Steve Reads

More-automatic parallelism in Python — November 29, 2015

More-automatic parallelism in Python

A friend asked a probability question today (viz., if you roll six dice, what’s the probability that at least one of them comes up a 1 or a 5?), so I answered it analytically and then wrote a quick Python simulation to test my analytical answer. That’s all fine, but what annoys me is how serial my code is. It’s serial for a couple reasons:

  1. The Python GIL.
  2. Even if the GIL magically disappeared tomorrow, I’ve got a for-loop in there that’s going to necessarily run serially. I’m running 10 million serial iterations of the “roll six dice” experiment; if I could use all the cores on my quad-core MacBook Pro, this code would run four times as fast — or, better yet, I could run four times as many trials in the same amount of time. More trials is more better.

Most of the code uses list comprehensions as $DEITY intended, and I always imagine that a list comprehension is a poor man’s SQL — i.e., it’s Python’s way of having you explain what you want rather than how you want to get it. If the GIL disappeared, I like to think that the Python SufficientlySmartCompiler would turn all those list comprehensions parallel.

Last I knew, the state of the art in making Python actually use all your cores was to spawn separate processes using the multiprocessing library. Is that still the hotness?

I want parallelism built in at the language level, à la list comprehensions, so that I don’t need to fuss with multiprocessing. “This needs to spawn off a separate process, because of the GIL” is one of the implementation details I’m looking to ignore when I write list comprehensions. I’d have no problem writing some backend multiprocessing code, if it gets buried so far down that I don’t need to think about the backend details in everyday coding, but what I really want is to bake in parallel idioms from the ground up.

Thinking about what you want rather than how you want to obtain it is why I love SQL, and it’s why LINQ seems like a really good idea (though I’ve never used it). But even the versions of SQL that I work with require a bit more fussing with implementation details than I’d like. For instance, inner joins are expensive, so we only join two tables at a time. So if I know that I want tables A, B, and C, I need to create two sub-tables: one that joins A and B, and another that joins A-and-B with C. And for whatever reason, the SQL variants I use need me to be explicit about all the pairwise join conditions — i.e., I need to do

select foo
from A, B, C
where =
    and =
    and =

even though that final and-condition follows logically from the first two. And I can’t just do “select foo” here, or SQL would complain that ‘”foo” is ambiguous’. But if and are equivalent — as the SELECT statement says — then it doesn’t matter whether my mentioning “foo” means “” or “”.

The extent of my knowledge of declarative programming is basically everything I wrote above. I don’t even know if “declarative programming” captures all and only the things I’m interested in. I want optimization with limited effort on my part (e.g., SQL turns my query into a query plan that it then turns into an optimized set of instructions). I also want minimal overhead — a minimal gap between what I’m thinking and what I have to type as code; that’s why I hate Java. Granted, if adding overhead in the form of compiler hints will lead to optimizations, then great; I’d hardly even call that “overhead.”

At a practical level, I’d like to know how to implement all of this in Python — or, hell, in bash or Perl, if it’s easy enough.

PSA about Yotam Ottolenghi — November 15, 2015

PSA about Yotam Ottolenghi

My partner and I are obsessed with Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks. We have nearly all of them: Jerusalem, Plenty, Plenty More, and now NOPI. They’re all astonishing. The two Plenties are particularly great for vegetarians: they’re 100% vegetarian-friendly, and they’re all what you might call modern vegetarian. Up until at least 1990, and probably more recently (pre-modern), the “vegetarian option” in a restaurant or at a wedding was something really boring like roasted vegetables or pasta with something boring on it. There’s a virtuous circle here: the more interesting vegetarian options are available, the more appealing it is to be a vegetarian (or at least, the less appalling it is to skip meat at a meal), which in turn leads to more people eating vegetarian food, which leads to a greater market for vegetarian cookbooks and vegetarian meals in restaurants, which leads to restaurants and authors producing more desirable options for vegetarians. Ottolenghi is at the head of this generation of vegetarian-friendly restaurateurs and authors.

NOPI is a bit of a different cookbook: he starts with recipes that he makes in the book’s namesake London restaurant, and adapts them for the home kitchen, rather than starting with the home cook in mind. (Ottolenghi gets into this in a recent interview on the Bon Appétit podcast.) I would like to single out one such recipe from his restaurant, which seemingly isn’t on the Internet yet: the savory cheesecake made with queso de Valdeón. It is spectacular; you can find the recipe if you use Amazon’s Search-Inside-the-Book feature, and look for the word ‘Valdeon’ (the search feature is smart enough that you can leave off the accent and it’ll know what you mean). The only reason I didn’t eat the whole thing within 24 hours was that I have a modicum (and only just) of restraint.

The cookbook says that the recipe isn’t easy, but I thought it was. Just run some digestive biscuits, some Parmesan, and some toasted pumpkin seeds through a food processor, press them down into a spring-form pan like you would for an ordinary sweet cheesecake; then caramelize some leeks, add a few kinds of cheese (again, same as for a sweet cheesecake), blend the cheese-and-leeks together with a mixer, pour into the spring-form pan, and bake until it’s set. There’s a step in the recipe where you pickle some beets and let them sit in the fridge for at least 24 hours, but that’s time-consuming rather than hard. It’s also not strictly necessary; when I brought the cheesecake to work for lunch, I didn’t bother carrying the beets with me, and it tasted extraordinary even without them. Oh, and I didn’t make the cheesecakes in individual ramekins, because I don’t own any; I followed the instructions for a single large cheesecake. Maybe the recipe would work in a jumbo muffin pan, which I do have. But if you have a spring-form pan, in any case, you’re set.

The NOPI book fills a certain fancy niche. It doesn’t have much for everyday vegetarian meals, but it does have sections for cocktails, desserts, and brunches, all of which look delicious. The few vegetarian dinners that it does have are well-curated.

If you’re just getting started with Ottolenghi, I’d recommend trying Plenty and Plenty More first. They’re indispensable.

A bit of data fiddling for your Sunday — November 8, 2015

A bit of data fiddling for your Sunday

I saw the headline The unemployment rate doubled under Bush. It’s fallen by more than one-third under Obama. when I was reading Vox this morning, and I got ready to bust out the stat that “the labor-force participation rate is still way down” — as indeed it is:

That is, the fraction of Americans working hit its peak under Clinton, fell under Bush, really fell when the housing bubble popped, and hasn’t really recovered.

Some of that drop can come from young people deciding to stay in school and get graduate degrees when the economy is doing poorly, or from older people deciding to retire early. So what if you focus on ages 25 to 54, i.e., the “prime-age labor-force participation rate”? The story there is somewhat better:

The rate still took a noticeable hit in 2008, but we’ve regained some ground. Let’s zoom in on the period starting in 2005:

Moving slowly in the right direction. Now, much of the gain since 1948 can be attributed, one assumes, to women entering the workforce. Do the data bear that out? Seemingly yes:

That’s interesting: women’s labor-force participation seems to have flat-lined starting in 1990. Why? And what can be done to get it moving again?

On the flip side, how about the male labor-force participation rate? That’s quite striking:

It has decreased more or less continuously since 1960.

There’s no real moral here. I just find it interesting that, as you dig into the data, there’s something more going on than a story about the 2009 recession. Seems like, recession or not, men are leaving the workforce. And women aren’t entering it fast enough to offset that drop.

P.S.: A friend asks whether labor-force participation is really an end in itself. The short answer is probably “No, though it’s a good proxy for what we actually care about.”

Perhaps, for instance, people choose to stop working because they want to be full-time parents. Let’s call that a “happy” labor-force detachment. On the other hand, perhaps they drop out of the labor force because they know they’ll never get a job. Or maybe (I’ve seen this happen a lot) they’re mothers who want to spend time with their kids, but the only jobs that they could get would hardly cover the cost of child care; they want to work, but for economic reasons they choose not to. Call that a “sad” labor-force detachment: they’d like to work, but can’t.

It’s going to be hard to measure this in full detail, of course, and there are going to be almost as many boundary cases as there are people who aren’t working. But if you want to measure “how is the economy doing?” you have to set your boundaries somewhere. That’s why the Bureau of Labor Statistics has a number of different measures of unemployment:

U-1, persons unemployed 15 weeks or longer, as a percent of the civilian labor force;
U-2, job losers and persons who completed temporary jobs, as a percent of the civilian labor force;
U-3, total unemployed, as a percent of the civilian labor force (this is the definition used for the official unemployment rate);
U-4, total unemployed plus discouraged workers, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus discouraged workers;
U-5, total unemployed, plus discouraged workers, plus all other marginally attached workers, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all marginally attached workers; and
U-6, total unemployed, plus all marginally attached workers, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all marginally attached workers.

U-6, for instance, has improved noticeably over the last few years.

There are a lot of terms in here with precise definitions, and the definitions matter, and you need to think carefully about what you’re counting and aren’t. For instance, what does “civilian labor force” mean? Who’s in it and who’s not? This isn’t secret or mysterious at all; the BLS explains it in clear language. Here you go:

Civilian noninstitutional population: Persons 16 years of age and older residing in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, who are not inmates of institutions (e.g., penal and mental facilities, homes for the aged), and who are not on active duty in the Armed Forces.

Civilian labor force: All persons in the civilian noninstitutional population classified as either employed or unemployed.

Note well: this means that if you’re in prison, you’re not part of the labor force. This is where unemployment definitions intersect with Becky Pettit’s Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress. To put it briefly: if every single black man but one were in prison, and that remaining black man had a job, then by the official statistics the unemployment rate among black males would be zero. Obviously we would consider this situation horrifying. So “a low rate of unemployment” is not necessarily synonymous with “a happy economy”. Maybe we want to add the institutionalized population to the current definition of the labor force. Or maybe not: those in prison surely cannot work and are not looking for work. And if we’re going to add those who can’t work for reasons of imprisonment, why then wouldn’t we add back lots of other people who cannot work and aren’t looking for work because, e.g., they’re permanently disabled? It’s certainly useful to measure all such populations. Different data series have different uses. Probably the best you can say is that different questions require different sorts of data, that no one data series can answer all questions, that you really need to look carefully at multiple sources of data, and that you should carefully look at the assumptions embedded in each.

What if you count the total civilian labor force (which, again, includes the noninstitutionalized population) and divide it by the overall population? You get this:

Earlier, we were tallying the “labor force participation rate”, which is defined as “The labor force as a percent of the civilian noninstitutional population.” As more people are imprisoned (“institutionalized”) or enter the military (i.e., they’re no longer “civilian”), the denominator goes down, which means the participation rate goes up. Whereas if you divide by the total population, an increasing prison population would cause the participation rate to decrease — arguably closer to what we actually want.

Again, this graph is likely dominated by women’s entry into the workforce. FRED seems to track the right thing here, namely the employment-to-population ratio over time for males. In the numerator, that’s going to include men who choose to stay in school longer, and men who choose to retire early, so one wants the employment-to-population ratio among prime-age males. In the denominator, it’s going to include the full U.S. population rather than just the labor force, so the ratio will decrease as more black men are imprisoned. FRED has the correct series, seemingly, but it’s via a different (OECD) data source that I’ve not dug into yet. It has the parallel data source for females.

The moral is just that there are many ways to measure unemployment, and which measure you pick will depend on which question you want answered. If you want to measure whether people are opting out of the labor force for happy reasons or sad reasons, the government tracks that. If you hear someone say that government statistics are bunk and that they don’t address Objection Objection x, your first assumption should be that the speaker is wrong.

“Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb” and “The Fall of Constantinople 1453” —

“Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb” and “The Fall of Constantinople 1453”

Herewith, a couple more less-than-complete book reviews. They were exceptional books, so I don’t want a devotion to completeness to prevent my endorsement.

  • Richard Rhodes, “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb”. If I’ve not already said so, Rhodes’s earlier “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” is one of the three or four greatest books I’ve ever read. (Others would include “Common Ground” by Lukas and “Nature’s Metropolis” by Cronon.) What makes the earlier work so unbearably good is that it is one of the few best pieces of science writing I’ve ever read, at the same time that it’s a meticulously researched and grippingly told piece of storytelling.

    “Dark Sun” is, perhaps, even better; I’m shocked. I spent the last 12 hours or so reading it, practically without blinking. It’s got several threads going simultaneously, and delivers on each flawlessly. First it has the detailed engineering explanation of the various failed attempts at an H-bomb, culminating in the successful Teller-Ulam design. Then it has the story of the many-years-long Soviet espionage, starting early in the Manhattan Project, that allowed the Soviets to detonate their first atomic weapon years before anyone thought they could; Rhodes suggests that nearly every Soviet success in weapons development was a direct copy of something they’d secreted out of the United States. This brings us to the third strand in “Dark Sun”, namely the hunt for those who were giving American discoveries to the Soviets (most prominently Klaus Fuchs). Soon that strand transmutes into McCarthyist paranoia about traitors penetrating every level of U.S. government. But as the saying goes, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”: Rhodes documents pretty conclusively that the U.S. and Canada were riddled throughout with spies, that the U.S. had no similar presence in Russia, and that the Rosenbergs really were guilty.

    Eventually (I’m not giving anything away here), the U.S. did develop a hydrogen bomb, the first of which had hundreds of times the explosive power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Its stated aim was deterrence, but it’s not clear to the reader — and barely seems clear to Rhodes — why the ability to engulf all of Manhattan in a single fireball would have any more deterrent value than dropping a few Hiroshima-sized bombs on it. Hence Rhodes’s book naturally turns to geopolitical and moral questions, helpfully embodied in the person of Curtis LeMay. LeMay wanted to destroy the Soviet Union while the U.S. had a nuclear monopoly, and to the end of his days believed that the U.S. had “lost” the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is a frankly monstrous definition of “losing”; that we made it through the half-century after Hiroshima without ending all life on earth — despite the apparent attempts of LeMay and his Strategic Air Command to provoke the Soviets on a few occasions, outside of any civilian authority — is nothing short of a miracle.

    Like David Halberstam’s “The Fifties”, Rhodes demonstrates that the civilian leadership had a better grasp of the big picture than the military did. The civilian leadership saw that nuclear war would be insane. No U.S. president or Soviet premier could allow the destruction of even one city by nuclear weapons; the destruction of 100 cities would be a horror beyond imagining. So what additional deterrent value does the thousandth nuclear weapon offer over the nine-hundred-ninety-ninth?

    Rhodes has now written the definitive works on the U.S. development of fission and fusion bombs. These books deserve to be on the shelves of anyone who appreciates stellar writing, and anyone who wants to know about one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century.

  • Steven Runciman, “The Fall of Constantinople 1453”. This has now filled in an important part of my historical knowledge: from the formation of the Ottoman Empire, through its conquest of much of Eastern Europe, through to its final destruction of the Byzantine Empire. Mehmet II comes across as a brilliant military commander, and Runciman mostly avoids a certain WASPy British habit of barbarianizing the “orientals.” It’s a compulsively readable book.

    Among many other little things, Runciman’s book clarified for me the geographic boundaries of historic Constantinople. When I visited Istanbul a few years ago, I stayed in Beyoğlu, which I now understand was historically a separate town called Pera. (Separate enough that when Constantinople was under siege, Pera went to great pains to remain neutral.) If I’m reading Runciman correctly, Constantinople proper was the part of modern-day Istanbul south of Pera on the western side of the Bosphorus. When the city’s tourist agencies today trumpet the city’s “spanning two continents”, that seems historically incorrect: the Asian part, opposite the Golden Horn, was a separate town called Scutari (today Üsküdar).

    I’m slowly approaching European history pre-1700 from a number of different angles. My obsession with Venice starts to pick at pre-Napoleonic history from near the eastern edge of Western Europe, facing nervously toward the Muslim invader to the east. The Ottomans are, of course, a fascinating subject on their own, so I’ve picked up Osman’s Dream. I still need to understand what happened from, say, the 17th to 19th centuries that suddenly made Europe turn from weak, unstable feudal arrangements (including endless redrawing of allegiances within Italy) to a world of recognizably modern nation-states; other than “Napoleon” and “the Industrial Revolution,” I don’t have a very precise story.

In lieu of proper reviews — October 30, 2015

In lieu of proper reviews

Attention-conservation notice: capsule reviews of 12 books that I’ve read this year, averaging 250 words apiece. This isn’t a complete list of books I’ve read this year — just the books that I a) hadn’t yet reviewed, b) felt great shame in having not yet reviewed, c) still remembered well enough, and d) felt strongly about in one direction or another.

Having just finished a book, and seeing that I’ve read a bunch of books without reviewing them, I’m going to throw some really quick capsule reviews in here.

  • Oliver Sacks, “Uncle Tungsten”: just finished this tonight. Truly remarkable. Unlike anything I’ve ever read. If you combined “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” with … I dunno, maybe “An American Childhood” (but in Britain … and only ending a few years after World War II), you’d get Sacks’s book. It’s scientifically rigorous, makes the science exciting, is deeply personal about Sacks’s family, and really draws a lot of parallels between the scientific community and the community of scientists in his family who gave him endless support as his interest in chemistry developed.

    Sacks wrote elsewhere, heartbreakingly, of his parents’ reaction when he revealed to them that he was gay: his mother declared him an abomination and said she wished he’d never been born. His attitude toward his parents in “Uncle Tungsten” is almost reverent, and certainly always respectful; it may not be coincidental that the story in “Uncle Tungsten” ends before he turns 18.

  • Oliver Sacks, “Migraine”. Interesting in a lot of ways, but too clinically written — seemingly with only a specialist audience in mind — to recommend. Though the details about migraine auras — which sometimes include others’ faces dissolving into mosaics, or time itself fracturing like the frames of a film — are fascinating.

  • John Maynard Keynes, “Essays In Persuasion”. These are essays starting at the Versailles Treaty and ending in the early 30s. The Versailles era is covered in Keynes’s startling “Economic Consequences of the Peace,” which I’d recommend without reservation. The “Essays In Persuasion” argue passionately that Britain should get off the gold standard, and that it should continue to spend to put people to work; without much modification, I think these essays could have been spoken by Paul Krugman from 2009 to now. They contain some of Keynes’s most famous lines, such as when he refers to the gold standard as a “barbarous relic” or calms readers during the Depression when he tells them that “the resources of nature and men’s devices would be just as fertile and productive as they were. The machine would merely have been jammed as the result of a muddle.”

  • Annie Dillard, “An American Childhood”: kinda fun, but felt like it was trying too hard. In general it’s a book about a child slowly coming to discover herself. Near the start is a pretty clever and engrossing scene, in which Dillard sees a shadow monster climb from the foot of her bed and up the wall of her bedroom before disappearing, and screams for her parents to come protect her. This happens night after night before Dillard realizes that the monster comes from the headlights of passing cars. This is the beginning of her self-awareness. She becomes progressively more human throughout the book, enters her teenage years, and experiences an uncontrollable rage. We leave her when she’s just beginning to regain control.

    Despite the occasional bursts of cleverness, I can’t recommend this book. It didn’t hold my interest. As always, this is likely as much about me as about the author.

  • Daniel Okrent, “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition”: I knew — we all know — that Prohibition was a disastrous failure, that it led to the rise of the Mafia, etc. I don’t think I realized just how farcically bad a failure it was. Daniel Okrent is practically giggling throughout “Last Call”: Prohibition didn’t work, it was never going to work, and there was never any mystery about whether it would eventually work. Okrent creates a bit of suspense here and there, as when a tough-as-nails administrator joins the FBI (I believe it was the FBI — forgive me; it’s been a couple months since I read it, and I’m trying to dash these off without checking sources) and for a moment you think, “Here’s where it’s going to turn around.” But no: it was never going to turn around. The loopholes were there from the beginning: for sacramental wine, for industrial alcohol, etc. Indeed, some of the most horrifying parts of Okrent’s book were tied up with these loopholes — as when the government added toxic chemicals to industrial alcohol so that it couldn’t easily be turned into drinkable alcohol, and consequently killed thousands of people. The government was so eager to morally purify Americans that it intentionally caused their deaths.

    Prohibition, in Okrent’s telling, could only have happened through the confluence of three forces: women’s suffrage, racism, and the income tax. Women were the natural advocates for Prohibition, since they suffered from their husbands’ drunken rampages. Advocates of Prohibition knew this, so they fought hard to get women the vote. And once women did get the vote, they lined up for Prohibition as expected. Racism’s role was to play on ugly stereotypes, particularly the animalistic black man who, under the influence of drink, would perform his savage acts upon pure white women. And the income tax was necessary to replace income lost from the departed alcohol tax; fortunately World War I came along and made the income tax necessary.

    There’s loads more I could comment on here, including Okrent’s history of the Bronfman (aka Seagram’s) family’s ill-gotten gains. And for that matter, all the fascinating parts about ships lining up three miles offshore in international waters, filled to the brim with fifths of bootlegged whiskey. (The boundary of international waters is now twelve miles out, in no small part so that little U.S. boats would have to go through more work to reach the bootleggers.) It’s a delightful and infuriating parade of pitch-perfect storytelling. Just an extraordinary book, with the passion of a moral crusader and the journalist’s eye for the perfect, evocative detail. Recommended in the strongest terms.

  • Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Between the World and Me”: this is a brutal, honest letter from a black father in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, explaining to his son that white society has always tried to control black bodies and would always try to control black bodies. It’s part rationally controlled rage, part historical consciousness, and essentially pure poetry. He writes it from a bleak time in American history, and he pulls no punches. I read it on a long train ride while my partner slept beside me, and I was filled with a bottomless sadness; there’s not much room in Coates’s book for hope. Hope is what a Martin Luther King would experience, whereas someone like Malcolm X would view the world in material, visceral terms: these are our bodies, and white society exercises its power over those bodies.

    It’s a must-read, but as a white man I left it feeling sad and powerless. Coates would seem to say that white America is just confused about the lives of black Americans. His own dawning consciousness came through reading Garvey, Fanon, and others while at Howard University, but much more of that consciousness came through — again — watching white America destroy the bodies of his friends. There’s no way I’ll ever experience that constant feeling that my body is not my own. Merely reading what Garvey had to say will never get me a visceral experience of life as a black man.

  • Adam Swift, “How Not To Be A Hypocrite: School Choice for the Morally Perplexed Parent”. The most important thing that this book probably brings to a lot of people is that there is a morally perplexing aspect to sending your kids to private school if you, at the same time, feel that public schools are worth supporting (in the abstract). The moral dilemma is, of course, that you know that it would be better for everyone if the public schools had rich kids alongside poor kids, black kids alongside white kids, and you simultaneously want what’s best for your kids.

    To the extent that I understand Swift’s argument, it’s that you only have a right to demand so much for your kids. In part this is because schooling has some aspects of a “positional good”: school is valuable for me inasmuch as my kid gets ahead, which means that my kid does better in school than yours does. But of course you feel the same way. The result is that some part of schooling is a pure zero-sum game: my kid can only get ahead to the extent that your kid falls behind. On the other side, there’s the aspect of education that is truly nourishing to the child; you should be entitled to as much of that as you can get, so long as in doing so you’re not depriving anyone else’s child of it.

    This quickly turns from philosophical questions to empirical ones. Am I, essentially, entitled to claim a marginal unit of quality for the education of my child so long as I subtract less than a unit of quality from the education of everyone else’s? And is private school really so much better than public school? Or is it just that private school gets richer, whiter, better-prepared students with more-involved parents than public schools do? If so, maybe the problem with your sending kids to private schools isn’t that you’re a hypocrite; it’s that you’re wrong.

    It’s a book by a philosopher, so it doesn’t spend a lot of time engaging with the empirical evidence (as, say, a Diane Ravitch would); Swift, I think, views his role as clearing away the dross of bad arguments, which would then leave room for matters of empirical evidence to be argued more directly. It’s not clear to me that the philosophical argument here is really necessary — the empirical arguments for public schools seem more convincing than the philosophical ones — but every little bit helps.

    (I’ve been using educational comparisons — white students versus black students, etc. — that are relevant in the U.S. context. Swift’s book is written from a UK perspective, but you can divide through to get the U.S. analogue.)

  • Rob Delaney, “Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.”: If you know the comedian on Twitter, I imagine you already love him. He’s filthy and absurd. His book is funny, but it’s really the story of how the author, an alcoholic, hit rock bottom and struggled out. If you like him on Twitter, you really need to read the book. If you don’t know him on Twitter, you should remedy that.

  • Ernest Gellner, “Plough, Sword, and Book: The Structure of Human History”: this book is too intricate to go into in the space I’ve allotted myself, and to be honest I need to give it a second reading; it would be well worth the effort. Gellner also gave us “Nations and Nationalism”, which is a little book that has lodged itself in my brain in the few years since I read it.

    In Nations and Nationalism, Gellner gives us a disarmingly simple model of where nationalism comes from. Essentially capitalism begets nations. First capitalism upends the static pattern of history, whereby a son can expect to do the same work that his father and grandfather did. The son also needn’t expect to live where his ancestors lived. The constant destruction of old industries means that workers must be able to retrain, at least once per generation, for the new work that capitalism demands of them. This, in turn, demands mass education. Mass education demands a common language. There’s a bit of the argument in here that I can’t reconstruct from memory, namely: how do we get from “all these people must share a common language” to “the people who share this common language must therefore be their own nation”? Apart from “the language constructs an imaginary grouping of people who come to believe they share Englishness or Frenchness or Germanness”, the path isn’t totally clear to me.

    Gellner’s stock-in-trade are these sorts of large questions. In N&N, the large question was how nations form. In “Plough, Sword, and Book” it’s the intellectual structure of human history. Gellner contrasts today’s “single-stranded” rationality, in which all experiences, facts, and arguments must be subjected the same Enlightenment-derived standard of evidence, to earlier societies’ “multi-stranded” perceptions of the world. In a multi-stranded understanding, it’s okay to treat religious statements as, say, metaphors, while putting empirical reality in its own bucket. Post-Enlightenment rationality simply won’t allow this division.

    Gellner wouldn’t quite echo Schumpeter here, but Schumpeter saw something analogous happening: capitalist rationality had driven away all modes of reasoning apart from cost-benefit calculations. We’re now all good little utilitarians, even in the decision of whether to have kids or how many to have. This is such a part of our wiring now that it would seem absurd to treat the decision any other way.

    Gellner has a weird habit of rarely allowing himself a proper noun: “This perpetuated, at the level of national politics, the idea that military power and territorial expansion were paramount goals and/or the conditions of prosperity. The brilliant postwar economic performance of the two prime losers of [World War II], deprived of all empire (and more), finally put paid to this illusion.” Would it have killed him to have written “Germany and Japan”? This replacement of proper nouns with disguised definite descriptions is meant, I think, to lend his books some abstraction and some timelessness, but often it just removes some of the grounding that would make them easier to reason through.

  • Ammon Shea, “Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages”: It’s what you’d expect, namely a curio cabinet of words that the author found interesting, and his observations on them. It’s a two-legged stool; one leg is how interesting the words are, and the other is how tiresome the author is. The author tries to affect a persona of being generally an introvert and a hater of humanity, and I don’t doubt to some degree that he is; hard to see how someone who loved being out in the world would agree to spend a year holed up in libraries or his apartment with his walls of dictionaries. But it seems mostly affected; I think Shea is probably a nice guy, despite his best attempts to pretend otherwise.

    (Shea was on You’re The Expert, and he was charming. His wife, to whom he referred repeatedly throughout “Reading The OED” when they weren’t yet married, appeared on YTE a few weeks earlier; she was also delightful.)

  • Hans Zinsser, “Rats, Lice, and History”: Zinsser tells us that the often-unmentioned prime mover behind much of human history is epidemic disease, particularly typhus. Zinsser’s experience here is not purely academic: he worked during World War I as sanitation inspector of the Second Army, and kept thousands of soldiers from dying. Contrast this with the Civil War where (if memory serves) Zinsser tells us that twice as many soldiers died of disease as died at the wrong end of a rifle. Napoleon’s retreat from Russia also had a lot to do with raging infectious disease among his troops.

    Part of why disease is so underreported as a crucial part of military success or failure might be that we like to focus on individual acts of valor rather than unromantic things like disease control or logistics. We’ve all read a lot about the brave American soldier storming the beaches at Normandy, but quite a lot less about how, say, the Office of Price Control managed to control inflation while the nation’s factories churned out vast quantities of military materiel.

    And when public health succeeds, it’s invisible: thousands or millions of people don’t get sick. Whereas when a doctor saves just one patient’s life, he’s revered as a saint and a genius. I hypothesize that this is connected to the American epidemic of naïve and infantile libertarianism, but I don’t have the space to expand on that right now.

  • Katha Pollitt, “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights”:

    1. Abortion is actively good
    2. It should be considered unapologetically as part of the repertoire of useful birth control
    3. The cloak of regret that American culture hangs around abortion is unfounded and not borne out by the actual experiences of women who’ve had abortions.
    4. Third-trimester abortions, which are the ones that seem to horrify so many people, and around which so many people focus their opposition to abortion, are vanishingly rare. To the extent that they happen, they happen because women are genuinely unaware that they’re pregnant, and because state laws mandate waiting periods for abortions that push abortions into the third trimester.
    5. Liberals have been in a defensive crouch on abortion for decades, and they shouldn’t be. It’s time to take back abortion as a positive good.
    6. Reluctance to claim abortion as a positive good is tied up with the general war on women, whereby men insist upon the legal right — only recently revoked — to control women’s bodies.

    Everyone should read this book. You should read it in particular if, like me, you at some point felt it was the height of judicious centrism to say that you “support a woman’s right to choose, but feel uncomfortable with abortion.” Pollitt would say that that’s nonsense, and that your discomfort was put there by a dedicated, focused, decades-long campaign to demonize abortion and demonize the women who have them (while not, curiously, demonizing the men involved in the pregnancy). After reading “Pro,” I am 100% convinced.

Reading Donald Shoup really changes subsequent reading — October 26, 2015

Reading Donald Shoup really changes subsequent reading

Having read The High Cost Of Free Parking changes the way you read articles about parking. For instance, when you read an article like this, containing a quote like this:

On the campaign trail two years ago, Walsh pledged to look for ways to increase parking spots in city neighborhoods.

“We have to try to make parking more accessible,” Walsh told the Herald in September 2013. “I hear it every single day out on the campaign, the lack of parking. It’s an issue in every single neighborhood.”

, you realize that there’s a missing implicit word in there. The word is ‘free’. The newspaper — and maybe vintage-2013 Mayor Walsh — seem to assume that free on-street parking is a god-given right. Whereas if you admit the possibility of charging for parking, another solution leaps out: you can make parking accessible by charging for spaces. Some people will choose not to own cars. Some people will pay to put their cars in off-street parking. Then you’ll get your accessible parking.

I think vintage-2015 Mayor Walsh gets it. The article centers on residents’ anger over the city’s leasing parking spots to the likes of Zipcar. Mayor Walsh responds exactly as he should:

“The way that we’re doing this is to cut down actually on people having to own cars and driving cars and in the long run, it’ll actually save cars coming into the North End. People will be able to take a car and share community cars.”

There’s what you might call a “fallacy of simplicity” in people’s reactions to a lot of policies, including this one. The fallacy of simplicity says that if you want to achieve x, the way to do it is to do something whose immediate effect is x. Want to increase parking? Simple: dedicate more land to parking spaces. (Harder, and more likely to be correct: make it easier for people to live in a city without owning a car.) Want to cut the Federal budget deficit during a recession? Simple: cut spending. (Harder, and more likely to be correct: spend more money on public works, which pumps money into the economy, which gets business going, which restores a self-reinforcing economic boom.) Mayor Walsh isn’t subscribing to the fallacy of simplicity here. He’s aiming to reduce parking use by reducing demand, rather than increasing supply. That’s the right idea.

But if we’re going to look for simple solutions, how about not allowing every home to own unlimited parking permits?

Or to quote Lewis Mumford (from “Babel in Europe”), “The main issue is that the right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar, in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle, is actually the right to destroy the city.”

I haven’t climbed atop my Medicare hobbyhorse in a while, so why not now? — October 24, 2015

I haven’t climbed atop my Medicare hobbyhorse in a while, so why not now?

A Politico article about Ben Carson’s plan to completely dismantle Medicare and Medicaid and replace them with savings accounts features the notable silence of all his Republican opponents, and this:

Carson’s GOP rivals are largely holding their fire so far. Trump’s campaign declined to comment, as did the campaigns of Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio. A spokeswoman for Bobby Jindal noted the Louisiana governor’s support for reforming — but preserving — Medicare and Medicaid.

“Without change, they will go bankrupt,” said the spokeswoman, Shannon Dirmann. “Abolishing them is bad policy.”

The following needs to be repeated until we stop hearing nonsense like Ms. Dirmann’s, and until journalists cut that stuff off at the source: Medicare is only at risk of ‘going bankrupt’ because of how it’s financed. How it’s financed is not a fact of nature; it’s something we control.

To review: Medicare is divided into several parts. Part A pays for hospitalization. Part B pays for doctor visits. Part C is known as Medicare Advantage. Part D is for prescription drugs.

Now. Your paycheck contains a Medicare-tax piece. Today the rate is 1.45% for you, and 1.45% for your employer. That funds Part A. Which is to say: Part A has a dedicated funding source.

“So what about Parts B, C, and D?” you might ask. “Where do they get their money?” Their money comes out of general revenue. That is, Parts B-D are funded the same way the Department of Defense is funded. If the government spends more on jet fighters or Medicare Parts B-D in a given year than it budgeted for, then it funds the gap using debt.

Which is to say: the Department of Defense, by definition, cannot go bankrupt. Medicare Parts B-D, by definition, cannot go bankrupt.

The first thing to note, then, is that people should be a little clearer: when they say that ‘Medicare will go bankrupt’, what they mean is that Medicare Part A will go bankrupt. Medicare Parts B-D will never go bankrupt, because it is impossible for them to go bankrupt. Or rather, they will go bankrupt exactly when the rest of the U.S. government goes bankrupt. The U.S. government will go bankrupt when it no longer has access to enough money to fund continuing operations — i.e., when it can no longer tax, borrow, or inflate the currency enough to generate adequate revenue. And when that happens, we’ll have other problems on our hands.

The second thing to note is that the Department of Defense would also be teetering on the edge of bankruptcy if we funded it through a dedicated ‘DoD tax’ on your paycheck. I will never tire of comparing Federal programs to the DoD, because that department seems to be treated as though it were incomparable. (Note the pernicious habit of discussing “non-defense discretionary spending.”) We could manufacture a false DoD crisis if we stuck a ‘DoD tax’ line item on everyone’s paycheck, required the DoD to only fund itself from that line item, and set the line item to a low number. The next time we had a recession, lots of people would lose their jobs, which would lower tax revenue (because fewer jobs means less employment income), which would cause everyone to run around in a panic, wondering how in the world we’ll ever fend off DoD bankruptcy.

The Medicare ‘bankruptcy’ scare is an artificial crisis. It is simply an artifact of how we choose to count things. We could trivially end that scare tomorrow: write a bill declaring that Medicare Part A is hereafter funded the same way parts B-D have always been funded. Crisis: ended.

It’s not surprising that the GOP wants to keep us scared. It’s somewhat more surprising that someone like President Obama isn’t calmly explaining the fictional crisis to the American people. If I were in a really idealistic mood, I’d wonder why candidates don’t also repeatedly say, “It’s funny that funds are always available for war, but that paying to provide a good life for our citizens is somehow the height of fiscal irresponsibility.” But we all know why that is.


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