July 2010


Nicholas Wade writes in “Before the Dawn” that in 1970 when the linguist Paul Newman visited the London School of Oriental and African Studies was told that “it was quite safe for him to go into the common room, as long as he did not mention [Stanford linguist Joseph H.] Greenberg”. The Africanists there were quite upset at Greenberg’s attempted unification of the African languages into related families, even as that eventually became one of the least controversial of Greenberg’s ambitious syntheses (his reduction of Amerindian languages to three families caused the most dispute). I recalled hearing that name before, when in “The Bottom Billion” Paul Collier complained about a Christian NGO in England relying on a non-peer reviewed publication coming out of there in an attack on globalism. Then I recalled Henry Farrell‘s exasperation at that fine institution’s Ben Fine and his “hack job” on Elinor Ostrom’s “Governing the Commons”. This could just be my unrepresentative reading, but they don’t seem terribly popular. Oh well, may a thousand flowers bloom provided we may simply observe and then ignore them.

People occasionally talk about the past (in a vague manner that gives one little confidence in their recollections) that the State department used to be full of “Arabists”, which depending on your perspective denotes extensive knowledge or excessive sympathy with regard to Arabs. Edward Said got famous for criticizing “Orientalists”, apparently a more European phenomena, for exotifying/simplifying/degrading “the Other”. What, if any, was the connection between Orientalists and Arabists?

I was struck by this passage from Nicholas Wade’s “Before the Dawn”: “In Japan, for example, people lived as hunter-gatherers until around 250 BC when the cultivation of dry rice was introduced. Foraging and dry rice farming existed side by side until AD 300 when wet rice began to be cultivated. This required large scale irrigation, and at the same period the first chiefdoms and archaic states emerged”. As an ignorant round-eye, I am prone to conflating China & Japan and recalled how old China’s agricultural civilization is (though I forget if it’s older than Egypt). If the Japanese were barbarians for so long it’s surprising the Chinese didn’t conquer them.

Another surprising bit was his discussion of gracilization (trend toward lighter, more fragile bones, particularly the skull). I already knew that aborigines have retained the thick skulls of our ancestors (as apparently did the Fuegians), but I was surprised that Euros are behind the curve. “Gracilization is farthest advanced in sub-Saharan Africans and Asians, with Europeans still in some instances showing large size and robusticity”. A violation of Rushton’s Rule, not an unprecedented occurrence.

I didn’t read any more of Wade after getting off the train, but I did read John Hewetson’s introduction to Mutual Aid and was amused by the many contradictions between the books. Wade cites Keeley & Le Blanc on the constant violence & warfare among primitive peoples, not just primitive agriculturalists but also hunter-gatherers (and Wrangham on the violence of chimpanzees). Hewetson amusingly refers to to the warring primitive agriculturalists as “degenerated remnants of more advanced cultures of the past”, which don’t think would be popular among the cultural relativist anthropologists of today. Robert Edgerton might agree with the sentiment, though the language sounds more like Lovecraft. It’s also amusing when Hewetson points out how debunked Malthus is by the expansion on wealth starting near Malthus’ own time and in Hewetson’s era culminating in the vast destruction of foodstuff’s while many go hungry. If only he knew of the horrors capitalism had in store for the future. Another interesting fact noted is that Malthus’ Darwin-inspiring tract was written in response to William Godwin. Oddly enough, despite Hewetson writing his introduction in 1987, there is no mention of Dawkins’ attack on “propagation of the species” reasoning or sociobiology more generally.

I’ve been having an email conversation with Scott Sumner on the topic of neoliberalism, which he has now given permission to display. It is below the fold. (more…)

The SomethingAwful forums gathered up a bunch of documentaries online, and the one I bothered watching was The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow, about Temple Grandin. I had heard of her because of HBO biopic, and after watching the above I looked for that on one of those intellectual property infringing sites which thankfully abound on the internet. The first thing to notice in Claire Danes’ performance is how she speaks. It is generally too loud, somewhat childlike and often spoken too quickly and without enough enunciation to be well understood. I didn’t notice anything like that in the documentary featuring the actual Temple Grandin (not to say she sounds normal, but within the normal range of odd). It was the case that Grandin didn’t start speaking until she was four, but the documentary didn’t mention any speech issues after that, nor throughout the biopic does her manner of speaking seem to change much. At the same time I have to acknowledge that it was an effective way of conveying to the audience how different this character is and how difficult adhering to social norms would be. The accentuating of certain sights & sounds to convey her subjective experience was also a very nice touch.

I haven’t actually read Grandin’s autobiography, so those who know more about her than is found in her Wikipedia entry are invited to correct me. I would also be interested in seeing what Grandin herself had to say about the final product. Some other aspects of the HBO film that struck me as more movielike than real were the science teacher from the boarding school, the blind roommate, her first resorting to the squeeze-machine in response to the onset of a panic attack (pictures of her in it show her smiling, though perhaps that was a later use or after it had calmed her down) and the door-motif.

A perhaps not too original aside from the final chapter of Wilson & Herrnstein’s “Crime and Human Nature”: “We grant that sympathy extended to a dog or horse may be reciprocated with affection and service, but few would claim that sympathy given a cat elicits much more than mere tolerance”. However, I do recall once viewing an anti-drug commercial whose narrator stated “My cat loves me. Unconditionally”.

A lot of people (particularly libertarians or Europhiles) find it ridiculous that the legal drinking age in the U.S is 21. Some speak nostalgically of the days when places like Wisconsin let teens drink, before the feds threatened to withhold highway funding. In their discussion of alcohol in “Crime and Human Nature”, Wilson & Herrnstein notes that highway fatalities dropped after those states raised their limits. I remember having to get a new driver’s license with a red-stripe that showed I was of drinking age (I think this was a recent change, as I had been able to buy with my old license after turning 21 for a while). It now occurs to me that we could give teens an offer: either they can drink or they can drive. If you live in a city and don’t need a car, who cares if you drink? We shouldn’t have to treat them the same as teens that place a higher priority on driving. And if we can expect cashiers to distinguish such stripes, surely traffic cops can be relied on to detect a signifier for driving eligibility.

This title was inspired by a famous P. J. O’Rourke quote.

Those who place a lot of emphasis on genetics in explaining behavior, including differences between societies, have trouble with large changes in a society over a short period of time. “The Sixties” is such a period of time. Wilson & Herrnstein give it their best shot in their History and Culture chapter in “Crime and Human Nature”. They suggest that an increasing proportion of infants with low birth weight survive into adolescence, adding that one-fourth of low birth-weight babies have a major handicap like low IQ. The number of babies with physical and mental defects did in fact increase markedly, which may also be the result of prenatal use of alcohol/tobacco/drugs or exposure to more environmental toxins (the lead-caused-crime theory). Additionally, they note that the ratio of aggravated assaults to homicides increased from about nine to one in 1935 to over twenty-eight to one in 1980, as society has become better at saving the lives of such injured persons. Since the victim in such assaults is often violent and may be as much to blame as his (and it usually is a him) assailant, this serves to increase the life expectancy of violent persons.

This is not to say that the authors put a great weight on those explanations. They regard the increasing portion of the population that is young and the urbanization of the country as the most definite factors (accounting for about 46% of the increase). And they list a bunch of other explanations without committing to them.

“The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks contains a chapter titled “The President’s Speech”. In it he discusses aphasia, which makes people unable to understand the meaning of words even as they (sometimes misleadingly) respond to tone of voice or body language. In that sense they have been compared to dogs (which Sacks notes may be unflattering to both). He feels “one cannot lie to an aphasiac. He cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps he grasps with infallible precision”. That sounds wrong to me. When I am irritated by a dog, sometimes I like to adopt a friendly voice & face while insulting it. I have never noticed them displaying any awareness of my actual attitude, nor do others observing. Just as we have the evolved the ability to deceive others and detect deception through words, so have we done for non-verbal communication. Aphasiacs do not have some extra function unknown in humans, they just need to rely on it more. We might analogize them to the color-blind, who have been used by the military to spot camouflage since they are unfazed by certain surface similarities. This does not mean they cannot be fooled by appearances.

I learned from this podcast featuring face-blind portrait artist Chuck Close that Oliver Sacks also has prosopagnosia (though to a lesser extent). The titular opening chapter of the book is about a man who also had that condition, and throughout Sacks treats him as an exotic specimen without indicating that he himself shares any of the same symptoms. Nor does he do so elsewhere. At least up to where I’ve read.

The title of this post is a reference to a boring excisable part of the Moody Blues song “The Question”. I once made some edits in my own copy to just retain the up-tempo portions, though it was lost when my hard-drive failed.

A few weeks ago (when I constructed the skeleton of this post), Paul Krugman bemoaned the lack of a unifying analogue to our Civil War in Europe. He apparently caught some flack (which I didn’t read), which he responded to by noting that the Franco-Prussian war only unified Germany when “the point” is unifying Europe (something Europe is “seeking”, even as it schizophrenically rejects it whenever a referendum comes up). I don’t think it makes for a good analogy. I once actually believed like Krugman that the U.S was not referred to in the singular before the Civil War but was as a result. This story appears to have little support according to linguists. The U.S of course had a unified defense budget before the Civil War and didn’t have Social Security until F.D.R or Medicare until L.B.J. Additionally, it was full of Anglo-Protestants, founders like John Jay spoke of that fortuitous homogeny (ignoring the slaves and indians). It is less surprising that such states would be unified than the various peoples of Europe who already have their own nations (and significant separatist movements within a number of those nations!). When you get down to it, isn’t it odd that the U.S is not part of a larger government structure with quite similar Canada, “the 51st state”? And that’s of course leaving aside Mexico, whose suggested integration would get a politician tarred and feathered. In a sense we are lagging behind the Europeans in integration, if we were similar there would already be the dreaded Amero and NAFTA superhighway. Not that I view political unification as a good thing, I am more radical than Scott Sumner and think the 50 (not nearly enough!) U.S states should be less unified than Europe currently is.

On a different note, in the comments to the Sephen Williamson post I linked to Williamson cited David Levine as a good example of an economist whose site does not quite qualify as a blog. I checked it out and found that Levine on his front page still had a post from 2009 responding to Paul Krugman’s criticism of the economics profession. Reading his open letter in the Huffington Post, it struck me as different from many attacks on Krugman. Usually people are exasperated that the famous Nobel-winning economist & widely read New York Times columnist is being dishonest/partisan and misleading people. Levine is unusual in that he seems to look down on Krugman, regarding him as an irrelevant old man left behind in the past. That led to a bloggingheads debate with philosopher Alex Rosenberg on falsifiability in economics and how the field has become a more precise predictive science. A number of economists have urged humility in the face of the crash and emphasized how little we understand and how complicated everything is, but Levine seems supremely confident in the state and progression of economics. But since he regards undergrad textbooks as embarrassingly bereft of the new insights of complicated dynamic models I know nothing about, I can’t evaluate his claims.

Wilson & Herrnstein write in “Crime and Human Nature” of deferring immediate pleasures for defrayed rewards: “And if [this] book is read, it will be by persons who think, rightly or wrongly, that they will obtain some intellectual or educational benefit from doing so, and not by persons who think that reading it is more fun than going to the movies.” Maybe agnostic is right about everything being better in the 80s (1985 more specifically), because I’m not aware of anything in theaters worth seeing. That might just reveal my ignorance of the finer selections of present culture.

Daniel Dennet is well known for saying a brain transplant is the one case where you’d rather be a donor than a recipient. Just goes to show the infrequency of brain transplants during the evolutionary adaptive period. Your genes would prefer for your gonads live on, even if someone else’s brain does the driving and your own is rotting. It may even be advantageous for your brain to turn into a stomach.

Rarely have I seen such a negative consensus as the reaction to Kartik Athreya’s essay on how economics is too complicated for amateurs on blogs. The one person I’ve read with a positive reaction is Stephen Williamson, who is mentioned by name in Athreya’s piece as a praiseworthy exception.

At the end of “The Bottom Billion” Paul Collier references the “political business cycle”, in which elected officials try to boost the economy right before elections, generally causing problems later on. He writes that voters eventually got wise and so politicians stopped using that tactic. I actually wasn’t aware of that last part. Most treatments I read talk as if it’s still going on. Collier didn’t provide a cite (there are no footnotes in the book), so I’m wondering what anyone else thinks.

He also mentions Lenin using the phrase “useful idiots”, and I also used to believe that but now I suspect the quote is fabricated. I’ve never heard anyone give a source for it.

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