Review: Dignity, by Chris Arnade, pt 2


51fq6wczpil._sx377_bo1204203200_Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is a series of portraits of some of America’s poorest and most desperate citizens. (This is part 2 of my review;part 1 is here.)

As I read, I couldn’t help but compare human society to an anthill (mostly because I happened to also be reading the anthill dialogue in Godel, Escher, Bach at the same time).

Ants, honeybees, termites, and a variety of other insects are eusocial. Eusocial insects live massive colonies with social organization of a sort familiar to us humans, from division of labor to cooperative raising of the colony’s young (This is why my avatar is a bee.)

Eusocial insects can do some amazing things, like build bridges and towers out of their own bodies:

The fascinating thing about ants, bees, and the like is that, while they have “queens”, they don’t really have a conscious monarch calling the shots. The behavior of each individual ant somehow adds up to the behavior of the entire colony, yet the entire colony behaves in a way that is difficult to reduce to the behavior of individual ants.

According to Wikipedia: 

The division of labor creates specialized behavioral groups within an animal society which are sometimes called castes. Eusociality is distinguished from all other social systems because individuals of at least one caste usually lose the ability to perform at least one behavior characteristic of individuals in another caste.

And according to Godel, Escher, Bach:

Anteater: [Aunt Hillary] is certainly one of the best-educated ant colonies I have ever had he good fortune to know. The two of us have spent many a long evening in conversation on the widest range of topics.

Achilles: I thought anteaters were devourers of ants, not patrons of ant intellectualism!

Anteater: Well, of course the two are not mutuaully inconsistent. I am on the best of terms with ant colonies. Its just ANTS that I eat, not colonies–and that is good for both parties: me, and the colony.

One of my conclusions from listening to many demands (and promises) for politicians to “create jobs” is that most people no longer have any idea where jobs come from, nor how to make them happen. Jobs seem to come from the job fairy, given or taken as her capricious will determines.

And the modern economy is complicated enough that this is… about accurate. No one could have prevented the Great Depression. No individual created the great post-war economic boom. Recessions come and go despite our best efforts to prevent them; bubbles inflate and burst. These things just happen, and ordinary people find themselves dragged along for the ride.

One of the things that happened over the past 40 years was Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972 that paved the way for the wholesale transfer of the American manufacturing establishment to China. The older folks in Arnade’s account speak warmly of the manufacturing days, when you could walk off the highschool graduation stage and into a job at the local factory.

I have a children’s book written in the ’50s in which an American child tells a group of Canadian children about his country. He tells them all about the factories, which make all manner of fabulous things.

Today, such easy employment is so far from reality that I almost got angry reading these accounts. “What, it was easy for you? It’s not so damn easy for us young people, you know. We never got to walk out of highschool and straight into jobs.” But anger is not productive and it tells us nothing about how the world should be.

Whether we are better or worse with manufacturing jobs in China is debatable–I think we are worse off, but the migration of unpleasant jobs that damage the environment to areas with laxer worker and environmental protections might have been inevitable. But even if it was in our best interests as a whole, it certainly wasn’t in the interests of the workers who lost their jobs and the people who remain in communities that have completely lost their economic base. The deaths of a few ants may benefit the anthill, but it certainly doesn’t make those ants happy.

At least we have the decency to honor soldiers whose sacrifices benefit society; little concern is given for people whose jobs were sacrificed for efficiency, progress, profits, or avoiding environmental regulations.

It’s easy to ask, “Why don’t you make your own job? Found your own company? Start a business? Do something to pump life back into the community?” but this is easier said than done; not everyone can come up with successful entrepreneurial ideas.

I don’t like the idea of being a (semi)eusocial species. I want people to be able to adapt to a changing economic system. I don’t always get what I want, though. Economies come and go, wars start and end, society careens on like juggernaut, and most of us just hope for the best.



One of the interesting parts of the book is Arnade’s tour of the nation’s McDonalds’s.

In neighborhoods across the country, Arnade finds community (and people to interview) beneath the golden arches. Here people meet friends for breakfast, play dominoes, or just hang out and avoid the weather. In many areas, McDonald’s also has the only nice playground around, and kids are happy to have a place to play.

McDonald’s Corp would probably like Arnade’s depiction a lot better if it stopped at “neighborhood hotspot” and didn’t include all of the homeless and drug addicts who also find it a warm, dry, safe place to rest.

I have posted about McD’s before, mostly in The Death of American Equality, discussing the decline of fast-food playgrounds:

There are multiple reasons for this shift, including people having fewer kids and more kids opting to play video games at home rather than head to the playground, but one of the biggest is classism.

Back when we were kids, McDonald’s was simply seen as a tasty, affordable restaurant that catered to families with small children. I’m almost certain I attended birthday parties there.

McDonald’s still offers birthday parties, but today the idea seems… declasse. Not that the kids wouldn’t enjoy it– kids today have about the same opinion of McDonald’s as I did–but their parents would disapprove. On parenting forums you often hear moms proudly proclaim that the dreaded “fast food” has never passed her offspring’s lips.

I have changed my position on the “healthiness” of fast food since I wrote that piece; I am now concerned that the temperatures used to cook food quickly at fast food joints oxidizes oils, resulting in health problems. This doesn’t mean that organic cupcakes are good for you, just that oxidized oils are bad.

People talk a lot about “food deserts” and argue about whether the unhealthy food options in poor neighborhoods are a matter of preference or oppression.

It’s probably a bit of both. People like McDonald’s, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t eat other things if they could.

But there are reasons restaurants don’t like to locate in poor neighborhoods, mostly theft. In a relevant anecdote, Arnade describes how a sweltering summer day led locals to try to steal ice from the McDonald’s drink machine. Of course a bit of theft from the drink machine is routine, no matter the neighborhood, but the manager of this location did not appreciate having his store so blatantly robbed. The event is meant to be humorous in the book (which it probably was in real life,) but I couldn’t help but think, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” If people steal from the stores in their neighborhood, those stores shut down and new ones don’t open.

Of course, there are other ways people get poisoned besides probably willingly eating delicious junk food. Like pollution. Arnade doesn’t talk much about environmental toxins like lead or burning plastic, but I happened to watch a Netflix documentary about this last night, so I’ll talk about it anyway.

Apparently “plastic” is not really recyclable. Well, some kinds of plastic are, but many varieties effectively are not, and you can’t make new plastic products out of several varieties of plastic mixed together. So when you throw all of your recyclables into the big bin together, they are effectively useless to the recycling plant.

The recycling plant near your home has employees who sort through the recycling, separating cans from paper from plastics and attempting to send all of the useless trash like used napkins and pizza boxes to the landfill. Metal and glass are valuable and can be recycled, but–until recently–all of the plastic got bought up by Chinese recycling plants.

Until recently, China imported MASSIVE quantities of plastic trash. More humans were employed to sort through this trash (poor humans). The usable stuff–types 1, 2, and 5–got recycled. The unusable plastic got disposed of–by burning

Indonesian scavanger Suparno, 60, stands in front of burning plastic waste at an imported plastic dumpsite in Mojokerto. Photograph: Fully Handoko/EPA Read the article: Treated Like Trash: south-east Asia vows to return mountain of rubbish from West


This is your “recycling” on fire:

Eventually the Chinese government decided that burning plastic is noxious and disgusting and that Chinese lungs shouldn’t be a dumping ground for the world’s trash, so it banned the import of most waste plastic. Suddenly the “recycling” plants had a huge problem: no where to dump all of the plastic they were pretending to recycle.

Entrepreneurs in Malaysia (and other nations) stepped in to fill the gap, and locals were astonished when giant piles of burning garbage appeared overnight in their communities.

Soon the Malaysian government also decided that burning plastic is bad and started banning the stuff.

Goodness knows where our “recycling” will go now to get burned. Maybe, horror of horrors, we’ll have to bury it in a landfill instead of loading it on giant container ships and using fossil fuels to send it across the ocean. (I am generally against shipping things across oceans if we can avoid it.)

Chemical plants sometimes catch on fire, too–chemical plant fire near Houston, Tx

But pollution isn’t just a third world problem; the distribution of poor communities in the US was determined largely by the direction of the winds blowing pollution from factories and chemical plants.

Burning plastic is very bad, by the way:

“There’s a good reason burning household trash, including plastic, is prohibited in most of the U.S. — the toxic species,” says Noelle Eckley Selin, an assistant professor in MIT’s Engineering Systems Division, as well as the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. When plastic is burned, it releases dangerous chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, dioxins, furans and heavy metals, as well as particulates. These emissions are known to cause respiratory ailments and stress human immune systems, and they’re potentially carcinogenic.

It’s bad enough being poor, with all the difficulties that entails, without having to breathe burning plastic, smoke, or whatever’s in the local chemical plant. (Even in areas without such industries, the poor are more likely to live in houses that still have lead paint.)


Arnade talks to many people who’ve been arrested or incarcerated, or are engaged in illegal activity like drugs or prostitution. While the legalization of drugs has issues (mostly more dead people–see the previous post for discussion,) legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution may have more going for it, eg, Violence and Legalized Brothel Prostitution in Nevada: Examining Safety, Risk, and Prostitution Policy:

The authors conclude by arguing that the legalization of prostitution brings a level of public scrutiny, official regulation, and bureaucratization to brothels that decreases the risk of these 3 types of systematic violence.

Of course, some people argue that bureaucratizing prostitution will only increase the paperwork and push out the independent contractors.

What about prisons? Arnade does not visit any prisons, but many of the people he interviews have. The need for some kind of prison reform is a safe bet, since prisons are full of people whom society doesn’t like and doesn’t want to spend money on.

I am definitely in favor of imprisoning violent people, but this seems like… not what prison should be like.

Edited to add: Regardless of how you think Epstein died, his case highlights a number of “mistakes” in the way his prison–a relatively nice one, I believe–was run, from transferring a probably still suicidal guy off suicide watch to the non-functioning security cameras to the guards straight up not watching the prisoners and lying about doing their rounds. People are killed or commit suicide in prison all the time; we just don’t normally hear about it because they aren’t as rich and famous (or infamous) as Epstein.

Homicide has been up over the past few years, which is not good for anyone and probably means we need more street-level policing. Yes, the police sometimes kill innocent people (or dogs), but non-police kill more innocent people, so police are a net gain.

The police of Montreal, Canada, once went on strike, and the city descended into chaos within a day:

Montrealers discovered last week what it is like to live in a city without police and firemen. The lesson was costly: six banks were robbed, more than 100 shops were looted, and there were twelve fires. Property damage came close to $3,000,000; at least 40 carloads of glass will be needed to replace shattered storefronts. Two men were shot dead. At that, Montreal was probably lucky to escape as lightly as it did.

Deterring crime is good, but we (or Great Britain) may need to do more to deter kids caught committing small crimes from becoming repeat offenders.

Well, it’s getting late, so I’d better wrap this up. This book covers many difficult topics and is not easy to discuss, and parts of the book I’ve neglected to mention–the author also interviews many immigrants from Mexico and Somalia, as well as locals in the areas where they’ve moved, for example. I apologize for wandering so far afield.

I feel compelled to offer solutions, but these are difficult problems to fix. People live their own lives, sometimes suffering, sometimes triumphing. Our World in Data has some interesting charts about income distributions in different countries that I’d like to end with:


How very differently the benefits of economic growth can be shared is shown by a comparison of the USA and the UK over the last 40 years. In the US incomes for the bottom half of the population were stagnating for most of the last 4 decades (with a notable exception over the second half of the 1990s). In the UK the first period resembles the experience of the US – incomes at the bottom of the distribution were stagnating, incomes at the top were rising rapidly. But over the second period – from 1991 onwards – the trend in the UK has changed significantly: economic growth was shared equally across the distribution from the lowest to the highest decile.

The comparison also show that growth in the UK – particularly for the lowest income group – was much stronger than in the US. A comparison with other rich countries shows that the experience of the US – strongly rising inequality and stagnation for a large part of the population – is unique to the US. Other rich countries were much more successful in sharing the benefits of growth across the distribution.

I have read a number of similar books, some of which I’ve reviewed here on the blog. If you’re interested in the subject, I recommend Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day; Phillipe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio; Trudgen’s Why Warriors Lie Down and Die; The Slave Narrative Collection; Bergner’s God of the Rodeo (Angola prison); Dobyns’s No Angel (Hells Angels); Frank Lucas’s Original Gangster; and Still a Pygmy, by Isaac Bacirongo and Micheal Nest. 


Review: Dignity, by Chris Arnade, pt 1

51fq6wczpil._sx377_bo1204203200_Part 2 is here.

Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America is a difficult book to review. Dire poverty is a tough subject to face head-on without reflexive squirming. It is very tempting to impose one’s own interpretations on the author and his subjects. We want to make it, somehow, better. If we blame people for their situations, then our discomfort fades. If we shift the focus from poor people to rich people, the author, or ourselves, the discomfort fades. etc.

1. What the book is

Dignity is an unflinching series of portraits of some of America’s poorest and unluckiest people. The author visits poor neighborhoods across the country, photographing and interviewing residents about their lives. He talks to prostitutes, criminals, drug dealers, junkies, preachers, single mothers, abuse victims, the disabled, the homeless, and the destitute.

It is not, for the most part, a commentary. It does not propose solutions. The author’s intention is to simply talk to people and hear their stories. If you are looking for a book full of solutions, look elsewhere. If you want to know more about what the problems are, this is your book.

Note: I “read” this book in audiobook form, so I will not be quoting and all references are made from memory. I also, obviously, could not see the pictures that come with the paper version. 

The author is fairly liberal, and this comes through in his writing. This is a bone of contention for some people, with folks who’ve only read the summaries lambasting the author for being “pro Trump,” and the most prominent Amazon reviews lambasting the author for being “anti-Trump,” (much to the author’s consternation). Personally, I don’t care about the author’s political views, but if they bother you too much, you won’t enjoy the book. If you are interested in my views on race and democracy, I recommend you read my Open Letter to Liberals and Centrists.

I would have liked to read some stories in the book from American Indians–the situation out on the reservations is quite concerning. I also would have appreciated some statistical information on overall trends–are things getting better or worse over time?

2. Why I read it:

I like anthropology because I want to learn about the lives of real people. Literature is pleasant to read because it well-written, but its characters are generally fictions drawn from the author’s experiences or the kinds of people the author wants to write about. I am interested in the sorts of people who don’t normally show up in books.

Too many novels fall into the trap of trying to paint the poor as sympathetic because they are secretly like the author–usually plucky orphans with a love of literature. Certainly some orphans love literature, but I wager most do not. These type of characters show that these authors lack real insight into their subjects and their bias that the character is worth saving because she is improbably like the author.

In real life, the poor are not simply high-class people waiting to be discovered, maybe given a few books and a makeover. They are simply people, with their own unique problems.

Was the book effective?

I think the author wants us to identify with and feel sympathy for his subjects’s struggles. Some people I did feel sympathy for, like the woman who was born in a prison hospital to an incarcerated mom, or the man who suffered permanent brain damage when a friend accidentally smashed his head open. They were given really shitty hands in life through no fault of their own. Others I didn’t feel sorry for; they had made obviously bad decisions that led to bad places. (Even if I did feel bad for them, I am unable to stop other people from making bad decisions.)

This is true, of course, of any system–some people suffer because due to bad luck, others from bad choices. Many are in the gray zone of low-IQ, which isn’t a choice but leads to things we call bad choices. 

One of the difficulties I have with the book is that because there are so many interviews, most are, by necessity, fairly superficial. This gives us insight into many different neighborhoods and problems, but it doesn’t give us much depth for any particular problem. Since few of us like to be entirely honest about our own flaws, judging the source of a problem based on a few pages of interview is difficult.

When we talk about problems, we have to be clear what the problems are, where they come from, and if they are solvable at all. (Some problems aren’t.)

Things I think we can’t change: intelligence, drug addiction, manufacturing jobs heading to China (sorry), automation.

Things we can change: mental illness, regular illness, schools, paperwork, prisons, number of criminals on the street.

Just kidding, paperwork is here to stay until the apocalypse.

A lot of problems in this book are blamed, more or less, on white people. A typical example is someone claiming that they elected a black mayor and “the next day” all of the whites left town, hauling all of the jobs with them. Another interviewee was more honest, noting that the whites left after a riot.

There have been a lot of riots in US history, eg, 159 race riots during the Long Hot Summer of 1967. The Detroit Riot was the biggest of these:

The 1967 Detroit Rebellion, also known as the 1967 Detroit Riot or 12th Street riot was the bloodiest incident in the “Long, hot summer of 1967“.[2] Composed mainly of confrontations between black residents and the Detroit Police Department, it began in the early morning hours of Sunday July 23, 1967, in Detroit, Michigan.

The precipitating event was a police raid of an unlicensed, after-hours bar then known as a blind pig, on the city’s Near West Side. It exploded into one of the deadliest and most destructive riots in American history, lasting five days and surpassing the violence and property destruction of Detroit’s 1943 race riot 24 years earlier.

Governor George W. Romney ordered the Michigan Army National Guard into Detroit to help end the disturbance. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the United States Army‘s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The result was 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed[citation needed]

The black community in Detroit received much more attention from federal and state governments after 1967, and … money did flow into black-owned enterprises after the riot. However, the most significant black politician to take power in the shift from a white majority city to a black majority city, Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, wrote in 1994:

The heaviest casualty, however, was the city. Detroit’s losses went a hell of a lot deeper than the immediate toll of lives and buildings. The rebellion put Detroit on the fast track to economic desolation, mugging the city and making off with incalculable value in jobs, earnings taxes, corporate taxes, retail dollars, sales taxes, mortgages, interest, property taxes, development dollars, investment dollars, tourism dollars, and plain damn money. The money was carried out in the pockets of the businesses and the white people who fled as fast as they could. The white exodus from Detroit had been prodigiously steady prior to the riot, totaling twenty-two thousand in 1966, but afterwards it was frantic. In 1967, with less than half the year remaining after the summer explosion—the outward population migration reached sixty-seven thousand. In 1968 the figure hit eighty-thousand, followed by forty-six thousand in 1969.[84]

Riots can coerce governments into handing out more benefits or pumping more money into schools, but they also drive away anyone who can get out.

I’ve looked at the data six ways to Sunday, and it looks like “white flight” was driven primarily by black crime, which was a big deal in the seventies and eighties:


Homicide rates are still disproportionately high among blacks even if we control for income:


In the first decade, 66-75, African Americans in the 75th-90th percent of incomes had higher homicide rates than whites in the bottom 10%. In 76-95, blacks in the top 10% of incomes had higher homicide rates than whites in the bottom 10%.

The author talks a bit about his own experiences with racism. He grew up in a small town in the South where he was bullied by the other white kids for having parents who supported the NAACP and desegregation. Like many “successful” people, the author did well in school, went to college, and eventually settled in a much whiter neighborhood than the racist one he left behind.

Arnade reflects on this fact–on how most of the kids he grew up with eventually mellowed, probably finding more in common with each other than with people like him who moved up and out. He’s the one who white-flighted, and I’d wager that crime, jobs, and “good schools” have driven most white movement over the past 50 years, not black mayors.

Arnade rejects simple solutions to the problems of poverty. Affirmative action, for example, pits poor minorities against poor whites, while still affirming the upper-class belief that what matters is how smart, rich, and successful you are. Arnade challenges his reader to envision a world in which we don’t value people based on how smart or successful they are.

As I said, it is nearly impossible to change someone’s intelligence for the better. (If someone has some technique that has stood the test of randomized long-term trials that control for genetics, please let me know so I can use them on my kids.) Most would-be reformers run up against this fact like a brick wall, but once you accept that you cannot fundamentally make people smarter (or more conscientious, harder working, etc), you can focus on the things that you actually can change.

The difficulty, of course, is that intelligence is really important. Not because I value it (though I do) but because “intelligence” is a rough shorthand for “being able to run your own life.” Even if we could somehow not have any “values” and love each other equally, the dumber people would still make more mistakes and end up, on average, with shittier lives than the smart people (unless we have also instituted some sort of highly coercive state to prevent people from making their own decisions).

At least Arnade does not claim that everyone is equally intelligent, that if we just made more kids do more math, they’d all become physicists. He knows and has the grace to recognize that not everyone is lucky enough to be smart. Some of us are dumb.

Perhaps his hope is not that we will vote for this candidate or that program, support this law or that institution, but that we’ll be kinder and more understanding of the troubles other people are going through.

I propose that we reduce paperwork.

Lizard people (metaphorical, not literal) love paperwork. Paperwork is how they show that they are better than you. Paperwork shows how deserving they are. Paperwork is an arbitrary hurdle used to distinguish the “deserving” poor from the undeserving, and how we discourage people from applying for welfare, food stamps, SSDI, etc. Paperwork is how big corporations drive smaller competitors out of business or prevent them from existing in the first place. Paperwork keeps poor, low-education entrepreneurs from starting businesses and keeps them trapped in low-end jobs.

Paperwork is the goddamn devil.

Unfortunately, many of the programs put in place to “help” the poor just increase the regulatory burden in their lives and make everything worse. For example, a friend of mine was homeless in San Francisco for many years. He had a fairly regular income, but also schizophrenia. San Francisco has many tenants’ rights laws, which are supposed to protect tenants from eviction, but in practice make renters unwilling to take on the lowest classes of renters–that is, folks they have reason to think they may have to evict. Dealing with all of that paperwork, lawyer fees, etc., is just too expensive for the landlords to make leasing to a high-risk tenant worthwhile, so especially poor people, even if they have the money to pay for a month’s rent, simply are not allowed to live in one place for that long, not even in the crappiest of homeless hotels.

In this case it’s not the tenants who have to fill out the paperwork, but the procedural burden placed on the landlords is still having a negative effect on their lives.

This is not me coming from a radical libertarian perspective, but the opinion I’ve formed via conversation with my friend about what it was like being on the streets and the various barriers he faced.

Many people who have spent years working with the homeless repeat that you cannot fundamentally change people. Aside from treating their mental illnesses and helping them get off drugs, the basic personality traits that lead to long-term homeless will in all likelihood persist. However, that does not mean that we need to increase the regulatory burden on landlords. There are always some people on the edge between homelessness and not, and we don’t need to make it artificially more difficult for them.


One conclusion I draw from Arnade’s account is that the war on drugs (and prostitution) is not going so well. As one woman he interviews says, you can’t do prostitution if you don’t have some drugs first to numb you to the experience.

Many of us use drugs–alcohol, Xanax, adderal, heroin, etc–to smooth over the stresses of our jobs or the parts of life we hate. We drink or pop medication to forget, to be popular, to make it all more bearable, and so, argues Arnade, do the poor.

I think in these discussions of why people do drugs (trauma? rejection? loneliness?) we should consider another possibility: drugs make people feel better and are really addicting. Of course not everyone gets addicted to drugs, and many people who use drugs manage to do so without destroying their lives, but it is clear that for many people, the appeal of drugs is nigh over-powering. Many drug addicts, even the ones with family who love them and try to save them, eventually lose everything and end up dead in a ditch.

If people live in an area where drugs are common, then there is a good chance that at some point in their lives they will try them, and of the people who do, a good chance that they’ll become addicted, simply because drugs are addicting.

drug graphdrug graph4Drug graph3

drug graph5
Source: USA Facts

The War on Drugs doesn’t seem to be working.

Decriminalization is one potential approach. Several US states have tried decriminalizing marijuana, so we now have some preliminary results to discuss. According to Wikipedia:

In Colorado, effects since 2014 include increased state revenues,[4] violent crime decreased,[5][6] and an increase in homeless population.[7] One Colorado hospital has received a 15% increase in babies born with THC in their blood.[8]

Since legalization, public health and law enforcement officials in Colorado have grappled with a number of issues, serving as a model for policy problems that come with legalization. Marijuana-related hospital visits have nearly doubled between 2011, prior to legalization, and 2014.[9] Top public health administrators in Colorado have cited the increased potency of today’s infused products, often referred to as “edibles”, as a cause for concern.

Summary: less crime, more people using pot. It’s a trade-off.

Slate Star Codex did some analysis/summarizing of the effects of marijuana legalization and found that it increased traffic accidents, which resulted in a lot more innocent people getting killed.

As far as I know, we don’t have good studies on the effects of marijuana on fetal development that control for genetics (or environment,) but the relevant mouse studies aren’t hopeful–looks like prenatal exposure to THC causes permanent brain damage.

So legalizing drugs looks like a bad idea, though decriminalization + increased funding for drug treatment programs might be good.

Another possibility is trying to give non-drug users more options to get away from high-use communities, and to give drug users community-based options that will help them escape their addictions, too.

Mental Illness:

Many of the desperately poor are suffering from untreated mental illnesses. Thankfully, mental illness is actually one of the things we can treat. We have very good medications that can radically decrease the negative effects from diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement here, because it’s a fairly simple mechanical fix that we can actually do, if we just identify the people who need medications and convince them to take them. (People who have just discovered that all of their “friends” were really delusions do need support, however.)

Less mental illness could also result in fewer people trying to self-medicate with drugs.

Cabrini Green

As Arnade discusses, the official places set up to help the poor, like rehab clinics and welfare offices, are generally unpleasant and uninviting. Take Cabrini Green: it looks like it was designed by someone who was suffering and wanted everyone else to suffer, too.

People do not feel welcome in such spaces, nor do they want to stay and hang out. The poor opt to hang out in other, more comfortable places, like McDonald’s, church, or drug dens. There is probably room for improvement in making the spaces where people try to improve themselves more pleasant.


School is the government institution most of us have the most contact with. In my experience, most school teachers are well-intentioned and want schools to be pleasant places for children. Certainly they want kids to learn.

In my experience, though, most kids don’t like school. It’s work, it’s coercive, and for about 50% of the kids the pace is consistently too fast or too slow. Our mainstream model is based on German schools and is focused primarily on raising student test scores. Many kids simply want to run and play and aren’t suited to this particular style of learning.

As a kid I attended public school and hated it; as a homeschooling parent I use a different teaching model for my own children.

One thing kids from very deprived backgrounds generally lack is a stable adult presence in their lives. In traditional schools, students change teachers ever year (or every 50 minutes in the higher grades.) In Waldorf schools, students stay with the same teacher for their first 8 years, providing stability and the chance for a deep relationship.

There is one Waldorf school in California, Birney, that is also a public school, drawing from the general neighborhood, much of which is low-income minorities. A study of the effectiveness of this school vs conventional schools showed positive results:

African American and Lation students at Birney have a suspension rate that is ten times lower than similar students in the district.

Over five years duration for African American, Latino and other socio-economically disadvantaged students the effect of attending Birney was correlated with an increase of 8 percentile ranks (i.e. from 50th percentile to 58th percentile) in ELA. Attending Birney had a smaller but positive effect size for these students in math.

Birney’s good test scores might be a side effect of which parents chose to send their kids to a Waldorf school, but the overall happiness of the students shines in study’s many interviewees:

I remember how excited I was every single day. I was so excited to go to school. That was a feeling that was shared throughout the class. “What are we going to do today, where are we going, what are we going to learn?” and that’s the biggest thing about Waldorf. It infuses that excitement, that love for learning.

I’m not convinced that Waldorf schools are perfect; they are just one example of a different way to run schools that still works.


I’ve never seen a consistent enough definition of “systematic oppression” that I could figure out what it really means and how to test it, but I bet if you were a smart kid in foster care trying to apply to college, you’d be facing it.

Our current college application system is needlessly complicated (see: paperwork). Just do like we do when kids go to highschool and assign each kid as they near the end of highschool to the nearest branch of the State U, community college, or trade school, with some adjusting for SAT scores, and let them apply elsewhere if they want to. This way, everyone can at least get some basic job skills.

This is not a recommendation for how we should pay for college.


source: Audacious Epigone

Arnade spends a lot of time at McDonald’s and inside churches. The role of religion in the lives of the poor is notable, though as an atheist, Arnade admits observing it all from a certain distance. Why are the poor so much more devout than the wealthy?

I recently happened upon Bryan, Choi, and Karlan’s paper, Randomizing Religion: The Impact of Protestant Evangelism on Economic Outcomes (h/t Alexander Berger):

We study the causal impact of religiosity through a randomized evaluation of an evangelical Protestant Christian values and theology education program. We analyze outcomes for 6,276 ultrapoor Filipino households six months and 30 months after the program ended. At six months, we find increases in religiosity and income, no statistically significant changes in total labor supply, consumption, food security, or life satisfaction, and a decrease in perceived relative economic status. Exploratory analysis suggests that the income treatment effect may operate through increasing grit. These effects fade away at 30 months. We conclude that this church-based program may represent a method of increasing non-cognitive skills and reducing poverty in the short run among adults in developing countries, but more work is required to understand whether the effects can persist and if not, why not.

This seems reasonably likely to hold true for folks in the US as well. A commitment to Jesus results in a simultaneous commitment to being honest, hard working, avoiding drugs, etc, and provides an environment full of other people with similar commitments. This works for a while, resulting in more money, which is evident to both the individual and his family and friends.

After a while, the effect wears off. People go back to their old ways. But life is long, and there are many opportunities for people to get clean, get sober, and return to the church–for at least a while.

I think that’s enough for now; I want to get this post up on time, so we’ll continue with our discussion on Monday. Edit: Part two is now up. Click here to read it.

If you’ve read the book or would like me to discuss something in particular, I’d love to hear your opinions over the weekend.

I have read a number of similar books, some of which I’ve reviewed here on the blog. If you’re interested in the subject, I recommend Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day; Phillipe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio; Trudgen’s Why Warriors Lie Down and Die; The Slave Narrative Collection; Bergner’s God of the Rodeo (Angola prison); Dobyns’s No Angel (Hells Angels); Frank Lucas’s Original Gangster; and Still a Pygmy, by Isaac Bacirongo and Micheal Nest. 

Voynich Decoded?

ETA: apparently everyone thinks this guy’s work is wrong.

I thought his paper was nice and on a good track, but take with appropriate salt.


I am tempted to jest that the Voynich manuscript turned out to have been so difficult to decode because it was written by women, but this isn’t quite true.

It was just written in an extinct language of which we have almost no other written examples,
With an alphabet full of unknown characters,
No punctuation,
And full of abbreviations and calligraphic shorthands.

No problem!

If you’re not familiar with the Voynich manuscript, it’s a 240 page book that appears to have been written in Italy in the late 1400s. It’s filled with pictures of things like plants, bathing women, and a rather nice fold-out diagram of a volcano. It came to the world’s attention after Wilfrid Voynich purchased it from an old books dealer in 1912.

Fold out map of volcanic islands, Voynich manuscript

Because the Voynich manuscript is so weird, (especially the alphabet,) people have struggled for years to decipher it. Is it in code? Is it some non-European language like Chinese? Is it an elaborate hoax?

Given its resistance to all previous attempts at translation, I had written it off as probably a hoax–not a modern one perpetuated by Voynich, but a very old one played on some Medieval personage to sell them a worthless book full of supposed secret, magical knowledge for a handsome sum of money.

But it appears that Voynich has, at long last, been decoded by Gerard Cheshire.

It turns out that this “unknown language” isn’t Finnish, Basque, Navajo or something similarly difficult, but a kind of medieval Italian (or perhaps more accurately, late Latin,) known as proto-Romance. We have plenty of written examples of ancient Italian (otherwise known as Latin) and plenty of modern Italian, but few from the in-between period. It’s a bit like finding something written in Chaucerian English when you’re only familiar with modern English and Beowulf.

Text sample from the Voynich manuscript

With this insight, the authors were able to decipher the strange alphabet, which employs no capitals but several extra symbols for dip- and tripthongs. (Kind of like Sequoia’s syllabary.)

The result is orthographically lovely, but very complicated. You should read the full article for an explanation for what all of the letters mean.

The really interesting thing is that this alphabet is nearly unique. Did the local nuns invent it for the purpose of the book? Were they literate in the regular alphabet used on the mainland, but felt it would be better to develop their own? Or was this commonly used in the area, but the vagaries of time destroyed all other remnants of it?

They found one of the keys to deciphering the manuscript lies in the map of the volcanic islands:

Within the manuscript there is a foldout pictorial map that provides the necessary information to date and locate the origin of the manuscript. It tells the adventurous, and rather inspiring, story of a rescue mission, by ship, to save the victims of a volcanic eruption in the Tyrrhenian Sea that began on the evening of the 4 February 1444 … The manuscript originates from Castello Aragonese, an island castle and citadel off Ischia, and was compiled for Maria of Castile, Queen of Aragon, (1401–58) who led the rescue mission as regent during the absence of her husband, King Alfonso V of Aragon (1396–1458) who was otherwise occupied, having only recently conquered and then taken control of Naples in February 1443. …

The island of Ischia is historically famous for its hot volcanic spas, which exist to this day. The manuscript has many images of naked women bathing in them, both recreationally and therapeutically. There are also images of Queen Maria and her court conducting trade negotiations whilst bathing. Clearly the spa lifestyle was highly regarded as a form of physical cleansing and spiritual communion, as well as a general means of relaxation and leisure. In many respects it would have been preferable to living in nearby Naples, which was the most important and cosmopolitan of cities in the Mediterranean at the time, but was still potentially dangerous for the spouse of an invading king. For example, in 1448 the barons of Naples launched a failed rebellion against Alfonso to reclaim their city.

In other words, while the menfolk were away, the Queen Maria of Ischia, a lovely little volcanic island off the coast of Naples, (the Wikipedia page is nice and has a couple of pictures of the castle where Queen Maria lived) had to lead the court, negotiate trade deals, and even led a rescue mission to an exploding volcano. She then decided to commission a local nun to write her a book on various matters of importance to the nearly all-female court. The various isolations inherent in island life probably account for several of the manuscripts peculiarities, from language to text.

Proto-Romance is thought to be ancestral not only to modern Italian, but to the various other romance languages, as well. It was a kind of lingua franca in the Mediterranean before modern political borders forced Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, etc., to fully differentiate. From the paper:

So, we have proto-Romance words surviving in the Mediterranean from Portugal, in the west, to Turkey, in the east. Clearly, it was a cosmopolitan lingua franca until the late Medieval period, when the political map began to inhibit meme flow, so that cultural isolation caused the modern languages to begin evolving. As a result, proto-Romance survived by vestigial fragmentation of its lexicon into the languages we see today. As such, manuscript MS408 is immensely important, because it is the only documentation of a language that was once ubiquitous over the Mediterranean and subsequently became the foundation for southern European linguistics in the present day.


There is another manuscript to introduce here, because it has similarity in calligraphic style and similarly combined letterforms. It is a memoire written by Loise De Rosa (1385–1475), who lived and worked in the court of Naples. It is titled De Regno di Napoli (The Kingdom of Naples) …

We can see that the calligraphic forms are quite legible and familiar to the modern eye and also noticeably different from those shared by manuscript MS408 and De Rosa. …

De Rosa’s work thus provides documentation of a writing system and a language akin to those of manuscript MS408, demonstrating that both evolved from the same naïve linguistic rootstock: i.e. both had emerged from Vulgar Latin, but in different ways due to their geographical and cultural separation. …

In fact we know, from De Rosa’s manuscript, that he fled to the safety of Castello Aragonese in 1441–42, when Alfonso was busy conquering Naples: He writes: ‘The patron said to me: “Son of mine, go to Ischia, for the great of age the place is safe”. I went to the marina and took a boat that travelled to the Castello di Ischia’. As incredible as it may seem, the chances are that De Rosa actually met the author of manuscript MS408 during his stay at the citadel.

So de Rosa met Maria and probably the nun who wrote the Voynich herself. It’s a really incredible story, both in the manuscript’s creation and the efforts it took to decaode it, and I encourage you to read the full article.


Book Club Pick: The 10,000 Year Explosion

5172bf1dp2bnl-_sx323_bo1204203200_Our next Book Club pick is Cochran and Harpending’s The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution. From the book’s description on Amazon:

Scientists have long believed that the “great leap forward” that occurred some 40,000 to 50,000 years ago in Europe marked end of significant biological evolution in humans. In this stunningly original account of our evolutionary history, top scholars Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending reject this conventional wisdom and reveal that the human species has undergone a storm of genetic change much more recently. Human evolution in fact accelerated after civilization arose, they contend, and these ongoing changes have played a pivotal role in human history. They argue that biology explains the expansion of the Indo-Europeans, the European conquest of the Americas, and European Jews’ rise to intellectual prominence. …

I just received the book, so I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve been a big fan of Greg and Henry’s blog (now Greg’s blog, since Henry passed away,) for a long time. I expect to finish reading and get the relevant discussion posts up, therefore, in about two months–I’ll update the time frame as we get closer.

Please let me know if you prefer short form discussion (like our discussion of Kurzweil’s How to Build a Mind,) or long form discussion (like Auerswald’s The Code Economy,) or something in between.