A Quick bit of Prison History

While researching initiation rituals, I came across some descriptions of prison gangs, which led me down that rabbit hole.

I remember in Frank Lucas’s biography, Original Gangster: The Real Life Story of one of America’s Most Notorious Drug Lords, Lucas’s discussion of the effects of prison desegregation:

I got arrested for conspiracy to sell drugs and sentenced to thirty months in the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg… Doing jail time was no big deal to me. But what made it a little complicated was that they had blacks and whites desegregated. Around the time I went into Lewisburg, they’d passed some law that made it illegal to segregate prisoners. So, for the first time in the common areas and in the mess hall, black folks and white folk were together. I’m not so sue that was a good idea back then ’cause, for the most part, blacks and whites in jail were like the Bloods and Crips today.

And at Lewisburg, there were more white boys. We were outnumbered at least three to one, which just added to the tension when they started mixing us up.

If I recall correctly, Lewis once spilled a lot of hot coffee on a white inmate who was threatening him, but otherwise claimed not to have many real problems–lucky for everyone involved.

Other people have not been so lucky.

According to Wikipedia, (with slight rearrangements for narrative’s sake):

Most prisons in the United States were racially segregated until the 1960s. As prisons began to desegregate, many inmates organized along racial lines.[10] The Aryan Brotherhood is believed to have been formed at San Quentin State Prison,[11] …  They decided to strike against the blacks who were forming their own militant group called the Black Guerrilla Family.[12] …

The initial motivation for the formation of the group in San Quentin in 1964 was self-protection against an existing black prison gang. …

After being formed in California prisons in the mid-1960s, the Aryan Brotherhood had spread to most California prisons by 1975. As some of the leaders were sent to federal prison, they took the opportunity to start organizing in the federal prisons. … By the late 1970s, there were fewer than 100 members, but that grew rapidly as they absorbed other racist and skinhead groups, with over 20,000 members in the federal and state prison systems.[22]  …

By the 1990s, the Aryan Brotherhood had shifted its focus away from killing for strictly racial reasons and focused on organized crime such as drug trafficking, prostitution, and sanctioned murders.[12] … For example, Gambino crime family boss John Gotti was assaulted while incarcerated in Marion Federal Penitentiary in 1996, and he allegedly asked the Aryan Brotherhood to murder his attacker. Gotti’s attacker was immediately transferred to protective custody and the planned retaliation was abandoned.[15][16] … 

Gotti also organized a business partnership on the outside between his group and the Brotherhood on the outside, which greatly expanded the group’s power on the streets.[22] … 

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the gang makes up less than 0.1% of the prison population, but it is responsible for between 18-25% of murders in the federal prison system.[10][15] …

Prosecuting the gang has been difficult, because many members are already serving life sentences with no possibility of parole …

That’s one hell of an unintended consequence.

I wonder if anyone knowledgeable regrets desegregating the prisons.


The Ubiquity of Violence

Civilization suppresses violence in order to facilitate economic transactions, mostly because the government taxes transactions and the government wants more taxes.

It is easy to become blase about violence, because we usually do not experience it in our every day lives–because we live in a civilization that is actively repressing it.

What would happen if the police went away?

The otherwise probably fine police of Montreal, Canada, once performed an experiment on the subject when they went on strike to protest low pay and bad work conditions (the hazards of constantly having to diffuse Quebecois-separatist bombs.)The city quickly descended into what is known as the “Night of Terror”:


Montreal is in a state of shock. A police officer is dead and 108 people have been arrested following 16 hours of chaos during which police and firefighters refused to work. At first, the strike’s impact was limited to more bank robberies than normal. But as night fell, a taxi drivers’ union seized upon the police absence to violently protest a competitor’s exclusive right to airport pickups. … Shop owners, some of them armed, struggled to fend off looters. Restaurants and hotels were also targeted. A corporal with the Quebec provincial police was shot and killed at the garage of the Murray Hill limousine company as taxi drivers tried to burn it down.

When Donald Trump said that women were being raped while attempting to illegally cross the border, he was correct–in places with no law enforcement, rape is even more common than it normally is. War zones are notoriously also rape zones; it may be no coincidence that we use the same word, conquest, for both sex and war.

According to Wikipedia (h/t LittleFoot):

According to Global Rights, almost 90% of women in Afghanistan experience physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse or forced marriage. The perpetrators of these crimes are the families of the victim.[43] …

Honor killing and murders[edit

In 2012, Afghanistan recorded 240 cases of honor killings, but the total number is believed to be much higher. Of the reported honor killings, 21% were committed by the victims’ husbands, 7% by their brothers, 4% by their fathers, and the rest by other relatives.[45][46]

In May 2017, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan concluded that the vast majority of cases involving honor killings and murders of women, perpetrators were not punished.[47]

Meanwhile, rape is so common in South Africa that headlines like Rape of 7 Year old Girl in South African Restaurant Sparks Outrage are numbingly common. (Does it spark outrage? Really? In the country with one of the highest rates of rape in the world, does this one bear any more outrage than all of the others?)

In a separate case this week, a 17-year-old girl who had just given birth at a hospital was raped by a man posing as a doctor.

Gauteng man arrested for rape of two young girls, including a nine year old who died: 

The nine-year-old was declared dead on the scene when police arrived. A 22-year-old man, who lived at the house where the incident took place, has been arrested.

“For now he is being charged with two charges of rape. He is also facing a charge of murder of the 9-year-old girl. Police are still on the scene, there could be more charges,” said police spokesperson, Brig Mathapelo Peters.

Medicals tests confirmed that the two children had been raped.

Another raped South African child.

Sorry, CNN–I don’t think one more raped 7 year old is going to push South Africa over the edge. You just can’t stand the fact that this is South Africa’s normal.

Of course, women aren’t the only victims of violence–men are disproportionately the victims of homicide and massively over-represented in war deaths. 

As Westhunt summarizes:

There’s a new paper out in Science – ” The genomic history of the Iberian Peninsula over the past 8000 years” .  It discusses genetic change over time, from hunter-gatherer days, the arrival of the Anatolian-ancestry farmers, and the coming of the Indo-Europeans.

The chart above [see Westhunt’s post for the chart] shows what happened when the Indo-Europeans show up. Autosomal steppe ancestry goes from zero to ~40%, but on the Y-chromosome, it goes from zero to 100% over a few hundred years.

In other words, they killed 100% of the local men.

The recent overthrow of “autocratic” regimes in Libya and Iraq led to a massive increase in human suffering as war broke out in their wake; today Libya has open slave markets:

Armed groups execute and torture civilians in Libya in almost complete impunity seven years after the revolution that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, the United Nations human rights office said on Wednesday.

Libyans and migrants are often held incommunicado in arbitrary detention in appalling conditions, and reports persist of captured migrants being bought and sold on “open slave markets”, it said in a report to the Human Rights Council.

And don’t ask how ISIS treats its conquered peoples–you don’t want to know, but the videos are out there.

We here in civilization are so accustomed to not routinely fearing for our lives that it’s difficult to appreciate just how dangerous things were for our ancestors, or how quickly peace can break down in the absence of order.

And even here in civilization, the anti-abortion crowd will quickly remind you that not only does violence still occur, it occurs on a massive scale, committed by mothers (and doctors) against fetuses. Regardless of your stance on the necessity and legality of abortion, it is certainly infanticide, the taking of a human life.

What stops violence?

Violence in state and non-state societies
From “The Better Angels of our Nature,” by Steven Pinker

Civilization. Police. Prisons. Just knowing that there is a good chance you will be caught and punished deters a lot of crime. States execute criminals, which has the additional effect of potentially removing violent alleles from the population.


According to CS McGill’s page on the Mongol Empire:

The Mongol Empire was governed by a code of law devised by Genghis, called Yassa, meaning “order” or “decree”. … On the whole, the tight discipline made the Mongol Empire extremely safe and well-run; European travelers were amazed by the organization and strict discipline of the people within the Mongol Empire.

Under Yassa, chiefs and generals were selected based on merit, religious tolerance was guaranteed, and thievery and vandalizing of civilian property was strictly forbidden. According to legend, a woman carrying a sack of gold could travel safely from one end of the Empire to another. …

Genghis also demonstrated a rather liberal and tolerant attitude to the beliefs of others, and never persecuted people on religious grounds. This proved to be good military strategy, as when he was at war with Sultan Muhammad ofKhwarezm, other Islamic leaders did not join the fight against Genghis — it was instead seen as a non-holy war between two individuals.

Note: the Mongols killed approximately 50 million people and outlawed the practice of keeping halal/kosher. So “never persecuted on religious grounds” is wrong, but it is true that he didn’t particularly care if Muslims liked a god named “Allah” so long as they paid their tribute. As they say, in the Khan’s empire, you were free to pray to whichever god you wanted for the Khan’s health.

Mongols prized their commercial and trade relationships with neighboring economies and this policy they continued during the process of their conquests and during the expansion of their empire. All merchants and ambassadors, having proper documentation and authorization, traveling through their realms were protected. This greatly increased overland trade.

During the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, European merchants, numbering hundreds, perhaps thousands, made their way from Europe to the distant land of China — Marco Polo is only one of the best known of these. Well-traveled and relatively well-maintained roads linked lands from the Mediterranean basin to China.

And here is a really interesting article on the persistence of trust in public institutions in areas formerly ruled by the Habsburg Empire vs. areas immediately next door that were ruled by the Ottomans:

Our results suggest that the Habsburg Empire is indeed still visible in the cultural norms and interactions of humans with their state institutions today. Comparing individuals left and right of the long-gone Habsburg border, people living in locations that used to be territory of the Habsburg Empire have higher trust in courts and police. These trust differentials also transform into “real” differences in the extent to which bribes have to be paid for these local public services.

We complement these main findings by looking into a series of additional aspects.

  • First, our results are robust when restricting the comparison groups to formerly Ottoman regions (instead of any non-Habsburg Empire).
  • Second and interestingly, the Habsburg effect does not vary systematically with the duration of Habsburg affiliation, consistent with models that predict persistent effects of limited exposure.
  • Third, we analyse whether Habsburg exposure fostered trust levels in state institutions in general, i.e. also in central public institutions like the president or the parliament. We find no significant evidence of such effects, suggesting that it was the local interaction with bureaucrats that was key.
  • Finally, evidence from a firm dataset, the Business Environment and Enterprise Performance Survey, corroborates the general pattern of results derived from the household dataset. That is, firms on the Habsburg side of the long-gone border within the same country have higher trust in the courts.

If there is no state, then individual tribes band together for protection–the knowledge that messing with one guy will bring the retribution of his brothers down on you keeps down at least some of the violence–but this is much less stable.


Quick note on jobs and education

So this whole Yang Gang phenomenon is shaping up to be quite amusing. So far I’ve seen Yang supported by little old liberal grandmas and alt-right memers. I’d better start up some posts on modern monetary theory.

In the meanwhile, just some quick thoughts on how we need to restructure our thinking about education:

The entire education => jobs model has got to change. Not in format–much of the way things are physically taught in the classroom is fine–but in how we think about the process (and thus fund it).

People have the idea that education is 1. Job training and 2. Ends when you graduate.

#2 is important: it implies that education ENDS, and since it ends, you can afford to shell out an enormous quantity of cash for it. But this is increasingly misguided, as many laid-off journalists recently discovered.

The difficulty is that humans are producing knowledge and innovation at an exponential rate, so whatever was an adequate amount of knowledge to begin in a field 20 years ago is no longer adequate–and in the meanwhile, technology has likely radically altered the field, often beyond recognition.

Modern education must be ongoing, because fields/tech/knowledge are shifting too quickly for a single college degree to equip you for 45 years of work.

Is there any point to a degree (or other form of certification)? Yes. It can still function to allow a person into a work community. It just shouldn’t be seen as the end of education, and thus should not cost nearly as much as it does.

Modern education should proceed in bursts. After a short training period, you begin to work, to see if you are a good fit for the particular community (profession) you’ve chosen, or need to transfer to a different community and learn there. Better to figure this out before you spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on a degree. Job, pay, education–all need to be unified, small bits, throughout your life.


So what do you think about the Yang Gang?

When we become our own worst enemies

In times of danger, tribes merge; in times of peace, they split.

From Scientific Reports, De novo origins of multicellularity in response to predation:

Here we show that de novo origins of simple multicellularity can evolve in response to predation. We subjected outcrossed populations of the unicellular green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii to selection by the filter-feeding predator Paramecium tetraurelia. Two of five experimental populations evolved multicellular structures not observed in unselected control populations within ~750 asexual generations. Considerable variation exists in the evolved multicellular life cycles, with both cell number and propagule size varying among isolates. Survival assays show that evolved multicellular traits provide effective protection against predation. These results support the hypothesis that selection imposed by predators may have played a role in some origins of multicellularity.

If we evolve multicellularity in response to predation, then the inverse–a loss of multicellularity, a splitting apart, can happen when predation is removed. 

The Democrats have faced a bit of controversy lately over the comments of Ilhan Omar (for the non-Americans in the audience, Ilhan Omar is a recently elected representative of Somali Muslim origins.) As Politico reports: 

Then, after being seated on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Omar was lampooned for a 2012 tweet in which she wrote during an Israeli military campaign in the Gaza Strip, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.”  

Omar then made an idiotic non apology — “she claimed ignorance of the anti-Semitic trope that conceives of Jewish hypnosis.” 

Whether Omar knew it is a trope or not is irrelevant to the question of whether or not Omar was saying something anti-semitic–and even that is not necessarily grounds for an apology, because people apologize when they actually feel contrite about something. Omar most likely doesn’t.

Muslims have their interests; Jews have different interests. The existence of Israel is a big deal for Jews–it helps ensure that nasty incidents like the Holocaust don’t repeat. The existence of Israel is also a big deal for Palestinians, many of whom, I assume, would be living in the area if Jews weren’t. 

Conflicts over land are nothing new in human history, and it doesn’t require a degree in astrophysics to realize that sometimes groups have conflicting interests. Americans of the non-Jewish or Muslim variety also have their own interests (many desire, for example, that Israel continue existing for their own religious reasons–not hypnosis.) 

The left’s coalition requires different groups to work together (to ally) in their own self-interest, which works if they have bigger enemies to fear. It doesn’t work if they are strong enough to stand on their own feet (or if someone is too dumb to recognize the value of teamwork.) The ideological justification for allying is “intersectionality,” a term which has been bastardized well beyond its original meaning, but is now used to mean “all forms of oppression are really the same thing, so if you oppose one oppression, you must oppose them all.” So if you are against wife beating, you must also be vegan; if you are opposed to the police shooting unarmed black men, you must also be in favor of hijabs. “Interlocking systems of oppression” work to identify a single enemy, a necessary component for unifying people into something like a voting block or a military. 

And it works as long as there actually is a single enemy. 

It falls apart when you don’t have a single enemy, which is of course the world as it actually stands, because lots of groups have different interests and would like each other’s stuff. There isn’t actually anything magically special about cis-hetero-white-Christian-omnivorous-etc-men that makes them any more or less the oppressors of others. Over in Africa, Africans get oppressed by their fellow Africans. In Islamic countries, chickens get eaten by Muslims. In China, Christianity isn’t even remotely significant. 

In a related story, some British schools have recently seen their pro-LGBT curricula attacked by Muslim parents, who are, despite intersectionalist theory, actually pretty anti-homosexuality.

There is no real way to decide between these two points of view. The vast, vast majority of Muslims believe that homosexuality is a sin, and a school that goes out of its way to teach something counter to that is obviously running up against the students’ and parents’ right to their beliefs. Yet gay people also believe, with equal fervor, that homosexuality is morally respectable and they have a right to advocate on their own behalf and have a perfectly sensible desire to reach out to gay Muslims. 

The difficulty with victory is you don’t need your allies anymore; like the US and the USSR at the end of WWII, victorious allies are apt to turn on each other, fighting for what remains of the spoils. This is true of everyone, not just the left–it is just more interesting when it happens on the left because I’ve been pointing out that this would happen for years. 

Of course, some people react to this and say, “clearly the solution to our group splitting apart is to split our group apart; once our group is split, we will all have the same interests and no one will ever fight, just as children never fight with their siblings–hey knock it off in there STOP PUNCHING YOUR BROTHER you have to SHARE THAT TOY–“

Lack of predation => splitting doesn’t just stop at any particular level. 

297px-world_population_v3-svgThe other difficulty with splitting is that we live in a shrinking world. Up until the 1950s, the entire world had fewer than 3 billion people; today we have more than twice that many, and we’re still growing. Our cities are bigger, communities are expanding, transportation is better and faster, and more people have the money necessary to move to new places. More people than ever before are on the internet, watching TV, or otherwise interacting. 

Devour, get devoured, or make something new?

The Death of all Cultures 


credit WrathOfGnon

Modernity was named “Westernization” in honor of the first cultures it devoured.

There were once more than 400 languages spoken in Europe. Today there are only 250–and some of these have fewer than a hundred speakers. Ume Saami has only 10 speakers. Manx has a robust 50 speakers–none of them native. 90% of Europe’s languages are endangered, soon to be replaced by the languages of commerce.

Westernization has absorbed traits from the cultures it devoured, not the cultures themselves. English is the language of Westernization, but Westernization doesn’t make you English. It doesn’t give you a love of tea and crumpets, double-decker buses and Queen Elizabeth, Rudyard Kipling or William Shakespeare. England was just one of the first countries devoured.

As it spreads, it morphs, but one thing remains constant: the old culture dies. My culture, your culture, every culture.

Is modernity evil?

Probably not. Agriculture destroyed hunter-gathering. It also fed far more people.

Culture contains the collective wisdom of a people, their solutions for dealing with the problems they encounter in their daily lives. Agricultural peoples develop harvest festivals. People who must constantly defend their territory develop war dances.

Modernity changes not just the means of production. It changes how we communicate, how we get our news, the stories we consume and the food we eat. It changes how we spend our leisure and interact with our families. It changes how we move, sleep, and sit, creating physical problems.

When people have the choice, most chose modernity, for modernity produces a great deal of food and rather little material hardship. But it strips their culture and leaves them adrift, for modernity has had very little time to accumulate solutions to the new problems people face. The result is “degeneracy“:

The Northwest Coast Indians felt the ill effects of too much contact with British, Russian, and American traders. The rum of the trading schooners was one of several factors contributing to the degeneracy of those not actually exterminated.

Akhivae on Twitter reflects:

“Woke” minorities, especially East, South, & Southeast Asian ones, have a misguided attitude towards undoing colonialism. In most cases, they’ve totally internalized Western values and are often hostile to traditional ones, only seeking to guard things like food and music.

Bring up traditional Indian attitudes towards family and hierarchy and the desi intersectionalists are against it. They are backward values with no redeeming qualities, who cares if they’ve guided Indian civilization for thousands of years? But if a white girl wears a sari…

Because if the White people are doing it too, then who are we? This is also why people back in Asia and Asian immigrants (the parents of these activists) have no problem with cultural appropriation as their cultural identity is based on core values and not garments and recipes.

It’s an important insight, but who’s correct? The elders, who value the old ways? Or the youngsters, who’ve absorbed modernity but are clinging to the form of kebabs and saris? Are modernity and the old ways compatible, or will young Indians–Desi or not–have to forge something new?

I am reminded here of a joke that I can’t find anywhere on the internet:

A Sami man once lived far in the north of Norway, herding reindeer. He had three sons. The first son was very smart and became the first person in his family to go to college. After many years, he became a doctor. The second son was very hard working, went off to college, and after many years became a successful lawyer in Oslo. Then the third son grew up.

“What would you like to be?” asked his father? “A doctor? A lawyer? An engineer? An astronaut?”

“Well,” said the son. “I would like to stay here, and herd reindeer.”

“Finally,” said his father, “A son I can be proud of!”

Most cultures will not simply morph or adapt to modernity; they will die. Cornwall was once a distinct culture with its own language; today it is just part of Britain. Native American hunter-gatherers now struggle with drug use and depression as their entire lifestyle has been rendered moot by mass-production factory farming. The core of life in Inuit and Eskimo communities has been gutted and replaced with canned food and cinderblock housing.

Today, people all around the world eat at McDonald’s, shop at Ikea, and play Nintendo games. Clothes and electronics are mass produced in China and calories in Kansas. Everyone gets absorbed into mega cultural zones; the future will look a lot more like China than Tibet.

How and to what degree any culture will survive the transition to modernity remains to be seen. China went through multiple shattering cataclysms in the 20th century, but seems to be entering the 21st strong. Japan appears to have integrated its cultural values and modernity with only one attempted world-conquering hiccup. The rest of the world, I’m not so sure about.


The biggest issue modernizing countries face is cratering birth rates. The causes are many, but may be chiefly reduced to the existence of birth control, the need for extended schooling into the breeding years, requirements that families set themselves up independently before reproducing, increased living standards, and distractions like TV and the internet.

Total Fertility Rate by Country

Every “modernized” country–except Israel–has a fertility rate below replacement, and the higher tech the country, the lower the fertility rate. The US has a TFR of 1.8 children per woman (replacement is just north of 2, since some children die.) Japan has 1.4. Singapore has 1.2. Iceland has 1.8.  South Korea: 1.17. Poland: 1.3. Canada: 1.6.

(This is a problem when your Social Security and pension benefits are calculated based on the assumption of an expanding workforce.)

Meanwhile, in IQ by country

Meanwhile, Afghanistan has a TFR of 4.6 children per woman. Niger: 7.2. Mali: 6. The Democratic Republic of the Congo: 6.1.

(Interestingly, Iran fell from 6.5 children per woman in 1982 to 2 per woman in 2002. I’ve said it elsewhere before, but Iran is a more modern country than people realize. A few thousand years of Persian Civilization weren’t for nothing.)

Fertility by political ideology

Since most modernizing countries also go through a massive population boom as infant mortality declines, this wouldn’t be a problem if the fertility shift were distributed equally among all parts of society. It’s not.

On top of that, fertility isn’t distributed equally through all groups on the planet, and groups with high fertility now face increasing resource pressures at home and therefore find moving to areas with lower fertility attractive. As long as these two groups keep up their fertility differences, the net result will be the continued growth of one group while the other shrinks–eventually, one group will disappear or be absorbed entirely.

Source: Audacious Epigone

Modernity itself is a recent invention, dependent on the “smart fraction” of society–those with IQs above 120 or so and therefore capable of understanding things like “electrical power grids” or “why society works better if you cooperate in the Prisoner’s Dilemma.” Modernity works a lot worse if you get more folks in the 80-85 IQ criminal sweet spot–just smart enough to plan and execute crimes, not smart enough to care about the consequences.

The transition to modernity will ultimately work itself out–perhaps over several centuries–if smart moderns can have enough children to keep it going. It will collapse like the Roman Empire if less-modernized people move in, out-reproduce you, and eat your seed corn. (And as the third world continues to grow, there will be increasing pressure for countries with low TFRs to let in migrants from those with high.) It will collapse if your own less competent people out-reproduce your more competent, and it might also collapse if people get the idea that some of the other folks in society are conspiring against them to keep their numbers down.

If modernity collapses, first will come hunger, then war, then epidemics, then famine. Death rides a pale horse; maybe that Fermi Paradox is onto something.

But modernity need not collapse if countries can prevent childlessness or delayed childbearing from becoming high-status markers and ride out the wave of those who aren’t very interested in reproducing removing themselves from the gene pool without panicking. (Note an unfortunate trend: European leaders Macron, Theresa May, Merkel, and Lofven all have no children at all.)

Whatever the future holds, it will be different.

Jews aren’t your enemies

They aren’t. My anthropology and religious projects involve attending synagogues; I’ve listened to and talked to hundreds of Jews; they’re normal people with normal lives who want the same peace and happiness as everyone else in this world.

People make out like Jews have some kind of magic super-power to control gentiles. They don’t. If they did, gentiles would be pretty pathetic. There’s no more “Jewish privilege” in this world than “White privilege;” if you believe in one of these, logic demands you believe in both. Blaming other people for your problems is just low-IQ schtick.

Jews have two major things going on, politically: 1. They don’t want to get Holocausted, which is a very reasonable desire. 2. They live primarily in NY and LA, and people tend to pick up the politics in their area because very few people ever come up with new political ideas.

Jews do not benefit from rising crime or the destruction of civilization, because 1. Criminals go after them just like any other well-off target 2. they need medicine and jobs just like any other fleshy humans, and 3. being a market-dominant minority in a collapse is extremely dangerous. Ask the Tutsis.

On the human level, Jewish people have been very kind to me, and I am very unhappy today.

The World is Written in Beautiful Maths

Eight Suns

This is a timelapse multiple exposure photo of an arctic day, apparently titled “Six Suns” (even though there are 8 in the picture?) With credit to Circosatabolarc for posting the photo on Twitter, where I saw it. Photo by taken by Donald MacMillan of the Crocker Land Expedition, 1913-1917.

Attempting to resolve the name-suns discrepancy, I searched for “Six Suns” and found this photo, also taken by Donald MacMillan, from The Peary-MacMillian Arctic Museum, which actually shows six suns.

I hearby dub this photo “Eight Suns.”

A reverse image search turned up one more similar photo, a postcard titled “Midnight Sun and Moon,” taken at Fort McMurray on the Arctic Coast, sometime before 1943.

As you can see, above the arctic circle, the sun’s arc lies so low relative to the horizon that it appears to move horizontally across the sky. If you extended the photograph into a time-lapse movie, taken at the North Pole, you’d see the sun spiral upward from the Spring Equinox until it reaches 23.5 degrees above the horizon–about a quarter of the way to the top–on the Summer Solstice, and then spiral back down until the Fall Equinox, when it slips below the horizon for the rest of the year.

In other news, here’s a graph of size vs speed for three different classes of animals–flying, running, and swimming creatures–all of which show the same shape. “A general scaling law reveals why the largest animals are not the fastest” H/T NatureEcoEvo

I love this graph; it is a beautiful demonstration of the mathematics underlying bodily shape and design, not just for one class of animals, but for all of us. It is a rule that applies to all moving creatures, despite the fact that running, flying, and swimming are such different activities.

I assume similar scaling laws apply to mechanical and aggregate systems, as well.

The Shrinking World

The more human density grows, the more space per person shrinks, the more human behavior must contract to avoid conflict with one’s neighbors.

If your neighbor is racist against you, but lives 20 miles away over an unpaved road through the mountains, he is less of a problem in your daily life than if he shares a bathroom with you in a college dorm.

As we rub against our neighbors, each individual contracts to avoid giving offense. More forms of behavior, speech, and by extension, thought, are proscribed. To live in close company is to always be aware of the thoughts, feelings, and intentions of hundreds of others or suffer consequences.

As our personal worlds shrink, so do our professions. The doctor no longer makes his rounds, seeing all manner of coughs and colds, appendixes and broken bones. Instead he has a narrow specialty, chosen while still in school. One wing of a hospital, one floor. Pediatric or geriatric. The farmer no longer builds his house, slaughters his animals, preserves his food, shears his sheep, and weaves his own clothes.

Each job is split off, done over and over–and better–by a single person. The Jack of All trades is master of none and the Jills of One Highly Specialized Sub-Trade quickly put Jack out of business. And thus the worker is alienated from the product of his labor.

An anthill cannot function if the ants are fighting; the Queen will not tolerate the workers attacking each other.

Government desire not citizens’ safety, but taxes.

I am a barbarian and I cannot live here.

A Little Review of Big Data Books

I recently finished three books on “big data”– Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier; Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet can tell us about who we Really Are, by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz; and Big Data At Work: Dispelling the Myths, Uncovering the opportunities, by Thomas H. Davenport.

None of these books was a whiz-bang thriller, but I enjoyed them.

Big Data was a very sensible introduction. What exactly is “big data”? It’s not just bigger data sets (though it is also that.) It’s the opportunity to get all the data.

Until now, the authors point out, we have lived in a data poor world. We have had to carefully design our surveys to avoid sampling bias because we just can’t sample that many people. There’s a whole bunch of math done over in statistics to calculate how certain we can be about a particular result, or whether it could just be the result of random chance biasing our samples. I could poll 10,000 people about their jobs, and that might be a pretty good sample, but if everyone I polled happens to live within walking distance of my house, is this a very representative sample of everyone in the country? Now think about all of those studies on the mechanics of sleep done on whatever college students or homeless guys a scientist could convince to sleep in a lab for a week. How representative are they?

Today, though, we suddenly live in a data rich world. An exponentially data rich world. A world in which we no longer need to correct for bias in our sample, because we don’t have to sample. We can just get… all the data. You can go to Google and find out how many people searched for “rabbit” on Tuesday, or how many people misspelled “rabbit” in various ways.

Data is being used in new and interesting (and sometimes creepy) ways. Many things that previously weren’t even considered data are now being quantitized–like one researcher quantitizing people’s backsides to determine whether a car is being driven by its owner, or a stranger.

One application I find promising is using people’s searches for various disease symptoms to identify people who may have various diseases before they seek out a doctor. Catching cancer patients earlier could save millions of lives.

I don’t have the book in front of me anymore, so I am just going by memory, but it made a good companion to Auerswald’s The Code Economy, since the modern economy runs so much on data.

Everybody Lies was a much more lighthearted, annecdotal approach to the subject, discussing lots of different studies. Davidowitz was inspired by Freakonomics, and he wants to use Big Data to uncover hidden truths of human behavior.

The book discusses, for example, people’s pornographic searches, (as per the title, people routinely lie about how much porn they look at on the internet,) and whether people’s pornographic preferences can be used to determine what percent of people in each state are gay. It turns out that we can get a break down of porn queries by state and variety, allowing a rough estimate of the gay and straight population of each state–and it appears that what people are willing to tell pollsters about their sexuality doesn’t match what they search for online. In more conservative states, people are less likely to admit to pollsters that they are gay, but plenty of supposedly “straight” people are searching for gay porn–about the same number of people as actually admit to being gay in more liberal states.

Stephens-Davidowitz uses similar data to determine that people have been lying to pollsters (or perhaps themselves) about whom they plan to vote for. For example, Donald Trump got anomalously high votes in some areas, and Obama got anomalously low votes, compared to what people in those areas told pollsters. However, both of these areas correlated highly with areas of the country where people made a lot of racist Google searches.

Most of the studies discussed are amusing, like the discovery of the racehorse American Pharaoh. Others are quite important, like a study that found that child abuse was probably actually going up at a time when official reports said it wasn’t–the reports probably weren’t showing abuse due to a decrease in funding for investigating abuse.

At times the author steps beyond the studies and offers interpretations of why the results are the way they are that I think go beyond what the data tells, like his conclusion that parents are biased against their daughters because they are more concerned with girls being fat than with boys, or because they are more likely to Google “is my son a genius?” than “is my daughter a genius?”

I can think of a variety of alternative explanations. eg, society itself is crueler to overweight women than to overweight men, so it is reasonable, in turn, for parents to worry more about a daughter who will face cruelty than a boy who will not. Girls are more likely to be in gifted programs than boys, but perhaps this means that giftedness in girls is simply less exceptional than giftedness in boys, who are more unusual. Or perhaps male giftedness is different from female giftedness in some way that makes parents need more information on the topic.

Now, here’s an interesting study. Google can track how many people make Islamophobic searches at any particular time. Compared against Obama’s speech that tried to calm outrage after the San Bernardino attack, this data reveals that the speech was massively unsuccessful. Islamophobic searches doubled during and after the speech. Negative searches about Syrian refugees rose 60%, while searches asking how to help dropped 35%.

In fact, just about every negative search we cold think to test regarding Muslims shot up during and after Obama’s speech, and just about every positive search we could think to test declined. …

Instead of calming the angry mob, as everybody thought he was doing, the internet data tells us that Obama actually inflamed it.

However, Obama later gave another speech, on the same topic. This one was much more successful. As the author put it, this time, Obama spent little time insisting on the value of tolerance, which seems to have just made people less tolerant. Instead, “he focused overwhelmingly on provoking people’s curiosity and changing their perceptions of Muslim Americans.”

People tend to react positively toward people or things they regard as interesting, and invoking curiosity is a good way to get people interested.

The author points out that “big data” is most likely to be useful in fields where the current data is poor. In the case of American Pharaoh, for examples, people just plain weren’t getting a lot of data on racehorses before buying and selling them. It was a field based on people who “knew” horses and their pedigrees, not on people who x-rayed horses to see how big their hearts and lungs were. By contrast, hedge funds investing in the stock market are already up to their necks in data, trying to maximize every last penny. Horse racing was ripe for someone to become successful by unearthing previously unused data and making good predictions; the stock market is not.

And for those keeping track of how many people make it to the end of the book, I did. I even read the endnotes, because I do that.

Big Data At Work was very different. Rather than entertain us with the success of Google Flu or academic studies of human nature, BDAW discusses how to implement “big data” (the author admits it is a silly term) strategies at work. This is a good book if you own, run, or manage a business that could utilize data in some way. UPS, for example, uses driving data to minimize package delivery routes; even a small saving per package by optimizing routes leads to a large saving for the company as a whole, since they deliver so many packages.

The author points out that “big data” often isn’t big so much as unstructured. Photographs, call logs, Facebook posts, and Google searches may all be “data,” but you will need some way to quantitize these before you can make much use of them. For example, companies may want to gather customer feedback reports, feed them into a program that recognizes positive or negative language, and then quantitizes how many people called to report that they liked Product X vs how many called to report that they disliked it.

I think an area ripe for this kind of quantitization is medical data, which currently languishes in doctors’ files, much of it on paper, protected by patient privacy laws. But people post a good deal of information about their medical conditions online, seeking help from other people who’ve dealt with the same diseases. Currently, there are a lot of diseases (take depression) where treatment is very hit-or-miss, and doctors basically have to try a bunch of drugs in a row until they find one that works. A program that could trawl through forum posts and assemble data on patients and medical treatments that worked or failed could help doctors refine treatment for various difficult conditions–“Oh, you look like the kind of patient who would respond well to melatonin,” or “Oh, you have the characteristics that make you a good candidate for Prozac.”

The author points out that most companies will not be able to keep the massive quantities of data they are amassing. A hospital, for example, collects a great deal of data about patient’s heart rates and blood oxygen levels every day. While it might be interesting to look back at 10 years worth of patient heart rate data, hospitals can’t really afford to invest in databanks to store all of this information. Rather, what companies need is real-time or continuous data processing that analyzes current data and makes predictions/recommendations for what the company (or doctor) should do now.

For example, one of the books (I believe it was “Big Data”) discussed a study of premature babies which found, counter-intuitively, that they were most likely to have emergencies soon after a lull in which they had seemed to be doing rather well–stable heart rate, good breathing, etc. Knowing this, a hospital could have a computer monitoring all of its premature babies and automatically updating their status (“stable” “improving” “critical” “likely to have a big problem in six hours”) and notifying doctors of potential problems.

The book goes into a fair amount of detail about how to implement “big data solutions” at your office (you may have to hire someone who knows how to code and may even have to tolerate their idiosyncrasies,) which platforms are useful for data, the fact that “big data” is not all that different from standard analytics that most companies already run, etc. Once you’ve got the data pumping, actual humans may not need to be involved with it very often–for example you may have a system that automatically updates drives’ routes with traffic reports, or sprinklers that automatically turn on when the ground gets too dry.

It is easy to see how “big data” will become yet another facet of the algorithmization of work.

Overall, Big Data at Work is a good book, especially if you run a company, but not as amusing if you are just a lay reader. If you want something fun, read the first two.

War is Code for the Production of Corpses

Quoting Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb:

“The end result of the complex organization that was the efficient software of the Great War was the manufacture of corpses.

This essentially industrial operation was fantasized by the generals as a “strategy of attrition.” The British tried to kill Germans, the Germans tried to kill British and French and so on, a “strategy” so familiar by now that it almost sounds normal. It was not normal in Europe before 1914 and no one in authority expected it to evolve, despite the pioneering lessons of the American Civil War. Once the trenches were in place, the long grave already dug (John Masefield’s bitterly ironic phrase), then the war stalemated and death-making overwhelmed any rational response.

“The war machine,” concludes Elliot, “rooted in law, organization, production, movement, science, technical ingenuity, with its product of six thousand deaths a day over a period of 1,500 days, was the permanent and realistic factor, impervious to fantasy, only slightly altered by human variation.”

No human institution, Elliot stresses, was sufficiently strong to resist the death machine. A new mechanism, the tank, ended the stalemate.”

Big Data describes another war of attrition:

McNamara epitomized the hyper-rational executive who relied on numbers rather than sentiments, and who could apply his quantitative skills to any industry he turned them to. In 1960 he was named president of Ford, a position he held for only a few weeks before being tapped to join President Kennedy’s cabinet as secretary of defense.

As the Vietnam conflict escalated and the United States sent more troops, it became clear that this was a war of wills, not of territory. America’s strategy was to pound the Viet Cong to the negotiation table. The way to measure progress, therefore, was by the number of enemy killed. The body count was published daily in the newspapers. To the war’s supporters it was proof of progress; to critics, evidence of its immorality. The body count was the data point that defined an era.

McNamara relied on the figures, fetishized them. … McNamara felt he could comprehend what was happening on the ground only by staring at a spreadsheet—at all those orderly rows and columns, calculations and charts, whose mastery seemed to bring him one standard deviation closer to God.

In 1977, two years after the last helicopter lifted off the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, a retired Army general, Douglas Kinnard, published a landmark survey called The War Managers that revealed the quagmire of quantification. A mere 2 percent of America’s generals considered the body count a valid way to measure progress. “A fake—totally worthless,” wrote one general in his comments. “Often blatant lies,” wrote another. “They were grossly exaggerated by many units primarily because of the incredible interest shown by people like McNamara,” said a third.  — Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, Big Data

Humans are reasonably smart creatures, but we so easily get stuck in terrible modes of thinking.

On a battlefield men die quickly, they fight back, they are sustained by fellowship and a sense of duty. Here I saw people dying in solitude by slow degrees, dying hideously, without the excuse of sacrifice for a cause. They had been trapped and left to starve, each in his home, by a political decision made in a far-off capital around conference and banquet tables. […] The most terrifying sights were the little children with skeleton limbs dangling from balloon – like abdomens. Starvation had wiped every trace of youth from their faces, turning them into tortured gargoyles; only in their eyes still lingered the reminder of childhood. Everywhere we found men and women lying prone, their faces and bellies bloated, their eyes utterly expressionless. Anger lashed my mind as I drove back to the village. Butter being sent abroad in the midst of the famine! In London, Berlin, Paris I could see with my mind’s eye people eating butter stamped with a Soviet trademark. “They must be rich to be able to send out butter,” I could hear them saying. “Here, friends, is the proof of socialism in action.” Driving through the fields, I did not hear the lovely Ukrainian songs so dear to my heart. These people had forgotten how to sing. I could hear only the groans of the dying, and the lip-smacking of fat foreigners enjoying our butter… — Kravchenko, Victor. I Chose Freedom: The Personal And Political Life Of A Soviet Official

Like human sacrifice and cannibalism:

The word tzompantli is Nahuatl and was used by the Aztecs to refer to the skull-racks found in many Aztec cities; The first and most prominent example is the Huey Tzompantli (Great Skull-rack) located the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and described by the early conquistadors. … Excavations at Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan have revealed many skulls belonging to women and children, in addition to those of men, a demonstration of the diversity of the human sacrifices in Aztec culture.[15] After displaying severed heads, many scholars have determined that limbs of Aztec victims would be cannibalized [16]

… based on numbers given by Taipa and Fray Diego Durán, Bernard Ortiz de Montellano[18] has calculated that there were at most 60,000 skulls on the “Hueyi Tzompantli” (Great Skullrack) of Tenochtitlan. … There were at least five more skull racks in Tenochtitlan but by all accounts they were much smaller. —Wikipedia

All of the individual parts of a system can seem logical, and yet the end result can still be grotesque, inhuman, and insane.

I am on holiday so your normal Book Club post will resume next Wednesday.