3 stars

Last Exit from Afghanistan | New Yorker

Dexter Filkins:

The peace talks began last September, in Doha, Qatar, a Persian Gulf microstate that sits atop the world’s largest natural-gas field. For seven years, Qatar’s leaders have hosted several of the Taliban’s most senior members in luxurious captivity, housing them and their families with all expenses paid. At the opening ceremony, delegates from the Taliban and the Afghan government gathered at the Doha Sheraton, in a cavernous convention space staffed by an army of guest workers. When Koofi walked into the lobby, she saw a group of Taliban negotiators. They were staring at her arm, which was still in a cast. Koofi smiled at them. “As you can see, I’m fine,” she said.

Despite Koofi’s assurance, the Afghan government was in a precarious position. For decades, it had been buttressed by U.S. military power. But, as Americans have lost patience with the war, the U.S. has reduced its presence in Afghanistan, from about a hundred thousand troops to some twenty-five hundred. Seven months before Koofi went to Doha, officials in the Trump Administration concluded their own talks with the Taliban, in which they agreed to withdraw the remaining forces by May 1, 2021. The prevailing ethos, a senior American official told me, was “Just get out.”

Afghanistan presents Joe Biden with one of the most immediate and vexing problems of his Presidency. If he completes the military withdrawal, he will end a seemingly interminable intervention and bring home thousands of troops. But, if he wants the war to be considered anything short of an abject failure, the Afghan state will have to be able to stand on its own.


2 stars

David Shor on Why Trump Was Good for the GOP and How Dems Can Win in 2022 | New York Magazine

As for the story with Hispanics overall, one thing that really comes out very clearly in survey data that we’ve done is that it really comes down to ideology. So when you look at self-reported ideology — just asking people, “Do you identify as liberal, moderate, or conservative” — you find that there aren’t very big racial divides. Roughly the same proportion of African American, Hispanic, and white voters identify as conservative. But white voters are polarized on ideology, while nonwhite voters haven’t been. Something like 80 percent of white conservatives vote for Republicans. But historically, Democrats have won nonwhite conservatives, often by very large margins. What happened in 2020 is that nonwhite conservatives voted for Republicans at higher rates; they started voting more like white conservatives.

And so this leads to a question of why. Why did nonwhite voters start sorting more by ideology? […]

What we found is that Clinton voters with conservative views on crime, policing, and public safety were far more likely to switch to Trump than voters with less conservative views on those issues. And having conservative views on those issues was more predictive of switching from Clinton to Trump than having conservative views on any other issue-set was.

This lines up pretty well with trends we saw during the campaign. In the summer, following the emergence of “defund the police” as a nationally salient issue, support for Biden among Hispanic voters declined. So I think you can tell this microstory: We raised the salience of an ideologically charged issue that millions of nonwhite voters disagreed with us on. And then, as a result, these conservative Hispanic voters who’d been voting for us despite their ideological inclinations started voting more like conservative whites.


What Happened to Jordan Peterson? | The Atlantic

When the story of his detox became public, in February 2020, it provided an answer to a mystery: Whatever happened to Jordan Peterson? In the three years before he disappeared from view in the summer of 2019, this formerly obscure psychology professor’s name had been a constant presence in op-ed columns, internet forums, and culture-war arguments. His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, published in 2018, sold millions of copies, and he had conducted a 160-city speaking tour, drawing crowds of up to 3,000 a night; premium tickets included the chance to be photographed with him. For $90, his website offered an online course to better understand your “unique personality.” An “official merchandise store” sold Peterson paraphernalia: mugs, stickers, posters, phone cases, tote bags. He had created an entirely new model of the public intellectual, halfway between Marcus Aurelius and Martha Stewart.

The price of these rewards was living in a maelstrom of other people’s opinions. Peterson was, depending on whom you believed, either a stern but kindly shepherd to a generation of lost young men, or a reactionary loudmouth whose ideas fueled the alt-right and a backlash to feminism. He was revered as a guru, condemned as a dangerous charlatan, adored and reviled by millions. Peterson has now returned to the public sphere, and the psyche-splitting ordeal of modern celebrity, with a new book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life—an intriguing title, in light of his recent experiences. The mystery deepens: What really happened to Jordan Peterson, and why has he come back for more?


The Most Murderous Mammals: Adventures from the Dark Side of Science | CrimeReads

Picture the most murderous mammal in the world. Not the best predator, taking down prey with a single swipe of a great talon or claw, but the one that excels in slaying its own kind.

Are you picturing a human being? Well, you would be wrong. But you might be surprised to know Homo sapiens actually falls at number 30 out of more than a thousand species on the list of animals that most often kill members of their own kind. Humans, it turns out, are just average members of a particularly violent lot, the primates. And the most prolific murderers* in the animal world are a different species altogether.

Which, you might ask? Believe it or not, it’s the meerkat, a cute little African mammal belonging to the mongoose family and immortalized in the wisecracking character Timon in The Lion King. Sure, they look adorable when they stand up on their back legs to survey the savanna—but they’re still vicious, baby-killing cannibals. About one in five meerkats (mostly infants) are killed by members of their own species, compared with just over one percent of humans whose deaths were linked to violence, whether murder or war. (For perspective, about 3 percent of the human population died during World War II, the deadliest conflict in history.)


My Parents Got Sick. It Changed How I Thought About My Marriage | GQ

In April of the pandemic, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was not an optimal moment to need a pulmonary specialist. In September we learned that my father had ALS. That was it for me—it was time to go home. That I'd now taken to calling it home hadn't escaped my husband's notice. I moved to New York when I was 22 and hadn't been in Texas longer than a week since. He made it clear that he did not want to go, but would. […]

“You know what I can't stop thinking about?” he said. It was still warm, but the light was taking on the burnished quality of fall and I remember thinking his hair was getting long.


“That you're weak for needing to go,” he said. “That your lack of restraint is going to get us killed.”

I have never loved him more than in that moment.


When IBM Was The Center of Gravity | The Diff

How did IBM get so dominant? How did "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM," become a catchphrase among corporate IT buyers and investors? And what changed?

In 2021's SPAC-saturated financial universe (and in light of the last few weeks' SPAC drawdowns), it's interesting to note that IBM was born as an act of financial engineering. In the early 1900s, the market was enamored by trusts, and promoters realized that merging a few semi-related companies together could create a combined entity that was a) big enough to issue stock, and b) could tell a plausible story that it would monopolize its industry. (Monopolies were technically illegal, but in practice weren't heavily prosecuted. The existence of the Sherman Antitrust Act told investors that a monopolist could charge exploitative prices; its lax enforcement told them that it wouldn't be shut down for this reason.)

Charles Flint was one of many stock promoters who merged together small companies and took them public. In 1911, he cobbled together a new firm called Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. CTR was an odd mix, including an industrial scale manufacturer, a company that made timecards for hourly workers, and The Tabulating Machine Company. The last was a quirky niche product: founded by a German inventor, Herman Hollerith, it built mechanical devices that could tabulate information if it was encoded on punched cards. The company had only a handful of customers; railroads, for example, could save money and better track their business using punched cards. The company's most important client was the US Census, but one big contract every ten years did not indicate much business potential.

As it turns out, the company made one other key acquisition: hiring Thomas J. Watson as President. Watson had a somewhat mixed reputation: he'd worked for National Cash Register, a company that was famous for rapid growth, technical sophistication, and an excellent sales organization. On the other hand, he'd been recently convicted of antitrust violations for some of his work at NCR, and faced jail time. Flint, perhaps operating on the assumption that he'd sell out of the stock before the case was fully resolved, hired Watson anyway.


Against the Kennan Sweepstakes | The Scholar’s Stage

While I did not mention it in the column, pieces like the "Longer Telegram" are a reminder of the generational split that divides "China hands." Those who have been around the block a few times tend to view the aughts as a golden age in U.S.-China relations, the time when China was properly submissive and Chinese officials were eager to learn from the West, when the fruits of the work diplomats and bureaucrats plowed into the relationship a decade before were bearing fruit, and when every ex-official had a promising retirement career at a China-related investment firm or strategic consultancy waiting for them. If your career began in the late '80s or early '90s (much less the '70s) this is an entirely understandable viewpoint. Those of us whose China experience is tilted towards the 2010s tend to be far more cynical about that era. We did not benefit from it personally, of course, and cannot help but seeing it through the lens of present realities: not as the zenith of Sino-American camaraderie, but as the period in which the PRC gained the strength and wealth that powers its current bid for supremacy.


There’s a Better Way to Parent: Less Yelling, Less Praise | The Atlantic

When Michaeleen Doucleff met parents from around the world, she encountered millennia-old methods of raising good kids that made American parenting seem bizarre and ineffective. […]

At one point in her new book, the NPR journalist Michaeleen Doucleff suggests that parents consider throwing out most of the toys they’ve bought for their kids. It’s an extreme piece of advice, but the way Doucleff frames it, it seems entirely sensible: “Kids spent two hundred thousand years without these items,” she writes.

Her deeply researched book, Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans, contains many moments like this, in which an American child-rearing strategy comes away looking at best bizarre and at worst counterproductive. “Our culture often has things backward when it comes to kids,” she writes.

Doucleff arrives at this conclusion while traveling, with her then-3-year-old daughter, to meet and learn from parents in a Maya village on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico; in an Inuit town in a northern Canadian territory; and in a community of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania. During her outings, she witnesses well-adjusted, drama-free kids share generously with their siblings and do chores without being asked.

She takes care to portray her subjects not as curiosities “frozen in time,” but instead as modern-day families who have held on to invaluable child-rearing techniques that likely date back tens of thousands of years. I recently spoke with Doucleff about these techniques, and our conversation, below, has been edited for brevity and clarity.


All futurism is Afrofuturism | Noah Pinion

Thus, the future of Africa is the future of humanity, despite the fact that Africa will experience a normal fertility transition and its population will eventually stabilize rather than explode. I don’t think people in the U.S. (or, probably, other regions) have come to grips with the full import of this.

But what happens to Africa is even more important, relative to the rest of the world, than these population numbers suggest! This is because Africa is still a mostly poor region. Economics teaches us that marginal utility — i.e. the amount life gets better when you get a little richer — is much higher for poor people. And with China and (to some degree) India industrializing successfully and seeing population growth slow, soon most of the extremely poor people in the world will probably reside in Africa.

So the future welfare of humanity depends crucially on whether Africa can make big strides against poverty — in other words, whether African countries can achieve substantial economic growth.

I’m very optimistic.


In St. Louis, Voters Will Get To Vote For As Many Candidates As They Want | FiveThirtyEight

Like its better-known cousin, ranked-choice voting, approval voting is a popular proposal among election reformers looking to fix the flaws of our first-past-the-post electoral system (i.e., the election system you’re probably most used to: voters pick only one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins, regardless of whether they get a majority). By allowing people to vote for multiple candidates, approval voting aims to remove the often zero-sum game of our politics, no longer forcing people to choose between a candidate they love who has little chance of winning and a more viable candidate about whom they are less enthusiastic. For this reason, proponents argue that approval voting gives a fairer shot to third parties. It also theoretically eliminates the problem of vote-splitting. For instance, St. Louis is a plurality-Black city, but it has had a white mayor for the last 20 years in part because Black candidates have split the vote in the city’s predominantly Black north side. But under approval voting, Black voters will be able to vote for as many Black (and non-Black) candidates as they want.

Approval voting’s boosters also prefer it to ranked-choice voting because it’s simpler. Election officials can use the same ballots and machines they currently do, whereas ranked-choice ballots need to be redesigned to accommodate voters’ second, third, fourth, etc. choices. Ranked-choice voting can also lead to voter confusion and may lower turnout (although this is disputed), while approval voting actually produces fewer spoiled ballots — because a common reason ballots are currently disqualified is that voters vote for too many candidates. Approval voting also spits out results a lot faster than ranked-choice ballots, which can take days to tabulate.


1 star

Starlings Form Murmuration in the Shape of a Huge Bird | Kottke

Photographer James Crombie and his friend Colin Hogg captured an amazing moment over Lough Ennell in County Westmeath, Ireland on Tuesday: a murmuration of starlings that, for a split second, looked like a huge bird. Crombie took the photo and Hogg the video.


The new phrenology? | Marginal Revolution

Ubiquitous facial recognition technology can expose individuals’ political orientation, as faces of liberals and conservatives consistently differ. A facial recognition algorithm was applied to naturalistic images of 1,085,795 individuals to predict their political orientation by comparing their similarity to faces of liberal and conservative others. Political orientation was correctly classified in 72% of liberal–conservative face pairs, remarkably better than chance (50%), human accuracy (55%), or one afforded by a 100-item personality questionnaire (66%). Accuracy was similar across countries (the U.S., Canada, and the UK), environments (Facebook and dating websites), and when comparing faces across samples. Accuracy remained high (69%) even when controlling for age, gender, and ethnicity.


The Gregory Clark working paper | Marginal Revolution

Economics, Sociology, and Anthropology are dominated by the belief that social outcomes depend mainly on parental investment and community socialization. Using a lineage of 402,000 English people 1750-2020 we test whether such mechanisms better predict outcomes than a simple additive genetics model. The genetics model predicts better in all cases except for the transmission of wealth. The high persistence of status over multiple generations, however, would require in a genetic mechanism strong genetic assortative in mating. This has been until recently believed impossible.


More from Sure | Marginal Revolution

One of the most frustrating things about this pandemic is how much people are unwilling to make a decision in light of previous experience and basic scientific literacy.

Most vaccines provide some significant protection after their first dose: MMR, Varicella, influenza, meningococcus (both), and HPV are all dosed with either no follow on jab or with significant delays before the second jab in the official CDC schedules. And even the ones that we do run close together can show decent effect after the first shot.

And we should expect better vaccine response with more modern technology. We provide only the epitopes most likely to have the greatest effect and do not need the immune system to do as much trial and error during its clonal expansion and affinity maturation. And regardless, we can tell pretty easily if things bind immediately or if we need some sort of class switching (and with a bit more work if we are getting good T-cell responses).

So we should have had exceptionally strong priors that these vaccines would work and given the data from phase II, we should have had very strong priors that FDF would be viable in a situation of scarce supply and exponential growth (or decay).


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