Discover more from Links
A bunch of decent but not great links this week…
Somewhat uneven but still worth the read:
Not since the days of Babe Ruth has one of baseball's greatest hitters also been one of its finest pitchers. Now, the reigning MVP is opening up for the first time about his singular place in modern baseball. […]
It was probably always going to be a Japanese ballplayer who reminded us what baseball at its best could be. With its feverish game-day atmosphere and galaxy of superstars, baseball in Japan retains the potency of baseball in America from 25, 50, 75 years ago, when baseball was our game, and players were not just our most famous athletes but our most famous anybodys.
It has been some time since a new baseball player has become a household name. But it was palpable all last year that we were witnessing someone who might reframe the possibilities, for generations to come, for what any one individual player could do in the game. The thrust was awe. But opportunism, as well. Here was the savior baseball had been waiting for. To reenergize a game that had suffered a nation's shift in interests toward other sports, toward other stars, toward other obsessions measured in seconds of entertainment, rather than extra innings and endless summers. This was an entirely reasonable evolution. Baseball would be relegated to the back burner for good. But what if, 2021 seemed to tease, that inevitable fate were in fact reversible?
The tragedy of Europe is that Germany is not standing up to Russia, and that the EU is not standing up to Germany. A Russian invasion will see many losers. I expect the EU, apart from Ukraine itself, to be one of the biggest.
When Russian invades, it will inadvertently expose Europe’s internal divisions. I say inadvertently deliberately, because I don’t think this is Vladimir Putin’s primary objective. He is concerned that colour revolutions in Russia’s periphery, as he calls them, might eventually encroach on Russian politics itself. It is absurd, of course, to argue that Nato might invade Russia. This is a Russian strawman. The threat to Russia is much more subtle, but no less real. There is not much the US can offer to alleviate Putin’s paranoia. He wants a political buffer zone, with Ukraine and Belarus definitely in that zone.
What Russia always does, which the EU almost never does, is act according to its own definition of strategic interests. What defines strategy is the willingness to pay a shot-term cost in service of a longer-term objective. European, and German foreign policy in particular, is nonstrategic in the sense that it is focused on short-term gain. If you prioritise car exports, you leave yourself with fewer degrees of freedom to pursue other interests: human rights, climate change, supply security, technological leadership.
When Russia invades, Germany and other European countries might at one point run out of gas.
Life After 7'6": Shawn Bradley, Paralyzed in a Bike Crash, Knows ‘It’ll Never Be the Same’ | Sports Illustrated
The retired NBA center is finding that his 90-inch frame—which brought him fame and fortune and 2,000-plus blocks—is now a challenge without medical precedent.
Recently, Nate Silver found himself in the unenviable role of main character of the day on Twitter because he proposed that school closures were a “disastrous, invasion-of-Iraq magnitude (or perhaps greater) policy decision.” The comparison generated overwhelming anger and mockery, and it is not an easy one to defend: A fiasco that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and rearranged the regional power structure is a very high bar to clear. Weighing policy failures in such utterly different realms to each other is so inherently difficult that any discussion quickly devolves into “Could Superman beat up Mighty Mouse?” territory.
But these complications do not fully explain the sheer rage generated by Silver. The furnace-hot backlash seemed to be triggered by Silver’s assumption that school closings were not only a mistake — a possibility many progressives have quietly begun to accept — but an error of judgment that was sufficiently consequential and foreseeable that we can’t just shrug it off as a bad dice roll. It was a historic blunder that reveals some deeper flaw in the methods that produced it and which demands corrective action.
That unnerving implication has a mounting pile of evidence to support it. It is now indisputable, and almost undisputed, that the year and a quarter of virtual school imposed devastating consequences on the students who endured it. Studies have found that virtual school left students nearly half a year behind pace, on average, with the learning loss falling disproportionately on low-income, Latino, and Black students. Perhaps a million students functionally dropped out of school altogether. The social isolation imposed on kids caused a mental health “state of emergency,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The damage to a generation of children’s social development and educational attainment, and particularly to the social mobility prospects of its most marginalized members, will be irrecoverable.
It is nearly as clear that these measures did little to contain the pandemic. Children face little risk of adverse health effects from contracting COVID, and there’s almost no evidence that towns that kept schools open had more community spread. […]
It is always easier to diagnose these pathologies when they are taking place on the other side. You’ve probably seen the raft of papers showing how vaccine uptake correlates with Democratic voting and COVID deaths correlate with Republican voting. Perhaps you have marveled at the spectacle of Republican elites actively harming their own audience. But the same thing Fox News hosts were doing to their elderly supporters, progressive activists were doing to their side’s young ones.
Every day on Twitter it’s an all-new magical world of new things to get overly mad about. Yesterday’s kerfuffle involved some prominent tech figures speculating that artificial wombs might reduce the burden of child-bearing and thus help stabilize fertility rates. […]
We’ve eliminated many of our burdens through the magic of technology — carrying water all day, washing laundry by hand in the river, chopping firewood to heat our homes — but pregnancy remains.
Unless you’re rich, of course. My wealthy friend, whose first pregnancy required a hysterectomy due to placenta accreta, will have her second child via a surrogate, using pre-frozen embryos. This costs upwards of $100,000, which is approximately equal to the entire median wealth of an American household.
Who would begrudge my friend this? And even if she were able to bear a second child herself, who would begrudge her the opportunity to outsource it? Artificial wombs are simply a way to take a privilege for the upper class, and make it possible for other classes of society to enjoy it as well.
And this is how it’ll almost certainly be received. Angry Twitter people always seem to envision new technologies as something that government imposes on the populace, possibly at the behest of mad billionaires. In the real world, what usually happens is that people simply adopt a new technology because they realize it makes life easier for them.
Other than Scott somehow mistaking Taiwan ($33k nominal / $59k PPP GDP per capita) for a developing country (not that I have any Taiwanese pride or anything), this is a good, classic ACX book review:
So: which country has the world’s best health care?
Emanuel hates having to give a clear answer to that question, but when confronted with the fact that he’s writing a book with that title and can’t really weasel out, he grudgingly admits that “the top tier would include Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Taiwan”.
He backs this up with ~300 pages of details about the health care systems of 11 major countries. I have to admit, I found this tough reading. Partly this is because health economics is an inherently boring topic. Partly it’s because national systems are a hodgepodge of historically contingent decisions that don’t really resolve into a single gestalt. And partly it’s because many countries run their medical systems entirely based on three-letter acronyms (did you know PBR financing in the NHS is partly under QOF schemes like BPTs that modify CCGs’ GMS contracts with PCNs?)
But partly it’s because all national health systems are surprisingly similar. One of my favorite books is David Friedman’s Legal Systems Very Different From Ours, which catalogues the world’s weirdest legal systems and expands your space of possibilities about what law codes would be like. I was hoping to find something similar here, but Emanuel’s book could easily have been titled Medical Systems Very Similar To Ours. People talk about how the US system is “privatized” and the Canadian system “socialized”, but a lot of this comes down to whether your payments for the same basic package are marked “paycheck deductions” vs. “taxes”. Or whether your choices are limited to one state insurance company vs. to 2-3 plans offered by your employer which are legally mandated to be basically the same. It was hard to find any really fundamentally different visions. And absent truly different designs, the 300 pages were a lot of stuff on how various bureaucracies were organized and which three-letter acronyms they used.
The first COVID-19 vaccine could arrive before Election Day, Donald Trump avowed in the summer of 2020. But government regulators wanted things to work out differently: “The deep state, or whoever, over at the FDA is making it very difficult for drug companies to get people in order to test the vaccines and therapeutics,” he wrote on Twitter. “Obviously, they are hoping to delay the answer until after November 3rd.”
Regulators did, in fact, end up slowing the process: In the first week of September, the FDA told vaccine makers to extend their clinical trials by several weeks beyond what they’d planned, in order to gather more safety data. That effectively postponed Pfizer’s request for an emergency use authorization of the mRNA vaccine it had developed with BioNTech until after the election. The agency had been under attack from both sides: The president had wanted regulators to move more quickly, while an alarmed public-health community was pushing for the opposite. In the end, the decision to slow things down was meant to bolster the country’s waning confidence in the forthcoming COVID-19 vaccines and restore the FDA’s reputation for integrity and caution. But the move looks very different in hindsight, with full knowledge of the safety and efficacy of the vaccines and of the body count that amassed shortly after. The economist Garett Jones recently opined that Trump’s scuttled hopes to release a COVID-19 vaccine a few weeks earlier “likely would have saved at least 100,000 American lives.”
I’ve been slowly writing and thinking more about cryptocurrency. One very interesting area that I haven’t really plumbed much is DeFi, or decentralized finance. I’m especially interested in how DeFi might change the way projects — companies, governments, mortgages, or whatever — get financed. So because I don’t know much about this space, I asked my friend Ming Zhao — who regularly writes fun and informative Twitter threads on both finance and crypto — to write me a guest post about DeFi. My main question was: What kind of things is DeFi financing, and in what ways is it taking over from traditional finance?
Bio: Ming is an ex- Wall Street quant and cybersecurity whitehat turned founder & fintweeter. She's currently building a new trading platform to forever change how retail trades "TradFi" (and possibly DeFi!) options. Launch date TBD in 2022.
Anyway, Ming’s post ended up being about more than DeFi — it’s really a short, fun history of how the crypto world has changed since the big bubble and crash of 2017. It even has a section explaining crypto memes! But it also does answer my basic question above. So far, most of what DeFi is financing appears to be “the crypto sector itself” — crypto startups, crypto trading, and crypto asset management. But the final section of the post offers some very interesting ideas for how it could expand.
I've been writing recently about sweeping, very-long-run trends in whether things are going well or poorly in the world. One candidate trend I haven't talked about yet: what some see as a trend toward vetocracy, kludgeocracy, bureaucracy and/or red tape - things getting harder to build, more costly, etc.
I basically buy the idea that we are seeing - and should broadly expect to continue seeing - trends in this direction. I think some of this is specific to particular parts of the world (e.g., the USA), but I broadly expect there to be overall trends in this direction over time, pretty much across the board.
That's because I think there is a deep connection between:
Empowerment - increased options and capabilities for people (including e.g. technology), which I consider one of the most robust historical trends.
Stakeholder management, or the challenge of carrying out activities that lots of people want input into. I think stakeholder management can explain a lot of what we see in terms of rising bureaucracy, red tape, etc.
To be clear, I think stakeholder management can be a good thing too, and that empowerment is broadly "worth it" despite the stakeholder management challenges.
It’s been almost 49 years since the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Roe v. Wade on January 22, 1973. And in the half-century since abortion became a constitutional right, a lot has changed. Clinics have closed, restrictions have mounted and abortion has become one of the most polarizing issues in American politics. At the same time, women are receiving far fewer abortions than they were in the past.
But something else has changed, too: the women who are seeking abortions.
According to our analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights, the profile of women who receive abortions has changed in important ways since 1973. Some of those shifts reflect wider changes in the country’s population, but others cut against long-held stereotypes about abortion.
For instance, in the years after Roe v. Wade, the abortion rate spiked — but then it began to fall.
I admit I didn’t watch all 55 minutes of this, but it’s worth skipping around to watch some incredible origami skill:
Folding 95 cm x 95 cm Wenzhou paper into origami dueling knights, without any cutting or tearing. Finished piece 25 cm x 20 cm x 20 cm.
Watch soap bubbles dance and twist in the cold weather until they freeze into perfectly round little ice domes.
“Several years ago, a company that provided loans to small business owners approached me and my friend and colleague Steven Levitt to help them try to do something intriguing: accurately evaluate the character of people who had applied for loans.”
Now, I can imagine a lot of ways of doing this–a traditional approach, for example, would be to look at spending decisions, credit card reports, criminal records, marriage lengths, number of children. One can imagine a lot of potential correlations to be found using big data. That would be pretty clever but here’s what List and Levitt did:
“Over the course of several weeks, a research assistant walked by each establishment whose owner had applied for a loan and “accidentally” dropped his wallet on the sidewalk out front. Seconds later, a different member of my research team would pick up the wallet (in which we had placed a slip of with a name and phone number) walk into the establishment, and turn in the wallet to the owner, saying that they had found it outside on the sidewalk and weren’t sure what to do.
“Then we waited.
“Our first metric coded how long it took for the loan applicant to call to tell us that they had our wallet–that is, if they called at all..[Next] we looked at how much money remained inside: the original $60 (in the form of 3 $20 bills), $40, $20 or no money at all….we were invariably treated to a declaration to the effect of ‘this is how I found it.’ I thanked each person who called; then once we had the data we needed, my team and I generated character/integrity scores for each business owner and sent our reports to the company that had hire us.”