Tuesday, June 19, 2018


Popular culture in China.

That Was Quick

Five days later, I have decided that forecasting is not interesting enough, and the discussion reads like a bad comments section. I doubt I will update my predictions, so my final score is likely to simply reflect how good my first uninformed guesses are.

Cause of the Week

The Cause of the Week is never reported accurately.  It is chosen for emotional elements which suspend rational thought.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Count of States

Bethany counted up the states she has been in, and it got me wondering.  What's a legitimate claim to having been in a state?  I drove from Houston to Pensacola once, Routes 90, 10 & 12. I'm not sure I ever got off the Interstate, though I probably did get gas, use a restroom, or grab a quick meal somewhere. Do I get to count Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama? What about changing planes in Atlanta or Minneapolis? If I slept on the train while riding through New Mexico, do I get to call that an overnight?

States lived in: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut age 5, Virginia for college.
States stayed overnight in: New York, Maine, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, DC, Ohio, Michigan, South Carolina, California, Alaska, Colorado, Arizona, Texas. Missouri. Kentucky. Tennessee. Nevada. Florida. Missouri. North Carolina. Arkansas at a campground on the Mississippi. Washington sorta - the airline put me up in a motel outside of Sea-Tac. I must have stayed in either Indiana or Illinois when taking Ben college shopping at Wheaton. I stood overnight hitchhiking near Silver Spring in 1973 - I'm not counting that.  Canadian provinces New Brunswick and Quebec.
States driven through and stopped at at least something: Rhode Island,  Vermont. Indiana. Illinois.
States driven or ridden through, probably at least a highway meal: New Mexico, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia.  Louisiana and/or Mississippi and/or Alabama, see above. Canadian provinces Ottawa and Nova Scotia.
States touched:  Georgia, Minnesota. If you are in Kansas City or St Louis you can rack up a few in an an afternoon, but I never did.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Peopling of the Americas

I get it that few or none of you are all that interested in this, but I ran across this interesting historical linguistic theory from 20 years ago by Johanna Nichols and thought I would put it forward. Nichols suggests connections among languages in the Old World and the New World on the basis of deep structure.  She examines families of languages for how they mark possessives, their typical word-order (SVO, VSO, etc), and the initial consonants for pronouns. She sees a Pacific Rim Necklace of language relationships, which is quite different than what most linguists see. The standard explanation is that there is no demonstrable connection between the two sides of the Pacific, other than Eskimo-Aleuts, the last arrivals. I understand that there is some minority acceptance for a connection between Ket in Siberia and Na-Dene (Navajo, Hopi) languages in the Americas.

Nichols also believes there has not been enough time for a single language to differentiate enough to create all the remaining New World languages, and believes that humans must have arrived much earlier than Clovis*, or that there were multiple waves of settlement of peoples already speaking different languages.  The possibilities keep narrowing because of the periods of glaciation. There are eras when movement is much less possible.

Both of these are intriguing because of the genetic connections we can now trace. There is an "impossible" genetic pattern deep in the Amazon. There is only an overlap of a few percent, but some Amazonian groups have a connection to genetic patterns in the Andaman Islands, which are between India and Burma, to save you looking it up. Tribes moving from island to island is not unknown, especially if the next island is actually visible at times. Yet in the case of moving east from South Asia, you can only get as far as the Solomon Islands that way, even allowing for the ocean being 300 feet lower.  If you know the islands are there out as far at Pitcairn, skilled navigators, such as those who peopled the Pacific thousands of years later, can make it.  That still leaves over a thousand miles of open ocean before you land on what is now Chile. (At least South America is hard to miss at that point.) Plus, it's not good enough to just wash up on shore after a freak storm.  To start a colony you need at least a dozen people, and fifty is a better low estimate.  So that's not really possible.  OTOH, leaving no trace in North America on your way to the Amazon by curling up along the Aleutian glacial coasts doesn't work either. Not to mention why a seafaring people would take it into their heads to cross the Andes.  No sensible explanation is available, and yet there it is.

I do have a possible explanation for that linguistic clock in the New World, however.  Nichols's estimate is based on language differentiation in populated areas.  In Eurasia and Africa, if you were moving, you kept bumping up against other people. That would keep groups of similar language together longer.  Yes, things can get pretty diverse over time in mountainous areas such as the Caucasus, where everyone settles in a different upper valley. Yet the connections can still be discovered by linguists. But in the New World, people could spread out quickly and lose contact with each other.  Isolated languages change more rapidly.  I think Nichols's clock runs too slowly for that reason.

*I think there is growing support for pre-Clovis, though not at the depth she describes. Monte Verde seems to have earned support from even hardcore Clovis believers, but that is only a couple of thousand years earlier. There is even a hint that discovered human fires and tools date back 32,000 years ago.  A lot can go wrong in that sort of isolated find, but at least it's out there.

Update:  Better analogy. It is as if a few pieces of broken bottle were unearthed far up the Amazon, and were found to be not only of a type of bottle from the Andaman Islands, but a matched fit for shards of a bottle that was broken there. People would not only wonder at the impossibility, they would wonder where the other pieces of the bottle might be found.


This came up today. It applies to more things than the word "fascism."

Authorisation: "We"

I hope I had the sense to think this thought before the year 2000, but my second trip to Romania is the earliest example I can bring to mind.  Even then, I didn't fully put the pieces together until I came home. We had been on a food-delivering run to the village of Cucuceni, and on the way back swung by the train station in Rieni and picked up this guy. How the driver knew he would be there I have no clue. Planned things never happen in Romania, unplanned ones go off without a hitch somehow.

Someone said he was the pastor of a house church in one of the villages.  For Baptists, almost all the churches were house churches, meeting in secret or at least unobtrusively even in the 1990's.  They were still nervous that the Securitate would go back to its old ways and start carting them off or even shooting them. I was later told that he wasn't a "real pastor," just a guy who tried to run things. His English was passable, and as we passed an orthodox church he started in telling me how terrible the orthodox priests were.  They were all drunks, he said. One was so drunk that he fell in front of a train. They never went and visited the poor.  They hated The Christians and turned them in to the secret police. We had not even exchanged pleasantries before he launched into this.  I expected the Romanians in the car to slow him down a bit, but none did.

It seemed strange because one of the points stressed by the ministry during my two weeks there is how much they were working to cooperate with the Orthodox who used to persecute them, and the government that used to persecute them, and the powerful neighbors who used to persecute them, and to reach out to the gypsies who everyone hated and persecuted. This guy hadn't gotten the message, apparently.  I certainly wasn't going to contradict him.  He was in his 50's and had likely experienced some bad things, so rich Americans who had always lived in peace shouldn't be preaching to him. Still, he wouldn't stop. Then he started to drift into what "we" Christians were going to do about it now that "we" were more free.  Nothing violent, just put them out of business, close their monasteries, he was going to see to that...We dropped him off in Beius near where we were staying. "He has had a hard time," the driver said.  Nothing more.

Only long after did I wonder why he thought he was authorised to speak for The Christians. Did he mean those within a ten-mile radius?  All of Transylvania? Romania? There were other lines of thought, but that one escaped me until months later. It leads to unanswerables. Is he dangerous?  Are there others like him so that collectively they do speak for some undefined group of Christians? Are tyrants simply effective versions of this angry man who seems to have no followers? And yet, the people I was working with also used the word "we" when discussing the activities of Baptists in the area.  They have clear authorisation to speak for their ministry, which was a major part of the local activity.  But I knew there were plenty of people not formally affiliated involved in all this.  How far did the authorisation of my friends to say "we" extend?

I now think of this fairly automatically when I read about people who speak for others. Who authorised you? They even speak for the dead - that's convenient - of those who were in one of their groups generations ago. We crossed the prairie and founded this town. We were brought here as slaves. We won the state championship in 1985. We have always been generous to the poor. We have been oppressed by men for a millennium, one of the professors at a local university recently said. "We? You got a mouse in your pocket?" used to be the teasing correction to that. You crossed the prairie?  You've been a slave?

It's a tactic.  It is a declaration of authority, so that one looks important.  If you can get away with it, at some level it's true. No one stops the school principal from saying "we" about that championship even though she was living 472 miles away at the time.  She does have some authority to say "we," as the institutional representative. Politicians do this in an effort to look like people who are authorised to speak for us - or for some percentage of us. It is not always a lie. We sometimes do have authority to speak for others.  If we are good speakers or leaders or negotiators, the people we claim to be speaking for won't stop us when we make the claim. They might heartily endorse it, or might just uncomfortably go along for the moment, but they do allow people to slip into that slot of representation.

Be suspicious of who you allow to slip into that slot, and don't be afraid to challenge, openly or quietly, those who make the claim without earning it.

Friday, June 15, 2018


Words change in meaning. Divisive used to mean dividing people unnecessarily, or creating dissension.  Admittedly, that would always have to be subjective.  Even when applying that precise a value, one would have to acknowledge that the person or group being divisive doesn't see themselves that way. They see themselves as being right - as reformers, or remnant believers, or fighters for principle. Each could see the others as the truly divisive ones.

Still, we seem to have drifted to a meaning of "won't do as we tell them." Submitting evidence of the other being the primary initiator or primary offender is not even given a covering statement. It is a word now used to conjure rather than describe or explain.

Perhaps it was ever thus, and I was less observant.

Thursday, June 14, 2018


After reading Superforecasting, I decided to register and try my hand at it.  We'll see.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Genetic Attribution and Intolerance

Contrary to the popular arguments, people who attribute human characteristics to genetic causes are more likely to be liberal than conservative, are more tolerant, and do not have what the study calls "unseemly racial attitudes." I am surprised but not shocked about the first of these.  In my limited experience it is mostly conservative sites that will even acknowledge the possibility, and mostly liberals who come over to report that Hitler had racial superiority theories and this is exactly the same thing.  On the other hand, conservatives are often in the forefront of attributing human characteristics to culture and also don't like being told that there are strong genetic factors. Scott Alexander suggests that these attitudes are simply related to having more education, which could be so. Alexander also links to an article in Quillette about in-groups and out-groups. Comments are closed, so no fun for me. I think the refutation to Ezra Klein's context-driven truth is straightforward, so I suppose I don't actually need to write that paragraph, though I would like to.

I comment fewer places now.  Some sites use FB as the sign-on and I no longer have an account.  SSC always has far too many comments per post. Althouse has that problem to a smaller degree. I am not starting new accounts much these last two years.

Blood Donation

My Red Cross reminder email tells me that they have averaged a decline of 80,000 fewer donors per year for the last four years. That is a very big number. I went looking for the full story on this, which wasn't easily available, which irritates me. How many donors do they have? What do they think is driving the decline? I am also irritated because the Red Cross has some history of playing with its fundraising vs services numbers, so they are not entirely trustworthy. Not terrible, just not quite up to their image.

Still, the bottom line is this: blood is not something you can make artificially and just charge more somewhere.  People need this, and the only source is other people.  Even if the Red Cross were a thoroughly corrupt organisation, they are the only game in town, and there is no other way to do this work. Major media made a big deal for years that the big issue is that they won't accept donations from gay men, as if that 2% of the population were going to turn the tide even if they were approved for donation (as they are now, sorta.) Rejecting people who have had tattoos in the last six months, or people who have been abroad in  some situations may be bigger issues.

Arthur C. Brooks's Who Really Cares revealed in 2006 that conservatives, especially religious ones not only give more to charity*, but volunteer more in their communities and give more blood. He challenged at the time that if liberals gave blood at the same rate as conservatives, we would have no shortages. Challenge issued, challenged declined.  Clearly that hasn't happened, and it's not gonna happen.

I donate Double Red, which is now called Power Red, and is every 112 days instead of 56 days. It takes twice as long, but as it takes a half an hour to get over to the donation site and a half an hour back, I consider it a more efficient method. You should consider getting out and donating.  And bring your children, so they get the idea that this is part of a normal, responsible life.

*That is an oversimplified claim and there are levels to it. It is both technically and essentially true, but there are layers to it. Libertarians score worst, by the way.

Economy Influence: Update

I have long said that the actions of government are not the primary drivers of the economy.  But, insofar as government has influence, the congress has about twice the influence of the President. Also, the influence is not immediate, and certainly does not begin at the moment of election, except in an indirect way on the decisions people make based on their projection of what the new congress and president will do. If this seems obvious, remember that during campaigns advocates for one group or another (okay, only one group usually, but I'm trying to be open-minded here) will quote statistics based on "when Bush was elected in 2000 the NASDAC/unemployment rate/price of gas was..."  I have even seen that applied her in NH to the date the NH primary was won, which is a full year before a president even gets to start stealing the White House art and silver.

Remember in the summer of 2000 Bush and Cheney were castigated for "talking down the Clinton economy," which was indeed eroding and did crater, and the dire predictions some few made in 2006 when the Democrats won the mid-term elections, erasing any chance of regulating mortgage derivatives.  Neither of those were the whole story, but they are parts of the story that don't get told anymore, so I bring them up.

Thus, claims that the Trump economy started in January 2017 are not fully defensible, whether in praise or blame.  I have said that it takes about 18 months for the economy to fully turn over and be attributable to a new congress and president. Don't mistake this for the opposite extreme and think I am saying that this has been the Obama economy until today. But it takes time even to write executive orders, never mind pass legislation and put new policies into effect. There is never a 100% turnover, as actions in the past can have consequences for decades. There are still pieces one could pull out and say "this is the continuing effect of the Roosevelt economy." Yet we can't think twenty levels in every offhand conversation.  We have to make some simplifications in order to speak at all.

So the 115th Congress (majority Republican) with influence from Trump now deserves primary blame or credit going forward for the economy inherited from the 114th Congress (majority Republican) with influence from Obama. Ordinarily I set the 50-50 point about a year after the new Congress starts, accelerating after that.  Because Donald Trump was dramatic and the responses to him were dramatic, I would be inclined to assign him greater, and quicker influence than other presidents. Still, not so much as Congress. And neither so much as a dozen other influences: technology, the Fed, wars, trade agreements...and the random nature of so much of life.

Trump's supporters want to give him all credit for everything since January 2017.  I think he has done well, but I also think it's an exaggeration to give him - or any new president - that much credit or blame.


Greg Cochran, commenting off-the-cuff on why anthropologists are reluctant to believe that technology, DNA, and languages were spread by conquest and conflict, rather than contact and cooperation, despite the abundant evidence dating back decades. He quotes a prominent anthropologist saying "It's really hard for people to learn how to kill other people."
I'm thinking...what am I supposed to do? Demonstrate that that's false? There have been people who have tried to make such arguments. They really believe that. "It's really hard to get people to learn to chop an enemy down in the heat of battle." I don't really think so. I'm pretty sure that this was something people were always pretty good at doing, and if they weren't good they learned about as soon as there was a guy in front of them with a weapon. (Interviewer: You'd think if they did any hunting, that would...) We have cultural problems in understanding the past. Most people who are highly educated in this country - even more so, those who go into the social sciences - never hunted anything in their life, never hung out with anybody who did; it feels strange to them. Now, intellectually they probably know that a lot of people did do this - one hopes - but they don't sound like they really believe it. Real people couldn't have shot a deer, gutted it, drained its blood, cooked it and eaten it. That's just not possible...It's hard for people to believe that anyone wasn't exactly like them.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018


Characteristically for me, I have read someone whose work I like, and yet will focus on the place where I think they got it wrong.

Anne Curzan is a linguistics professor at UMichigan.  I first heard of her by listening to her work on The Great Courses. Recommended. From that, I decided to look her up and discovered that in addition to a TEDx talk (I no longer listen to those), and co-hosting an ongoing series of short takes on Michigan public radio, she blogs under the Lingua Franca section at The Chronicle of Higher Education. DuckDuckGo tells me she is also on YouTube, likely for the TEDx* talks.

Side note: Her bios do not include the years she completed her various degrees. I suspect she has to actively edit them out at places like Wikipedia, and I approve of this. People are not entitled to all your personal information.  If they are curious, they can work for it and discover it somewhere online, I am sure. But people draw quick impressions from age, especially of women, and she's not obligated to help them do that. She can present in her own way.  It is not something that matters in the least to me, but it does others.

Freshmen. In one of her posts she notes that she was slow to effect some gender-based language changes after she became an assistant dean and had actual power and authority at Michigan. She simply notes that it is easy not to notice these things and reminds people to be alert for them when they have some influence. She mentions two: the use of gender-neutral they and their for he, he/she, his, his-or-her, and the use of first-year to replace freshman. I agree with the former.  It was already present in speech and less-formal writing for decades and is not a difficult transition. I never thought using the masculine forms to represent both men and women was that big a deal, but then, I'm old, and male, and unlikely to. The other neutral choices like s/he or his-or-her are clunky and awkward. They still sounds a bit informal and sloppy to my ears, but not terrible. As for it being a plural used as a singular, that bothers me even less. All languages, including English, have idiosyncrasies, and speakers of a language that doesn't have a plural form of "you," except in our dialects are in no position to get stuffy about that part.

Freshmen, however seems like an unnecessary loss. The names for the four classes were always playful, with a subtext of reminding students that they are not quite adults. Even senior has hint of irony in it. Eliminating freshman will undermine the use of the other three, and over time may drive all of them out. They are fun language. I understand the drive to eliminate "men" from compounds that include both males and females. It is part of a general pushback in language against the exclusion of women from power.  Many of the alternatives don't hold up well; others do. Chairwoman is not terrible but limps a little, and "chair" works quite well.  Congresswoman seemed odd years ago but seems fine now.  When the plural is required, we have to go to the formal member of Congress or the jocular congresscritter, so we have lost an intermediate form, but that's not huge. "Freshwomen" sounds a little snarky and using humor to be dismissive, but "freshman" was already that. Does anyone think "sophomore" isn't humorously dismissive?

Once someone points out the problem with a word people start to respond to it differently. It says "men." That means women are excluded. This is part of the systematic erasing of women. 

First-year student is boring. It is also less accurate to use the number the years of attendance, as students increasingly do not finish in four years. There may also be an intentional reduction in taking that teasing attitude to students anymore. They are customers, and we have to pretend they are adults as a business strategy. I don't think this has worked well. Telling them that their opinions are valuable in their current form is silly.  They and their opinions are works in progress and should know that. Human nature already has too great a tendency to settle into what one perceived authority or another tells us and think no more about it. Social psychologists have disturbing evidence how much our reasoning is post hoc. We shouldn't be encouraging that in students, who are already among the worst offenders.

The intended meaning is likely "We want all students to know we take women seriously." There are additional meanings. Those meanings are intentional but unacknowledged. I don't think it will do to ask students what they think the meaning is. They want to identify with a tribe, and they will recite back the meaning they believe their desired tribe wants. That will usually be the tribe of the professors, as they want to look like educated, high-minded people who "get it." Even if they don't fully feel that way, that's what they're going to say.  They are trying to build places for themselves in the world, and are practicing to say - and even to believe - what they should, to the authorities and to their cohort. They will do this fairly automatically.  (Yes, some students delight in the opposite. There is a tribal status in that also.)

Two second meanings are "We consider the low, even merely theoretical possibility that anyone would have been offended before we pointed out the difficulty to be more important than four centuries of humorous academic tradition. And we are watching everything you say." The fact that many people in the authority structure do not strongly intend that meaning is irrelevant.  If there are any, with any power, then it must be attended to. For safety. If I were a student at that college I would think. "I consider myself duly warned. I am undecided what I will do about that."

*When did the "x" come in?  What's it for?