February 2012

The phrase “wet desert” sounds like an oxymoron (unless you count Antarctica, which is covered in snow but receives little precipitation). But according to Charles Mann’s “1491”, that is or was the standard ecologist view of tropical rain forests. The logic is that good agricultural soil contains plenty of nutrients for plants, but in rainforests the abundant plant life has already sucked up most of the nutrients and and is storing it above ground, and least until something ties and is rapidly sucked up by the survivors. A rather odd way of looking at things, but it carries the implication that removing said vegetation could permanently cripple the area (in part because the exposed soil can’t handle the punishing impact of rainfall), in contrast to managed forestry which can continually replenish the trees extracted. The “slash and burn” nomadic horticulture of natives like the Yanomamo, which leaves ash to feed the soil and doesn’t expose ground for too long of a period, is thus one of the few compatible low-impact strategies compatible with the long-term survival of that environment. And in Mann’s view, Amerindians have been there in larger numbers than people think and for a longer time. Except that I have just misled you as he does his readers, because he doesn’t actually believe that standard story. (more…)

It’s been months since David Graeber’s book “Debt” was published, and around the time that Crooked Timber has started a symposium on it an excerpt has gained infamy as Wrongest Sentence Ever. Reading every comment at Unfogged would be time-consuming (and since they come in a little pop up window, annoying), but the collection curated at the link contain some very amusing parodies. From what I’ve read online, I find some of the arguments he appears to be making odd (the only economist I can think of who talks much about barter is Nick Rowe, who emphasizes its unworkability as illustrating how useful money can be and harmful a shortage of currency relative to demand is), but it still sounds like an interesting & ambitious book. In those Unfogged comments a number of people compare him to Jared Diamond, specifically “Collapse”, whose problems I have discussed here before. I enjoy reading Diamond despite all that and maybe Graeber will be similar. On the other hand, it was over two years ago that I started writing a review of Karl Polanyi’s somewhat similar sounding “Great Transformation”, before I ran out of extensions and had to return the book to the library, and I feel I really should deal with that before taking on Graeber.

On an unrelated note, there has been a hubbub about the Gleick/Heartland affair, but I am mystified by the absence of anyone making a point that seems obvious to me. Gleick claims he received the “strategy” document in the mail, subsequently emailed Heartland pretending to be a board-member and then received the other documents. I haven’t read any of these myself, but there is unanimity that the “strategy” document largely consists of elements borrowed from the other documents, so the author must have read them before writing it. The pdf from the scanned “strategy” paper contains metadata indicating the date & time at which it was scanned (whose Pacific timezone has been widely noted). The Heartland emails will have date/time stamps as well. If the date on the document precedes that of the emails that would clear Gleick of the charge of fabricating it himself. I don’t think he’ll clear himself in that way because he seems pretty obviously guilty. I should add that a later date would be consistent with him only scanning the physical document after he received the emails, but that’s about as plausible as the idea that anyone else would think his Forbes blog is a vital outpost in the battle over climate policy. Now I feel stupid for even spending time writing about this tempest in a teacup.

I picked it up because there’s been a hubbub about the sequel, 1492. The gist of the original is that native american societies before Columbus were a lot older, denser and more advanced/complex than was believed even a few decades ago. I’m not sure how much of Mann’s view is representative of the academic consensus and how much is just a contrarian narrative he wants to push, but there’s still lots to learn. I’m only halfway through and can’t give an overall evaluation, but some notes will be below the fold. (more…)

So according to the most recent Census, only 1.7% of  men age 18 to 44 identify as homosexual (“or gay,” as it states, presumably offering the more colloquial designation), contra the figure I’ve heard most of my life (s0 far) of 10%.

For women the figure is slightly less at 1.1%, though it’s offset somewhat, if you want to think of it that way, by the greater number of bisexuals at 3.5%.

Demographer Gary Gates provides a possible reason for why the idea that 1 in 10 Americans are gay has caught on here (sneak peek: Alfred Kinsey isn’t really to blame), but I’m more interested in how the alphanumerics are disseminated throughout the partisan interwebs.

I Googled “myth of 10% gay” and got a more or less equal number of sites on the rightish and leftish side of the issue, but note how the word “myth” and the number 10 were utilized. From the first page, on the Left:

10 Anti-Gay Myths Debunked | Southern Poverty Law Center


And on the Right:

10% of Americans are gay — urban myth explored

Only the Right actually uses the number 10 in the context of the “10%” I was looking for, and yes they’re pretty clearly conservative, with names like “Renew America” and “Orthodoxy Today.” It appears that while it’s a fact that far fewer than in 1 in 10 Americans are gay, it’s also a fact that to even broach the topic in a critical way you’re likely to be a right-winger.

It’s apparently a year old, but this Miller-McCune article on women, men, and their differing responses to the prospect of casual sex I found interesting. It first presents a famous Ev Psych study from 1989 revealing that men were overwhelmingly more receptive than women to the idea of sleeping with an attractive stranger more or less right away, sans the get-to-know-you orientation:

 That study, by psychologists Russell Clark and Elaine Hatfield, found that when a female college student introduced herself to a male colleague and asked if he wanted to have sex with her, 69 to 75 percent of the guys said yes. When the genders were reversed, not a single woman was interested.

It was theorized that men were obviously interested in spreading their proverbial seed consequence-free, while women were understandably cautious about getting pregnant by just anyone – even an attractive guy if he was a (literally) poor suitor – thus the above results. But a new study by University of Michigan psychologist Terri Conley shows women to be just as interested in casual sex if  their chance of actually being sexually satisfied can be assured. (And, of course, if they feel safe.)

The phrase “any sex is good sex” is apparently only applicable to men, but that’s a truism so banal you can read about it in Redbook.

Now maybe the relative difficulty of women reaching orgasm is just a function of the different roles men and women play in the mating game, which wouldn’t really work against the theory used to explain the 1989 study, but based on Conley’s experiment involving actually asking women why they choose to forgo casual sex so often, maybe a method for assuring orgasm could turn the straight dating scene into one more like the gay (male) one. Indeed, bisexual women find the prospect of a one-night stand with a fellow woman to be much more appealing:

This lack of confidence in men as pleasure-givers was indirectly supported by another of Conley’s experiments, which focused on bisexual women. They were “significantly more likely to accept an offer (of a one-night stand) from a woman than from a man,” she reports.

But  one of Conley’s surveys seems flawed. To challenge the Sexual Strategies Theory buttressed by the 1989 study, she asked both men and women about the idea of sleeping with a celebrity, in the former’s case Angelina Jolie and Roseanne Barr, in the latter’s Johnny Depp and Donald Trump. And in particular how excited they’d be over either option. Men were found to prefer (no big surprise) Jolie, but women said they’d opt for Depp, supposedly undermining the SST’s notion that a woman would prefer a strong provider.

Now I’m not privy to the contents of either Depp’s or Trump’s bank account, but I’m certain both are way beyond the point of subsistence living and into the realm of the fantastically wealthy. So why wouldn’t a woman choose Depp, even if he’s merely a millionaire and not a billionaire? I don’t think female sexual strategy evolved to be that sensitive to one’s provider status. A more useful juxtaposition would see Trump pitted against someone attractive, widely recognizable, but not wealthy.

I can’t think of anyone, can you?

I am occasionally surprised to find that somebody on the internet I hadn’t heard from in a while still exists. Usually they’re just as obscure now as they were back then (if not moreso) but Saifedean Ammous is an exception. My recollections were of him contributing to marginal sites, but now he’s co-authored a piece with econ nobelist Edmund Phelps.

A while back I sort of rebuked “Thorfinn” aka Arpit Gupta for listing Phelps as a “free-market” economist. The more I see the more I think he was right all along and I was wrong to nitpick. For some reason Barkley Rosser’s comment on Phelps lingered in my head, although I misremembered it as having a more positive light.