Sermons on Intemperance (1825). Those who signed a temperance pledge were encouraged to put a T after their names if willing to take the extra step of pledging total abstinence; from this derives our word “teetotaler.”
The campaign to alter age old habits and attitudes proved amazingly successful: consumption of alcohol, especially of hard liquor, declined steadily and dramatically after 1830, falling to 1.8 gallons per person over fifteen by the late 1840s. 
A few things to note about this account: temperance societies were organized and worked at the level of towns, congregations, families, and individuals, not entire states or nations. The information they passed along was not intended to make people aware of the danger of drinking, but to inspire or scare them into acting on this knowledge. They created communities who could help individuals who were struggling to do this. They were most successful when they secured individual commitments to action. It was also incredibly successful. This became the standard template for American civic associations until the late 19th century.
Last week’s post, "If You Were to Write a History of 21st Century America, What Would It Look Like?", asked what a 21st century version of Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s might look like. Here is how I described the book in that post:
There are many things to love about this book. Allen wrote his history of the 1920’s in a jaunty, breezy style. When you pick his book up it is hard to put it down. Allen’s tone is fair, his judgements sharp, and prose delectably entertaining. The most notable thing about this history of the 1920s, however, is its publication date: Allen wrote the book in 1930. He saw it published in 1931.
I often wish Allen had more imitators. Allen’s book shines as a social history. The genius of writing such a history directly after the events took place is that the historian can narrate not just what happened in a period, but what it felt like to live through it. Names have not receded into history; the little things of daily existence are still remembered, and often still in use. Judgements of past events have not been too clouded by the downstream effects they had three or four decades down the line. There is an immediacy to Only Yesterday that I have never found in any other work of history (though I have found it in several works of fiction).
While Allen gives due coverage to economic and political affairs (the League of Nations debates, the Teapot Dome scandal, and the crash of ’29 each get their own chapter length narrations), the majority of Allen’s book is what we would today call “social history”. Allen spends about equal time describing the fads for crossword puzzles and mahjong (yes, you read that last one right) as he does the entire administration of Calvin Coolidge…
“Questing for Transcendence”, (2019-04-29):
Will Wilkinson explored one possibility in an essay he wrote a few years ago on American country music. Wilkinson begins with the observation that American conservatives (ie., the consumers of country music) tend to be low on “openness” in the Big-5 personality scale. Folks who rate high on openness are the sort attracted to novelty: world travels, new drugs, and so forth. Country music, he suggests, captures the emotional lives of a different group of people:
Emotional highlights of the low-openness life are going to be the type celebrated in “One Boy, One Girl”: the moment of falling in love with “the one”, the wedding day, the birth one’s children (though I guess the song is about a surprising ultrasound). More generally, country music comes again and again to the marvel of advancing through life’s stations, and finds delight in experiencing traditional familial and social relationships from both sides. Once I was a girl with a mother, now I’m a mother with a girl. My parents took care of me, and now I take care of them. I was once a teenage boy threatened by a girl’s gun-loving father, now I’m a gun-loving father threatening my girl’s teenage boy. Etc. And country is full of assurances that the pleasures of simple, rooted, small-town, lives of faith are deeper and more abiding than the alternatives.
My conjecture, then, is that country music functions in part to reinforce in low-openness individuals the idea that life’s most powerful, meaningful emotional experiences are precisely those to which conservative personalities living conventional lives are most likely to have access. And it functions as a device to coordinate members of conservative-minded communities on the incomparable emotional weight of traditional milestone experiences…
But why would you want your kids to grow up with the same way of life as you and your grandparents? My best guess (and let me stress guess) is that those low in openness depend emotionally on a sense of enchantment of the everyday and the profundity of ritual. Even a little change, like your kids playing with different toys than you did, comes as a small reminder of the instability of life over generations and the contingency of our emotional attachments. This is a reminder low-openness conservatives would prefer to avoid, if possible. What high-openness liberals feel as mere nostalgia, low-openness conservatives feel as the baseline emotional tone of a recognizably decent life. If your kids don’t experience the same meaningful things in the same way that you experienced them, then it may seem that their lives will be deprived of meaning, which would be tragic. And even if you’re able to see that your kids will find plenty of meaning, but in different things and in different ways, you might well worry about the possibility of ever really understanding and relating to them. The inability to bond over profound common experience would itself constitute a grave loss of meaning for both generations. So when the culture redefines a major life milestone, such as marriage, it trivializes one’s own milestone experience by imbuing it was a sense of contingency, threatens to deprive one’s children of the same experience, and thus threatens to make the generations strangers to one another. And what kind of monster would want that?
Country music is a bulwark against cultural change, a reminder that “what you see is what you get”, a means of keeping the charge of enchantment in “the little things” that make up the texture of the every day, and a way of literally broadcasting the emotional and cultural centrality of the conventional big-ticket experiences that make a life a life.
…Yet there is one segment of society that seems to get it. In the years since my [Mormon missionary] service, I have been surprised to find that the one group of people who consistently understands my experience are soldiers…both many ex-missionaries (known as “RMs” or “Return Missionaries” in Mormon lingo) and many veterans have such trouble adapting to life when they return to their homes. This comparison occurred to me first several years ago, when I read a Facebook comment left by a man who had served as a Marine mechanic in Afghanistan…I did not save the comment at the time, but I remember it well enough to reproduce a paraphrase here:
“I do not know if I want to live any more. I served in Afghanistan from [various dates of various deployments] and am now working as a salesman for [a prominent American company]. I despise this world I am in now—everything is so selfish and so self centered. In Afghanistan every single decision I made had a purpose; every single thing I did was for something bigger than myself. Everything I did, I did to save lives. Every deed helped accomplish our mission. Here in America no one does anything except for themselves. We work to earn a buck—what is the point to living like this? There is not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I was back in that hellhole. There what I did mattered. Here it is all meaningless.”
“What people can’t understand”, Hiers said, gently picking up each tiny rabbit and placing it in the nest, “is how much fun Vietnam was. I loved it. I loved it, and I can’t tell anybody.” Hiers loved war. And as I drove back from Vermont in a blizzard, my children asleep in the back of the car, I had to admit that for all these years I also had loved it, and more than I knew. I hated war, too. Ask me, ask any man who has been to war about his experience, and chances are we’ll say we don’t want to talk about it—implying that we hated it so much, it was so terrible, that we would rather leave it buried. And it is no mystery why men hate war. War is ugly, horrible, evil, and it is reasonable for men to hate all that. But I believe that most men who have been to war would have to admit, if they are honest, that somewhere inside themselves they loved it too, loved it as much as anything that has happened to them before or since. And how do you explain that to your wife, your children, your parents, or your friends?
…I spent most of my combat tour in Vietnam trudging through its jungles and rice paddies without incident, but I have seen enough of war to know that I never want to fight again, and that I would do everything in my power to keep my son from fighting. Then why, at the oddest times—when I am in a meeting or running errands, or on beautiful summer evenings, with the light fading and children playing around me—do my thoughts turn back fifteen years to a war I didn’t believe in and never wanted to fight? Why do I miss it?
I miss it because I loved it, loved it in strange and troubling ways. When I talk about loving war I don’t mean the romantic notion of war that once mesmerized generations raised on Walter Scott. What little was left of that was ground into the mud at Verdun and Passchendaele: honor and glory do not survive the machine gun. And it’s not the mindless bliss of martyrdom that sends Iranian teenagers armed with sticks against Iraqi tanks. Nor do I mean the sort of hysteria that can grip a whole country, the way during the Falklands war the English press inflamed the lust that lurks beneath the cool exterior of Britain. That is vicarious war, the thrill of participation without risk, the lust of the audience for blood. It is easily fanned, that lust; even the invasion of a tiny island like Grenada can do it. Like all lust, for as long as it lasts it dominates everything else; a nation’s other problems are seared away, a phenomenon exploited by kings, dictators, and presidents since civilization began.
“America Will Always Fail At Regional Expertise”, (2016-01-13):
I have argued before that any potential American foreign policy or ‘grand strategy’ that requires statesmen with a nuanced understanding of a foreign region’s cultures, politics, and languages to implement it is doomed to fail. Regional acumen is a rare trait, and one I greatly admire. But it is rare for a reason. Regional acumen just does not scale—or at least, Americans do not know how to scale it. I have said this before. But it was reinforced tonight when I stumbled—quite by accident—across this old New York Times Magazine personal by Lydia Kiesling. In it she describes her experience learning Uzbek with a FLAS grant from the Department of Education.
…This article gets to the heart of why America will always lack the kind of language and area expertise needed to succeed in the kinds of things the American people (or American leaders) often demand the United States government do. Uzbek is an obscure language. But it is an obscure language at the center of the national security concerns that have bedeviled the United States over the last decade and a half. To give a brief picture:
- There are about three million Uzbeks who live in Afghanistan. Uzbeks were an essential part of the Northern Alliance’s resistance against the Taliban, and Uzbek leaders became an important part of the government established by NATO forces once the Taliban was driven from power. This is still true. Afghanistan’s current vice-president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, is an Uzbek.
- Uzbekistan is the central hub of central Asia. One of the greatest defeats of our Afghan campaign happened not on the battlefield, but at the diplomats’ table. Uzbekistan’s decision to withdraw American basing and supply rights was nothing short of a disaster, forcing the United States to be even more dependent on Pakistan (our true enemy in the region) for logistic support.
- Uzbek and Uighur are a hair’s breadth away from mutually intelligible. Xinjiang’s low intensity Uighur insurgency is the single greatest security concern of China, America’s greatest rival.
This is a language that matters. What happens to the woman who spent a year of her life studying it? She was rejected from the CIA (or wherever) on background technicalities, and has not used her language since. Or to be more precise, she has used it twice. Twice in four years. Twice.
This gets to the heart of America’s problem with regional acumen. Area expertise simply doesn’t pay. You may count the number of private sector jobs currently on the market that demand Uzbek fluency on two hands. And even if there were a multitude of jobs that required proficiency in Uzbek and English, there are undoubtedly several hundred—perhaps several thousand—Uzbekistanis who speak English better than Ms. Kiesling speaks Uzbek, and who will work for less pay to boot.
“American Policy Makers Do Not Read Books”, (2015-02-18):
If the American strategist of 2015 has a deep base of historical, cultural, and scientific knowledge to draw on to guide the decisions he makes this is because he acquired this knowledge base before he was a senior policy maker. You can actually see hints of this in the survey data—Avey and Desch asked policy makers to list the living international relations scholars they thought had the greatest influence on actual policy making. Along with scholars-turned-officials (eg. Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Anne-Marie Slaughter) and public intellectuals (eg. Francis Fukuyama, Fareed Zakaria) were a list of men whose scholarly apogee was twenty to thirty years ago, back when our policy makers were undergrads! (Funnily enough many of these men—Samuel Huntington, Albert Wohlstetter, Hans Morgenthau—are not only past their scholarly prime, but are no longer alive!) Those who rose to prominence after 1995 barely register. 
One of the lessons we can draw from this is that the books and material we expect American students to read and master in the early stages of their life will have an outsized influence on the knowledge they will possess in their old age. Today’s strategists survive off of what they learned when they were in school forty years ago.  Absent dramatic changes in the life style of government officials or unforeseen technological developments, the policy-makers crafting strategy in 2040 will be working off of the knowledge base they are building from the books they are reading right now.
“You Do Not Have the People”, (2018-03-03):
These numbers are taken from a November NBC News/Gen Forward poll, a survey that questions 18–35 year olds across the nation on the political issues of the day. Respondents are asked to list what they believe are the three most important issues facing America.  There are a lot of interesting things one can say about this data, but for our purposes here I would focus your attention on the two rows labeled “foreign policy” and “military strength.” There is one big thing you will notice about these two figures: they are minuscule. Respondents are largely satisfied with America’s place in the world. In their minds, police brutality, education, crime, taxes, racism, the economy, immigration, climate change, health care, gun control and the national budget are all more critical problems than anything involving foreign affairs.
Millennials do not stand in for all of America. Older generations care more for foreign policy than the Millennial and Generation Z cohorts do, though other polls suggest that their priorities also lie in the domestic sphere. But I focus in on this group for a reason: the opinions of this generation will have an outsized influence on our defense policies. In the case of war, these are the people who will actually be called to sacrifice their time and lives for the sake of American interests. Their willingness to suffer for the sake of the public interest sets the upper bounds for what is militarily possible in a time of conflict. Their attitude in peace will be even more important. Armament programs are decade long affairs. Proper sized navies are generation-length projects. Great power rivalries take decades to unfold. Who will be responsible for maintaining this effort? These guys. The millennial generation is already the largest cohort in this republic’s history (given current fertility rates there will likely be none larger). Were they not so politically desensitized, they would also already possess the power to decide most elections in the country. When the last of the boomers die out, by sheer power of numbers alone, these men and women will rule the roost. Their perception of America’s role in the world, and the threats she faces, will determine America’s future.
The take-away: more important than developing new weapon systems, devising new treaties, or crafting new strategies will be convincing the American people that they can and should bear the costs of doing any of that. Nothing is more important than winning the public opinion war. If we lose there, nothing else really matters.
…If we lived in an age when public trust in elites and the institutions they manned was stronger, many of the worries I voice could be dispensed with. That is simply not where we are at. Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s disregard for public opinion on the Korea issue is but an extreme expression of a tendency that blights the entire field. We are uncomfortable with democratic accountability, unwilling to subject ourselves to public debate, and uninterested in the constraints public opinion and popular politics place on the policies we craft. This complacency is not excusable. It is not sustainable. We cannot defend the cause of freedom without the support of the people. To try and do this is to risk terrible disaster.
“What Cyber-War Will Look Like”, (2018-07-06):
In a report Cancian wrote for the Center for Strategic and International Studies on how great powers adapt to tactical and strategic surprise, Cancian sketched out twelve “vignettes” of potential technological or strategic shocks to make his abstract points a bit more concrete. Here is how Cancian imagines an “asymmetric cyber-attack” launched by the PRC against the United States Military:
The U.S. secretary of defense had wondered this past week when the other shoe would drop. Finally, it had, though the U.S. military would be unable to respond effectively for a while.
The scope and detail of the attack, not to mention its sheer audacity, had earned the grudging respect of the secretary. Years of worry about a possible Chinese “Assassin’s Mace”—a silver bullet super-weapon capable of disabling key parts of the American military—turned out to be focused on the wrong thing.
The cyber attacks varied. Sailors stationed at the 7th Fleet’s homeport in Japan awoke one day to find their financial accounts, and those of their dependents, empty. Checking, savings, retirement funds: simply gone. The Marines based on Okinawa were under virtual siege by the populace, whose simmering resentment at their presence had boiled over after a YouTube video posted under the account of a Marine stationed there had gone viral. The video featured a dozen Marines drunkenly gang-raping two teenaged Okinawan girls. The video was vivid, the girls’ cries heart-wrenching the cheers of Marines sickening And all of it fake. The National Security Agency’s initial analysis of the video had uncovered digital fingerprints showing that it was a computer-assisted lie, and could prove that the Marine’s account under which it had been posted was hacked. But the damage had been done.
There was the commanding officer of Edwards Air Force Base whose Internet browser history had been posted on the squadron’s Facebook page. His command turned on him as a pervert; his weak protestations that he had not visited most of the posted links could not counter his admission that he had, in fact, trafficked some of them. Lies mixed with the truth. Soldiers at Fort Sill were at each other’s throats thanks to a series of text messages that allegedly unearthed an adultery ring on base.
The variations elsewhere were endless. Marines suddenly owed hundreds of thousands of dollars on credit lines they had never opened; sailors received death threats on their Twitter feeds; spouses and female service members had private pictures of themselves plastered across the Internet; older service members received notifications about cancerous conditions discovered in their latest physical.
Leadership was not exempt. Under the hashtag
#PACOMMUSTGOa dozen women allegedly described harassment by the commander of Pacific command. Editorial writers demanded that, under the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, he step aside while Congress held hearings.
There was not an American service member or dependent whose life had not been digitally turned upside down. In response, the secretary had declared “an operational pause”, directing units to stand down until things were sorted out.
Then, China had made its move, flooding the South China Sea with its conventional forces, enforcing a sea and air identification zone there, and blockading Taiwan. But the secretary could only respond weakly with a few air patrols and diversions of ships already at sea. Word was coming in through back channels that the Taiwanese government, suddenly stripped of its most ardent defender, was already considering capitulation.
“Scientists Are Giving Dead Brains New Life. What Could Go Wrong? In experiments on pig organs, scientists at Yale made a discovery that could someday challenge our understanding of what it means to die.”, (2019-07-02):
In the course of his research, Sestan, an expert in developmental neurobiology, regularly ordered slices of animal and human brain tissue from various brain banks, which shipped the specimens to Yale in coolers full of ice. Sometimes the tissue arrived within three or four hours of the donor’s death. Sometimes it took more than a day. Still, Sestan and his team were able to culture, or grow, active cells from that tissue—tissue that was, for all practical purposes, entirely dead. In the right circumstances, they could actually keep the cells alive for several weeks at a stretch.
When I met with Sestan this spring, at his lab in New Haven, he took great care to stress that he was far from the only scientist to have noticed the phenomenon. “Lots of people knew this”, he said. “Lots and lots.” And yet he seems to have been one of the few to take these findings and push them forward: If you could restore activity to individual post-mortem brain cells, he reasoned to himself, what was to stop you from restoring activity to entire slices of post-mortem brain?
…The technical hurdles were immense: To perfuse a post-mortem brain, you would have to somehow run fluid through a maze of tiny capillaries that start to clot minutes after death. Everything, from the composition of the blood substitute to the speed of the fluid flow, would have to be calibrated perfectly. In 2015, Sestan struck up an email correspondence with John L. Robertson, a veterinarian and research professor in the department of biomedical engineering at Virginia Tech. For years, Robertson had been collaborating with a North Carolina company, BioMedInnovations, or BMI, on a system known as a CaVESWave—a perfusion machine capable of keeping kidneys, hearts and livers alive outside the body for long stretches. Eventually, Robertson and hoped, the machine would replace cold storage as a way to preserve organs designated for transplants.
…By any measure, the contents of the paper Sestan and his team published in Nature this April were astonishing: Not only were Sestan and his team eventually able to maintain perfusion for six hours in the organs, but they managed to restore full metabolic function in most of the brain—the cells in the dead pig brains took oxygen and glucose and converted them into metabolites like carbon dioxide that are essential to life. “These findings”, the scientists write, “show that, with the appropriate interventions, the large mammalian brain retains an underappreciated capacity for normothermic restoration of microcirculation and certain molecular and cellular functions multiple hours after circulatory arrest.”
…“What’s happened, I’d argue”, says Christof Koch, the president and chief scientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, “is that a lot of things about the brain that we once thought were irreversible have turned out not necessarily to be so.”
The recent availability of large-scale neuroimaging cohorts (here the UK Biobank [UKB] and the Human Connectome Project [HCP]) facilitates deeper characterisation of the relationship between phenotypic and brain architecture variation in humans. We tested the association between 654,386 vertex-wise measures of cortical and subcortical morphology (from T1w and T2w MRI images) and behavioural, cognitive, psychiatric and lifestyle data. We found a statistically-significant association of grey-matter structure with 58 out of 167 UKB phenotypes spanning substance use, blood assay results, education or income level, diet, depression, being a twin as well as cognition domains (UKB discovery sample: n = 9,888). Twenty-three of the 58 associations replicated (UKB replication sample: n = 4,561; HCP, n = 1,110). In addition, differences in body size (height, weight, , waist and hip circumference, body fat percentage) could account for a substantial proportion of the association, providing possible insight into previous MRI case-control studies for psychiatric disorders where case status is associated with . Using the same linear mixed model, we showed that most of the associated characteristics (e.g. age, sex, body size, diabetes, being a twin, maternal smoking, body size) could be significantly predicted using all the brain measurements in out-of-sample prediction. Finally, we demonstrated other applications of our approach including a Region Of Interest (ROI) analysis that retain the vertex-wise complexity and ranking of the information contained across MRI processing options.
Highlights: Our vertex-wise MRI dataapproach unifies association and prediction analyses for highly dimensional
Grey-matter structure is associated with measures of substance use, blood assay results, education or income level, diet, depression, being a twin as well as cognition domains
Body size (height, weight,, waist and hip circumference) is an important source of covariation between the phenome and grey-matter structure
Grey-matter scores quantify grey-matter based risk for the associated traits and allow to study phenotypes not collected
The most general cortical processing (“fsaverage” mesh with no smoothing) maximises the brain-morphometricity for all UKB phenotypes
Is Bloom’s “Two Sigma” phenomenon real? If so, what do we do about it?
Educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom found that one-on-one tutoring using mastery learning led to a two sigma(!) improvement in student performance. The results were replicated. He asks in his paper that identified the “2 Sigma Problem”: how do we achieve these results in conditions more practical (ie., more scalable) than one-to-one tutoring?
In a related vein, this large-scale meta-analysis shows large (>0.5 Cohen’s d) effects from direct instruction using mastery learning. “Yet, despite the very large body of research supporting its effectiveness, DI has not been widely embraced or implemented.”
- The literatures examined here are full of small sample, non-randomized trials, and highly heterogeneous results.
- Tutoring in general, most likely, does not reach the 2-sigma level that Bloom suggested. Likewise, it’s unlikely that mastery learning provides a 1-sigma improvement.
- But high quality tutors, and high quality software are likely able to reach a 2-sigma improvement and beyond.
- All the methods (mastery learning, direct instruction, tutoring, software tutoring, deliberate practice, and spaced repetition) studied in this essay are found to work to various degrees, outlined below.
- This essay covers many kinds of subjects being taught, and likewise many groups (special education vs regular schools, college vs K-12). The effect sizes reported here are averages that serve as general guidance.
- The methods studied tend to be more effective for lower skilled students relative to the rest.
- The methods studied work at all levels of education, with the exception of direct instruction: There is no evidence to judge its effectiveness at the college level.
- The methods work substantially better when clear objectives and facts to be learned are set. There is little evidence of learning transfer: Practicing or studying X subject does not improve much performance outside of X.
- There is some suggestive evidence that the underlying reasons these methods work are increased and repeated exposure to the material, the testing effect, and fine-grained feedback on performance in the case of tutoring.
- Long term studies tend to find evidence of a fade-out effect, effect sizes decrease over time. This is likely due to the skills being learned not being practiced.
Bloom noted that mastery learning had anof around 1 (one sigma); while tutoring leads to d = 2. This is mostly an outlier case.
Nonetheless, Bloom was on to something: Tutoring and mastery learning do have a degree of experimental support, and fortunately it seems that carefully designed software systems can completely replace the instructional side of traditional teaching, achieving better results, on par with one to one tutoring. However, designing them is a hard endeavour, and there is a motivational component of teachers that may not be as easily replicable purely by software.
Overall, it’s good news that the effects are present for younger and older students, and across subjects, but the DARPA case study shows what is possible with software tutoring, in the case the went even beyond Bloom’s paper.of tutoring, mastery learning or DI are not as good as they would seem from Bloom’s paper. That said, it is true that tutoring does have large , and that properly designed software does as well. The
2019-hegelund.pdf: “The influence of familial factors on the association between IQ and educational and occupational achievement: A sibling approach”, (2019-06-04; ):
The present register-based study investigated the influence of familial factors on the association of IQ with educational and occupational achievement among young men in Denmark. The study population comprised all men with at least one full brother where both the individual and his brothers were born from 1950 and appeared before a draft board in 1968–1984 and 1987–2015 (n = 364,193 individuals). Intelligence was measured by Børge Priens Prøve at age 18. Educational and occupational achievement were measured by grade point average (GPA) in lower secondary school, time to receiving social benefits at ages 18–30, and gross income at age 30. The statistical analyses comprised two distinct statistical analyses of the investigated associations: A conventional cohort analysis and a within-sibship analysis in which the association under investigation was analysed within siblings while keeping familial factors shared by siblings fixed. The results showed that an appreciable part of the associations of IQ with educational and occupational achievement could be attributed to familial factors shared by siblings. However, only the within sibling association between IQ and GPA in lower secondary school clearly differed from the association observed in the cohort analysis after covariates had been taken into account.
Over the past three decades, many countries have introduced iodized salt policies to eradicate iodine deficiency. While it is well known that iodine deficiency in utero is detrimental to cognitive ability, little is known about the consequences of iodine deficiencies after birth.
This paper examines the impact of iodine deficiency in adolescence on cognitive performance. I identify the causal effect of iodine deficiency quasi-experimentally using the introduction of iodized salt in Denmark. Denmark went from a ban on iodized salt before 1998 to a mandate after 2001, making it an ideal national experiment.
Combining administrative records on high school grades over a 30-year period with geographic variation in initial iodine deficiency, I find that salt iodization increases the Grade Point Averages of high school students by 6–9 percent of a standard deviation. This improvement is comparable to the benefits of more standard school achievement policies and at much lower costs.
[Keywords: iodine deficiency, iodized salt, nutrition, human capital, health]
“Mother Earth Mother Board”, (1996-12):
[Classic longform essay by SF author Neal Stephenson in which he travels the world tracing the (surprisingly few) transcontinental fiber optic cables which bind the world together and power the Internet; cables combine cutting-edge technology, deep sea challenges, high finance, and global geo-politics/espionage all in one tiny package.]
[On July 23, 2006 the Cougar Ace, a 654-foot car carrier owned by Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, reported to the Coast Guard that they were taking on water and listing 80 degrees. The Singapore homeported vessel, carrying 4,813 vehicles, was en route to Vancouver B.C. In a dramatic rescue, the Coast Guard was able to successfully remove all 23 crewmembers from the ship. Joshua Davis of Wired tells the story of how a crew from Titan Salvage were able to save the ship, although they lost one of their own in the process.]
…At the worst possible moment, a large swell hits the Cougar Ace and rolls the ship even farther to port. Objects begin to slide across the deck. They pick up momentum and crash against the port-side walls as the ship dips farther. Wedged naked in the shower stall, Kyin is confronted by an undeniable fact: The Cougar Ace is capsizing.
He lunges for a towel and staggers into the hallway as the ship’s windmill-sized propeller spins out of the water. Throughout the ship, the other 22 crew members begin to lose their footing as the decks rear up. There are shouts and screams. Kyin escapes through a door into the damp night air. He’s barefoot and dripping wet, and the deck is now a slick metal ramp. In an instant, he’s skidding down the slope toward the Pacific. He slams into the railings and his left leg snaps, bone puncturing skin. He’s now draped naked and bleeding on the railing, which has dipped to within feet of the frigid ocean. The deck towers 105 feet above him like a giant wave about to break. Kyin starts to pray.
…Ship captains spend their careers trying to avoid a collision or grounding like this. But for Rich Habib, nearly every month brings a welcome disaster. While people are shouting “Abandon ship!” Habib is scrambling aboard. He’s been at sea since he was 18, and now, at 51, his tanned face, square jaw, and don’t-even-try-bullshitting-me stare convey a world-weary air of command. He holds an unlimited master’s license, which means he’s one of the select few who are qualified to pilot ships of any size, anywhere in the world. He spent his early years captaining hulking vessels that lifted other ships on board and hauled them across oceans. He helped the Navy transport a nuclear refueling facility from California to Hawaii. Now he’s the senior salvage master—the guy who runs the show at sea—for Titan Salvage, a highly specialized outfit of men who race around the world saving ships.
They’re a motley mix: American, British, Swedish, Panamanian. Each has a specialty—deep-sea diving, computer modeling, underwater welding, big-engine repair. And then there’s Habib, the guy who regularly helicopters onto the deck of a sinking ship, greets whatever crew is left, and takes command of the stricken vessel.
…The job is daunting: Board the Cougar Ace with the team and build an on-the-fly digital replica of the ship. The car carrier has 33 tanks containing fuel, freshwater, and ballast. The amount of fluid in each tank affects the way the ship moves at sea, as does the weight and placement of the cargo. It’s a complex system when the ship is upright and undamaged. When the cargo holds take on seawater or the ship rolls off-center—both of which have occurred—the vessel becomes an intricate, floating puzzle.
Johnson will have to unravel the complexity. He’ll rely on ship diagrams and his own onboard measurements to re-create the vessel using an obscure maritime modeling software known as GHS—General HydroStatics. The model will allow him to simulate and test what will happen as water is transferred from tank to tank in an effort to use the weight of the liquid to roll the ship upright. If the model isn’t accurate, the operation could end up sinking the ship.
“Field experiments of success-breeds-success dynamics”, (2014-05-13):
Social scientists have long debated why similar individuals often experience drastically different degrees of success. Some scholars have suggested such inequality merely reflects hard-to-observe personal differences in ability. Others have proposed that one fortunate success may trigger another, thus producing arbitrary differentiation. We conducted randomized experiments through intervention in live social systems to test for success-breeds-success dynamics. Results show that different kinds of success (money, quality ratings, awards, and endorsements) when bestowed upon arbitrarily selected recipients all produced statistically-significant improvements in subsequent rates of success as compared with the control group of nonrecipients. However, greater amounts of initial success failed to produce much greater subsequent success, suggesting limits to the distortionary effects of social feedback.
Seemingly similar individuals often experience drastically different success trajectories, with some repeatedly failing and others consistently succeeding. One explanation is preexisting variability along unobserved fitness dimensions that is revealed gradually through differential achievement. Alternatively, positive feedback operating on arbitrary initial advantages may increasingly set apart winners from losers, producing runaway inequality. To identify social feedback in human reward systems, we conducted randomized experiments by intervening in live social environments across the domains of funding, status, endorsement, and reputation. [Kickstarter/Wikipedia/Change.org/Epinions] In each system we consistently found that early success bestowed upon arbitrarily selected recipients produced statistically-significant improvements in subsequent rates of success compared with the control group of nonrecipients. However, success exhibited decreasing marginal returns, with larger initial advantages failing to produce much further differentiation. These findings suggest a lesser degree of vulnerability of reward systems to incidental or fabricated advantages and a more modest role for cumulative advantage in the explanation of social inequality than previously thought.
2010-yvain-inverselawofscientificnomenclature.html: “Inverse Law of Scientific Nomenclature”, (2010-10-23; ):
It is, of course, a notable prediction of this theory that the least scientific idea possible would end up called “Scientology”.
Or so I thought! Last night, I discovered there was a movement called “Factology”. Obviously this requires further investigation!
…But surely they don’t just randomly draw crazy conclusions based on a few words that sound the same, do they? Well, here’s a quote from their Wikipedia article, about “examples of movies with encoded content about the reality of aliens among us”:
Yoda…is short for Judah. Freemasons are inspired by one entity and that is a grey, by the name of Yoda. Yoda guides Freemasonry back to Judah, with the ancient Israel masonry. The British “Covenant Of Man” symbolizes the empire striking back. America is the empire fighting to overthrow Europe…The word Yoda is not an English word as you have been led to believe. Its root word yawdaw appears 111 times in the Old Testament, means “to give thanks or praise, throw down, cast, shoot.” The word Yadah meaning, to “to praise, give thanks” stems from the root word Yawdaw and appears only two times in the Old Testament (Daniel 2:23, Daniel 6:10). Not to mention the fact Yoda played in [the film] Return of the Jedi, and the word jedi is the same as yeti, it’s just a matter of a letter, it’s really the same word. Yeti is the name of Sasquatch (Bigfoot), also called Seti which is equivalent to the Extraterrestrials called the Seirians.
…Okay, so Uncle Sam is a gnostic demon, as revealed by Dr. Seuss who is secretly the king of the pagan gods. But can they get even crazier?:
White people were bred to be food, and the ‘rapture’ expected by Christians is really the return of the ‘raptors’ who will dine on the now-ripe delicious white flesh.
Mr. Reg Mellor, the “king of ferret legging”, paced across his tiny Yorkshire miner’s cottage as he explained the rules of the English sport that he has come to dominate rather late in life. “Ay lad”, said the 72-year-old champion, “no jockstraps allowed. No underpants—nothin’ whatever. And it’s no good with tight trousers, mind ye. Little bah-stards have to be able to move around inside there from ankle to ankle.”
Basically, the contest involves the tying of a competitor’s trousers at the ankles and the subsequent insertion into those trousers of a couple of peculiarly vicious fur-coated, foot-long carnivores called ferrets. The brave contestant’s belt is then pulled tight, and he proceeds to stand there in front of the judges as long as he can, while animals with claws like hypodermic needles and teeth like number 16 carpet tacks try their damnedest to get out. From a dark and obscure past, the sport has made an astonishing comeback in the past 15 years. When I first heard about ferret legging, the world record stood at 40 painful seconds of “keepin’ ’em down”, as they say in ferret-legging circles. A few years later the dreaded one-minute mark was finally surpassed. The current record—implausible as it may seem—now stands at an awesome 5 hours and 26 minutes, a mark reached last year by the gaudily tattooed 72-year-old little Yorkshireman with the waxed military mustache who now stood two feet away from me in the middle of the room, apparently undoing his trousers.
“The ferrets must have a full mouth o’ teeth”, Reg Mellor said as he fiddled with his belt. “No filing of the teeth; no clipping. No dope for you or the ferrets. You must be sober, and the ferrets must be hungry—though any ferret’ll eat yer eyes out even if he isn’t hungry.”
…Loyal to nothing that lives, the ferret has only one characteristic that might be deemed positive—a tenacious, single-minded belief in finishing whatever it starts. That usually entails biting off whatever it bites. The rules of ferret legging do allow the leggers to try to knock the ferret off a spot it’s biting (from outside the trousers only), but that is no small matter, as ferrets never let go. No less a source than the Encyclopaedia Britannica suggests that you can get a ferret to let go by pressing a certain spot over its eye, but Reg Mellor and the other ferret specialists I talked to all say that is absurd. Reg favors a large screwdriver to get a ferret off his finger. Another ferret legger told me that a ferret that had almost dislodged his left thumb let go only after the ferret and the man’s thumb were held under scalding tap water—for 10 minutes. Mr. Graham Wellstead, the head of the British Ferret and Ferreting Society, says that little is known of the diseases carried by the ferret because veterinarians are afraid to touch them. Reg Mellor, a man who has been more intimate with ferrets than many men have been with their wives, calls ferrets “cannibals, things that live only to kill, that’ll eat your eyes out to get at your brain” at their worst, and “untrustworthy” at their very best.
1995-stanley-robertbakewellandthelonghornbreedofcattle.pdf: “Robert Bakewell and the Longhorn Breed of Cattle”, Pat Stanley