The first two links nearly merit four stars; each is full of great insights that have changed my understanding of (respectively) global politics and psychotherapy. But while they're not difficult to read -- you can judge for yourself based on the excerpts -- ultimately I thought they were both slightly too academic to make the cut. Still, I highly recommend them.
----- 3 stars -----
Whose century? / London Review of Books
I've sent several articles about how US-China relations will evolve, and it does seem to be a subject many people are now considering carefully. Here's the latest -- a brilliant piece from Adam Tooze:
The Trump presidency is a Rorschach blot onto which analysts project their diagnosis of a crisis that is as much American as Sino-American. Self-critical American liberals see the Trump presidency as the result of the derailment of US globalisation policy, above all in relation to China: blue-collar resentment, stoked by unbalanced trade, put Trump in office. Meanwhile, Trump and his team put the blame for the China crisis on their predecessors in the Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations. For hawks, such as the US trade representative Robert Lighthizer and Trump’s favourite economic adviser, Peter Navarro, the question is why the effort to enrol China in the world economy was undertaken in the first place, and who benefited from an experiment that has gone so badly wrong. The crude Trumpian take, which is perhaps also the kindest, is that the US negotiators of the 1990s and early 2000s were chumps, suckered by the Chinese. The more sophisticated version is that Bill Clinton’s team were too committed to the kind of modernisation theory Frances Fukuyama spun in his ‘end of history’ essay in 1989. They believed the liberal story that as China’s economy matured it would inevitably develop a need for the rule of law and representative democracy. If the Communist regime refused this logic and clung to its old ways, the laws of social science would condemn it to economic stagnation. Either way America had nothing to fear. [...] What cannot reasonably be said is that the Clinton or Bush administrations were naive about the ease of convergence with China. The terms of its accession to the WTO were demanding; thousands of Chinese laws had to be brought into compliance. As Blustein recounts, Zhu Rongji, the Chinese premier who negotiated the deal, faced widespread denunciation at home for selling out to America. The terms of China’s WTO accession were, one senior Communist Party official blurted out, no better than the infamous ‘21 points’ which imperial Japan had tried to foist on the Chinese republic in 1915. The boom in China’s exports in the new century wasn’t the result of a sweetheart deal, but of the extraordinary mobilisation of labour and capital that began in the 1990s. And in that process Western capital played a key role. The question asked by the American left, as well as more hard-nosed right-wingers, is not whether the US negotiators were naive or incompetent, but whose interests they were representing. Were they negotiating on behalf of the average American, or American business? [...] In 1949, ‘Who lost China?’ was the question that tortured the American political establishment. Seventy years later, the question that hangs in the air is how and why America’s elite lost interest in their own country. Coming from Bernie Sanders that question wouldn’t be surprising. But it was more remarkable to hear William Barr, Trump’s attorney general, describe American business as ‘part of the problem’ because its corporate leaders are too focused on their stock options and have lost sight of the ‘national view’ and the need to ensure that ‘that the next century remains a Western one’. He warns corporate executives lobbying for China that they may be treated as foreign agents. [...] One has to wonder whether the advocates of a new Cold War have taken the measure of the challenge posed by 21st-century China. For Americans, part of the appeal of allusions to Cold War 2.0 is that they think they know how the first one ended. Yet our certainty on that point is precisely what the rise of China ought to put in question. The simple fact is that the US did not prevail in the Cold War in Asia. Korea was divided by a stalemate. Vietnam was a humiliating failure. It was to find a way out of that debacle that Nixon and Kissinger turned to Beijing and inaugurated a new era of Sino-American relations. America’s ability to tilt the balance against the Soviet Union was linked to its success in playing the Chinese off against the Soviets. The Tiananmen Square massacre was not an incidental blot on the liberal landscape of 1989; it was the Communist Party of China’s answer to the Berlin-centred ‘end of history’ narrative. The mistake in thinking that we are in a ‘new Cold War’ is in thinking of it as new. In putting a full stop after 1989 we prematurely declare a Western victory. From Beijing’s point of view, there was no end of history, but a continuity – not unbroken, needless to say, and requiring constant reinterpretation, as any live political tradition does, but a continuity nevertheless. Although American hawks have only a crude understanding of China’s ideology, on this particular matter they have grasped the right end of the stick. We have to take seriously the CCP’s sense of mission. We should not comfort ourselves with the thought that because nationalism is the main mode of Chinese politics today, Xi’s administration is nothing more than a nationalist regime. China under the control of the CCP is, indeed, involved in a gigantic and novel social and political experiment enrolling one-sixth of humanity, a historic project that dwarfs that of democratic capitalism in the North Atlantic. But to acknowledge that there are real ideological stakes is not automatically to accept that the US and its allies should gird themselves for ‘victorious’ confrontation with the communist foe. Even the Trump administration’s own strategic statements on China sensibly stop short of any talk of regime change. Having recognised what ought to have been obvious all along – that China’s regime is serious about maintaining and expanding its power and conceives of itself as having a world historic mission to rival anything in the history of the West – the question is how rapidly we can move to détente, meaning long-term co-existence with a regime radically different from our own, a long-term attitude of ‘live and let live,’ shorn of assumptions about eventual convergence and the inevitable historical triumph of the West’s economic, social and political system. It would be a long-term co-existence, in which, over time, the US may well find that it has become the junior partner or, at best, the leader of a coalition of smaller powers balancing the massive weight of China.
Cradled by therapy / Aeon
In 2006, a team of Norwegian researchers set out to study how experienced psychotherapists help people to change. Led by Michael Rønnestad, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oslo, the team followed 50 therapist-patient pairs, tracking, in minute detail, what the therapists did that made them so effective. [...] ‘We didn’t know what we were getting into,’ Halvorsen told me. Following initial interviews with both Cora and her therapist, the researchers ploughed through a total of 242 summary notes that the two had written after each session over the course of the three-year study. From this data, the team selected and transcribed verbatim 25 sessions that seemed particularly important. The final material approached 500 pages of single-spaced text. Halvorsen and her colleagues puzzled over it for more than two years in a bid to understand what, exactly, had saved Cora’s life. [...] When you delve into it, the question of how people change through therapy can make your head swim. Here’s a psychological intervention that seems to work as well as drugs (and, studies suggest, possibly better over the long term), and yet what is it, precisely, that works? Two people sit in a room and talk, every week, for a set amount of time, and at some point one of them walks out the door a different person, no longer beleaguered by pain, crippled by fear or crushed by despair. Why? How? Things get even more puzzling if you consider the sheer number of therapies on offer and the conflicting methods that they often employ. [...] Begrudgingly, I kept going back to what Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University, said in 2009 in a widely cited paper: ‘It is remarkable that after decades of psychotherapy research we cannot provide an evidence-based explanation for how or why even our most well-studied interventions produce change.’ To complicate matters, numerous studies over the past few decades have reached what seems a counterintuitive conclusion: that all psychotherapies have roughly equal effects. [...] All of this suggests a tantalising alternative to both the medical professional’s and the layperson’s view of therapy: that what happens between client and therapist goes beyond mere talking, and goes deeper than clinical treatment. The relationship is both greater and more primal, and it compares with the developmental strides that play out between mother and baby, and that help to turn a diapered mess into a normal, healthy person. [...] In teasing out some answers from the reams of data they’d collected, Halvorsen and her team found a curious call-and-response pattern emerge between Cora and the therapist, which has an analogue in mother-infant interactions. [...] ‘Anxiety, for example, is for the infant a confusing mixture of physical changes, ideas and behaviours,’ he told me. ‘When the mother reflects, or mirrors, the child’s anxiety, he now “knows” what he’s feeling.’ This knowledge, says Fonagy, doesn’t come prewired into us. We don’t understand the meaning of our internal experiences until we see them externalised, or played out for us in the faces and reactions of our caregivers. ‘Paradoxically, even though I now know perfectly well when I feel anxious,’ Fonagy explains in a video interview from 2016, ‘the anxiety that I recognise as my anxiety is actually not my own anxiety but is my picture of my mum looking back at me when I as a baby felt anxious.’ The sensitive mother picks up on the infant’s mental and emotional state and mirrors it; the child learns to recognise his internal experience as ‘sadness’ or ‘anxiety’ or ‘joy’. Previously chaotic sensations now become coherent and integrated into the infant’s sense of who he is, allowing emotions to be processed, predicted and appropriately navigated. But mum doesn’t just mirror baby’s emotional pain; she soothes it.
Bobby Gunn: Champion of the Underworld / Men's Journal
Bobby Gunn is pacing the concrete floor of an auto-body shop somewhere in the industrial badlands of a large northeastern city. “I’m worried,” he says, wringing his mallet-size hands. “I’ve heard this guy today is a head-butter.” More pacing, more hand-wringing, Gunn sinks deeper into a momentary funk amid the garage’s taxidermy heads and faded American flags. Today’s opponent, a former Marine, has a reputation for dropping his head during matches, an old trick among gloveless fighters who can easily fracture a hand by striking the skull. Gunn, 42, has pulled the maneuver himself many times. He’s broken his right hand just as often. Another fracture could end his career. “Everybody wants to take me down, brother, and make a name for himself,” he says, punching a wall of rubber tires. “I’ve gotta watch my back.” Just when you think you’ve heard all the grizzled-fighter-taking-one-last-swing-at-redemption stories, along comes Gunn — the first bare-knuckle boxing champion the U.S. has seen in more than 120 years. Undefeated in 71 fights, Gunn rules the circuit, a nationwide underground network of pro boxers, mixed martial arts fighters, and accomplished street brawlers who enter the ring without gloves for as much as $50,000 cash. It’s dangerous and bloody and illegal almost everywhere. And if things go Gunn’s way — for once in his life — it just could be the next major fight sport.
A Taxonomy of Fear / Persuasion
Also on a theme frequently covered of late in my e-mail -- but there's enough new and thoughtful commentary here to warrant inclusion:
We live in a time of personal timorousness and collective mercilessness. There might seem to be a contradiction between being fearful and fearless, between weighing every word you say and attacking others with abandon. But as more and more topics become too risky to discuss outside of the prevailing orthodoxies, it makes sense to constantly self-censor, feeling unbound only when part of a denunciatory pack. Institutions that are supposed to be guardians of free expression—academia and journalism in particular—are becoming enforcers of conformity. Campuses have bureaucracies that routinely undermine free speech and due process. Now, these practices are breaching the ivy wall. They are coming to a high school or corporate HR office near you. The cultural rules around hot button issues are ever-expanding. It’s as if a daily script went out describing what’s acceptable, and those who flub a line—or don’t even know a script exists—are rarely given the benefit of the doubt, no matter how benign their intent. Naturally, people are deciding the best course is to shut up. It makes sense to be part of the silenced majority when the price you pay for an errant tweet or remark can be the end of your livelihood. [...] Last month, Libby Schaaf, the white mayor of Oakland, California, announced that ropes had been found hanging from trees around a local lake. “These incidents will be investigated as a hate crime,” she said at a press conference. “I want to be clear, regardless of the intentions of whoever put those nooses in our public trees, in our sacred public space here in Oakland, intentions don’t matter.” An investigation revealed that the five ropes had nothing to do with lynching: They were homemade exercise equipment, used by adults and children, put up months earlier by a black resident, Victor Sengbe. He explained his intent at a press conference: “It was really a fun addition to the park.” But this happy conclusion was of no interest to Schaaf. The actual purpose of the ropes did not “remove nor excuse their torturous and terrorizing effects,” she said in a statement, and the incident would continue to be investigated as a hate crime. As Nick Gillespie commented in Reason, “in moments of raw pain and anger, it's especially incumbent upon authorities to act with discernment, judgment, and restraint. Yet all around us, legal, political, and cultural leaders drive in the opposite direction, intensifying fear, hysteria, and resentment.” [...] More and more things are now perceived as a threat to safety. We are responsible not only for our own ideas but also for the ideas of those with whom we share some tenuous association. When we say or do something that causes offense, the nature of our intentions no longer matter. And what happens when a statement is deemed worthy of criticism in one of these myriad ways? The authorities get involved.
Coronavirus: Conspiracy Theories: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO) / YouTube
[There are country restrictions on this one; you may need to VPN into a US server if you can] I suppose I could include Last Week Tonight nearly every week, but this week's seemed both particularly good and particularly informative, including some interesting research on how and why conspiracy theories spread:
With conspiracy theories about coronavirus proliferating, John Oliver discusses why we’re prone to believe, how to distinguish fact from fiction, and what you can do to help others.
----- 2 stars -----
Elon Musk, Blasting Off in Domestic Bliss
The always-entertaining Maureen Dowd:
The billionaire space oddity on life with Grimes and Baby X, Trump, Tesla, tunnels, short shorts, stock surges, Facebook fumbles and everything else under the sun. [...] Now comes an intriguing romance with Grimes, 32, who when she was pregnant floated in ethereal cyber-goth images by Charlotte Rutherford for a Rolling Stone digital cover. (The story, by Brian Hiatt, described Grimes’s Targaryen blanket and her description of herself and the baby as nocturnal creatures.) A fan on her Reddit page described her as a hybrid of a fairy, a witch and a cyborg — pretty much Mr. Musk’s dream girl — and she has talked about going through a Wiccan phase in seventh grade. “Yeah, she’s pretty special, that’s for sure,” Mr. Musk said, with his lilting South African accent. “She’s one of the most unusual people I’ve ever met.” I wonder how it works with two such exotic birds. “We’ve had this debate of ‘Are you more crazy than me or am I more crazy than you?’” Mr. Musk said. [...] I love how-people-met stories, but this was the wildest one I’d ever heard: Two famous people who thought they were crazy when they were little because there were so many off-the-wall ideas bursting out of their heads somehow found each other. Mr. Musk, who spent years warning that his friends in Silicon Valley, like Google’s Larry Page, may inadvertently be “summoning the demon” and creating killer robots or an invisible evil A.I. that would wipe out humanity, was about to tweet a pun about a thought experiment called Roko’s Basilisk, about a wicked A.I. who tortures those who didn’t help it become our overlord. Intending to make a pun about Rococo Basilisk, he was Googling for an image of a basilisk with a rococo flair when he came across a 2015 music video for “Flesh Without Blood,” in which Grimes dresses as a rococo basilisk. “And then it’s like, whoa, someone’s done a music video of this?” Mr. Musk recalled. “It wasn’t a joke to me, actually,” Grimes weighed in. Mr. Musk laughed, agreeing, “Rococo basilisk is no joke!”
India, Jio, and the Four Internets / Stratechery
I hadn't even heard of Jio...
One of the more pernicious mistruths surrounding the debate about TikTok is that this will potentially lead to the splintering of the Internet; this completely erases the history of China’s Great Firewall, started 23 years ago, which effectively cut China off from most Western services. That the U.S. may finally respond in kind is a reflection of reality, not the creation of a new one. What is new is the increased splintering in the non-China Internet: the U.S. model is still the default for most of the world, but the European Union and India are increasingly pursuing their own paths. [...] The India market has always been a bit unique: while foreign companies have usually been unencumbered when it comes to digital goods, leading to a huge number of users for U.S. companies like Google and Facebook, and Chinese companies like TikTok, India has kept a much tighter leash when it comes to the physical layer of tech. This ranges from strong tariffs on electronics to a ban on foreign direct investment in things like e-commerce. Moreover, India has always been one of the most challenging markets in terms of Internet access and logistics. At the same time, the Indian market is the most enticing in the world for both U.S. and Chinese tech companies, which have largely saturated their home markets. This has led to a regular number of collisions between foreign tech companies and India regulators, whether it be Facebook’s attempts to introduce Free Basics or WhatsApp payments, increasing restrictions on Amazon and Flipkart’s e-commerce operations, or most recently, the outright banning of TikTok on national security concerns. Over the last few months, though, a way to square this circle has become apparent to U.S. tech companies in particular, and it portends a fourth Internet: invest in Jio Platforms. [...] Jio, the dominant telecoms network in India, is one of the all-time greatest examples of the power of building, and the outsized returns that come from betting on technology-enabled disruption.
Discovery in Mexican Cave May Drastically Change the Known Timeline of Humans’ Arrival to the Americas / Smithsonian Magazine
Surprisingly old stone points found in a Mexican cave are the latest intriguing discovery among many to raise questions about when humans really arrived in the Americas. For most of the 20th century archaeologists generally agreed that humans who had crossed the Beringia land bridge from Siberia to North America only ventured further into the continent only when retreating ice sheets opened a migration corridor, about 13,000 years ago. But a few decades ago, researchers began discovering sites across the Americas that were older, pushing back the first Americans’ arrival by a few thousand years. Now, the authors of a new study at Mexico’s Chiquihuite cave suggest that human history in the Americas may be twice that long. Put forth by Ciprian Ardelean, an archaeologist at the Autonomous University of Zacatecas (Mexico), and his colleagues, the new paper suggests people were living in central Mexico at least 26,500 years ago.
Genetic impact of African slave trade revealed in DNA study / BBC News
Steven Micheletti, a population geneticist at 23andMe told AFP news agency that the aim was to compare the genetic results with the manifests of slave ships "to see how they agreed and how they disagree". While much of their findings agreed with historical documentation about where people were taken from in Africa and where they were enslaved in the Americas, "in some cases, we see that they disagree, quite strikingly", he added.
How Costco Convinces Brands to Cannibalize Themselves / Napkin Math
Costco's enormous leverage was one of the more interesting things I learned about when working with consumer goods companies. (And the Reddit user is correct.)
Kirkland’s success defies our intuition and experience. Shouldn’t lower prices lead to lower quality products? How can they offer rock-bottom prices but still have some of the best products around? The answer is this: they get the best manufacturers in the world — who already have products on Costco shelves — to make Kirkland products. Yeah, you read that right. While customers might not know it, Kirkland products are often made by the same manufacturers who make the branded products that sit next to them on the shelves. And not only that, but according to a Reddit user who worked at a Costco supplier, Kirkland products have to be at least 1% better than the equivalent branded products (on some metric of their choosing). Costco forces manufacturers to compete with a better version of themselves. But if Costco is pitting brands against themselves, why do the brands put up with it? The short answer is that they want to.
----- 1 star -----
The case against the import of GPT-3 / Marginal Revolution
It seems only fair after my breathless commentary on GPT-3 last week to include an opposing point-of-view. That said, I don't feel obliged to give it four stars, nor am I necessarily convinced that GPT-3 as a potential dead end bodes that poorly for the pace of AI research in general:
The degree of excitement about GPT-3 as a replacement for human workers, or as a path to AGI, is strongly inversely correlated with: (a) How close the person is to the actual work. If you look at the tweets from Altman, Sutskever and Brockman, they’re pumping the brakes pretty hard on expectations. (b) How much the person has actually built ML systems. It’s a towering achievement to be able to train a system this big. But to me it’s clearly a dead-end on the way to AGI.
Ranking the Pain of Stinging Insects, From ‘Caustic’ to ‘Blinding’ / Atlas Obscura
One passionate entomologist poetically describes and ranks over 70 species’ painful stings.
KFC moves to add 3D-printed chicken nuggets with lab-grown meat to its menu / Mashable
Perhaps naively, I'm a big believer in lab-grown meat as a panacea (climate change, animal ethics, land utilisation, health outcomes...), so this is an exciting step:
If you're craving chicken nuggets, perhaps I can interest you in some 3D-printed ones from KFC. [...] According to the press release, 3D Bioprinting Solutions is working on "developing additive bioprinting technology using chicken cells and plant material, allowing it to reproduce the taste and texture of chicken meat."
A highly speculative version of the immunological dark matter hypothesis / Marginal Revolution
The COVID-19 pandemic is thought to began in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Mobility analysis identified East-Asia and Oceania countries to be highly-exposed to COVID-19 spread, consistent with the earliest spread occurring in these regions. However, here we show that while a strong positive correlation between case-numbers and exposure level could be seen early-on as expected, at later times the infection-level is found to be negatively correlated with exposure-level. Moreover, the infection level is positively correlated with the population size, which is puzzling since it has not reached the level necessary for population-size to affect infection-level through herd immunity. These issues are resolved if a low-virulence Corona-strain (LVS) began spreading earlier in China outside of Wuhan, and later globally, providing immunity from the later appearing high-virulence strain (HVS). Following its spread into Wuhan, cumulative mutations gave rise to the emergence of an HVS, known as SARS-CoV-2, starting the COVID-19 pandemic. We model the co-infection by an LVS and an HVS and show that it can explain the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic and the non-trivial dependence on the exposure level to China and the population-size in each country.
Americans tune in to ‘cancel culture’ — and don't like what they see / Politico
One of the few things that Barack Obama and Donald Trump agree on is cancel culture. In the last year, as numerous public figures have become the targets of online campaigns by social media swarms, the former and current president have spoken out against the practice. “That’s not activism,” Obama said last November. “That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.” In a Fourth of July speech at Mount Rushmore, Trump said, “We want free and open debate, not speech codes and cancel culture. We embrace tolerance, not prejudice.” Speaking of the left, he added that “one of their political weapons is ‘cancel culture’ — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America.” [...] We were curious how much this debate over cancel culture — which has quickly morphed from a Twitter obsession for elite journalists to a campaign rallying cry for Trump — has permeated the public consciousness. We asked our polling partner, Morning Consult, to field some questions in our weekly survey and one surprising finding is the number of Americans who now agree with Obama and Trump and want to cancel cancel culture — or at least its worst aspects.
Chinese ambassador struggles to explain Xinjiang footage of blindfolded prisoners / Axios
China's ambassador to the U.K., Liu Xiaoming, struggled on Sunday to explain drone footage from the region of Xinjiang that appears to show prisoners with shaved heads shackled, blindfolded and being led to trains.
Brazil fact of the day / Marginal Revolution
Considering the limited infrastructure routes, high rate of wear and tear, and the need for various input materials, per-mile Brazilian infrastructure costs are typically quadruple those of a flat, arable, temperate territory — with additional premium for the roads that must pierce the Escarpment. [...] The Escarpment, by the way, refers to the cliffs that run along Brazil’s coastal zones and have kept Brazil so long from integrating their cities and building a truly stable nation-state. The lack of navigable rivers throughout most of the country does not help either — North America was blessed in this regard.
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