Friday, November 27, 2015

Refusing racial victimhood

In a grand corridor of Harvard Law School, framed professors’ photographs hang on a wall. A week ago, someone put slivers of black tape over the faces of most of the African-American professors. I am one of those whose photograph was marked. ...

Since then I have been asked repeatedly how I feel about having been targeted by what some deem to be a racial hate crime. Questioners often seem to assume that I should feel deeply alarmed and hurt. I don’t.

The identity and motives of the person or people behind the taping have not been determined. ... Some observers, bristling with certainty, insist that the message conveyed by the taping of the photographs is obvious. To me it is puzzling.

Assuming that it was a racist gesture, there is a need to calibrate carefully its significance. On a campus containing thousands of students, faculty members and staff, one should not be surprised or unglued by an instance or even a number of instances of racism. The question is whether those episodes are characteristic or outliers. ...

Activists have succeeded in shoving to the top of the higher-education policy agenda the claims, dissatisfactions and aspirations of African-American students.

Successes, however, can generate or exacerbate destructive tendencies. I worry about two in particular. One involves exaggerating the scope of the racism that the activists oppose and fear. The other involves minimizing their own strength and the victories that they and their forebears have already achieved.

I have asked dissidents to tell me with as much particularity as possible the circumstances that led them to say that they feel burdened, alienated, disrespected, oppressed. ...

While some of these complaints have a ring of validity, several are dubious. ... Racism and its kindred pathologies are already big foes; there is no sustained payoff in exaggerating their presence, thus making them more formidable than they actually are.

Disturbing, too, is a related tendency to indulge in self-diminishment by displaying an excessive vulnerability to perceived and actual slights and insults. Some activists seem to have learned that invoking the rhetoric of trauma is an effective way of hooking into the consciences of solicitous authorities. Perhaps it is useful for purposes of eliciting certain short-term gains.

In the long run, though, reformers harm themselves by nurturing an inflated sense of victimization. A colleague of mine whose portrait was taped over exhibited the right spirit when he jauntily declared that it would take far more than tape to slow him down.
--Randall Kennedy, NYT, on maintaining perspective

Monday, November 23, 2015

Yoga is now politically incorrect

In studios across the nation, as many as 20 million Americans practice yoga every day. Few worry that their downward dogs or warrior poses disrespect other cultures.

But yoga comes from India, once a British colony. And now, at one Canadian university, a yoga class designed to include disabled students has been canceled after concerns the practice was taken from a culture that “experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy,” according to the group that once sponsored it.

In a telephone interview with The Washington Post, Jennifer Scharf, who taught the class for up to 60 people at the University of Ottawa, said she was unhappy about the decision, but accepted it.
--Justin Wm. Moyer, Washington Post, on the expanding zone of censure and prohibition

Why Jet Li didn't kiss Aaliyah

We all know the story of Romeo Must Die, how Jet Li is the movie’s hero, and the whole time you see this connection developing between him and Aaliyah, who played the female lead. And in the last scene, Li was supposed to kiss her, but when they showed the movie to test audiences, people said they found that disgusting. In the version they released, you just see them give each other a hug.
--Into the Badlands actor Daniel Wu on the bamboo romantic ceiling. HT: ACT

American Chinese food restaurant in Shanghai

Now, one restaurant in Shanghai is trying to bring American Chinese food back to China. ...

When visiting Shanghai as tourists, Fung [Lam] and Dave [Rossi] missed their usual versions of noodles and stir-fried classics, and thought others might too.

They decided to open what they believe is Shanghai's first American Chinese restaurant, featuring specialties served in Fung's family restaurants for 40 years: orange chicken, kung pao chicken and sesame shrimp. Dave describes the menu as "really American". ...

One of the biggest challenges was finding the right ingredients to use in the kitchen.

"As weird as it sounds, we actually import a lot of ingredients to make authentic American Chinese food in China," Fung says.

Items like Philadelphia cream cheese, Skippy peanut butter, cornflakes and English mustard powder must all be brought in from outside China. Even the soy sauce must be imported from Hong Kong, because that's what the first Chinese immigrants to the US used in their cooking.

The extra effort appears to be worth the trouble. The restaurant is usually packed on week nights and on the weekends, long lines of customers can stretch out of the door.

Dave and Fung have learned to predict whether first-time customers will approve of their food.

"If you're an expat, 99% of the time you're going to be happy. When it's a younger local person, we have maybe a 70% success rate," Fung explains.

Some locals come into the restaurant and ask for their food to be served in American-style white cardboard takeaway containers, mimicking meals they've seen on sitcoms like Friends and the Big Bang Theory. ...

Westernised Chinese food certainly has its critics. Some say the food is too sweet, its sauces too thick and gloopy, even too orange - a world away from the complex flavours of the vast array of foods found across mainland China.
--Celia Hatton, BBC, on the prodigal culinary son returning. HT: PW

Monday, November 9, 2015

Censorship envy

As the court wrote in a 1972 college student speech case (quoting Justice Hugo Black), First Amendment protection “must be accorded to the ideas we hate or sooner or later they will be denied to the ideas we cherish.”

One way that speech restrictions often grow is through what I call “censorship envy.” Say one group wins a ban on speech that it finds offensive. It’s human nature for other groups to then ask: What about speech that offends us — harsh criticism of Israel, or of certain religious belief systems, or of abortion, or of America?

Are we second-class citizens, whose feelings can be insulted with impunity, while other groups are protected? Are we weaklings who lack the power or status that the others have used to suppress the speech they hate? And if we’re not second-class weaklings, we demand the same “protection” from speech that offends us. That’s censorship envy, and it’s a powerful force supporting the growth of speech restrictions, at universities and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, we’re seeing many at universities, including student groups, administrators and even the federal Department of Education, trying to suppress student speech, again and again and again and again and again and again and again -- and the list could go on. Oddly, many of these restrictions come from political groups that see themselves as outsiders fighting the powerful. If that’s really so, how can they give the government extra censorship powers that can so easily be used against future “progressives” like them?

Monday, November 2, 2015

The crumbling of the Confucian social contract in South Korea

Their fall symbolizes the crumbling of a Confucian social contract Koreans have lived by for ages. Parents spent all their earnings for their children’s success, and in return counted on their support in old age. Now, many older Koreans find themselves without retirement savings or children capable of supporting them.

On the question of whether they had relatives or friends to depend on in times of need, South Koreans ranked at the bottom of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to its annual “How’s Life?” report, released in October. The social support was the lowest among South Koreans who were 50 or older. ...

The 2015 Melbourne Mercer Global Pension Index, released in October, measured the retirement income systems of 25 major economies and ranked South Korea 24th, with only India ranked lower. Last year, only 45 percent of South Koreans between 55 and 79 received pensions; their monthly payout averaged $431, or 82 percent of the minimum cost of living for a single person, according to government data.

About 30 percent of older South Korean families have a monthly income below the absolute poverty level. But they can get welfare only when they can prove that their family is unwilling or unable to support them. Many reject that option because they find it too embarrassing to reach out to relatives they have not contacted for many years.

And one out of every four elderly people in South Korea has depression, according to a study published by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs in September. As a group, their suicide rate is double the national suicide rate.
--Choe Sang-Hun, NYT, on defying stereotype

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Pad thai was invented by the decree of a dictator

The year was 1938. Six years earlier, Phibunsongkhram, better known as Phibun in Western historical accounts, had played a prominent role as a military officer in a coup that stripped Thailand’s monarchy of its absolute powers. A year later, he became the equivalent of the Minister of Defense after crushing a rebellion launched by royalists, and in 1938, he became prime minister. ...

Worried about his country’s independence, disintegration, and, most of all, support for his rule, Phibun decided to transform the country’s culture and identity. ...

As part of his campaign, Phibun ordered the creation of a new national dish: pad Thai. ...

The exact origins of pad Thai remain contested. According to some accounts, Phibun announced a competition to create a new, national dish. Phibun’s son, however, told Gastronomica that his family cooked the dish before Phibun made it government policy, although he does not remember who invented it. ...

By releasing a pad Thai recipe and promoting it, Phibun turned one potential take on stir-fried noodles into a national dish. He believed that pad Thai would improve the diet of people who ate mostly rice, and that cooking pad Thai in clean pans would improve national hygiene.

Most of all, Phibun wanted to unify the country by promoting a uniquely Thai dish. ...

Within several years, vendors selling pad Thai filled Thailand’s streets. Phibun’s son called it “Thailand’s first fast food.” ...

The Public Welfare Department distributed recipes and a great number of carts for selling pad Thai, while Phibun banned Chinese and other foreign food vendors as part of his “Buy Thai” campaign. Propagandists launched a campaign with the slogan “Noodle is your lunch.” ...

As for food, history is full of examples of seemingly quintessential dishes with short histories. When we think of Italian food, we think of pizza and spaghetti. Yet tomatoes are not native to Italy and only reached Europe after conquistadors brought them back from South America.

No food is more Irish than potatoes. Except that when potatoes first reached Britain, people thought that they, like all roots, were only fit for animals. “The poor of Europe,” Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine and Empire, has said, “had to be bludgeoned into adopting the potato in the 17th and 18th century.”

“How long does it take to create a cuisine?” writes Laudan. “Not long: less than fifty years, judging by past experience.”
--Alex Mayyasi, Priceonomics, on manufactured culinary identity. HT: Marginal Revolution

Monday, October 19, 2015

Sensitivity to loud chewing might be a psychiatric disorder

People who have an extreme aversion to specific noises—most often “mouth sounds” such as chewing or lip-smacking, but also noises such as foot-tapping, pen-clicking or sniffing—suffer from a condition called misophonia. While many people find some everyday sounds annoying, misophonia—in which the sensitivity disrupts a person’s life—may affect up to 20% of the population, researchers say.

There is a current debate among physicians whether it should be a psychiatric disorder. ...

People who have misophonia often have symptoms of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression, although the researchers don't know if one causes the other, the study found. ...

The experts are clear: The person who is annoyed by the sounds is the one who needs to change and learn coping skills. If others accommodate you by changing the way they eat, they are only enabling you. ...

A form of cognitive behavioral therapy, called “exposure and response prevention,” has been shown to be effective for misophonia sufferers. The client is exposed to chewing sounds gradually—first on a tape, then from a stranger in the room and finally from his or her loved one. “After repeated exposure, they see they can tolerate it,” Ms. Wu says.
--Elizabeth Bernstein, WSJ, on having to live and let live

Harry Potter and Jane Eyre as sacred texts

During orientation at Harvard Divinity School here in 2013, Angie Thurston wandered amid the tables set up by the various campus ministries. Catholic, Methodist, Muslim — they mostly served to reinforce the sense that Ms. Thurston did not fit into an organized religion.

Here she was, starting her graduate studies in religion when she did not know the definition of liturgy, had never read the Bible and could not have identified a major theologian like Karl Barth, even if it would have won her a fortune on “Jeopardy!” Yet something in organized religion hinted at an answer to the atomized, unmoored life she led. ...

Now in her final year at Harvard, Ms. Thurston is a central figure in a boomlet of students who are secular or unaffiliated with any religious denomination, commonly known as “nones,” attending divinity school. While Harvard may be the center, nones can be found at other divinity schools around the country, especially those inclined toward theologically and politically liberal Protestantism, like Chicago Theological Seminary. ...

The group that Ms. Thurston helped start, Harvard Religious Nones, includes almost 70 people on its email list and regularly attracts 20 people to its meetings, not insignificant in a divinity school with 350 students. The divinity school also has a humanist group with about a half-dozen members.

One of her classmates, Casper ter Kuile, and a recent divinity school graduate, Vanessa Zoltan, teach a weekly course together for about 55 people on “Harry Potter” as a sacred text at the off-campus Humanist Hub. ...

With a divinity school professor, Stephanie Paulsell, [Zoltan] did an independent study in “Jane Eyre” as a holy book.
--Samuel Freedman, NYT, on the universal human need to worship

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things -- if they are where you tap real meaning in life -- then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already -- it's been codified as myths, proverbs, cliches, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power -- you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart -- you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.
--David Foster Wallace on what we worship

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Myers-Brigg test is crap

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is probably the most widely used personality test in the world. ...

The only problem? The test is completely meaningless.

"There's just no evidence behind it," says Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who's written about the shortcomings of the Myers-Briggs previously. "The characteristics measured by the test have almost no predictive power on how happy you'll be in a situation, how you'll perform at your job, or how happy you'll be in your marriage." ...

...the test was developed in the 1940s based on the totally untested theories of Carl Jung and is now thoroughly disregarded by the psychology community. ... Several analyses have shown the test is totally ineffective at predicting people's success in various jobs, and that about half of the people who take it twice get different results each time. ...

CPP, the company that publishes the test, has three leading psychologists on their board, but none of them have used it whatsoever in their research. "It would be questioned by my academic colleagues," Carl Thoresen, a Stanford psychologist and CPP board member, admitted to the Washington Post in 2012. ...

The Myers-Briggs is useful for one thing: entertainment. There's absolutely nothing wrong with taking the test as a fun, interesting activity, like a BuzzFeed quiz.
--Joseph Stromberg and Estelle Caswell, Vox, on gussied up astrology. HT: JL

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Toyota pickup trucks: The right choice for a zombie apocalypse

The Treasury Department's Terror Financing Unit has launched an inquiry into why the Toyota Hilux is the ISIS jihad ride of choice. “Regrettably, the Toyota Land Cruiser and Hilux have effectively become almost part of the ISIS brand,” Mark Wallace, CEO of the Counter Extremism Project and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told ABC News. ...

To be fair, this isn't new to ISIS. The Toyota truck has been the easy-to-obtain, harder-to-destroy truck of choice for paramilitary ventures since the 1980s. The Taliban, Al Qaeda, Libyans, Chadians, the Free Syrian Army, U.S. Special Forces, and the Islamic State all share in common their preference for the Japanese-made vehicle, known as "the technical." They can be smashed, plunked into the ocean, buried in sand, shot at, burned, and still start dependably. (You can pick your armor-plated model here). ...

As former Army Ranger Andrew Exum told Newsweek in 2010, “The Toyota Hilux is everywhere. It’s the vehicular equivalent of the AK-47. It’s ubiquitous to insurgent warfare." A New York Times report from 2001 triangulated that analogy with the Al Qaeda grunts addicted to the trucks. ...

Some features of the Hilux to note: When conducting guerrilla-style warfare in hostile desert climes, a solid wheelbase and "stout" chassis are foundational requirements. Yet, something light and fast needs to be able to fit a small army, and loot. Thankfully, there's a king cab option with extended bed in Nebula Blue. Patrolling a caliphate the size of Belgium? A 21-gallon fuel tank will get you over to the next village you plan to seize.
--Nathan Pemberton, New York, on the downside of great engineering

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

DNA testing: The Abominable Snowman is a bear

No one has ever found conclusive proof of the Abominable Snowman, because it isn’t a man but a bear. According to a genetic study published by Britain’s Royal Society in 2014, DNA from two different alleged samples shows that the yeti is almost certainly a bear, either a new species or a hybrid between a brown bear and an ancient polar bear.
--Amanda Foreman, WSJ, on unanticipated scientific advances

Monday, October 5, 2015

Most recycling doesn't help the environment

In 1996, I wrote a long article for The New York Times Magazine arguing that the recycling process as we carried it out was wasteful. I presented plenty of evidence that recycling was costly and ineffectual, but its defenders said that it was unfair to rush to judgment. ...

So, what’s happened since then? While it’s true that the recycling message has reached more people than ever, when it comes to the bottom line, both economically and environmentally, not much has changed at all.

Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill. ... The mood is so gloomy that one industry veteran tried to cheer up her colleagues this summer with an article in a trade journal titled, “Recycling Is Not Dead!” ...

New York and other cities instruct people to rinse the bottles before putting them in the recycling bin, but the E.P.A.’s life-cycle calculation doesn’t take that water into account. That single omission can make a big difference, according to Chris Goodall, the author of “How to Live a Low-Carbon Life.” Mr. Goodall calculates that if you wash plastic in water that was heated by coal-derived electricity, then the net effect of your recycling could be more carbon in the atmosphere. ...

One of the original goals of the recycling movement was to avert a supposed crisis because there was no room left in the nation’s landfills. But that media-inspired fear was never realistic in a country with so much open space. In reporting the 1996 article I found that all the trash generated by Americans for the next 1,000 years would fit on one-tenth of 1 percent of the land available for grazing. ...

With the economic rationale gone, advocates for recycling have switched to environmental arguments. ...

...recycling operations have their own environmental costs, like extra trucks on the road and pollution from recycling operations. ...

According to the E.P.A.’s estimates, virtually all the greenhouse benefits — more than 90 percent — come from just a few materials: paper, cardboard and metals like the aluminum in soda cans. ...

Once you exclude paper products and metals, the total annual savings in the United States from recycling everything else in municipal trash — plastics, glass, food, yard trimmings, textiles, rubber, leather — is only two-tenths of 1 percent of America’s carbon footprint.

As a business, recycling is on the wrong side of two long-term global economic trends. For centuries, the real cost of labor has been increasing while the real cost of raw materials has been declining. ...

Recyclers have tried to improve the economics by automating the sorting process, but they’ve been frustrated by politicians eager to increase recycling rates by adding new materials of little value. The more types of trash that are recycled, the more difficult it becomes to sort the valuable from the worthless.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Almost everybody misinterprets "The Road Not Taken"

[Former poet laureate Robert] Pinsky used his public role to ask Americans to submit their favorite poem in various forms; the clear favorite among more than eighteen thousand entries was [Robert Frost’s] “The Road Not Taken.” ... On a word-for-word basis, it may be the most popular piece of literature ever written by an American.

And almost everyone gets it wrong. This is the most remarkable thing about “The Road Not Taken”—not its immense popularity (which is remarkable enough), but the fact that it is popular for what seem to be the wrong reasons. ...

Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (“I took the one less traveled by”), but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem’s speaker tells us he “shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.

According to this reading, then, the speaker will be claiming “ages and ages hence” that his decision made “all the difference” only because this is the kind of claim we make when we want to comfort or blame ourselves by assuming that our current position is the product of our own choices (as opposed to what was chosen for us or allotted to us by chance). The poem isn’t a salute to can-do individualism; it’s a commentary on the self-deception we practice when constructing the story of our own lives. “The Road Not Taken” may be, as the critic Frank Lentricchia memorably put it, “the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” But we could go further: It may be the best example in all of American culture of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. ...

It’s an explanation that Frost himself sometimes encouraged, much as he used to boast about the trickiness of “The Road Not Taken” in private correspondence. (“I’ll bet not half a dozen people can tell who was hit and where he was hit by my Road Not Taken,” he wrote to his friend Louis Untermeyer.)
--David Orr, The Paris Review, on the important of reading the whole context. HT: TS

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Flexibility is all about your nervous system, not your muscles and tendons

Many people think stretching is essential to improving flexibility. ...

It is clear that stretching doesn't actually make muscles permanently longer, experts agree. Instead, it may be that exercises such as reaching for your toes train the nervous system to tolerate a greater degree of muscle extension without firing off pain signals. ...

When animals are placed in casts that keep their muscles extended for a long time, their bodies do add additional sarcomeres, or the basic subunits of muscle fibers, but their muscles return to their original shape soon after the animal is removed from those constraints. And in those studies, it's not clear that the lengthened muscles improved the animal's flexibility.

In a June 2014 study in the journal Clinical Biomechanics, Tilp and colleague Andreas Konrad found no differences in people's muscles and tendons after six weeks of a static-stretching regimen.

So, if muscle fiber doesn't get longer as a result of stretching, why does stretching seem to increase people's flexibility? ...

The nervous system is the master conductor determining how far a person can stretch, said Brooke Thomas, a yoga instructor who discussed the science of stretching in a blog post on

Nerve endings are dispersed throughout the muscle and tendon, and if a stretch doesn't feel safe for the muscle, those nerves will fire, registering pain and resistance, Thomas told Live Science.

These nerves "will say 'you better stop stretching, because if you stretch further, the muscle will maybe get damaged,'" Tilp told Live Science.

That's why a person under anesthesia, whose nerves are quieted, can be stretched through a full range of motion with no resistance. And healthy babies are born able to do the splits, because they haven't developed a blueprint for ranges of motion that feel unsafe, Mitchell said.
--Tia Ghose, Live Science, on flexibility being all in your head

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Asking for advice makes you look smarter

People are often hesitant to seek advice because they fear it will make them appear incompetent, said Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. In fact, those who seek advice are perceived as more competent than those who do not, according to a recent paper that she wrote along with Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Maurice E. Schweitzer, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. ...

Researchers came to this conclusion by analyzing the responses of college students and working adults who were asked to give their impressions of people (a computer-simulated partner, in this case) who sought their advice on various written tests and tasks. ...

Being asked for advice is flattering. As Professor Gino said, “People commonly believe that asking for advice is inconsiderate — we don’t want to bother others.” But in fact, “by asking someone to share his or her personal wisdom, advice seekers stroke the adviser’s ego and can gain valuable insights,” she said. And regardless of whether you use the advice or not, “People do not think less of you — they actually think you’re smarter.”
--Phyllis Korkki, NYT, on the double benefit of asking for advice

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Princeton Review jacks up its prices in areas with lots of Asians

But few, if any, realize that the prices for The Princeton Review’s online SAT tutoring packages vary substantially depending on where customers live. If they type some zip codes into the company’s website, they are offered The Princeton Review’s Premier course for as little as $6,600. For other zip codes, the same course costs as much as $8,400.

One unexpected effect of the company’s geographic approach to pricing is that Asians are almost twice as likely to be offered a higher price than non-Asians, an analysis by ProPublica shows. (Read ProPublica’s research methodology here.)

The gap remains even for Asians in lower-income neighborhoods. Consider a zip code in Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens, New York. Asians make up 70.5 percent of the population in this zip code. According to the U.S. Census, the median household income in the zip code, $41,884, is lower than most, yet The Princeton Review customers there are quoted the highest price. ...

Earlier this year, Harvard undergraduate Christian Haigh stumbled on The Princeton Review’s variable prices doing research for a class he was taking called “Data Science to Save the World.” ...

Today, Haigh and three fellow students are publishing their findings that The Princeton Review’s higher prices correlate to areas with higher income. ...

ProPublica tested whether The Princeton Review prices were tied to different characteristics of each zip code, including income, race, and education level. When it came to getting the highest prices, living in a zip code with a high median income or a large Asian population seemed to make the greatest difference. ...

Customers in areas with a high density of Asian residents were 1.8 times as likely to be offered higher prices, regardless of income. For instance, residents of the gritty, industrial city of Westminster, California, which is half Asian with a median income below most, were charged the second-highest price for the Premier tutoring service.
--Julia Angwin, Surya Mattu, and Jeff Larson, The Atlantic, on what happens when demand is inelastic

Friday, September 4, 2015

Why did the Holocaust occur in only some Nazi-occupied territories?

Why did 99% of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Denmark survive while 99% of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Estonia were murdered? And why were the death camps, shootings and gassings located in Eastern Europe?

[Yale history professor Timothy] Snyder’s account ends up shifting the Holocaust’s center of gravity to Eastern Europe and the countries that then lay between Germany and the Soviet Union: Poland, the Baltic republics, Belarus and the Ukraine. This region is his specialty; he has a knowledge of at least 10 languages and consulted sources in German, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Yiddish, Czech, Slovak, French and English. This is something no other chronicler of the Holocaust has done. ...

What was it about Poland or Belarus that made them so hospitable to participatory mass murder? The usual explanation is anti-Semitism—“a historically predictable outburst of the barbarity of east Europeans,” Mr. Snyder writes. But “the level of antisemitism, insofar as this can be ascertained, does not seem to correlate with Jewish death rates.” ...

Hitler had, from the very start, imagined the German empire expanding across Eastern Europe into the Soviet Union. But in 1939, buying time and territory, he made a pact with Stalin, the two dividing the intervening lands between them. Germany took chunks of Poland; the Soviets swept through the rest, along with Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and other territories. ...

In June 1941 came Hitler’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union. No sooner had the Communist purges taken place throughout Soviet-run Eastern Europe than the Nazi ones began. The Soviets had destroyed the state apparatus in each territory. Now it was upended again. But often the same local leaders were involved in managing both upheavals. Anybody with authority in the Soviet regime had to quickly dissociate himself from the past and demonstrate a new allegiance. The killing of Jews was a solution. The massacres were, Mr. Snyder suggests, a kind of “political scenography” in which the local population proved itself to its new masters, shedding its Soviet past. This expiation was often made explicit: Nazi ideology identified Judaism with Bolshevism, so the murder of Jews was a form of revenge against the onetime occupiers.

That these were “consecutively occupied lands,” Mr. Snyder argues, is the crucial fact. Whether locals would eagerly participate in the murders and how thoroughly the Final Solution would be pursued were matters determined not by the extent of local anti-Semitism but by the condition of each nation-state. The entire Holocaust took place on lands touched by Soviet power and then again by German power.
--Edward Rothstein, WSJ, on the political expedience of the Holocaust

Friday, August 28, 2015

Finance in 1890 B.C.

In general, we know few details about economic life before roughly 1000 A.D. But during one 30-year period — between 1890 and 1860 B.C. — for one community in the town of Kanesh, we know a great deal. Through a series of incredibly unlikely events, archaeologists have uncovered the comprehensive written archive of a few hundred traders who left their hometown Assur, in what is now Iraq, to set up importing businesses in Kanesh, which sat roughly at the center of present-day Turkey and functioned as the hub of a massive global trading system that stretched from Central Asia to Europe. Kanesh’s traders sent letters back and forth with their business partners, carefully written on clay tablets and stored at home in special vaults. Tens of thousands of these records remain. ...

The picture that emerged of economic life is staggeringly advanced. The traders of Kanesh used financial tools that were remarkably similar to checks, bonds and joint-stock companies. They had something like venture-capital firms that created diversified portfolios of risky trades. And they even had structured financial products: People would buy outstanding debt, sell it to others and use it as collateral to finance new businesses. The 30 years for which we have records appear to have been a time of remarkable financial innovation.

It’s impossible not to see parallels with our own recent past. Over the 30 years covered by the archive, we see an economy built on trade in actual goods — silver, tin, textiles — transform into an economy built on financial speculation, fueling a bubble that then pops. After the financial collapse, there is a period of incessant lawsuits, as a central government in Assur desperately tries to come up with new regulations and ways of holding wrongdoers accountable (though there never seems to be agreement on who the wrongdoers are, exactly). The entire trading system enters a deep recession lasting more than a decade. The traders eventually adopt simpler, more stringent rules, and trade grows again.