Limits to Growth

Growth in a constrained environment is very common, so common that systems thinkers call it the "limits-to-growth" archetype. Whenever we see a growing entity, whether it be a population, a corporation, a bank account, a rumor, an epidemic, or sales of a new product, we look for the reinforcing loops that are driving it and for the balancing loops that ultimately will constrain it. We know those balancing loops are there, even if they are not yet dominating the system's behavior, because no real physical system can grow forever. Even a hot new product will saturate the market eventually. A chain reaction in a nuclear power plant or bomb will run out of fuel. A virus will run out of susceptible people to infect. An economy may be constrained by physical capital or monetary capital or labor or markets or management or resources or pollution.

Geography and Reality

When your business is about presenting facts, how can you tell if someone else has copied those facts? For the compilers of dictionaries, encyclopaedias, maps, and books of trivia, one solution is to seed the text with fake entries. Anyone who copies your work copies the trap entry too. And then you have effective and irrefutable evidence of plagiarism.

There are a lot of examples of such traps, and I’ll probably write about some others in later posts, but today I’m going to talk about the curious case of Agloe, New York. It was a fake place first, then it was a real place, now it’s back to being a fake place again....

Gemini

I don't remember what got me started thinking about Gopher recently, but looking for information on the protocol this time led me to information on an emerging Internet protocol called Gemini which,

  • Is heavier than gopher
  • Is lighter than the web
  • Will not replace either
  • Strives for maximum power to weight ratio
  • Takes user privacy very seriously

Gemini's default/"native" format looks like a simplified Markdown:

# Project Gemini

## Overview

Gemini is a new internet protocol which:

* Is heavier than gopher
* Is lighter than the web
* Will not replace either
* Strives for maximum power to weight ratio
* Takes user privacy very seriously

## Resources

=> docs/	Gemini documentation
=> software/	Gemini software
=> servers/	Known Gemini servers
=> https://lists.orbitalfox.eu/listinfo/gemini	Gemini mailing list
=> gemini://gemini.conman.org/test/torture/	Gemini client torture test

From my brief look, there seems to be a fair amount of content on Gemini, and a decent array of software available for it. It seems interesting, in part because my Gopher toy project (more on that later) was a lot more fun to put together than any web projects I've done lately.

Friday Links

Public incompetence is a moral issue, and it is a moral issue precisely in the way we see them now, defined as being instances of structural prejudice or privilege. The bias is towards those people who can get their problem solved though personal connections, through bribery, or by going private and opting out of the system entirely.

If you are rich in connections you can use them to avoid the consequences of government incompetence, at least up to a point. But this is only the beginning. There is a dynamic analysis as well as a static one. The value of this privilege increases with the haplessness of the institutions, so you have an incentive to choose less effective institutions over more effective ones, and in the extreme case, to actively sabotage the institutions. Similarly, improvement in the basic functioning of the state amounts to a confiscation of this privilege and its redistribution to the wider society. There is a reason why more egalitarian societies have good institutions and vice versa.

Educators might play a central role in in-school transmission networks. Preventing SARS-CoV-2 infections through multifaceted school mitigation measures and COVID-19 vaccination of educators is a critical component of preventing in-school transmission.

It’s surprising that Sweden was so unequal a century ago because in recent decades it’s been the standard bearer for a relatively egalitarian social democracy.  Piketty’s point is that Sweden’s equality is not some “essential cultural predisposition”, it’s a function of political choices and the economic regime.

Extreme insulation is a remarkably effective way to make things hot, as long as there’s at least a little heat coming from the inside.  That’s why big compost piles are hot inside; decomposition releases a tiny amount of heat, but when it’s well-insulated by a foot or two of material, that heat (mostly) stays where it is and adds up.  For a greenhouse, heat deposited by the visible light is basically being created inside and with enough glass it can be kept inside (or at least, it will escape as slowly as we’d like).

MiniZinc cryptarithms improved

Previously, I posted an experiment in solving cryptarithms with Python and MiniZinc. I've just put an improved version on GitHub, since I figured out how to generalize the problem somewhat--Python now just converts your problem into a dictionary and feeds that to an existing script that doesn't have to change. This new model still has some rough edges--artifacts of the learning process--but it works well enough.

Friday Links

I can’t put my finger on it, but maybe I’m just really tired of the coronavirus pandemic, which wasn’t mishandled as some people say but in fact shown to be rationally handled by a group of insulated wealthy individuals who can pursue their greedy desires with the full knowledge that a vast percentage of Americans are economically superfluous and thus willing to fight among themselves for scraps?

Public colleges and universities have long served as engines of social mobility for low-income students in the United States, yet the rising cost of higher education in the past few decades has diminished that role.

"Each speech act takes place in the context of a given social understanding."

Horrocks saw a bird and wanted to shoot it. His shotgun was loaded with the wrong kind of shot for birds, so he got his pack camel to sit down and began to change out the ammunition. As he was doing so, Harry the Camel pushed to one side. The camel’s pack snagged on the shotgun trigger. Horrocks, in the firing line, lost a finger, part of his cheek, and several teeth to the shot.

A charlatan espousing popular beliefs can lead laypeople to choose to follow her advice rather than the advice of a genuine expert. This is true even in the face of increasing negative evidence regarding the accuracy of the charlatan.

Sometimes, you learn about an idea that really sticks with you. This happened to me recently when I learnt about “legibility” — a concept which James C Scott introduces in his book Seeing like a State.

Scott uses modern forestry practices as an example of the practice of legibility. Hundreds of years ago, forests acted as many things — they were places people harvested wood, but also places where locals went foraging and hunting, as well as an ecosystem for animals and plants. According to the logic of scientific forestry practices, forests would be much more valuable if they just produced timber. To achieve this, they had to be made legible....

Peter Prater’s family wasn’t thinking about covid-19 when the call came that he had been taken to the hospital with a fever.

It was April, and the Tallahassee Developmental Center, where Prater lives, hadn’t yet had any covid diagnoses. Prater, 55, who has Down syndrome and diabetes, became the Florida center’s first known case, his family said. Within two weeks, more than half of the roughly 60 residents and a third of the staff had tested positive for the virus, according to local news reports.

Mathematics is a continuum; what used to be called pure mathematics and applied mathematics are these days so closely intertwined as to be inseparable. One cannot engage in cutting edge applications of mathematics in isolation from people working on foundational problems, and vice versa.

[Mathematics] has been considered essential in higher education for over 2000 years and is widely viewed as a pinnacle of human thought. It has never been more prominent in popular intellectual culture, especially among young people. For a university to cut itself off from this tradition would seem to us to be a significant step away from what it means to be a seat of academic learning and scholarship, and so to risk severe reputational damage.

Friday Links

One possible piece of evidence for prehistoric mathematics is the Ishango bone. It was dug up by a Belgian geologist in the 1950s in Ishango, in what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo (near the border with Uganda); the bone had been buried in a volcanic eruption some 20,000 years ago.

Residents of US nursing homes with more than 40% non-white residents died of COVID-19 at 3.3 times the rate of those of those with higher proportions of white residents, a study today in JAMA Network Open shows.

No one talked about it much, but public health professionals were all aware of a potential nightmare scenario when COVID vaccinations started up in bulk. No, not a slew of severe adverse events – the clinical trials made it clear that these were fairly safe interventions. The nightmare scenario – discussed in small groups online and on campus, was this: What if the vaccines reduce the severity of COVID-19, but not the transmissibility?  In other words, what if the vaccine takes someone who would have been sick with COVID-19, isolating, at home, and converts them into an asymptomatic carrier – out in the world, spreading virus like millions of Typhoid Mary’s.

Fortunately, it doesn’t look like this scenario will come to pass.

As the pandemic sends thousands of recovering alcoholics into relapse, hospitals across the country have reported dramatic increases in alcohol-related admissions for critical diseases like alcoholic hepatitis and liver failure.

Alcoholism-related liver disease was a growing problem even before the pandemic, with 15 million people diagnosed with the condition around the country, and with hospitalizations doubling over the past decade.

It is often said that one theory can be driven out only by another; the neoclassicals have a complete theory (though I maintain it is nothing but a circular argument) and we need a better theory to supplant them. I do not agree. I think any other ‘complete theory’ would be only another box of tricks. What we need is a different habit of mind — to eschew fudging, to respect facts and to admit ignorance of what we do not know.

KHN sent queries about reinfection surveillance to all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Of 24 responses, fewer than half provided details about suspected or confirmed reinfection cases. Where officials said they’re actively monitoring for reinfection, they have found far more potential cases than previously anticipated.

There were thousands of Tweets which said exactly what I was going to say. I thought of ‘liking’ them, to show solidarity, but in the end, I thought ‘he’s just a prat who likes the attention, and my kids need a hug’, so I put my phone down

Covid-19’s fierce winter resurgence in California is notable not only for the explosion in overall cases and deaths in the state’s sprawling urban centers. This latest surge spilled across a far greater geographic footprint, scarring remote corners of the state that went largely unscathed for much of 2020.

Cryptarithms with MiniZinc, Python, and pymzn

A couple of entries in the AMS Page a Day Calendar so far have been cryptarithms. I most recently encountered these in the Coursera course on ("Basic Modeling for Discrete Optimization")](https://www.coursera.org/learn/basic-modeling), which uses them as an early example to teach MiniZinc. It's fairly easy to adapt existing code to solve this problem:

ZEROES + ONES = BINARY:

%From the AMS page-a-day calendar
var 0..9: Z;  
var 0..9: E;  
var 0..9: R;  
var 0..9: O;  
var 0..9: S;  
var 0..9: N;  
var 0..9: B;  
var 0..9: I;  
var 0..9: A;  
var 0..9: Y;  

constraint Z != 0;  
constraint O != 0;  
constraint B != 0;  

constraint  
           100000 * Z + 10000 * E + 1000 * R + 100 * O + 10 * E + S  
         +                          1000 * O + 100 * N + 10 * E + S  
         = 100000 * B + 10000 * I + 1000 * N + 100 * A + 10 * R + Y;  

include "alldifferent.mzn";  
constraint alldifferent([Z,E,R,O,S,N,B,I,A,Y]);  

%solve maximize (10000 * V + 1000 * E + 100 * R + 10 * S + E);

It's probably fairly easy to make a MiniZinc script that reads the problem from a data file instead of having it hardcoded, but I'm not that good with MiniZinc (I haven't finished the course). But this does seem like a good excuse to tinker with pymzn, a Python interface to MiniZinc. Here's my Python script to build a MiniZinc cryptarithm-solver script, run it, and return the results:

import io
import json
import re

import pymzn

def cryptarithm(problem):
    mznscript = io.StringIO('')
    prob = problem.replace(' ', '')
    (facs, solution) = prob.split('=')
    facs = facs.split('+')
    
    #Set of all unique letters in the problem
    letters = set(re.sub('[+=\s]', '', prob))
    #All letters at the beginning of a "number"
    initials = set([fac[0] for fac in facs]+[solution[0]])
    
    #declare all variables.
    #First letters != 0.
    print(*[f'var 1..9: {l};' for l in initials], sep="\n", file=mznscript)
    print(*[f'var 0..9: {l};' for l in letters.difference(initials)], sep="\n", end="\n\n", file=mznscript)

    #Each letter stands for a different number.
    print('include "alldifferent.mzn";', file=mznscript)
    print(f'constraint alldifferent([{",".join(letters)}]);', file=mznscript)

    #Add the main constraint.
    print('\nconstraint', file=mznscript)

    #This is ugly. Don't do this in actually-useful code.
    print('    '+'\n  + '.join([' + '.join(f'{10**n} * {l}' for n,l in enumerate(reversed(tuple(fac)))) for fac in facs]), file=mznscript)
    print('  = '+' + '.join([f'{10**n} * {l}' for n,l in enumerate(reversed(tuple(solution)))])+';', end="\n\n", file=mznscript)
    
    print('solve satisfy;', file=mznscript)
    
    
    mznscript.seek(0)
    script = mznscript.read()
    
    return (script, [dict(sorted(json.loads(sol).items(),  key=lambda x: problem.index(x[0]))) 
                     for sol 
                     in pymzn.minizinc(script, output_mode='json')])

And some use examples:

>>> script, solutions = cryptarithm('ZEROES + ONES = BINARY')
>>> print(solutions)
[{'Z': 6, 'E': 9, 'R': 8, 'O': 3, 'S': 2, 'N': 1, 'B': 7, 'I': 0, 'A': 5, 'Y': 4}]

>>> script, solutions = cryptarithm('SEND+MORE=MONEY')
>>> print(solutions)
[{'S': 9, 'E': 5, 'N': 6, 'D': 7, 'M': 1, 'O': 0, 'R': 8, 'Y': 2}]

>>> script, solutions = cryptarithm('SO+MANY+MORE+MEN+SEEM+TO+SAY+THAT+THEY+MAY+SOON+TRY+TO+STAY+AT+HOME+SO+AS+TO+SEE+OR+HEAR+THE+SAME+ONE+MAN+TRY+TO+MEET+THE+TEAM+ON+THE+MOON+AS+HE+HAS+AT+THE+OTHER+TEN=TESTS')
>>> print(solutions)
[{'T': 9, 'A': 7, 'O': 1, 'M': 2, 'H': 5, 'S': 3, 'E': 0, 'N': 6, 'Y': 4, 'R': 8}]

>>> script, solution = cryptarithm('TWO + TWO = FOUR')
>>> print(solution)
[{'F': 1, 'T': 7, 'W': 3, 'R': 8, 'U': 6, 'O': 4}]

Friday Links

“Yeah, they may be effective 95 percent of the time, but what about the experience of being inoculated against the century’s first pandemic?” he continued. “We’re people, not zombie consumers. Each dose should be personalized and special.”

But as John Warner points out in his new polemic Sustainable. Resilient. Free. The Future of Public Higher Education, no-cost public college is neither utopian nor new. Rather, narratives that say college should be expensive, that you should take out debt to pay for it if you don’t have family funding, that it is a private investment in your future, are the historically recent developments.

Harvard researchers estimate it would take about $79 billion per year to make all public colleges and universities free; by contrast, our present debt-leveraged, tuition-dependent Rube Goldberg machine that “subsidizes college attendance” costs the federal government $91 billion every year.

The study team analyzed the effect of education and birth year on differences in memory and verbal fluency among nearly 16,000 participants born between 1930 and 1955. Women had better memory scores overall, which became more significant in the groups born more recently. But in the older birth cohort, women had poorer fluency scores than men. That difference progressively reversed in the groups born later, reported Mikaela Bloomberg, a Ph.D. candidate from University College London. 

The religious basis of the act was explicit: the act stated its intention was to thwart “ye old deluder, Satan” in his goal “to keepe men from the knowledge of ye Scriptures.” To this end, the law required every town with 50 or more families to hire and maintain a teacher to instruct all children in reading and writing.

The first paper, which garnered widespread media coverage, found little evidence that COVID had spread in 17 schools in rural Wisconsin that opened buildings with strict safety procedures.

The other study, which has drawn less attention, found that across Wisconsin as a whole, 5,700 COVID cases were linked to outbreaks in K-12 schools and childcare facilities last fall.

Epidemiologist Theresa Chapple worries that studies that rely on contact tracing all have the same flaw — the lack of systematic “surveillance” testing that would provide a complete picture of virus cases in a school.

In the mid-nineteenth century, cities often had the power to lock kids up in reform schools, against their own and their parents’ objections, without convicting them of any crime. This fell under the general legal precept that “the welfare of the people is the supreme law.”

Secondary market trading is societally unproductive (more on that shortly) and should be discouraged by increasing transaction costs (this is one of the big reasons to push for a financial transactions tax, not for revenue purposes, although that’s a nice side bennie, but to shrink the financial casinos).

Kaprekar Process

The AMS Page a Day Calendar for January 17 discusses the Kaprekar Process:

D.R. Kaprekar discovered an interesting phenomenon that occurs when one takes a four-digit number, such that all four digits are not equal, and computes the difference between its decreasing and increasing rearrangements. He found that within seven iterations of this process you will always reach the number 6174, and this process became known as the Kaprekar Process.

-- Ellis, R., & Lewis, J. (2017). Investigations into the Kaprekar Process. Rose-Hulman Undergraduate Mathematics Journal, 3(2). https://scholar.rose-hulman.edu/rhumj/vol3/iss2/4

It's easy enough to do this calculation in Python

def kaprekar(x): 
    i = 0
    xs = []
    while True:
        xs.append(x)
        if x in (6174,0):
            return (i, xs)
        i+=1
        while x < 1000: x = x * 10
        x = list(str(x))
        x1 = int(''.join(sorted(x)))
        x2 = int(''.join(sorted(x, reverse=True)))
        #print(''.join(x), x1, x2)
        x = max([x1, x2]) - min([x1, x2])
>>> kaprekar(2021)
(3, [2021, 2088, 8532, 6174])
>>> kaprekar(4627)  
(7, [4627, 5175, 5994, 5355, 1998, 8082, 8532, 6174])

We can also verify that at most seven iterations are required to reach 6174:

Kaprekar process graph
>>> ks = [kaprekar(x) for x in range(1,9999)]
>>> max([cnt for cnt, hist in ks]) 
7
>>> from collections import Counter
>>> Counter([x[0] for x in ks]).most_common()
[(3, 2400), (7, 2184), (6, 1656), (5, 1518), (4, 1272), (2, 576), (1, 391), (0, 1)]

And finally, for the sake of having an image on this post:

>>> sns.set_theme(style="whitegrid")
>>> sns.countplot(x=[x[0] for x in ks], color=(.3, .7, .3), alpha=.8, saturation=.3)

Friday Links

Interestingly, hundreds of plant species in sand dunes have evolved sticky surfaces, suggesting utility in that habitat. Windblown sand coats these sticky surfaces – a phenomenon known as psammophory, which means “sand-carrying” in Greek. While a sandy coating may limit light from reaching plant surfaces, it also likely protects plants from abrasion and reflects light, reducing leaf temperature. It also defends plants from hungry predators.

Why isn’t it considered bad behavior to sit in front of a wall of screens filled with flashing numbers making bets on those numbers? Would it attract the cultural scolds if the people making those bets were drinking tall boys in brown bags, rather than sipping bespoke lattes?

Read the latest reports concerning Covid-19 and academia and it has become clear that the inequalities and representation of women have worsened. Women are submitting fewer preprints, dropping enrolments in university programmes, missing from pandemic-related scientific committees, and experiencing pressure during lockdown periods to take on traditional caregiving and domestic responsibilities. These are not simply temporary setbacks, but a call to reflect on longstanding social schemas. What this suggest is, that it is time for research that considers a wider array of variables.

“The joy of games like Hitman for me is that they’re presented with an incredibly straight face, but allow you to do incredibly silly things,” he told Polygon over email. “I’ve previously killed 553 people using only a fish in the game, so it just seemed like a natural progression for the freezer challenge.”

A website that claims to sell ad space for Covid-19 vaccinations has triggered both laughter and existential dread, with many expressing despair over the possibility that the absurd gimmick could actually be real.

There is a right way and a wrong way to do a diet study.  The wrong way is to send a survey to a few thousand people asking them to recall what they eat and linking those responses to outcomes down the road. That’s how we get studies that tell us that eggs kills you, or keep you healthy, or something. The right way is to do what the good folks at the NIH did in this study appearing in Nature Medicine – lock people in a room for 28 days and measure absolutely everything.’

To answer that requires explaining the concept of short selling, which most civilians find nearly incomprehensible. A short sale is a bet that a stock (or any other speculative asset, like bonds or gold) is going to decline in price. But to make that bet, you have to sell something you don’t already own, which is not normal behavior. To accomplish this, you have to borrow the stock from somebody who does own it. As with any loan, you have to pay interest on the borrowed asset. And you also have to keep some collateral on deposit with your broker as an assurance you’re good for the money. The hope is that the price will fall, and you can buy the shares — cover the short, in the jargon — at a lower price. Your profit would be the difference between the original sale price and the closing purchase price, minus any interest paid on the borrowed asset.

But what if you’re wrong, and the price rises? Then you’re in trouble. When you buy a stock, your risk is that you could lose the entire purchase price — but no more. With short selling, if you’re wrong, there’s no predetermined limit to how much you can lose if the price keeps rising. And if the price keeps rising, your broker will demand more collateral in the form of real money. You have a choice between giving up — covering the short and taking the loss — or keep pouring more collateral into a losing position in the hope that things will finally turn your way.

But the researchers wanted to know whether there was a reason for the cats to go wild, beyond pure pleasure. That is when one of the scientists heard about the insect-repelling properties of nepetalactone, which about 2 decades ago was shown to be as good as the famed mosquito-stopper DEET. The researchers hypothesized that when felines in the wild rub on catnip or silver vine, they’re essentially applying an insect repellant.

If you were an adherent of the ceiling view, you might reasonably say, look, even if the effect of income on happiness is linear in the log of income, that’s basically the same as saying it’s not linear in income, and that above some threshold or ceiling you’d need to increase your income by a lot in order to see any substantial increase in happiness.

So you can see why an advocate of the threshold or ceiling view of income satisfaction might be unconvinced that the log-linearity of happiness in income is much to be concerned about. Sure, it’s still growing, but after the initial steep increase in happiness that comes with getting some money, across most of the range of achievable incomes the increase is negligible.

Enslavement in the northern states is often glossed with a statement about how the practice was ended in such and such a year. The reality is more complicated. Emancipation was piecemeal, gradual, and, when it came to visitors from other states and even nations, often ambiguous.

Friday Links

If a nation has a partisan head of state as well as being a de facto two-party state then that nation will be in a perpetual state of civil war. There is no avoiding it. The United States has two royal families who are constantly warring with each other to take the crown. It is a forever War of the Roses.

Ignoring Wikipedia, which is every bit as much a monopoly and a monopolist as the rest, is a dire mistake. There is nothing positive about sucking away users from high-quality content published by individuals, small blogs, or focused wikis. They’re not providing some type of public service by providing free content for Google to monetize without worries about being sued for copyright violations (and, surprise, Google funds Wikipedia). Wikipedia went dark to prove the point they’re vital and immediately missed. However, by doing that, they simultaneously proved another point: they’re a monopoly.

Rather than focusing on encouraging courageous behavior in these situations, the authors argue, institutions and professional groups should focus on addressing the dysfunctional systems and power imbalances that make ethical violations more likely.

“To be sure, courage should be celebrated,” the authors write. “But demanding individual courage is no substitute for institutional justice.”

Commentary from the AMS on cop shit.

A fundamental aspect of the switch to distance learning is its disruption of all the usual structures and processes by which this control is exercised. In our running example, you can leave a Zoom class just by clicking “Leave”, with no need to awkwardly face anyone and a reasonable likelihood, depending on the size of the class, that the instructor won’t even notice. To cover your bases, you can instead leave without leaving—just mute yourself, turn off video, and go about your business while remaining formally in the meeting.

For a different and much-discussed example, while we are used to being able to design students’ environments rather meticulously during exam proctoring to head off both distraction and temptation, there is no analogous form of control over the exam environment built into distance learning.

Many schools across the country do not require students to walk through metal detectors every day. The truth is that schools with more students of color are more likely to use metal detectors, locked gates, sweeps, and law enforcement to harden schools. Research has found that the percentage of students of color who attend schools is the greatest predictor of the presence of these measures, even when controlling for other factors such as neighborhood crime, poor school climate, and other factors that may explain school disruption. This research also shows that schools with 50% or more students of color were more than 18 times more likely to use a combination of metal detectors, school police, locked gates, and sweeps than schools with less than 20% students of color. In other words, the distinguishing factor of the schools that have metal detectors is not even the amount of crime in surrounding neighborhoods — instead, it is whether or not a large number of Black and Latino students attend.

Friday Links

In New York, Texas, and a slice of the rest of the country where data is available, teachers and other staff where school buildings are open have higher COVID infection rates than their surrounding communities.

Critically, the data does not show whether teachers caught the virus in schools, or offer definitive answers about the risks of school reopening. It’s possible the results reflect more widespread testing among teachers, and the evidence that remote teachers have lower infection rates is mixed. But the latest data complicates our understanding of the risks of school reopening.

A couple of years ago I gave a statistics course for the Swedish National Research School in History, and at the exam I asked the students to explain how one should correctly interpret p-values. Although the correct definition is p(data|null hypothesis), a majority of the students either misinterpreted the p-value as being the likelihood of a sampling error (which of course is wrong, since the very computation of the p-value is based on the assumption that sampling errors are what causes the sample statistics not coinciding with the null hypothesis) or that the p-value is the probability of the null hypothesis being true, given the data (which of course also is wrong, since it is p(null hypothesis|data) rather than the correct p(data|null hypothesis)).

This is not to blame on students’ ignorance, but rather on significance testing not being particularly transparent (conditional probability inference is difficult even to those of us who teach and practice it).

For a typical citizen, political knowledge is just as often a liability as a source of power. Ignorance protects us from painful truths, insulates us from responsibility for our actions, and sustains the relationships that we depend upon for meaning and belonging. To understand and address societal ignorance, we must come to terms with such benefits.

The link between the Great War and the influenza pandemic was more than a mere coincidence of timing. Massive movements of troops around the world — unprecedented at the time, but foreshadowing our own world of extensive tourist and business travel — were a major factor in spreading the 1918–19 pandemic. And, as with current pandemics, the close proximity of humans and food-producing animals played a major role. But recent research has also pointed to more direct links to the war, including the role of poison gas and the local climate change created by the conflict.

The gases used in the Great War included chlorine, phosgene and (perhaps the most horrible of all) mustard gas, which not only caused disabling blistering but is also highly carcinogenic and mutagenic. The outbreak of flu, particularly deadly to the young men among whom it spread, probably arose from the mutagenic effects of one or more of these gases, combined with repeated transmission from humans to animals and vice versa.

Even more striking is the possibility that soil particles, explosives and other chemicals generated by the continuous bombardment on the Western Front played a role in generating a six-year European climate anomaly characterised by unusually cold and rainy weather — weather that contributed both to the infamous mud of the trenches and to the severity of the pandemic. As well as the obvious effects of cold weather, which weakened immunity and encouraged crowding indoors, the climate anomaly disrupted the migratory patterns of mallard ducks and other birds that were important vectors for the disease.

“Making progress in this effort will help us reach our full economic potential as a nation,” Dallas Fed President Robert Kaplan said at a conference Tuesday addressing the topic of race and the economy.

A December study by consultant McKinsey & Co. found that students of color in U.S. schools had fallen behind in math by three to five months because of the pandemic; White students trailed by only one to three months.

It’s rare for economists to highlight how little is known about which policies and institutions fuel economic growth and prosperity. But in their latest book, Good Economics for Hard Times, Nobel Prize-winning economists Esther Duflo and Abhijit V. Banerjee do exactly that. And it’s this quality of humility and courage, espoused throughout their writing, that inspires confidence and curiosity in what they hae to say about other, potentially more important, issues.

The chapter on trade more or less debunks a foundational economic model — Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage, which describes how countries are better off under free trade.

Our crowds are “the people” in action; their crowds are oppressed automatons.

Friday Links

I’ve been reading Michael Sandel’s powerful new book The Tyranny of Merit, and it occurred to me that, in over 25 years of being involved in higher education, I have never heard of anyone unpacking the knapsack of college privilege. The more I reflect on this, the more stunning I find it, given just how many advantages our society bestows on college graduates.

The Tyranny of Merit is a searing account of the way that our system of meritocracy has perverted our democracy, and the central responsibility that higher education bears for this disaster. Meritocracy can be defined as the idea that people with the highest merit should rise to the top, and that those who have achieved high places have earned their comfort, status and authority.

Merit is, of course, contextual. In a warrior society, merit would be determined by prowess with a gun or a sword. In our knowledge-based economy, graduating from college is the single most powerful symbol of making it. But, as Sandel highlights, there is a problem with this. He writes, “Elites have so valorized a college degree -- both as an avenue for advancement and as the basis for social esteem -- that they have difficulty understanding the hubris a meritocracy can generate.”

But clearly having a college degree is a form of identity that confers massive privileges, which also impact lived experience and perspective. So why do other forms of identity get movements with profound cultural power (Me Too and Black Lives Matter), while the scant attention paid to educational privilege is wrapped in the boring language of economics with phrases like "the returns to education"?

The hard truth is that, even as colleges critique other forms of privilege, they do everything in their power to advertise the massive advantages graduates of their institution enjoy. College equals privilege. It’s part of the brand, a feature, not a bug.

I’m trying to find a kinder word for this than hypocrisy, but if we look at this situation from the perspective of those who do not have college degrees, how would we characterize it? So many people learn in college that privilege is nefarious, and yet they are part of a system whose goal is to confer advantage.

Early learning programs are collapsing under the financial and logistical strain of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a July survey, 40% of child care providers, and half of providers of color, reported that they were certain they would close permanently without public assistance. Now, about half of providers report having to take on debt and raise their tuition by 11% to 14% to stay open due to pandemic-related expenses. If families who are already struggling financially during the pandemic cannot afford increased tuition, early learning programs will continue to permanently close. Black and Latino families already had inadequate access to high-quality early learning programs before the pandemic, and these new child care challenges will reduce this access even more.

Among the reasons people aren’t enrolling, particularly at community colleges, is that they’re too busy navigating economic uncertainty to make college a priority. But Strada’s data suggest that when workers eventually do set out to learn new skills, they’re most likely to enroll in a nondegree program or seek skills training.

The full spectrum of high- to low-quality instructional techniques implemented in traditional, face-to-face classrooms across the country can be implemented in some form or another (with similar rates of success) virtually. The prerequisites for quality education—whether it be online or face-to-face—are more similar than they are different. If you want to know whether crisis schooling (regardless of whether it's online or face-to-face) can ever compare with non-crisis schooling, then of course not. That speaks more to the pandemic and the state of this country than it provides any true test of the promise or limitations of online learning.

I’ll state at the outset here that “firsts” are always a tricky thing to write about, especially when it comes to an artistic technique as widespread and important as vanishing point perspective. There are other candidates and other artists for this record, but the Florentine fresco Holy Trinity by early Renaissance artist Masaccio is a widely recognised contender for the first ever use of a single vanishing point in a work of art.

A growing body of scientific evidence also shows that the joy delivered by birds isn’t just anecdotal. Research increasingly links exposure to nature—and specifically, exposure to birds—with improved wellbeing.

The number of rural students expected to enroll in college in the near future has plummeted due to COVID-19. A major indicator of this trend is that the number of rural students completing federal application forms for financial aid has dropped by 16 percent compared to last year. This is higher than the 14.2 percent drop amongst urban students.

In some rural states, the drop was even bigger. For example, West Virginia experienced a 26.1 percent decrease, while Louisiana fell by 26.4 percent.

Back in the first heyday of artificial intelligence, there was a lot of optimism about the rate of progress. In a fairly short time, computers could already do complicated math and play chess faster and better than people. AI researchers had already solved many of the problems that were a marker of intelligence in people – the hard stuff – so surely a truly intelligent machine was not far behind?

Well, it turns out that it’s actually really difficult to teach a robot to walk on two legs, or train an algorithm that can simulate a convincing conversation. It’s not impossible, as the last few years of AI have demonstrated, but it’s several orders of magnitude more complicated than something like chess. To put it another way, for a machine hard is easy and easy is hard.

For instance, at a national level, caesarean section rates are over 50 per cent in the Dominican Republic Brazil, Egypt and Turkey, compared to around 30 per cent in Australia and the USA, and less than three per cent in South Sudan, Nigeria and Ethiopia. The World Health Organization has advised that caesarean section rates higher than 15 per cent at a population level may not improve women’s or babies’ health; while caesarean section rates below 10 per cent may be a sign of inadequate access to quality maternity care.

About Me

Developer at Brown University Library specializing in instructional design and technology, Python-based data science, and XML-driven web development.

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