Life continues to be very busy, so this week is light again, and I’m very likely to skip next week. It’s too bad, really, because there are a ton of very promising articles in my backlog; maybe I’ll get to them one day.

3 stars

Book Review: How Asia Works | Astral Codex Ten

What Studwell got wrong | Noahpinion

Two pieces on the same book. First, this excellent review from ACX:

What was the best thing that ever happened? From a very zoomed-out, by-the-numbers perspective, it has to be China's sudden lurch from Third World basketcase to dynamic modern economy. A billion people went from starving peasants to the middle class. In the 1960s, sixty million people died of famine in the Chinese countryside; by the 2010s, that same countryside was criss-crossed with the world's most advanced high-speed rail network, and dotted with high-tech factories.

And the best thing that ever happened kept happening, again and again. First it was Japan during the Meiji Restoration. Then it was Korea and Taiwan in the 1960s. Then China in the 90s. Now Vietnam and others seem poised to follow.

(fun trivia question: ignoring sudden oil windfalls, what country has had the highest percent GDP growth over the past 30 years? Answer, as far as I can tell: the People's Democratic Republic of Laos.)

There was nothing predetermined about this. These countries started with nothing. In 1950, South Korea and Taiwan were poorer than Honduras or the Congo. But they managed to break into the ranks of the First World even while dozens of similar countries stayed poor. Why?

Joe Studwell claims this isn't mysterious at all. You don't have to bring in culture, genetics, or anything complicated like that. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, etc, just practiced good economic policy. Any country that tries the same economic policy will get equally rich, as China and Vietnam are discovering. Unfortunately, most countries practice bad economic policy, partly because the IMF / World Bank / rich country economic advisors got things really wrong. They recommended free markets and open borders, which are good for rich countries, but bad for developing ones. Developing countries need to start with planned economies, then phase in free market policies gradually and in the right order. Since rich country economists kept leading everyone astray, the only countries that developed properly were weird nationalist dictatorships and communist states that ignored the Western establishment out of spite. But now the economic establishment is starting to admit its mistakes, giving other countries a chance to catch up.

How Asia Works is Studwell's guide to good economic policy. He gives a three-part plan for national development. First, land reform. Second, industrial subsidies plus export discipline. Third, financial policy in service of the first two goals.


As any longtime reader of mine will know, my favorite book about economic development is Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works. […]

It’s very difficult to test whether this model really works, or whether the successful development of countries like South Korea and Taiwan was due to something else. We can look at evidence for pieces of the theory — for example, the idea that small farms tend to be more productive than medium-sized ones seems fairly well-supported in the data, and there’s also some evidence that pushing companies to export does cause them to raise their productivity.

But Studwell’s model is so complex that it’s hard to test all the pieces together. And if you need all the pieces in place — for example, if export promotion doesn’t work without the “discipline” of winding up failing firms, or if land reform fails if you don’t allow farmers to sell their land, or if export discipline itself doesn’t work without land reform — then testing the pieces individually won’t give us the answers we want.

Because it’s so hard to test, the theory serves less as a tried-and-true policy prescription and more as a launching point for ideas about how to manage a developing economy. Encouragingly, the book looks to have sparked a change in economists’ attitudes toward industrial policy — even the IMF, which Studwell castigates for having discouraged smart pro-growth policies, is now thinking carefully about the ides in Studwell’s book.

But despite its value as a source of ideas, How Asia Works shouldn’t be treated as the Bible of development. Not only are its ideas hard to verify in their totality, but Studwell does make a few mistakes in his analysis of the economies of East Asia.


Liberals and Conservatives React in Wildly Different Ways to Repulsive Pictures | The Atlantic

Longtime followers of Jonathan Haidt (and others) will find many of these concepts familiar, but there’s some research here I hadn’t come across before. (Note: this is from 2019.)

In the mid-2000s, a political scientist approached the neuroscientist Read Montague with a radical proposal. He and his colleagues had evidence, he said, that political orientation might be partly inherited, and might be revealed by our physiological reactivity to threats. […]

Broadly speaking, studies of possible connections between ideology and susceptibility to disgust fall into two categories. The first involves measuring subjects’ sensitivity to disgust as well as their social or political ideologies and then calculating the correlation between the two. The second category explores whether exposure to disgusting subject matter can actually influence people’s views in the moment. But whatever the type of study, the same general finding keeps turning up. “We are at the point where there is very solid evidence for the association,” says Michael Bang Petersen, a political scientist at Aarhus University, in Denmark. His own research finds that “disgust influences our political views as much as or even more than long-recognized factors such as education and income bracket.” […]

Whatever the explanation, an online study launched by Petersen and Lene Aarøe, also at Aarhus University, and Kevin Arceneaux of Temple University suggests that a dread of contagion is not just a personal matter. It can have an impact on society. The investigators began by evaluating the disgust sensitivity of nationally representative samples of 2,000 Danes and 1,300 Americans. The participants were then asked to fill out a questionnaire that assessed their views about foreigners settling in their respective countries. As the researchers reported in 2017, opposition to immigration in both the Danish and American samples increased in direct proportion to a participant’s sensitivity to disgust—an association that held up even after taking into account education level, socioeconomic status, religious background, and numerous other factors.

The team expanded the part of the study that focused on the U.S. It got state-by-state breakdowns of the prevalence of infections, and also analyzed statistics compiled by Google Trends, which tracks internet searches related to contagious illnesses in an effort to spot early signs of outbreaks. Crunching the numbers (the results are as yet unpublished), the researchers found that resistance to immigration is greatest in states with the highest incidence of infectious disease and where worry about this, as reflected by internet activity, has also been high.

More recent investigations by Petersen and Aarøe suggest that those with high disgust sensitivity tend to be leery of any stranger, not just foreigners. They view casual social acquaintances with a certain amount of suspicion—a robust finding replicated across three studies with a total of 4,400 participants. The implication is clear: Disgust and distrust are somehow linked. And maybe, again, the link is defensive in origin: If you shrink your social circle, you’ll reduce your exposure to potential carriers of disease.


The Night Gary Drove Me Home | Slate

The following weekend, Gary called to ask me out dancing. I had the beginnings of a sore throat and used that as an excuse to beg off. In truth, the idea of dating a man in the middle of a divorce and with a young son held no appeal. Plus, I was pretty sure he’d lied about his age.

I turned down my friend’s invitation to go out that night, too, but she said we’d go early. She said I could drink orange juice and get vitamin C. She promised we’d leave before things got crowded.

At the White Shutters, the orange juice burned my throat, and a low-grade fever added to my general malaise. Heading into the ladies’ room to splash cold water on my face, I spotted Gary sitting with an attractive older woman at a table behind a partition. He might not have seen my friend and me, but I felt I owed him an explanation. I waited until his date went to use the restroom, then approached him and made my apologies. He nodded at my excuses and gave a half-smile. His face was inscrutable.

A few times after that, I thought I saw Gary’s truck in our apartment parking lot. I had since met the man who would become my first husband. He was with me each time I saw Gary, who pulled out when he saw us. I didn’t say anything for fear of my new beau’s jealousy, and frankly, I didn’t think much of Gary being there. As far as I knew, Gary might have dropped by to visit but changed his mind when he saw me with another man. Or maybe he knew someone else who lived in the apartments. In any case, he never asked me out again.

Two decades later, in 2001, when I heard the newly caught “Green River Killer” worked in a paint shop and that his name was Gary, I thought of the man who years earlier had come to my apartment, walked uninvited into my bedroom, and seemed startled when my roommates came home. The Gary in the news looked kind of familiar, but squintier and heavier than the man I remembered, and his hair seemed a little darker, too. His narrow-bridged nose, blue eyes, and the way they drooped at the corners looked right, but I remembered a more prominent Adam’s apple than was visible in the photos on television. It was a coincidence, I told myself. Surely it could not have been the same man.


2 stars

I Went to China to Race a New Car. Then Things Got Weird | Jalopnik

“Just don’t race,” my boss told me at 12:43 a.m. his time, which was the middle of the afternoon for me. “I can think of more reasons not to do it. I just don’t think this is worth it for a story.”

This story he was referring to, me running my first-ever wheel-to-wheel car race with Chinese automaker Geely in Shanghai, seemed worth it a few weeks earlier. It was an opportunity to race in a field with some professional drivers on the Shanghai International Circuit Formula One track in stripped-out race versions of Geely’s 131-horsepower Emgrand GL sedan, and to see up close what was happening with China’s budding motorsports culture. It all sounded like a grand time, and a safe one.

But considering what went on the few days I’d been in Shanghai—or the lack thereof—before Geely released about 20 seemingly novice drivers on a 3.4-mile circuit from a standing start like rabid wolves, it didn’t seem fun anymore. My bosses were worried for my safety. They didn’t want me to go through with it.

I wasn’t so sure, either. But I was already there.


Our Brain Typically Overlooks This Brilliant Problem-Solving Strategy | Scientific American

For generations, the standard way to learn how to ride a bicycle was with training wheels or a tricycle. But in recent years, many parents have opted to train their kids with balance bikes, pedalless two-wheelers that enable children to develop the coordination needed for bicycling—a skill that is not as easily acquired with an extra set of wheels.

Given the benefits of balance bikes, why did it take so long for them to replace training wheels? There are plenty of other examples in which overlooked solutions that involve subtraction turn out to be better alternatives. In some European cities, for example, urban planners have gotten rid of traffic lights and road signs to make streets safer—an idea that runs counter to conventional traffic design.

Leidy Klotz, an engineer at the University of Virginia, noticed that minimalist designs, in which elements are removed from an existing model, were uncommon. So he reached out to Gabrielle Adams, a social psychologist at the university, to try to figure out why this was the case. The two researchers hypothesized that there might be a psychological explanation: when faced with a problem, people tend to select solutions that involve adding new elements rather than taking existing components away. […]

The researchers first carried out a set of observational studies, assessments without a control group, to see whether this bias existed at all. In one, they asked 91 participants to make a pattern symmetrical by either adding or removing colored boxes. Only 18 people (20 percent) used subtraction. In another, the team scanned through an archive of ideas for improvement submitted to an incoming university president and found that only 11 percent of 651 proposals involved eliminating an existing regulation, practice or program. Similar results emerged across tasks that involved modifying structures, essays and itineraries—in each case, the vast majority of people chose to augment rather than remove.


1 star

Watch This Extremely Patient Craftsman Carve A Hole Into A Mountain And Transform It Into An Apartment | Digg

This is pretty awesome:

A gentleman who goes by the name Mr. Tiger demonstrates how to dig a big house in the middle of a mountain.


Sheep Herding Patterns from Above | Kottke

Drone photographer Lior Patel has spent the last several months capturing the movements of a flock of sheep in Israel as they move from their winter to summer pastures.


How New Yorkers Endured Unbearable Summers Before Air Conditioning | Gothamist

My grandfather, a lifelong New Yorker who is almost 98, is my go-to source of information about the good/bad old days, so I called him up to ask how things were back in the '20s and '30s, when he was growing up in Williamsburg and East New York.

On the hottest summer nights, he said, he and his older brother rolled out a couple of blankets onto the fire escape and slept there. This ritual was repeated all over the neighborhood and all over the city.

A NY Times article from 1929 describes the scene in Washington Heights, where children turned fire escapes into little porches for play by day and sleep by night


What Does Gen Z Have Against Question Marks | InsideHook

Older colleagues of mine have noticed my lack of punctuation over Slack — a platform more similar to text messaging in terms of informality — particularly when I ask a question without the appropriate mark at the end of it. To me, a Gen-Zer, punctuation when messaging on this type of platform often invokes the same fear and panic as when someone responds to me with a single “k.”

As I’ve written in the past, texting the words “okay, kk and k” all have different meanings, but “k” is by far the deadliest: “When you send a ‘k,’ what you’re saying is: I don’t care what you’ve said and I don’t want to talk to you anymore. Or, as Urban Dictionary so eloquently puts it, it’s a ‘text you receive from your girlfriend, really meaning fuck you.’ A single K is cold, it cuts quick but deep. And if you get a k period (k.), don’t go home for at least 48 hours.”

This is why younger people are more likely to ditch it in casual conversation — and maybe feel a touch of panic when their boss slacks them a message with something as seemingly mundane as a period at the end.

“I have found that younger people are less likely to use punctuation in texting,” linguist Gretchen McCulloch, author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, an essential read on how the internet has influenced the English language and the way we now communicate, tells InsideHook.


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