Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Democracy is in trouble around the world

According to the Mounk-Foa early-warning system, signs of democratic deconsolidation in the United States and many other liberal democracies are now similar to those in Venezuela before its crisis.

Across numerous countries, including Australia, Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden and the United States, the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy has plummeted, and it is especially low among younger generations.

Support for autocratic alternatives is rising, too. Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, the researchers found that the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995.

That trend is particularly strong among young people. For instance, in a previously published paper, the researchers calculated that 43 percent of older Americans believed it was illegitimate for the military to take over if the government were incompetent or failing to do its job, but only 19 percent of millennials agreed. The same generational divide showed up in Europe, where 53 percent of older people thought a military takeover would be illegitimate, while only 36 percent of millennials agreed.

In the United States, Donald J. Trump won the presidential election by running as an antisystem outsider. And support for antisystem populist parties in Europe, such as the National Front in France, Syriza in Greece and the Five-Star Movement in Italy, is rising.
--Amanda Taub, NYT, on alarming signs

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The longing for transcendence defeated Clinton

...2016 exposed liberalism’s twofold vulnerability: to white voters embracing an identity politics of their own, and to women and minorities fearing Trump less than most liberals expected, and not voting monolithically for Hillary. ...

It’s true that identity politics is often illiberal, both in its emphasis on group experience over individualism and, in the web of moral absolutes — taboo words, sacred speakers, forbidden arguments — that it seeks to weave around left-liberal discourse. ...

But liberal societies have always depended on an illiberal or pre-liberal substructure to answer the varied human needs — meaning, belonging, a vertical dimension to human life, a hope against mortality...

In American history, that substructure took various forms: The bonds of family life, the power of (usually Protestant) religion, a flag-waving patriotism, and an Anglo-Saxon culture to which immigrants were expected to assimilate.

Each of these foundations often manifested illiberalism’s evils: religious intolerance, racism and chauvinism, the oppressions of private and domestic power. But they also provided the moral, cultural and metaphysical common ground that political reformers — abolitionists, Social Gospellers, New Dealers, civil rights marchers — relied upon to expand liberalism’s promise.

Much of post-1960s liberal politics, by contrast, has been an experiment in cutting Western societies loose from those foundations, set to the tune of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” No heaven or religion, no countries or borders or parochial loyalties of any kind...

Unfortunately the values of “Imagine” are simply not sufficient to the needs of human life. People have a desire for solidarity that cosmopolitanism does not satisfy, immaterial interests that redistribution cannot meet, a yearning for the sacred that secularism cannot answer.

So where religion atrophies, family weakens and patriotism ebbs, other forms of group identity inevitably assert themselves. It is not a coincidence that identity politics are particularly potent on elite college campuses, the most self-consciously post-religious and post-nationalist of institutions; nor is it a coincidence that recent outpourings of campus protest and activism and speech policing and sexual moralizing so often resemble religious revivalism. The contemporary college student lives most fully in the Lennonist utopia that post-’60s liberalism sought to build, and often finds it unconsoling: She wants a sense of belonging, a ground for personal morality, and a higher horizon of justice than either a purely procedural or a strictly material politics supplies. ...

...it is precisely older, foundational things that today’s liberalism has lost. Until it finds them again, it will face tribalism within its coalition and Trumpism from without, and it will struggle to tame either.

Friday, November 25, 2016

When China's top chefs ate at the French Laundry

TYLER COWEN: In one of your books you tell a story of taking some number of very renowned Sichuan chefs and you bring them in the United States to a restaurant called The French Laundry, one of the best and most famous American restaurants. Cooking at a very high level. How did they react to that?

FUCHSIA DUNLOP: Oh, total culture shock. You see, I was delighted. I was so excited. I’d taken these wonderful chefs, all of them extremely accomplished practitioners of Sichuanese cuisine, and here I was. I got a table at the best restaurant, held to be the best restaurant in North America, with some of the finest the West had to offer.

There were all kinds of things that they found very difficult. The first was our reservation was at 9:30. Chinese people like to eat at 6:00 or 6:30, so they were already in a bit of a bad mood by the time we started.

COWEN: As I would be.


DUNLOP: Then it was a four-hour tasting menu. Chinese meals, even very good ones, tend to be rather fast by this standard. For them, it was a long, tedious, late-night thing to sit and have dish after dish of complicated food.

They weren’t used to eating dairy products, so anything creamy, not particularly nice. They were really disturbed. One of them actually refused to eat the most beautiful lamb, because it was a little pink and bloody in the middle. Of course, in China traditionally only barbarians eat raw meat and you just don’t eat raw meat.


DUNLOP: They thought the olives tasted like Chinese medicine.


DUNLOP: In China a meal should always leave you feeling very refreshed and relaxed, and that’s why you finish in many regions with a light, refreshing palate-cleansing soup or with fresh fruit.

At the French Laundry, we ended, like at many classic Western tasting menus, with a whole sequence of very heavy, sweet dishes, which was not very comfortable for them.

COWEN: Also known as dessert. [laughs]

DUNLOP: As dessert. The most interesting thing was Yu Bo, one of the chefs who’s now very famous — one of the best chefs I’ve ever met in China, the most accomplished — he was sitting in front of this beautiful plate of food. He said, “Fuchsia, this is all very interesting, but I really cannot say whether it’s good or bad.”
--Fuchsia Dunlop, Conversations with Tyler, on the analogue of Westerners eating sea cucumber

Monday, November 7, 2016

Over 100 pro-Trump websites are based in a small Macedonian town

“This is the news of the millennium!” said the story on WorldPoliticus.com. Citing unnamed FBI sources, it claimed Hillary Clinton will be indicted in 2017 for crimes related to her email scandal.

“Your Prayers Have Been Answered,” declared the headline.

For Trump supporters, that certainly seemed to be the case. They helped the baseless story generate over 140,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.

Meanwhile, roughly 6,000 miles away in a small town in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a young man watched as money began trickling into his Google AdSense account.

Over the past year, the Macedonian town of Veles (population 45,000) has experienced a digital gold rush as locals launched at least 140 US politics websites. These sites have American-sounding domain names such as WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com, DonaldTrumpNews.co, and USADailyPolitics.com. They almost all publish aggressively pro-Trump content aimed at conservatives and Trump supporters in the US.

The young Macedonians who run these sites say they don’t care about Donald Trump. They are responding to straightforward economic incentives: As Facebook regularly reveals in earnings reports, a US Facebook user is worth about four times a user outside the US. The fraction-of-a-penny-per-click of US display advertising — a declining market for American publishers — goes a long way in Veles. Several teens and young men who run these sites told BuzzFeed News that they learned the best way to generate traffic is to get their politics stories to spread on Facebook — and the best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters. ...

“Yes, the info in the blogs is bad, false, and misleading but the rationale is that ‘if it gets the people to click on it and engage, then use it,’” said a university student in Veles who started a US politics site, and who agreed to speak on the condition that BuzzFeed News not use his name. ...

Earlier in the year, some in Veles experimented with left-leaning or pro–Bernie Sanders content, but nothing performed as well on Facebook as Trump content. ...

BuzzFeed News’ research also found that the most successful stories from these sites were nearly all false or misleading.
--Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed, on supply rising to meet demand. HT: Tyler Cowen

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Scientists can publish their best work at any age

Hoping that your next paper will be the big one? It just might be — the chance that your next article will be your best-cited is as good as ever, no matter where you are in your career.

That’s the finding of a team led by Albert-László Barabási at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. The researchers analysed the papers of thousands of scientists from different disciplines. Considering their publication records as a sequence of articles, the most highly-cited were equally likely to be found at the beginning, middle or end of the sequence.

“We scientists are random,” Barabási says. “Every time we publish a paper, we have the same chance of publishing our biggest hit as we do with any other paper.”

This might seem to conflict with the well-documented finding that big discoveries and high-impact work tend to happen early in a scientist’s career. But there’s no contradiction, because the new work also shows that productivity — the number of papers produced per year — tends to slowly decline over a typical career. A scientist’s chance of securing a ‘greatest hit’ accordingly decreases over time, simply because they have fewer shots at it.

But the researchers also make a more contentious calculation. They devise a simple mathematical model that describes the probability that any particular paper will be a hit. This depends on only two factors, they argue: an element of luck, and a certain quality, or Q factor, that measures an individual scientist’s ability to boost the impact of any project.

Testing their model against the publication records of 2,887 physicists, the team found that the equation implies that the ‘luck’ factor is the same for all scientists. The Q factor is obtained from a researcher’s citation record: it is proportional to the logarithm of the number of citations that a scientist has received over a certain time frame.

The researchers anticipated that Q would increase over the course of a scientific career, as an individual becomes more experienced. To their surprise, they found that it remains mostly constant.

Should you fill out your calendar in great detail? Experimental evidence

My instinct has been that you should only put things in the calendar that absolutely have to go there. Another point of view says you should fill the calendar with tasks and use your calendar as the to do list. The question is, who’s right? There’s some very interesting research done by three psychologists nearly 35 years ago. They split students into control groups and these various groups got different advice. Students who were advised to plan in detail, day by day -- the psychologists thought that would work best.

But in fact that was catastrophic. Students got very discouraged very quickly. What seemed to be happening is you block out your day, and then a friend comes for coffee. The washing machine breaks down. An unexpected phone call just gets in the way, and you’re immediately running behind. So now what do you do? These students became very discouraged and they stopped working. Their study time was way down.

On the other hand, the students who were told to just set out their goals for the month did way better. I think that speaks to the idea that you need that degree of flexibility. It’s fine to have a goal in mind, but the moment I start blocking out particular bits of time, the whole thing doesn’t survive contact with reality and people get very disheartened.
--Tim Harford, Washington Post, on the value of schedules with give

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The bittersweetness of the Cubs' World Series victory

Cubs fans awoke yesterday to one last wait, with little to do before Game 7 but think, about themselves and their families, about the people who've come and gone during these 108 years of failure. Hundreds found themselves drawn to Wrigley Field, where workers were already breaking down the concessions and cleaning out the freezers. Some people said they didn't even mean to come. They started off on a trip to the store and ended up standing in front of the stadium's long brick wall facing Waveland Avenue. Many wrote chalk notes to the dead. Some dedicated messages. This one's for you, Dad. Others wrote names. Dan Bird. Ben Bird. Eugene Hendershott. A man with a bright smile but melancholy eyes wrote the name of his late wife, Andrea Monhollen. They met four blocks from here, on Racine. She's been gone six years. ...

My wife's grandfather, a decorated World War II veteran, who survived being named Bob Weinberg in a German prisoner of war camp, died in May. He grew up in Chicago and loved the Cubs, and as the season went on, my wife and I talked about how cruel it seemed for a man to live for 94 years, survive his bomber being shot down and being held captive, only to die five months before the World Series he longed to see. With him in mind, I reached out to a half-dozen area hospitals and to the team itself, looking for fans who were hanging on, hoping to find someone who might beat Bob's odds. The Cubs connected me with a woman named Ginny Iversen. She listened to the games on the radio religiously, even at 94, and loved to tell people she shared a birthday with Andre Dawson. ...

At the Wrigley Field memorial wall, I saw a woman writing on the metal gates to the bleachers themselves, across the street from Murphy's. Mary Beth Talhami (I'd learn her name later) finished her message and stood back to admire it: "Mom, thank you for teaching us to believe in ourselves, love and the Cubs. Enjoy your view from the ultimate skybox."

I took a picture of her, close enough to overhear her conversation with another stranger to her left. Mary Beth talked about her mom and how ESPN had contacted the family. The dots connected in my head. The hair stood up on my arm.

"That was me," I said.

She told me her mother was Ginny Iversen and then, starting to shake and cry, she told me the news. Her mom died between Games 2 and 3.
--Wright Thompson, ESPN, on the weight of a 108 year wait